Towards the end of 1938, the continent of Europe was on the brink of war. Nazi expansionism was rampant throughout Eastern Europe and despite Neville Chamberlin, the prime minister of England’s assurances, most of the English public knew that war was inevitable.
The first Spitfires entered service in September 1938. They were assigned to 19 Squadron and based at Duxford. Slowly at only a rate of one aircraft per week, other squadrons began to receive the new fighter. These included both 66 and 41 squadrons. Due to their slow entry into active service only 306 Spitfire were operational on 3 September 1939, the day on which England declared war on Germany. The Air Ministry held around 70 aircraft in reserve while 2000 still needed to be manufactured.
In Defence Of Britain
The Spitfire, along with its contemporary the Hawker Hurricane were now the primary defenders of the British Isle. The Hurricane itself was an impressive monoplane fighter, designed a few months before the Spitfire. It was not as manoeuvrable, but there were far more Hurricane squadrons in operation at the time.
It didn’t take long for the Luftwaffe to appear over Britain. Most of the early sorties focussed on attacking convoys in the English Channel and other areas along the coast. It was during one of these raids that the Spitfire first saw action. The date was 16 October 1939. Spitfires from 602 and 603 Squadrons were scrambled to intercept nine Junker Ju 88 bombers that were attacking ships near Scotland. During its first combat, the Spitfire was effective and two bombers were shot down, with another limping back towards Germany. The scrambled Spitfires came to no harm.
On the offensive
By now the German army was streaming through Western Europe. Using blitzkrieg tactics (loosely translated as lightning war), the Germans attacked in numbers, extremely fast and with intent. Backed by superior air power, they were virtually unstoppable. France was invaded on 10 May 1940 and the British Expeditionary Force, which had been stationed in the country since 1939, joined the French as they rallied against the Germans.
The RAF flew missions over France at this time, which included various bomber escort duties as well as fighter sweeps. Here the Spitfire pilots met one of their principal adversaries – the Messerschmitt BF 109. Most German pilots were already seasoned combat veterans, having flown during the Spanish Civil War. The BF109 itself was a formidable fighter, combat proven in Spain and well-armed. Over and above its machine guns, the BF109 also had heavier firepower in the form of cannons.
British and French resistance in France was short lived. German troops pushed the British Expeditionary Force right back to Dunkirk. In one of the greatest moments of the war, the remaining men were evacuated by a number of military, commercial and civil vessels. Spitfires flew covering missions over the beaches while the evacuations took place, with many of them lost in the process. In fact, during all the operations over France, 67 Spitfires had been lost.
Hitler now turned his attention to Britain. The Spitfire’s toughest test awaited.
The Battle Of Britain
Perhaps the legend of the Spitfire truly began during the Battle of Britain. Although the Hurricane was far more numerous in numbers, something about the Spitfire caught the British public’s attention then, and that mystique still continues to this day.
This air battle, fought over the summer and autumn of 1940, although early in the war, proved to the British people that they could resist the Germans. This was something that no country had managed so far.
Hitler had instructed his Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Göring to destroy the RAF. By doing this, Germany could launch Operation Sea Lion or their invasion of the British Isles.
The Luftwaffe began with convoy attacks, but Göring soon realised that he would have to attack the air defences of the British Isles directly. Göring and his advisors thought that the Luftwaffe would be able to deal with the RAF easily. Once they had air superiority over Britain, German bombers would be able to destroy vital military and communication targets unhindered.
Göring decided that the easiest way to destroy the RAF was on the ground. He ordered attacks on aerodromes themselves.
After numerous delays because of bad weather, Eagle Day (or Adlertag as known by the Luftwaffe) was carried out on 13 August 1940. Massive formations of Luftwaffe bombers flew missions over England, attacking numerous RAF airfields. This continued in the days and weeks that followed, but somehow, despite heavy losses, the RAF managed to get fighters into the air to defend Britain.
After numerous raids with what seemed little effect on Britain’s ability to defend itself, the time frame to destroy the RAF was changed to five weeks. The Luftwaffe were amazed that with every attack, the RAF had fighters up in the air to meet the German bombers. Although they knew that radar was in operation around the coast of Britain, and even attacked installations, they thought it was ineffective and were blind to how it benefitted the RAF, especially in helping both Hurricanes and Spitfires to scramble in time and face the Luftwaffe head on.
The role of the Spitfire during the fighting
The Spitfire had a very particular role during air combat over this period, especially when paired with the Hurricane. As it proved to be a more manoeuvrable aircraft than the Hurricane, it was tasked with taking on Luftwaffe fighter cover, usually in the form of the Messerschmitt BF109. The Hurricanes would focus on German bombers.
The Spitfire and the BF109 were fairly well-matched adversaries. It was slightly faster than the BF109 but more importantly could turn tighter which made it a formidable dogfighter, perfect in defensive positions. German fighter tactics were mostly based on having a height advantage and attacking from above before climbing away again. German bomber losses over England caused a change, however. bomber crews demanded having the BF109’s fly in close formation with them, this negated the effective hit and run tactics the BF109’s were suited for.
The BF109 had a distinct advantage over the Spitfire when it needed to dive and escape the battle. Here a Luftwaffe pilot could point his nose down and dive. Both Spitfire and Hurricane pilots could not. This was because a float-type carburettor was used in the Merlin engine. This forced the engine to cut out under negative “g” forces. To compensate, the pilots had to roll the aircraft on its back and then dive, losing precious time in the chase of the enemy.
The main advantage of the Spitfire over the BF109 was in flight times over England. Once in combat, a BF109 pilot had to consider his fuel so as to leave himself enough to get back to France. The pilot only had around 10 minutes in the skies over England. If left any later, there was good chance they would run out of fuel on their way back to their bases in France. Any pilots shot down over England also became prisoners of war whereas RAF pilots could be back at their unit in a couple of hours.
Through skill, some luck and incredible bravery, the RAF managed to hold off the Luftwaffe. They had won the Battle of Britain as German now began to focus on night time bombing, especially of British cities.
Operation Sea Lion was postponed to 1941. The Battle of Britain had been won with the Spitfire playing a critical part.