Technology was advancing rapidly towards the end of the war, with the most powerful piston-engined types the world had ever seen fighting alongside or against the first jet aircraft. But how did they compare?
There were around 20 high performance fighter types at least nominally in service in Europe when Wolrd War II there came to an end:
- Supermarine Spitfire LF.IX
- Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XIV
- Hawker Typhoon Mk.lb
- Hawker Tempest V
- Gloster Meteor F.3
- North American P-51D Mustang
- Republic P-47D Thunderbolt
- Lockheed P-38L Lightning
- Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star
- Bell P-63A Kingcobra (an American fighter but initially flown almost exclusively dive by the Russians)
- Lavochkin La-7
- Yakovlev Yak- 3
- Yakovlev Yak-9U
- Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-9
- Focke-Wulf Fw 190 D-9
- Ta 152 H-1
- Messerschmitt Bf 109 K-4
- Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1a
- Messerschmitt Me 163 B-1
- Heinkel He 162 A-2
Which was the best?
According to Dan Sharp’s book Spitfires Over Berlin, from among the 20 aircraft listed here, there are some obvious dropouts when it comes to deciding which was best. The British Hawker Tempest V was a better fighter than the Typhoon, so the latter can be safely ruled out.
The same applies to the Focke-Wulf Ta 152 and both of the Fw 190 types. The A-9 and the D-9 can be ditched. Similarly, the Me 262 would have been the better fighter even if the He 162 could have been made to work flawlessly so the notorious Volksjager has got to go. The Me 163’s endurance was too brief to make it an effective fighter so it can also be taken out of contention.
The slowest of the American types was the P-38 Lightning. It climbed well but was surpassed as a dogfighter, therefore it too has to go.
Though they were good at low-level fighting they were not superior to the most exceptional of their contemporaries, so all three of the Soviet types (as well as theP-63A) can be excluded too.
This leaves a top 10 of the Tempest V, Spitfire IX and XIV, Meteor F.3, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, P-80 Shooting Star, Me 262 A-1a, Ta 152 and Bf 109 K.
The non-operational Meteor F.3 and P-80 can probably be ruled out due to ongoing development issues, the Bf 109 K could not be said to have surpassed the Ta 152 in performance, the P-47 Thunderbolt was less manoeuvrable than the P-51 and the Spitfire IX lacked the raw speed to keep up with the new German jets, so a reasonable top five would be the Tempest V, Spitfire XIV, P-51 Mustang, Me 262 A-la and Ta 152.
Here, narrowing down gets more difficult. The Ta 152 was designed as a high altitude fighter and relied heavily on its complex engine to give it an amazing turn of speed. Its guns were prone to jamming and its reputation rests on only a handful of accounts by decidedly partisan witnesses. It ought therefore to be excluded.
The Tempest V was fast and deadly but it lacked performance at high altitude and straight line speed. Would it have been able to best a Spitfire XIV in a dogfight? Maybe, maybe not.
The choice really conies down to three machines – the Spitfire XIV, the P-51 Mustang and the Me 262 A-1a. All three were potent dogfighters, loved by their pilots and feared by their enemies. The P-51 was the best aircraft in the world for its particular role – escorting bombers over long distances at high altitude -but was it the best fighter of the three finalists?
It lacked the speed of either the Spitfire or the Messerschtnitt and its rate of climb was significantly below that of the other two. Its manoeuvrability was excellent but it did not surpass that of the Spitfire.
The Me 262 represented the future of air combat. It could outrun almost anything and its armament was second to none – yet it had serious problems in operational service. Built by dedicated German engineers, flown in numbers from well-defended airfields and kept well supplied with fuel and fresh engines, it would undoubtedly have had the edge over the Spitfire, but in reality Germany’s war situation, coupled with its own design flaws, served to handicap the world’s first truly successful jet fighter.
In the final analysis, there have to be joint winners – the British Supermarine Spitfire XIV and the German Me 262. The Spitfire Mk.XIV was faster than any other piston engine aircraft bar the Ta 152, its manoeuvrability was outstanding, it could perform exceptionally at any altitude and its rate of climb was stupendous. Its short range made it unsuitable for escort missions but in a straight fight it was simply very hard to beat. Nevertheless, in one-on-one combat, a Spitfire Mk.XIV pilot would have found it very difficult to best a Me 262 – particularly with the latter able to fly 93mph faster. The Spitfire pilot would have enjoyed greater horizontal manoeuvrability and acceleration but would still have had to surprise the Me 262, or the Me 262 pilot would have had to make a fatal error.
After the war, former Luftwaffe General of Fighters and Me 262 pilot Adolf Galland said: “The best thing about the Spitfire XIV was that there were so few of them.”
Spitfires Over Berlin is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here along with many other beautiful aviation books. Save 10% on all books with exclusive promotional code ‘AVGEEK10’!
Photo credit: Rob Hodgkins via Wikipedia, Crown Copyright Top image via Scale Hobbyist