Supermarine’s Spitfire is undoubtedly one of the iconic fighters of World War 2, and continues to garner support from warbird enthusiasts worldwide. 22 distinct major versions of the Spitfire were developed to meet the operational demands of the war – an incredible testimony to the advanced basic design of the aircraft. The Spitfire was such an enduring and effective aircraft that is was the only Allied fighter in production both before, during, and after World War 2. 20,351 were manufactured between 1936 and 1948, in addition to 2,408 naval Seafires.

The Supermarine Aviation Works initially focused on marine aviation, and established a productive relationship with the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I. In 1917, the company hired the talented engineer Reginald J. Mitchell, and converted surplus government flying boats into the ‘Channel’ flying boat for civilian use. In 1919 the company entered the Schneider Trophy seaplane races, further honing Mitchell and his team’s expertise in designing and producing high-speed aircraft.

Then in 1924 Supermarine’s S4 entry for the Schneider races set a world airspeed record of 364.9 kilometres per hour (or 226.75 miles per hour), and the company secured the trophy for Britain with consecutive wins in 1927, 1929, and 1931. Shortly after the 1931 race, the Supermarine S6B set the world airspeed record to 655.67 kilometres per hour (or 407.5 miles per hour).

During the 1920s, the company achieved success selling its single-engine Seagull and multi-engine Southampton flying boats, securing orders from both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force, with the latter operating the Seagull-3 and the improved Seagull-5, known as the Walrus in British service. In 1928, Vickers-Armstrong took over Supermarine, but the company continued to operate under the Supermarine name.

In 1934, Mitchell’s started to design a monoplane fighter which evolved into the Type 300, featuring the famous elliptical wing that would become emblematic of the Spitfire. By January 1935, the Air Ministry provided 10-thousand pounds for the construction of a prototype. Shortly after, Vickers, the parent company, suggested the name ‘Spitfire,’ which the Air Ministry accepted. Mitchell himself reportedly found the name unimpressive, remarking that it was, “Just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it!”.

The prototype Spitfire, K-5054, first took flight on March 5, 1936, and performed exceptionally well. It was delivered to the RAF for trials in late May 1936. The RAF, obviously impressed, promptly ordered 310 Spitfires on June 3, 1936, and an additional 200 in 1937. By the time Britain entered the war in September 1939, over 2,100 Spitfires were on order. However, building the Spitfire, especially its complex wing structure, proved challenging for the workforce at the time, and production initially proceeded slowly. Nevertheless, during the summer of 1940, the RAF had just enough Mark-1 Spitfires, along with a larger force of Hurricanes, to successfully defend Britain during the Battle of Britain.

The Spitfire became a beloved symbol for the British public, and sadly its designer did not get to witness its rising success – R.J. Mitchell passed away from cancer in 1937. Engineer Joe Smith, responsible for the Spitfire’s wing design, took over to oversee the aircraft’s continuous development to keep pace with, and surpass, advancements in enemy fighter aircraft throughout the war.

The Spitfire’s elliptical wing, characterized by its lightweight yet robust construction, accommodated all armaments and the undercarriage. This allowed for improvements in armament, speed, service ceiling, and range, all while maintaining exceptional handling characteristics. There were advancements in superchargers, power output, and altitude performance for both the Merlin and the larger capacity Griffon engines that powered later Spitfire models.

The Spitfire Mark-24, the final production model in 1948, was more than one-third faster, possessed almost double the rate of climb, featured five times the firepower, and weighed nearly twice as much as the Spitfire Mark-1 from a decade earlier.

Mk-24

This remarkable fighter saw action on virtually every front with nearly every Allied air force during World War 2 and even after 1945.

Australia’s involvement with the Spitfire began in the United Kingdom, where around thirty Australian pilots served with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Subsequently, in the UK, Australian squadrons operated RAF-serialled Spitfires, with No. 453 Squadron notably providing air support in D-Day landings over Normandy in June 1944.

One notable Australian Spitfire pilot attached to number 234 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, was Paterson Clarence Hughes. Pat was killed in action flying his spitfire, X4009, on the evening of 7 September 1940, after he had intercepted a Dornier 17 bomber taking part in a large-scale attack on London. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, after claiming 17 victories (three of them shared), which makes him Australia’s most successful Battle of Britain Ace and third highest scoring Australian Ace during the Second World War.

The Japanese attack on Darwin in February 1942, underscored Australia’s need for adequate air defense. While the United States Army Air Forces’ P-40 Warhawks provided interim air defense for Darwin, Australia urgently sought support from Britain in the form of three Spitfire squadrons, symbolically comprising one RAF squadron (Number 54 Squadron) and numbers 452 and 457 Squadrons. Personnel from the three squadrons arrived in Australia in August 1942 to form Number 1 Fighter Wing. However, their initial batch of Spitfires was redirected to North Africa to support Allied forces fighting Rommel.

Spitfire Mark-fives finally began arriving in Australia in August 1942, and operational training commenced in November 1942. Starting in January 1943, with the relocation to the Northern Territory, Number 1 Fighter Wing assumed responsibility for the air defense of Northern Australia. Spitfire Mark-5Cs also equipped Number 79 Squadron, operating in the Vivigani, Goodenough Island, and Kiriwina Island regions, as well as Number 85 Squadron, based in Western Australia.

The RAAF assigned the serial prefix A58 to the 656 Spitfires delivered between August 1942 and June 1945. The first 245 comprised tropicalized Mark-5Cs, the best model available at the time, though the superior Mark-9 was starting to enter service in Europe. Almost 6,500 Mark-fives were produced, making it the most produced mark of Spitfire.

Crucially for the RAAF, the Mark-5C featured the Merlin 46 engine with an improved supercharger, providing increased power for air combat above 6096 meters (20-thousand feet), essential for intercepting high-flying Japanese bombers. The Spitfire was prone to engine overheating when stationary or taxiing for extended periods in the Australian heat, and its narrow undercarriage was not well-suited to rough airstrips. Nevertheless, the Spitfire’s superior air combat capabilities eventually outclassed the P-40 Kittyhawk, the only other RAAF fighter available at the time.

Mk-Vc

The effectiveness of Number 1 Fighter Wing’s Spitfires in 1943 was hampered by ineffective combat tactics, defective cannon armament, and the Spitfire’s limited range. It did have an effective Australian-designed and built radar system, but tactics needed improving. Against the Japanese, spitfire pilots learnt to avoid dogfights and use ‘hit and run’ attacks on enemy formations. The Japanese were unable to neutralize the air combat capability of Number 1 Fighter Wing’s Spitfires, and by late 1943, had scaled down their attacks on northern Australia to prioritize other objectives.

To meet the need for superior high-altitude performance, 410 Spitfire Mark-8s were delivered to Australia from October 1943. 243 were optimised for low level operation, 9 for all-round performance, and 158 for high altitude performance.

These operated with numbers 79 and 85 squadrons, along with redeployed numbers 452 and 457 squadrons, and Spitfires from the RAF’s numbers 54, 548, and 549 Squadrons. By early 1944, the Spitfire Mark-8s were employed for air-to-ground strafing operations on Morotai Island, where air superiority had largely been established. Not exactly the ultimate role for a thoroughbred interceptor, but a necessary job nevertheless.

With the United States Pacific commanders declining to use RAAF squadrons in frontline combat as the Allies advanced towards the Philippines and Japan, the Spitfires were employed for ‘mopping up’ operations around Morotai and were not fully utilized during the last year of the war. Approximately 120 of the Mark-8s saw no service at all and were delivered directly to storage for eventual scrapping.

At the end of the Pacific war, the Spitfire squadrons were disbanded, and the RAAF replaced its Spitfires and P-40 Kittyhawks with the locally-built Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Mustangs from late 1945. Hundreds of Spitfires were scrapped between 1946 and 1952.

Currently, there are just over a dozen Spitfires restored in museums, or in storage, across Australia, including a Mark-8 and a Mark-16 at Temora Aviation Museum, both of which are airworthy. There is a Mark-9 at the Hunter Fighter Collection, also airworthy, and the team there will also be restoring a Mark-1 over the next 5 years to flying status.

This remarkable piece of engineering will remain one of the most adored military aircraft of the second world war era, and the Australian Air Force is proud to have had it, as part of their inventory and wartime history.