On 10 July 1940, the German army began their preliminary invasion of Britain. 3,000 pilots bravely defended the island from the Nazi threat in the skies across the English Channel – not just from Britain, but also Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and more. The Battle of Britain had begun.
These men, named “The Few” by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, had two key weapons with which to fend off the German fighters and bombers. One was the Hawker Hurricane, which inflicted 60% of losses to the German air force, the Luftwaffe. The other was the iconic, lightning-fast high-performance interceptor aircraft known as the Supermarine Spitfire Mk I.
This is the story of how the Spitfire was created, what made it unique and how it played a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain. And it’s a story you can experience first-hand by flying a WWII Spitfire with our two-seater Spitfire flights.
The legendary Spitfire was the brainchild of Reginald Joseph Mitchell, a British aircraft designer who acted as head designer at Supermarine Aviation Works.
This company began making interceptor planes in 1928. But in the 1930s, with the increasing threat of Nazi Germany, Mitchell developed an advanced single-seater fighter plane designed to combat the fearsome Luftwaffe. This plane was the Supermarine 300, the prototype that would quickly evolve into the Spitfire. And although Mitchell died in 1937, his successor, Joseph Smith, continued to oversee Spitfire development.
Each Spitfire cost approximately £5,000 to produce, equivalent to around £270,000 in 2023. Towns, companies, clubs and wealthy individuals worked together to raise money for Spitfire production. And Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands even donated £215,000 (now around £11.5m) to pay for 43 Spitfire planes.
The Spitfire served many roles during WWII. Different Spitfire models acted as fighters, interceptors and even reconnaissance planes. But the aircraft’s crowning moment of glory was in helping to secure victory during the Battle of Britain.
Although Hawker Hurricanes were more numerous during this battle, the Spitfire became the most iconic and beloved aircraft in the history of aviation. Geoffrey Page, a pilot who had the rare experience of performing both Hurricane and Spitfire flights, compared the two like so:
“They were both lovable, but in their different ways – they were delightful aeroplanes. I tend to give an example of the bulldog and the greyhound, the Hurricane being the bulldog and the greyhound being the Spitfire. One's a sort of tough working animal and the other one's a sleek, fast dog. But I think their characteristics were comparable to the dog world. If anything the Hurricane was slightly easier. It wasn't as fast and didn't have the rate of climb. But during the actual Battle of Britain itself, what really evolved was that the Hurricanes would attack the German bomber formations and the Spitfires, because of their extra capability of climbing, they would go up and attack the German fighter escorts.”
What made the Spitfire legendary?
The Spitfire was the poster child for the dark and terrible months of the Battle of Britain. Its beautiful standout design became a symbol that gave courage to the people of Britain. And it also struck fear into the hearts of the enemy. In total, 20,341 Spitfires were made – far more than any other combat plane.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Spitfire was its revolutionary elliptical wings. With a wingspan of 11.2m, these wings were thin and lightweight with a substantial surface area. That made it easy to ascend to altitudes of up to 34,000ft at speed and manoeuvre deftly through the chaos of aerial combat. Their size also allowed plenty of room for machine guns and cannons.
Less noticeable, though just as important, was that the plane used Beverley Shenstone’s ground-breaking buried rivets. These allowed the Spitfire to fly much more quickly than other contemporary fighter planes, including the Hawker Hurricane and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 E, reaching a maximum speed of 360 mph. And even at these incredible speeds, the space-saving cockpit design offered the best visibility of any fighter cockpit during the war.
The immense power of the Spitfire came from its 12-cylinder liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine, which gave it 1,030 horsepower. This engine was named Merlin. As well as following the Rolls-Royce tradition of naming engines after birds of prey, this name also called to mind the mighty wizard of British folklore.
A short timeline of the Battle of Britain
26 June – 16 July: Small-scale raids were carried out night and day, as well as armed reconnaissance, mine-laying missions and attacks on ships.
17 July – 12 August: Attacks on ports and coastal airfields intensified. Night raids on RAF and aircraft manufacturing facilities began.
13 August – 6 September: The Luftwaffe launched their main assault, called Adlerangriff (“Eagle Attack”) in an attempt to destroy the RAF in southern England. They conducted large-scale daylight attacks on RAF airfields, as well as heavy night bombing of ports and industrial cities, including London.
7 September – 2 October: The Blitz commenced. London became the main target for attacks. On 26 September, the Spitfire factory in Southampton was destroyed.
3 October – 31 October: Large-scale night bombing raids were carried out on London. Daylight attacks were confined to small-scale raids intended to lure the RAF into dogfights. After being fended off by Britain for over three months, Hitler called off his planned invasion of Britain.
Spitfire experiences in the Battle of Britain
At the crack of dawn, RAF pilots would make their way to their aircraft and wait for the order to scramble. Once the enemy aircraft had been spotted, they would race to the skies to intercept them.
Each group of pilots was headed by a senior pilot who gave instructions and led them into battle. But once they engaged the Luftwaffe pilots, every man had to fend for himself.
The Spitfires were faster and more manoeuvrable, and could climb higher than the Hurricanes. So they took on German fighters while the Hurricanes targeted bombers.
Recalling an intense combat encounter with an enemy fighter over Dorset in August 1940, Roland Beaumont, a pilot with the No. 87 squadron, said:
“A target presented itself because right down across my front came a single 109. I rolled in after this Messerschmitt half thinking for a moment that it might be a Spitfire because it was so unusual to see a single Messerschmitt by itself. Whether he'd been hit or not, I don't know: he wasn't showing any smoke, he was travelling fairly fast just diving towards the sea as if he was getting the hell out of it and going home, which is probably just what he was doing. Anyway, I got onto his tail, fired a long burst. He slowed up and then he rolled very violently up to the right. As he came out of his roll I was back on his tail close in for another burst, when I could see that his undercarriage was coming down. He was also streaming grey smoke, might have been coolant. We were down to about 1200 feet then over the fields of Dorset, the Purbeck Hills. He started to side slip fairly violently. He did another roll this time with his wheels down and then did a diving, dirt turn down towards the ground. I thought either he's going to go in or he's actually aiming for a forced landing. I held off and he went round a field, lost speed, side slipped quite sharply and he was obviously a very capable pilot. Eventually he went in to land.”
The Luftwaffe were a formidable opponent. And at times, pilots flying a WWII Spitfire were forced to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye. But these choices weren’t just about pursuing enemy aircraft. Sometimes, they were about the right time to leave the battle.
If a pilot was injured or his aircraft was damaged, his only hope for survival might have been a parachute bail-out. Even this was a risk, however. Many men were shot down, never to be seen again. And if they bailed out over the sea, the raging ice-cold waters could finish them off.
Pilot officer Jan Zurakowski was one of the lucky men to perform a successful bail out as his plane was going down. In his own words:
“My Spitfire turned slowly, stalled and ended in a flat spin. I had to bail out. I was not sure which way I should jump – inside or outside the spin…I was descending faster than the aircraft and the Spitfire was spinning above my head and I was afraid to pull the ripcord. Looking down, I realised that the ground was approaching fast and when I could distinguish a man with a gun, I pulled the ripcord. I landed close to this chap with a gun. The old man (from the Home Guard) with a double-barrelled shotgun was shaken badly by the aircraft and a man dropping from the sky. I was not speaking English well so I was trying to show him my RAF identity card but his hands were shaking so much, he could not take it. A short time later, a British Army officer arrived and he cleared up the situation.”
During the three months of the Battle of Britain, many pilots lost their lives. 544 brave men from the RAF Fighter Command were killed, along with 2,500 Luftwaffe pilots. Those who died defending Britain from the aerial invasion have been honoured and immortalised on the Battle of Britain memorial on the Kent coast.
Spitfires and radar: A deadly combination
Part of the reason why Spitfire flights were so successful during the Battle of Britain was due to the British Chain Home radar system. This allowed the RAF to detect incoming German aircraft long before they entered the line of sight. And with a few extra precious minutes that the early warning gave them, Spitfire pilots could intercept the Luftwaffe before they reached their targets.
Although radar was essential for British victory, the technology had actually been developed in Germany. But the German army failed to realise how the role radar played in the British defence.
While the Luftwaffe did attack some radar stations, only Ventor on the Isle of Wight sustained any lasting damage. And while they targeted ships, airfields and cities, they never made destroying radar stations a key goal.
This crucial oversight allowed the British air defence to stay one step ahead during the Battle of Britain.
The Spitfire’s enduring legacy
After three months of dreadful raids and combat, the Battle of Britain concluded with a resounding victory for the RAF. And thanks to its beloved design and incredible performance, the Spitfire emerged as a symbol of British resistance. It not only thwarted the German invasion plan, but also bolstered the morale of a nation under siege.
The Spitfire went through many iterations following the Battle of Britain, concluding with the Supermarine Spitfire Mk 24 in 1947. Its revolutionary design and advanced combat features influenced the many generations of fighter aircraft that followed it. And the Spitfire has rightfully earned a place in the hearts of aviation enthusiasts worldwide.
Experience the thrill of the Battle of Britain with Spitfire flights
The Battle of Britain concluded more than 80 years ago. But with our unforgettable two-seater Spitfire experiences, you can still fulfil the dream of flying a WWII Spitfire.
As the world’s first and only accredited Spitfire pilot training school, we take aviation enthusiasts from around the world on Spitfire flights along the south coast. Simply enjoy the ride or learn to fly the Spitfire yourself, and take control with no previous experience required!
Book from a wide range of Spitfire experiences and relive the incredible speed and thrilling manoeuvrability of those who defended this island nation during the Battle of Britain.