In August 1943, the 308th FS of the 31st FG – the group’s most successful squadron – became the first USAAF unit to operate the Spitfire Mk. VIII, the group having had some Mk. IXs in limited operation since the previous April, with enough in each squadron to provide a high cover flight for the Spitfires Mk. Vb.
The new Spitfires first saw combat over Palermo, Sicily, on August 8, 1943, when 20 Bf-109s were encountered, of which 3 were shot down. On August 11, the 308th claimed two Fw-190s and a Macchi C.205. There would be additional combat over Italy in late September during the Salerno invasion, and then things quieted down.
By December 1943 the American groups were flying bomber escort in Southern Italy. In January, 1944, 1st Lt. Leland P. Molland, a recent arrival, made the first two of his eventual five scores in the Spitfire Mk. VIII, in combat with Fw-190s intercepting American B-25s escorted by the Spitfires.
The Anzio invasion on January 22, 1944, brought the Luftwaffe out in force once again, and the 31st FG scored against 18 Fw-190 fighter bombers over the beachhead. That evening, Spitfires of the 2nd FS, which had moved to Corsica with the rest of the 52nd FG, intercepted 50-60 He-111 torpedo bombers of KG26 bound from Marseilles to attack the invasion fleet off Anzio, and forced most of the German bombers to drop their torpedoes, while shooting down seven Heinkels and damaging three Ju-88s. The next day, the 4th FS intercepted six Do-217s equipped with Fritz-X bombs and shot down two, scattering the others.
Through the rest of January, both units engaged in numerous combats over the beachhead and as far inland as Rome. On February 6, 308th FS CO Maj. Virgil Fields was shot down and killed. Lt. Molland, who became an ace with his fifth kill in the fight in which Fields was lost, moved up to command the squadron.
By March 21st, the 308th had raised its total score to 62, with 1st Lt. Richard F. Hurd becoming the second highest-scoring US Spitfire ace with 6 victories.
On March 11, 1944, the 31st FG had received their first P-51B Mustang. On March 24, the unit was taken off operations to handle full conversion to the Mustang, despite the feelings of many of the pilots that they were being asked to take an inferior airplane to their Spitfire Mk. VIIIs and IXs. On March 26, 1944, the 31st flew their last Spitfire mission, with four Spitfires Mk. VIII of the 308th FS finding 20 Fw-190G fighter bombers, of which they claimed one destroyed and three probables for the group’s last victories in the Spitfire.
The following month, the 52nd Fighter Group followed the 31st into the Mustang and on to the new 15th Air Force, with the last US Spitfire victories being 3 Bf-109Gs shot down of 6 that attacked the Spitfire IXs of the 5th FS of the 52nd FG during a bomber escort to Orvieto, Italy.
Uncle Sam’s Spitfires had written a little-known chapter in US fighter history. Though the USAAF used over 600 Spitfires during the war, the aircraft was never given a US designation, and little publicity was given to the exploits of the 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups – nothing like what they would get in the summer of 1944 during the wild air battles over Ploesti when they flew Mustangs. This is most likely a good example of the US military’s overall dislike of having to admit to using “NIH” (Not Invented Here) equipment.
During their time in Spitfires, the 31st FG claimed 194.5 confirmed, 39 probables and 124 damaged; the 52nd claimed 152.33 confirmed, 22 probables and 71 damaged. Thirteen pilots became aces on the Spitfire. Leland Molland went on to score another 6 victories in the summer of 1944 in the P-51 to bring his score to 11. Harrison Thyng added 5 more victories to his 5.5 as CO of the 4th FIW in Korea, while Royal N. Baker, who scored 3.5 in Spitfires added another 13 in Korea.