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Posts Tagged ‘Supermarine Spitfire’

In the madness and chaos that is war, there have been many, many times when soldiers have shot at their own comrades, mistaking them for the enemy.  With his head down in a foxhole at night, it’s hard to know for sure if the guy approaching is on the same side.  Maybe a fellow Marine is out of position and his buddies open fire.  A fighter pilot may accidentally drop his bombs a little short of the target, spraying death among his own.  A tank may look, from a distance, like one belonging to the enemy.

We call these “friendly fire” incidents, and they drive commanders, politicians, and the general population crazy.

Back on September 6, 1939, the British called it The Battle of Barking Creek.

Having declared war on Germany for their invasion of Poland, the British war was now just three days old.  And since the war was being fought in Poland, British pilots hadn’t really seen the enemy, they hadn’t seen an enemy plane, they weren’t familiar with their own planes in combat, and they weren’t really used to air combat at all.

Not good.

So when the air raid sirens sounded, the Spitfires scrambled, looking for an enemy that, as it turns out, didn’t exist.  It was a false alarm.  But unbeknownst to the inexperienced pilots, some Pilot Officers flying Hawker Hurricanes were also sent up and followed from a distance.

And while you’d think the Spitfire guys would know what other planes in their own arsenal looked like, you’d be wrong in the thick of the first “air attack” of the war.  The guys flying the Hurricanes got mistaken for Germans flying Messerschmitts and were summarily attacked.  Both were shot down and one of the pilots was killed…the first British pilot to be killed in “combat” in World War II.

But as is the case with many of these tragic occurances, much was learned.  The British learned that some of their pilots were woefully inept at aircraft identification, and they learned that their radar systems weren’t nearly as good at identifying enemy aircraft formations as originally thought.  These lessons, brought about by unfortunate death, better prepared them for the time when enemy formations were really coming in anger…during the Battle of Britain.

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I needed to give a quick shout-out of congratulations to Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson.  Called up from the Rays’ AAA affiliate to spot-start a couple of weeks ago, Jeremy did just more than just give the regular starters a night off…the 23-year-old’s first major-league start was a 7-inning thing of beauty, resulting in his first win.  Immediately optioned back to AAA, he was called up again eight days later, this time to shut down the Detroit Tigers for 7 innings.  And today?…6 innings, a 3rd quality start, and his 3rd win.  He’s now the first Rays pitcher to win his first 3 decisions as a pro.  And Jeremy is from the Des Moines area…it’s a feel-good, local-boy-makes-it story.  Way to go, Jeremy!!

August 15, 1940 later came to be known as “Black Thursday.”  But this important date in the Battle of Britain wasn’t named as such by the British, who had been defending their homeland against Luftwaffe bombers and fighters for weeks on end.

The term “Black Thursday” came from the German side, the side that since the fall of France in June had been preparing to invade England.  And it wasn’t named for the damage the Germans inflicted, but rather for that which they received.

The German plan was a coordinated attack aimed at airfields in the northern part of England and, on the surface, it made good sense.  Send fighters and dive-bombers across the Channel (from the east) to draw the Royal Air Force into the skies, where they would be shot down.  Then follow up with the heavier bombers (from Norway and Denmark to the north) to take out the airfields themselves.  It was nothing less than a full-out attempt to destroy Fighter Command.

German intelligence believed that recent attacks south of London would have drawn off significant forces, leaving the north less protected.  German intelligence was wrong.

But more than that, intelligence badly underestimated the number of airplanes left in the British inventory.  In his book With Wings Like Eagles, Michael Korda writes, “…despite Beppo Schmidt’s optimistic estimate that the British were down to about 200 fighters, Fighter Command in fact began August 15, at 0900 hours, with 672 serviceable fighters, of which 233 were Spitfires and 361 were Hurricanes.  These were not a lot with which to hold off more than 1,000 enemy aircraft, but a lot more than Goring supposed.”

The German planes came in bigger and bigger waves throughout the day.  RAF pilots in the north, jealous of their southern comrades who “got all the action”, were now suddenly presented with an unbelievable sight…the sky was filled with German bombers.  And even more tantalizing?…they were almost completely unescorted.

The RAF lads had a field day, slicing through bomber formations, blasting one heavy after another from the sky.  Most of the bombers simply dropped their bombs in the water and turned tail for home.  Hitting targets from 20,000 feet was their game.  Dodging fighters with no fighter protection at all was suicide.

The RAF flew 974 sorties that long day, losing 30 aircraft.  The Luftwaffe lost 75 aircraft.  Korda continues, “Even not counting the number of German aircraft that arrived home seriously damaged or obliged to crash-land on return, losses among the bombers and the twin-engine escorts were so high – approaching 10 percent, or twice what the RAF Bomber Command would consider an “acceptable” rate of loss – that Luftflotte 5 never again attempted a mass attack in daylight.”

These terrible results, combined with the poor results of Eagle Day (which we’ll cover someday) made it readily apparent that the German “softening up” for Operation Sealion wasn’t going nearly as well as hoped.

Recommended Reading:  With Wings Like Eagles

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In the fall of 1940, the British were withstanding the Blitz, and Adolf Hitler had already said goodbye to his old love (Operation Sealion…the invasion of Britain) and was flirting with a new interest…the invasion of the Soviet Union.  This, to a small degree, gave the island redoubt a bit of rest from her labors and a chance to evaluate her situation…which wasn’t too good.

All alone in Western Europe, she was besting the German onslaught, aided by the strength of her people, the will of her Prime Minister, the tenacity of her pilots, and the quality of the Supermarine Spitfire.  But taking the fight to the enemy would require more of all of them, particularly the airplanes.  The Spitfires, fighting over Britain, were able to mask the only real shortcoming they had: very short range.  Going on the offensive, however, would require more than just defending the homeland.

As improved (read: longer-range) versions of the Spitfire hit the drawing boards, the British turned to America for help.  The closest fighter to the Spitfire in the U.S. inventory was the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, an extremely maneuverable but rather slow aircraft.  But asking Curtiss to build more Warhawks was impossible as their factory was already at capacity, so the British turned to North American Aviation and asked them to build Warhawks.

North American president James Kindelberger knew an opportunity when he saw one, and responded that he could build a better plane than the P-40 in less time than it took to re-tool to Warhawk production.  The British took the bet and ordered more than 300.  In an amazing feat of speed and manufacturing prowess, the NA-73X Project (as it was called) produced its first prototype just 117 days after the order was placed.  Two months later, on October 26, 1940, that prototype would take to the skies for the first time.

With smooth handling, good maneuverability, and outstanding range, the plane was faster than the Warhawk at all altitudes.  What’s more, the advanced aerodynamics of the new mark actually made it faster than the Spitfires at medium altitude, despite a distinct horsepower disadvantage caused by use of the Warhawk’s Allison engine.  The British couldn’t help but be pleased that such a quality product could be delivered in such a short time frame.  They began taking delivery of the aircraft, giving it the name Mustang.  The U.S. Army Air Corps would also purchase a few Mustangs, as their terrific low-level performance made them ideal for ground-attack and reconnaisance roles.

October 26th was a good day for North American Aviation.  But the Mustang’s rise was only just beginning and, as we’ll see in the future, developments would turn this “Warhawk replacement” into the finest piston-engined fighter of World War II…and one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane (somebody needs to donate one to me).  This book does it justice.

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In the mid 1930’s, the German Air Force was taking delivery of its primary fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, and it had proven to be a very capable aircraft.  But the Air Ministry was concerned about maintaining its competitive edge.  As Hitler became bolder and the threat of war increased, France and Great Britain began testing and production on advanced aircraft of their own, such as the Dewoitine D.520 and Supermarine Spitfire.

Germany wanted to stay ahead, so they contracted with the Focke-Wulf aviation company to put together a prototype.  Focke-Wulf, the creator of the first true helicopter, had a reputation for ingenuity and innovation and its design leader, Kurt Tank, was well-respected.  Plus, they had the added benefit of not having a major project on which to work.  So they set to it and designed what came to be known as the Fw-190.

First flown on June 1, 1939, the Fw-190 prototype was lauded by test pilots.  It had great power, great speed, great manueverability, strong firepower, and good endurance.  Though it entered service too late to make a difference in the Battle of Britain, the Fw-190A was immediately superior to the Spitfires, as well as the German Bf-109’s at low altitude.

There were a bunch of variants of the 190 that were produced, and they took on nearly every role imaginable, from fighter to attack to close air support and even light bombing.  But I think it’s easiest to break all of them into two basic categories: 190’s with radial engines and those with inline engines.  The former were fitted BMW radial engines and were generally very good performers at low and medium altitudes, but suffered greatly as the fight climbed past 15,000 feet.  To that end, Kurt Tank went to work, modifying the plane and testing various engine configurations.

In the end, an inline engine producing more than 2000 horsepower proved the winning match and was introduced in the Fw-190D models, which were subsequently renamed the Ta152 (“Ta” in honor of Kurt Tank).  While still not fully up to par at high altitude, the new plane was, at medium altitudes, considered superior to all enemy aircraft in Europe, including late-model Spitfires and Merlin-powered Mustangs.  Later variants had even more powerful engines and were among the fastest piston-engined planes produced.

But by this time, Allied bombers and fighters were roaming the skies and destroying German production at will.  So many of the later models came way too late and in too small numbers to really be of any use to the German war effort.

Still, when matched up against the best Allied planes of the day, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 gave a very good account of itself.  It was certainly the best piston-engined plane built in Germany.  More than 20,000 were produced, more than nearly every other aircraft of the period.

Recommended Reading: Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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I was poking around the Internet today and came upon another “today-in-history” event that I had totally missed.  It involved aircraft, and I LOVE aircraft.  More than that, it concerned military aircraft, and I REALLY LOVE military aircraft.  Even more than that, it was about WWII military aircraft and, well, you get the picture…

The Supermarine Spitfire was born in the mid-1920’s in the era of seaplane racing.  In fact, as the name implies, Supermarine was best known as a seaplane company, and was attracted to the Schneider Trophy, which was essentially a drag-race for seaplanes.  Supermarine won the Trophy in 1927 with the famous S.5 (the first real ancestor of the Spitfire), and again in 1929 and 1931 with the S.6 and S.6b, respectively.

The British Air Ministry recognized the need for an upgrade from the bi-planes it was using and on March 5, 1936, a Spitfire prototype made its first flight (lasting about eight minutes) through the air over Southampton, England.  Subsequent flights so impressed the Air Ministry that, within months, the first orders were placed.

And the orders kept coming…and coming.  And war threatened and the orders came.  And war broke and the orders continued.  And the war expanded, and still more were produced.  More than 20,000 Spitfires rolled off assembly lines in variants too numerous to mention. They flew in Africa. They flew in Europe.  The flew in the Mediterranean.  They flew in Scandanavia.  They flew in Australia.  They flew off aircraft carriers as Supermarine Seafires.  But they gained their legendary fame right at home, fighting (and winning) the Battle of Britain (Spring-Autumn 1940).

The Spitfire was quick, powerful, maneuverable, easy-to-handle, and very forgiving.  It’s only real knock was its lack of range (particularly in the early models), but when the plane was most needed (in the skies over England and the English Channel), it fought at home, so range wasn’t an issue.

Spitfires were flown in RAF service into the 1950’s, and in numerous countries longer than that.  And it all began with just eight minutes on this day in March…

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