In his controversial article ‘Dismantling the Spitfire myth’ Matthew Willis asserted that the Spitfire’s role in British history is hugely over-stated. Jon Lake countered by defending its reputation in ‘Spitfire’s Revenge’. Now in the third part of a fascinating debate, Willis hits back.
Challenging the Spitfire is, due to its iconic status, always going to be a difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, after reading Jon Lake’s response to my earlier piece, I continue to assert that the Spitfire’s place in the history of World War II should be challenged.
If I might first answer the charge of ‘revisionist nonsense‘. On the second point (of it being nonsense), it’s not for me to say. On the first, though the word revisionism seems to have become a pejorative term of late, it properly stands for a proper historical re-examination of existing orthodoxy and accepted ideas. If the ideas expressed in the original piece were revisionist, then so be it.
Mr Lake says: ‘The Hurricane was undeniably important, and shot down more enemy aircraft than the Spitfire, but that was inevitable, given that there were more of them, often flown by more experienced pilots and squadrons, and that they were often sent against the easier targets – bombers, dive bombers and Bf 110s. And there is little doubt that a Fighter Command exclusively equipped with Spitfires would have done even better.‘
The last point is the crux – there could never have been a Fighter Command equipped exclusively with Spitfires because it had taken too long to gear up for their production and even when they were being turned out, it was in too small numbers. The Air Ministry recognised this, and this was reflected in the smaller orders for Spitfires than for Hurricanes – there simply wasn’t any point ordering more Spitfires because no more could have been delivered anyway. If Fighter Command had pinned its hopes on the Spitfire, it would have lost the Battle.
The point about ‘easier targets’ is often made by people justifying the Spitfire’s place in the Battle of Britain. It is true that the Spitfire did somewhat better against the Bf109E than the Hurricane did, and were sent against them more often, but the difference is not as dramatic as all that. John Alcorn’s detailed research indicates that while Spitfires shot down around 282 Bf109s during the Battle, Hurricanes shot down 222. Hurricane pilot ‘Ginger’ Lacey was the second highest scoring ‘Bf 109 killer’ with 13, while Josef Frantisek and Archie McKellar each shot down 11. The charge that the Hurricane was obsolescent in 1940 is overstated, as is the suggestion that the Bf 109E was significantly superior to it.
Typhoon versus Rafale, story here.
The A&AEE tested a captured Bf 109E in June 1940 and remarked:
‘In general flying qualities the aeroplane is inferior to both the Spitfire and the Hurricane at all speeds and in all conditions of flight. It is much inferior at speeds in excess of 250 m.p.h…. It does not possess the control which allows of good quality flying and this is particularly noticeable in acrobatics.‘ (My emphasis). Moreover, denigration of the Bf 110 tends to be overdone these days – the twin-engined fighter was responsible for 27% of the Luftwaffe’s fighter claims during the Battle while making up only 20% of the fighter force – far from an ‘easy target’. Hurricanes shot down 128.
Mr Lake says: ‘It is true that Spitfire production lagged behind Hurricane production for the whole of the Battle of Britain period, but we never ran short of aircraft during the Battle – availability of pilots was the critical shortage in 1940!‘
Much has been made of the availability of pilots in the Battle of Britain, but this is overstated for a number of reasons. The ‘shortage’ was effectively created when Dowding raised squadron establishments from 21 to 26 pilots to give more time to rest. A return to the previous establishments would have solved it at a stroke. Furthermore, it was identified during the Battle that there were large numbers of qualified pilots in ground-based jobs, and when Keith Park took over Training Command at the end of the Battle he found it operating at 2/3 capacity and on pre-war routines. There certainly could have been more pilots. In any case, the delay of other projects, including future RAF fighters, was a heavy price to pay. That the fighter position was marginal in 1940 is undeniable, and that the fighter position was marginal was largely as a result of the Spitfire.
Mr Lake states that: ‘the Spitfire V and Spitfire IX were decisive developments that proved capable of dealing with the Bf 109G and Fw 190.‘
This may be true to an extent of the Mk. IX, but the Mk. V was only just about competitive with the Bf109F and substantially outclassed by the Fw 190. This left Fighter Command with inferior equipment for more than a year over the 1941-42 period, a point that is rarely acknowledged. The RAF rushed the Typhoon into service in 1941 because the Spitfire Mk.V was struggling to deal with tip and run raids by Fw 190s.
Mr Lake says: ‘This sort of stuff [the hamstringing of the Fleet Air Arm] always seems to come from someone with a Navy connection. The Fleet Air Arm suffered because it was viewed as being a sideshow – a diversion from the main effort of defending the UK and later of carrying the war to the German homeland. In retrospect, this was probably an entirely sensible prioritisation. But the poor state of the FAA had little to do with the Spitfire.‘
There is much that is debateable here, and this is probably a discussion for another day. Briefly, however; the main effort of defending the UK was crucial, of course, not that the Fleet Air Arm didn’t contribute to that. However, the war would not be carried to the German homeland by Spitfires, and certainly not in 1941-2. Fighter Command’s pointless and wasteful fighter sweeps over that period achieved nothing and caused heavy losses in the squadrons that should have been confined to defending the UK. The Fleet Air Arm, meanwhile, was fighting to keep supply lines in the Mediterranean open with scant resources, while priority was still being given to RAF types. On the day a hundred RAF fighters circled over France with little strategic purpose, encountering no opposition, a handful of Fairey Fulmars barely managed to prevent the combined attentions of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica from sinking HMS Illustrious; it’s evident that the Axis powers did not regard the FAA as a sideshow.
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The Malta convoys, followed by Operation Torch and then the invasion of mainland Europe in Italy, could not have been conducted without the Fleet Air Arm, and had genuine strategic significance.
There were lots of reasons for the FAA’s poor state in 1940, but this was undoubtedly exacerbated and extended into 1944 by the prioritisation of RAF types in 1940, including the labour-intensive Spitfire. This completely killed development of the new types coming through, which the Navy so badly needed, and stopped the service’s expansion. An RAF Air Marshal, Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté, lamented that the reprioritisation had provided the means for winning the Battle of Britain at the expense of putting off the final victory. Arguably it was not necessary, as Fighter Command had more than replaced its losses by the end of the Battle.
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Furthermore, the Rolls-Royce Griffon engines that the Spitfire needed to keep its performance within reach of later aircraft had been developed to an Admiralty specification, and Griffons were originally earmarked for naval aircraft. This was dropped in order to fit them to Spitfires.
Mr Lake says: ‘Finally, Willis claims that it would have made more sense to switch British production to the Mustang, which he seems to have unqualified regard for. While it’s true that (once given the Merlin engine) the Mustang did have the legs to take it to Berlin it was actually a remarkably poor air-to-air fighter, ill-suited to fighter-versus-fighter combat.‘
It is true that the Mustang with the Merlin engine did not have the same sweet handling characteristics as the early Spitfires (the Allison-engined variants handled better), but to call it a ‘remarkably poor air to air fighter’ is a surprising claim, given the Mustang’s evisceration of the Luftwaffe over Germany in 1944-5. I have not read the document Mr Lake refers to (I would be interested in doing so) but it does not agree in this conclusion with the Air Fighting Development Unit, which undertook comparative trials between Mustangs and Spitfires, as well as other types. The AFDU found that there was ‘little to choose’ between the two aircraft in mock dogfighting, that it was ‘delightfully easy to handle. It is as easy to fly as a Spitfire IX’, and that sighting view for gunnery was ‘considerably better than the Spitfire IX’. Tactical comparisons usually placed the Mustang ahead due to its high speed, and better dive and zoom. It was found to be less susceptible to high-speed stall than the Spitfire on account of the latter’s light elevator. The Mustang’s ailerons were much more effective than those of the Spitfire at high speeds, and required less than half the stick force and deflection for the same roll rate. In any case, the tactics that the Mustang was able to employ, using its excellent dive and zoom characteristics for slashing attacks, and its high speed to break off and re-engage at will, made it perfectly suitable for its task at hand.
It is undeniable that the Mustang was effective, and its range meant that it could undertake missions that short-ranged British fighters could not. Moreover, it was easier to mass-produce – the first Mustangs, built in small numbers while production was gearing up, took around 12,000 hours to build, some 3,000 hours less than the first Spitfires, but by October 1944 this had fallen to less than 3,000 hours per aircraft. The central point remains. That at a time when industrial output was of crucial importance, Britain continued to build a fighter that took up significantly more man-hours than comparable aircraft. Even though the Spitfire remained competitive in some respects – mainly climb rate and turn rate – this does not justify the additional effort it required to build. It remains open to question that after the end of 1940, and possibly even before, the extent to which the Spitfire was a drain on resources was not compensated for by its effectiveness in the air.
The question should also be asked as to what extent the reason for the Spitfire’s longevity was down to the failure of intended replacements, and the failure to recognise alternatives, as much as its own inherent qualities.
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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