Article by Rich Thistle ©
It was a team effort. Through the achievements of a long line of sleek ‘S’ float planes designed and built by the team at Supermarine, Great Britain had won the coveted Schneider Trophy and the World Speed record of over 400 mph in 1931. Although many were involved, these racing seaplanes had been the ultimate responsibility of a brilliant young engineer, Supermarine’s chief designer Reginald J. Mitchell. Powered by new Rolls-Royce racing engines, these ‘S’ planes were basically one-use flying freaks, meant to last only a few hours in the air on the race circuit. As a result, although they had accumulated a large body of knowledge about the problems of high-speed flight, the Supermarine design team found the transition from racing seaplane to modern fighter to be more difficult than anyone might have expected.
Responding to a 1931 Air Ministry specification for a new fighter aircraft, the design team entry was the Supermarine Type 224, a low-wing monoplane with fixed “trousered” undercarriage and a slightly cranked wing. Powered by a Rolls-Royce Goshawk of 660 hp, the aircraft was constructed as a prototype and first flew in February of 1934. Despite conforming to most of the original design specifications, the Type 224 was outperformed by several of its competitors including Gloster’s entry which was soon to enter service as the RAF’s last biplane fighter, the Gloster Gladiator.
Before the Type 224 had even flown, Mitchell, who was already dissatisfied with it, particularly its underpowered Goshawk engine, had set out to clean up the design. The result was immediately appealing to the Air Ministry and a single aircraft was ordered. At this time Supermarine contracted with Rolls-Royce for their latest PV-12 engine. This marriage of Mitchell’s airframe and the new “Merlin” engine, as it was later designated, was a match made in heaven. The Air Ministry issued “new” specifications taking into account the potential of the PV-12 engine.
By late 1935, the new aircraft - almost named the Shrike, but by then known as the Spitfire, a name Mitchell reportedly found “silly”- was taking shape. The Type 224’s canted wing was replaced by the trademark gracefully thin elliptical wing and a ducted radiator was added to solve the problem of the Merlin’s cooling. Outwardly retracting undercarriage replaced fixed gear, and the thin wings were stuffed with eight Browning 303 in machine guns in response to earlier, prophetic specifications for increased fire-power. The prototype K5054 took to the air for the first time in March of 1936.
It flew impressively. The trials report stated it was ‘...simple and easy to fly and has no vices.’ With a maximum speed of 349 mph at 16,800 ft and climb to 20,000 ft in just over eight minutes, the Ministry immediately issued a production order for 310 machines which, with a batch of 500 Hurricanes, were to be in service by March of 1939. Just as the Spitfire was entering full mass production, its designer Reg Mitchell died of cancer. Joseph Smith who would guide the development of Mitchell's triumph over the next eight years took his place as Chief Designer.
By the outbreak of war, 306 Spitfires were taken on charge in ten RAF squadrons. With minor improvements Mitchell’s design entered the war and quickly gained a reputation of legendary proportions among the people of the British nation. Even though the Hurricane’s statistical success during the Battle of Britain was a matter of fact, it was the Supermarine Spitfire which would capture the hearts and imaginations of the people. A legend was born.
During the War, the Spitfire went through constant development with strengthened airframe, more power and greater diversity of wing and weapons. This lead to major improvements especially manifested in the important variants, the Mks V and IX. In fact the Spitfire, manufactured all during the war, went through over forty variants with a total of over twenty thousand built.
Second in production numbers only to the ubiquitous Mk.V, the Supermarine Spitfire Mark IX was essentially an improved V rushed into production to counter the threat of the Fw 190 which had appeared on the Channel coast late in 1941. Designed as an "interim" version, the Mk IX was to prove itself a superb fighting machine, not only able to match the Fw 190, but considered by many to be the supreme Spitfire.
With its upgraded Merlin 61 of 1565 hp, increased armament of four twenty-millimeter canon or two canon and four machine guns, upgraded fuel capacity and the capability of carrying up to two 500 lb. bombs, the Mk IX was a workhorse. Well over 5000 were eventually produced. By D-Day there were 34 Squadrons of Mk IXs to support the landings and 22 more in Britain for Air Defense. During the invasion period, Mk IXs played a large role in ground attack armed with bombs on wing and fuselage racks.
On the initial day of the invasion the enemy was conspicuously absent in the air over the beaches. But on D-Day-plus-one the Germans attacked the beach-heads in a desperate daylight attack during which they sustained heavy loses. Canadian units scored 13 aerial victories on June 7 alone. My painting D-DAY SWEEP depicts a four ship of No. 411 RCAF Spitfires patrolling a section of the invasion beaches on the evening of June 6, 1944. It is a tribute to those who fought in the air to liberate Fortress Europe. It especially pays homage to all Canadians who flew Mitchell's classic design the Spitfire Mk IX. D-DAY SWEEP
- original painting available in catalog
- limited edition fine-art print available in catalog