Eighty years ago, the Supermarine Spitfire saved Britain and changed the course of history.
After two long months of grueling air combat between invading Luftwaffe fighters and bombers and the notably smaller British Royal Air Force, England’s pilots were exhausted.
Some British pilots, many of whom had only nine full hours of flight training before heading up into combat in the hazy English skies, had long since turned to amphetamines to keep them alert. Sometimes, they would fly five or six combat sorties per day before settling in for just a few hours of sleep.
The Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940 had taken its toll, but on September 7, 1940, everything changed. Adolf Hitler had given the order to shift focus from military targets to civilian ones—with London being chief among them. The Blitz had begun.
More than 300 bombers with accompanying fighter escorts were stacked atop one another more than a mile and a half high. The massive swarm of Nazi aircraft was said to cover 800 square miles of airspace.
“I could see the bright yellow noses of Messerschmitt fighters sandwiching the bombers, and could even pick out some of the types,” Sergeant J.M. Beard, a Spitfire pilot from the 249 Squadron, recounted. “The sky seemed full of them, packed in layers thousands of feet deep. They came on steadily, wavering up and down along the horizon. ‘Oh golly!’ I thought, ‘Golly, golly!’”
With the odds stacked against them, the pilots of the Royal Air Force poured into the sky, splitting the German aircraft into two groups: The slower but battle proven Hawker Hurricanes would take on the Luftwaffe bombers, and a new plane, one that traced its lineage to racing floatplanes, would be tasked with neutralizing the enemy.
The pilots of this new plane claimed 529 enemy planes in defense of Britain, sacrificing 230 of their own aircraft. The Royal Air Force sent 2,917 men into the skies over Britain that summer—544 of them, nearly 20 percent, would give their lives for the victory.
As the sun set over a free Britain on the final day of October, 1940, Hitler had lost his stomach for air combat over Britain. England was safe and the Supermarine Spitfire stood as its knight in shining armor—but the war was still far from over.
A Racing Pedigree
Two years before the Battle of Britain, where the aircraft proved indispensable, the Spitfire had only just started production. In the late ’30s, it was actually the Hawker Hurricane fighter that was the favorite of many RAF commanders.
The Hurricane had come from a lineage of bi-planes built for war, like the Hawker Demon and the Hawker Fury. Production of these rugged planes had gone well, so well in fact that the RAF even approved sales to other WWII allies.
The Rolls Royce Merlin Engine is most commonly associated with the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain, despite its use in a number of platforms including the American P-51 Mustang. It drew a great deal of inspiration from another aircraft engine in its lineage, like the combat-proven Kestral motor seen in a number of bi-planes like the Hawker Fury.
Despite its notable power output of over 1,000 horsepower, the Merlin motor suffered a number of technical setbacks. Significant issues like cracking cylinder heads, coolant leaks, and a rapid rate of wear on essential components like the crankshaft’s main bearings plagued the powerful Merlin in the mid-1930s. Like the Spitfire itself, the Merlin motor would continue to see improvements for years to come thanks to men like Stanley Hooker, who redesigned the engine’s intake duct, impeller, and diffuser to improve airflow to and from the supercharger, ultimately pushing power output to 1,240 horsepower using American 100 octane fuel.
The engine’s performance would go on to attain legendary status, but its production was equally impressive. Ernest Hives, the General Works Manager at Rolls Royce, was instrumental in having the engine produced by multiple firms in multiple factories, making nearly 150,000 Merlin engines for the war effort.
Higher octane fuel can withstand greater heat and compression, allowing the Spitfire to run a more aggressive air/fuel ratio that netted the 1,000 horsepower fighter an additional 300 horsepower. For the fairly well-matched Spitfire and BF-109 showdowns that would come, this boost in power gave the Spitfire the advantage it needed to compete in the hellish skies over Britain.
Throughout the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe sent an average of 1,000 airplanes into British airspace a day, lobbing more than 1,100 at London in one massive wave on September 17, but just as they had each time before, the RAF beat them back, with Spitfires leading the way.
A Legend the World Over
Spitfires would go on to serve in every theater of World War II wherever British forces could be found, but they saw decreasing usefulness as the Allied forces began to transition away from defensive operations and started going on the offensive. The Spitfire was an extremely capable short intercept fighter, it lacked the longevity it needed to serve as an escort for Allied bomber missions, like the P-51 Mustang
But the capable Spitfire found new ways to wage war on England’s opponents, with hard points being added to some to deploy bombs and rockets against ground targets in support of the Normandy invasion. Other Spitfires continued in their defensive role, engaging the new Nazi V-1 flying bombs that flew across the Channel.
And unlike the Hawker Hurricane, which exited World War II more or less the same way it entered, the Spitfire would continue to see continuous improvements, like adding fuel injection, more powerful engines, and upgraded canons.
“The Me-109E might have been better for air-to-air fighting than the Spitfire Mk.I in 1940,” James Holland wrote in his definitive book, “The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History, “But Mitchell’s plane was only at the beginning of its development back then.”
Eighty years later, the plane that saved Britain remains a legend. It was an aircraft that found itself flying on the narrow line between the modern era of jet fighters and the seemingly ancient age of bi-planes. There, just on the edge of falling headlong into the future, the mighty Spitfire flew, plucking victory from defeat thanks to a forward-looking design, a whole lot of power, and the courage of the young pilots who climbed into the plane’s claustrophobic cockpit, popped up their targeting light, and plunged headlong into the fight.
As Churchill himself put it at the end of the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”