With the news that the Spitfire XIV is in beta test for IL-2: Battle of Normandy, I’ve seen plenty of excitement around the community about the new Spitfire’s imminent arrival as well as some confusion over what the type represents, where it fits into the history books, and how it will be flown. So, let’s dive into the history books for a short while and clear up some common misconceptions around this storied Spitfire variant.
Some key questions
One of the common confusion points around the history of Spitfire and the reasons why the IL-2 series has chosen to represent them in the order it has is down to a misunderstanding of how they were deployed and in what numbers.
I’ve seen several variations on the same question. Doesn’t the XIV (14) come later than IX (9)? Why is the later mark coming with the earlier battle chronologically speaking? Why was the IX used until the end of the war when there was the more powerful Mark XIV? Where does the Mark XVI fit into all of this? Let me try and answer these and a few other questions!
How did the Mark XIV come about?
Let’s dive into a little history of the Spitfire without getting too bogged down into the details. We can divide the Spitfire production into two lines. The first was an all-Merlin engine line which started with the Mark I and Mark II which gave way to the Mark V. When the Mark V was found wanting versus the new Focke-Wolf 190, a critical choice was faced. They could wait for the refinements of the high altitude Mark VII and new Mark VIII on the drawing boards to come to production, or, adapt the Mark V airframe with the newest and most powerful Merlin engine (the 60 series) and build the Mark IX. The Mark IX was chosen and rushed into production in 1942 while the Mark VIII would take another year to complete.
Now we have to take a step back and look at the second line of production. Developed based on a Royal Navy request for a more powerful low altitude optimized engine, Rolls Royce had developed the Griffon engine as a bigger and more powerful Merlin engine. Only slightly bigger in dimensions but with 36% larger capacity than the Merlin engine, the Griffon was intended for use in the Fairely Firefly but it was determined that the engine could be adapted to the Spitfire as well. The Mark IV was born.
First flown in 1941, the Mark IV was a development prototype and never saw widescale production. The next, effort to develop the Mark IV into a production aircraft were were developed using the lessons learned on the Mark IV but using available Mark VIII airframes. These aircraft were given the label Mark XII and 100 were built.
Owing to the early Griffon’s single stage supercharger and low altitude optimized performance, the Mark XII’s were all equipped with clipped wingtips and used in low altitude operations where it was shown to be 14 mph faster than the Mark IX in low altitude speed trials.
Then, production at the Supermarine factory turned from the Mark XII over to the definitive wartime Griffon powered Spitfire – the Mark XIV. There were many changes and refinements on this mark. The nose was lengthened to accommodate the two stage Griffon 65, additional fuel tanks of the late model Mark VIII were incorporated into the design, a new five blade propeller was added to handle the increased power, and the rudder was further broadened in size to accommodate the longer nose and more powerful Griffon.
What is the Mark XVI then?
By swapping a letter and going up by two, there’s often confusion and misunderstanding around the similarly designated Mark XVI. Some think this is a later version of the Griffon powered Spitfire. It’s not. Some think this is the designation given to the late model Mark IX with bubble canopy. Also not the case. If you’re not quite sure how it fits in, that’s okay too, aircraft development is often convoluted and never happens in a straightforward way!
The Mark XVI is simply a Mark IX airframe fitted with the Packard produced Merlin 266. This was a Merlin 66 (fitted to the Mark IX) produced by Packard Motor Car company in the United States and given the prefix ‘2’ so as to distinguish the nearly identical engines from one another. Parts were apparently not necessarily interchangeable and and thus confusing the two was not recommended.
Late model Mark IX and XVI’s were indeed fitted with the bubble canopy (first trialed on the Mark VIII) but they had no special designation.
Why produce the IX/XVI when the Griffon powered XIV is better?
With over 2,000 hp available, a two stage supercharger giving excellent altitude performance, and speed and climb rates that far exceeded the Mark IX in most circumstances, there seems little point to keeping the Mark IX in production. Right? Well not exactly. That may be the result of a bit of a gamer mindset creeping into our understanding of history.
With the war ongoing and aircraft losses to accidents and combat continuing on a regular basis, a need to keep production lines going and capable fighters being pushed to the frontlines took priority over all else.
Griffon engine production and the Spitfire airframes it was attached to, were slower to come on stream resulting in the total production of the Mark XIV coming in at just 957. By comparison, the Mark IX and XVI resulted in the total production value of 6,710 aircraft produced.
Even in late 1944 and early 1945, the number of Spitfire IX (and XVI) squadrons on the front lines in Europe far exceeded those of the Mark XIV. While production of the XIV ramped up at Supermarine itself, the shadow factories supplying the production line at Castle Bromwich continued on with the more than adequate Mark IX with engine supplies coming in from both Rolls Royce and from Packard.
This was a winning strategy for the RAF which benefited from a steady supply of capable fighters through to the end of the war.
How does the Mark XIV fit into a Normandy scenario then?
The first squadron use of the Mark XIV in frontline service happened earlier than many would assume. Coming into service in January of 1944, the first XIV’s were immediately put into action on the channel front and tangled with Focke Wulf and Messerschmidt fighters before being put to use against an even more nefarious enemy – the V-1 Buzz Bomb.
While the Mark V were still numerous at this time and the Mark IX was filling in the ranks, XIV’s were used in specialized operations patrolling the channel front as the V-1 threat increased. Mark XIV’s would continue in mostly defensive operations (together with the Tempest V) for some time before the V-1 threat was reduced and eliminated. At this point, the squadrons began to move to the continent in the fall of 1944.
With a limited number of aircraft being developed in each IL-2: Great Battles title, there is method to the madness of choosing which British fighters to represent in each title. The aircraft choice of IL-2: Battle of Bodenplatte seems to have gone with the Tempest Mark V and Spitfire IX to represent both one of the RAF’s late war “super fighters” along with the bread and butter of the 2nd TAF’s tactical fighter force. No doubt this decision was made with the understanding that Normandy would be next and that the Mark XIV and the Typhoon would fill in the key missing pieces of the aircraft set. With the Mark XIV being the other “super fighter” and it’s in-service date coming before the Tempest, it all just makes logical sense when you know the history.
Over time, and as development of the Battle of Normandy title ends, I see IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Bodenplatte and Normandy coming as one big title with 20 aircraft and sold in two parts. It’s not unlike what we saw with Battle of Stalingrad and Battle of Moscow also coming together with overlapping aircraft sets telling a complete story.
How will it fly?
I can’t wait to get my hands on the Spitfire XIV in IL-2: Battle of Normandy and put it through it’s paces. This will be the first time I fly a Mark XIV Spitfire since the early 1990’s and the release of Aces Over Europe. We’ve come a long way since then and this should be an interesting experience!
If you’re like me, you may want to get a head start on how this type flies versus other Spitfires and there are some key notes to keep in mind.
First, the Griffon engine spins in the opposite direction from the Merlin requiring opposite rudder and trim settings to have it fly straight on takeoff. Many accidents occurred in real life because of this change and I expect we’ll see that happen in the virtual world too.
Second, during AFDU tactical trials, the Spitfire XIV was found to be remarkably similar to the Spitfire IX in most respects once in the air with only a few notable differences. The elevator required more trim to stay level, the controls felt heavier in all respects, and stall came on more suddenly than with the Mark IX. Tactics will likely not change much but approaching the aircraft as a Mark IX first may not be a fully winning strategy and it may take a bit of time to get used to.
One thing is clear, the Spitfire XIV is an impressive fighter with power, speed, climb and an impressive pedigree that will make for one challenging opponent.
Let’s clear up the armament question too
Before ending this piece, I want to take a little side detour in the history of armament on the Spitfire. There are four wing types that have been used by the different Spitfire versions. They are:
- A wing – Four .303 machine guns in each wing for a total of eight.
- B wing – Two .303 machine guns in the outer wing positions and a 60 round drum fed Hispano Mark II cannon in the inner wing position.
- C wing – Provisions for two 20mm cannons in each wing (with 120 rpg belt feed for each cannon) and two .303 machine guns in the outer wing positions. In use, the four cannon loadout was rare and all production Mark VIII, IX, XII, and XIV’s were fitted with just one 20mm cannon in each wing and the two .303’s as a backup.
- E wing – Functionally identical to the C wing but with the .303’s removed and a Browning .50 cal heavy machine gun mounted in one of the cannon bays.
Many ask about the four cannon loadout and if it was ever on the Mark XIV. I can report that it is was not – at least not in any production aircraft or part of regular use. After the brief production of four cannon Mark Vc, the next Spitfire to receive a four cannon loadout was the Spitfire XVIII. This aircraft had a wholly redesigned wing and saw limited production at the end of the war. The war was over before it had a chance to be used in air combat and one squadron saw limited use strafing German ships in a single operation. Post-war Spitfire’s had all cannon armament.
Two decades of reading and a bookshelf full of history books on the history of the Spitfire has helped me to understand the often complex history of the Spitfire. Everything you read here I’ve sourced from my bookshelf, Wikipedia articles on the Merlin and Griffon Spitfires, SpitfirePerformance.com, and the Spitfire Society website. I’ve probably glossed over some details and so this isn’t the definitive history of the Mark or the Spitfire in general but I do hope it helps further understanding of this unique fighter.
The Spitfire Mark XIV only rarely appears in WWII air combat sims and getting this fighter is a bit of a dream come true for me. Looking forward to that day!