Thursday, March 16, 2006

Spitfire: Battle For The Skies

Action footage, pilots' accounts and expert commentary - the life story of a charming killer which is far from retired, even 60 years after its finest hour.

The Supermarine Spitfire, designed by R J Mitchell, had its origins in the contest to win the Schneider Trophy - an annual air-speed competition in the 1920s and '30s that attracted enormous international interest. Mitchell's seaplane designs won the trophy on numerous occasions, and when the Air Ministry announced its desire for a new fighter aircraft in 1934, Mitchell decided to adapt his trophy-winning designs for military service.

The resulting aircraft's sleek, streamlined features were a testament to its air-racing lineage. To meet the Air Ministry's demand for eight machine-guns, Mitchell had had to increase the size of the wing, resulting in an elliptical design that also improved manoeuvrability. He'd also modified the design to take advantage of the new Rolls Royce Merlin engine.

The prototype of the Supermarine Type F37/34, as it was then known, first flew in March 1936. The design met all of the RAF and Air Ministry's requirements (the aircraft's top speed of 348mph greatly exceeded their requirement), and an order was placed for 310 aircraft. It was given the name Spitfire, after alternatives including Shrew and Shrike had been rejected. Mitchell himself didn't like the name, but the Air Ministry were pleased with its aggressiveness. Mitchell died from cancer in 1937.

The first Spitfire Mk.Is joined 19 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in August 1938. By the outbreak of the Second World War, nine squadrons were equipped with the Spitfire. The aircraft saw its first combat in October 1939, shooting down a German bomber attacking shipping off Scotland.

Spitfire squadrons were not sent to France in 1939, but were kept at home to provide air defence. They became involved in heavy fighting over the Dunkirk area, during the dramatic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in June 1940, and were to prove vital in the contest for air superiority over England that followed.

During the intense air combat of July, August and September 1940, the Spitfire would prove itself a match for any German aircraft. It was adored by the pilots that flew it. Their only caveat was that it was a tricky aircraft to taxi, because of a narrow undercarriage and poor visibility - a high proportion of Spitfires were lost to accidents on the ground. But in the air, its natural domain, the Spitfire's speed, handling and eight .303 machine-guns (firing 160 rounds per second) made a lethal combination.

At the height of the Battle of Britain, RAF Fighter Command had 33 squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes, and 18 squadrons of Spitfires. The Hurricane accounted for more 'kills' than the Spitfire, and proportionately was shot down less than the Spitfire. The main reason for this was that Hurricane squadrons were often tasked with attacking enemy bombers, whilst Spitfires, because of their superior performance, engaged the German fighter escort. But it was the Spitfire that became the symbol of the Battle of Britain - not because it was more important than the Hurricane, but simply because it was better looking.


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