Astounding Facts About The Supermarine Spitfire

The Supermarine Spitfire is a British aircraft designed and used by the Royal Air Force and other Allied countries before, during, and after the Second World War. The Spitfire went through numerous changes during the course of the war and was the most widely produced aircraft in the UK. The Spitfire is considered to be one of the key pieces of weaponry used by the Allies to win the war, so take a look and find out why.

It Was Designed By R.J. Mitchell

R.J. Mitchell
S R Gaiger/Topical Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
S R Gaiger/Topical Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Spitfire was designed by R.J. Mitchell, one of Supermarine’s top engineers at the time. His career had granted him extensive experience designing seaplanes, with many of them racing in the Schneider Trophy competition.

He then took his knowledge and applied it to make a maneuverable fighter plane. Unfortunately, he would never get to see the success of his aircraft. He died of cancer in 1937 at the young age of 42. The Spitfire is still remembered as his greatest creation.

It Was Named After Someone’s Daughter

Spitfire flying in 1938
Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images
Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images

Although a name like Supermarine Spitfire sounds like it might come from the plane’s devastating effectiveness in war, that’s not the case. It actually comes from the manufacturer’s chairman, Sir Robert McLean’s, pet name for his daughter, which was “the little spitfire.”

Although it’s believed that he first suggested the name Anne, designer R.J. Mitchell turned up his nose at the idea and wanted to name it “The Shrew” or “The Scarab,” but was open to the name “Spitfire.”

Taking To The Air In 1936

Prototype flight
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

On March 5, 1936, the prototype, known as the K5054, took its first flight from at the time what was Eastleigh Aerodrome. The pilot was Captain Joseph “Mutt” Summers, one of the chief test pilots at Vickers, who is remembered stating “Don’t touch anything” upon landing.

The flight lasted a total of eight minutes and came just four months after the maiden flight of the Hurricane, another aircraft that would prove to be useful during World War II.

Bringing Beer To The Troops

Men working on a Spitfire
Fg. Off. S A Devon/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Fg. Off. S A Devon/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

Among the many advances modifications made to the Spitfire over the years, one of its most interesting has to do with beer. After the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, the Spitfire pilots wanted to give a little something to their brothers in arms who had just been through the unthinkable.

So, they modified the plane’s bomb-carrying wings so that they would fit beer kegs. They then proceeded to supply the troops with nicely chilled beer.

Retractable Landing Gear

Shot down Spitfire
Reddit/porcodioman
Reddit/porcodioman

The Spitfire was one of the first airplanes to implement retractable landing gear in its design. While this may have sounded like a great idea at the time, it would prove to be a bit of an issue, especially during flight training.

In 1939 alone, it is estimated that ten percent of all Spitfires produced up to that point were destroyed in training accidents. This is mostly due to the new retractable landing gear, leading many pilots to forget to drop their wheels before landing.

The Plane Played A Major Role In The Battle Of Britain

Spitfires during the Battle of Britain
Fg. Off. B J Daventry/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Fg. Off. B J Daventry/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

The Spitfire showed what it could really do in the Battle of Britain, in which the Allied pilots defended the skies of Britain against the incredibly deadly German bombers. A the beginning of the battle, there were 19 Spitfire squadrons in service with the Fighter Command with fresh planes on the way.

They didn’t match the allied Hawker Hurricane in kills, as they outnumbered the Spitfires two to one. Yet, with its impressive design and threatening name, it quickly became a symbol of the British Air Force.

The First Enemy Casualty

Spitfire of 92 Squadron
Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images
Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images

On October 16, 1939, a Spitfire from No. 603 Squadron successfully shot down a German Heinkel He111 bomber. This was not only the first casualty caused by a Spitfire but was also the first time in World War II that a German plane was destroyed while flying over Britain.

Although the Germans weren’t aware at the time, this is just a taste of the damage that they were about to experience at the hand of the Spitfire.

Making Improvements Before The War

Spitfire in flight
PA Images via Getty Images
PA Images via Getty Images

Even before Britain was thrust into the Second World War, Supermarine’s engineers were already making improvements on changing the Spitfire’s design to make an overall better plane. However, once the war broke out, the pressure was on more than ever.

By the end of the Battle of Britain, the Mark I Spitfire was beginning to be replaced by the Mark II, which was slowly being incorporated into service. By the next year, the Mark I was retired from the front line and replaced by the Mark II.

The Mark V Made Its Mark On The War

Three Mark Vs in flight
Fg. Off. Forward/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Fg. Off. Forward/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

Coming into play in February of 1941, the Mark V became the most common Spitfire of World War II, as well as Fighter Command’s top plane in the war in the skies above Europe.

Between its introduction in 1941 and the end of 1943, 6,000 of these planes became involved in the war as part of over 140 RAF squadrons as well as other units. The Mark V struck fear into the heart of the Germans, leading German Ace pilot Adolf Galland to proclaim, “I should like an outfit of Spitfires.”

The Mark V Was Used Around The World

Restored Mark V
Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

Although the Mark V was designed and initially used by the British during World War II, the plane was so effective that everyone wanted a piece of it. The Mark V went on to be used by over ten different countries, including the United States Army Air Forces.

The plane was involved in conflicts all over the world, in the campaign for North Africa, by the Soviets on the Eastern Front, and even in defending Australia from Japanese attacks.

They Were Incredibly High-Performance

Pilot with his Mark V
J R Watkins/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
J R Watkins/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

One of the major reasons that the Spitfires became so popular is because they were high-performance airplanes that were unbelievably fast and maneuverable.

The Mark V had an impressive top speed of 369 miles per hour and could climb all the way up to 20,000 feet in around seven-and-a-half minutes, although it could max out at around 36,500. Although this was all very admirable at the time, its abilities were improved upon in later models.

The Wings Evolved For More Firepower

Spitfire flying sideways
Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images
Charles E. Brown/Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images

For obvious reasons, as Word War II went on, the firepower on the Spitfire needed to be increased to maximize its damage, especially since the Axis were doing everything in their power to outgun the plane.

So, the Spitfire was equipped with what is known as an “A” wing which upon which rested eight .303in Browning machine guns, each holding 300 rounds. The “C” wing was then introduced in October 1941 which had eight .303in machine guns, four 20mm cannons, or two 20mm cannons and four machine guns.

The Mark V Was Outmatched By The Focke-Wulf 190

Focke-Wulf in flight
Willi Ruge/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Willi Ruge/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Tired of being embarrassed by the Spitfire, the Germans got to work designing something that they believed would give the Spitfire a run for its money. This resulted in the Germans introducing the Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, which appeared in the skies in September 1941.

In the beginning, it could out-maneuver the Spitfire Mark V and was one of the top planes for over a year. However, in June 1943, the Mark IX Spitfire was released and brought the reign of the Focke-Wulf to an end.

The Mark XIV Was Impossibly Fast

Mark XIV in flight
Fg. Off. Forward/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Fg. Off. Forward/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

The next Spitfire following the Mark IX was the Spitfire XIV, which entered service in January 1944. What was especially notable about this aircraft was its speed. Easily the fastest Spitfire yet, it could reach speeds of up to 450 miles per hour.

The Mark XIV was so fast, in fact, that it was used to shoot flying bombs from out of the sky. It had the ability to catch up to German V-1 rockets in the air before they hit the ground and blow them up. More than 300 bombs were stopped in this manner.

A Few Can Still Be Flown

Spitfire viewing
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Incredibly, after all of these years, the Spitfire is still an extremely popular aircraft both among pilots and aircraft enthusiasts. At the moment, there are still approximately 55 Spitfires that are still airworthy, which is an impressive number considering how long it’s been since they were used in action.

Although many non-active Spitfires can be viewed in aviation museums all over the world, on occasion, those that are still able to fly have been shown off in air shows.

Real Spitfires Were Used In A Movie

Scene from The Battle of Britain
United Artists
United Artists

After the war, there was no shortage of Spitfire planes, so someone decided to put them to good use. That man was Guy Hamilton in his 1969 film, The Battle of Britain, which documented the events of the battle by following prominent figures such as Hugh Dowding and Keith Parks.

The film is well regarded for its spectacular flight sequences which were performed by veteran pilots who were flying real Spitfires. It doesn’t get more realistic than that!

They Could Take Down Jet Fighters

Spitfire with pilot
Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The Mark XIV also proved to be incredibly effective against the early jet fighters that Germany introduced later in the war. Although it was assumed that the Mark XIV would have been outmatched at first, it turned out otherwise.

The first German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet to be shot down by Allied planes was by a Mark XIV in October 1944. Although the XIV was faster, it didn’t make the IX irrelevant, with numerous IX pilots shooting down Me 262s as well.

They Were Used For Reconnaissance

Spitfire flying
Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Besides fighting in the air, one of the Spitfire’s most notable contributions to the Allied victory was serving as a photo-reconnaissance aircraft beginning in 1941. Because of its ability to perform at such high altitudes, it was essentially impossible to shoot down or even be spotted.

Plus, once fuel tanks replaced wing-mounted machine guns, it allowed the craft to travel vast distances without ever needing to refuel. This made it possible to scan Western Germany from British airbases.

Dunkirk Was Their First Major Battle

Plane during Dunkirk
Adam Butler/PA Images via Getty Images
Adam Butler/PA Images via Getty Images

During the Battle of Dunkirk between late May and early June 1940, Spitfires were sent to protect British troops on the beach, as well as Navy ships and volunteer boats. As Luftwaffe bombers prepared for their attack on May 23, Spitfires of No.92 Squadron were successful in taking down 17 German Bf 109 and 110 aircraft.

Just two days later, the same squadron took on a group of Junkers Ju 87s and Bf 110s, managing to do severe damage to the fleet.

Heroic Pilots Manned Spitfires

German plane dropping bombs
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Raymond Towers “Ray” Holmes was a British Royal Air Force Officer during World War II. He is best remembered for his act of valor while fighting during the Battle of Britain. On September 15, 1940, Holmes saved Buckingham Palace from being hit by a German bomb. Out of ammunition, he rammed the aircraft with his Hawking Hurricane.

This led to the destruction of the German plane as well as his own, almost costing him his own life in the process. Holmes later went on to fly as a reconnaissance pilot aboard a Spitfire.

There Was A Naval Version Of The Plane

Seafire on carrier
M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Getty Images
M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Getty Images

The Seafire was a naval version of the Spitfire that was modified for operation on aircraft carriers. While it wasn’t designed for the rough seas, it was the best thing that the British had at the time. However, there were some drawbacks to using the plane.

One of these was that pilots had to learn to land on the carrier with their heads out the window because there was low visibility over the nose. However, some modifications were made which resulted in the Seafire F/Fr Mk 47.

The Oldest Spitfire In Existence

Spitfires on patrol
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The oldest surviving Spitfire is a Mark 1 with the serial number K9942. Currently, it is preserved at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford in Shropshire. The plane was the 155th ever built and first took to the air in April 1939, flying with No. 72 Squadron RAF until June 1940 when it was damaged during a landing.

After being repaired, it was used for training in 1944 and was one of the numerous planes that fought in the Battle of Britain that was later given to the Air Historical Branch for preservation.

They Played A Key Role In Controlling The Malta Air Base

Spitfire flying above Malta
Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

By 1942, the airbase on the island of Malta had become extremely important to the Allied forces. At the same time, it became a major target for the Germans who had the intention of destroying the Royal Air Force base.

Fearing that the base would be taken by the Germans, a new shipment of Spitfires equipped with 20 mm cannons was delivered to Malta. Using these planes, the Allies were able to secure the base and fend of the Germans. This base then became crucial for launching future attacks on Germany.

They Were Used During D-Day

Ace pilot with Spitfires
Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Between June 5th to 7th of June 944, 55 squadrons of Spitfires participated in the invasion of Normandy. Prior to the invasion, the planes were equipped with .50-caliber machine guns as well as 20mm cannons.

This greatly helped the ground troops by providing enough air support to allow them to successfully take the beaches. The Spitfire squadrons also carried out several bombing missions, with General Rommel himself being wounded on July 17, 1944, during a Spitfire attack.

There Is A Group Of Missing Planes

Spitfire in Burma
Plt. Off. Ashley/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Plt. Off. Ashley/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

After the war had ended in the Pacific Theater, a group of Spitfire XIVs was reportedly buried after being prepared for long-term storage in crates in Burma. Although there were excavations for the planes in 2013 at the Yangon International Airport, there was no success in finding them.

Pat Woodward, who was an operating pilot in Burma at the time the planes went missing, claims that no such burial took place. However, in 2016, it was reported that the search had continued.

Part Of The Plane Was Controlled By A Thermostat

Planes used by the Canadian Air Force
Fg. Off. G Woodbine/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images
Fg. Off. G Woodbine/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

In the early makes of the Spitfire (Mark 1 to VI,) airflow through the radiator was controlled by an exit flap that was operated manually by the pilot on the left of their seat. When the two-stage Merlin engine was introduced in the Mark IX, the radiators were split to make room for an intercooler radiator.

The radio under the starboard wing was cut in half, and under the port ring, a new radiator fairing had an oil cooler. The radiator flaps were then automatically controlled by a thermostat.

Different Wings For Different Missions

Working on a Spitfire
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Over the course of the war, when the Spitfire made the transition from a low-altitude fighter to a reconnaissance aircraft, its wings got a makeover. In order to make sure the plane could fly at a high altitude and for long distances, changes had to be made.

At the time, the Spitfire had removable wingtips that were secured by two mounting points. These wingtips were then replaced with extended and pointed tips when completing high-altitude missions.

Castle Bromwich Was The Biggest Manufacturer In The UK

Spitfires in production
SSPL/Getty Images
SSPL/Getty Images

In 1938, construction began on Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory, with the intention of mass-producing Spitfires. In June 1940, before the factory was even complete, the assembly of Spitfires was underway.

Although control of the factory changed hands on several occasions, by the time production ended at Castle Bromwich in June 1945, 12,129 Spitfires had been produced there. This was around 320 per month, making Castle Bromwich the largest and most successful Spitfire factory in the United Kingdom.

Keeping Up With The Luftwaffe

Spitfire flying sideways
Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Daily Mirror Library/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Many planes in the German Luftwaffe had fuel injectors. This addition allowed for their planes to escape a Spitfire in pursuit by simply going into a nosedive. Spitfires were unable to keep up with maneuver because if they followed, fuel would end up flooding the carburetor.

In order to remedy this problem, a metal disc with a hole in it was added to later models to limit the flow of fuel. This resulted in the planes being able to follow German planes into a nosedive.

An Issue With The Guns

Spitfire taking off
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Due to a shortage of Browning machine guns, in the beginning, the early Spitfires were only outfitted with four guns, with the other four mounted later. However, another issue with the guns was that although they worked perfectly at low altitudes, they tended to freeze in high altitudes, especially the out wing guns.

This was because the Brownings used open-air bolts, which prevented overheating but allowed for the cold air to infiltrate the interior of the weapon. The problem wasn’t fixed until 1938.