What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?

World War II saw some of the deadliest aerial combats in history. Here is the list of fighters that gained immortality as a result of this raging inferno.
Christopher McFadden
what-made-spitfire-a-legend.jpg
Spitfire gliding in the sky.

BrettCharlton/iStock 

  • Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine powered the iconic Spitfire.
  • The fighter earned its rightful position in the history of modern combat.
  • Spitfire was known for its excellent maneuverability and agility.

During World War II, the Supermarine Spitfire was one of the most well-known and successful fighter planes. It was also one of the most popular.

Good-looking, with a fitting name, the fighter has become legendary since the dark days of the war.

But what made the fighter successful while others were consigned to the dustbin of history?

Let's take a look.

Why was the Supermarine Spitfire legendary?

First and foremost, it was the poster child for the terrible months of the Battle of Britain. Aside from its beautiful design and iconic bubble canopy, the plane became a rallying cry for the people of Britain during one of their darkest times.

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
What made the Spitfire so good?

The propaganda about the plane helped give the British people more courage, which helped make it almost inevitable that the plane would become a legend. But is the aircraft all that it's cracked up to be?

In short, yes.

According to some sources, 20,341 Spitfires were made, much more than any other combat plane before or after World War II. If the plane weren't up to scratch, the British Royal Air Force would not have invested so many resources into building them.

Making its debut in the Battle of Britain, the Spitfire (along with the Hawker Hurricane) would prove crucial in tipping the scales in the British favor and preventing a German invasion. After this critical battle, the Spitfire would become one of the most famous aircraft.

But what made it such a huge success? Well, it all starts with its humble origins.

Richard Joseph Mitchell, the head designer at Supermarine Aviation Works, is the genius behind the Spitfire. Before the war, Supermarine Aviation Works was a Vickers-Armstrong subsidiary that started making interceptor planes in 1928.

Mitchell designed the Spitfire's elliptical wing, using Beverley Shenstone's groundbreaking buried rivets to give it the smallest possible cross-section.

This gave the Spitfire a speed faster than that of many contemporary fighter planes, including the Hawker Hurricane. Joseph Smith, who had worked with Mitchell before he died in 1937, took over as the leading designer and oversaw the Spitfire's development through several versions after that.

The Supermarine Mark I Spitfire was explicitly designed so that it was easy to add better engines and weapons as technology improved, to make it even better. Which made it easier for the airframe to change over time to keep up with its competitors worldwide.

Another central "unique selling point" of the Spitfire was the design of its cockpit. This was developed to maximize functionality while saving space and provided some of the best visibility of any fighter cockpit during the war.

Next was the aircraft's incredible engine.

The 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce PV-12 engine that powered the iconic Spitfire had 1,000 horsepower and was later given the name Merlin (following a Rolls-Royce tradition of naming their engines after birds of prey).

It was also handy that the name "Merlin" happens to be a magical and powerful mythical character in British history.

Was this a coincidence? We'll let you decide.

The fighter could attain speeds of 360 miles per hour (580 kph) and reach a flight ceiling of 34,000 feet. It had an impressive appearance, with a wingspan of 36 feet 10 inches (11 meters) and a length of 29 feet 11 inches (9 meters).

This combination made the plane faster and allowed it to perform better than its main rival of the day, the German Messerschmitt Bf 109.

But, the aircraft's standout features were its revolutionary elliptical wings and general airframe design.

The Spitfire's elliptical wings were robust, and lightweight, and featured a substantial surface area. This made the Spitfires incredibly maneuverable and able to climb to higher altitudes more quickly.

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
Th wings of the Spitfire are one of its standout features.

It also helped to generate significant amounts of lift for the broad wingspan of the plane. The enormous surface area of the wings also helped provide plenty of room to mount the cannons and machine guns which were eventually added to each wing.

The wings of the Spitfire were also very thin, helping to reduce drag. This is important because they offered significantly reduced air resistance compared to a thicker wing. The wings were additionally constructed using a "cantilever design."

This means they were self-supporting, with all support and structure inside the wing. Older airplanes frequently had many cables and braces to reinforce the wings, all of which increased the dreaded drag.

The strain on the wings rises when airplanes make extremely tight spins. They eventually become unable to support the weight. When this happens, the wings "stall," and the airplane briefly loses control.

The inner wing of the Spitfire would stall before the outer wing, giving the pilots a juddering, trembling sensation. Skilled pilots could take advantage of the shaking without losing control because it was a good indicator that the plane was approaching its limitations.

Its design was also modified to fit several tasks throughout the war. For example, the later "clipped wing" variants were shorter and had less surface area. This was planned for flying at lower altitudes and gave up some lift for better agility, including a faster roll rate.

On other Spitfires, the wing tips were enlarged. At higher altitudes, this provided considerably more lift and enhanced flight. This made fighters very versatile for various roles throughout the war, adding to their reputation and public relations.

It wasn't just a one-trick pony if you like, but its future was by no means certain at the outbreak of the war.

At the start of the war, the British only had 640 fighter planes (Spitfires and Hurricanes) to contend with the Germans' 2,600-strong airborne fleet. Thankfully, Britain rapidly focused on the production and deployment of an increasing number of aircraft as the conflict progressed.

The Royal Air Force also developed a strategic defense based on its planes' capabilities. And this is the main secret of the aircraft's successful defense of Britain.

The Hurricanes pursued German bombers while the Spitfires engaged the fighters. This would, ultimately, cement the aircraft's infamy. Killing fighters in high-octane dogfights is, quite frankly, "cooler" than taking out lumbering bombers.

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But, this strategy certainly paid dividends, with the United Kingdom, as we know it today, victorious during the dark days of 1940. All told, somewhere in the order of 1,887 German aircraft were downed during the Summer of 1940 for the loss of somewhere around 1,023 RAF Fighter Command aircraft lost in battle (as well as another 376 from Bomber Command and 148 from Coastal Command). The approximately 2,660 German casualties included many experienced aircrews, and the Luftwaffe never fully recovered from their loss.

The Spitfire and Hurricane won the day, but their duty was not over. The plane also participated in major battles like D-Day and the air battle for Malta. These conflicts would only further add to the Spitfire's fame and cement its place in history.

So, why was the Spitfire so successful? In short, a combination of great design, great looks, highly competent pilots, strategic placement of the aircraft where it was needed, and a heavy sprinkling of propaganda. To borrow a phrase, it was in the best aircraft of the day in the "right place at the right time."

But boy, was it also a stunner! The best heroes are always good-looking, after all.

What were Spitfire's weaknesses?

The Supermarine Spitfire has, as we've described above, without a doubt earned its rightful position in the history of modern combat. It is an everlasting symbol of the Allies' superiority in aerial combat and the defeat of Hitler's aspirations for global dominance.

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
Did the Spitfire have any faults?

It is hardly surprising that most RAF veterans considered it their preferred battle machine, given its agility and quick maneuverability, which are the stuff of legend in and of themselves.

The charming yet potent Spitfire is not without weaknesses, as with any marvel of military invention. But what were they?

The first and most significant was its engine's tendency to cut out during negative-gravity maneuvers.

But why? In earlier models, like the Mark 1, when executing these actions, the fuel would rise to the top of the "float chamber," starving the fuel valve and resulting in the engine cutting out. The pressure within the float chamber was so high when the plane leveled off that it flooded the engine with an excessively-rich fuel mixture. It is occasionally impossible to start over.

This was a problem, but one that was ultimately cured with a clever bit of engineering. British engineer Beatrice Shilling proposed installing a brass ring within the engine as a stopgap to block the fuel from entering.

The brass ring (referred to by aircraft engineers as "Miss Shilling's orifice") could reduce the leak to a manageable level before pressurized carburetors took their place. Simple, yet incredibly effective.

The next is that, initially, there were too few of them.

While not technically an inherent problem with the fighter, indecision in some aspects of its design delayed production and, ultimately, blunted the fighter's impact in the early months of the war.

But what caused the delay? In short, the design team's inability to decide on Spitfire's wing configuration, and its relative complexity.

There is a lot of evidence that Reginald Mitchell, the Spitfire's Chief Designer, worked from a "hunch" about the elliptical cantilever wing, rather than a scientific demonstration of its effectiveness. According to the historian E. Morgan, the aerodynamic performance of an elliptical wing isn't all that different from a straight tapering wing.

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
The Spitfire is, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful machines ever built.

Furthermore, the fact that German fighter manufacture required only half as many work hours as Spitfire production did not help.

This was partly due to the complexity of the Spitfire's wings; they were incredibly time-consuming to build.

Thankfully, resource issues and highly chaotic German command decisions undermined German advances and may have played as much of a role in the Sptifre's success as its incredible engineering.

Another issue was the Spitfire's relatively long nose and, frankly, its puny landing gear. Although not quite as bad as the former two issues, these design flaws were not ideal.

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
The Spitfire was great, but it had some problems too.

The Spitfire was well-loved by pilots of its day, but many would recall incidents in which Spitfires trying to land frequently tipped onto the lengthened nose, leading to crashes with idle aircraft.

This was caused by Spitfire's center of gravity being too close to the wheels. Despite the Spitfire's tiny landing gear, it was not as terrible as the BF-109, whose narrow and splayed-out landing gear regularly caused ground loops.

In case you are unaware, this is a rapid rotation of a fixed-wing aircraft in the horizontal plane (yawing) while on the ground.

Another issue with this legendary warbird was that it was poorly armed, at least in its early days. During the early years of the war, at least up to the Mark Vb version, the Spitfire came off the production line with a battery of machine guns.

In a design decision set in stone before the outbreak of WWII, it was decided to arm British fighters with Vickers machine guns, not cannons like some of its rivals. While potent, machine guns have a much smaller caliber and "punch" than cannons and, as such, required the Spitfire pilots to be more accurate and precise in order to fill an enemy airframe with enough lead to take it down.

This was rectified in later variants that would come equipped with either cannons or a mix of machine guns and cannons, maximizing the killing potential of the aircraft.

Finally, another issue with the "Spit" was its relatively short range,

Even though it remained a top fighter throughout World War 2, the Spitfire was never a suitable long-distance escort. It is not unexpected that the Spitfire's fuel load was not its strongest, given that it was designed as a short-range interceptor focusing on the rate of climb and speed.

Although there were a number of variants on the theme, the Spitfire fuel system's core stayed essentially the same throughout its lifespan. The Mk I had two internal fuel tanks just in front of the cockpit that held 85 gallons (322 liters) of gasoline split between upper and lower fuel tanks.

The II, V, IX, and XVI Merlin fighter marks all used this configuration. Later variants of the Mk IX and Mk XVI had two 75-gallon (284-liter) tanks beneath the cockpit.

The lower tank was expanded in the Mk VIII (which entered service after the Mk IX) to fill its berth and hold additional fuel, increasing the Spitfire's overall capacity.

In some later Mk IXs, 18-gallon (68-liter) leading-edge bag tanks were also installed. The oil tank was moved from its original "chin" position to the main tank area when the Griffon was fitted into the Spitfire's narrow nose. But, even with these additional fuel reserves, most Spitfire variants had enough fuel for long-range operations.

What makes a great aircraft?

The essential characteristics of a great fighter aircraft are similar to those of a great aircraft in general, but with a few crucial differences.

  • Speed and maneuverability: A great fighter aircraft should have excellent speed and maneuverability, which allows it to outrun and outmaneuver other aircraft in combat.
  • Weapon systems: A fighter aircraft's primary role is to engage in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, so it should have a wide range of weapons systems, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and a powerful cannon.

  • Avionics and sensors: An excellent fighter aircraft should have advanced avionics and sensors, which allow the pilot to detect and engage enemy aircraft, even in the most challenging conditions.
  • Stealth capability: A modern fighter aircraft should have a stealth capability that makes it difficult to detect by radar and other electronic systems; this allows them to operate close to their target undetected.
  • Reliability and maintainability: A fighter aircraft should have a durable design that can withstand the rigors of flight and combat while being relatively easy to maintain.
  • Cost-effectiveness: With modern technology, the cost of fighter aircraft is very high, so they should be cost-effective to operate and maintain.
  • Advanced technology: The aircraft should have the latest technologies such as avionics, communication systems, navigation equipment, electronic warfare, etc.

  • Advanced aerodynamics: An excellent fighter aircraft should have an aerodynamically efficient design, with a shape and structure that promotes stability and reduces drag.

While these are some of the key characteristics important for an excellent fighter aircraft, the specific requirements will depend on the specific mission and the capabilities of potential adversaries.

Was the Spitfire better than the Mustang?

The North American P-51 Mustang and the Supermarine Spitfire were both highly successful and capable fighter aircraft. Both aircraft had strengths and weaknesses, but which, if either, was the best?

Whether one was "better" depends on several factors and whether a direct comparison is possible.

Let us explain. The Mustang was known for its long-range, as it had a longer range than many of its contemporaries and could escort bombers deep into enemy territory. It was also highly successful as a ground-attack aircraft due to its heavy armament and ability to carry much ordnance.

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
Spitfire versus Mustang, who wins?

On the other hand, Spitfire was known for its excellent maneuverability and agility. It was a highly maneuverable aircraft that could out-turn and out-climb many opponents. It was also known for its good high-altitude performance.

In a dogfight situation, the Spitfire had the edge in terms of agility, but the Mustang had the advantage of being faster. The Mustang also had the edge in firepower and could carry bombs or rockets, which most Spitfire variants were not designed to do (though fighter-bomber variants were developed).

The Spitfire was also a lighter and smaller aircraft, making it faster and more nimble than the Mustang.

It's worth noting that the Spitfire was developed for the Royal Air Force (RAF) primarily for the air-to-air role and was tailored for European Theater. The Mustang was developed for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAF) primarily for the long-range escort role and was tailored for the Pacific Theater.

Ultimately, both aircraft were highly successful in their respective roles and played a critical role in the war's outcome. They were considered the best warplanes, and their pilots and opponents respected both.

Was the Spitfire the best fighter in WW2?

We've already seen the raw power of the Supermarine Spitfire and the venerable P-51 Mustang. But, they were not the only superb fighters from the war.

So, what made other aircraft from the ar equally deadly? Let's take a look.

1. The Hawker Hurricane was another formidable war machine

The Hawker Hurricane is another of the war's most iconic aircraft. Distinct in its design, this outstanding aircraft has largely been overshadowed by its cousin, the Supermarine Spitfire.

But, this belies the incredible power and capability of this plane.

Comparisons with its cousin, the Spitfire, are inevitable, but it is important to note that both provided very different roles throughout the war. For this reason, a direct one-for-one comparison is not appropriate.

But, due to its design and general armament, the Hurricane was the best plane for the job when it came to bomber killing. Compared to earlier models of Spitfire, it was marginally slower, couldn't climb as fast, and was less responsive. But when it came to dealing with death in quick order, it was one of the best planes flying.

Being primarily wood and canvas, the aircraft could absorb a lot of damage and, if it survived, was relatively cheap and quick to repair and get back into action. This, in the end, made it an excellent aircraft.

2. The Soviet Yakovlev Yak-3 was another fighter worthy of respect

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
The Yakolev Yak-3 was another great fighter.

The Yakovlev Yak-3 was a Soviet fighter aircraft used during World War II. It was known for its maneuverability and dogfighting capabilities and was considered one of the best warbirds by many pilots who flew it.

One of the reasons that the Yak-3 was so maneuverable is its small size. The aircraft had a relatively small wingspan and was relatively lightweight, which made it highly responsive to control inputs and allowed it to change direction quickly. Additionally, the Yak-3 had a powerful engine that provided it with good speed and acceleration.

The Yak-3 also had a relatively high wing loading, which meant it could fly at high speeds and maintain control at high angles of attack. This made it an excellent dogfighter, as it could outmaneuver many other aircraft in a close-range battle.

Other factors that contributed to the Yak-3's success include its armament, which consisted of a pair of 20mm cannons and a pair of 12.7mm machine guns, and its robust construction, which made it capable of sustaining damage and still being able to return to base.

Additionally, the Yak-3 was relatively easy to maintain, which made it a reliable aircraft that could be used in both offensive and defensive operations.

Finally, Yak-3 was a well-balanced aircraft; it had a perfect ratio between power and weight, it was small but not too small, its armament was not overwhelming but was more than enough for most situations, and the same goes for protection.

3. The Republic P-47D Thunderbolt was a superb aircraft

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
P-47 Thunderbolt was another potent fighter.

The P-47D Thunderbolt was a highly successful fighter aircraft used by the United States during World War II. But what features made it great?

The first was its engine. The P-47D was powered by a large, radial engine that gave it excellent performance at high altitudes. This allowed it to operate effectively in the skies over Europe, where many of the critical battles of the war took place.

The P-47D was also heavily armed, with eight .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the wings. This gave it a formidable punch in air-to-air combat, and it could simultaneously take on multiple enemy fighters.

On top of this, the P-47D was built to withstand a significant amount of damage. It had a sturdy, armored cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks that helped to protect the pilot and the aircraft in the event of an attack.

This made it a relatively safe aircraft for pilots, even in heavy combat.

The P-47D was able to drop bombs and could also be used as a ground attack aircraft; it could carry a considerable bomb load as well as rockets which made it versatile in different types of air-ground operations. The P-47D also had a large internal fuel capacity, giving it a relatively long-range; this allowed it to stay in the air for extended periods, escorting bombers deep into enemy territory and engaging in long-range fighter sweeps.

All those aspects made the P-47D Thunderbolt a well-rounded aircraft that excelled in many different roles and played a critical role in the war's outcome in Europe.

4. Never sell the Mitsubishi A6M Zero short either

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a highly successful fighter aircraft used by Japan during World War II, particularly early in the war.

The A6M Zero had an incredibly lightweight design and powerful engine, which gave it excellent maneuverability and agility. This made it a formidable opponent in dogfight engagements, and it could out-turn and out-climb many of the fighters it faced early in the war.

It had a very low wing loading and good thrust-to-weight ratio, allowing it to fly faster and farther than many opponents. This gave it a significant advantage in early engagements and could outrun many of the fighters it faced.

The A6M Zero was lightly armed compared to many other fighters of the time, it had two 7.7 mm and two 20 mm cannons, but it carried a relatively heavy amount of ammunition, giving it a high fire volume.

The aircraft was designed for ease of maintenance and repair, with a simple and reliable powerplant, lightweight airframe, and high visibility canopy, making it easy to fly. The A6M Zero was an advanced aircraft when it first entered service. It achieved significant victories early in the Pacific War against the (then) unprepared and ill-trained Allied forces.

However, as the war progressed and the Allies introduced newer, more advanced fighters, the A6M Zero's limitations became more apparent. It was outclassed by newer aircraft in many respects, and by the end of the war, it was increasingly vulnerable to attack.

Despite this, the A6M Zero remains one of the most iconic and well-known fighter aircraft of all time, and it played a significant role in the early stages of the Pacific War.

5. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 terrorized the skies over Europe

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 is also a legend from WW2, but why?

The Bf 109 had a sleek, streamlined design and powerful engine, giving it excellent air speed and agility. This made it a formidable opponent in dogfight engagements, and it could outmaneuver many of the fighters it faced.

The Bf 109 was heavily armed with two 7.92mm machine guns in the nose and one or two 20mm cannons in the wings, making it a formidable threat to other fighters; it also had a relatively high ammunition capacity.

The Bf 109 was also built to withstand significant damage. It had an armored cockpit and self-sealing fuel tanks that helped to protect the pilot and the aircraft in the event of an attack. This made it a relatively safe aircraft for pilots, even amid heavy combat.

The Bf 109 was used in various roles throughout the war, including air-to-air combat, ground attack, and reconnaissance. This versatility allowed it to be used in many different theaters and situations, making it a precious asset to the German war effort.

The Bf 109 was flown by some of the most experienced pilots of the war, and it was operated by the German Luftwaffe, one of the war's most potent and experienced air forces.

Despite facing increasingly superior aircraft as the war progressed, the Bf 109 managed to maintain its effectiveness on the battlefield due to its versatility and the skills of the German pilots who flew it.

6. Here's why the Lockheed P-38J Lightning was awesome

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
The P-38 was an menace to enemy fighters and bombers.

The Lockheed P-38J Lightning was a highly successful and versatile fighter aircraft used by the United States during World War II.

The P-38J had two engines and a unique twin-boom design, which gave it excellent performance at high altitudes. It had a top speed of about 425 mph (684 kph) which was very fast for the time and suitable for a twin-engine aircraft.

The P-38J had a relatively long range due to its fuel-efficient engines and ability to carry extra fuel tanks; this allowed it to stay in the air for extended periods and undertake long-range missions, including bombing and reconnaissance.

The P-38J was heavily armed, with one 20 mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the nose, This gave it a formidable punch in air-to-air combat, and it was able to take on multiple enemy fighters at the same time.

The P-38J was able to be used in a variety of roles, from high-altitude escort to ground attack and reconnaissance; it could also drop bombs and use rockets, which made it a versatile aircraft in different air-ground operations.

The P-38J was able to perform well at low altitudes as well as in ground attack and escort missions, a unique feature for twin-engine fighters of the time.

The P-38J was a highly successful aircraft, especially in the Pacific Theater, where it was used to great effect against Japanese fighters and bombers. Its versatility and armament allowed it to be used in various roles, and it had a reasonable success rate in air-to-air combat.

To this day, the P-38J is one of the most recognizable and iconic aircraft of WWII and remains an essential part of aviation history.

7. The Focke-Wulf FW 190 killed the "butcher bird" for a reason

What made WWII fighters like the Spitfire so legendary?
The Focke Wolf FW 190 was an incredible fighter too.

Arguably the meanest-looking fighter ever built, the Focke-Wulf FW 190 was a highly successful and capable fighter aircraft used by Germany during World War II.

The FW 190 had an inline and powerful radial engine, giving it excellent performance at high and low altitudes. It had a top speed of about 427 mph (688 kph), faster than many of its opponents, particularly early in the war.

The FW 190 had a relatively small and lightweight design which gave it excellent agility and maneuverability in the air. This made it a formidable opponent in dogfight engagements and could out-turn many of the fighters it faced.

The FW 190 was heavily armed, with two 7.92mm machine guns in the nose and two 20mm cannons in the wings; this heavy armament made it a formidable threat to other fighters.

The FW 190 was used in various wars, including air-to-air combat, ground attack, reconnaissance, and even as a night fighter. This versatility allowed it to be used in many different theaters and situations, making it a valuable asset to the German war effort.

The FW 190 had an excellent radial engine that was highly reliable and easy to maintain, allowing it to be deployed in large numbers and efficiently. The FW 190 was flown by some of the most experienced pilots of the war, and it was operated by the German Luftwaffe, one of the most powerful and experienced air forces of the war.

And that is your lot for today.

As we've seen, the Spitfire and other famous WW2 fighters above made their names for several good reasons. It was not by chance.

A combination of speed, reliability, armament, maneuverability, or ease of modification all played their part in ensuring these aircraft remained relevant through the war and, in some cases, for years after.

So what will be the Spitfire or Mustang of the future? Let's hope it won't take another World War to find out.