Why the Spitfire’s place in history should be challenged

Dear reader, 

Sorry, but we have removed this article at the author’s behest. You may however enjoy one of the following articles:

Four military aircraft myths you shouldn’t believe here.

The most potent fighters of World War Two here

The ten most fighters at the outbreak of War here.

Thanks,

Hush-Kit

 

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27 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.

  10. Ian Campbell

    Almost all the above is irrelevant. Yes, the Spitfire has been mythologised. But mainly by people who ignore wider issues or don’t know any better.

    As someone pointed out above: Mustangs are no use in 1943 if you’ve lost the war in 1940 or 1941.

    Neither Hurricanes nor Spitfires won the Battle of Britain.
    Chain Home did, the world’s first integrated air-defence system, & a lot of very young women in underground bunkers looking at screens & directing pilots. Vastly increasing production helped, but even less than training more & more pilots from all over the Empire, & the World in So. Afr, Rhodesia, Canada & the US.
    Like U-Boats, a disproportionate minority of aces accounted for an awful lot of kills on all sides.

    Anyone who thinks the Mustang was a better fighter as it downed more Luftwaffe aircraft in 1944-45 than the Spit in 1940-41 is fooling themselves. Not only did the Luftwaffe have very few well-trained pilots in 1944, but almost no fuel left to train them with. One reason why Chuck Yeager shot down 5 in a single day. Including 2 Me262s.
    Add that to Allied intruder flights making it increasingly unsafe to move men, munitions, spares & aircraft in Occ. Europe, & you can see why Luftwaffe performance declined. Even against heavy bombers.

    The steep decline in Japanese fighter performance after 1942 was the same.
    Experienced pilots blooded in combat against the Chinese were used up against US pilots increasingly-well trained in strategy as well as tactics. Men flying better aircraft – F4F, F6F, F8U et al. All the time fewer & fewer Japanese flying superb aircraft, but lacking fuel or time for adequate training.

    Some points ignored almost everywhere above:

    Spitfires were designed in 1936, not 1941. Continuously developed, the concept still had its limits.
    Mustangs were designed [admittedly in a hurry] in a tranquil country without threat of invasion, with enormous industrial resources, no blackout, no rationing, no bombing or missile attacks.
    Mustang was designed with emergency mass-production in mind, & laminar-flow aerodynamics a generation later than Spitfire.
    It used the same licence-built British engine used in practically every successful British design, not merely Spit & Hurri but Mossie, Lanc, early Halifax, early Wellington, even Fulmar.

    As to whether more Hurris could be built than Spits, as Lake correctly points out the Hurri was already at the end of its development potential in 1940, whereas Spits went on being developed until 1945, & entirely new designs (with essentially the same shape) were emerging around new RR engines.

    Had jet engines not appeared, next-generation ‘Spitfires’ would have competed with Hawker Furies for #1 position. Furies were competitive in Korea. Furies today compete with Bearcats as the world’s fastest pistol-engined types in racing & records.

    True, Miles & Boulton-Paul both developed better aircraft. Both, like Northrop’s YF-17 in the 1980s, taken away from their designers & given to experienced firms to manufacture.
    Shadow factories proved the worth of skilled industrial managers to mass-produce fighters & bombers whether they had experience with aircraft or not. Much like Kaiser’s Liberty Ships.

    The Air Ministry & MAP both frustrated these, largely due to the depths of emergency & the need to maintain production of familiar types. It would have been better (marginally) to improve Halifax earlier with extended wingtips & radial engines instead of Lancaster, not least due to its greater crew safety. Neither should have stayed in production thru’out the war, like Stirling. Stirling was designed-down to fit a hangar instead of up to a requirement.
    Lancs were supreme bombers but almost as lethal to their crews as to the Germans below.

    Lastly, & utterly overlooked by everyone, is the ludicrous idea that night bombers were somehow better value than day fighters.

    It’s all very well to say x number of Hurricanes could be produced for x Spitfires, or x bombers instead of either. True, but pointless. The inescapable point is that strategic bombing had comparatively little effect on German production until the second half of 1944, apart from nuisance raids & the occasional large raid – Cologne, Hamburg, et al – which weren’t followed-up (largely due to exhaustion), & pointless campaigns like Berlin & Ruhr which used far more aircraft & men than they were worth.

    Every aircraft over Germany wasn’t an aircraft over a convoy in the Atlantic, where they didn’t have to bomb – or even sight – anything to keep the U-Boats at bay. Every bomber shot down lost seven superbly-fit & highly-trained men, along with increasing amounts of technology – radio-nav aids, radar – which won the Atlantic War, but not over Germany.

    It’s ironic that “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.”
    Yes. Final victory was delayed by many things, including the extension of the war to the US coast in Jan 1942, the loss of 4 million tons of shipping – 1,000 ships – in Jan-July 1942, all the Allied losses in Asia, etc. Final victory was only possible if many other victories – El Alamein, Stalingrad, Midway, Coral Sea, the Battle of Britain – preceded it.

    Joubert de la Ferte was a Coastal Command CinC who knew that ensuring the Atlantic lifeline outweighed any bombing or fighting objective over Europe. Let alone twiddling over which effective British fighter or interceptor was better.

    The only bomber worth mass-producing for operations over Germany, day or night, was the Merlin-engined plywood & balsa Mosquito: fast as a Hurric on one engine, faster than a Spit on both engines, utterly unasked-for or approved, truly-multi-role.
    More to the point, capable of taking the same bombload as a B-17 to Berlin, day or night, even faster, at higher altitude, & largely immune to interception. Even when attacked or hit, it risked only two aircrew instead of 7 [or 10 for a Fort or Libby].
    It came into mass service just as Bomber Command was giving up daylight penetration raids after the Augsburg ball-bearing Raid. Ironically, intended as a panacea attack to cripple German U-Boat engine production.
    At worst, all mass Mosquito raids over Occ. Europe might have accomplished was accelerating German jet-fighter development to meet the new threat, as almost no piston-engine Luftwaffe interceptor could catch them. Hard news for American day-bombers, who shouldn’t have been there either.

    Yes, it might have been better to switch to Mustang production under license, just as it was better to use Canadian & US Catalinas & Liberators over the Atlantic & elsewhere. It might have been even better not to produce fighters of any design in the UKl, or tanks like Churchill [or the 17-pdr killer variant Shermans], trucks, or much else, if it could all be brought across the
    Pond.
    On the other hand the Atlantic Campaign had to be fought & won, not once but over & over, from Sep. 1939 to May 1945. Never certain. Supremacy there was delayed by many factors until the middle of 1943, not least PM Churchill & Bomber Harris’ fixation with bombing Germany flat, one large area at a time.
    Yes it was essential to strike at Germany when Bomber Command was all there was.
    Yes it was essential to tie down German troops, flak, radar & civilians in defending Germany.
    It was _not_ essential to kill 1 in 3 B. Comm personnel in thousands of heavy bombers over Occ Europe 1940-45, with even greater expense in life, technology & treasure.

    Whether the fighter Hurri or interceptor Spit was better is irrelevant. Both were vital, as were many other factors. Mostly Liberty ships, Soviet tanks, factory & farm workers everywhere, & the escorts who got them where they needed to be.

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