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Supermarine Spitfire: I Sat in One of the Best World War II Fighters

Supermarine Spitfire
Spitfire MH434 at the Shuttleworth Collection Season Premiere Airshow 2018.

Of all the fighter planes in the illustrious history of Great Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), there is little doubt that the WWII-era Supermarine Spitfire is the most famous of the bunch, though conceivably one could also make the case for the WWI-era Sopwith Camel (thanks in part to dear ol’ Snoopy).

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The Spitfire is definitely one of the most iconic Allied fighters of the Second World War – right up there with the P-51D Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt.

It was during the Battle of Britain that the “Spit” truly cemented her reputation, though, as I pointed out in a separate 19FortyFive article, the Hawker Hurricane was the RAF’s unsung hero of that epic battle. 

Spawning the Spitfire

The Supermarine Spitfire made her maiden flight on March 5, 1936, and was officially introduced into RAF service on August 4, 1938.

The craft was designed as a short-range, high-performance interceptor by R.J. (Reginald Joseph).Mitchell (1895 – 1937) of Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton, who, as can be seen from his death year, sadly did not live long enough to see his invention earn its many battlefield laurels. Supermarine, for its part, went defunct in 1960, and eventually became part of British Aeospace, which in turn merged into the present-day BAE Systems plc.

As to how the warbird got her name, Harry Atkins of History Hit offers this nugget: “The Spitfire’s name is often assumed to derive from its ferocious firing capabilities. But it likely owes just as much to [Supermarine chairman] Sir Robert McLean’s pet name for his young daughter, Ann, who he called ‘the little spitfire.’”

The plane featured some innovative features, such as (1) retractable landing gear and (2) the semi-elliptical Beverley Shenstone wings, which were delightfully aerodynamically efficient, delivered induced drag, but were also thin enough to avoid excessive drag, while still able to accommodate the undercarriage, armament, and ammo.

The initial production model, the Spitfire I, was equipped with the so-called “A” wing, which accommodated eight .303 caliber Browning machine guns – each with 300 rounds. Eventually, 24 different marks (variants) of the warplane would be produced until 1948, with a gradual improvement in firepower accompanying the successive marks.

A total of 20,351 airframes were built. Roughly 250 survive today, of which fewer than 50 remain airworthy.

Battle of Britain and Beyond

While the Hurricane was somewhat of the unsung hero of the Battle of Britain, 19FortyFive contributor Peter Suciu affirms that the Hurricane actually shot down more Luftwaffe planes during that campaign, and the UK Government’s Forces War Records back this up: “out of 1,185 enemy craft shot down, just 44.6 percent of the overall kills were claimed by Spitfire pilots, and of the bombers shot down, 66.2 percent were claimed by Hurricanes. Each plane covered the other’s weaknesses.” The Hurricanes played an essential role as they went after the German bombers. It was the Spitfires that tangled with enemy fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf-109

Previous coverage of the Spitfire adds “However, while the Spitfire wasn’t used in as significant numbers, it did earn the respect of the Germans.”

And rightfully so, when you look at the final kill tally. Edward Rippeth, through a detailed statistical analysis written for “alternate aviation magazine” Hush Kit, made the determination that “ the RAF and Commonwealth Spitfires scored 5,988 kills. This puts the aircraft just ahead of the Mustang on 5599.”

Furthermore, when Mr. Rippeth factors in the air-to-air kills scored by non-Commonwealth Spitfire drivers such as those of the USAAF, the Spit’s total kill tally climbs to 6,338, leading to the author’s conclusion of “Hence my declaration that the Supermarine Spitfire is the highest-scoring Allied fighter type of World War II.” 

Experiencing the Spitfire

While I didn’t get to actually go up in the air in a Spit like I did in a B-17 Flying Fortress back in August 2020, I did get to sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire.

This was back in March 2017, thanks to The Spitfire Experience at the RAF Museum London, located in the Hendon residential district. The Spitfire was located in Hangar 3 of the Museum. A £25.00 fee (equivalent to $30.86 USD as I type these words) purchases you a pre-booked timed ticket that grants you 10 minutes inside the cockpit. 

The specific Spitfire model in question, Serial No. RW393/’TB675′, is a Mk XVI version, which entered into service in November 1944 and remained in production ‘til August 1954, with 1,054 being produced. The Mark XVI was the last major version of the Spitfire to be propelled by the famed Rolls-Royce Merlin engine before the advent of the RR Griffon powered variants. 

Going back to what I mentioned about the improved firepower of the later marks of the Spitfire, the Mark XVI bore two 20mm cannon with 120 rounds each in addition to four Browning .303s; it took advantage of this more powerful punch to attack V-2 rocket sites in the closing months of the war. 

So then, what was it like having my hands on the stick, feet on the rudder, and firing button of this iconic warplane? To sum up the experience in five words, “So cool, but so cramped.” I had mentioned in my B-17 article how movies and newsreels didn’t convey how cramped the interior of that so-called “heavy bomber” truly was. Well, a fighter plane roughly half the size of a heavy bomber, that claustrophobic feeling was magnified further. To add numerical perspective, the seat is 70 centimeters wide and the entrance door on the left side of the fuselage is 43 centimeters wide. 

A fantastic experience nonetheless it was. After my tour was complete. I went to the museum’s gift shop and bought a commemorative t-shirt, so, if you’ll pardon the cliché … ”I Rode In The Cockpit Of An Iconic WWII Fighter Plane (And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt).” (Well, okay, I bought a souvenir Spitfire Operator’s Manual as well.)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).