Supermarine Spitfire – legend made in Birmingham

Posted on 14 Jan 2013

As excavation of lost Spitfire aircraft in Burma has brought the famous warplane back into the British psyche, TM looks at the history of this iconic British aircraft.

Information courtesy of Imperial War Museum Duxford and Mike Quinn

Over 22,000 Supermarine Spitfires were built and they played a crucial role in defending Britain in World War II.

The Spitfire is one of the most famous aircraft ever built. Reginald J Mitchell, an engineer from Staffordshire, developed the aircraft in 1936, basing the design on seaplanes. The Spitfire had a very aerodynamic shape, and early variants were fitted with the successful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine.

The aircraft was derived from the Supermarine S6, a seaplane, which won the Schneider Trophy in 1934. The Supermarine Spitfire entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1938, nine months after the Hawker Hurricane, being the second of the RAF’s 8 gun monoplanes.  19 Squadron at Duxford exchanged its Gauntlet biplanes for the Mk 1 Spitfire starting on August 4 1938 with the arrival of K9789.

The first 77 Spitfires (Mk1s) had only a two bladed, fixed pitch propeller.  The remainder were three bladed, two position propellers.  Fine pitch for take-off and course pitch for cruising.

The legend of the Spitfire very nearly did not happen, as early production was slow and the Air Ministry seriously considered cancelling production in favour of other aircraft. One reason was the revolutionary design of the Spitfire elliptical wings caused problems with inexperienced sub-contractors.

Supermarine convinced the Air Ministry that, with practice, production would increase and with Lord Nuffield’s experiences with mass production, all would come to good use. This conviction resulted in the building of the ” shadow” Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham. 

Before the outbreak of war, many countries had expressed interest in building the Spitfire, under licence, in particular Japan. 1,160 were ordered from Supermarine before the war and subsequently, 1,000 were ordered from Castle Bromwich.

Spitfires played an important role in the Battle of Britain in 1940. They were able to match the German Messerschmitt Bf109. When the Germans introduced the Focke-Wulf Fw190 in 1941, the Spitfire was briefly outclassed. But new variants of the aircraft were developed, with the more powerful Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. Spitfires served all over the world during World War II.

The Spitfire F24 was introduced in 1946. It was able to out-perform all jet aircraft then in service. Only 80 of this type were made. They were 160 kph (100 mph) faster than the first Spitfires and could climb 3,300 m (10,000 ft) higher.

It is worth noting that out of 22,000 Spitfires built only 179 survive and many of these are ‘wrecks’. The last operational sortie by a Spitfire took place in Singapore on 1st April 1954.


Spitfire VN485 (delivered to RAF 1947)

Technical information
Crew: One pilot

Construction: All aluminium semi-monococque

Engine: One Rolls-Royce Griffon 61 liquid cooled V12 piston engine of 1,529 kW (2,050 hp)

Weapons: Four 20mm Mk 5 Hispano-Suiza cannon
Up to three 227 kg (500 lb) general purpose bombs


Maximum speed: 730 kph (454 mph)

Service ceiling: 13,267 m (43,500 ft)

Combat range: over 1,529 km (950 miles) with maximum fuel load


Wing span: 11.23 m (36 ft 11 in)

Length: 10.03 m (32 ft 11 in)

Height:  3.66 m (13 ft 0 in)

WeightEmpty: 3,334 kg (7,351 lb)

Loaded:  4,497 kg (9,900 lb)


Thanks to Imperial War Museum for the information. Spitfires are regularly on static display at IWM Duxford and can be seen flying from the museum’s airfield.