Aircraft Designer Reginald Mitchell's Supermarine Spitfire was not the most important British Fighter. It did not win the Battle of Britain, contrary to popular belief that honour belongs to the Hawker Hurricane of which there were many more serving in British RAF squadrons. The Allied Pilot with the highest German kill rate was a Polish Ace flying a Hurricane, not a Spitfire. There were hundreds more Hawker Hurricanes in service with the RAF at the time of the Battle of Britain than Supermarine Spitfires.
The Supermarine Spitfire, entered service with No 19 Squadron. It was based at RAF Duxford just outside Cambridge. This was nine months after the first Hurricanes had been delivered to RAF Northolt and No 111 Squadron. It must have been like Christmas for the pilots of No 19 Squadron in August 1938 as they exchanged their Gauntlet biplanes for Mk I Spitfires. By the end of 1938 there were only two fully-equipped Spitfire squadrons, both at RAF Duxford. This had increased to nine squadrons by the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939. 306 Mk I Supermarine Spitfire had been delivered. Thirty six of these had already been written off in training accidents. Pilots were not familiar with using the new retractable undercarriage. A number of early accidents were caused by pilots forgetting to lower the plane's wheels.
Two-bladed, fixed-pitch propeller had been fitted to the first seventy seven Mk I Supermarine Spitfires. The other 229 Mk 1 Spitfires were fitted with three-bladed, two-position airscrews, with fine pitch for take-off and coarse pitch for cruising. The first 77 Spitfires were retro-fitted with the new propellers. The original flat cockpit canopy was replaced by the bulged version to enable taller pilots headroom and provide better vision. An armour-plated windscreen was added along with 6mm armour panels behind the pilots seat and the rear engine bulkhead. At high altitude it was found that the guns froze so heating units were added
The Supermarine Spitfire's advanced design, particularly the elliptical wing nearly caused the Air Ministry to cancel its order due to the slow production time. The considered using Supermarine's facilities in Southampton to produce the Beaufighter. Lord Nuffield's mass car production experience was turned to good use when applied to the aircraft industry. It also resulted in the building of a second factory at Castle Bromwich. Two Hurricanes of No 56 Squadron were tragically the first aircraft to be shot down by a Spitfire's guns. This happened on 6th September 1939 three days after war had been declared. The first enemy aircraft to be destroyed by Fighter Command, was credited to Squadron Leader Ernest Stevens flying a spitfire 16th October 1939. He shot down a Junkers Ju-88s as it attacked British warships in the Firth of Forth.
Flying Officer "Shorty" Longbotham proposed using a small, unarmed photographic reconnaissance aircraft, relying solely on its speed to provide protection rather than using the traditionally bomber-type aircraft. The Spitfire was the obvious choice for the task. In October 1939 two Mk I Spitfires were converted. It was stripped of guns, radio and ammunition which increased its speed by 30 mph compared with the standard Spitfire. Supermarine Spitfires first met Messerschmitt Bf-109s fighters and the twin engine Messerschmitt Bf-110s on 23 May 1940. Three Spitfires of 92 Squadron were shot down but two of each type of Messerschmitt were also lost
Sixty seven Spitfires were shot down during the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of France. Lessons were learned during these early battles that would help the RAF fighter Pilots in the Battle of Britain. During dog fights experience taught that to kill you had to get close so the Spitfires guns were harmonise to converge at 250 yards rather than 400. The RAF's traditional V formation of three aircraft was found lacking when compared to the German Luftwaffe's tactical formation of the "finger four". The octane level of the petrol used by Spitfires was increased from 87 to 100 octane. This increase the planes speed by 34 mph at 10,000 feet and by 25 mph at sea level
The Battle of Britain was fought between 10 July and 31 October 1940. At the beginning, Fighter Command only had 27 squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 of Spitfires at the beginning of the Battle of Britain on 10th July 1939. The Hurricane took part in the lion's share of the fighting. By the end of the Battle of Britain on 31st October 1940, 565 Hurricanes and 352 Spitfires were lost during that short four-month period.
The Messerschmitt Bf-109E was superior in the climb and marginally faster above 20,000 feet, but the Spitfire Mk I possessed a better turning radius at any height. Squadrons of ex-pat Allied pilots began to be formed. On 7 November 1940 No 340 Squadron was the first to be formed with French pilots. Later other Squadrons were formed including Belgian, Polish, Czech, Dutch and Norwegians squadrons.
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