The only thing standing in the way of Hitler’s plan was the RAF Fighter Command, specifically its Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons. Fighter Command apparently recognized that the Spitfire was the better suited of the two to dogfighting and established tactics under which Hurricanes would be vectored against bombers and the Spitfires against fighters. The RAF fighter pilots, those who flew Hurricanes and Spitfires alike, were on constant alert throughout the weeks of the intense German attacks, often standing by in their cockpits where they awaited the call to scramble.
Once a squadron became airborne, it immediately fell under the direction of the RAF ground controllers, many of them young women, who vectored them into position for an attack. There was a controversy over tactics between the two senior fighter commanders, as 12 Group Commander Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory preferred the “big wing” concept of assembling his fighters in strength. The problem was that assembling the formations took time—time during which the German bomber formations penetrated deeper into British airspace and were often able to drop their bombs before they could be intercepted.
Air Vice Marshal Keith Park commanded 11 Group, and it was in his area that most of the attacks were taking place. He was often frustrated because 12 Group was not quick to respond when called on to contribute fighters to the battle. In spite of the command problems, RAF Fighter Command managed to prevail, inflicting heavy losses against the Luftwaffe bombers, until they finally reached the point that Germany could no longer endure them. The German bomber commanders elected to discontinue daylight attacks against English targets and turned to night raids. Credit for the British victory was shared by the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots.
Spitfires go on the Offensive
With the turn to night attacks by the Germans, the Spitfire’s role as an interceptor had pretty much ceased. Attempts were made to use Spitfires to intercept German bombers at night, but most efforts were futile. The night-fighter role was eventually filled by twin-engine aircraft with two crewmen, one of whom was trained to operate equipment that was designed to detect the ignitions of aircraft engines. The development of radar increased the effectiveness of the specially adapted night fighters, and Spitfires were used primarily in daylight operations.
In late December, barely two months after the Battle of Britain, the RAF began changing from a defensive to an offensive posture as Fighter Command launched attacks against German airfields in France. On December 20, a pair of 66 Squadron Spitfires took off from Biggin Hill and headed across the English Channel on a low-level strafing mission over the Le Touquet airfield. The two fighters shot up the Luftwaffe base, then returned home without opposition. Two weeks later, five squadrons made a sweep up the French coast, with some sorties going 30 miles inland. From then on fighter “rhubarbs” would be a regular occurrence. Early 1941 also saw the introduction of the Spitfire to night fighting, but the need for them in the night-fighter role decreased with the appearance of Bristol Beaufighters a few weeks later.
Two decades before, during World War I, scores of young Americans had volunteered to fly for France and formed the Lafayette Escadrille, formed in memory of the young French nobleman who came to America to fight with the Continental Army during the American Revolution. When war again broke out in Europe, many young Americans sought to revive the Escadrille, but the quick defeat of the French military forces prevented it.
Britain was still in the war and the volunteers switched their allegiance. Dispatches from England by American war correspondents during the Battle of Britain also influenced many Americans to consider volunteering to fight for Britain. The RAF began accepting applications from American pilots and in October 1940 formed the “Eagle Squadron” made up entirely of pilots from the United States. After forming at Church Fenton on October 19, 1940, the Eagle Squadron was initially equipped with Hurricanes. Nine months later it switched to Spitfires. A second Eagle Squadron was formed on May 14, 1941. It, too, was initially equipped with Hurricanes, but soon switched to Spitfires as well. A third squadron was formed on August 1, 1941.
Spitfires in the Eighth Air Force
On December 7, 1941, the United States officially entered World War II, although American military personnel had been involved in the war on a clandestine basis for more than a year. In early 1942, General Carl Spaatz, the chief of the Army Air Corps Combat Command, decided to establish an air force for operations from the UK. In June, the first American air units embarked for England to join the new U.S. Eighth Air Force. One of the units was the 31st Pursuit Group, which had previously flown Bell P-39 Airacobras. Because of the lower cost of the Spitfire and the need for P-39s in the Pacific, Spaatz decided to send the group overseas by ship without airplanes and to equip them with Spitfires after their arrival. The United States contracted under the Lend-Lease program for 600 Spitfires to be delivered by the end of 1943. The American 52nd Fighter Group also received British Spitfires.
In the autumn of 1942, Eighth Air Force Spitfire strength increased when the three Eagle squadrons transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps, where they made up the newly organized 4th Fighter Group, and were consolidated at Debden. With the transfer of the Eagle Squadrons, the United States had three fighter groups equipped with Spitfires. While the 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups moved to North Africa, the 4th remained in England, where its three squadrons constituted the only operational American fighter squadrons in the British Isles until early 1943.
As an already proven combat aircraft, the Spitfire was thought to be a good choice to introduce U.S. Army fighter pilots to combat in Europe. But the Allied role was changing from defensive to offensive operations, and the Spitfire came up lacking for the new kind of war. The Spitfire was designed to be a short-range interceptor, and it lacked the range necessary to escort the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force on long-range missions into western Europe. External fuel tanks increased the range of the Spitfire, but not enough to accompany the bombers into Germany.
The only American-built fighters in England in 1942 were Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, and they were being held in reserve to reinforce the newly established Twelfth Air Force in North Africa. Consequently, the 4th Fighter Group Spitfires were the only game in town. Ironically, the 4th Fighter Group continued to operate under RAF Fighter Command for a time, while RAF Spitfires served as the primary escort fighters for VIII Bomber Command throughout 1942. Spitfires would continue to serve with American fighter squadrons well into 1943, when they were replaced by American aircraft, particularly the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
High Casualties Over Dieppe
In August 1942, one of the fiercest air actions of the war occurred as Spitfires played the major fighter role in support of the Canadian commando raid on the French port at Dieppe, code-named Operation Jubilee. More than 2,300 sorties were flown that day, with large numbers of them flown by Spitfires. Spitfires from 129 Squadron fired the first shots of the action as they struck shore installations during the dark hours before sunrise at 4:45 am. The 129 Squadron Spits were followed by other Spitfires escorting light bombers on missions against the shore batteries near the landing beach.
Inexplicably, the Luftwaffe failed to appear over the beaches until midday. When they did come, the German attack was met by four squadrons of Spitfires that had been dispatched by Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory, who was keeping close watch on developments in France. Four other Spitfire squadrons escorted a flight of American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers attacking the airfield at Abbeville. Unfortunately, the troops on the beaches met stiff resistance that inflicted heavy losses. Almost 4,000 commandos were killed, wounded, or captured, including some 3,000 Canadians. Air casualties were not light—106 RAF aircraft were reported lost, 88 of which were Spitfires.
The War in the Mediterranean
As the attacks on occupied Europe and Germany increased in 1943, the drawbacks of the Spitfires became readily apparent. While Spitfires could escort cross-Channel missions into France and the Low Countries, they lacked the range to go deeper. As longer range American fighters arrived in England and entered operational service, the Spitfires turned more toward supporting short-range medium bombers on attacks against German airfields and other installations in France and attacking ground targets.
Spitfires served in every theater of the war where British and British Commonwealth forces fought. One of the first—and perhaps most important—overseas deployments of Spitfires was to Malta, where German and Italian bombers were attempting to pound the occupying British forces into submission. Air attacks commenced on Malta immediately after Italy entered the war on June 10, 1940, and continued for two years.
By March 7, 1942, when 15 Spitfires flew onto the island from the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, the island had been under constant air attack for 20 months. The newly arrived Spits were rendered ineffective by Axis air attacks within a few days, and preparations were made for additional airplanes to be delivered by the carrier USS Wasp. On April 20, an additional 47 Spitfires reached the island, but their arrival had not gone unnoticed. Within two hours, German and Italian aircraft were hitting the island; by the end of the following day, only 18 Spitfires remained operational.