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’. Willis clipped his wings, strapped on some cannon and fired back with this. Here is Lake’s response, the fourth part of a fascinating debate.
“Since writing my response to Matthew’s attempted demolition of the Spitfire I have been lucky enough to have spent a day with a former Spitfire pilot who flew most marks of that aircraft, and who was part of a Mustang wing being formed for Tiger Force at the end of the War.
He was in no doubt whatsoever as to the relative merits of Spit, Hurricane and Mustang. Over the course of my 31 years working full time in aviation, I’ve met and talked in depth to many wartime pilots – British, American, and German, including aces like ‘Grumpy’ Unwin, Bobby Oxspring, Pete Brothers, Johnny Kent, Johnny Johnson, and even (biggest namedrop so far) a German bloke called Galland. Most of the Spitfire, Hurricane, and Bf 109 pilots I’ve spoken to, wartime and current, acknowledge the Spitfire I and II’s superiority over the Hurricane, and the Bf 109E’s absolute superiority over the Hurricane. The margin between Spitfire and ‘109 is more open to argument.
Rafale versus Typhoon here
I’m also lucky enough to have a history degree, from a good University, with some knowledge of historiography, so I’m unapologetic about dismissing Matthew’s original piece as being revisionist. I would define revisionism as being a departure from the authoritative and generally accepted doctrine, in a way that is partial, and biased, and which attempts to distort history to fit a preconceived notion and to support a particular interest group.
Britain was slow in harnessing its industrial might for aircraft production, but there is no real reason why Fighter Command could not have been ‘Spitfire heavy’ in 1940, and had it been, it would have performed better. In any case, when we’re engaged in ‘what ifs’ then we’ve already started to engage in a degree of stretching historical fact. But without the Spitfire, the RAF would have been buggered, frankly, both during 1940, and more importantly afterwards, when the Hurricane’s lack of development potential and inferiority would have made the war in the air very much more one-sided – especially once the Bf 109F and Fw 190 entered the fray. The Spitfire V was able to hold its own, while the IX dominated. The Hurricane would have been downed in droves. Matthew continues to insist that “the fighter position was marginal in 1940” and that this is “undeniable”, and that this “was largely as a result of the Spitfire.” This is simply not true. We never looked likely to run out of aircraft in 1940, but the losses of experienced aircrew was a real problem, and to say that we could have generated more from the FTSs or from ground tours ignores the crucial difference between an experienced expert and a rookie. Matthew whines that: “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.” That’s because the RAF was responsible for the air defence of the UK – a critical role against an existential threat, and the Spitfire was the only available aircraft that was capable of guaranteeing any degree of air advantage over the UK. With so many aircraft necessarily tied down to defend the homeland, the offensive sweeps can be seen as a useful adjunct, rather than some kind of pointless and wasteful self-indulgent project by the Air Marshals. And the day and night operations over occupied Europe complicated the Germans task, and made life difficult for their fighter and bomber crews alike.
Meanwhile, in the Med, I’d venture to suggest that the most vital role was played by the RAF fighters operating from Malta, rather than the FAA. Finally the Mustang: a poor gunnery platform, in which target tracking proved difficult, and an aircraft which had vicious departure characteristics if mishandled when manoeuvring. As a result, the Mustang struggled against a well-flown Fw 190, where a Spitfire IX could cope easily. The post-war SETP evaluation of US fighters placed the Mustang behind the P-47, F6F and F4U. The Mustang came last in rate of climb, stall warning, height loss in the stall, turn performance, stick force per g (manoeuvring stability), agility, heading change time, and air-to-air tracking, and was second last in acceleration, roll performance, and air-to-ground tracking. Just one extract from the report gives a flavour of the Mustang: “The P-51 gave no warning whatsoever of an accelerated stall. At the stall, the aircraft departed with complete loss of control, achieving 270-degree of roll before recovery. Departure was accompanied by violent aileron snatch strong enough to rip the control stick from the hand. In short, the P-51 suffered from a Part I deficiency.”
Meanwhile the Griffon engined XIV and XVIII were even better, enjoying a better all round capability than the Mustang, Typhoon or Tempest, apart from on take off, where the colossal torque showed only too clearly that the tail surfaces should have been increased just a little more than they were, and that an earlier adoption of contra props would have been transformational. But Matthew’s central point is that the Spitfire’s advantages were not ‘worth’ the extra production man hours that it supposedly tied up. Two points. The first is that I distrust his figures on production times, and wonder whether he is actually comparing like with like (he certainly isn’t when he compares British and US types, since US industrial production was superior in all sorts of way, and there’s little doubt that (say) North American could not have produced Spitfires more quickly than Supermarine or Castle Bromwich). The second is more important, and that is that no alternative aircraft promised to give the degree of superiority required to defend the UK – properly and necessarily the primary role of air power until June 1944.”
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