The Spitfire, of course

GrumpyAngler, Going Postal
Spitfire Mk IIa P7350 of the BBMF is the only existing airworthy Spitfire that fought in the Battle of Britain
Arpingstone / Public domain

Ask anyone from the general public to name a great aeroplane or a great British fighter of WWII, and chances are they will say, without hesitation, “The Spitfire of course.”

If you ask why you are likely to be told “It looked so elegant” “it had a lovely elliptical wing”, “It was lovely to fly”, “The Merlin engine sounded wonderful” “It was the fastest at the time”

Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and maybe; but not a single one of these features is a design feature, they are all incidental. A fighter is designed to fight, not to look good, not to sound good and not to be a pleasure to fly.

My contention, which will raise a howl of protest, is that the Spitfire is a legend and, like most legends, is based on a myth. The Spitfire was hyped as the best plane in the world and, unfortunately, people fell for it. They still do. Resources were poured into making the legend and keeping it alive, resources that could have been best used by developing other planes.  Pouring all resources into one, flawed. aircraft was a policy which could have been a disaster

What should a fighter be ?

It should be fast, manoeuvrable, easily produced and so be cheap and expendable, easy to service, well armed, carry a lot of ammunition, be rugged so that it can take damage and protect the pilot, have enough fuel to give it good endurance or range and, of course, to be better than the enemy’s version

The Spitfire was designed to be fast, it was based on experience gained by making racing monoplanes. It was fast and it turned well enough but failed on just about any other measure. Far too much emphasis was put on the speed, all other requirements were compromised.

Even the ‘turning’ thing was hyped.

“Captain Eric Brown, the Chief Naval Test Pilot of the Royal Navy, recalled being impressed during tests. “I don’t think I have ever flown a fighter that could match the rate of turn. It had ruled the roost totally and was the finest fighter in the world until mid-1943.”

No, not the Spitfire, he was talking about the Japanese Zero, not as fast as the Spitfire but which beat it on just about every other measure. When pitted against the Zero the Spitfire pilots found themselves outclassed on turning and on climbing and had to rapidly learn new tactics to avoid being shot down by a slower and less powerful adversary. The tactic chosen was to make one pass and get away as quickly as possible, the problem with that is that there is little time with the target in the sights which limits the amount of firepower that can be brought to bear.

A German pilot stated that “ ….pilots from that period (1940) who will tell you that the Spitfire turned better than the Bf109. That is not true, I myself had many dogfights with Spitfires and I could always out-turn them.”  “.. and I shot down six of them ….” “ the advantage changed when improved Spitfires were delivered.”

Ah yes, but the Spitfire was ‘wonderful to fly’, another part of the legend.

It was, certainly the early marks, but as the power and the weight of the aircraft increased it became a bit of a pig. Alec Henshaw who, being the Chief test Pilot would know, remarked that later versions were not nice to fly, they were heavy and did not handle well. Captain Brown didn’t rate the Spitfire as the nicest to fly in the whole war, that honour he granted to the DeHavilland Hornet which came much later.

Yes but the wing ! The elegant elliptical wing !

The designer, Mitchell, when asked about whether the shape should be elliptical by one of the design team, commented that it could be any shape you like as long as it covers the guns. Flexing and twisting of the wing at high speeds caused all manner of flying and structural problems, throughout the life of the Spitfire there was a constant revision and update procedure, each design trying to overcome the problems inherent in the previous design. The ‘elegant’ wing that contributed to the speed of the plane was very expensive and time-consuming  to produce and suffered from stress fractures, there is anecdotal evidence of piles of old Spitfire wings stacked outside of repair depots..

The Spitfire needed skilled workers and a lot of time to make. The time taken to produce a Spitfire was around 12,500 to 13,000 man hours, the Hurricane, the less glamorous aircraft that did the heavy lifting, 80% of Battle of Britain kills, while getting little credit, took about 5,200 man hours of less skilled labour while the enemy, the Bf109 could be knocked out by largely unskilled labour in 4,500 hours. Both the Hurricane and the Bf109 were designed first and foremost as fighters, not ‘fast and pretty planes that were nice to fly’ with guns added as was the case with the ‘legendary’ Spitfire..

Problems occurred when trying to mount canon in the wings to compete with the canon and machine gun armed Bf109, not a problem in that plane as the armament was fitted around the engine with the guns firing through the propeller disc.

The design of the Spitfire wing meant that accessing the guns was done from underneath the wing. Lifting and feeding heavy belts of ammunition overhead while sitting in the mud was not an easy job for the ground crew. It was found that the time taken to re-arm, refuel and change the oxygen bottle was about twelve minutes for the Spitfire and four minutes for the Hurricane where the job could be done sitting on the wing with no lifting above the head. The Bf109 was designed for quick servicing, the whole engine and propeller could be swapped out in twelve minutes using a simple mobile gantry and hand tools. The Bf109 had a narrow track undercarriage which contributed to many accidents but the design, with the undercarriage fastened to the fuselage rather than the wings, meant that the aircraft could have thinner, lighter. wings as they did not have to bear the load transmitted by the undercarriage. Another benefit was that the aircraft could ‘stand on its own feet’ when wings were removed for repair or replacement.

GrumpyAngler, Going Postal
A Bf109E at the Royal Air Force Museum London with its wings temporarily removed, 2016
Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK / CC BY-SA

The armament carried by the early Spitfire was eight machine guns of .303 calibre although it was known at that time that the canon was the gun of choice having far more destructive power. The ‘pea shooter’ effect of a .303 round was such that it had to find a weak spot in order to effect any damage that would disable a plane. The Bf109 was designed to use canon from the onset and the machine gun rounds it fired were the far beefier 13mm/0.5” calibre. The Westland Whirlwind, which Blown Periphery has described in an earlier article, was being developed at that time had the canon armament that was needed but that plane was neglected to pour more resources into the Spitfire production.

A design fault of both the Spitfire and the Hurricane was that there was a fuel tank in front of the pilot, all will have seen or read about pilots being severely burned as they tried to exit the cockpit through burning petrol. The Bf109 had fuel tanks below and behind the pilots seat so any fire tended to hasten exit rather than hinder it.

All three, Spitfire, Hurricane and Bf109 suffered from lack of range and from not carrying sufficient ammunition. The range problem meant that the Bf109 could spend little time in combat before having to break off and head for home, unfortunately the British fighters couldn’t capitalise on this because they were nearly as badly limited.

The last item on my list of features was that the plane should be better than that of the enemy. It wasn’t, the first few years were a game of leapfrog, each finding a bit more speed, power or armament. In that time most of the increase in performance was due, not to the design of the aeroplane, but to the increase in power of the Merlin engine or swapping the Griffon for the Merlin..

In another article I will have a look at what the fighter of 1940/41 could have been, I have already mentioned one aircraft that suffered from neglect ,the Westland Whirlwind, I’ll have a look at the Miles M20 and how a development of that aircraft and a change in tactics may have been a better bet.

Footnote. The Merlin does sound wonderful, especially if you have heard one at near full throttle as one did in the old days at air shows, however most big un-silenced piston engines do and most couldn’t tell the difference between a Merlin, a Griffon, a Daimler-Benz DB 601 or  605

Featured Image: Spitfire LF Mk IX, MH434 being flown by Ray Hanna in 2005: This aircraft shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in 1943 while serving with No. 222 Squadron RAFThe original uploader was Bryan Fury75 at French Wikipedia. / CC BY-SA

© GrumpyAngler 2018

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