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Development of the Spitfire

by Steve Birks

The Spitfire was developed by Reginald Mitchell through the 1930's military competitions to replace the Bristol Bulldog fighters. It was named "Spitfire" and it went into production in 1938 as the Mk.I version.


Much the same as its direct adversary, the Messerschmitt Bf. 109, the Supermarine Spitfire went down in history as an excellent fighter. During the war and after both of these aircraft became the very symbols of the nations they served. The development and improvements of each, was conditioned by the very existence of the other.

The Spitfire, however, proved to have a much longer career than that of the Bf. 109. The RAF flew the final versions of the Spitfire well into the 1950's as front-line service aircraft, at a time when the piston engine had been superseded by the jet engine.

An uncompromised, fast and maneuverable fighter. The remarkable thin elliptical wing made the Spitfire capable of very high speeds. It served as first-line fighter throughout WWII in increasingly fast and powerful versions, first with the Merlin, later with the Griffon engine. The Spitfire was continuously changed to meet all kinds of treats and demands, as low- and high altitude fighter, tropicalized, navalized, or equipped as unarmed photo-reconnaissance aircraft. Probably the most famous military aircraft ever. 20351 built. The RAF retired its last Spitfires in 1954.


In all 24 different versions were built, including some 1220 Seafires fitted for aircraft carrier operation.

Deliveries of production Spitfire I's began in June 1938, two years after the first production contract had been placed . In those two years Supermarine laid out their Woolston factory for large-scale production and organized one of the largest subcontract schemes ever envisaged in Britain. Until that time, as it was becoming increasingly obvious that there was no limit to the likely demand for the Spitfire. It was also obvious that one factory alone was not going to be able to meet the demand even with sub-contracting. Large scale plans were laid during 1937 for the construction by the Nuffield Group of a large new shadow factory at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham for Spitfire production.

On April 12,1938 a contract was placed for 1,000 Spitfires to be built at this new factory, of which the actual construction had not then even begun. In the following year, on April 29 further contracts were placed with Supermarine for 200 Spitfires and on August 9 for 450.

When Britain went to war on September 3,1939 a total of 2,160 Spitfires were already on order.


Structurally the Spitfire was a straightforward design with a light alloy monocoque fuselage and a single spar wing with stressed-skin covering and fabric-covered control surfaces. The Spitfire was adapted from Reginald Mitchell's aesthetically pleasing 1925 F.7/30 design. To preserve the clean nose-cowling lines originally conceived by Mitchell, the radiator was located beneath the starboard wing with the smaller oil cooler causing some asymmetry beneath the port wing, and the carburetor air intake under the center fuselage.

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A DeHavilland two-blade wooden fixed-pitch propeller was employed by the prototype and the first Spitfire I's had the Airscrew Company's wooden fixed-pitch two-blade. Later a DeHavilland three-blade, two position propeller was adopted after trials on the first prototype. The new propeller gave a 5 mph increase in speed. In 1940 DeHavilland three-blade constant-speed propellers were substituted. Production Spitfires had a fixed tail wheel and triple ejector exhaust manifolds. The X80 HP Rolls-Royce Merlin II and later the Merlin III engine was installed.

Production of some 40 different variants of the Spitfire took place throughout the war and after. They served in every combat area, operating as fighters, fighter-bombers, reconnaissance aircraft and carrier-based fighters with the Royal Navy. Griffon engines replaced Merlins after a time, and the Spitfire XIX reconnaissance version became the fastest of all the wartime Spitfires with a speed of nearly 748 km/h (460 mph).

The last Spitfire was built in 1947. As a fighter, at all altitudes it had proven superb, while continuous edges gained first by German Bf 109s and Focke Wulfs 190s and then by different versions of the Spitfire led to closely-matched battles throughout the war.

One version of the Mk. XVI (1,054 built) differed in that it used an American made Merlin engine. The decision to license and build the Spitfire in the United States came in 1943 and was an effort to boost Spitfire production.

Many more versions followed the original and saw continual modifications to the Merlin engine to wring more power from it...

  • The original cockpit suffered from a rear-ward vision problem, it was eventually replaced with a teardrop shape originally designed for the P51 Mustang.
  • The propellor changed from a two-bladed wooden one to a steel 5-bladed propellor.
  • The armament increased from eight machine guns to four cannons and bombs.

When the Merlin engine reached its limit in 1942 (its power had increased from 990 hp to 1,730 hp), Supermarine turned to the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. A very successful version of the Spitfire (Mk XIV) was a Mk.VII with a five-bladed propeller and a Griffon engine.

A new name, the "Victor" had been proposed, but not adopted.

This aircraft was superior to almost all German fighters, except the last version of the FW190. The last version, the Mk.22, was armed with four 20 mm cannons and had a very powerful engine capable of catching V1 rockets.

A total of 20531 Spitfires in 40 modifications were built. It remained in service with various air forces for many years after the end of the war and the Seafire naval variation was last used in combat by the Royal Navy from the carrier HMS Triumph in the Korean war.

All the history of the Spitfire was due, in no small part, to Joseph Smith's efforts to counter any and all improvements in the Bf. 109. Joseph Smith, who had been heavily engaged in the Spitfire project from the very beginning along side Reginald J. Mitchell, was appointed Chief Designer at Supermarine after Mitchell's death on June 11, 1937. It was Smith who carried on Mitchell's legacy and it was he who led the continuing redesign of the Spitfire throughout its career. No fewer than 20,351 Spitfires, in approximately 40 versions were produced, making the Spitfire the most produced British aircraft of the war.

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