The Supermarine Seafire is the naval version of the Supermarine Spitfire. A ruggerized version adapted for aircraft carrier use. It just followed the concept of the Hawker Sea Hurricane, as another, earlier navalised version of the second most popular British fighter of WW2. “Seafire” was a contraction of “Sea Spitfire” that eventually imposed itself, including officially. Being based on the most successful fighter of Great Britain, much was awaited for it in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), but it’s weak undercarriage and short range did not contributed to its early success. But the seafire was improved over the years, especially by 1944-45. If the Mark XV and XVII were still troublesome eventually the postwar Mark 45 to 47 reached the pinnacle of the genre, contributing to its continuous service until the start of the Korean war, before being replaced by the Sea Fury, and Jets.
⚠ Note: This post is in writing. Completion expected in 2024.
The long and fustrating path to a modern naval fighter
The idea of adopting a navalised Supermarine Spitfire was in the Admiralty’s mind as early as May 1938, however the RAF in dire need for the latest fighters monopolized the order, and in 1940 the question was not less urgent for the FAA. There was a pressing need to replace all types of obsolete fighters that still in operation, such as the antiquated Hawker Nimrod biplane (1932, only retired in 1942 !) and Hawker Osprey, both recce aircraft.
(to come: Hawker Osprey)
(to come: Blackburn Roc)
Winston Churchill, knowing still overriding priorities preferred to favour the RAF as well and ordered to focus on land-based Spitfires only. In 1939 was gradually introduced the Blackburn Roc, a derivative of the Blackburn Skua bomber fitted with a quad MG turret aft, a choice seemingly good on paper but which proved useless in action.
In mid-1939, also Gloster, the only manufacturer not monopolized by RAF orders as were Supermarine and Hawker proposed its own readily available Gladiator, working as a private venture on a navalized variant. A modified Mk II, the Sea Gladiator, was developed with an arrestor hook, catapult attachment points as well as a strengthened airframe and underbelly fairing to fit a small dinghy lifeboat. By default of any single-seat model, the FAA appoved the delivery of 100, later reduced to 98 aircraft either built as Sea Gladiators or converted. 54 were in service by September but gradually delivered. Among the most famous were the 18 Sea Gladiators from 802 Naval Air Squadron delivered by HMS Glorious, in early 1940 to Malta. In late 1941 the Gladiator only was good enough against Italian fighters, but became an easy prey to the Me 109E “trop”.
Fulmar from HMS Victorious during Operation Torch in 1942
In 1940 was gradually introduced the better Fairey Fulmar, not a “pure” fighter but a multirole two-seat model. It still was good enough against most aicraft but the German Me-109, until mid-1942. At least it was a moderately fast and agile monoplane fitted with the same Merlin engine shared by the “Spit” and Hurricane. But it’s own production was precisely slowed down by bottlenecks at Rolls-Royce.
Sea Hurricane from HMS Victorious during Operation Pedestal in August 1942 (801 NAS).
And in mid-1941 at last arrived the well-awaited Hawker Sea Hurricane, developed in 1941 at the demand of the FAA as the manufacturing pressure started to wave down. The RAF privileged still the Spitfire at this point, so again, the FAA could not count on it. In all, some 800 Sea Hurricane were converted or produced in several variants, used until 1945. It became in 1942 until gradually replaced by the Seafire, the most common fighter of the FAA, but still 2-3 generation late compared to its RAF counterpart, now relegated to fighter-bomber duties only.
Supermarine pressured by the FAA again in 1941
By 1941 and early 1942, the concept of a navalized spitfire was pushed again by the Admiralty, notably to the RAF staff, and it eventually bore fruit.
It was inevitable that the FAA had to have the Seafire. It was the only fighter available that would fit into the new, low-hangar-roofed Implacable and Indefatigable. There were no other British aircraft. Hawker’s Hurricane replacement — the Typhoon — was too large, the Martin-Baker MB5 was not being built and the Blackburn Firebrand had yet to fly properly. The Hurricane itself was not available in sufficient quantity and it was unlikely to be fitted with the Griffon engine or be modified to allow wing folding.
— DSC RN, Commander R ‘Mike’ Crosley: They Gave me a Seafire
Culminating in an initial batch of Seafire Mk Ib fighters provided in late 1941 mainly used for pilots to gain experience due to their numerous limitations and woefully icomplete/botched conversion. A second batch was a little better, but delivered very slowly between repair and maintenance centers of the RAF, from battered/damaged second hand Mark VBs. Concerns over their weak undercarriage, unstrenghtened, barred them from carrier use execpt for a small batch as “permanent park” on three fleet carriers. Performance were also barely acceptable and degraded compared to the regular Mark VB.
From 1942 onwards, more Seafire were quickly ordered, but always converted from existing second-hand models, with the Mark II, and at last a good navalized variant which were the operationally-viable Seafire F Mk III. Only from there, the Seafire replaced the Sea Hurricane and Martlet throughout the FAA on first-line carriers.
Specifications Mark I (1942)
|Dimensions:||9.56 x 10.97 m x 4.50 m (33 x 41 x 13 ft)|
|Wing area:||342 sq ft (31.8 m2)|
|Airfoil:||NACA 0010 – NACA 2212|
|Weight: Light||3,788 lb (1,718 kg)|
|Weight: Max take-off||5,437 lb (2,466 kg)|
|Propulsion:||P&W R-1340-18 600 hp (450 kW)|
|Performances:||Top speed: 48.6 kn (55.9 mph, 90.0 km/h)
Cruise speed: 116 kn (133 mph, 214 km/h)
Service ceiling: 14,900 ft (4,500 m)
Rate of climb: 915 ft/min (4.65 m/s)
|Range:||587 nmi (675 mi, 1,086 km) at 5,000 ft (1,500 m)|
|Armament – MGs||2x 0.3 cal|
|Armament – Bombs||650 lb (295 kg)|
Seafire Mark Ib (1942)
A batch of 48 ex-RAF Spifire Mk VBs went in workshops and RAF repair centres, slowly for adaptation to naval use, by mid 1942. Still that was half the number requested by the FAA, and an incomplete conversion as it lacked folding wings notably and was not robust enough. They were all used for training.
The second batch-order called for 118 models which were “second-hand” Spitfire Mk VBs. RAF Maintenance Units were in charge if the conversion, but they were already full to the brim with damaged RAF aircraft, and conversions were given low priority, so much they arrived wen the FAA already obtained its Seafire IIC.
The FIB at least had four 0.303in Browning MGs with 350 rounds/guns, two Hispano Mk 2 No.5 20mm cannons (120 rpg).
The Rolls-Royce Merlin 45/46 (1,415hp) was plumbed to use a 30 gallon jettisonable fuel tank but its overall performance were not great for fleet carriers used and Sea Hurricane IIs/Martlets took their place on escort carriers. Six IBs used for a permanent CAP were fitted on outriggers to Illustrious, Formidable and Victorious by June 1942.
Seafire Mark IIc (1942)
Seafire Mark III (1943)
Seafire Mark XV (1944)
Seafire Mark XVII (1945)
Seafire Mark 45 (1946)
Seafire Mark 46 (1947)
Seafire Mark 47 (1948)
By November 1942, Operation Torch (Allied landings in North Africa) was the first testing ground for the Seafire. They had little issues dealing with defending Vichy Fighters, counting a few Dewoitine 520 and mostly surclassed Morane 406 and Bloch 410. By July 1943, the Seafire provided the bulk of the cover during the Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) and again in September 1943 with the Allied invasion of Italy.
By 1944, the type provide the integrality of the naval air cover during D-Day, the Normandy landings and again through British presence in August at Operation Dragoon in Southern France. By late 1944, the Seafire started service with the British Pacific Fleet, and quickly proved able to defeat almost all IJA and IJN interceptors and shoot down kamikaze right up to the summer of 1945. But it was cerainly not over.
(More to come)
The Seafire went on with better versions like the Mark 17 and 48 among others, “super seafire”, powered with the new Griffon negine with quad blade propellers or even contra-rotating ones. Thus, it was still the standard Royal Navy Fighter during the Korean War, performing hundreds of sorties both in ground attack or combat air patrol in 1950. But its started to be withdrawn from service at the end of this war. The short-lived Supermarine Seafang, a development of the Spiteful, was its designed successor, but the Sea Fury seemed more promising. The Type 382 Seafang F.31 had a 2,375 hp Griffon 61 engine and five-bladed constant-speed Rotol airscrew but on 150 ordered only 9 were delived until the rest were cancelled. The Type 396 Seafang F.32 only had two prototypes built with a 2,350 hp (1,752 kW) Griffon 89 engine and received more navalized options like folding wings, increased fuel capacity and dual contra-rotating 3-bladed propellers. But it was declined for production. Instead the FAA wanted a standardized unique model.
Thus, the Seafire was replaced already from 1947 by the Hawker Sea Fury, last piston engine fighter, and soon the first generation of jet-propelled naval fighters: De Havilland Vampire, Supermarine Attacker, and Hawker Sea Hawk.
Capt. Eric (“Winkle”) Brown’s Seafire Mark 45 TM379, on trials carrier HMS Pretoria Castle, July 1945. The Seafire Mark 45 was the last wartime evolution of the famous type. It had the new Rotol contra prop, modified fin, rudder and tail hook.
Supermarine Seafire Mark XVII
Seafire F Mk.47, 800 Sqn. FAA, HMS Triumph, Korea, mid-1950