Due to the success of the Spitfire during the early years of World War II, a carrier-borne version was put into development towards the end of 1941.
Stop that order!
The possibility of Spitfires operating off aircraft carriers was discussed as early as 1938 and again in 1939. A new version of the Spitfire was put into development, designed with folding wings and an arrestor hook for carrier operations.
In early 1940, 50 of these were ordered but interestingly enough, the order was cancelled by Winston Churchill, who at the time was the First Lord of the Admiralty before he became Prime Minister.
Due to the inadequacies of the Gloster Sea Gladiator bi-plane as well as the Blackburn Roc, the Admiralty once again asked for Spitfires to be converted for carrier-borne operations. Towards the end of 1941, a large number of Spitfire Mk Vb’s were allocated for conversion. These became Supermarine Sea Spitfires or Seafire for short. They were not without problems. Apart from poor visibility on carrier landing approaches, hard carrier based landings had a tendency to cause undercarriage collapses. This version of the Seafire never had folding wings either, meaning it took up a lot of space on the deck of the carrier. Deliveries started in late 1942 and these Seafires operated well into 1944.
Despite its shortcomings and non-folding wings, the Seafire IIb was an excellent naval fighter, bringing all the exceptional points of the Spitfire to naval warfare. It was blessed with an excellent rate of climb and was very fast, all needed for carrier based operations. One distinct disadvantage however, was the fact that it could only fly for 90 minutes at a time due to a small fuel load. This meant that one Seafire providing fighter cover for a fleet would need to land and take off up to 12 times a day.
The next version of the Seafire, the Mk IIc was specifically produced for naval operation and not a converted Spitfire. It was however, based on the Spitfire Mk Vc. This version had a number of improvements including reinforced undercarriage for carrier landings as well as provision for rocket assisted take-off. A RATOG or Rocket Assisted Take-Off Gear provided extra thrust to make carrier take-offs easier. These were small rocket fuel motors attached to either the fuselage or wings of the aircraft. Over 350 of these were produced, but again, the lack of folding wings meant it could not operate off all British carriers.
Folding wings at last!
Often considered the first true Seafire, the Mk III was an improvement on the Mk IIc design. Now everything was designed or changed with carrier-based operations in mind. Perhaps the most important change was the addition of folding wings. This significantly decreased the surface area the Seafire took up when not in operation leading to more planes on the carrier flight deck. The wings folded upwards and a section near the wingtip folded downwards through the use of hinges.
A series of Rolls Royce Merlin engines were fitted to the aircraft including the Merlin 55M, specifically designed for top performance at low-level altitudes, an area where the Seafire mostly operated. Over 1200 of this version of the Seafire were constructed through the war.
As with the Spitfire, the Seafire continued to be developed throughout the war. The next version, the Seafire F Mk XV was the first to receive the new Rolls Royce Griffon engines. In truth, this aircraft was a combination of a few parts. It used the Seafire III airframe which had been significantly strengthened. The wings, elevators and rudder stabilizer came from a Spitfire Mk VIII. Close to 400 of this variant saw service although problems remained. It was particularly difficult to take-off, lurching to the right due to prop wash from the powerful Griffon engine. This often took it towards structures on the aircraft carrier. This could be avoid by taking off at reduced power, although this was often not ideal depending on sea and wind conditions.
The Seafire F Mk XVII was similar to the Mk XV but now it had a much stronger undercarriage making it less prone to collapsing on landing in rough seas. It also improved take-offs, offering less rebound, making the Seafire easier to control. It featured reinforced wings, better visibility on landing and the ability to carry drop tanks, extending its endurance. Around 230 of this variant were constructed.
After the war, the Seafire continued to be developed. New versions included the Seafire Mk 45, the Seafire Mk 46 and finally the Mk 47 which even saw action during the Korean War. As jet powered fighter planes began making huge advances in the early 1950’s the Supermarine Seafire was withdrawn from active duty in 1951.