The immortal Spitfire remains the symbol of British aerial prowess during World War II. Beautiful, fast, and lethal, this thoroughbred warrior was the quintessential fighter pilot’s dream—and more.
Reginald J. Mitchell was an accomplished designer of racing craft when, in 1934, he set about designing Britain’s first all-metal eight-gun fighter. His initial attempt, to be named the Spitfire, was a crank-winged apparition that flew as bad as it looked. However, development continued as a company project. The revised machine was a rakish, highly streamlined aircraft with a pointed spinner, retractable undercarriage, and beautiful elliptical wings. It exuded the persona of a racehorse. The new Spitfire flew just less than 350 miles per hour, making it the fastest fighter in the world. Moreover, its handling and maneuverability were intrinsically superb, traits that carried over through a long and exemplary service life. The usually dubious British Air Ministry was so singularly impressed by the craft that a new specification was issued “around it” to facilitate production. Spitfire Is entered squadron service in 1938, and the following year, when Europe was plunged into war, they constituted 40 percent of Britain’s frontline fighter strength.
Commencing with the 1940 Battle of Britain, Spitfires captured the imagination of the world. They fought the equally capable Messerschmitt Bf 109Es to a draw, leaving the more numerous Hawker Hurricanes to drub bomber formations. As the war developed, so did the Spitfire, into no less than 40 major versions.