May 4, 1939 — The Royal Air Force (RAF) lines up its premier fighter planes on the tarmac at the RAF Duxford airfield in England — the Supermarine Spitfires, pictured above. The plane had only been introduced into the RAF the year prior on this very airfield, piloted by men from 19 Squadron, RAF Duxford.

Spitfires saw heavy use before, during and after WWII, and many variants of the fighter would be produced during this time — this included types that were used for reconnaissance missions, anti-bomber missions, anti-fighter missions or even water-rescue operations. While they were most famously used by the RAF like in these pictures, different versions were also used by the Americans, Belgians, Polish, French and Czechs.

A demonstration of the world’s fastest service plane, the Supermarine Spitfire, was given at Royal Air Force Duxford airfield, England, on May 4, 1939. Twelve Spitfires fly in formation over the Duxford airfield during the demonstration. | AP Photo

The Spitfires would prove themselves time and time again in the air. During the withdrawal of British troops at Dunkirk, Spitfires became instrumental in combating the bombers (and their aerial escorts) that sought to take out the retreating armies.

These scenes are depicted in Christopher Nolan’s recent film, “Dunkirk,” and you can view the first Spitfire scene here:

The Battle of Britain would test the spirit of the entire country, and the RAF was the last line of defense from an all-out ground invasion that could have meant the end of England. While the Spitfires were not the only ones holding back the onslaught of Nazis (they were side-by-side with other planes, such as the formidable Hawker Hurricane), they certainly played their part. The Hurricanes were often tasked with directly targeting the bombers, while the Spitfires would engage in dogfights with the bomber escorts.

The part played by the RAF in the Battle of Britain was so crucial, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said that, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Read the full paragraph of his admiration toward the RAF here: