There are too many myths about the Supermarine Spitfire to list, but uppermost is the notion that it was in any way a war-winning weapon. In fact, it might have been a war-losing one had circumstances been different. Britain certainly didn’t need it, and in some respects would have done better without it. It was not a bad aircraft so much as the wrong aircraft at the wrong time.
Let’s be clear. The Spitfire is a very pretty aeroplane and a very charismatic one, which is great to see at airshows. It’s also said to be lovely to fly. The first three of these points mattered little in 1939-45, and the third was not as important as other factors. It’s pretty well accepted these days that the Battle of Britain was won by the Hurricane, and there’s no reason to suspect that more Hurricanes wouldn’t have defeated Goering’s armada just as soundly, if not more so.
What were the best fighters at the outbreak of the war? The surprising answer is here.
The Spitfire had a number of shortcomings – its range in fighter variants was always poor, its narrow-track undercarriage invited accidents and its roll rate wasn’t competitive, a dangerous shortcoming for a fighter. Its main Achilles heel though was the sheer difficulty of manufacturing a Spitfire. It took 13,000 man hours to build the airframe – for that amount of effort you could have two-and-a-half Hurricanes or three-and-a-bit Messerschmitt Bf 109s.
In other words, British industry, under a barrage of bombs and in wartime conditions, was building one Spitfire when it could have built three fighters of a simpler design. That’s crazy. Moreover, it could have been dangerous. When the Battle of Britain was raging, operational Hurricane squadrons increased from 25 to 34. Spitfire Squadrons increased from 19 to… 20. And that additional squadron came only at the very end of the Battle. Spitfire production lagged behind Hurricane production for the whole Battle as well, and twice as many Hurricanes as Spitfires were built in that period. When it came to serviceability, the Hurricane was better too, with more damaged aircraft returned to squadrons more quickly.
Matters were little better in the air – Richard Overy points out that at the end of the Battle, Spitfires were being shot down at a faster rate than Hurricanes. Had the Battle gone on much longer, the Spitfire could have become a millstone around Fighter Command’s neck. The point that is often made that the Spitfire could better deal with the Bf 109 is irrelevant, as Fighter Command needed to knock down bombers and actively avoided engagements with fighters (and in any case, exactly as many Spitfires were shot down by Bf109s as Hurricanes).
Moreover, the priority that was placed on Spitfire production in 1940 (as well as Hurricanes, to be fair) pulled effort from other services, effectively hamstringing the Fleet Air Arm for years and preventing the development of newer designs. And not content with wasting industrial effort at the beginning of the war, the Spitfire remained in production for the length of hostilities. Who knows what might have been achieved with three aircraft produced for every Spitfire? Alternatively, for the same number of fighters, a greater number of bombers could have been produced. Or for the same number of aircraft, more factory workers could have been released for active service.
A high maintenance beauty
Many fans maintain that the Spitfire was a work of aerodynamic perfection and stayed competitive for so long as a result. By 1936 standards, it certainly did have a good performance, but it did so at the unforgivable expense of ease of manufacture. Contemporary designs such as the Bf 109 and Heinkel He 100 show that it was not necessary to make this compromise even in the late 1930s, let alone later when types such as the Mustang arrived. Indeed, the Spitfire could take more powerful engines than it had been designed for, but its wing was too flexible in torsion to do this forever, and by the time the Mk.21 appeared, its once-fine handling had degenerated to barely-acceptable levels. This left it as a fighter with an inferior performance, armament and range.
The default fighter
The main reason the Spitfire kept on weighing down British industry after it should have been retired was not its inherent brilliance but seemingly the lack of an alternative. The Hawker Typhoon, which was meant to replace it, wasn’t up to the job and the Air Ministry failed to change tack early enough. It’s not that there weren’t possibilities – in 1939, Martin-Baker was commissioned to develop a design to replace the Hurricane and Spitfire and came up with the brilliant MB.3, which outperformed most contemporary designs and was very simple to build and maintain. Unfortunately, Martin-Baker was a cottage industry, and James Martin was chronically incapable of finishing anything on time, being continually sidetracked by different jobs (the company had also been commissioned to develop gun installations and cockpit canopies) and striving for tiny gains at the expense of delay after delay. Had the design been given the support of a major manufacturer, or even handed over in its entirety to, say, Hawker or Bristol, a viable Spitfire replacement that did not hoover up man-hours in the same way could have been in service by 1943.
The wrong aeroplane
If the Air Ministry had decided not to push the MB.3, there were still possibilities. In 1942, Fairey was pushing to build P-51 Mustangs under licence, and it would have made more sense to switch British production to this type. Not only was the Mustang faster with a less powerful engine, and had the legs to take it to Berlin and still dogfight, it had been designed with simplicity and ease of production in mind. But Spitfire production continued, and the Second Tactical Air Force even ended up with Spitfires it didn’t particularly want to replace worn-out fighter-reconnaissance Mustang Mk. Is that there were no longer replacements for. Bizarrely, the RAF ended up using Spitfire Mk. XVIs as dive bombers when A-36s, Mustang Mk. IIs, Thunderbolts or Tempests would have made a good deal more sense.
As it was, the Allies won the war, so it was a moot point. But for Britain’s industry to have expended so much effort at a crucial time, building 22,000 over-complicated aircraft that were not especially competitive in the second half of the war, deserves much greater examination.
Read Jon Lake’s rebuttal of this argument here
Mr Willis has since made the following corrections: “In the second paragraph: change ‘for that amount of effort you could have two-and-a-half Hurricanes or three-and-a-bit Messerschmitt Bf 109s’ to ‘for that amount of effort you could have one-and-a-half Hurricanes or three-and-a-bit Messerschmitt Bf 109s’ (bold just to emphasise the change, shouldn’t be bold in the published version)
In the fifth paragraph: change ‘Who knows what might have been achieved with three aircraft produced for every Spitfire?’ to ‘Who knows what might have been achieved with two or three aircraft produced for every Spitfire?” (as above re bold).
I’ve developed the arguments a fair bit since the original piece was posted, but it wouldn’t be fair to go chopping and changing it now. I stand by everything I wrote apart from the bits above that need correcting.”
What was the most combat effective piston-engined fighter ever made? An analysis can be found here.
You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an alternate history of the TSR.2, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is the The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker.
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
Writer and aviation history journalist working on naval aviation projects. Author, novel Daedalus and the Deep, co-editor short story anthology A Seeming Glass. Editor of navalairhistory.com