In January 1933, Adolph Hitler assumed power in Germany. After some political shenanigans, he was named Chancellor (a position analogous to Prime Minister) by the aging president and WWI hero Paul von Hindenburg. When Hindenburg died, at the age of 86 in 1934, Hitler immediately moved to secure almost unlimited political power through his use of terror, manipulations, and false promises.
Hitler was vocal about ignoring the stipulations put on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI and prohibited Germany from rebuilding its military. In particular, Hitler declared that since Germany was a sovereign nation it had the right to modernize its military, and by God, no mere treaty was going to make him give up that right.
The news from Germany awoke Great Britain; their planners realized that if there was going to be another war, England would probably be one of the first targets. So, first priority was to modernize its aircraft, many of which were wooden biplanes left over from WWI.
England enlisted the aid of their top designer, Reginald J. Mitchell, who was much beloved by pilots because he always considered their safety as his top priority. He immediately began work on a new fighter. By 1937, it was obvious that the Luftwaffe would be flying Messerschmidt’s new ME-109, so Mitchell set about developing a plane which would even the odds.
His new plane, called the Spitfire, combined a number of recent innovations. First, the wings were thin and elliptical, unusually wide from to back, meaning eight machine guns could be mounted on the wings. Further, the wings were twisted in such a way to change the stall characteristics. This meant that the Spitfire could pull into a tighter turn than any plane chasing it. The landing gear was retracted and stowed within the body; this reduced drag and allowed greater speed.
It used a Rolls Royce Merlin engine generating 1450HP, could reach 32,000 feet, and traveled at 360mph. It had a range of about 500 miles. In comparison, the Messerschmidt ME-109 also had a range of 500 miles and a cruising speed of 360mph, but the service ceiling topped out at 12,000 feet. Plus the Spitfire had a much tighter turning radius.
While the Spitfire provided air cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk, its first real test came when Hitler launched the invasion of Great Britain. He knew that before that could be accomplished he needed control of the air, so on June 22, 1940 he threw 900 fighters and 1300 bombers into the air over the English Channel. Hitler had expected that the war would be over in a week, and was furious that England put up stiff resistance. The Battle of Britain lasted until October, and when it was over, Germany still didn’t have control of the skies over England. This prompted Winston Churchill to declare, “never have so many owed so much to so few.”
In late 1943 Spitfires powered by Rolls-Royce Griffon engines developing as much as 2,050 horsepower began entering service. Capable of top speeds of 440 mph with ceilings of 40,000 feet, they were used to shoot down V-1 “buzz bombs.” If they couldn’t actually shoot them down, some RAF pilots discovered that if they got close enough and just nudged one of the V-1’s wings with one of its own, it was enough to throw off the rocket’s trajectory, causing it to fall harmlessly away from populated areas.
In all, 20,351 Spitfires were produced for the RAF. If you’d like to buy one, they’re available on the internet starting at about $3,400,000.
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