The RAF Museum’s collection includes rare and historic aircraft which help to tell the incredible story of the Battle of Britain that followed. Four of these aircraft actually took part in the Battle, while the remainder are later production versions of types which played a crucial role in the conflict and represent period examples which either no longer exist or are not held by the Museum.
1. SUPERMARINE SPITFIRE
The Spitfire was the iconic aircraft of the Battle of Britain and became the symbol of British defiance in the air. Designed by Reginald Mitchell, it had an advanced all-metal airframe, making it light and strong. It took longer to build than the Hurricane and was less sturdy, but it was faster and had a responsiveness which impressed all who flew it. Crucially, it was a match for the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 and was superior to it at lower altitudes. The Spitfire entered service with No. 19 Squadron at Duxford in August 1938. Production was slow at first, but by September 1940 it was in service with 18 RAF squadrons. Spitfires shot down a total of 529 enemy aircraft, for a loss of 230 of their own.
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2. HAWKER HURRICANE
The Hurricane was the most numerous of RAF Fighter Command’s aircraft during the Battle of Britain, equipping 33 squadrons by September 1940. Its traditional design – a wood and metal framework covered in fabric – was derived from earlier biplane fighters and was essentially out of date despite later improvements. However, it was a stable and rugged aircraft that could be maintained and repaired more easily than the Spitfire. Its limitations meant that, where possible, Hurricane squadrons were directed against enemy bombers while the superior Spitfires dealt with the fighter escorts. Despite its shortcomings, the Hurricane accounted for 656 German aircraft during the Battle of Britain – more than the Spitfire. Between 30 July and 16 September, 404 Hurricanes were destroyed.
3. BOULTON PAUL DEFIANT
The Defiant was a two-seat fighter with a four-gun power-operated turret. It had no forward firing armament, which meant it could not shoot down enemy aircraft from behind. It was intended primarily as a bomber interceptor, but the turret fighter concept was outmoded and the extra weight made the aircraft sluggish in combat. In early battles over Dunkirk, Defiants had proved very vulnerable to conventional enemy fighters. RAF Fighter Command rashly sent its two Defiant squadrons – Nos. 141 and 264 – into action in July and August, which resulted in two separate massacres at the hands of the Luftwaffe. As a consequence the aircraft played no further part as a day fighter in the Battle.
4. MESSERSCHMITT BF 109
The Bf 109 was arguably the best fighter in the world in 1940. It was faster than the Spitfire at high altitude, could dive more rapidly and carried a more effective armament of two cannon and two machine guns. Most Bf 109 pilots had more combat experience than their RAF counterparts, at least at first, which also conferred a major advantage. However, the Messerschmitt did not have the range to fly beyond London and carried only seven seconds worth of cannon ammunition, which limited its operational usefulness. The Luftwaffe started the Battle with about 1,100 Bf 109s and 906 pilots available. Some 650 aircraft were shot down.
MESSERSCHMITT BF 110
The two-seat Bf 110 was designed as a long-range heavy escort fighter or Zerstörer (destroyer). It was fast and well-armed, but lacked manoeuvrability. It was markedly inferior to the more nimble RAF fighters and became a liability when attempting to guard the bomber formations. The Germans were forced to use Bf 109s to escort the Bf 110s. However, the aircraft was more effective when used for low-level attacks against factories and RAF airfields. The Germans failed to see the potential of the Bf 110 in this fighter-bomber role and only one Luftwaffe unit was trained for such work.