America's Spitfires of World War II
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By Sebastien Roblin, War Is Boring
The sleekly elegant Supermarine Spitfire is the iconic British fighter of World War II, the plane that kept the formerly unstoppable German air force at bay in the Battle of Britain. And thanks to constant upgrades, the Spitfire remained a top-performing frontline fighter through the end of the war.
In fact, such was the Spitfire’s performance that around 600 also served in the U.S. Army Air Force and Navy—one of the few foreign-built aircraft to do so. Indeed, in a largely forgotten chapter of the conflict, three Spitfire-equipped fighter groups were the first U.S. Army Air Force fighters to engage German aircraft in aerial combat during World War II.
The 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups arrived in England during the summer of 1942. Each group was composed of three squadrons of 16 fighters. But the American fighter units arrived without their P-39 Airacobras.
The P-39 had decent specifications on paper, but lacked the engine turbocharger necessary for effective high-altitude flying. Unfortunately, high altitude had proven the ultimate high ground in the air war over Europe—not only did high flying put fighters above the range of deadly light flak guns, but they could convert their altitude into speed by diving, giving them an edge over opponents below.
While low-altitude flying was important for supporting troops on the ground and strafing enemy airfields, heavy strategic bombers blasting enemy factories were routinely flying tens of thousands of above the ground.
The British convinced the USAAF that the Airacobras simply would not do for operations in Europe, and instead furnished the American flyers with Spitfire Mark Vs. These were a second-generation successor to the Mark Is and IIs that had defended England during the Battle of Britain, with more powerful Merlin 45 engines and a revised armament including two or four 20-millimeter cannons supplementing four .303 machine guns.
The first combat missions by the American fighter pilots in Europe did not go auspiciously. A joint American-Canadian fighter sweep by six Spitfires over Gravelines, France on July 26 resulted in the loss of one fighter and the capture of the group’s executive officer, Lt. Col. Albert Clark.
The 31st’s real baptism of fire came when it flew 123 sorties on Aug. 19, 1942 providing air cover for the disastrous amphibious raid on the port of Dieppe by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and British commandos.
At 9:00 in the morning, Lt. Samuel F. Junkin, Jr. shot down a Focke-Wulf 190—the first German plane shot down by a U.S. fighter during World War II. However, cannon fire from another Focke-Wulf promptly wounded Junkin. Passing out he, he awakened just in time to pull up to a thousand feet and bail out into the Atlantic—a fate shared by six or seven more members of his unit. A torpedo boat fished Junkin from the water, along with three of his fellow fighter jocks.
The Dieppe raid ended in shambles, with more than half the landing force killed or captured. The Allies also lost 108 aircraft over Dieppe, including 64 Spitfires, in exchange for just 48 kills. However, the Allied pilots mostly succeeded in preventing German bombers from wreaking too much havoc on the amphibious fleet.
The 31st and 52nd did not fly many more combat operations from England and instead deployed to the island of Gibraltar in October in preparation for another, much more consequential amphibious operation: the capture of North Africa.
The Mark V Spitfire of Steve Pisano of 334 Squadron/4th Fighter Group, formerly of No. 71 Eagle Squadron. USAAF photo
Eagle Squadrons reborn
Another group of American Spitfire pilots also saw action over Dieppe—in the service of the British Royal Air Force! The volunteer pilots of the Eagle squadrons had begun arriving two years earlier during the Battle of Britain, and dozens sacrificed their lives protecting the United Kingdom from the Luftwaffe—initially flying older Hurricane fighters.
At Dieppe, all three squadrons—Nos. 71, 121 an 131—were in action, claiming five Fw.190s and three bombers in the aerial melee, for the loss of six of their Spitfires.
In September 1942 the Eagle squadrons were transferred to USAAF command as the 4th Fighter Group, based in Debden, Essex. The former volunteer pilots got to keep their Mark Vb Spitfires with British roundels painted over with white American stars.
A few days before the official change of command, 131 Squadron was virtually wiped out on a disastrous mission escorting B-17s bound for Morlaix when 100 knot tail winds caused the unit to fly way off course into the Pyrenees. Eleven of the 12 brand-new Spitfire IXs ran out of fuel or were shot down, while only the lone airplane of Pilot Officer Beatty managed to crash land back at base with an empty fuel tank.
The official handover ceremony took place on Sept. 29 on a gray, rainy day and occasioned numerous promotions and speeches by Air Chief Marshall Sholto Douglas and Gen. Carl Spaatz. The repatriated American pilots went on to shoot down four Fw.190s on Oct. 2 at no loss during a fighter sweep over Dunkirk, and four Messerschmitts in December for the loss of a Spitfire and a second written off due to battle damage.
After the 31st and 52nd departed for the Mediterranean, the 4th Fighter Group remained the only active American fighter unit in Northern Europe for half a year, escorting B-17 bombers, strafing German ships, and dueling Luftwaffe fighters over France and the English Channel.
However, in early 1943 it began transitioning to flying heavy but powerful P-47 Thunderbolts—and also to much heartier American military rations including coffee, juice, eggs and bacon! After flying its last Spitfire sortie on March 16, 1943 the 4th Fighter Group went on to destroy more than 1,000 German aircraft flying P-47s and P-51 Mustangs.
Lt. Robert F. Doyle shaking hands with his wingman Ensign John F. Mudge after their return from a gunfire-spotting and strafing mission over Normandy. U.S. Navy photo
On the Mediterranean front lines
As American troops landed in North Africa on November 8, 1942 the Spitfires of the 31st Flight Group took off at dawn from Gibraltar, bound for the French aerodrome of Tafaraoui in Oran, Algeria–assuming that Vichy French forces would not oppose them.
Unfortunately, three Vichy French D.520 fighters pounced upon the Spitfire of Lt. Joe Byrd, Jr. as he came in for landing, killing him. Hunter became hunted when a three-ship flight led by Maj. Harrison Thyng dove down on the French fighters, sending all three spinning to the earth in flames. The next day, the 31st shot up a counterattacking armor column, bringing it to a halt. By Nov. 10 the Vichy forces ceased resistance.
The 52nd joined the 31st at Tafaraoui, though not without mishap. Six of its fighters ran out of fuel on the lengthy transit. Both American Spitfire groups soon became involved in intense air battles defending the harbor of Bone, and, ironically, escorting P-39s on ground attack missions. 307 Squadron of the 31st Group even flew air cover during the meeting of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Casablanca in January 1943. They racked up a few dozen kills, but took heavier losses to the better trained and equipped Luftwaffe fighter units.
On Feb. 6, 1943, both units moved to a crude desert airstrip in Thelepte, Tunisia subject, forced to live in sandy dugouts while under constant Luftwaffe strafing attacks. To compound their misery, a counter attack organized by Field Marshall Rommel on Feb. 17 forced the fighter groups to hastily evacuate, as top American Spitfire ace Frank Hill recalled.
We were successful in getting out of Thelepte even though we had very little warning. You might say from two o’clock in the morning until nine o’clock in the morning we had the entire fighter group packed and on its way. I was one of the last flights to take off from Thelepte, and as we were taking off shells were landing in the mess area in the ravine on the side of the hill. The groups hastily departed, some in Spitfires, some in trucks, even some on foot, leaving behind 12 burning unserviceable Spits.
German tanks, supported by Luftwaffe bombers, dealt American troops a bruising defeat in the Battle of Kasserine Pass. The American Spitfire units threw themselves into the skies over Tunisia to stem the Germans’ advance. On March 21, two squadrons of the 31st bounced 18 Stuka dive bombers escorted by German fighters, shooting down between four and eight Stukas, for the loss of just one Spitfire. The following day, the 52nd shot down seven 109s and 190s, as well as two Ju 88 light bombers.
On April 3, Arnold Vinson, commander of the 2nd Fighter Squadron, led his unit on a sweep over El Guettar—the site of a battle in which American tank destroyers heroically staved off German tanks at tremendous cost. At about 5:30 in the evening, his unit chanced upon a squadron of twelve Stuka dive bombers of StG 3, escorted by a half dozen German fighters. Vinson’s wingman Norm MacDonald described the engagement in the book Spitfires and Yellow-Tail Mustangs by Tom Ivie and Paul Ludwig.
Fifteen to 20 Stukas were sighted just as they were dive bombing American concentrations. As my flight was nearest the Stukas, we went after the farthest formation. They were very slow, and we caught them easily. I closed to within 25 to 30 yards of the trailing Ju 87, opened up with both cannon and machine guns, using about five degrees of deflection.
A two- to three-second burst was sufficient. The motor belched black smoke and slight flame. The aircraft dove down and left into the ground from about 1000 feet. I closed on the next Stuka same distance and deflection, opened up with both cannon and machine guns, two- or three-second burst. The aircraft burst into flames, broke into pieces in the air. This combat took place at about 1,000 feet.
Vinson also scored a Stuka kill, making him the first USAAF Spitfire ace. But then the escorting Messerschmitts of JG.77 caught up. While Vinson was clearing his wingman’s tail, three 109s fell in behind him. American infantry on the ground saw the Mississippian parachute from his smoking fighter over enemy territory. Two days later the Germans repatriated his body.
As the Axis withdrew from North Africa, the Allied war machine steadily crept towards Italy. The American Spitfire pilots were intermittently engaged escorting bombers blasting the fortified Italian island of Pantelleria in May and June, then dueling German and Italian fighters over Palermo in July and August during the amphibious invasion of Sicily, and finally covering the American landings at Salerno, Italy that September, claiming dozens of Axis fighters. The 31st moved to Italy by the fall of 1943, while the 52nd operated from French island of Corsica, liberated in September.
Earlier in August, both units received the third-generation Spitfire IX and XVIII with uprated Merlin 61 engines and .50 caliber machine guns in place of the .303-caliber weapons of earlier models. These boosted the Spitfire’s speed to over 400 miles per hour, putting them on even footing with the Fw-190A fighter. The rarer, better Mark VIII also featured a strengthened fuselage, a retractable tail wheel, a pointed-tip rudder, and a bubble canopy that greatly improved visibility for the pilot.
The Spitfires also received bomb racks for 250-pound bombs, and began launching air raids against targets in southern France and Italy.
U.S. troops land at Anzio in January 1944. Photo via Wikipedia
Angels of Anzio
On Jan. 22, 1944 American troops made a surprising amphibious landing at Anzio, Italy in an attempt to flank the heavy German fortifications around Rome. It fell to the 52nd Group to protect the vulnerable fleet from air attack.
The evening of the landing, the 2nd Squadron intercepted 50 in-bound Heinkel 111’s bombers armed with torpedoes, destroying seven and forcing the rest to abort. The following day, 4th Squadron bounced six Do.217 loaded with Fritz-X anti-shipping missiles, splashing two and causing the rest to scatter.
Other exotic victims of the 52nd included three Heinkel 115 floatplanes over Savoia and a rare Messerschmitt 210 twin-engine fighter bomber. In return, the 31st and 52nd lost 16 fighters in January—but took 30 German planes down with them.
However American General John Lucas was slow to advance his VI Corps from a beachhead, which was surrounded by confining, mountainous terrain. German Field Marshall Kesslering organized a devastating counterattack that trapped Lucas’s force in a tight perimeter around the harbor subject to relentless bombardment by heavy artillery, railway guns, and Luftwaffe bombers.
On Feb. 1, 1944 the 31st was relocated to a base at Anzio at the airfield of Nettuno—well within range of the German guns. It evacuated two weeks later after four losing four fighters on the ground to shelling. Even worse, a Messerschmitt killed the fighter ace and commanding officer of 307 Squadron, Capt. Virgil Fields, over Anzio on Feb. 6.
That month the American pilots began encountering their first long-nosed Fw-190D-9 “Dora” fighters with superior Jumo 213 inline engines. In their first two brush over the French port of Nice, three Spitfires of the 52nd were lost for just one Focke-Wulf. Then, in a tremendous dogfight over Viterbo on Feb. 19 involving 70 aircraft, the 52nd shot down eight German fighters—but lost six Spitfires and their pilots.
In March 1944, the 31st finally began receiving American P-51B Mustangs to replace it Spitfires—much to the annoyance of the pilots, who found the early-model Mustangs to be less maneuverable than the Spitfire IX during a mock air battle. The pilots of the 31st flew the Spitfires on a “fairwell” fighter sweep over Rome on March 26, and a four-ship flight bounced five times their number of bomb-toting Fw. 190s, destroying one and causing the rest to scatter home.
The 52nd converted to Mustang in April—though not before shooting down half of a six-ship formation of Messerschmitt 109Gs while escorting bombers over Orvieto.
Between them, the 31st and 52nd claimed 346 confirmed aerial victories while flying Spitfires and boasted 13 Spitfire aces in their ranks. Flying Mustangs for the remainder of the war, they would continue to engage in intense air battle and shoot down hundreds more enemy aircraft.
USAAF Spitfire PR.XI at Wright Patterson. USAAF photo
America’s Spitfire spies
Two additional Army Air Force group also flew Spitfires—but rather than gunning down Nazi fighter planes, the aircraft of the 68th and 7th Photo Groups were busy snapping photos. Alongside various American-built recon planes, they operated the Spitfire PR.XI—a Mark IX fighter stripped entirely of guns and even the bullet proof glass in the canopy to maximize speed and range.
The PR. XIs boasted extra fuel tanks in the fuselage and leading-edges of the wings. The stripped-down spy planes could attain up to 442 miles per hour in level flight and had a maximum range of 1,360 miles—enough to fly all the way from Oxford to Berlin and back. The plane’s modular mount could accommodate two or three cameras on the fuselage.
One of the survivors of from these units is currently on display in the Wright Patterson Air Force Museum.
The 68th Photo Group entered action in 1942 during the North Africa campaign and remained in the Mediterranean Theater through mid-1944. The four squadrons of the 7th Photo Group—equipped with a mix of Spitfires and F-6 Lightnings—deployed to England in July 1943 and provided bomb damage assessment for the strategic bombing campaign of the 8th Air Force and photo intel of the German Army’s transportation infrastructure in advance of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
The recon Spits generally flew solo and sported blue camouflage for concealment against the sky. A combination of speed and altitude usually allowed the spy planes to evade enemy fighters and dash through flak—but things could still go wrong on their long-distance spy missions.
For example, a tangled headset jammed the landing gear controls on the Spitfire of Lt. Col. John Blythe while returning from mission over Germany on Sept. 12, 1944. The Oregon native was forced to make a belly-landing at Mount Farm aerodrome—an event recorded on camera by his unit’s doctor, Jim Savage. Blythe’s recollections of his recon missions and the remarkable footage of his crash landing can be seen in the short documentary Spitfire 944.
In 2005, an 83 year-old World War II pilot is surprised to see 16mm footage of his 1944 Spitfire crash for the first time. SPITFIRE 944 was put on YouTube as...
Spitfires of the U.S. Navy
Strangest of all, the U.S. Navy also flew Spitfires during World War II.
The U.S. Navy deployed numerous cruisers and battleships to provide naval gunfire support for the D-Day landings in Normandy. Bristling with enormous guns ranging from five inches to 14 inches in caliber, the cruisers would mostly train their devastating firepower at enemies miles inland, well beyond line of sight. They therefore required spotter planes to swoop over German troops, acquire targets, direct naval batteries to blow them up and correct the inevitably inaccurate ranging shots.
At the time, Navy capital ships typically carried one or two SOC Seagull or OS2U Kingfisher float planes that launched by catapult from ship decks, then recovered by crane after landing at sea. These pokey aircraft were useful as artillery spotters, and also for scouting for enemy ships and submarines. But with a maximum speed of just around 160 miles per hour, the floatplanes were extremely vulnerable to flak guns and enemy fighters—and there were plenty of both in German-occupied France.
So in May 1944, the 18 pilots of the Navy’s VCS-7 Cruiser Support Squadron trained to fly Spitfire Vbs instead. These pilots normally served aboard the heavy cruisers Quincy, Tuscaloosa and Augusta and the battleships Nevada, Arkansas and Texas.
On D-Day, VCS-7 joined six Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm squadrons flying Spitfires and Seafires at Royal Naval Air Station Lee-on-Solent. To increase the tempo of operations, the British and American units pooled their aircraft together without paying attention to which unit they came from, and flew off in two-ship elements composed of a designated spotter and “weaver” to provide escort.
The Navy Spitfires had to fly low to spot their targets—no higher than 6,000 feet, but often as low as 1,500 feet when bad weather decreased visibility. This put them well within range of light automatic flak guns, which shot down at least six of the Spitfires in the reconnaissance pool, including the aircraft of Lt. Richard Barclay.
However, the Navy aviators eluded German fighters on four separate occasions without loss, a result unlikely to have occurred if they had been stuck with their floatplanes!
VCS-7 flew around 200 sorties over the three weeks between the D-Day landings through the capture of the port of Cherbourg on July 26, which finally put German ground forces beyond the range of naval fire support. Its mission accomplished, VCS-7 disbanded and its pilots returned to serve aboard their respective ships.
The Spitfire proved one of the most adaptable and elegant of World War II fighters, and it would continue to fly into combat years after World War II ended. It also bears the distinction as being one of the few foreign-built warplanes to serve in the U.S. military, and for good reason. From 1942 to 1944, the British fighter provided the rookie American fighter arm with a capable stepping stone to the Mustang and Thunderbolts that, at great cost, would eventually defeat the German Luftwaffe in the sky over Europe.