Why the Spitfire’s place in history should be challenged

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. 

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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.

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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.

Messerschmitt-Bf-109E3-9.JG26-(Y10+I)-Wilhelm-Fronhofer-WNr-1184-on-public-display-01The 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!

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To some the Hurricane was the workhorse of the Battle of Britain, to others it was a dangerously obsolete fighter.

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.

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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.

What was the most combat effective piston-engined fighter ever made? An analysis can be found here.

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.

Was the Spitfire overrated? Full story here. A Lightning pilot’s guide to flying and fighting here. Find out the most effective modern fighter aircraft in within-visual and beyond-visual range combat. The greatest fictional aircraft here.  An interview with stealth guru Bill Sweetman here. The fashion of aircraft camo here. Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here. Most importantly, a pacifist’s guide to warplanes here. F-35 expose here

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Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte.

 

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.

Spitfire_Hurricane_and_Bf109_in_flight_at_RIAT_Fairford_2010_Flickr_4824821675

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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Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, 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 Strange Story of The Planet Satellite. Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

Matthew Willis @NavalAirHistory

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

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26 comments

  1. Daren Cogdon

    “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.”

    Conveniently forgetting the relatively poor general state of Luftwaffe fighter pilot training by this period – inexperienced pilots being flung into battle against hardened veterans who were able to train in a relatively free environment.

    “the Mk. V was only just about competitive with the Bf109F and substantially outclassed by the Fw 190.”
    And yet it still gave a good account of itself – chalking up a number of kills against the two types – before the Mk.IX came into service.

    • navalairhistory

      Hi Daz. Thanks for your comment. In a sense the point is that the P-51 did the job it was needed to do against the Luftwaffe in the state it was in – if the P-51 was a second-rate dogfighter (and most sources consider it could more than hold its own against most types) it could still fight easily well enough, and could get to the fight in the first place. Plus it was easy to manufacture.

      Regarding the MkV – it may have been an OK fighter against the opposition (and the Fw190 gave it real trouble) but OK is not what the Spitfire legend is based on. FWIW my view is that the Spitfire was a very good fighter in 1940 in qualitative terms, and for most of the rest of the war soldiered on longer than anyone had a right to expect, but at considerable cost in industrial effort, and when it was needed most could not be produced fast enough.

    • sglover

      “Conveniently forgetting the relatively poor general state of Luftwaffe fighter pilot training by this period – inexperienced pilots being flung into battle against hardened veterans who were able to train in a relatively free environment. ”

      I don’t believe that’s really true. I thought there was a period in 1944 called “Big Week”, during which the Luftwaffe was crippled by the loss of many aircraft and **experienced** pilots at the hands of USAAF escort fighters — Mustangs, mostly. The Spitfire wasn’t a part of that battle at all, couldn’t be, due to its short range.

      Also, this argument seems like a case of shifting goalposts. On the one hand Spitfire fans say that its expense was irrelevant because **pilots** were the really important shortage (in 1940). Now you’re saying that the success of the Mustang doesn’t quite count because it wasn’t so great at its job, but its opponents were unskilled. If one concedes that the Mustang really was mediocre — debatable, but granted for argument’s sake — what seems to emerge is that the Mustang prevailed because there were a lot of them. And one reason there were a lot of them is that they were relatively inexpensive to build.

      Kinda like Hurricanes in 1940.

    • Stewart

      The bit about the Mk-V Spit chalking up some kills is a red herring. Hurricanes shot down a number of Fw-190s, but that does not make them great at that task. Because ALL aircraft of the time had to fly at speed considerably below maximum, any fighter of the time had a chance to ambush a less than vigilant foe! If you wanted to fly to maximum range, all prop fighters of WW-II except the had to cruise at a speed well under 300 MPH, or in the case of the Mk-I Spit under 200 MPH! For instance, the range cruise of the Mustang was 265 MPH, but the Combat cruise was 365 MPH. At 265 any fighter of WW-II could have caught it and made an easy kill, even planes thought to be totally out classed like the I-16 for instance.

  2. duker

    A bit more information about the production manhours, when you look at the airframe structure weight produced.
    Spitfire 135lb/1000 mh
    Hurricane 240
    Halifax 213
    These figures are for 1940.
    The manhour intensive British methods applied over the entire industry and were more than US. ( The ship production manhours for UK were considerably lower than US)

    http://www.stardestroyer.net/Armour/ShepStuff/Website/EconomicStats.htm
    THis gives a lot of wartime manhours stats.

    • ankitamishra

      In reality Spitfire was really dificult to built and equiped (no spare parts, oxygen equipment etc.) and was extremely expensive 12 000 pounds per full equipped aircraft. Bf 109 was much less expensive, less then half the price. German air industry output was very low in 1940, but increased significantly in 1943-44 under terrible conditions. Bf 109 was really chieap aircaft.

      • oldbutnotwise

        amazing how cheap you can build an aircraft if you not only dont pay your workforce but dont feed them either

  3. Timmo

    Matthew wrote:
    “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.”

    Your interpretation here is badly flawed – there were nearly twice as many Hurricanes in service as Spitfires during the battle. So in fact the Spitfires kill rate against the 109 is very much greater than that of the Hurricane. What your view point misses entirely by focusing on the equipment is that actually the most experienced squadron achieved the the best kills to loss rate regardless of which type they were flying. However, typically the Spitfires squadrons kills to loss rates were significantly higher than the Hurricane squadrons. Had there been no Spitfires at all for the Germans to worry about then the 109 would surely have exploited their speed advantage to always put the Hurricane at a tactical disadvantage.

    • Ari

      Timmo, Germans were more worried about the amount of the fuel in their tanks which they would need to return to France than Spitfire’s. They were not more worried about Spitfires than Hurricanes. They had only 15 minutes time in British airspace !

      • oldbutnotwise

        this is actually false, the 109 only had 15 minutes over London not UK airspace, range was only an issue when they switched to London, also the 109 used a lot of fuel waiting for the bombers to form up, part of this was the bomber being force to fly higher by the Spitfire,

  4. Ari

    ”In general flying qualities the aeroplane is inferior to both the Spitfire and the Hurricane at all speeds and in all conditions of flight”
    This denigration of German fighters by the British should not be taken seriously. German ace Werner Moelders who killed 20 Spitfires said similar things and called Spitfire ‘ a useless fighter unable to pull negative G without carburator stall ‘ but remember the patriotic feeling were running high at the time. But many people seem to forget a crucial advantage which Spits enjoyed over 109’s, 100 percent octane fuel !

    • ankitamishra

      There never was any advantage in fuel in 1940, 87 was 110 British and 96 something between 135 and 143 octan in British counting. It is based on temperature of ignition which has two numbers.

      • ari

        Nevertheless he killed so many Spits in dogfights ….Spitfire is a product of myth creating machinery .They were fighting a war in their own territory which gave them a huge advantage and despite this advantage the losses in single seat fighters between RAF and Luftwaffe was very close !! the RAF has never been hopelessly outnumbered as claimed by many British sources .. I lived in Britain years ago, Brits love their myths and live by their myths and Spitfire legend is one of them.

  5. Chris Tullett

    Makes you wonder why Mitchell and his team bothered! The Spitfire has legendary status for a very good reason. It looks great and according to those best qualified to judge, pilots, flies superbly. Whether it was an obstruction to FAA progress seems rather irrelevant and a strange argument.

    • ari

      It was a beautiful fighter mate no doubt but the look was pretty much everything as far as the comparison to 109 is concerned .

  6. ari

    Also the below myth was debunked long time ago :

    “Adolf Galland rated the Spitfire so highly he told Goering ‘Give me a squadron of Spitfires’.” – Here’s a quote from his book The First And The Last:

    “The theme of fighter protection was chewed over again and again. Goering clearly represented the point of view of the bombers and demanded close and rigid protection. The bomber, he said, was more important than record bag figures. I tried to point out that the Me109 was superior in the attack and not so suitable for purely defensive purposes as the Spitfire, which, although a little slower, was much more manoeuvrable. He rejected my objection. We received many more harsh words. Finally, as his time ran short, he grew more amiable and asked what were the requirements for our squadrons. Moelders asked for a series of Me109’s with more powerful engines. The request was granted. ‘And you ?’ Goering turned to me. I did not hesitate long. ‘I should like an outfit of Spitfires for my group.’ After blurting this out, I had rather a shock, for it was not really meant that way. Of course, fundamentally I preferred our Me109 to the Spitfire, but I was unbelievably vexed at the lack of understanding and the stubbornness with which the command gave us orders we could not execute – or only incompletely – as a result of many shortcomings for which we were not to blame. Such brazen-faced impudence made even Goering speechless. He stamped off, growling as he went”

    In the past , the Brits always presented the twisted and distorted version of the story in an attempt to create an impression that Galland was not satisfied with the performance of his 109 and would rather prefer the Spit to win the war or something .In various interviews after the war Galland ridiculed the British version of the history.

  7. pickledwings

    What I really don’t understand about debates of how valuable the Spitfire should be seen as, is how often little regard seems to be given for how quickly the design was developed and how much it changed in capabilities and mission profiles through the course of the conflict. We’re talking about a single name being applied to a machine that existed in two dozen main variants along with numerous sub variants. It’s a fool’s errand to try to judge such a beast so simply.

    With regards any comparison of Spitfire to the Hurricane in capability, it’s largely a moot point. The Hurricane was a well rounded fighter by design while the Spitfire, especially the early marks, was a specialist point interceptor. The distinction between a fighter and interceptor can’t be ignored. The interceptor is not designed for range or endurance, it’s designed to get up in the air quickly and dispatch incoming threats promptly. A fighter, by contrast, is designed to be able to have the endurance to “Mix it up” with the enemy and the robustness to take a fair bit of abuse at enemy hands and survive.

    The Spitfire did the interceptor job very well; by virtue of speed advantage and being a more compact target, probably better than the Hurricane could have. The Hurricane proved able to survive more abuse from enemy guns than the Spitfires could. Additionally, the damage to Hurricanes usually took less time to repair than that to Spitfires. Talking to veterans, it was a rather simpler affair to patch a bullet hole in the Hurricane’s fabric and frame back end than it was to patch one in the Spitfire’s stressed metal fuselage.

    At the time of the Battle of Britain; the Hurricane was the fighter and the Spitfire was the interceptor. Two different types with a fine, though very important line, dividing them. Full stop.

    To see how well rounded a fighter the Hurricane was and what a thoroughbred of an interceptor the Spitfire was; one need only look past the Battle of Britain to see how relatively few changes had to be made to the Hurricane to get it to adapt successfully to the ground attack and fighter/bomber versus how many changes were required to get the Spitfire to be successful down low. The Hurricane’s design was established, solid and changed little; the Spitfire look changed so much that it was hard to believe later marks were of the same aircraft family as the early ones.

    The Hurricane was moving at full gallop at the outbreak of the war while the Spitfire was still finding its legs in many regards. How fair is it to compare a fully matured design to one still in its youth?

    I would venture to say that adding an aircraft like the Mustang to this argument is really just a red herring. The Mustang had the added mission of bomber escort, as required by the American doctrine of day bombing missions. The Mustang was designed for continental range not possessed by Hurricane or Spitfire and had additional protective armor that contributed to it having a higher weight than either Hurricane or Spitfire. A rather different beast in the big picture.

    Comparing the Mustang to either the Hurricane or Spitfire is hedging on an apples to oranges debate to my mind. Beyond being combat aircraft, there’s enough differences between them on the basis of expected mission diversity alone to make the act of comparing them a questionable act.

    The three aircraft had a lot of SIMILARITIES in their roles, but their roles were NEVER identical.

  8. Gaston Marty

    The Spitfire was a steep climber and could pull short-term tight turns at high speeds. It was not that good at sustained low speed turn fighting, as the Russians found out…: Despite removing the outer guns, they had to change their usual turning tactics (used against Me-109s mostly) to dive and zoom tactics with their Spitfire Mk Vs and IXs.
    The FW-190A, very poor at high speed turns (pronounced mushing or wing drop), was described by the Russians in this way, to give a comparative context in low speed sustained turning: “The FW-190A will inevitably offer turning combat at a MINIMUM SPEED.” By contrast, the Me-109 was described as a high speed dive and zoom fighter, while the FW-190A was described as always engaging in prolonged HORIZONTAL turning combat, “those lasting quite some time”, and “an experienced FW-190 pilot will avoid any prolonged vertical combat”.

    CAF pilot John Weir concurs: “They Hurricane could out-turn the Spitfire in level turns, the Spitfire tried to turn with it, but it just couldn’t… But against the Focke-Wulf 190, those just kept coming.”

    Johnnie Johnson: “I asked the Spitfire for all she had in turning (full vertical bank), but the FW-190A just kept coming: It was only a matter of time and I would be in his sights”

    Slow speed prolonged horizontal turning combat mattered far more than is generally assumed, even late in WWII, especially in Europe where aircrafts were of more similar speed: The general reason was that the 2% hit rate of the shots meant the target had to be fired at steadily for a sustained period.

  9. Zimonski

    Even with the best will in the world (and astonishing prescience about the US entry into the war, Soviet resilience, and the true state of the Luftwaffe) you won’t get significant numbers of Merlin engined Mustangs into the air before late ’43. That’s after the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa, Malta, El Alamein, Black May, Stalingrad, Kursk and where Hitler no longer speaks publicly because of the numerous plots to kill him. Basically after the point where anyone who can dress themselves would think Germany could win her war. The article is specific in criticism and vague in its alternatives for good reason I feel. It advocates four years of war with Hurricanes, Fulmars (and I guess P-39s for those Spitfire equipped USAAF groups), prioritising the Firefly (the mystery Griffon engineered FAA fighter!) and of Britain waging a war not so much against Germany but in favour of expanding her (already greatly enlarged) colonial holdings! I not sure how cash and carry and Lend Lease acts play in the court of pre December 1941 US public opinion when the main aim is to throw everyone else out of the Middle East and North Africa double quick! It really is puzzling how the author is so knowledgeable about minor details yet so oblivious to the larger picture.

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