If any aircraft can be said to epitomize the classic fighter of World War II from the Allied side it was the Spitfire. This sturdy, powerful single seat aircraft was in continuous production through the war, and served in air forces around the world, including service in the Top End.
After a number of prototypes were made, the basic Spitfire design was flown in 1936 in Britain, with the chief test pilot for Vickers landing after an eight minute flight. The aircraft was so good that, on landing, he is reputed to have said: "don't touch anything".
The new design was eons along from how fighters had finished World War I. Gone were the biplanes of that war, with fixed undercarriages and the pilot sitting in an open cockpit. But the basic Spitfire still had fabric-covered surfaces, a wooden two-bladed propeller and armament that was just changing from two rifle-calibre machine guns to four.
By the end of the war, Spitfires had evolved to a five-bladed metal propeller, eight machine guns, two cannon and all-metal surfaces. The engine was now a two-stage, two-speed supercharged version. An aircraft carrier variant – the Seafire – had evolved, and various photo-reconnaissance, fighter-bomber, and trainer types.
While extremely versatile and efficient in combat flying, the Spitfire was not all things to all people. It was never a long-range aircraft, but rather a defensive platform, and this limitation meant it could not escort bombers to the desired target point.
In Darwin, Spitfires were operated by Britain’s 54 Squadron pilots as well as a Wing RAAF’s 452 Squadron, which arrived in February of 1943 to defend Darwin and Northern Australia.
Eventually the Spitfire was superseded by jets, which could fly faster and boasted a better power to weight ratio. There are around 50 flying versions of the Spitfire still operational, and numerous static models. Displays exist in museums around the world.
The Aviation Museum in Darwin has a replica Spitfire on display.