RJ Mitchell. A life in aviation.
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The role of the Spitfire in the Battle of Britain

Spitfires in flightIt is relevant to note that it has sometimes been concluded that because there were more squadrons of Hurricanes (30) in the Battle of Britain than of Spitfires (19), this must automatically mean that it was the former that played the major role in this great air battle. This is not necessarily the case and, as will be seen, the two aircraft both played vital parts in the events that unfolded over the skies of Britain in the summer of 1940.

The Hurricane's performance was inferior in speed, rate of climb and turning circle to both the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt ME 109E in the marks used in the battle. Thus, the maximum speed of the Hurricane Mk1 was about 315mph, compared with the 364mph top speed of the Spitfire Mk1 and that of 348mph for the ME 109E. The Spitfire could turn inside an ME 109E; in aerial combat, speed and manoeuvrability are of vital importance. The Hurricane, with its inferior turning circle and slower speed, was well-fitted to shoot down bombers but was held at a disadvantage when it came to attacking the German ME 109E. It is of interest to mention that when the two British fighters were originally ordered, it was envisaged that their sole task would be to shoot down the enemy bombers since it was considered that at their high speed, fighter-to-fighter combat could not occur. This lead to the thought that the Hurricane alone would be all that would be needed and that consequently Spitfire production should be discontinued. The long delays and difficulties initially encountered in the mass production of the Spitfire added to this line of thought.

As Jeffrey Quill, Supermarine's chief test pilot, in his book Birth of a Legend - the Spitfire (Quiller Press Ltd), relates, Dunkirk was the first major test of the Spitfire in combat with the Luftwaffe fighters and demonstrated in unarguable fashion the Spitfire's superiority over the Hurricane and dispelled, once and for all, any ideas that existed in the Air Ministry that the difference in fighting performance between the two aircraft was marginal and of no great significance.

As a consequence of these vital differences between the Hurricane and the Spitfire, an important battle tactic was introduced whenever possible. The Spitfire squadrons were sent up to engage the escorting German fighters, leaving the Hurricane to attack the German bombers.

Data published by J Alcorn, in his book The Aeroplane (September 1996 and July 2000), after conducting in-depth studies of all the available data about the battle and reconciling confirmed German losses with claims of British victories, provides and interesting insight.

Dr Gordon Mitchell draws some important conclusions from all the data now available, including that in the Table below:

 1. The greater proportion of aircraft shot down by the Hurricane pilots were the "easier" target of the slower flying German bombers, compared with the more difficult target of the faster flying fighters. This result was the direct consequence of the above mentioned battle tactics.

Table showing the success rates of both Spitfire and Hurricane during the Battle of Britain 2. Alan Deere in his book "Nine Lives" (Hodder & Stoughton 1959), records that on numerous occasions he witnessed the rewards reaped when the enemy bombers, shorn of the majority of the their fighter escort, were set upon by the defending Hurricane pilots, which excellent as they were, could not, Deere concludes, have shot down as many bombers as they did without the protection provided by the Spitfire pilots in attacking the escorting German fighters.

 3. The figures in the last column of the Table show that the average number of aircraft shot down by each squadron of Spitfires (27.8) was very significantly, and importantly, higher than that of the average Hurricane squadron (21.9), showing that the Spitfire was much more effective in action that the Hurricane.

Dr Mitchell summarises, "All these data unquestionably strongly reinforces the earlier statement by Alan Deere that there can be no doubt that victory in the Battle of Britain was made possible by the Spitfire," and as Jeffrey Quill concluded, Mitchell's uncompromising search for performance in his design was finally justified.

Dr Mitchell continues, "At the same time, it must be emphasised that this conclusion does not detract in any way from the important role the Hurricane and its pilots played in the Battle of Britain."

As the RAF's primary fighter weapon, the Spitfire, following the Battle of Britain, played a vital role through to the final victory of the Allied Forces in 1945.

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