The Supermarine Seafire is one of the great examples of the British ability to bodge a solution to a problem with whatever is available at hand. Unfortunately, it is also a classic example of why that ability is necessary; a failure to adequately plan and prepare for a situation. As a result, the Seafire was always a compromise design, and had major issues because of it.
But despite that, it went on to enjoy a surprisingly fruitful and long career.
The first two years of the Second World War saw the Royal Navy seriously disabused of some of their doctrinal assumptions. And one of these was what sort of shape and form that the naval fighter aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) should take.
At the beginning of the conflict their main fighters for carrier use were the Blackburn Skua, the Blackburn Roc and with the Fairey Fulmar about to enter service. If we compare them to their effective contemporaries, the American Brewster F2A
and the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M,
well, there is some very notable differences in design philosophies. The American and Japanese aircraft are fighters, single-seat, high performance aircraft whose job was to kill enemy aircraft.
Their British equivalents were notably two-seaters and expected to be more general-purpose aircraft serving multiple roles.
The Skua was literally equal parts dive bomber and fighter, while the Fulmar was expected to conduct long-range reconnaissance and be more concerned with driving off enemy recon aircraft and warning the home carrier of incoming raids than actually engaging in massed aerial defensive actions. Because at the heart of FAA thinking were two factors that made absolute sense when these aircraft were designed, but which technical advances made obsolete practically before they even flew.
Firstly, flying over water, especially seas as rough and storm wracked as the North Atlantic, which was considered the likely theater of future conflict, is really hard. In the early 1930s, before direction finding radio signals and navigation apparatus were standard fittings, navigation was an exercise that required huge amounts of training and technique that, quite frankly, required a dedicated crewman.
Thus, British naval fighters were two-seaters, flown by a pilot and an observer, who’s primary job was knowing where the aircraft was.
The second factor is that in the 1920s and early ‘30s, that wasn’t considered too much of an issue. Two-seaters often had performance only marginal worse, sometimes even better, than single seat fighters. That changed pretty much in the second half of the 1930s when the latest generation of single-seat monoplanes began to enter service.
The Royal Navy did begin to appreciate they may have an issue and began to think about acquiring a single-seat fighter for fleet use. But here they hit another issue; outright hostility to the idea from the Royal Air Force. This is a theme that will reoccur during this story.
The RAF was in this period rapidly building up its own strength, with the growing threat of war in Europe and the need for home defence the absolute priority. They were pretty clear that, no, there was no spare capacity to divert their newest fighters to the FAA, they needed everything they could get. The only offer that the Royal Navy had was from Gloster, who offered to convert some Gloster Gladiators for carrier use in 1938.
It pretty much sums up the rather pathetic state of affairs that when the War began on the 1st of September, 1939, the FAA’s best naval fighter was this, the Sea Gladiator; a fabric covered biplane that was being replaced in RAF service as quickly as was feasible. And the FAA had a grand total at the time of 54 of them.
Despite all this, the Sea Gladiators would carve themselves a place in aviation legend, fighting desperate actions in Norway and Malta, though notably operating from land bases.
They were not alone in this. Despite pre-war assumptions, the Skua’s and Fulmar’s made surprisingly good accounts of themselves, fighting now largely forgotten actions in those early grim years, often against aircraft superior to themselves in both performance and numbers.
But by early 1941 the lessons were clear. The FAA needed a modern, high-performance aircraft. The Royal Navy had orders in for 240 of the new Grumman F4F Wildcat – called the “Martlet” in FAA service – but supply of more of these was contingent on the United States willingness to sell them.
An indigenous carrier fighter was needed. And again, it was going to happen over the RAF’s dead body.
To be fair, they had just fought the Battle of Britain and were now committed to fighting in north Africa, they needed every fighter they could get. So, they handed over what they said they could spare; A bunch of hard-used Hurricane Mk.Is.
These, many of which had fought in several squadrons and campaigns already, received modification to make them suitable for carrier operations, and formed the first of the Sea Hurricanes.
Again, these did surprisingly well, considering that the Hurricane was obsolescent as a fighter and being shifted to ground attack duties in the RAF. They also didn’t have folding wings, something that was considered an absolute must by the FAA for its aircraft. But the durable airframe stood up reasonably well to the tough life aboard and several hundred were built, including later on new production aircraft as the RAF no longer considered the type critical to their needs.
The Sea Hurricanes proved extremely useful and they were, when all is said and done, better than what the FAA had before. Though that isn’t saying much, a fact that was recognized all too clearly. The Admiralty become far more vocal in September 1941, pointing out that if they were to engage in offensive operations they had to have a first-rate naval fighter.
The same month they got powerful support for that fact. Winston Churchill visited the new HMS Indomitable, the Royal Navy’s latest and most formidable aircraft carrier which was to commission into service in a few weeks’ time. He was shocked to find that the ships main fighter defence was composed of a handful of the first converted Sea Hurricanes, aircraft that were now thoroughly second-rate compared to other fighters.
Churchill made it plain that this was unacceptable and demanded something be done to remedy the situation. When news came the following month that the United States was not going to allow the sale of any more Wildcats after the current orders were complete, there was no other option.
The British would have to create a modern carrier fighter from scratch in record time. And that meant there really was only one candidate for the role.
The Supermarine Spitfire Mk.V.
The problem was, the Spitfire really wasn’t suitable for the role as a carrier fighter. Traditionally these needed to be tough to deal with the battering of brutal carrier landings and catapult-assisted takeoffs, have steady handling characteristics for said takeoff and landings and good range.
The Spitfire, though a great aircraft, had none of these traits, having been created to act as a short-range, land-based interceptor. It was lightweight, which was perfect for its designed role of getting up to altitude quickly but made it far less durable than naval aircraft traditionally were. It also had a narrow-track undercarriage, again not so much of a problem on a nice even airfield, but definitely an issue for landing on a pitching deck.
It also had poor visibility for landing, with its long nose, and the Spitfire’s landing flaps were just that – flaps for landing. There was no intermediate setting which carrier aircraft generally used to give them extra lift when shot off a carrier’s catapults.
In fact, there are few aircraft arguably worse set up for conversion to running off an aircraft carrier than the Spitfire. The problem was that, at the time, the British really had nothing else in service comparable.
Admittedly, the Blackburn Firebrand was in development and this, initially at least, was intended to be the sort of high performance interceptor that the FAA required. But that was still not going to be ready for service for quite a while, having not even flown yet, and with Churchill’s demanding action, the Spitfire was it. The news in fact bought mixed feelings from many FAA pilots who were all excited to have the opportunity of flying the famed fighter but had trepidation about doing so off of carriers for the reasons listed.
Ironically the Admiralty had considered the possibility of using naval Spitfires in late 1939/early 1940, but the combination of it not really fitting into their doctrine of the time, plus the point blank refusal of the Air Ministry to take any from the RAF who – fair enough – had much more pressing need for them, soon put paid to that idea.
But with the decision made, despite the RAF not being happy about it, the Royal Navy was finally going to get its hands on Spitfires and this earlier consideration, which had engendered some design studies at Supermarine at the time into what was needed to build a “Sea Spitfire”, would prove useful.
Because of the urgent need, the process of developing the aircraft went practically hand in hand with its production. The first models built were straight conversions of second-hand RAF Spitfire Mk.Vbs. These, fitted with an arrestor hook and naval radios and navigation gear, were literally as basic and quick a conversion as possible, and as a result the first deliveries to the FAA of the new type, now designated as the Seafire Mk. 1b, were made in February 1942 where they began testing and familiarization.
This aircraft was the biggest bodge of the entire program.
As said, as conversions of existing aircraft, the changes possible were minimal. The Mk.Is retained the same armament of two 20mm cannon and four .303 machine guns, and the standard Mk.Vb’s Merlin 45 or 46 which produced 1,415hp. Concerns about the Spitfire’s fragility proved correct, and the Mk.I Seafire’s generally ended up have reinforcing plates attached along their sides to add stiffening.
At the same time as the Mk.Is were ordered a second variant, the Mk.II was also commissioned.
This took Spitfire Mk.Vc’s that were on the production line, beefed up their frame and equipped them with catapult spools, allowing them to be shot off a deck, something the Mk.Is couldn’t, and an improved arrestor hook.
As for the takeoff flap issue, well, the aircraft fitters came up with a solution – they lowered the flap, stuck a wooden wedge in and then closed it again. The wedge gave the wing the correct angle for takeoff and once airborne the pilot would open the flap fully, the wedge would drop out and then he could retract them once again.
The Mk.IIs also used the “C”-Wing, which enabled them to carry four 20mm cannon and a 250lb bomb under each wing.
All told, this type was built in three variants; standard fighter, fighter-reconnaissance and low-altitude fighter, which used a Merlin 32 with a modified supercharger for optimal low-level performance.
The new Seafires of both types however still did not have folding wings, a major constraint. This made them a problem for the Royal Navy, especially as some of their carriers didn’t have aircraft lifts big enough to allow the new aircraft to be stored in their armoured hangers. Instead the Royal Navy had to do away with their standard doctrine and resign itself to now employing permanent deck parks, something they had originally had to do on some ships with the Sea Hurricane.
This was the norm with the US and Japanese carriers, but not for the Royal Navy as their concepts on carrier design were based around the fact that their carriers were going to get hit in the constrained waters they expected to fight in. Having nice, flammable aircraft all over the deck was, as a result, not in their original thinking, but there wasn’t any option until a proper carrier variant could be built with folding wings, so the Royal Navy employed outriggers to allow aircraft to be parked on deck without too much clutter.
Though they might not be ideal, the Seafire I-and-II’s were ready for action in a comparatively short span of time, being deployed on British carriers in the Mediterranean in time for the invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch, in November 1942. Here they tangled with the French Dewoitine D.520, an aircraft that was no slouch at air combat, and proved themselves useful attack aircraft when they bombed enemy airfields.
The Seafire’s would then prove valuable during the invasions of Sicily and then the Italian mainland, providing a quick reaction capability to British taskforces, though they still generally preferred the Martlet for maintaining CAP because of that aircraft’s better endurance.
It wasn’t all rosy though. The Seafire’s tricky landing characteristics proved especially attritional with its heavy usage in this period, a factor that would devil the aircraft’s reputation.
The Seafire had a tendency to bounce if the pilot didn’t put the aircraft down perfectly, missing the wire, or could even swing sharply due to the torque from their Merlin engines, a cause of a number of accidents and losses. Additionally, the narrow undercarriage tended to tip the aircraft over to one side for the slightest reason, plus the positioning of the arrestor hook meant the Seafire often nosed over in a heavy landing, damaging the propellor.
This led to the famous expedient of sawing off several inches of the prop, which resulted in a surprisingly small loss of performance of only a few miles-per-hour but which allowed carriers on operations to keep their Seafires airworthy.
Indeed, at Salerno, the Seafires were credited with two kills and four damaged enemy aircraft, as well as driving off multiple attempted attacks. But it came at the cost of 42 Seafires lost, all of them in accidents.
Despite the issues, the Seafire Is and IIs had proved the types worth, with 166 Mk.Is and 372 MK.IIs ultimately built. However, plans were already in action to build a proper, dedicated naval Seafire. This would be the Seafire Mk.III, which at last would have the folding wings that would allow the aircraft to operate off just about every carrier the Royal Navy operated.
Making the aircraft’s distinctive elliptical wing foldable was tricky, as it was a precision piece of engineering. But it was achieved by the novel trick of having two joints in each wing, one just before the cannons, the other towards the wingtip.
This allowed the Seafire Mk.III to reduce its width from 36ft 10in (11.23m) to just 13ft 6in (c.4.12m). However, a trade off had to be made in that the armament had to revert to the two 20mm cannon, four .303 machine gun fit, and this was the standard armament for the Seafire III.
Again, the type was built in several versions, all equipped with varieties of the Merlin 55 that produced 1,585hp. But in recognition of the fact that most carrier aircraft fighting took place at below 15,000 feet, the vast majority of the 1,220 Mark IIIs built were of the LF, or low-level fighter, variant.
The added weight from the changed design for naval operations did impact performance, but the Mk.III LF could make 358mph (576km/h) at 6000 feet (1830m). In fact, up to 10,000 feet the Seafire Mk.III was the equal to anything else, being able to out run and outmaneuver even such doughty equivalents as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair. Indeed, it apparently could outperform the Spitfire Mk.IX up to that altitude, a very respectable claim.
The Seafire IIIs began to enter service in April 1944, just in time to take place in the attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz that was holed up in a base in Norway and which had represented a threat to convoys for years. For this operation the Seafires provided fleet defence while the raid itself was conducted by Fairey Barracudas and Wildcats, Hellcats and the also another new addition to the FAA, the Vought Corsair.
The decision to use the American made fighters give an indication of how the Seafire’s range and more limited payload told against it for these sort of strikes, though they would see further deployments in the follow up attacks against the Tirpitz over the next few months, even making some kills of German aircraft that came looking for the task force.
But again, the limitations of the Seafire’s heritage – limited range, fragility and delicate handling – was the price that was paid for a truly superb fighter aircraft in the air. And you don’t need to take my word for it.
Long term readers will have heard me refer of Grumman’s legendary test pilot ‘Corky’ Meyer, on multiple occasions. He had the opportunity to test fly a Seafire in 1943 and had this to say about it:
“The Seafire had such delightful upright flying qualities that, knowing it had an inverted fuel and oil system, I decided to try inverted ‘figure-8s’. They were as easy as pie, even when hanging by the complicated, but comfortable, British pilot restraint harness.
“Spins were like a training aircraft, with instant recovery as soon as the controls were released…acrobatics were a pleasure, the aircraft responded right after the thought came to the pilots mind, seemingly without effort…I have never enjoyed a flight in a fighter as much before or since, or felt so comfortable in an aeroplane at any flight attitude.
“The Lend-Lease Royal Navy Wildcats, Hellcats and Corsair fighters were only workhorses. The Seafire III was a dashing stallion!”
Mind you, Meyer was a hugely experienced pilot, and I don’t think he had to take off or land on a carrier, because the Seafire continued to have a bad reputation as a dangerous aircraft to operate, a reputation that prejudice against it.
With the creation of the British Pacific Fleet in late 1944 the Seafire’s headed to the Pacific. Here they faced two significant problems, apart from their heavy attrition rate.
One, their short range really didn’t suit them to operations in such a broad theatre.
Two, the commander of the fleet’s air operations was Rear Admiral Vian, who had done a similar job at the Salerno landings. He had a thoroughly negative opinion of the Seafire from his experience in the previous campaign, a view not helped when Seafires started crashing into carrier decks. So low was his opinion of the aircraft that he even had Corsairs and Hellcats held back to provide fleet defence, impacting on the amount of projectable strength that the BPF could bring to bear.
But despite these problems, the Pacific was actually the place which really gave the Seafire its time to shine. The big American fighters may have been tough, long ranged and competent, but the Seafire was fast. Down low it was, as already pointed out, really fast.
As the BPF began to get into its operational stride in 1945, this was the same time as the Japanese started using their kamikaze strikes en masse against the Allied fleets. And that was a threat that the Seafire could’ve been built for. While attackers did slip through, the Seafire proved extremely adept at running down the suicide aircraft and downing them.
As the final months of the war dragged on, the Seafire’s even managed to alleviate their restricted range by salvaging some old P-40 drop tanks and, in the best tradition of the entire aircraft, bodge them to fit. With these the Seafires were able to range further afield and even managed to take part in some of the final airstrikes of the war as it drew to a close.
With the surrender of Japan you would be forgiven for thinking that the days of the Seafire would be extremely numbered. It was, after all, never the perfect carrier fighter and arguably a bit of a liability.
In fact a brand new model was just coming into service as the war ended, the Mk.XV.
This combined most of the Seafire III’s fuselage and wings with some parts from the Spitfire Mk.VIII such as the tail and fuel tanks and, most notably, the Griffon VI engine. Ironically the Griffon had been commissioned by the FAA before the war, and in rather typical fashion they didn’t actually get any into a combat fighter before it finished, the RAF basically calling dibs on them for the later marks of Spitfire. Equally ironically, the Griffon actually made the Seafire even more dangerous to operate from aircraft carriers.
The Mk.XV were quickly replaced in production by the Mk.17, which used the same engine but had reinforced wings and a stronger and better designed undercarriage which went some way to improving the types landing traits.
They also had a bubble canopy, which was fitted in the last production Mk.XVs as well.
In the late 1940s there were small runs of MK.45 and -46 Seafires, which never served operationally, before the final variant, the Mk.47, entered service with the FAA in 1948.
And finally, the Seafire was the aircraft that was wanted from the beginning, though to be honest that is probably because it had practically nothing in common with the original Spitfire that originated it.
The Mk.47 had a bubble canopy, hydraulically folded wings that now only needed a single joint, four 20mm cannon and the capacity to carry three 500lb bombs. Fuel capacity was now 247 gallons (1,123 litres), quite a step up from the 85 gallons (386 litres) of the Spitfire Mk.I and twice the fuel capacity of the first Seafires.
But probably most useful was the fact that the Griffon 88 engines of the Mk.47 had a Rotol contra-rotating propeller. This countered the torque issue that had been a problem on the Merlin-equipped Seafires and a nightmare on the earlier Griffon engined models, making the Mk.47, in the words of the Naval Air Fighting Development Unit: “…the best high altitude fighter of all the piston engined aircraft now in service.”
Though that wasn’t to remain the case for long, and the Seafire’s, despite their surprisingly long run, would soon be replaced by the more capable Hawker Sea Fury and then the new jets that were coming into service.
But it didn’t go out quietly. Mk.47’s when to war attacking communist guerillas in Malaya in 1949, before seeing action in the first few months of the Korean War, mainly conducting ground strikes on North Korean forces and airfields.
Seafires would also see combat with the French in Indochina and, I suspect the Burmese Air Force, who acquired a batch of them surplus. They would also be used by the Australian and Canadian navies to equip their carrier fighter squadrons in the immediate post war era, as well as with the Irish Air Corp and all told 2,646 Seafires were built.
Now, that might not be hugely impressive by the standards of other naval fighters, like the numbers produced by the USA or the Japanese and the Seafire may have been a bit of an oddball, for the many reasons I have covered here.
But for an aircraft that was basically made up on the fly, that is a pretty good combat and longevity record.
NOTE: If you are interested in learning more on the aircraft I thoroughly recommend “Supermarine Seafire” by Matthew Willis. I relied on it heavily for researching this and even then I have only touched on the mass of detail that is in the book.
And some good news! The publisher, Mortons Books, is offering a ten percent discount on purchases. All you have to do is go to their website and use the discount code EDNASH10 when you purchase. That code is good until the 31st of December 2023, and you can use it multiple times if you like.
I point out I get nothing from this except a digital copy of the book for research and review. Mortons is offering this as they appreciate there are a lot of keen aero heads in my readership, and for me this is a way to show my gratitude to all you guys for you continuing support.
End of the Spits – The Supermarine Spiteful and Seafang
Spitfire VIII; The One That Kind of Missed the Bus