At the start of the war, the RAF did not have a suitable photo reconnaissance aircraft. Long range reconnaissance was meant to be handled by Blenheim bombers, short range by the Lysander army cooperation aircraft. Neither of them was really suitable for the role, as they were far too vulnerable to modern enemy fighters. The idea of using a fast monoplane fighter for reconnaissance had been suggested before the war, but in 1939 very few aircraft could be spared. In October 1939 two Spitfire Mk Is were given to Sydney Cotton, to develop as photo reconnaissance aircraft. These two aircraft were the first of around one thousand Spitfires to be either converted or built from scratch for the reconnaissance role. This short ranged fighter would roam as far as Berlin, providing the RAF with a vital capability throughout the war.
The PR Spitfires were originally identified by letters. This system was used until the autumn of 1941, by which point there were six different types – A to F. However, this system had the potential to cause some confusion, as the same letters were also used to describe different types of Spitfire wings. From the autumn of 1941 each PR type was given a designation using Roman numerals. The first six (I to VI) were allocated to the existing types, although the types A and B had already gone out of service by this time. Under this system the Mk VII and the PR Mk VII are very different aircraft. From the PR Mk X, numbers were allocated to either fighter or PR aircraft.
PR Type A (Pr Mk I)
The first two PR Spitfires were given to Sydney Cotton on 16 October 1939. He worked hard to increase the speed of the aircraft. The guns were removed to reduce weight and the gun ports sealed over. As many joins and gaps in the fuselage as possible were closed over to improve speed. The cockpit replaced by a sliding hood with teardrop shaped blisters on each side, to improve visibility. Finally, two F.24 5in cameras were placed in the wings in place of the inner gun, pointing down. One of these aircraft became the first Spitfire to operate overseas when it joined the British expeditionary forces in France in November 1939. On 18 November she flew her first PR mission, over Aachen (the weather prevented her pilot from taking any useful pictures). The two Pr Mk I aircraft were later converted to the Pr Mk III standard.
PR Type B (Pr Mk II)
While the first two PR Spitfires had proved the concept, they had also reveals some flaws with it. The camera chosen did not give enough detail, and the range was too short. Accordingly, Cotton installed an extra 29 gallon fuel tank behind the pilot, and replaced the cameras with an improved F.24 with an 8in lens. This version was first used on 10 February 1940 when it took photographs of the German naval bases at Wilhelmshaven and Emden. It was given the designation PR Type B.
PR Type C (Pr Mk III)
The PR Mk III was the first PR version to be produced in significant numbers. In all forty were produced by converting existing aircraft. The range was increased again by placing a 30 gallon fuel tank under the port wing. Two F.24 cameras with an 8in focal length were placed in another blister under the starboard wing. It could also take a F.24 camera in a vertical position in the rear fuselage. The Pr Mk III entered service in March 1940.
PR Type D (PR Mk IV)
The PR Mk IV had the longest range of any of the early PR Spitfires. It could carry 114 gallons of fuel in its “d” wings, giving it a range of 2000 miles – in one of its first missions, a PR Mk IV reached Stettin, in the Baltic! It entered service in October 1940 (after the Mk VI), and was produced in much larger numbers than any other early PR Spitfire – a total of 229 were produced. She was known as the “bowser” because of the amount of fuel she could carry. The PR Mk IV could carry a wide variety of cameras, each given a letter code:
W: Two F.8 with 20in focal length
X: One F.24 with 14in focal length
Y: One F.52 with 36in focal length
S: Two F.24 with 14in focal length
PR Type E (PR Mk V)
Only one PR Mk V Spitfire was produced, but it did represent a significant development in that it was the first PR Spitfire to be equipped with an oblique camera. Previous PR Spitfires had used vertically mounted cameras to take pictures from a medium or high altitude. The oblique camera was mounted in the side of the aircraft, and took pictures at 90 degrees to the direction of flight. This allowed low level photography.
PR Type F became PR VI
The PR Mk VI was an interim design produced to fill a gap before the appearance of the PR Mk IV. It was produced by adding two 30 gallon fuel tanks below the wings as well as the extra fuselage tank, giving it an endurance of four and a half hours, which allowed it to reach Berlin. The first flight to the German capital was made on 14 March 1941. The first of fifteen PR Mk VI appeared in March 1940, seven months before the Mk IV. It carried two F.24s with an 8in focal length, which were later replaced by two F.8s with a 20in focal length. Finally, some PR Mk VIs were given a F.24 with a 14in focal length in an oblique mounting.
One danger of using the low level oblique camera was that it put the PR Spitfire back in the range of German fighters. One response was to produce an armed PR Spitfire. The PR Mk VII carried the standard eight machine guns of the Mk Ia, combined with the extra fuselage fuel tank of the PR versions. It carried one obliquely mounted F.24 camera with a 14in focal length, which could face to the left or right, and two vertically mounted F.24 cameras, one 5 inch and one 14 inch. 45 PR Mk VIIs were produced by converting standard Mk Vs.
A small number of standard Mk IX fighters were adapted to perform a reconnaissance role. This was done by removing all of the guns and replacing them with two vertically mounted cameras.
FR Mk IX
The most heavily armed reconnaissance Spitfires were a small number of FR (Fighter Reconnaissance) Mk IXs. These carried the standard guns of the Mk IX fighter, with one obliquely mounted F.24 camera and were used for low to medium level reconnaissance.
The PR Mk X appeared in Spring 1944 (long after the PR Mk XI). It was the PR version of the standard Mk VII fighter, produced by matching the fuselage from a Mk VII with the wings from the PR Mk XI, with the guns replaced by two 66.5 gallon fuel tanks. Only sixteen were produced, and it was withdrawn in September 1945.
The PR Mk XI was produced in greater numbers than any other PR variant, with over 470 produced in total. It was based around the Mk IX fuselage, but with the extra fuselage fuel tanks of the standard PR variants as well and wing mounted tanks. It first flew on 21 November 1942, and entered service in the summer of 1943.
The PR Mk XI used a universal camera installation, which allowed the cameras to be easily swapped. This allowed a much wider variety of cameras to be used. Common variants included two F.52 cameras with a 36in focal length, two F.8s (20in), one F.52 (20in) and two F.24 (14in) combined with one F.24 (14in or 8in) in an oblique position. Some also carried a 5 inch F.24 just behind the wheel well for low to medium level tactical reconnaissance.
The PR Mk XIII was a low level reconnaissance fighter, converted from old Mk I, Mk V and PR Mk VIIs. It carried four machine guns for defensive armament, which somewhat limited its range. It first flew in August 1942, and went into service in 1943. PR Mk XIIIs were amongst the aircraft used to take low level pictures of the Normandy beaches in preparation for the D-Day invasions. It carried two vertical F.24 cameras and one oblique F.24 camera.
The PR Mk XIX was the only Griffon powered reconnaissance Spitfire. It was produced by taking combining the Mk XIV fuselage, PR Mk XI wings and PR Mk X cabin. It could carry up to 254 gallons of fuel internally, using space in the wings that had originally held cameras. It could carry a 170 gallon drop tank, although the largest size used on operations was 90 gallons. It had a top speed of 445 mph and a service ceiling of 42,600 feet, making it almost impossible for the Luftwaffe to catch it. All but the first 22 of the 225 produced had a pressurised cockpit.
The Pr XIX could carry two vertical and one oblique camera (on the port side). The vertical cameras were either F.8s with a 14 or 20in focal length or F.52s with a 20in focal length. The oblique camera was an F.24 with either an 8 or 14 inch focal length.
The Pr XIX first flew in April 1944. It entered service in May 1944. The last operation flight by an RAF Spitfire was made by a PR XIX on 1 April 1954. Three continued to fly with the Temperature and Humidity Flight, performing meteorological research, until they were finally retired on 10 June 1957.
Prototypes - Mk I - Mk II - Mk III - Mk V - Mk VI - Mk VII - Mk VIII - Mk IX - Mk XII - Mk XIV - Mk XVI - Mk XVIII - Mk 21 to 24 - Photo Reconnaissance Spitfires - Spitfire Wings - Timeline