Supermarine Spitfire: Iconic British Fighter of WWII

A Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb, RF-D, flown by pilot Jan Zumbach (1915 - 1986)

Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The iconic fighter of the Royal Air Force in World War II, the British Supermarine Spitfire saw action in all theaters of the war. First introduced in 1938, it was continually refined and improved through the course of the conflict with over 20,000 built. Best known for its elliptical wing design and role during the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire was beloved by its pilots and became a symbol of the RAF. Also used by British Commonwealth nations, the Spitfire remained in service with some countries into the early 1960s.


The brainchild of Supermarine's chief designer, Reginald J. Mitchell, the Spitfire's design evolved during the 1930s. Utilizing his background in creating high-speed racing aircraft, Mitchell worked to combine a sleek, aerodynamic airframe with the new Rolls-Royce PV-12 Merlin engine. In order to meet the Air Ministry's requirement that the new aircraft carry eight .303 cal. machine guns, Mitchell chose to incorporate a large, elliptical wing form into the design. Mitchell lived just long enough to see the prototype fly before dying of cancer in 1937. Further development of the aircraft was led by Joe Smith.


Following trials in 1936, the Air Ministry placed an initial order for 310 aircraft. To meet the government's needs, Supermarine built a new plant at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, to produce the aircraft. With war on the horizon, the new factory was built quickly and it began production two months after the groundbreaking. Assembly time for the Spitfire tended to be high relative to other fighters of the day due to the stressed-skin construction and the complexity of building the elliptical wing. From the time assembly began to the end of World War II, over 20,300 Spitfires were constructed.


Through the course of the war, the Spitfire was repeatedly upgraded and altered to ensure that it remained an effective frontline fighter. Supermarine produced a total of 24 marks (versions) of the aircraft, with major changes including the introduction of the Griffon engine and varying wing designs. While originally carrying eight .303 cal. machine guns, it was found that a mixture of .303 cal. guns and 20mm cannon was more effective. To accommodate this, Supermarine designed the "B" and "C" wings which could carry 4 .303 guns and 2 20mm cannon. The most produced variant was the Mk. V which had 6,479 built.

Specifications - Supermarine Spitfire Mk. Vb


  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 29 ft. 11 in.
  • Wingspan: 36 ft. 10 in.
  • Height: 11 ft. 5 in.
  • Wing Area: 242.1 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 5,090 lbs.
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 6,770 lbs.
  • Power Plant: 1 x Rolls-Royce Merlin 45 Supercharged V12 engine, 1,470 hp at 9,250 ft.


  • Maximum Speed: 330 knots (378 mph)
  • Combat Radius: 470 miles
  • Service Ceiling: 35,000 ft.
  • Rate of Climb: 2,665 ft/min.


  • 2 x 20mm Hispano Mk. II cannon
  • 4 .303 cal. Browning machine guns
  • 2x 240 lb. bombs

Early Service

The Spitfire entered service with 19 Squadron on August 4, 1938. Successive squadrons were equipped with the aircraft over the following year. With the beginning of World War II on September 1, 1939, the aircraft commenced combat operations. Five days later, Spitfires were involved in a friendly fire incident, dubbed the Battle of Barking Creek, which resulted in the first RAF pilot death of the war.

The type first engaged the Germans on October 16 when nine Junkers Ju 88s attempted to attack the cruisers HMS Southampton and HMS Edinburgh in the Firth of Forth. In 1940, Spitfires took part in the fighting in the Netherlands and France. During the latter battle, they aided in covering beaches during the evacuation of Dunkirk

Battle of Britain

Spitfire Mk. I and Mk. II variants aided in turning back the Germans during the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940. While less numerous than the Hawker Hurricane, Spitfires matched up better against the principal German fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. As a result, Spitfire-equipped squadrons were frequently assigned to defeating the German fighters, while the Hurricanes attacked the bombers. In early 1941, the Mk. V was introduced, providing pilots with a more formidable aircraft. The advantages of the Mk. V were quickly erased later that year with the arrival of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190.

Service Home & Abroad

Beginning in 1942, Spitfires were sent to RAF and Commonwealth squadrons operating abroad. Flying in the Mediterranean, Burma-India, and in the Pacific, the Spitfire continued to make its mark. At home, squadrons provided fighter escort for American bombing attacks on Germany. Due to their short range, they were only able to provide cover into northwest France and the Channel. As a result, escort duties were turned over to American P-47 Thunderbolts, P-38 Lightnings, and P-51 Mustangs as they became available. With the invasion of France in June 1944, Spitfire squadrons were moved across the Channel to aid in obtaining air superiority.

Late War and After

Flying from fields close to the lines, RAF Spitfires worked in conjunction with other Allied air forces to sweep the German Luftwaffe from the sky. As fewer German aircraft were seen, they also provided ground support and sought out targets of opportunity in the German rear. In the years following the war, Spitfires continued to see action during the Greek Civil War and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In the latter conflict, the aircraft was flown by both the Israelis and Egyptians. A popular fighter, some nations continued to fly the Spitfire into the 1960s.

Supermarine Seafire

Adapted for naval use under the name Seafire, the aircraft saw the majority of its service in the Pacific and the Far East. Ill-suited for deck operations, the aircraft's performance also suffered due to the additional equipment required for landing at sea. After improvement, the Mk. II and Mk. III proved superior to the Japanese A6M Zero. Though not as durable or as powerful as the American F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair, the Seafire acquitted itself well against the enemy, particularly in defeating kamikaze attacks late in the war.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Supermarine Spitfire: Iconic British Fighter of WWII." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). Supermarine Spitfire: Iconic British Fighter of WWII. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Supermarine Spitfire: Iconic British Fighter of WWII." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).