Supermarine’s famous Spitfire served from the first day of World War II to the last. The Mk IX was an expedient introduced in mid-1942 that would become the major type for the last half of the war.
After the jump, a brief look at one such plane in American service.
In early 1942 a new Spitfire was on the drawing boards. The Mk VIII mounted the newest version of the Merlin engine (60 series) and featured many air frame refinements and tweaks to get the most out of a proven design. But when Germany introduced the Fw190 the RAF found itself in a crisis months before the improved Spitfire would come available. The new German fighter was clearly better than existing types, including existing Spitfires. So the Air Ministry ordered Supermarine to fit the new engine on a current air frame from Mk V production. This would allow Spitfires with the new engine to get into service immediately, with no slow down for a change over on the production line. This would be known as the Mk IX, and would be the second most produced variant of the Spitfire family.
The Mk IX was produced in several variations; with engines optimized for low, medium or high altitude work, three different wing/armament combinations (b, c, and e wing), and a variety of air frame improvements such that a late build Mk IX was almost indistinguishable from a Mk VIII (which did eventually get built, but in smaller numbers).
Just how good was the Spitfire? When the US was starting operations in Europe in mid-1942 there was no doubt the Spitfire was better than any available American type. The P-39 and P-40 were clearly inferior, especially up high; and the P-38 would not be available in quantity until early 1943. Since the US was supplying Great Britain with large quantities of weapons and supplies through Lend Lease it seemed fair to suggest the British should return the favor in certain situations. Basically, the US said it needed enough Spitfires to equip and operate three fighter groups (about 300 planes) and Britain was in no position to refuse.
One other thing about Lend Lease, the US military always got first dibs on the equipment it wanted. So Britain (and the other allies) were mostly getting rejects and cast offs through the program. At least at first, eventually US industry was able to provide everyone with exactly what they wanted. But I don’t think many objections were raised when Britain supplied mostly obsolete and worn out Spitfires. As British squadrons were taking delivery of new Mk IX Spitfires their older Mk Vs were passed to the Americans.
One of those American Fighter Groups, the 4th based in England, re-equipped with American Thunderbolts fairly quickly. But the 31st and 52nd flew them for much longer. In October of 1942 these two groups flew from England to the British base at Gibraltar as part of the build up for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Both American Spitfire Groups flew in North Africa, Sicily and Italy over the course of 2 years of operations. By mid-1943 they started receiving Mk VIII and Mk IX Spitfires as the overall supply of such Marks built up.
In Spring of 1944 the 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups re-equipped with Mustangs. The longer range fighter was much appreciated because it allowed for longer range escort missions into Northern Italy and Southern Europe, where the Luftwaffe would come out in force. readers who saw the movie Red Tails may recall the frustration that P-40 group had with flying short range tactical missions when the real combat was much further north. This was a situation facing many groups in shorter range types and the switch to Mustangs brought new opportunities for a lot of fighter pilots. Not least because the American Press was always hesitant to give any publicity to groups flying foreign equipment. The 31st and 52nd fought in near anonymity until they switched hardware.
This particular subject is from the Eduard kit with Eagle Strike decals. It represents a plane flown by 1st Lt Fred Ohr of the 2nd Fighter Squadron, 52nd Fighter Group. In April of 1943 he was part of a patrol that ambushed an unescorted formation of German Ju88 bombers. Lt Ohr scored his first kill on that mission. He flew the airplane shown here for most of the next year with no further success.
This aircraft is interesting for a couple reasons. It is painted in the RAF’s high altitude scheme; which probably means this an “HF” version of the fighter, but because the serial number has been painted over its impossible to be sure. This was the least common sort of Mk IX, but the 52nd FG had a few that were used used for high altitude and close support work without concern for the details! It is also notable the Lt Ohr flew this plane for almost a year as his regular mount, that is good longevity in a war zone (especially for a plane that presumably was delivered as “used”).
After switching to Mustangs Lt Ohr scored another five kills making him the top (only) Korean-American Ace of World War II.
Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb trop
I suspect that the P-51 may well have been a better fighter than the Spitfire, but the latter aircraft will always have an iconic quality to every Englishman. Whatever the exact truth, the legend says that the Spitfire was the aircraft which, in the Battle of Britain, saved England.
The two types are different enough it’s not a direct comparison. The Mustang was faster but heavier; not surprising given how long range it was! The Spitfire could out turn it easily.
But no doubt they were two great planes with a common power plant.
Excellent article. Although its worth pointing out the real importance of the Hurricane was numbers. Thanks to the advantage of more traditional construction it was easier to keep operational in large numbers. I believe the Spitfire actually had more kills in relation to the number of them present, but the Hurricane had more total kills by virtue of its mass. Obviously both were hugely important to the Battle’s outcome.
I would have to agree that the P-51 was the better airplane, but as an Englishman the ‘Spit’ will always be in our hearts. Great to see it in a U.S. scheme Dave. Great article, thank you very much.
Well I’m glad my English visitors aren’t screaming bloody murder!
The Mustang was a more “modern” design, barely. I think the Spitfire was a better pilot’s plane. The Mustang was a better strategic weapon in the last couple years of the war. But we never would have gotten to those last couple years without the Spitfire’s contribution first.
Without wanting to add fuel to the fire, the P51 was pretty rubbish until the Merlin was put in. Cough cough. A beautiful model, brilliantly finished, and a great write up too. Nice to see a different version.
Not at all! They wouldn’t have put a Merlin on a plane because it was rubbish! It was an excellent design from the start that was lacking in high altitude capability. The Merlin fixed that.
But thanks for the comment, I’m happy to see a little fuel added to the discussion.
Well indeed. The design was first rate just let down badly by the original power plant. Turned an ok aircraft into a real thoroughbred!
Yeah that I agree with exactly!
The Allison engine was much less capable than the Merlin.
What is left to add to the above?
I’m sorry if I took all your words Pierre!
Had to find a good reason to reblog it Dave…
Of course you know all about my blog about a immortalised Spitfire pilot… Girlfriends and beer!
Reblogged this on My Forgotten Hobby and commented:
Need I say more…
It always struck me how the most iconic of the WWII fighters of the western front, the Messerschmidt, the Spitfire and the Mustang have a look that reflects exactly what they are. Fast, quick, relentless, unstoppable. But of those, only the spitfire has a sort of refined gracefulness in it’s look that seems to be a part of the British character as opposed to the more utilitarian German and American ones.
I always saw American designs as somewhere in between. But no doubt the Spitfire is a true beauty!