Spitfire flies under a bridge

Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434 flies under a bridge for a scene in the television series Piece of Cake. The series was made in 1988 and told the story of the fictional “Hornet Squadron” from the outbreak of war up until September 1940 at the culmination of the Battle of Britain.

The original book the series was based on saw the squadron flying Hurricanes but due to the lack of airworthy Hurricanes the series’ producers used Spitfires for filming. The majority of aircraft used were Spitfire IXs which were not available until a year after the Battle of Britain but they were painted in 1940s brown/green camouflage.

MH434 still flies today and is operated by the Old Flying Machine Company. You can view the aircraft’s official website by clicking here.

Spitfire bridge piece of cake

Advertisements

Royal Air Force Memorial Flight Official Club Autumn Journal 2015

Royal Air Force Memorial Flight Club Autumn Journal 2015 ii

The Royal Air Force Memorial Flight Club have published their Autumn Journal 2015. The beautifully produced publication aims to highlight the achievements and exploits of the famous Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and their inventory of historic World War II aircraft including one of only two Avro Lancaster bombers that remain airworthy anywhere in the world. The Royal Air Force Memorial Flight Club aims to support the Flight through raising awareness and funds to keep these historic aircraft in the air where they can best represent those brave men and women who built, flew and maintained them during the darkest days of World War II and beyond.

The Autumn Journal opens with a segment covering the standing down of Squadron Leader Dunc Mason as Officer Commanding of the Flight and the arrival of Squadron Leader Andy “Milli” Millikin as his successor. The Journal then goes in to a range of articles covering the story of the aircraft types the Flight operate. There is a fascinating article on the use of Hawker Hurricanes as night fighters and pays tribute to the Castle Bromwich factory where all four of the Flight’s Supermarine Spitfires were built.

The magazine is lavishly illustrated with beautiful and detailed photographs of the Flight in action during the recent air show season. There is also a detailed photo essay on the newest addition to the fleet, Spitfire LF.XVIe TE311, covering its story from restoration to flight.

This is an intimate look at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight produced in high quality with the commitment one could expect from the supporters of one of the most public aspects of the Royal Air Force. If you would like to join the Royal Air Force Memorial Flight Club and receive your own copy of the Autumn Journal, then please visit the club’s page at www.memorialflightclub.com.

It costs just £25 (+ postage) to join and profits from the Club help to support the work the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight does. Thanks to Amy Sell at the Club for sending me this copy.

Do you have an event or charity you would like to promote on Defence of the Realm? If so then feel free to email the details to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. 

NEWS: New CO for Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

Sqrn Ldr Dunc Mason (left) and Sqrn Ldr Andy ‘Milli’ Millikin (BBMF Club)

Sqrn Ldr Dunc Mason (left) and Sqrn Ldr Andy ‘Milli’ Millikin (BBMF Club)

After serving for no less than 7 years with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, 3 of which have been as commanding officer, Squadron Leader Dunc Mason will be formally standing down from the position on Sunday 25th October. Succeeding him in the post will be Squadron Leader Andy ‘Milli’ Millikin whom has served with the flight for four years learning all he needs to know about the running of the prestigious unit in what has to be one of the most unique jobs in military aviation.

Millikin will lead the flight of historic World War II aircraft through the 2016-2018 display seasons which will now thankfully include the flight’s repaired Lancaster known lovingly as “Thumper”. Earlier this year the aircraft suffered an in-flight fire but fortunately no one was hurt and the aircraft has now returned to the air. Other aircraft in the flight include Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane fighters.

Squadron Leader Mason will be leaving the job to Millikin in order to take up the post of Officer Commanding Advanced Squadron, Central Flying School Examining Wing. This post will see him become responsible for examining all aspects of advanced flying and flying training for the RAF ensuring that the highest of standards are maintained.

To keep up to date with the latest developments involving the BBMF you can join the flight’s official club.

Do Not Return To Base

A fascinating account of action between the RAF and the Luftwaffe on January 1st 1945. It may have been the beginning of the last year of the war but the Luftwaffe showed that it still had teeth as while RAF Mitchell bombers attacked supply lines their bases in France and Belgium were straffed and bombed by Luftwaffe fighter-bombers forcing them to divert. Meanwhile RAF fighters scrambled to take down the Germans who suffered accordingly as by this time the Allies had largely attained air superiority.

(CAUTION: There is an image of dead bodies in this video so if you are likely to be upset by such images don’t watch)

Supermarine Spitfire Mk.III

Spitfire III 2

The legend of the Supermarine Spitfire was forged in the skies over Britain during the summer of 1940. The graceful looking aircraft made it easy for the British media spindoctors to turn R.J. Mitchell’s design in to an unbeatable weapon of war as far as the public image was concerned but this hid the truth that already its shortcomings were becoming obvious even before the Battle of Britain and the early Spitfire Mk.I and the slightly improved Mk.II would need replacing by 1941.

The Supermarine engineers returned to the drawing board and looked at almost every aspect of the aircraft taking in to account the lessons learned from the early experiences in service. Assigned the in-house designation of Supermarine Type 330 the Spitfire Mk.III would need to be faster than its predecessors in order to allow it to keep up with the latest German fighters and to achieve that the Rolls-Royce RM 2SM engine (later redesignated Merlin XX) was chosen to power the new type. This provided an additional 215hp over the Merlin XII as fitted to the Spitfire Mk.II and was the first Merlin engine to feature a two-speed supercharger.

Not satisfied with simply putting a more powerful engine in the aircraft the designers at Supermarine incorporated a number of aerodynamic improvements including the fitting of doors over the wheels that closed when they were retracted in to the wing thus preventing the space around the wheel from producing drag. Additionally the tail wheel was made to retract in to the rear fuselage and the armoured windscreen was moved inside the cockpit both of which improved aerodynamic efficiency.

Spitfire IIIPerhaps the most noticeable change was the cropping of the Spitfire’s signature pointed wingtips making them come to a flat straight line. This reduced the Spitfire III’s wing span from 36ft 10in in the Mk.I/II to 30ft 6in which improved roll rate at lower levels, something for which the Spitfire was found to be lacking compared to its rivals, but high altitude performance dropped off slightly. The reduced forward cross section of the aircraft with cropped wings also helped improve acceleration by reducing drag. The wing was essentially a modified “c” wing which allowed the aircraft to be fitted with different weapon options (see below). A less obvious change to the aircraft was a 7in fuselage extension to fit the engine and balance it out.

All these efforts resulted in the first Spitfire III being able to attain a maximum speed of 400mph at 21,000ft, almost 50mph faster than the previous Spitfires. This offered a big advantage in the air compared to some of the aircraft’s rivals in late 1940;

  • Messerschmitt Bf109E – 336mph at 19,685ft
  • Macchi C.202 – 372mph at 18,370ft

The first Spitfire Mk.III was N3297 and the aircraft first flew on March 16th 1940. Testing of the aircraft continued despite the constraints of the Battle of Britain that was raging overhead and the RAF was sufficiently interested in the aircraft to eventually put in place a production order for over 1,000 aircraft with deliveries to begin in early 1941. However the Merlin XX was already earmarked for use in the Hawker Hurricane Mk.II project which was seen as a higher priority largely thanks to the fact that the Hurricane needed the uprated engine more than the Spitfire to make up for its shortfalls in combat with the Bf109. The Spitfire Mk.III was not abandoned but merely put on hold and N3297 continued testing in order to perfect the design.

As 1941 came it was becoming increasingly clear that the window for the aircraft to enjoy its advantages to the fullest was rapidly closing thanks to the Merlin XXs going to the Hurricane. Also Rolls-Royce was already developing their Merlin 45 series of engines which would ultimately power the Spitifre Mk.V which was ordered in to production in late 1940 with the first examples arriving just a few months later. Despite this the Spitfire Mk.III prototype was providing a lot of useful data to Supermarine allowing them to fine-tune the airframe changes and incorporate them in to production Spitfires. A second aircraft, Spitfire Mk.V W3237, was configured to an almost identical standard (minus the retractable tailwheel) to continue Mk.III testing while N3297 was fitted with a standard “A” wing and delivered to Rolls-Royce for engine testing eventually being fitted with the first Merlin 61 engine that would be used in the Spitfire Mk.VIII and IX. Even with a second prototype the Spitfire Mk.III project was now cancelled altogether but W3237 continued testing until 1944 to support development work on newer model Spitfires.

While the Spitfire Mk.III was a non-starter the fruits of the testing carried out by the two prototypes can be seen in many of the improvements made to the later Spitfire marks such as cropped wings and doors over the landing gear. The Merlin XX did find its way in to around 50 Spitfire II aircraft converted for use in the air-sea rescue role.


SPECIFICATIONS

ENGINE: 1 x 1,390hp Rolls-Royce Merlin XX inline engine

MAX SPEED: 400mph at 21,000ft

WINGSPAN: 30ft 6in

LENGTH: 30ft 4in

HEIGHT: 9ft 10in

WING AREA: 220ft2

ARMAMENT OPTIONS:

  • 8x .303 (7.7mm) Browning machine guns
  • 2x 20mm Hispano cannons / 4x .303 (7.7) browning machine guns
  • 4x 20mm Hispano cannons

Supermarine Spitfire Vb vs. Kawasaki Ki-61-I-KAIc Hien (“Tony”)

Spit V Ki-61

The alliance between Germany and Japan has been the subject of much debate since the end of World War II. Theoretically, neither nation should have considered the other a viable ally because of their own similar concepts of their own racial superiority that considered the other inferior. However, given the geographical distances between them their own immediate interests were unlikely to clash at least for the foreseeable future. One thing they both had in common was the possibility of clashing with the British Empire; Germany on mainland Europe against Britain herself while Japan against her Eastern possessions. Despite this it was actually the threat from the Soviet Union to both parties that laid the groundwork for the formalising of an alliance in the shape of the Anti-Comintern Pact. When Italy signed on to the treaty the Axis powers were created.

When the Axis powers finally found themselves thrust in to war with Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union they effectively fought two separate conflicts. There was very little coordination between them in the same way that there was between the Allied nations but both sides of the Axis compass knew of the importance of keeping the other’s fight alive because the defeat of one would only see the Allies relocate the resources fighting the defeated nation brought to bare on them and this is exactly what happened after Germany and Italy fell in 1945. To that end there was a lot of technology exchange between them with Nazi Germany going to great lengths to get scientists and technology to Japan hoping they could put them to good use to perhaps ease the pressure in Europe. This was especially true in military aviation and in turn led to the development of the Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien – a fighter that would not look out of place over the skies of Europe.

Kawasaki Ki-10

Kawasaki Ki-10

The story of the Ki-61 can be traced back to the appointment of German engineer Dr. Richard Vogt to the position of chief designer at the Kawasaki Aircraft Engineering Company between 1923 and 1933. During his time at the company he impressed many Western design philosophies on the aircraft he worked on and this left a great impression on his Japanese successor Takeo Dai. One of Vogt’s biggest influences on Takeo Dai and Kawasaki was the belief in liquid-cooled inline engines as opposed to the air-cooed radial designs that prevailed in Japan at that time. This relatively radical approach produced the Ki-10 biplane fighter powered by a license built BMW inline engine but these aircraft remained the exception.

Advances in Europe with such engines couldn’t be ignored forever and in 1935 the British flew the prototype for what would become the Hawker Hurricane for the first time while Germany flew the Messerschmitt Bf109 prototype a year later. Both of these aircraft were fitted with inline engines which gave them performance far in advance of the many radial-engined aircraft then in Japanese service. This resulted in Japanese interest in the Bf109 and plans for an acquisition reached an advanced stage before being cancelled. While they were impressed with the Messerschmitt design they disliked the short range of the aircraft which didn’t meet their requirements for an offensive fighter. They were however impressed with the aircraft’s Daimler-Benz DB 601A engine and so plans were made for a license produced version to be built in Japan and fitted to a Japanese designed aircraft that could meet the Imperial Japanese Army’s requirement for an offensive fighter.

In 1939 the Japanese aviation bureau, the Koku Hombu, issued a requirement for two aircraft to be built around the new engine. The first was to be a high altitude interceptor while the second was to be a general purpose offensive fighter. Takeo Dai went about designing the Ki-60 and Ki-61 respective to these requirements but ultimately the Ki-60 was dropped. Development of the Ki-61 continued but the first flight didn’t take place until December 1941 by which time the engine was falling behind its competitors in the West.

Macchi C.202

Macchi C.202

Even before the aircraft flew Britain’s Royal Air Force began receiving the latest Spitfire, the Mark V, which was designed to address some of the shortcomings of the earlier Spitfires such as Mark I/II. Unfortunately the Mark V will always be remembered as being too little too late for its arrival coincided with the arrival of the “Butcher Bird” – the mighty Focke-Wulf Fw190 over Europe. While it was a poor match for the Fw190 it was still a good aircraft comparable to nearly all other fighters in the European and North African theatres including the Messerschmitt Bf109E  and Macchi C.202 (see comparison here) both of which used the DB 601 engine. The similarity of the Ki-61 to the C.202 was such that Allied pilots actually initially mistook it for the Italian fighter and this in turn resulted in it receiving the Allied codename of “Tony” based on the Italian name “Antonio”.

Early combat experience with the Ki-61 revealed that it was still underdeveloped despite being an improvement over previous Japanese designs that it was replacing. This was especially true in terms of its armament and the designers at Kawasaki went back to the drawing board producing a slightly longer variant with a heavier punch. This “new” aircraft was designated as the Ki-61-I KAIc.

In a fight between the Supermarine Spitfire V and the Kawasaki Ki-61-I KAIc which aircraft had more going for it?


POWERPLANT

Spitfire Vb

The Spitfire V was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45, a variant of the Merlin XX and came fitted with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. The engine still lacked the direct fuel injection system of the German engines but improvements to the carburettor did allowed the Spitfire V to undertake negative-G manoeuvres without major disruption to the flow of fuel as had been the case in earlier variants. First production Merlin 45s were delivered in January 1941 and churned out around 1,450hp at 9,000ft, an advance over the Spitfire II/Merlin XII combination of some 275hp, which it translated it in to forward motion via a three bladed propeller.

Despite these advances the Merlin 45 proved problematic in the Pacific theatre. The Royal Australian Air Force found quite quickly that the Spitfire V was a logistical headache in the extreme since the parts for it were built half way around the world. The dust and heat of the outback of Northern Australia was particularly hostile to the Merlin where it went from extreme heat on the ground to extreme cold at high altitude causing numerous breakdowns and leakages thus further straining the logistical chain supporting it.

Kawasaki Ki-61 4

It would be more accurate to say that the Kawasaki Ha-40 engine was a development of the DB 601A rather than a direct license produced version as was the case with the Macchi C.202’s  RA.1000 R.C.41-I Monsone version. While the engine had the same layout and configuration as the DB 601 it was tweaked slightly to better meet Japan’s requirements. Consequently the Ha-40 offered more power at take-off than the DB 601A and was actually marginally lighter. The engine was delayed briefly which meant that the first three Ki-61 prototypes flew with DB 601A engines provided by Germany before the first Ha-40s became available.

Even before the constraints of war with America the engine suffered chronic reliability problems compared to the more reliable DB 601A as a result of infrequent manufacturing practices at the Akashi plant where it was built. The situation was only exacerbated by the intervention of the US Navy’s submarine blockade of the Japanese home islands meaning that production of later Ha-40 engines was often undertaken with sub-par materials sourced in Japan rather than the high quality materials imported from the Asian continent. When functioning properly the Ha-40 produced 1,159hp which turned a three bladed propeller.

PERFORMANCE

Spitfire VB Trop 2

The Merlin 45 pulled the Spitfire Vb along at a comfortable top speed of 375mph at 20,000ft. The dust encountered at lower levels such as during take off or straffing enemy formations required the fitting of a large Vokes air filter that not only ruined the Spitfire’s elegant lines but also incurred a 7-9mph speed penalty. The aircraft had an initial climb rate of 2,600ft/min which increased to over 3,100ft/min above 14,000ft once clear of the thicker air lower down leading on to a service ceiling of 36,500ft. The Spitfire Vb had a respectable wing loading of 27.35 lb/ft2  and had a maximum of 639hp to share for every ton in weight while with a full fuel and weapon loadout this figure fell to 490hp per ton.

Kawasaki Ki-61

The Ki-61 topped out it’s air speed indicator at 367mph at 16,400ft which was still a good figure for the period given that more powerful engines were available by the time the Ki-61 was entering service after its protracted development. It was capable of reaching a service ceiling of just over 38,000ft and had an initial rate of climb of 2,983ft/min which increased around 16,000ft before dropping off again. The Ki-61 had a higher wing loading than most of the contemporary Japanese designs again betraying its Western influence being in the region of 35.5 lb/ft² which was even higher than the Spitfire Vb. With the Ha-40 installation the Ki-61 had a maximum power to weight ratio of 440hp for every ton. When flying under a full load however this ratio dropped to just 330hp per ton.

ARMAMENT

Spitfire Vb 2

It’s name may have been “Spitfire” but in the early marks, Supermarine’s legendary fighter was barely an adequate gun platform. It’s eight .303 machine guns were spaced out across the wing making it difficult to train them to a point ahead of the aircraft where their collective firepower could inflict heavy enough damage on an enemy aircraft equipped with self sealing fuel tanks and armour. This was why the Hawker Hurricane, with its eight .303 machine guns coupled closely together, was the superior gun platform in the Battle of Britain.

Efforts were therefore made to up-gun the Spitfire by fitting 20mm cannons but early trials were abysmal with the Hispano 20mm cannon proving extremely unreliable and prone to jamming after just a few shots. Nevertheless the RAF persisted and after the bugs had been ironed out cannon armament became the standard on all later Spitfires. The Spitfire Vb was therefore armed with a pair of 20mm cannon each with 60 rounds and these had a muzzle velocity of 2800ft/sec. The .303s were still there however and the Spitfire Vb carried four of them spaced along the wings. There were alternative wing configurations available and some variants of the Mark V were armed with four 20mm cannon mainly in the light attack mission but this didn’t become standard for fighter variants until the last two years of the war.

Kawasaki ki-61 guns

The early Ki-61s too suffered from light armament. The early production versions were armed with two 7.7mm (0.303in) Type 89 machine guns in the wings and two synchronized 12.7 mm (0.50 in) Ho-103 machine guns in the upper engine cowling in a similar arrangement to the Messerschmitt Bf109 and Macchi C.202/205. This proved inadequate against the sturdy American bombers such as the B-17 Flying Fortress and so the Japanese began a series of efforts to up-gun the aircraft including at one point the fitting of German Mauser MG 151/20 cannons brought to Japan by U-Boat.

By the time the Ki-61-I-KAIc appeared the Japanese had settled on having two Ho-5 20mm canon mounted in the forward fuselage position synchronised to fire through the propeller. The Ho-5 was developed from the Ho-103 machine gun which was itself developed from the American Model 1921 Browning aircraft machine gun and as such used belt-fed ammunition that utilised Browning-style steel disintegrating links between the rounds. Each gun was given 120 rounds and these could be discharged at 2,460 ft/s with a rate of fire of 950rds/min.

The wings featured a pair of 12.7 (.50cal) Ho-103 machine guns that each was given a generous 250 rounds each. The weapon could fire put these rounds on to a target at 2,600 ft/s with a rate of fire being 900rds/min. As the war progressed some aircraft saw these weapons replaced by another pair of Ho.5s finally giving the Ki-61 the heavy punch it always needed.

MISC

Supermarine Spitfire V 6

The Spitfire pilot sat sandwiched between two fuel tanks; one ahead of the cockpit behind the Merlin engine and an auxiliary tank behind the cockpit. This meant that should his aircraft be hit in either of these areas he was likely to suffer horrendous burns if he didn’t get out quick enough. To that end Martin-Baker, the company that would eventually become synonymous with ejection seat technology, developed a quick release system that allowed the Spitfire pilot get the canopy off in one quick movement and allow him to exit. The fuel tanks featured a rubber self-sealing system that expanded over single small calibre bullet holes but was rendered ineffective if there was a number of impacts.

He was not entirely without protection as he had armour plates behind his seat and head as well as a bullet-resistant windscreen. While the Spitfire was often cited as a delight to fly it was a notoriously bad aircraft to handle on the ground thanks to its narrow undercarriage that raised from the centre fuselage towards the wingtips as opposed to the opposite which was much more common and much more stable on semi-prepared airstrips as was often the case in the Pacific and the China-Burma-India theatres.

Kawasaki Ki-61 2

The pilot of the Ki-61 sat ahead of the fuselage fuel tank while ahead of him was the ammunition feed and storage tank for the cowling mounted weapons. This provided some additional level of protection to the pilot from an attack from the forward hemisphere such as when facing defensive guns on a bomber. This was because there was a lot of objects to get in the way of the bullet reducing how far it could travel through the aircraft. The Ki-61 was one of the first Japanese aircraft to feature self-sealing fuel tanks making it more resilient than many other Japanese aircraft of the period.

The aircraft was more robust than the Spitfire being of solid construction and having a wider set landing gear making it far more stable on the ground. It also made it far more likely for the pilot to walk away from a hard landing such as when occurs after taking heavy damage. The narrower wing positioned more centrally to the pilot as opposed to the Spitfire meant that he did enjoy a greater field of downward view fore and aft although both aircraft had poor rearward vision.

CONCLUSION

Both of these aircraft enjoyed very brief periods of superiority over their contemporaries before new models rendered them obsolete. Compared to one another they are quite well matched in many respects but each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The Ki-61-I-KAIc pilot enjoyed a certain degree of superiority in performance at lower levels where his aircraft had a speed and climb advantage. Between 15,000 and 20,000ft the two aircraft become more evenly matched while above these altitudes the Spitfire V began to enjoy a greater degree of performance thanks mainly to its larger wing area that produced more lift and the fact the Rolls Royce Merlin was tailored for this flight regime. This is despite the fact that the Ki-61-I-KAIc enjoyed a very slight advantage in terms of service ceiling.

In terms of agility the larger wing area of the Spitfire meant that the aircraft’s rate of roll, especially lower down in the denser air, was behind that of Ki-61-I-KAIc. It did however aid in the aircraft achieving a very high rate of continuous turn and with a higher power-to-weight ratio the Spitfire was therefore more agile in the horizontal plane than the Ki-61-I-KAIc. If attacked the Spitfire pilot’s best defence would be to try to keep turning ahead of the Ki-61 pilot’s arc of fire.

Regarding firepower, even though the Spitfire technically had more guns, the larger calibre of the wing mounted machine guns in the Ki-61-I-KAIc helped negate this advantage somewhat which means that in terms of damaging an enemy aircraft the two aircraft’s effectiveness was broadly the same although with more bullets flying the Spitfire at least had a higher chance of hitting something.

In this instance there is no clear winner as the altitude at which the combat would take place would have a major impact on the aircraft. As always we also have to take in to consideration pilot capability and in this respect the quality of Japanese pilots diminished as the war went on and their situation became more desperate. Another important factor to consider is that the Spitfire Vb was never considered ideally suited for operations against the Japanese given the environment they were expected to operate in that played havoc with it. The Spitfire VIII however was a far superior aircraft and enjoyed far more success against the Japanese although The Spitfire Vs did soldier on until the end of the war in an increasingly diminishing capacity.

Supermarine Spitfire IX vs. Macchi C.205 Veltro

Supermarine Spitfire IX vs. Macchi C.205 Veltro

The story of the Royal Air Force’s war against the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Italian Royal Air Force) during the first half of World War II is a story of extremes. Excluding the Italian’s brief involvement in the Battle of Britain the real story begins in North Africa between British and Commonwealth forces flying from Egypt taking on the numerically superior Italians in aircraft that wouldn’t have seemed too out of place in World War One. Biplanes such as the British Gloster Gladiator and the Italian Fiat CR.42 still dominated the African sky.

The war over the desert and over the Mediterranean quickly progressed however and soon both sides were committing more capable fighters. The British utilised American fighters primarily the American P-40 Tomahawk to supplant the usual Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfires. The Italians, having lagged behind somewhat, produced an excellent warplane in this period by mating the German DB.601 engine to their Macchi C.200 Saetta. The resulting Macchi C.202 was fast and nimble bringing it on a par with other contemporary fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf109E and the Supermarine Spitfire V (click here to view the complete comparison) however it was let down by its low armament.

The MC.202s shortcomings were recognised early and in 1941 work commenced on producing an even more powerful version built around the German DB 605 engine which Fiat produced for the Italian aviation industry as the RA.1050 R.C.58 Tifone (Typhoon). This had nearly 300hp over the previous engine and greatly improved the already sprightly performance of the earlier aircraft. The new aircraft, now designated the C.205 Veltro, was also more heavily armed and would prove an unwelcome shock to allied fighter pilots.

In Britain the Royal Air Force’s premier fighter the Supermarine Spitfire was also advancing forward. The arrival of the “Butcher Bird” – the Focke-Wulf Fw190-A – had tipped the balance in the air dramatically in favour of the German Luftwaffe as the Spitfire V simply proved to be inferior. Supermarine therefore frantically undertook work on a further improved version of the aircraft based on the high altitude Spitfire VII version. The logically named Spitfire VIII was powered by the Merlin 63 engine (two sub variants for low and high altitude work were powered by the Merlin 66 and 70 engines respectively) and this offered greatly enhanced performance.

However the problem was that development of the aircraft began to drag out as the aircraft went through further redesigns to get the most out of the new engine and airframe. Coupled with the delay of retooling the factories to produce the aircraft the Air Ministry decided to develop an interim aircraft powered by the new two-stage supercharged Merlin engine that could be put in to service as an interim fighter until the Mark VIII became available. The resulting Spitfire IX was effectively a Spitfire V modified to use the more powerful Merlin 61 engine and the performance increase was dramatic to say the least despite the fact that the airframe couldn’t utilise the engine to its maximum potential without breaking.

Far from being a stop-gap the Spitfire IX went on to become one of the great fighters of World War II and remained in production until the end of the war. In the end 5,656 Spitfire IXs were produced making it the most numerous variant of the famed Spitfire family. The aircraft had equal performance to the dreaded Fw190 which helped restore parity in the air war over Western Europe and against the Italians on the southern front which by now was being fought more and more over Italy itself. By far the Spitfire IXs finest hour was on the 5th of October 1944 when Spitfire Mk IXs of No.401 Squadron shot down a Messerschmitt Me.262 Jet fighter; the first jet aircraft ever to be shot down in combat.

Both these aircraft were forged in combat but which was the better warplane?


Performance

Spitfire IX 3

The problem with the designation “Spitfire IX” is that it actually covers a number of Spitfire/Merlin combinations. While the airframe remained more or less unchanged at least four different Merlins were used in Mark IXs to create sub-types optimised for different roles. Therefore this comparison will be looking at those aircraft fitted with the Merlin 61 engine as this was the first engine and was seen as the best all-rounder until it was replaced by the Merlin 63. The Merlin 61 was a 12-cylinder, two-stage supercharged, liquid-cooled engine that churned out 1,580hp at 23,000ft. This finally took the Spitfire over the 400mph mark with a top speed of 409mph while service ceiling was raised to 43,000ft compared to the Spitfire V’s 36,500ft with the initial climb rate being 3,200ft a minute. When fitted with the full span “C” wing (as opposed to the cropped wing of the low altitude optimised variant) the Spitfire IX’s wing loading was 159.4kg/m²

The fitting of the DB 601 engine to the Macchi C.202 was a winning combination and it was only natural that as German engine technology advanced the Italians would take advantage of their ally’s latest engine the DB 605. The Macchi C.205 was fitted with an Italian built version of the DB.605 called the RA.1050 R.C.58 Tifone and was built by Fiat. Like the Merlin it was a 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine although like the rest of the DB-series engines the cylinders were arranged in an inverted Vee configuration. Unlike the Merlin the Tifone featured a single-stage supercharger which meant it started to lose power faster at higher altitudes but at lower altitudes it was slightly more powerful. The Tifone engine churned out around 1,474hp which took the C.205 to a top speed of 400mph at 24,600ft and to a service ceiling of 37,730ft. Wing loading for the Macchi C.205 was significantly higher than the Spitfire IX being 202.9kg/m².

Armament

spitfire ix

The Spitfire had several wing types during its lifetime. The Mark IX was fitted with the “C” wing known as the universal wing for it could accept a number of armament options ranging from the original eight .303 machine guns to a mix of .303 and two 20mm cannons to four 20mm cannons. By 1941 it was clear that the eight .303s lacked sufficient hitting power to defeat armoured aircraft that featured self-sealing fuel tanks therefore the Spitfire IX only flew with either four 20mm cannons or two 20mm cannons and four .303 machine guns. Early trials with the Hispano 20mm cannon were abysmal it proving extremely unreliable and prone to jamming after just a few shots. The weapon became more reliable as its entry in to service continued and gave the Spitfire a good punch but reliability would never be what was hoped. American Spitfire IXs and later some RAF aircraft fitted with the .303s had the guns barrelled for the US 50.cal round which was harder hitting. The “C” wing did allow the aircraft to carry a pair of 250lb bombs for ground attack.

Macch C.205

The Macchi C.202 was an excellent aircraft in terms of its performance but the biggest criticism was its lack of hitting power. In combat against American raids by B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators the C.202s struggled to inflict sufficient damage to bring down the mighty bombers requiring them to get in closer to concentrate their firepower where they were very vulnerable to defensive fire. With the C.205 the designers decided that rather than extensively redesigning the aircraft to add more guns which would delay its entry in to service they would simply up-gun the new aircraft. To that end the C.205 only had four guns in total with two 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns mounted in the nose above the engine. Each of these guns was provided with an extremely useful 400 rounds and had a rate of fire of 700 rounds a minute. It was in the wings however where the real hitting power of the C.205 was located with two German MG 151 cannons with 250 rounds each. This was a powerful and proven weapon that gave the C.205 a heavy punch against armoured aircraft.

Misc

Spitfire IX 2

The Spitfire IX pilot was protected by a sheet of armour plating behind his seat intended to protect him from incoming rounds fired from behind. The Spitfire pilot’s view in the rear quarter was quite poor leaving him open to surprise attacks until a modified version of the IX came along with a cut down rear fuselage and bubble canopy similar to the P-51D Mustang but these did not appear until near the end of the war and was more of a feature of later Spitfires. The large wing of the Spitfire, a major factor in its excellent performance, also severely hindered visibility below the aircraft to the port and starboard. A major combat enhancement came to the Spitfire IX in 1944 with the introduction of the gyro gunsight which predicted the angle of deflection for the bullets when firing against a turning target. The gunsight dramatically improved the Spitfire’s effectiveness by allowing the newest of pilots to fire with a similar level of accuracy to experienced ones.

Macch C.205 2

The Macchi C.205 pilot enjoyed a marginally better all-round view than the Spitfire IX pilot with the smaller area wing being mounted more forward of the cockpit. This allowed him to look down to the starboard and port sides more easily although the trade-off was that when pursuing a turning fighter ahead and below of the Macchi there was more chance of the C.205 pilot momentarily losing sight of his prey. The C.205 pilot also enjoyed a better rearward view compared to the Spitfire pilot thanks to the smaller rear fuselage although both the Focke-Wulf 190 and P-51D Mustang enjoyed better views than either of these aircraft. The C.205 was fitted with a San Giorgio reflector gunsight which was equivalent to the early gunsight on the Spitfire.

Conclusion

Macch C.205 LuftwaffeOnly the most foolish allied pilot would underestimate the C.205 it being a highly competent combat aircraft for the period. Even the German Luftwaffe appreciated the aircraft’s performance and adopted the aircraft themselves in a limited capacity. In the medium altitude arena the Spitfire IX and the C.205 Veltro were very evenly matched with both aircraft having a very similar top speed. The Spitfire’s large area wing meant that it enjoyed a low wing loading that gave it a very good turning circle. The smaller area wing on the C.205 came with a much higher wing loading as a result but enjoyed a slightly better roll rate. This made the Spitfire an extremely difficult target for the C.205 in a continuous turning battle.

As the altitudes increase however the Spitfire pilot began to enjoy more advantages over the C.205. It had a significantly higher service ceiling than the Italian aircraft and when the C.205 was operating near its own service ceiling at 37,000ft it ran out of steam while the Spitfire IX had energy to spare. On the other hand in the low to medium altitude arena the C.205 enjoyed a degree of superiority over the Spitfire IX with its DB 605-based engine providing marginally more horsepower and a slightly higher speed. The thicker air also made the large winged Spitfire less manoeuvrable.

In terms of firepower the Spitfire enjoyed marginally greater collective hitting power even when fitted with the two 20mm Hispano cannons and four .303 machine guns. The C.205 enjoyed a better engagement envelope however with its closely coupled guns being able to concentrate their hitting power over a longer arc ahead of the aircraft which is especially important when engaging bombers.

Spitfire IX USAAFActual combat results tell a seemingly biased story in favour of the C.205. On the 20th of April 1943 a mixed formation of C.202s and C.205s met a large formation of South African and Polish (RAF) Spitfires off the cost of North Africa. In a fierce battle the C.205s downed around 14 Spitfires for the loss of seven of their number – these figures are disputed by numerous sources on both sides – although the majority of the Veltro’s victims were older Spitfire Vs and so were not an a par with the Italian aircraft. Indeed, a look at a lot of the successes achieved by the C.205 during its short combat career shows that the majority were made against allied aircraft that were of the previous generation. Due to their small number and the desperate situation Mussolini’s Italy found itself in 1943 the C.205 served in mixed units with the older C.202 and were often assigned to the best pilots which also goes some way to explaining the aircraft’s brief success with the Italians and the subsequent legend that grew up around it in Italy.

In conclusion the C.205 Veltro was a competent aircraft and a very real threat to the Spitfire IX. In this instance victory would be decided more by the situation the two pilots found themselves in coupled with the skill and experience of the pilot.


Picture credits

  • Commons.wikimedia
  • Spitfireperformance.com
  • Asisbiz.com