The Spitter

by William Winter

Hitler's plans for conquest of British Isles met their first reverses when Spitfires helped cut his vaunted air armada to pieces. Superiority of RAF pilots and aircraft overcame tremendous odds.

When, speaking of the British interceptor pilots who were winning the decisive Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, "— Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," he referred to the swift, hard-hitting Spitfire more than any other airplane. To the British man in the street the Spitfire has become the fighting symbol of victory. All over England the many Spitfire funds prove how this thoroughbred fighting machine has fired public imagination more than any other single factor in this air war. And judging by the fact that a foremost American auto manufacturer named a motor after the Spitfire, the appeal and fame of the Spitter — as it is known to RAF pilots — is universal.

The Spitfire is the most famous ship in our time. Certainly no other airplane has turned the stream of history as the Spitfire has. Who can say what might have happened if the Luftwaffe had won control of the air during the Battle of Britain? Hitler would have invaded an England that had lost virtually all her army equipment at Dunkirk. The Russian campaign, with its German defeats, may not have been. But this is speculation. The point is that the underdog Spitfire — and Hawker Hurricane, not to slight that workhorse fighter — decimated the German air blitz. Supposedly invincible in the air — wasn't there a Munich? — the vaunted Luftwaffe was chopped down to size by the vicious infighting of the heavily-gunned Spitfires and Hurricanes. Behind the Spitfire is a great story — an untold story that is unbeatable for sheer drama.

Born of a woman's whimsy and a dying man's dream, the Spitter exists only because of an amazing set of coincidences strung out through the past 20 years. Destiny had picked a role for the Spitfire. The story goes back to 1922. Italy had won two legs on the Schneider Trophy and looked sure to take permanent possession of the Trophy in that year's race. When the British government declined to finance another racer, the Supermarine Aviation Works at Woolston dug deep into their scanty funds to design and build a successful challenger. Without Supermarine, the Schneider would have been history way back there in 1923. Fortunately, pilot Henri Biard and his Supermarine took the Italians and Supermarine's R J Mitchell, wizard designer of flying boats, went on to evolve year by year a standard racing seaplane design that ultimately inspired the Spitfire.

Again in 1931, fate, in the person of Lady Lucy Houston, unwittingly preserved for Britain the priceless Spitfire lineage. Lady Houston put up nearly a half million dollars to finance the 1931 British Schneider Trophy team, the Air Council having lost interest in further competition on England's part. It was that very team that won the famed trophy outright for England. Before that, Lady Houston had financed the flight over Mount Everest. An English aviation correspondent, with whom the writer talked recently, pictured Lady Houston as a strong-willed, purposeful woman who was determined to do something worthwhile with her millions. According to this story, she had moved to the tax-free Isle of Jersey in the English Channel because of a tax dispute in England. Still she financed the winning Schneider team and, according to hearsay, the original Vickers Wellington bomber.

Thanks to Lady Houston, who seems to have had more aviation foresight than either the British or American governments in those days, Mitchell continued designing high-speed jobs. Mitchell himself disliked the Schneider designs, though they won him the Distinguished Flying Cross (this is one of the rare instances when a non-fighting man was given the DFC), because in his own words they interfered with his "bread-and-butter airplanes."

Ironically, Mitchell did not live to see his greatest airplane fight the Battle of Britain. On June 11, 1937, less than a year after the prototype was first tested, he died of cancer at the age of 42. Oddly, the New York Times carried a story the very next day, not about Mitchell but about his Spitfire which had just been demonstrated. Said the Times: "Recently devised machine said to be the fastest military ship now in existence."

Mitchell seemed to have sensed the vital role his Spitfire was to play. Fatally ill, he underwent two serious operations which he realized had failed to save him, yet carried on cheerfully and courageously to complete the Spitfire. Although the purpose of this article is to trace the development of the Spitfire, that story cannot be told without saying something about the man who created it. For if Mitchell was not the world's greatest airplane designer, he certainly had few peers.

Reginald Joseph Mitchell, CBE, AMICE, FRAeS, director and chief engineer of the Supermarine Aviation Works (Vickers Ltd), was born at Stoke-on-Trent in 1895. He was graduated from Hanley High School in that city and went to work as an apprentice with Kerr Stuart and Co Ltd, locomotive builders, and soon worked up to assistant engineer. When he was 21 he joined Supermarine and by the time he was 25 he was their chief engineer and designer. Mitchell was an astonishing designer, creating huge flying boats and tiny 400 mph speedsters with equal facility — often simultaneously. Associates recall how his agile brain leaped from flying boat problems to racer problems and back many times in a day. Among his designs are such ships as the Walrus, biplane flying boat catapult ship for the fleet (still in use); the Sea Gull, Australian coastal patrol job; the big Southampton, Scapa and Stranraer flying boats; the Schneider Trophy series — and, of course, the Spitfire. Typical of the man, no airplane carried his name.

Why the Spitfire is a thoroughbred we begin to realize from Mitchell's obituaries in the aviation press: "… willing to learn … not bound by convention … did not pretend to know everything … always ready to listen to theories and ideas … frank and open manner invited confidence … kindly and considerate manner of pointing out errors made for discussion …." It is fascinating to see how these traits are expressed in standout features of the Spitfire. More of this anon.

The Air Ministry fighter specification F 36/34 issued in 1934, was for an eight-gun fighter with 1½ hours' range at full throttle (the Hurricane was designed to the same specification). The Supermarine S-6B of 1931, had a 2,300-hp "sprint" engine. The three years between the last Schneider competition and specification F 36/34 were enough for Rolls-Royce to perfect a smaller service adaptation of the big Rolls-Royce Schneider racing engine. This new motor was the Merlin. Still on the boards in 1935, the first Spitfire seen publicly was demonstrated at Eastleigh, Southampton, in June of 1936. It did 342 mph with a fixed-pitch wooden propeller. By way of comparison, that same year the prototype Curtiss P-36 appeared, slower by 38 mph. The Tomahawk, or P-40, which appeared several years later is a more comparable airplane. It is said to have tested at 356 mph and, of course, a constant speed prop was used. Yet The Aeroplane Spotter reports that the Tomahawk I does only 328 mph at 15,000 feet. According to the Spotter the specifications of the Tomahawk are: span 37 ft 4 in; length 31 ft 8½ in; height 10 ft 7 in; wing area 236 sq ft; aspect ratio 5.85. Performance is given as 328 mph at 15,000 feet; range 700 miles at 278 mph. Weights are 5,474 pounds empty, 6,978 loaded. This works out to something like 29 pounds per square foot of wing area. Late versions of both the Spitfire and the Curtiss P-40 series are pushing the 400 mph mark.

The first Spitfire squadron was outfitted in July, 1938. Early models of the Spitfire were fitted with huge wooden clubs of propellers, two-bladed fixed-pitch affairs made by heating and compressing impregnated wood laminations. Takeoffs and climb supposedly would not be too affected by these wood props but, nevertheless, the British were forced to switch first to the two-position variable pitch metal propellers and finally to the constant speed de Havillands (Hamilton-Standard under license) and Rotols. Lead weights in the nose compensated for the lighter wood propellers. The wood-prop Merlin Mark I combination was good for 355 mph. With the constant speed propeller and the Merlin Mark II engine — rated at 1,030 hp at 16,250 feet — speed moved up to 367 mph. The Merlin since has been adapted to 100-octane gas and speed has jumped accordingly.

That the Spitfire is a highly maneuverable airplane, even for a fighter, can be credited to Mitchell's touch for striking just the right degree of compromise. He could have made the Spitfire considerably faster by lopping off wing area, but instead chose to capitalize on the speed afforded by the exquisite lines of the ship to provide adequate wing area for a moderate wing loading and consequent improved maneuverability.

In this day of heavy wing loadings (The Messerschmitt Me-109E has 31.4 pounds per sq ft), the Spitfire is comparatively lightly loaded at 24 pounds per sq ft. The obsolete air-cooled Curtiss Hawk 75-A has an identical loading. You won't find these figures in Jane's All the World's Aircraft, but the Spitfire has a generous 242 sq ft of wing for her 5,750 pounds. A report of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors, Ltd, states: "Controls are sweetly harmonized, enabling any pilot of moderate experience to fly the Spitfire without special training."

One pilot who wrote in Flight of his first flight in the Spitfire commented: "One simply wishes the machine around a tight turn and the turn is completed, the horizon fallen downwards in its little glass case and the compass needle dashing around like a roulette wheel." This may be impressionistic but it is indicative nevertheless. The same pilot speaks of coming in at 80-85 mph. More than one contemporary ship lands at over 100 mph.

The Spitfire is tailored to fit the pilot like a glove. Mitchell's long experience with the Supermarine racers is apparent in the way he worked out every detail of the Spitfire to hold down drag and increase speed. The outline of the ship is the smallest possible silhouette that could include the pilot, engine and armament. In fact, the cockpit is so snug that the Spitfires have a reputation for being difficult ships to jump from in an emergency. (Fighter pilots roll to an inverted position and fall from the cockpit.) So compact is the ship that the 5½ imperial gallon oil tank forms the bottom contour of the nose. Two 85 imperial gallon (total) fuel tanks (102 US gallons) in front of the pilot match exactly the shape of the fuselage. A unique feature of the Spitfire is the location of the glycol cooling radiator under the starboard wing and the small oil radiator under the port wing. While the position of the radiator tunnel under one wing is generally assumed, because of its unbalanced drag, to be a means of compensating for torque, the British say this was done to get the radiator in the region of high-speed air flow from the propeller tips. This is indicative of the lengths to which Mitchell went in designing for speed. In this case he was able to use a minimum of radiator area for cooling the Merlin.

Ejector-type exhaust stacks pick up another few miles an hour because of their jet propulsive effect. While both Mitchell and Dr. Ernest Heinkel recommend the elliptical planform for wings of high-speed aircraft, production demands forced Heinkel to substitute straight leading and trailing edges on his newest fighters and bombers. Mitchell and the British, on the other hand, faced with the same do-or-die production battle, considered the elliptical wing outline of the Spitfire important enough to overcome its manufacturing difficulties. Streamlining of the Spitfire is perfection. Considering Mitchell's near infallibility as a designer, one wonders at his use of an elliptical wing on one hand and on the other a non-retracting tail wheel.

Construction of the Spitfire features light-alloy stressed skin construction. The fuselage is made in three sections. The nose section includes the tubular motor mount, the tail section the built-in fin. A single-spar wing utilizes a heavy gauge sheet leading edge section attached to the spar to form a box. Light sheet is used for the rear section of the wing. A distinctive feature is the landing gear which retracts outward toward the wing tips.

The Spitfire is the product of Vickers-Armstrong, Ltd. The original Supermarine Company — in 1938, Supermarine and Vickers came under the control of Vickers-Armstrong — was organized in 1912, to produce flying boats. In 1922, at Naples, their pusher biplane flying boat won that year's Schneider competition at 146 mph The next year an American 465-hp Curtiss D-12 liquid-cooled biplane literally ran away with the race at Cowes. Here it seems pardonable to note that C R Fairey bought licenses to build two Curtiss designs and imported a number of the American-made D-12s. In his The History of Combat Airplanes, C G Grey claims that the Fairey Fox and Firefly — then superb service craft — resulted from these two designs. According to Grey, the D-12 was shown to Rolls-Royce with an order to do better, in lieu of producing the D-12s in England. The Kestrel-Merlin line is said to be the result. Be that as it may, the Curtiss racing biplane appears to have inspired the thinking behind the Fox and the Firefly. Mitchell was inspired to do a bit more.

From biplane boat to full cantilever monoplane was a bold stroke in 1925. But the Napier Lion "broad arrow"-motored Supermarine — of wood construction, incidentally — set a world record of 226.752 mph at Southampton. But the challenger was a victim of wing flutter at Baltimore in the race itself, flutter being a newly encountered mystery in those days. For the next Schneider race in 1927, Mitchell stuck to the same design and licked flutter by using a thin metal wing braced top and bottom with wires. Flight Lieut S N Webster flew the Napier-powered S-5 at 281.656 mph. By 1929, the Supermarine S-6 featured the new 2,000-hp Rolls-Royce R engine. The S-6 proved a winner when flown at 328.6 mph by Flying Officer H R D Waghorn. In 1931, the R was given 2,300 hp for its 1,630 pounds. The S-6B, flown by Flight Lieut J H Boothman, retired the trophy at 340 mph.

The same day Flight Lieut G H Stainforth rung up a straight-away mark of 379.058 mph. On September 29, 1931, Stainforth used a special 2,600-hp Rolls to up the record to 407.5! (The same Stainforth was to cruise a standard Spitfire eight years later from Salisbury Plains in South England to Ross-Shire in North Scotland and back in 3 hrs 7 min at a 340 mph average.) Though this ship with its vast skin-type radiators and fuel tanks in floats was complex, the stage was set for the Spitfire. Then came specification F 36/34.

To jump forward again to that dramatic Tuesday afternoon in September, 1940, when Prime Minister Churchill, standing before a silent, grim House of Commons, expressed the debt of a nation to a handful of winged warriors, the Battle of Britain had barely begun. Twelve days of titanic air fighting had passed, over two months of the bitterest knock-down-and-drag-out struggle was to be required before the high tide of the German Luftwaffe would ebb. But if Churchill spoke as if the battle was as good as won, it was because he breathed easier now that the Spitfires (and Hurricanes) had come through when the chips were down.

To the Spitfire had fallen a singularly tough job. To occupy and break up the high-flying fighter umbrella screening the vulnerable bombers was its assignment. Five and six miles high the peculiar white tracery that marked the twisting course of Messerschmitt and Spitfire was often the only indication to those on the ground that the Spitfires were still in there punching. Appalling German losses had led to a duel of wits between Luftwaffe tacticians and the RAF defenders. The usual German raids involved a high screen of fighters that appeared just before the raid proper to force British interceptors to use fuel in the hope that later waves of bombers could slip in unmolested. Other German fighters at lower levels escorted the bombers. A large group of these latter fighters flew above and on the sides of the bomber formation, while yet another smaller fighter formation flew just ahead.

The Official British Air Ministry Record describes the British defensive tactics as follows: "The enemy's high fighter screen was engaged by pairs of Spitfire squadrons … while wings of two or three Hurricane squadrons attacked the bombers and their escorts … other squadrons formed a third and inner ring … forming a defensive screen to guard the southern approaches to London. These intercepted the third wave of any attack and mopped up the retreating formations belonging to earlier waves." It was up to the fast Spitfires to hold the swarms of German fighters at high altitudes. At the beginning the implications must have been awesome for the British.

The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, in a speech on September 18, during the height of the abortive German air blitz, summed up the enormity of the job: "German mastery of the air over Britain by day would spell our inevitable defeat — our towns and cities razed to the ground. Recent battles by day have shown that we are well — almost miraculously — protected against these grave dangers." The thin red line of Spitfires had stopped Goering's Messerschmitt Me-109s.

One can almost hear the "Achtung, Schpitfeuer!" radioed from plane to plane as the German formations sighted the intercepting Spitfires. All that the dying Mitchell, out of his Schneider experience, put into the Spitfire in maneuverability and speed paid out well in those trying autumn days. Again from the Official Air Ministry Record:

"There were dive attacks carried out by one squadron of Spitfires which twice passed through an enemy bomber formation, each time delivering beam attacks as they did so … the bombers turned almost blindly, it seemed, aircraft dropping in flames or in uncontrolled dives with every few miles of the return journey."

It is a fact that on one raid a lone Spitfire attacked a German formation of seven Messerschmitt Me-109s and such was the reputation of the Spitfires that the Me-109s turned for home in such haste that two of them collided. On another occasion a group of 15 bombers surrounded by protecting Me-109s dispersed so quickly when attacked by a Spitfire squadron that only three British pilots had chance to fire. The Spitfires were death on wings, swift and sure.

To date the Spitfire has been Britain's high-altitude specialist. Low down, the big rugged Hurricane does the mopping up. The Messerschmitt Me-109E with its 1,150-hp Daimler-Benz DB-601A had a slight edge in speed on the Hurricanes. The Spitfires, in turn, were faster than the Messerschmitts. Contacts between Messerschmitts and Spitfires have taken place as high as 37,000 feet. The Bell Airacobra and the latest of the Curtiss P-40 series are rated better than the Messerschmitt Me-109E, and at least equal to the Spitfire under 12,000 feet. Above that height the Spitfire is increasingly superior. The Spitfire II does 387 mph at 18,500 feet. Range is 780 miles at 300 mph, initial rate of climb 2,300 feet per minute, service (not absolute) ceiling 36,000 feet.

There have been five models of the Spitfire. Mark I was fitted with the 1,030-hp Merlin II. Mark II is almost identical with the earlier version except for a 1,250-hp Merlin XII. The Mark III Spitfire had a Merlin XX and clipped square-tipped wings. A ball of fire low down, the Mark III Spitfire clipped off 407 mph — the record speed of the 2,600-hp 1931 Supermarine S6b — but was comparatively poor on maneuverability at high altitudes. Three of these special jobs were built. But the Spitfire V (V for five or victory, take your choice) with the familiar pointed elliptical wing should be nearly as fast as the Spitfire III, yet as maneuverable as ever. The latest modifications of the Merlins are known to be approaching 1,500 hp. The Spitfire V has a higher ceiling and greater speed at altitude, possibly about 400 mph at around 20,000 feet, with a service ceiling of close to 40,000 feet.

Just as the Sopwith Camel (tricky as it was) lives in the hearts of the men who flew them, so will the Spitfire be revered forever by those youngsters who stopped Germany dead at the Channel during the summer and autumn of 1940. The newest Spitfire is claimed "the perfect fighting machine" by the men who fly it, from the armament, maneuverability or speed standpoint. In the hands of the cocky, aggressive young RAF pilot it becomes a thing alive. As well trained and as good as he is, the RAF fighter pilot would never have won the spectacular victory he did at Dunkirk and over England with any less capable machine than the Spitfire. In its own right the Spitter is a deft, hard-hitting battler, toughest against unfavorable odds.

In sports you'd say the Spitfire had gate appeal. It certainly has the color that would pack them in. For instance, there was a single Scottish auxiliary squadron that tackled 50 Messerschmitt Me-109s and downed four, then chased the rest to sea and picked off four more as they ran; the damaged Spitfire "unfit for action" that somehow got mixed up in a melee on its way to a repair base and winged a Messerschmitt to save a comrade; or the Spitfire squadron that knocked down nine Stukas and four Messerschmitt Me-110s in a day after downing seven ships the day before — without loss to themselves. Such were the odds that the RAF had to shoot down four enemy machines for every one it lost, or England itself was lost!

Between August 8, and October 31, 1940, the RAF downed 2,375 confirmed German airplanes in daylight fighting alone. Huge formations were actually mistaken by British pilots for clouds. As many as 1,000 German ships came over in a single day. The Air Ministry Record paints an awesome picture: "This figure (2,375) takes no account of those lost at night or those, seen by the thousands, staggering back to their French bases, wings and fuselages full of holes, ailerons shot away, engines smoking and dripping glycol, landing gears dangling — the retreating remnants of a shattered and disordered armada…. Such was the Battle of Britain in 1940. Future historians may compare it with Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne." Spitfires and Hurricanes were too much for the Luftwaffe.

Spitfire V features a combination armament of four .303-caliber machine guns and two 20-mm Hispano-Suiza shell guns, all in the wings. Spitfire Is are converted into the Vs by fitting them with the newest Merlins. Both IIs and Vs are using both cannon and machine guns. Specifications of the standard Spitfire II follow: Span 36 ft 10 in; length 29 ft 11 in; height 11 ft 5 in; wing area 242 sq ft; aspect ratio 5.6; weight empty 4,332 pounds, loaded 5,750 pounds. Performance figures were already given. In resume, the first Spitfire was tested on June 26, 1936, and did 342 mph; the first production jobs were capable of 362 mph, later 367 mph, then 387 mph, finally 407 mph, on the experimental Mark III. The Spitfire IV, whatever it was like, evidently has not been discussed in the British aviation press.

Note that mentioned are models I, II, III, V. The first job to carry the Spitfire name (no number) was an experimental Supermarine fighter of 1934, that proved a flash in the pan. The original Spitfire might be described as a cross between the Vought-Sikorsky cranked wing fighter for the Navy and the German Junkers Stuka. An odd feature was a steam-cooled Rolls-Royce Goshawk motor of 665 hp. Steam condensers were built into the wing. It had no radiator.

Lieut Gen H H Arnold and Col (now Brig Gen) I C Eaker in their book Winged Warfare [ HTML ] (printed in the September, 1941, issue of Flying) stated, "Thus, it may well be that the first time the Spitfires saved (the italics are ours) Britain was not over London or in England, but at the channel ports, Dunkerque and Calais." A prime factor in these British victories over the Luftwaffe was the eight-gun armament of both the Spitfire and the Hurricane. How England happened to use these eight-gun batteries is an interesting story.

Sir Hugh "Stuffy" Dowding was Operations Commander of the Fighter Command when the war broke out. Sir Hugh, a dour Scot, was an old artillery officer who took to the air just before the last war. When the Spitfire was first shown to him — with two guns, according to the story — he is reported to have said, "I want some guns." To which the technicians replied, "How many? Three, possibly four?"

"I want eight, at least," said Dowding.

The technicians smiled. Surely Dowding wasn't serious. Finally one said, "But that would be a flying gun."

"That's just what I want," insisted Dowding.

By placing four of these Browning .303-caliber machine guns in each wing outside the propeller disc, synchronization was not required and consequently the entire battery of eight guns could fire uninterrupted at the rate of 9,600 rounds a minute — 240 pounds of lead! The pilot could select for firing two, four, six or all eight guns. Two to three seconds of firing proved enough to saw the wing off a bomber, or to blast a fighter to bits. High speed forced a sort of snap shooting "grouse hunting" technique.

On the record is the Hurricane that hit a Me-109 at 800 yards, slowing it up for the kill. Which is an indication of the tremendous striking power of the eight-gun Spitfires and Hurricanes. Then there is the oft-repeated anecdote about an Australian pilot who described his technique as getting on the enemy's tail, pressing the triggers and flying through the bits. And no wonder. In the space of a single second the eight guns fired 160 rounds. The Spitfire V packs an even greater punch in its two 20-mm cannon and four machine guns; a later version has four 20-mm cannon. Now that we have seen as many as 12 guns and batteries of cannons on some fighters, the eight-gun fighters of the Battle of Britain no longer sound startling. But if we recall that when the Spitfire specifications went out in 1934, our own conception of fighter armament was two fuselage-mounted machine guns, we get some idea of how much a pioneer was the Spitfire with its eight wing machine guns.

So far, the improved Spitfire is matching the pace of fighter design. On channel sweeps the Spitfires have demonstrated an ability to turn inside of the new German Focke-Wulf Fw-190 radial-engined fighter. New ships like the Hawker Tornado with its Napier Saber H-shaped engine of 2,300 hp presage further jumps in performance. But Mitchell's Spitfire is already immortalized. In appreciation for a job well done a movie about the Spitfire is now being Filmed in England. Called The First of a Few, it will trace the evolution of the Spitfire from the Supermarine racers to the Battle of Britain. Leslie Howard will play the part of R J Mitchell, the man whose airplane is generally credited with saving England.

This article was originally published in the July, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 1, pp 30-32, 64, 66, 69, 104.
The original article includes 6 photos and a 3-view line drawing of the S-6-B.
Photos and drawing are not credited.

Photo captions:

The movie Spitfire is reviewed [ HTML ]with publicity stills in an issue of Air News. The First of a Few seems to have been a working title.