The Attacker developed from a Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter jet project, under Air Ministry Specification E.10 of 1944 (the E for experimental). The design of the Attacker used the laminar flow straight-wings of the Supermarine Spiteful, a piston-engined fighter intended to replace the Supermarine Spitfire, and what became the Attacker was originally referred to as the "Jet Spiteful". The project was intended to provide an interim fighter for the RAF while another aircraft, the Gloster E.1/44 also using the Nene was developed. An order for three prototypes was placed on 30 August 1944, the second and third of which were to be navalised. An order for a further 24 pre-production aircraft, six for the RAF and the remaining 18 for the Fleet Air Arm was placed on 7 July 1945.
Handling problems with the Spiteful prototype delayed progress on the jet-powered version, leading to the pre-production order of 24 being stopped, although work on the three prototypes continued. The Fleet Air Arm instead bought 18 de Havilland Vampire Mk. 20s to gain experience with jet aircraft. The RAF rejected both designs since they offered no perceptible performance advantage over the contemporary Gloster Meteor and the de Havilland Vampire, the RAF's first two operational jet aircraft. Supermarine offered a navalised version of the project to the Admiralty. The prototype Type 392 serial number TS409 land version was first flown on 27 July 1946, by test pilot Jeffrey Quill.
The Attacker suffered from a number of deficiencies which led to it quickly being superseded; one being that the aircraft retained the Spiteful's tail-wheel undercarriage (due to the extent of the re-tooling that would have been required to alter the Spiteful's wing), rather than a nose-wheel undercarriage, thus making the Attacker more difficult to land on aircraft carriers. This same tail-down attitude meant operating from grass airfields, the jet exhaust would create a long furrow in the ground "three men could lie down in". Also the new wing was apparently aerodynamically inferior to the original Spitfire elliptic one, with lower critical Mach number, leading to someone quipping that "they rather should have left the Spitfire wing on the thing".
The first navalised prototype, Type 398 TS413 flew on 17 June 1947 flown by test pilot Mike Lithgow, three years after the Meteor had made its first flight. Production orders for the FAA were placed in November 1949. The first production aircraft to take to the skies was the F.1 variant in 1950, entering service with the FAA in August 1951 with the first squadron being 800 Naval Air Squadron. The F.1's armament consisted of four 20 mm (.79 in) Hispano Mk. V cannons, with 125 rounds of ammunition per gun. It was powered by a single Rolls-Royce Nene Mk. 101 turbojet engine.
The Attacker had a brief career with the Fleet Air Arm, not seeing any action during its time with the FAA and being taken out of first-line service in 1954. It remained in service with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) for a little while longer, being taken out of service in early 1957. The Attacker was replaced in the front line squadrons by the later and more capable Hawker Sea Hawk and de Havilland Sea Venom. Between 1952 and 1953, 36 Attackers also served in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) until the type was completely retired in the 1960s.