#Supermarine #Spitfire Mk Vc ‘Tropical’ (MX-P, serial number JK707) of the 307th Fighter Squadron, 31st #Fighter Group, 15th Air Force USAAF, shot down by return fire from a #Dornier Do 217. Pilot Major Virgil C Fields crash landed on beach off #Salerno on September 9th, 1943.
It may be surprising to learn that the U.S.A.F also operated the Supermarine Spitfire very successfully in combat.
The Spitfire’s performance was so superior 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.
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.
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