Spitfire Nations — The British Weren’t the Only Ones To Fly the Iconic Warplane into Battle

The RAF donated more than 1,200 Spitfires to the Soviet Union beginning in 1941.

The RAF donated more than 1,200 Spitfires to the Soviet Union beginning in 1941.

“Americans, Soviets and a host of other countries operated the famous fighter plane during World War Two and in the Post War Era.”

IT’S DIFFICULT TO overstate the reverence with which the British regard the Supermarine Spitfire.

While the more plentiful Hawker Hurricane likely made a greater contribution to victory during the Battle of Britain, it was the sleek and agile Spitfire that captured the world’s imagination. In fact, the quintessential British aircraft will forever be linked with the RAF of World War Two. However, Britain was not the only power to fly the legendary Spit. History forgets that Americans, Soviets and a host of other countries operated the famous fighter plane during World War Two and in the Post War Era. Consider this:

Yankee Spits

An American Spitfire in 1942.

An American Spitfire in 1942.

Although the symbols of American air power in World War Two may be the P-51 Mustang, the P-47 Thunderbolt or the P-38 Lighting, the first U.S. fighter squadrons operating in Europe flew British Spitfires.

American factories would produce 99,000 fighter aircraft during World War Two, but the U.S. Army Air Force entered the conflict in Europe with a shortage of front line interceptors. Ironically, it was Britain, which was on the receiving end of so much U.S. military aid, that ended up equipping the first American fighter squadrons in Europe. The 334th, 335th and 336th fighter squadrons, which were part of the VIII Fighter Command’s 4th Group, were all formed in 1942 out of the remnants of the American all-volunteer RAF formations, the so-called Eagle Squadrons. When these units were transferred to the USAAF, they brought their Spitfires with them. Other American units, like the 52nd and 31st fighter groups arrived in England in 1942 and soon discovered that their P-39 Airacobras were woefully outclassed by cutting edge German aircraft. They too soon equipped themselves with the ubiquitous British fighter.

By the summer, American Spits were escorting bombers during daylight raids over Europe and providing air cover for operations like the 1942 amphibious Dieppe raid. And when in late 1942, the Allies launched Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa – American Spitfires operating from Gibraltar mixed it up with Luftwaffe Messerschmitts and Vichy French fighter aircraft in the skies above Algeria. As the campaign against the Afrika Korps continued throughout late 1942 and the spring of 1943, U.S. squadrons equipped with Spitfires scored dozens of kills and even produced a number of aces like Norman MacDonald and Arthur Vinson. One flyer by the name of Frank Hill became the top scoring American Spitfire ace with seven victories. By the end of 1943, most American fighter squadrons retired their Spitfires for American-made aircraft like the P-47 and later the P-51 Mustang. Despite this, some American Spits continued to fight on throughout the Italy campaign. Additionally, a small number of United States Navy squadrons flew Spitfires as photoreconnaissance aircraft from bases in England throughout the war. [1]

All told, the U.S. military operated as many as 600 Spitfires during 1942 and 1943. Spitfires from the 52nd and 31st fighter groups alone destroyed more than 350 enemy aircraft. [2]

A Soviet Spitfire.

A Soviet Spitfire.

Red Star Spitfires

In addition to the 3,000 Hawker Hurricanes delivered to the Soviet Union via the North Sea, the Far East and the Persian Gulf, London also donated 1,200 Spitfires of various marks to its Russian allies. In fact, Stalin reportedly asked Churchill specifically for squadrons of the famous aircraft. The Russian Spitfires had to be pulled from the front lines however after it became clear the planes’ narrow-set under-carriage proved to be far too fragile for the unpaved airstrips of the Russian front. Soviet pilots were also unaccustomed to the wing-mounted machine guns – armaments on many Soviet planes at the time were positioned on the fuselage. [3] Worst of all, Soviet pilots and anti-aircraft gunners had trouble distinguishing the streamlined silhouette of the British fighter from German BF-109s, particularly the squared wing-tip configuration of the later Mk. LF IX Spitfire. Efforts were made to more clearly mark the Spitfires with larger and even brighter insignia, but they had little effect. The planes were withdrawn to the relative quiet of southern Russia. [4]

Israeli troops survey the wreckage of an Egyptian Spitfire. Both the Israelis and the Egyptians maintained squadrons of Spits -- one several occasions, the aircraft did battle with each other.

Israeli troops survey the wreckage of an Egyptian Spitfire. Both the Israelis and the Egyptians maintained squadrons of Spits — one several occasions, the aircraft did battle with each other.

Other Countries’ Spitfires

In the postwar period, the Spitfire became the mainstay of a number of European air forces. France, Belgium, Greece, Italy and Sweden all maintained fleets of the iconic warplane. The Spitfire even saw action during the late 1940s. In 1947, Indian Spitfires struck Pakistani insurgents in the Kashmir.

Later model Spits, like these, were widely exported after World War Two. In some cases, opposing forces in the developing world flew the warplanes against on another. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Later model Spits, like these, were widely exported after World War Two. In some cases, opposing forces in the developing world flew the warplanes against on another. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Spitfire vs. Spitfire

In 1948, Egyptian Mk. IX Spitfires accidentally attacked a RAF base in Ramat David, Israel that was home to several British Spitfires. A number of British Mk. XIII Spitfires were destroyed on the ground during the raid, however some managed to scramble in time to retaliate. Four of the Egyptian Spitfires were destroyed in the ensuring dogfight. Egyptian and Israeli Spitfires would also do battle throughout the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. And in early 1949, four Israeli Spitfires attacked more than a dozen unarmed RAF Spitfires and Hawker Tempests during an incident along Israel’s southern border. The Israeli aircraft destroyed three British aircraft. Two RAF pilots were killed and one was briefly held captive by the Israelis [5]

14 comments for “Spitfire Nations — The British Weren’t the Only Ones To Fly the Iconic Warplane into Battle

  1. 17 April, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    The Supermarine Spitfires were the most graceful birds of prey in the death-filled skies over Europe. I agree the Hawker Hurricanes were in the shadows due to this grace as well although I feel the Battle of Britain may have been lost without the Hawker.

    I had no idea the USAAF flew that many Spits. Of all the air shows I’ve attended, I can’t recall seeing one in flight.

  2. 17 April, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    I am lucky — there’s an air museum near where I live with a Lancaster bomber. They used to have a Hurricane and a Mosquito (although they were lost in a fire in 1993). Once a year, they fly the Lancaster with a Spitfire or two.

    • Norm Smith
      5 February, 2017 at 8:34 pm

      You live near the Warplanes Heritage Museum just outside of Hamilton Ont, CANADA..Why didn’t you mention that? A number of years back I had a very close look at that Lanc. Beautiful aircraft. My understanding is that it was rescued from a pedestal in Goderich, Ont and restored to flying condion from that sad state.I believe it is one of the only two in the world still flying (the other one is in England).

  3. Douglas C Wolfe
    29 July, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    i have my fathers original flight log flying Spitfire in US Army Air Corps over North Africa in 1942.

    • admin
      30 July, 2014 at 2:02 pm

      Fascinating. Any details about some of the missions flown?

      • doug wolfe (jr)
        30 July, 2014 at 2:12 pm

        yes, he flew escorts over north Africa. has one ME kill.
        approx. 45 missions.

  4. Douglas C Wolfe
    30 July, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    he flew escorts for B52

  5. Barbara E. Adams
    26 July, 2015 at 8:04 am

    I didn’t see anything about the U.S. Navy’s only Spitfire Squadron – VCS-7. One of their pilots was the first allied aviator to land in France on D-Day.

  6. Norm Smith
    5 February, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    I find it strange that no mention is made above of the numersous Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South African, Northern Irish, and many other “Empire” nations tha flew Spitfires to great effect during WW2. Could this be an American article?

    • 5 February, 2017 at 8:52 pm

      I intentionally omitted commonwealth nations — i figured most would expect Canada, Aus, NZ, etc to fly Spits.

    • Gary V. Armstrong
      21 March, 2017 at 4:05 am

      Don’t worry sir…many of us Americans who care to be aware of WW 2 know of the deeds of the other critical Allies we fought with. This includes all types of units from the nations you mention…and then some! Cheers…and thanks for your countrymen’s and women’s service to us as allies.

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