Spitfire Ascendant


The RAF had learned much during those sixteen weeks of high drama. On 7 November, Air Vice-Marshal Park reported that:

The following changes in minor tactics have been found necessary:

The use of sections of four aircraft instead of three aircraft;

The pilots of a squadron to be trained to work in pairs for defensive fighting instead of working singly;

Formations patrolling on a wider front, instead of in the old “train” of sub-formations, line astern.

The adoption of more flexible formations, instead of the old type of rigid formation.

The general adoption of an above-guard, even when the enemy is attacked from above, instead of all members of a formation going down to engage.

No longer would RAF fighter pilots be committed to battle in the suicidal vic formation. The Commander of 11 Group, which had borne the brunt of the fighting, also reported on the ‘Performance of Enemy and Our Own Fighters’:

Below 20,000 feet: during intensive air fighting over the continent in May and June, the superiority in performance and armament of our eight-gun fighters was one of the principal causes of the very high morale of our pilots. Until about the close of September 1940, our fighters had little difficulty in dealing effectively with enemy fighters. Most engagements during this period took place at heights below 20,000 feet, where our Spitfires and Hurricanes, although in the case of the Hurricane not as fast, are more manoeuvrable and effective. At first the Me 110 was looked upon with a certain amount of awe, but after their first engagement with this type, our pilots were of the impression that it was the easiest of the enemy fighters to deal with, and now regard it with a certain amount of contempt.

It is found that up to about 20,000 feet a Spitfire is faster than both the Me 109 and Me 110. A Hurricane with a constant-speed Rotol airscrew is about as fast as a Me 109 at ground level but becomes slower as height increases. Compared to a Me 110, the Hurricane has little difficulty in overtaking this aeroplane at heights up to about 20,000 feet. Above this height the Me 109 is able to easily out-climb the Hurricane fitted with a constant-speed airscrew, but up to heights of about 15,000 feet a Spitfire with a constant-speed airscrew is just able to out-climb the Me 109. Both Hurricanes and Spitfires are able to out-climb the Me 110.

Above 20,000 feet: All types of enemy fighters are now said to be faster above 20,000 feet. This undoubtedly due to the fact that their engines are fitted with two-stage superchargers. Our fighters, fitted with engines with single-stage superchargers, are most effective between heights of 15,000 feet and 20,000 feet, and above this the power falls off rapidly, with a consequent falling off in performance both in manoeuvrability and speed.

As a result of this our fighters have found themselves at a serious disadvantage in the present stage of the battle, when engagements are taking place at heights above 25,000 feet and sometimes above 30,000 feet. At these heights the performance of enemy fighters is vastly superior to that of ours and it is only as a result of clever tactics that our pilots are making the best of this situation and obtaining a certain amount of hard-earned success.

As the Battle of Britain had worn on and the Luftwaffe’s experience in fighting aircraft with performance comparable to its Me 109 increased, it had sensibly pushed up the altitude at which the 109 operated – because it was there that the 109 had the edge. Because fighter combat is dictated by height and surprise, the RAF could not simply fly within the height-band at which their aircraft performed best. To do so would have simply invited 109s to bounce them out of the sun and from high above. So the RAF had to respond and take the 109 on at high altitude. The only British fighter capable of doing so was the Spitfire. As Park also wrote of the Hurricane Mk II ‘… although the engine is designed to operate at 30,000 feet, the aeroplane itself was never meant to operate at this height, and no amount of increase in engine power will have the effect of turning it into a high altitude fighter’. And for all the Hurricane’s attributes, that was its failing. Fighter combat was changing, with very high altitude increasingly becoming the decisive factor. As the Hurricane could not compete in that environment, its days as a front-line interceptor were numbered. Park considered that in future fighters should be able to achieve speeds of over 400 mph and heights of ‘at least 40,000 feet’. In due course the Spitfire would do just that.

If there was one thing for which the Hurricanes earned respect from its pilots, though, it was its ability to absorb great damage and keep flying. Galland wrote of a Hurricane that refused to go down: ‘I had damaged her so badly she was on fire and ought to have been a dead loss. Yet she did not crash, but glided down in gentle curves. My flight companions and I attacked her three times without a final result. As I flew close alongside the wreck, by now thoroughly riddled, with smoke belching from her, from a distance of a few yards I saw the dead pilot sitting in his shattered cockpit, while his aircraft spiralled slowly to the ground as though piloted by a ghostly hand’. Douglas Bader also enthused about the Hurricane: ‘Best of all it was a marvellous gun platform. The sloping nose gave you a splendid view, while the eight guns were set in blocks of four in each wing, close to the fuselage. The aeroplane remained rock steady when you fired. Unlike the Spitfire with its lovely elliptical wing which sloped upwards to the tip, the Hurricane’s wing was thicker and straight. The Spitfire was less steady when the guns were firing because, I have always thought, they were spread further along the wing and the recoil effect was noticeable’.

Other pilots remembered the Hurricane:

Pilot Officer John Greenwood, 253 Squadron:

We thought they were wonderful to fly after Battles. We thought they were great. But of course they weren’t really. When we went into battle with them we found that the Hurricane was far, far inferior to the Me 109.

Sergeant Charles Palliser flew Hurricanes with 17, 43 and 249 Squadrons:

If you offered me two Spitfires and one Hurricane, I’d take one Hurricane. Because they were TOUGH! They were like a cruiser, not a destroyer. And you could really fly. I had one of them where I had nearly no control … my rudder was hanging on by a thread and one of my ailerons was shot off, and the fuselage was damaged. But I was still flying! The engines, of course, were the same as a Spitfire, but the Hurricane flew at about twenty-five miles mph less than a Spitfire. I reckon I flew Spitfires for a week. I thought “Gee whiz, I’d like to take it home”. You know, the controls and what it could do. It was really faster than the Hurricane, was much smaller than the Hurricane. Anyway I went back to my Hurricane and said “This is for me!” And that was that. The Hurricane always got me home.

Sergeant Leonard Bartlett flew Hurricanes with 17 Squadron:

The Hurricane was a follow on from biplanes. It had a metal wing but it was of fabric construction aft of the cockpit. It was immensely strong, had a wide undercarriage, and you could do anything with it. It would get you out of trouble. Flying – it was immensely strong and a very good aeroplane. The Spitfire was different. You got into a Hurricane, but somehow, a Spitfire tended to fit more around you. It had a much narrower undercarriage. Airborne it was fine. Once airborne both were great. But I think landing separated them. On runways you had to be very careful with a Spitfire, or you were in real trouble.

Sergeant Tony Pickering was with 501 Squadron at Kenley and Gravesend:

One day I came across a lone Ju 88 somewhere over Kent, heading back to sea. I thought that it would be no problem to catch up the Hun, press the gun button and that would be it. Suddenly he just pulled away from me, just left me standing, had at least an extra fifty mph on me, and that was the last I saw of him. The Hurricane just wasn’t fast enough. We even used to bend the throttle levers in flight, trying to squeeze a bit more boost out of the Merlin. A Spitfire would have caught that Ju 88. In the Hurricane’s favour was that it could take a terrific amount of punishment but still keep flying, whereas the Spitfire couldn’t take quite as much.

Although the Hurricane was later used in ground-attack roles, carrying both bombs and sometimes armed with four cannons made possible by its strong wing, its performance limitations dictated its complete replacement by the Spitfire – its cannon problems resolved – as the RAF’s front-line day fighter in 1941. No-one could argue, however, that the Hurricane and its pilots had not done sterling work when it mattered most, however – and that was during the dark days of 1940.

The fighting in 1940 had shown that good though the Me 109 was – unlike the Me 110 which was found fundamentally wanting as a day-fighter – it was not perfect. In September 1940, the RAE at Farnborough comprehensively reported on ‘Messerschmitt 109. Handling and Manoeuvrability Tests’. The aircraft’s ‘most serious defect’, the report concluded, was the 109’s ‘inability to roll fast in a high speed dive because of its heavy ailerons’, although the Spitfire, it said, was ‘about as bad’. In Germany, it had already been decided that the Me 109E had come to the end of its useful development and a replacement, the Franz, had been produced. The new Me 109F was curvaceous, whereas the Me 109E was angular in appearance. Tellingly, it had elliptical wings – like a Spitfire. Redesigned radiators, flaps, a symmetrical engine cowling, removal of tail struts, new supercharger intake and a smaller rudder completed the airframe package. The fighter was also powered by a new and improved engine, the DB 601E. In the battles of 1941 and 1942, the Me 109F would prove a tough adversary, until, of course, the FW 190 appeared and, in the words of the top scoring RAF fighter pilot of the Second World War, Air Vice-Marshal Johnnie Johnson, ‘saw us all off’. And so fighter development went on, with both sides effectively locked into an arms race that would soon involve the Americans – who were able to produce the long-range offensive fighter that both sides needed so badly in 1940: the North American P-51 Mustang. The American designers, though, had the benefit of the RAF’s early wartime experience and the P-51 only became far and away the best fighter of the Second World War once it was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. So in terms of long-term Allied fighter design and development, the British experience in producing the Hurricane and Spitfire was essential.

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