BAPTISM OF FIRE

The early activities of the 8th Alt force in Britain in mid- 1942 are less widely known than its later exploits. However, they provided the crucible in which the fighting skills of Army Air Force airmen were honed for the long battles ahead. Photos of the contrails of B-17 streams may define that campaign for many, but the men of the 31st Fighter Group, the first such unit deployed to Britain, and its successors were as important in the successful strategic pounding of the Nazi war machine.

Once the USA finally entered World War Two after Pearl Harbor, the AAF wasted no time. On 2 January 1942 the 8th Air Force was formally established in Savannah, Georgia, with separate VIII Bomber and VIII Fighter (initially VIII Interceptor) Commands formed on 19 January. The deployment to the UK was led by the 97th Bomb Group, which arrived at RAF Polebrook, Northamptonshire on 9 June 1942. The ‘Mighty Eighth’s’ first official combat operation was on 17 August, with B-17Es attacking the Rouen marshalling yards, and VIII Bomber Command’s Gen Ira Eaker along for the ride.

The 97th BG was not the only 8th Air Force unit to go into action in mid-August 1942. Amongst the AAF’s units flooding into Britain was the 31st Fighter Group, with three squadrons, the 307th, 308th and 309th FS. They were to be the first AAF fighter units to be declared combat- ready in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO), though the maelstrom over Dieppe that August would test that readiness severely. The Group had emerged from the 31st Pursuit Group (Interceptor), which was established on P-39 Airacobras at Fort Wayne, Indiana on 30 January 1942 before moving to New Orleans on 6 February. After briefly flying P-40B Tomahawks it transferred back to P-39s. The 31st PG was renamed as the 31st FG on 15 May 1942, before being assigned to VIII Fighter Command in Britain. The Group’s ground echelon personnel embarked for the UK aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth on 4 June, arriving on the Clyde on the 10th.

The RAF had already tried out the P-39c Airacobra I after ordering 675, sight-unseen but based on Bell’s test reports, in April 1940. In UK tests it was found inferior to the spitfire and Hurricane in a number of significant aspects, and most importantly against the Messerschmitt Bf109E, especially above 15,000ft. It was only briefly deployed with No 601 ‘City of London’ Squadron from August 1941 to March 1942 before the type was rejected. The remaining RAF Airacobras were then retired, with aircraft already in the UK, and the rest of the order under construction, being passed on to the Soviets who had considerable success with the type. The AAF’s P-39s were deemed unsuitable for long-distance ferry flights and bomber escort duties, so it was decided the Americans needed a different aircraft, the Spitfire Vb.

INTO ACTION

The 31st FG was the first fighter group to reach the UK, its initial personnel arriving at one of the main bases designated for 8th Air Force fighter training, RAF Atcham in Shropshire (for the 307th and 308th FS) and nearby RAF High Ercall (309th FS) on 11 June 1942. The pilots arrived later that month.

Training on operational procedures, and familiarisation with an aircraft significantly distinct from the P-39, especially the difference between the tricycle and taildragger undercarriages, took place over several weeks. Accidents, some fatal, took their toll. At a meeting on 14 July Col John R. Hawkins, the 31st FG’s CO, pointed out that 21 aircraft had been destroyed or badly damaged in the previous 16 days, mostly by 308th FS pilots. The following day a 309th FS Spitfire crashed, killing the pilot, followed by four more accidents for the 309th between 28 and 30 July. Things had not been helped after the 31st FG’s executive officer, Lt Col Albert P. Clark, who had brieflyjoined the Canadian-manned No 412 Squadron at RAF Merston for some operational experience in Spitfire Vbs, was shot down and captured while attacking Abbeville airfield on 26 July. However, by end-July the three squadrons had achieved initial operational status.

The 31st FG was split up, with the 307th and 309th FS briefly deployed to RAF Warmwell near Dorchester, Dorset, for its initial sorties from 19 to 27 July. The 309th moved east to AAF Station 352, the former RAF Westhampnett, on 1 August. At the same time the 307th FS transferred to Biggin Hill and the 308th FS to Kenley. Westhampnett, or AAF Station 352 as it became, the airfield that became the Goodwood motor racing circuit in the post-war years, had been one of RAF Tangmere’s two satellite stations along with Merston (Station 351). Tangmere was the No 11 Group ‘A’ Sector Station and a front-line Spitfire base, and the plan was that the Americans would ‘understudy5 the more experienced RAF squadrons, flying as part of RAF missions on a mixture of bomber escort work and ‘Rodeos’ (offensive sweeps to draw out Luftwaffe fighters).

Sorties by the 309th started on 5 August, 11 aircraft from the 31st FG being sent on a practice sortie over France. Four days later the squadron commander, Maj Harrison Thyng, flying Spitfire EP179/WZ-A, claimed a Ju88 damaged over the Channel — the first successful fighter engagement by USAAF aircraft in the ETO. He had already been on operations with No 129 Squadron RAF in July to gain some combat experience.

On 12 August the 309th was declared operational under RAF control, until the 31st FG was able to operate as an independent group.

A sortie on 15 August brought action from an unexpected quarter, when two low-flying AAF Spitfires were hit by Royal Navy MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats). As the pace of operations grew more intense, the group was involved with ‘Circus 204’ — a ‘Circus’ involved sending bombers out with a heavy fighter escort, designed to provoke attacks by enemy fighters — to Lille on 17 August, the 309th finding itself up against six to eight Fw190s. The Americans recorded two 190s damaged.

DIEPPE RAID

This engagement was only two days before the Dieppe raid was launched in the early hours of 19 August. The Dieppe landings, originally planned as Operation ‘Rutter’, were to have taken place around 7 July, and were intended to test the practicalities of mounting an opposed seaborne landing on continental Europe. However, the weather turned unsettled and the Germans became aware of preparations and attacked the convoy in the Solent, so the attack was postponed.

operation ‘Jubilee’, the 19 August assault on Dieppe, turned into a bloody rout for most of the Canadian and British ground units. The air battle was equally intense, with promiscuous flak and endless dogfights as the Luftwaffe threw all available resources at the RAF, but it failed to secure air superiority. The Spitfires of the 31st FG were heavily engaged, suffering eight aircraft lost and seven damaged, with two pilots killed, three rescued and three captured. Luftwaffe aircraft claimed by the 31st were two shot down, with three ‘probables’ and two damaged. The 309th FS was tasked to work with Nos 130 and 131 Squadrons, RAF, while 22 B-17s from the 97th BG, which had only launched its first operations two days earlier, were tasked with attacking Abbeville-Drucat airfield (JG 26’s home base), German batteries and so forth.

The 308th FS had already been jumped by Fw190s as it arrived from Kenley over the assault ships, around 45 minutes after the first Spitfire had been shot down at 06.43hrs. Shortly afterwards the 309th came up against around 20 Fw190s. Lt Samuel Junkin shot down one, thus scoring the first 8th Air Force fighter ‘kill’ of the war, but he was lucky to survive the day. Wounded when a second Fw190 badly damaged his spitfire, he passed out, coming round just before hitting the water. Having climbed back up to 1,000ft, he found his canopy had jammed, so he was barely 600­700ft from the sea when he finally opened it and baled out. An MTB picked him up, along with another pilot, while Maj Thyng, who scored a ‘probable’ Fw190, received a Silver Star for remaining on guard over another downed pilot until an air-sea rescue launch could reach him. Contemporary accounts describe a trail of RAF aircrew in the water all the way from France to England. The 309th was deployed again later that day, escorting the Bostons of Nos 81 and 131 Squadrons, RAF, which attacked gun emplacements, while on a third sortie they engaged Do217s that were attacking the ships, damaging one. It had been a baptism of fire — and water—for the pilots of the 31st FG.

The unit would not be involved in another engagement of this intensity during the rest of its time at Westhampnett, though the experience would stand it in good stead for the Allied landings in Algeria, Sicily and Italy. Important lessons were learnt by all involved in the air operations, after nearly 3,000 sorties — 123 by the 31st FG — were flown by the 78 squadrons involved. Allied losses were between 106 and 111 aircraft, and German between 47 and 50 (reports vary). Questions would be raised about the lack of heavy aerial bombardment before the troops landed, and the insufficient use of tactical reconnaissance and close air support. The overall philosophy of combined operations would be much refined before detailed planning for Operation ‘Overlord’ began.

NEW DUTIES

A first, uneventful escort mission by the 309th FS saw it accompanying AAF B-17s on 20 August, but the following day problems arose during an attack by 97th BG Flying Fortresses from Grafton Underwood on Rotterdam’s Wilton shipyards. The bombers rendezvoused 16 minutes late with their fighter escort, which included the 308th FS, so they had to be abandoned just off the Dutch coast, as the Spitfires had to return to refuel. This gave the 25 fighters fielded by the Luftwaffe an apparently open goal — until they encountered the heavy firepower of a B-17 formation. The lack of bomber and escort co-ordination was nevertheless highlighted as a potential problem for future operations, and rapidly addressed.

The 309th FS was soon joined by the 308th, which transferred to Westhampnett from Kenley on 29 August, while the 307th had moved to Merston from Biggin Hill on the 24th before going on to Westhampnett the next day, having taking part in ‘circuses’ to St Omer and Ostend following the Dieppe Raid. The group was back together for the first time in months, the reason for which soon became apparent. On 14 September it was transferred to the recently formed 12th Air Force, which would provide air support for Operation ‘Torch’, the Allied landings in Algeria and Morocco in November 1942. For the next month, while still under 8th Air Force operational control, it continued to hone gunnery and other skills, flying mostly bomber escort missions while its equipment was slowly being shipped out. Several losses resulted through accidents and enemy action, the last a 308th FS Spitfire shot down off Selsey Bill on 24 October. The unit’s personnel finally sailed from the Clyde to Gibraltar on 26 October, from where Gen Jimmy Doolittle ordered it to deploy to Tafaraoui airfield in Oran on 7 November.

Now the 31st FG continued its tradition of being a pioneer. It was the first AAF fighter group to be based in Algeria, Sicily and Malta (and nearly in Italy too), while it also provided fighter cover for the Casablanca conference, and protection for the Italian high command en route to Sicily for peace negotiations. It covered the landings at Oran, Salerno and Anzio, the invasion of southern France, and scored 570.5 victories in the Mediterranean with a kill ratio of 8:1, which made it the highest-scoring Allied fighter group in that theatre.

The 31st FG kept flying the Spitfire throughout the North African campaign and on into Italy, where it became part of the 15th Air Force. Its equipment changed first to Spitfire Vcs and later to VIIIs and IXs, only converting to the P-51D in March 1944. Once equipped with the Mustang, it flew from Italy as strategic bomber escorts on missions throughout the Balkans, as far as Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, and once into Russia, as well as ranging northwards over Austria, Germany and Poland. Maintaining a sense of continuity, Italy remains a base for the unit’s ‘heirs’, the F-16CGs of the 31st Fighter Wing that are stationed at Aviano AB north-east of Venice. A far cry from the Spitfires the Fighting Falcons may be, but how fitting for the 31st to be deployed in the European theatre.

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