The Supermarine Spitfire is one of the most iconic aircraft of all time. Between 1937 and 1947 over 20,000 of them were built and in those 10 years, Spitfires changed dramatically from the Mk 1 to the Mk 24. More powerful engines, new wing shapes, different armaments, and more were added to the Spitfire in an attempt to maintain its edge over enemy aircraft. The Supermarine Spitfire was the only Allied frontline fighter in complete and continuous development all the way through the Second World War.

IWM Duxford has Spitfires from all the way through production, in fact, there are probably more Spitfires gathered together at Duxford than anywhere else in the world. From the very early Mk 1 all the way through to the very last Mk 24. In this episode of Duxford in Depth, Graham Rodgers looks at how the Spitfire evolved by taking us through just a few of Duxford's collection of Spitfires including marks 1, 5, 9, 15, and 24.

From Mk1 to Mk24

We are now standing next to one of the most iconic aeroplanes probably of all time. We're standing next to a mark 1 Spitfire. A very clever designer that some of you may have heard of, a gentleman called Reginald Mitchell, this was his design that he came out with. Initially, ideas we're going to call it the 'Shrew', but a lot of pub argument later the name became synonymous with this aeroplane - the Spitfire. Spitfires did not stay like this.

Between 1937 and 1947 Spitfires came out in their thousands, over 20 000 of them. Obviously, war is a terrible thing, but one thing it does bring is lightning-quick development between the combatants involved. In the seven years of Spitfires that were actually in production, they changed quite dramatically from the mark 1 to the mark 24 which we have here in Airspace which we'll see later.

Archive Footage: "This is Britain's best-known fighter aircraft the Spitfire. We Americans in Britain know the Spitfire, we've seen it in action, many of us have flown it in action. Believe me the Spitfire has got what it takes. During the Battle of Britain, a mere handful of Hurricanes and Spitfires worked with Britain's anti-aircraft command, and between them, they knocked all hell out of the Nazis."

Obviously, Mitchell being a designer of racing aeroplanes the unique and fantastic thing about a Spitfire is its wing. Taking 3 times as many man-hours to build the Spitfire wing as it took Messerschmitt to build a mass-produced 109 wing. Spitfire's beautiful elliptical wing is very thin, if you press the side of it it's like the back of a fork. But the disadvantage is you have to splay the guns out quite a lot. The cannons initially that were put into Spitfires were not popular. Because of the wing, they had to tilt the cannons on the side and if the pilot pulled any high-G manoeuvres, as a fighter pilot would when he's trying to fight for his life, the guns would jam. Another feature of a Mark 1 Spitfire, the ailerons very basic. Irish linen to be precise. Hand-doped and moulded to a streamlined shape as also is the elevator and rudders.

We've come around to the nose of N3200 now, a few things that you might be able to see that are slightly different. One white wing underneath, one black wing underneath for recognition so British gunners wouldn't blast it out the sky if they saw something with a black and white wing. Unfortunately, then the Germans are going to know as well so we canned that idea quite quick. Also here we've got the very, very beautiful and famous Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. In initial design about 990 horsepower, but in fighter trim 1,100 plus. Depending on how good the engineers and the servicing were each squadron you could, get in a mark 1, up to 1,300 horsepower if you got quite a trick mechanic.

Reginald Mitchell, as brilliant as the engineer was, was really not a very well man indeed and unfortunately died at the time he was 42. Mitchell only actually ever saw K5054 his prototype Spitfire fly. After that, all the development was taken over by a very clever gentleman called Joe Smith that oversaw all the development from the mark 1 to the f-24 Spitfire which we'll see later.

Anthony Bartley, 92 Squadron RAF: "In the design of the Spitfire, which is a real beautiful thing to fly. The first Spitfire I flew at Dunkirk was I think a thousand horsepower maybe a thousand two and the final one was in the same airframe was 2,400 horsepower with a two-speed, two-chain supercharge. It was the best aeroplane and everything the Germans admitted it in the end and it and it wasn't a new aeroplane it was just the same airframe designed by R.J. Mitchell who was the great, great designer of the spitfire."

As we've said earlier we're going to be looking at the development of the Spitfire. Now Spitfire started at 1 and ended in 24, but there were lots of different sub marks. Now not all those Spitfires were put into production. For instance, the mark 1s and 2s of the Battle of Britain didn't go straight onto 3s and 4s. The next full production Spitfire was a mark 5. We're going to head over to another of Duxford's historical hangars now hangar 3 to check out the mark 5 Spitfire BM597.

And we're over now with a mark 5 Spitfire so we've moved on now to 1941/42. A few upgrades from the mark 1 and the mark 2. A more powerful engine between 1,300 and 1,400 horsepower. Ailerons now metal, but still with the fabric rudder and elevator. Now we have a fair bit more power, but unfortunately in 1941 a gentleman called Kurt Tank in Germany had invented the Focke-Wolf 190 and a Focke-Wolf 190 could outclass a mark 5 Spitfire in most respects except a high-speed dive from a very high altitude. So to help the mark 5 Spitfire roll out of the way quicker, the beautiful elliptical wing on the end of a Spitfire was clipped off or rather ceased to be put on from here from this stream of rivets here. Not as pretty as the original elliptical wing, but of course in wartime, it hardly matters. But aiding the mark 5 to roll out of the way a lot quicker than it initially could, it couldn't turn as tight because the surface area is not there, but rolling it was a massive advantage to help the mark 5 spitfire.

Archive Footage: "That's how the present Spitfire 5 was evolved. She's essentially the same as Spitfires 1 and 2 but for the squared-off wingtips and most versions will be seen with cannon mounted on the wing."

BM597 has also been a bit of a tv star for those of you that remember the series Foyle's war in the story Foyle''s son is portrayed as a Spitfire pilot and BM597 here starred in quite a few of the scenes. So with engineers trying to wring every square ounce of power out of the mark 5 engine and clipping the ends off the wings the mark 5 Spitfires obviously needed to be replaced so we'll have a look at what replaced them.

Okay so here we are now by the mark 9 Spitfire we're about 1943 now. This aeroplane MH434 started life on the production line at Castle Bromwich as a mark 5 probably. The tail fin is just exactly the same as a mark 5. But by the time it got to the end of the line she was a 9. Rolls-Royce had come up with the two-speed, two-stage and intercooled supercharged engine and a four-bladed constant speed propeller. Two huge radiators underneath to sort the cooling out and with between 1,650 and 1,700 horsepower a mark 9 spitfire could redress the balance against a Focke-Wolf 190. But then when you get that kind of performance again it's down to who saw who first, who's luckiest, or who can get the best out of their fighter aeroplane. A lot of fighter pilots in the wartime had the mark 9 down as their favourite mount of Spitfire. Air Vice Marshal Johnny Johnson, the high scoring Spitfire ace to survive the war, rumour has it that he chased a Focke-Wolf 190 through the rigging of a ship with his mark 9 Spitfire.

When you see the 9 in action you'll notice all the familiar Spitfire features. The wing shape, the curved underside, and small fin and rudder. And don't forget the new features. The longer nose with the pigeon breast beginning to disappear, and the two symmetrical radiators. That's the mark 9.

This particular mark 9 as I mentioned is MH434, arguably the most valuable and most famous Spitfire in the world. There are about 52 airworthy Spitfires now depending on serviceability at the time and MH434, other than an overall, has been airworthy since 1943. MH434 is also a bit of a film star, she has been in just about every movie featuring a Spitfire since the wartime. Operation crossbow with George Peppard and Sophie Loren, the Battle of Britain of course painted up as a mark 1 and mark 2, and lastly that I know of a movie called The Land Girls where she was expertly flown by Mark Hanna. Mark Hanna was the son of squadron leader Ray Hanna of red arrow's fame, and ray and mark expertly flew this aeroplane in air shows all over. But MH434 still beautiful and still famous and still here in hangar three at Duxford for you to come and see.

David Cox, 19 Squadron RAF: "And I flew the mark 1 which we had in 1940 in the battle, the mark 2, the 5, the 9, and the 21. My favourite actually was the 9 because that had a longer nose and had a more powerful air engine. They did the same with the 21, but the 21 it was reminding me rather of trying to put a four-litre engine in a morris mini car or something. It was nose heavy, very good in a straight line, but any manoeuvrability gone. But I never flew them on ops, in fact they hardly ever were used because it was right at the end of the war, but the spit 9 was the I would say the finest."

So here we are in hangar two now at Duxford and behind me is the mark 14 Spitfire. You may notice quite a bit different to the previous Merlin engine Spitfires that we've been looking at, it's because it's powered by the Rolls-Royce Griffon. The Rolls-Royce Merlin up to the mark 9 and the mark 16 and the mark 8 Spitfire had been tuned to about as far as it could go with 1,700 horsepower. A little bit more towards the end of the war right at the end with a hornet. But Rolls-Royce had developed the 36.9 litre V12 Griffon. Nearly 10 litres bigger, over 2,000 horsepower, and a five-bladed propeller to power it. Initially in the mark 12 Spitfire, but mainly into squadron service as a mark 14. Now this aeroplane now equalled just about anything with a propeller at the front that the Germans could put in the sky. The counterpart from Germany at the time was the d-model Focke-Wolf 190. You have two aeroplanes there going through the air at nearly 450 miles an hour. Really I don't care how powerful your piston engine is, with a huge 12 or 13-foot fan at the front of your aeroplane, you're not going to go through the air much quicker than that. Okay we're now going to go over to airspace to see our final Spitfire.

Archive Footage: "Many Spitfires were equipped for special tasks. Some for voter reconnaissance work, some for bombing on special missions, and in 1944 Spitfire pilots had an assignment after their own hearts as hundreds of flying bombs fell to the cannon of Spitfire interceptors. All this time the royal navy's carrier-based Spitfires known as Seafires were hitting the enemy from the sea. These sea fires are playing a leading role in the drama of world events today."

Here we are then, we've come a long way from the mark 1 Spitfire now. As far as I'm aware the only Allied frontline fighter in complete and continuous development all the way through the war. From Mitchell's initial design in 1938 to the last of the Spitfires in 1947. In this time of course the jet was in its infancy and piston-engined aeroplanes were entering the twilight of their career, but as we'll see in a second, a piston-engined aeroplane of this magnitude behind me still had quite a few tricks up its sleeves.

After the war, just because peacetime comes it doesn't mean to say development stops. With a huge 36.9 litre Griffon engine, nearly 10 litres bigger than the initial Rolls-Royce Merlin, nearly twice the power, nearly twice the weight. The 24 the last mark in 1947. Only 80 of them made. From the nose we have a huge, five-bladed propeller spinning the opposite direction to the Merlin engine. The wings very different even looking very elliptical and quite similar. Joe Smith taking on Mitchell's initial design sleeker, faster, and stronger. Huge cannons in the armament, a lower back, and towards the end a huge tail with a huge rudder to counteract the forces of over 2,000 horsepower spinning one way in a five-bladed propeller. The F-24 Spitfire or mark 24 completely different aeroplane to the mark 1 Spitfire. the mark 1 spitfire, beautiful. The mark 24 spitfire at the end or the F-24, quite beastly looking, but still iconically sleek and iconic now as it always has been. This aeroplane VN485 started life in 1947 and was soon swiftly sent over to Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force. VN485 here took her last flight in 1955 for the Queen's flyby birthday parade.

Coming to visit Duxford allows people to see, from all over the world, Spitfires all the way through production. There are more spitfires here at Duxford all gathered together in one place than probably anywhere else in the world. From the very early mark 1s all the way through to the very last mark 24.

Archive Footage: "Whether you can remember each separate mark or not you can't go wrong they're all unmistakably of the Spitfire breed. Deservedly the best-known fighters in the world."

Find out more

Photograph of Spitfire N3200, an airworthy combat veteran Spitfire in the Battle of Britain hangar at IWM Duxford
Activities and Experiences

In the Cockpit: Spitfire N3200

IWM Duxford
Selected dates

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© IWM
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