The naval version of the Spitfire had its share of teething troubles, but by the end of World War II it had found its sea legs in the Pacific
By Donald Nijboer
The ready room deep inside HMS Indefatigable offered little relief from the constant tropical heat in late March of 1945. The British carrier was a technical marvel, but to the Royal Navy crew the overcrowded, unventilated flattop was more akin to a floating oven. The briefing had been quick and to the point: The Japanese had introduced a deadly new weapon that could alter the tactical situation in the Pacific in a single stroke, and it had to be defeated at all costs. With parachutes in hand, the pilots began the long climb to the flight deck, where six Supermarine Seafire L IIIs had been readied for takeoff. Picket ships were tracking incoming bogies—the kamikazes had arrived. With throttles wide open the six Seafires pointed their noses skyward. Climbing at an incredible angle the Seafire was in its element. No longer a second cousin when compared to American carrier fighters, the Seafire would prove itself to be the best pure carrier interceptor of the war. When flown by experienced pilots the Seafire’s excellent take-off characteristics, medium level speed and rate of climb proved superior to the much-vaunted Chance Vought Corsair and Grumman Hellcat.
The Seafire took the reputation of its land-based forebear, the Supermarine Spitfire, to sea as an interceptor par excellence. Such a specialized role was unique to the Royal Navy—the United States and Japanese navies expected more range and versatility from their carrier fighters. After a resurgent British fleet returned to the Pacific in 1945, however, and kamikazes began hurling themselves at its carriers, the Seafire truly came into its own.
When Reginald Mitchell first designed the Spitfire, he never expected it to be used as a Fleet Air Arm fighter. Even a cursory look at the Spitfire reveals why: Its narrow-track landing gear was short and weak in comparison to most purpose-built shipboard fighters, the view forward from the cockpit was extremely poor, and its small size did not allow for an increase in internal fuel to extend range.
Consequently, much of what the new Seafire was expected to do was beyond its capabilities, especially at the outset. But later, in the hands of a cadre of well-trained pilots, it outshone other carrier fighters in an interceptor role more suited to its design.
At the war’s outset, Britain’s Fleet Air Arm was in a sorry state. Of its 232 operational aircraft, the majority (140) were archaic Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers (though ironically they would chalk up an impressive combat record). The only modern aircraft the Fleet Air Arm possessed were 30 Blackburn Skuas. Designed as a fighter/dive bomber, the monoplane Skua fulfilled neither role well. With a top speed of about 225 mph, it was no match for more advanced fighters such as the Japanese A6M2 Zero and German Messerschmitt Me-109E.
After the Spitfire proved itself during the Battle of Britain, the Admiralty demanded a navalized version. Actually, as early as November 1939, a Royal Navy pilot had test-flown a Spitfire to investigate its suitability for naval operations. That relatively casual experimentation turned serious in the autumn of 1941 when the Admiralty received the go-ahead to procure “Sea Spitfires.” It requested 400 aircraft, but the Air Ministry offered only 250.
During Christmas week of 1941, Lt. Cmdr. H.P. Bramwell piloted a Spitfire Mk. VB equipped with an arrestor hook and slinging lugs, conducting initial deck suitability trials aboard HMS Illustrious. In the course of his tests, he made 12 deck landings, took off seven times and was launched by catapult four times. As such, the tests provided little insight into the problems that would dog the Seafire under less favorable conditions.
Flying from and landing on a ship is an extremely difficult exercise, and carrier operations are notoriously bad for airplanes. During World War II more carrier aircraft were lost due to accidents, poor navigation and fuel starvation than to enemy action. Add the high-performance Seafire to the mix and the results were predictable.
The first Seafires to be delivered were actually 48 existing Spitfire Mk. VBs that had been modified for shipboard use. Most of them were assigned to the Air Service Training program. The conversion of the Spitfire VB into the Seafire IB and the VC into the Seafire IIC was fairly simple. A 6-foot-long hydraulically damped arrestor hook, catapult spools and reinforced slinging lugs on each side of the fuselage were installed, and naval avionics added. But while the Seafire Mk. IB had been a straight conversion of the VB airframe, the Seafire Mk. IIC and L.IIC that followed were built as naval fighters from the ground up. The Mk. III was the first Seafire with manually folding wings and a Merlin 55 engine.
The Seafire made its combat debut during Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, beginning on November 8, 1942. Five squadrons of Seafires participated, destroying five Vichy French aircraft, damaging three others and destroying another four on the ground. It was an inauspicious start, but what followed would seal the Seafire’s fate.
The carrier operations surrounding the amphibious assault on Salerno, Italy, served to define the Seafire’s reputation. After the invasion and capture of Sicily in August 1943, the Allies had quickly established a beachhead at Calabria on the “toe” of Italy on September 3. In hopes of avoiding a prolonged fight up the narrow peninsula, the U.S. Fifth Army launched Operation Avalanche, an amphibious assault in the Bay of Salerno, on September 9. Seven carriers (five of which were escort carriers) with 121 Seafires were tasked with low and medium air defense of the northern beachhead until the airfield at Montecorvino, it was hoped, could be put into operation on the second day.
On D-day the Luftwaffe reacted swiftly and vigorously. At first light a half dozen Junkers Ju-88s were intercepted and forced to drop their bombs and turn away.
D-plus-1 was the Seafires’ most successful day of operation. More than 40 enemy aircraft were forced to turn back, but deck landing accidents began to take a heavy toll. At dawn on D-plus-2 only 39 Seafires were available for operations. Still, they managed to fly 160 sorties, an amazing utilization of aircraft.
While the landings at Salerno were ultimately successful, they saddled the Seafire with an unenviable reputation. Statistically speaking the numbers painted a grim picture. Although only two Seafires were lost in combat, just two enemy aircraft had been shot down. Worse, 42 Seafires had been lost or had to be written off due to accidents.
The major reasons for the Seafire’s high attrition rate were poor operating conditions and pilot inexperience. Many of the pilots had transferred from the fleet carrier Indomitable to an escort carrier, and they now had to deal with a flight deck that was 30 percent smaller and a ship that was 10 knots slower. Although they shot down few enemy aircraft, the Seafires did achieve their ultimate objective: They protected the fleet.
How did the Seafire stack up against its carrier-borne contemporaries? During WWII naval fighters had to perform a variety of tasks. Interception was their primary roll, but other tasks included long-range escort, ground attack, reconnaissance, fighter sweeps, dive-bombing and spotting for bombardment by surface ships.
To fulfill these many rolls, the carrier-borne fighter must possess three attributes: (1.) power, performance and armament equal to or better than land-based interceptors and other naval fighters; (2.) the ability to escort strike aircraft or remain on patrol for extended periods of time; (3.) rugged structure, good deck landing characteristics and safe deck handling under all conditions. Only two WWII naval fighters possessed all three virtues at the time of their introduction: the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero and Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat.
From October 1942 until August 1943, the Seafire held the crown as the fastest carrier fighter afloat, eclipsed only by the introduction of the A6M5 and F6F-3. While its low- to medium-level performance was respectable, its rate of climb and acceleration were remarkable. The L.IIC climbed at nearly 3,500 feet per minute up to 10,000 feet—some 1,500 feet per minute better than the Hellcat or Corsair, and 1,000 feet per minute better than the Me-109G, Fw-190A or A6M5. For sheer acceleration the Seafire had no peer. In 1945 it was still the fastest and steepest climbing Allied naval interceptor. That turned out to be of great tactical value because once targets had been identified on radar, the Seafire required less distance and time to reach any given altitude.
The Seafire’s armament of two 20mm Hispano cannons and four .303-inch Browning machines guns remain unchanged throughout the war. This configuration proved more than adequate against lightly built Japanese aircraft.
The deck landing and handling qualities of the Seafire were, to put it kindly, not good. As a land-based interceptor, its landing technique called for long runways and a fairly fast approach speed down a 2-degree glide path, followed by a last-second flare. Carrier deck landings required a totally different technique, one that was foreign to the finely balanced Seafire.
While the faults of the Seafire as a carrier aircraft were many, its performance as a low to medium level interceptor was superb. In the Pacific, the Seafire would meet a new and formidable foe – the kamikaze. To meet this threat the Seafire was fortuitously equipped.
When the British Pacific Fleet first encountered the kamikaze in 1945 the Japanese had developed their tactics with the ‘zero feet’ approach with a twist. The vast majority of kamikaze pilots were inexperienced requiring an escort to guide them to their targets. When approximately 20 miles from the Allied fleet, the more experienced escort pilots would quickly pull up, exposing themselves to radar. It was hoped that this tactic would bate the high-flying Hellcats and Corsairs and leave the low level intruders unmolested. To counter this tactic the British adopted the American ‘Jack Patrols’. It was a last ditch method designed to catch kamikazes coming in at sea level and the best aircraft for this role turned out to be the Seafire L III. Each ‘Jack Patrol’ CAP would consist of eight Seafires, equipped with 90 gallon slipper tanks. Held at less than 3,000 feet and within ten miles of the destroyer screen this would be the last interceptor barrier before the fleet anti-aircraft guns would be called into action. Even with this well coordinated defensive system, British carriers were hit several times, but never put out of action. The first two kamikaze Zero-zens shot down went to Sub Lt Richard H. Reynolds on April 1st, 1945 during operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa. In total Seafire pilots accounted for eight A6M Zero kamikazes shot down and one damaged. They also shot down one D3A Val and one Ki 61 ‘Tony’ possibly damaged. While the numbers may seem small when compared to US Navy claims, it’s clear that without the Seafire the damage would have been far worse.
It took a while, but in the closing weeks of the war the Seafire proved itself a capable carrier plane. From any perspective, it was not an ideal naval aircraft, but when properly equipped and operated by well-trained pilots and maintenance personnel, it finally gained a respectability undreamed of when it first appeared on a carrier deck.
Despite its many shortcomings, the Seafire achieved a respectable degree of success. At war’s end 12 Seafire squadrons were in frontline carrier service. During air combat operations, they destroyed 37 enemy aircraft (15 being A6M Zeros), probably destroyed another two and damaged 25, for the loss of eight Seafires in air-to-air combat. And fittingly the Seafire would also participate in the last dogfight of the war. On August 15th, eight Seafires from 887 and 894 NASs encountered four J2M3 Raidens and eight A6M5c/A6M7 Zero-sen over Tokyo Bay. In the ensuing battle seven Zeros were shot down for the loss of one Seafire.
In the last operations of the war, the success of the two Seafire wings (88 aircraft) aboard the carriers Indefatigable and Implacable came as a surprise to all but the pilots themselves. Striking targets on the Japanese Home Islands between July 17 and August 15, 1945, Seafires of Nos. 801, 880, 887 and 894 squadrons amassed an impressive record: 1,186 sorties flown, comprising 705 combat air patrol, 324 fighter sweep and 157 antishipping missions. In all, those operations expended 43,600 rounds of 20mm and 169,270 rounds of .303-inch ammunition. A total of 87 enemy aircraft were damaged or destroyed on the ground, and 11 in the air. The toll on enemy shipping was extensive: 3,700 tons sunk, 1,615 tons probably sunk and 24,700 tons damaged.
Though it was adapted from a land-based interceptor and therefore was never particularly well suited to carrier use, the Seafire served admirably, and any criticism of its performance should be viewed through that prism. In many ways what the Seafire was able to achieve was quite remarkable. Credit for its success should go to those who operated this fine fighter under trying and arduous conditions.