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Dismantling the Spitfire Myth

December 4, 2015 in Reviews

There are too many myths about the Supermarine Spitfire to list, but uppermost is the notion that it was in any way a war-winning weapon. In fact, it might have been a war-losing one had circumstances been different. Britain certainly didn’t need it, and in some respects would have done better without it. It was not a bad aircraft so much as the wrong aircraft at the wrong time.

Let’s be clear. The Spitfire is a very pretty aeroplane and a very charismatic one, which is great to see at airshows. It’s also said to be lovely to fly. The first three of these points mattered little in 1939-45, and the third was not as important as other factors. It’s pretty well accepted these days that the Battle of Britain was won by the Hurricane, and there’s no reason to suspect that more Hurricanes wouldn’t have defeated Goering’s armada just as soundly, if not more so.

The Spitfire had a number of shortcomings – its range in fighter variants was always poor, its narrow-track undercarriage invited accidents and its roll rate wasn’t competitive, a dangerous shortcoming for a fighter. Its main Achilles heel though was the sheer difficulty of manufacturing a Spitfire. It took 13,000 man hours to build the airframe – for that amount of effort you could have two-and-a-half Hurricanes or three-and-a-bit Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

In other words, British industry, under a barrage of bombs and in wartime conditions, was building one Spitfire when it could have built three fighters of a simpler design. That’s crazy. Moreover, it could have been dangerous. When the Battle of Britain was raging, operational Hurricane squadrons increased from 25 to 34. Spitfire Squadrons increased from 19 to… 20. And that additional squadron came only at the very end of the Battle. Spitfire production lagged behind Hurricane production for the whole Battle as well, and twice as many Hurricanes as Spitfires were built in that period. When it came to serviceability, the Hurricane was better too, with more damaged aircraft returned to squadrons more quickly.

Matters were little better in the air – Richard Overy points out that at the end of the Battle, Spitfires were being shot down at a faster rate than Hurricanes. Had the Battle gone on much longer, the Spitfire could have become a millstone around Fighter Command’s neck. The point that is often made that the Spitfire could better deal with the Bf 109 is irrelevant, as Fighter Command needed to knock down bombers and actively avoided engagements with fighters (and in any case, exactly as many Spitfires were shot down by Bf109s as Hurricanes).

Moreover, the priority that was placed on Spitfire production in 1940 (as well as Hurricanes, to be fair) pulled effort from other services, effectively hamstringing the Fleet Air Arm for years and preventing the development of newer designs. And not content with wasting industrial effort at the beginning of the war, the Spitfire remained in production for the length of hostilities. Who knows what might have been achieved with three aircraft produced for every Spitfire?

Alternatively, for the same number of fighters, a greater number of bombers could have been produced. Or for the same number of aircraft, more factory workers could have been released for active service.

A high maintenance beauty…

Many fans maintain that the Spitfire was a work of aerodynamic perfection and stayed competitive for so long as a result. By 1936 standards, it certainly did have a good performance, but it did so at the unforgivable expense of ease of manufacture. Contemporary designs such as the Bf 109 and Heinkel He 100 show that it was not necessary to make this compromise even in the late 1930s, let alone later when types such as the Mustang arrived. Indeed, the Spitfire could take more powerful engines than it had been designed for, but its wing was too flexible in torsion to do this forever, and by the time the Mk.21 appeared, its once-fine handling had degenerated to barely-acceptable levels. This left it as a fighter with an inferior performance, armament and range.

The default fighter….

The main reason the Spitfire kept on weighing down British industry after it should have been retired was not its inherent brilliance but seemingly the lack of an alternative. The Hawker Typhoon, which was meant to replace it, wasn’t up to the job and the Air Ministry failed to change tack early enough. It’s not that there weren’t possibilities – in 1939, Martin-Baker was commissioned to develop a design to replace the Hurricane and Spitfire and came up with the brilliant MB.3, which outperformed most contemporary designs and was very simple to build and maintain.

Unfortunately, Martin-Baker was a cottage industry, and James Martin was chronically incapable of finishing anything on time, being continually sidetracked by different jobs (the company had also been commissioned to develop gun installations and cockpit canopies) and striving for tiny gains at the expense of delay after delay. Had the design been given the support of a major manufacturer, or even handed over in its entirety to, say, Hawker or Bristol, a viable Spitfire replacement that did not hoover up man-hours in the same way could have been in service by 1943.

The wrong aeroplane…

If the Air Ministry had decided not to push the MB.3, there were still possibilities. In 1942, Fairey was pushing to build P-51 Mustangs under licence, and it would have made more sense to switch British production to this type. Not only was the Mustang faster with a less powerful engine, and had the legs to take it to Berlin and still dogfight, it had been designed with simplicity and ease of production in mind. But Spitfire production continued, and the Second Tactical Air Force even ended up with Spitfires it didn’t particularly want to replace worn-out fighter-reconnaissance Mustang Mk. Is that there were no longer replacements for. Bizarrely, the RAF ended up using Spitfire Mk. XVIs as dive bombers when A-36s, Mustang Mk. IIs, Thunderbolts or Tempests would have made a good deal more sense.

As it was, the Allies won the war, so it was a moot point. But for Britain’s industry to have expended so much effort at a crucial time, building 22,000 over-complicated aircraft that were not especially competitive in the second half of the war, deserves much greater examination.

Matthew Willis @NavalAirHistory

Writer and aviation history journalist working on naval aviation projects. Author, novel Daedalus and the Deep, co-editor short story anthology A Seeming Glass. Editor of

(reposted from hush-kit)

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21 responses to Dismantling the Spitfire Myth

  1. Good article, but I’m curious as to what made it so difficult to build? Seems a main point, but no explanation.

    • It was the ‘stressed skin’ method that was found to be so time-consuming, both to build and to repair. The Hurricane, on the other hand, was a tubular construction and could be repaired in a matter of hours.

    • And on top of that, stressed-skin construction of a compound-curved semi-elliptical wing – Supermarine really hadn’t gotten the Spitfire fully productionized until Castle Bromwich into the production scheme and started producing the Mk II. Even then, Spitfire production was ‘interesting’ well into the war.

  2. interesting…looks like billings and mitchell were in the good old boy club [the powers that be …the illuminati today…we just called them the man}…sometimes the people selected played on the right sports team or went to the right finishing school the same way generals and admirals are often selected today…a fine and loved airframe non-the-less…a lot of times the war dept or pentagon will take a perfect weapon and gold plate it…the F-16 was S— hot till they added 4′ to each wing so it could be multi roll making it an average fighter…the a3 buffalo was not as good as the a2 and the f4f-4 not as good as the f4f-3… it just gained weight…many times the brass will choose an inferior design to promote their job chances in retirement…remember the intelligence officer that tried to call off “Market Garden” but was told the operation was too far along…maybe the fog of war also

  3. Nice post, and an interesting perspective. One of my favorite drums to beat is that of “unintended consequences,” and working hard to project possible ramifications of proposed courses of action. Hindsight of course is a marvelous lens that none of us possess until it’s too late, and it is always difficult to put ourselves into the “real” context that surrounded historical decisions or courses of action. I think the last paragraph wraps the article nicely – it was a “moot point,” and it wasn’t a single aircraft or equipment provision decision that won the war, but was a confluence of many factors.

  4. Isn’t that the wreck of Koga’s A6M2 in the first picture?

    • Tom, I too don’t think this is anything to do with a Spitfire, but I’ve (faithfully) reproduced the information as offered. The other documentation and photos however I do think are relevant. Naturally, someone may have the answer and will clarify.

      • PS I’ve asked the same question of the original hush-kit posting. It may be a symbolic ‘debunking’ image used to illustrate the theme of the article, albeit somewhat misleading. If they respond, I’ll update.

        • Sure looks like a radial engine behind the prop.

        • No need. It’s easily found online – it is the Koga’s Zero with a US Navy recovery team on Akutan Island, the Aleutians, ca July 1942.

          • Weirdly, I’ve never seen any replies to speak of on the hush-kit site, but this subject has attracted a lot of attention. Someone added that it was not aircraft production that was the issue, but lack of trained pilots during the Battle. The response was:

            ‘Replacements may not have been an issue but expense of effort surely was, and a shortage of aircraft for Bomber Command and the Fleet Air Arm was a big issue – industrial effort that was that could have been freed up but for the need to build Spitfires. (There’s also an economic point – the UK had to supplement its fighter strength by buying fighters in large numbers from the US, and Lease-Lend effectively bankrupted Britain by 1941. If it hadn’t been for the US, replacements certainly *would* have been an issue). I would also dispute ‘many more’ Spits being produced than were needed during the BoB – there were desperate efforts to get Castle Bromwich factory up and running, which failed until it was too late, while for most of the Battle, Spitfire production only managed 20-30 a week, barely outstripping operational losses, and that’s without aircraft under repair taken into consideration. The Spitfire had some flying attributes that helped green pilots, but this was of relatively low importance, probably not crucial – the main thing that helped pilots survive and become effective was combat experience. If you managed to get through a few weeks, you’d probably do well whatever you were flying. And the Hurri also had attributes that helped less trained pilots – wider-track undercarriage helped landing and take-off, steadier gun platform with less diffusion of gunfire etc. The Mustang was less sweetly handling than the Spitfire, but that didn’t matter – it beat the Luftwaffe in its own skies.’

            Still no response re Zero image query. Perhaps its obtuse choice is better understood by some than others!

  5. Rob, this most informative article has, in the vernacular, “popped my balloon” in regard to the venerable Spitfire. Never knew all that stuff (except for the Hurricane being a somewhat better ‘fighter’ for the purpose). Thanks.

    • These facts have been kicking around for ages, but I hadn’t come across an article that pulled them together so directly, so thought it would be useful to forward.

  6. Single mission aircraft vs the “all singing, all dancing” aircraft so beloved by the mission creep folks.
    Spitfire, in my opinion, was a classic point defense interceptor. Range would not be a factor, at least while fighting over the homeland.
    As the war (always somehow a surprise to the big brains) changed, and moved further afield, playing catchup ensued. Add tanks internally and hang ’em on the outside. Bombs! Rockets!
    ME-109, same story. Again, lack of range for the Bob, then, with E7 et seq, aux tank.
    Both produced until wars end.
    As to why didn’t they change to another fighter, a look at the Truman Commitee here in the US might be illuminating.
    And building the product of some upstart country, who used to belong to us- surely we can do better than that. Letting the side down. Bad form. LMF. Black hats. (Illuminatti!)
    A lot of barely useful stuff got built to keep up the manufacturing capacity.
    Not to mention satisfying the politicians in whose states the plants were located. Gosh, stuff like that just don’t happen!
    Boy, it’s a good thing I’m not prejudiced for that Spitfire!

  7. Why does the header photo have a Zero?

    The Spitfire is about Sovereignty. British technology produced at a time when America wasn’t willing to comment to Britain until after December 7 1941. With out the Spit during the Battle of Britain and the fight for North Africa and more importantly Malta there wouldn’t have been enough a/c that could meet the Luftwaffe with the appropriate numbers and flight envelope that could take on German air force. The P-47 and the Mustang came later in 42. This is a paper has the advantage of hindsight and is a dissertation that is based on the view of a engineer who doesn’t have the Grim Reaper knocking on his door. If it wasn’t for the British approaching North American there wouldn’t have been a P-51 with a Rolls
    Royce Merlin. At first the AAF didn’t want a foreign a/c powered by a Allison engine and the Brits got the bright idea of adding the Rolls… This is a apple and oranges comparison that doesn’t consider the time line of history or the politic of the times too. Its a arm chair debate at best.

    Reality what concept.

    • Some interesting observations. As to the Zero image, hush-kit editors have removed it and replaced it with the lead photo seen above. As to the advantage of hindsight, that’s what history is – the ability (and luxury) of observing complete time lines in a comfortable perspective. If you want to offer these insights directly, it might be interesting to go to the hush-kit website and add a comment. I’m sure they’d appreciate the debate. Since I looked at the post (there) last week there have been a number of well-argued comments supporting your views, or similar, so it’s clear the aircraft remains a talking point even now, which is why I reposted the article here – as a point of debate, and interest.😉

  8. I must say I agree with Greg Kittinger – a restrained & thoughtful comment on a subject we could argue – sorry, debate for ever. It is perhaps worth noting that there were only a very few fighter aircraft produced right throughout the war, but a great many more types which, for a variety of reasons, didn’t make it. As a modeler, the Spitfire is still a firm favourite. In terms of ease of “manufacturing” I can just about make one with my eyes shut to the extent that I have built 1/1,000ths of the total Spitfire production! A point worth making: It seems to me that most mistakes are made by people who don’t listen & this applies to aircraft design as well as many other things in this life.

  9. Thanks Rob for this – its an interesting point of view and argument – and maybe the Spitfire these days is all about Myth but…
    I’m with Stephen and Greg on this one.
    The Spitfire’s complex construction is well known, but in 1940 it was (one of) the most advanced fighter aircraft available.
    The idea that the RAF in 1940 would have been better off without it ( an aircraft at the beginning of its development life) in favour of more Hurricanes ( the aircraft it was replacing and nearing the end of its development life) doesn’t really hold up IMHO.The Hurricane had a deficit in performance to the Me 109 in 1940, and this deficit steadily widened as time went on. The spitfire in contrast was upgraded to meet and surpass the performance of improved German aircraft.
    Yes it would have been nice if the Spitfire was easier to build and Supermarine worked on improving that throughout the war.
    As for the Mustang did the RAF need another excellent low level fighter along with the Typhoon and the Tempest?
    It was only with the merlin 60 series that the US Army Air Corp got the Mustang that the RAF always wanted!
    The Merlin 60 was developed for the Spitfire so maybe without the Spitfire and the Merlin 60 the Mustang may have remained one of those promising designs that never quite made it – who knows?
    I am sure the RAF would have liked more Mustangs sooner, ( it had after all been designed, for the RAF,in part to deal with the spitfires shortcomings – short range, complex structure) however with the USAAC having first dibs on them , not to mention packard built merlins – it was perhaps inevitable that it had to rely on the spitfire again to show its adaptability.
    A good point about manufacturing effort perhaps, but i think that was only ever one part of the picture – and as an argument, I think, that’s as far as this one goes.Cheers everyone.

  10. The Spitfire’s tactical strong points are probably among the most poorly understood of WWII fighters. It is generally an overrated but capable design. Here are some salient points of its tactical advantages/disadvantages.

    #1: It did not turn that well (inferior to both the Hurricane and the FW-190A in prolonged turning, according to RCAF pilot John Weir, and many combat accounts demonstrate this very well, including those by top ace Johnny Johnson): The Spitfire’s wing for some reason displayed poor lift while turning, but excellent 3 axis control while stalling: This, combined with overly light elevators, allowed it to stall and turn itself to point “inside the circle”, in effect allowing to briefly shoot “across the circle” while stalling: The powerful 20 mm wing guns often made this brief advantage pay off. Most of the time, with an average 2% hit rate, the target had to be shot at a long time, which made turning dogfights far more important in WWII than is generally acknowledged.

    The Spitfire sustained turns poorly, so much so Russian tactics had to be adapted when they used this aircraft (they even tried removing the outer guns to help it), the Russians being forced to use instead dive and zoom tactics to which the Spitfire was well adapted (as did most users of the Spitfire, including the RAF). However, its light elevators did allow some harsh initial turns at high speed, giving the impression of a high turn rate after a dive, again helpful in diving attacks.

    #2 It rolled poorly: This is well established, but less well-known is that it was actually one of the poorest of all WWII fighters in roll at higher speeds: This was not so pronounced at high altitudes, because the thinner air was more forgiving to its flexible wings, and its low lateral stick leverage.

    #3 It was a great diver: For extreme high speed dives from high altitudes, it was one of the better WWII propeller fighter aircraft, superior in diving speed even to the US fighters, until denser lower altitude air was encountered, where its lack of wing rigidity allowed US fighters to overcome it. Again this was a feature favourable to diving and zooming attacks, which is how it was actually used.

    #4 It was an extremely good climber: Little emphasized is that the +25lbs boost LF Mk IX probably had the highest climb rate of any WWII piston engine fighter below 20 000 feet. Again a feature helping vertical fighting and dive and zoom tactics.

    As a fighter it was forgiving to novice, and its engine kept up with the pace of development: Its short range severely reduced its usefulness.

    One on one it was a match to the Me-109, but much inferior to the FW-190A in overall maneuverability, particularly for roll and sustained horizontal turns, but far superior on the vertical plane where the 190 was very poor. It roughly matched the P-51, and far outclimbed the P-47, but like the FW-190A, the P-47 was better on sustained horizontal turns, which is why almost all combat accounts have the big fighter obsessively used in turns, especially vs the Me-109, while the Spitfire climb and dived.

    As to the airframe cost in man-hours, I would point out that the relevance of this may depend on the industry: With an excess of labour and a lack of machinery, and especially materials, it might make sense to go for a labour-intensive design that is economical in materials: The engine is the most costly item in any case… Pilot training is also much more costly in time, and the pilot was always more valuable than his machine. In any case, whatever the case may be, the Spitfire did not provide any large superiority except for its climb rate, and maybe its handling at very high altitudes (25 000 feet plus).


  11. ” In any case, whatever the case may be, the Spitfire did not provide any large superiority except for its climb rate, and maybe its handling at very high altitudes (25 000 feet plus).”

    Well it doesn’t explain why the Brits won the Battle of Britain, given the poor turning, wing twisting and roll rate of the Spitfire. Lets not forget Malta, once the Brits where able to get enough Spitfire Mk V’s onto the Island the Germans where beaten with their superior technology. All of those Me-109F ended up staying in Corsica or Italy. British Pilots being given the latest Marks never pooh poohed the Spit. English pilots had no miss givings taking on Me-109s in the Mk V and when the Fw-190 came on line the Brits developed the Mk IX to keep parity with the Butcher Bird. Chuck Yeager is the only legend to bad mouth the Spit because it couldn’t fly to Berlin and back. If your a Gamer and want a a/c to dominate the playing field …all of the legends have their strengths a weakness and have to be flow to their strengths. One a/c that often get missed is the Grumman Bear Cat which didn’t participate or go into combat during WWII. Some consider it to be the ultimate piston engine. fighter.

  12. The pilots got around the Spitfire’s poor low speed horizontal maneuverability by keeping speeds high and using vertical maneuvers. The Spitfire excelled at high speeds and as a dive and zoom fighter, and that is how it was used successfully, probably in Malta as well…

    What I described is entirely based on combat pilot accounts, while the traditional view of the Spitfire is based on test pilot accounts: For a test pilot like Eric Brown, the FW-190A could never compete with the Spitfire in a turning match, but ask a frontline 32 kill pilot like top Ace Johnny Johnson, and you will find the reality he describes is completely the reverse…

    The Spitfire Mk IX was compared to a Spitfire Mk V, and the only large advantage to a Mk V that was found was its tremendous climb rate (the Mk IX was deemed equal in turns, but was in fact slightly inferior to a Mk V): This climb rate is what allowed the Mk IX to outperform the FW-190A when climbing above it and diving to attack: Vertical maneuvers were the bane of the FW-190A, which was limited to being a superior turn fighter, and the fact test pilot Eric Brown advocated the opposite shows you how removed test pilots were from the front line reality… This is despite Eric Brown having had one personal encounter with the FW-190A while in a Spitfire: Neither could get hits, probably because both were flying opposite to their aircraft’s predilection…

    A 1943 Russian article in “Red Fleet” did a detailed analysis fo the FW-190A and the Me-109G’s relative strengths, and they described from frontline experience how the FW-190A was the better turner and was used exclusively in horizontal maneuvers at lower speeds and altitude (The FW-190A will inevitably offer turning combat at a minimum speed”), while the Me-109G flew above that and made diving attacks (this pattern remained in effect all the way to Boddenplatte in 1945). They found vertical maneuvers and maintaining high speeds were the best way to defeat the FW-190A, while they found the Spitifire inadequate for slow horizontal maneuvers, which were traditional Russian tactics against the Me-109, tactics that had to be changed while using the Spitfire, or against the FW-190.

    Interestingly, one of the few aircrafts the Russians found that could fight both on the vertical and the horizontal quite well was the early P-39s, but later models became unbalanced and dangerous in a way they never entirely figured out…

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