The Spitfire Evolves

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The prototype Spitfire – the start of a large family tree

Spitfires were streamlined, all-metal fighters with large, curving wings and powerful Rolls-Royce engines. They proved their worth during the Battle of Britain and captured the imagination of the British public.

Joe Smith led the Supermarine team after Reginald Mitchell’s death in 1937. The versatile Spitfire design was developed and updated to meet new wartime challenges. Spitfires were the only British fighter aeroplane to remain in production before, during and after the Second World War.

The Spitfire Evolves

The Spitfire

1938 Cigarette card illustrating the Spitfire Mk.I

The all-metal Spitfire was fast and streamlined with unusually thin, elliptical wings. It was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Large, thin wings made the Spitfire very manoeuvrable and reduced drag that would slow the aeroplane down. The generous wing area provided enough room for eight machine guns. Spitfires fought alongside the Hawker Hurricane to defend the country from the Luftwaffe (German Airforce) during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

The first Spitfires entered RAF service in 1938 but it took time to fully equip enough squadrons. Very few Spitfires were sent to help in the defence of France, until the Dunkirk evacuations, due to concerns over the supply. However, by the summer of 1940 Spitfires were scrambled in larger numbers to fight off enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain, helping to deny German air superiority.

Building the Spitfire

Spitfire funding event at the King’s Hall, Stoke

The advanced design of the Spitfire made it an effective fighter. But the sophisticated aeroplane was expensive and difficult to build. It took time for factories to train their staff and create suitable production lines. Eventually, the process was mastered and over 20,000 Spitfires were built between 1936 and 1948. Public donations raised over £13 million to support their construction.

Some Spitfires were named after the people or places that funded them. Stoke-on-Trent funded two Spitfires known as ‘City of Stoke-on-Trent I & II.’ The contributions were small compared to the full costs of the war, but they provided a huge morale boost for the British public. Later, in 1943, Spitfires were the emblem of Wings for Victory fundraising week, even though the focus by then was on the construction of bombers.

An Arms Race

Spitfire Mk.V featuring cannon and clipped wings

Wartime designers were engaged in a constant arms race. Spitfires proved to be very adaptable.  Variants were developed for different roles including air-to-ground attack, photo reconnaissance, and ‘Seafires’ to operate from Aircraft Carriers. Merlin engines were regularly upgraded and eventually replaced by the larger Rolls-Royce Griffon. Weapons evolved from machine guns to include cannons, bombs, and even rockets.

Machine guns were a poor match against heavily armoured German bombers. Spitfires were soon adapted to carry 20mm Hispano cannons firing explosive rounds. Alternative wing shapes were also developed: ‘clipped’ to improve performance at lower altitudes and ‘extended’ for high-altitudes.

By the time the Spitfire Mark 24 was produced, the engine power and weight of the Spitfire had doubled, fuel capacity had trebled, and maximum speed had increased by 100mph.

Becoming an Icon

Detail from a Spitfire-themed birthday card, 1940s

The Spitfire competed with the best enemy aircraft. But it became more than a weapon of war. Its shape and design were attractive. Fundraising campaigns and wartime propaganda made it a public favourite.
The aeroplane emerged from the Second World War as a national icon, and a testament to great design and engineering.

There is still debate about the exact merits of the Spitfire versus other Second World War aeroplanes. At times, the Spitfire found itself well matched and even bested. Results were often down to the bravery, skill, and sacrifice of armed forces personnel. However, no other Second World War aircraft was in production before, during and after the war, demonstrating the effectiveness of the Spitfire design.

Spitfire RW388

The fuselage of Spitfire RW388, stripped of paint during restoration

In 1972, the RAF donated Spitfire RW388 to Stoke-on-Trent in honour of Reginald Mitchell and his links with the city. The aeroplane last flew in 1952 and had spent years as a ‘gate guardian’ at RAF bases. The aeroplane had not been designed to last for decades. Weather and time had taken their toll. Between 2018 and 2021 the aeroplane was restored by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society.

During the restoration it was necessary to find replacement or replica parts. Some of these items originate from other Spitfires, whose histories are now tied to RW388. Restoration work has uncovered damage from one of RW388’s last flying accidents, when the canopy fell off during take-off and hit the tail.

Discover More

More information about the evolution of the Spitfire and the life of RW388.

What Makes a Spitfire?

What Makes a Spitfire?

A closer look at some of the Supermarine Spitfire's defining features (Youtube)
The Spitfire Evolves

The Spitfire Evolves

Animation comparing the Spitfires Mk. I and Spitfire Mk.XVI (Youtube)
Blogs: The Restoration

Blogs: The Restoration

RW388 was extensively restored between 2018-2021

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