Spitfire flights: 19th of August 1942
‘I really fell in love with an aircraft. That was the most fascinating aeroplane and the easiest one I ever flew. The gentlest aerobatic thing that I ever had my hands on. It was forgiving; you could make all kinds of mistakes’. The words of a young American pilot, Lieutenant Harry Strawn of the 309th Fighter Squadron who came to Europe and flew Spitfires over Dieppe in 1942.
It is 80 years ago this year that Spitfires operated by the 31st Fighter Group flew from RAF Westhampnett (Goodwood Aerodrome) to support Operation Jubilee.
The Operation’s objective was to test the feasibility of capturing and holding a heavily defended seaport, causing minimal damage to its infrastructure and to subsequently utilise the facility to land invading Allied forces.
The Dieppe raid was a practical trial to gather intelligence and to test German reactions. The six thousand seaborne Canadian and British landing forces were supported by some 66 fighter squadrons, including the Royal Canadian Air Force and all three Eagle squadrons, as well as the 31st Fighter Group operating reverse Lend Lease Spitfires from the RAF.
The opposing fighters were the indomitable Jagdgeschwader 2 and Jagdgeschwader 26 (JG 26) Schlageter fighter-wings, equipped with the formidable Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The Germans were aware of the Allied interest in Dieppe and were prepared. The element of surprise was lost when the Allied forces were spotted by a small German convoy. The raid rapidly descended into a calamitous conclusion within nine hours. Casualties on the ground were enormous and the losses were mirrored by the struggle in the skies above.
The 31st Pursuit Group was the only American unit to participate in Operation Jubilee (the now infamous Raid on Dieppe), although Nos. 71, 121 and 133 RAF Squadrons also flew Spitfires during Operation Jubilee, these being the three Eagle Squadrons, flown by American volunteers before they were inducted into the 8th Air Force as the 4th Fighter Group.
The first support cover was flown from RAF Kenley, with their Spitfire Mk Vs taking off at 0717hrs for Dieppe. The Spitfires were jumped by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s as they passed over the raiding party’s naval escort. Lieutenant Hill turned on one of the attackers and claimed a probable Fw190 (shot down) but one of the 12 pilots, Lt. Inghram was hit by enemy fire. He managed to bail out successfully and was later picked up by ships off the French coastline.
The 309th Fighter Squadron took off from RAF Westhampnett and arrived soon after the first sortie had been engaged by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. They found themselves in the middle of several dogfights. One moment, they were surrounded by friends, the next, they were surrounded by enemies, having to fight their way out with running battles occurring everywhere. The first victory over an enemy aircraft for the 309th went to Lt. Sam Junkin who shot down an Fw 190. The 309th returned home with wheels touching down at 0930hrs at RAF Westhampnett.
Harry Strawn was in the thick of the action and reported in his Diary, ‘I might say it was a big day for us, we came out very well. We lost only a few planes and all the pilots got out safely. One of our boys got the first German Fw-190 but in doing so was shot down by another. As for myself, you might say I was born under a lucky star, at least I believe I was. With things as hot as they were, I can’t understand how I got out, but I did. The Germans are plenty good and have a good fighter plane in the Fw- 190, but I believe we are better. Of course, it doesn’t pay to get ‘cocky’ for about that time you’ll wake up to find that you’ve had it. You must keep your eyes open, all the time looking around, for in most cases they come down on you from above out of the sun. We have a good plane to meet them with in the Spitfire, and one the British should be very proud of. For myself I hope I never have to fly any other make in this man’s war.’
The RAF suffered a serious number of losses during the Dieppe raid. It is estimated that 62 pilots and aircrew lost their lives in action, while another two died in accidents. A further 17 pilots were shot down and captured and 29 were wounded in action or injured. In addition to the 100 aircraft lost, it is believed that at least another 66 aircraft were damaged, either in action or in accidents. It had been an expensive day for the RAF.
The Spitfire pilots of the 31st Fighter Group and their Mk V Spitfires ended up with a score of two enemy aircraft destroyed, three probable and two damaged with a loss of five pilots. However, many Spitfires were forced to land at other airfields due to fuel shortages.
Very few people know that the first American Fighter Group to operate in the European Theatre flew the Spitfire! The Americans had originally intended on bringing their own P-39 Airacobras but had been advised by the RAF that these were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fighters. The plan was then changed and they picked up their Spitfires from Atcham and High Ercall in June 1942. The Americans were also acutely aware that had they brought along and utilised their own aircraft, their outlook would have been significantly bleak!
Harry was to write in his diary, ‘All I hope is that we never get our P-39s, for American Fighter planes just won’t go here. They will have to face the facts sooner or later’.
The three squadrons of the Fighter Group were then dispersed to the South of England with the 307th Fighter Squadron taking up residence at RAF Biggin Hill, the 308th Fighter Squadron at RAF Kenley and lastly, the 309th taking ownership of RAF Westhampnett, now home to Spitfires.com.
The Group began combat operations on the 2nd of August 1942 but the first taste of actual combat came on the 8th of August 1942 when the Group was airborne on gunnery practice over Shoreham. The Spitfires were directed to intercept an incoming plot by controllers. They found a single Fw 190 and gave chase, with the squadron commander Major Harrison Thyng claiming the Fw 190 (damaged). Thyng later went on to become an Ace on both piston engine fighters and later, on jets during Korean War.
From RAF Westhampnett, the Squadron flew combat sorties over France and fighter sweeps that resulted in little action during the early part of August 1942. However, a Circus operation on the 17th of August to Lille in France resulted in the first major action when the Squadron engaged a flight of six to eight Fw 190s. The Spitfires had a significant height advantage and engaged the Fw 190s, damaging two of them.
There is no doubt that the American pilots loved their Spitfires. as Harry Strawn noted in his diary after the Dieppe raid. ‘As yet the US has no fighter plane that can touch anything the British Spit can, much less the Me 109F or the FW 190. We as pilots know what a good plane is, but the people at home will never know that the P-40 and P-39 would be death traps in this war. I hope to God we will never get them here for we wouldn’t have a chance against the Germans.’ Following the war, Harry added to his diary ‘The Spitfire was a great aeroplane we loved it’.
The 31st Fighter Group continued to fly missions through to October of 1942 when allowed by the weather. They also carried out formation practice and gunnery training. They also played host to many dignitaries and the American press including ‘Time’ and ‘Life’ magazines as well as getting a visit from General Doolittle! They went on to fly the Mk IX Spitfire in North Africa and Italy, before utilising Mustangs.
RAF Westhampnett, the home of Spitfires.com has a memorial erected on the airfield, dedicated to the memory of the pilots and ground crew of the 31st Fighter Group who flew the Mk V Spitfire in action.
Have you ever wanted to fly in a Spitfire?
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