Andrew Arthy

Spitfire Mk. VB ES306 HL-D, 308th FS 31st FG, Thelepte, March 1943

By early February 1943, the American pilots of the 31st

Fighter Group (31st FG) were itching for some action.

They had briefly tasted combat over the Channel Front

in the late-summer of 1942, and then in a skirmish

with Vichy French aircraft over Algeria on 8 November

1942. However, it was only in the opening weeks of February 1943 that the Spitfire-equipped fighter unit really found itself in the frontline, as it transferred to the

American forward base at Thelepte in western Tunisia,

just 75 kilometres from the nearest German troops.

Although the 31st FG operations during the

Battle of Kasserine Pass are well-known, its

Tunisian combat debut between 8 and 13 February 1943 saw the inexperienced but eager

American pilots and their supporting ground

personnel settle into life at a frontline base,

and begin to fly some missions, battling not

only the enemy, but also the desert conditions

and atrocious winter weather. Not everything

went according to plan, as the following story

will reveal.

Early History and North African


The unit was activated as the 31st Pursuit

Group on 1 February 1940, and it was initially

equipped with the Curtiss P-39. In May 1942,

the Group’s 307th, 308th and 309th Fighter

Squadrons were transferred to the east coast

of the United States in preparation for a move

overseas, and they sailed across the Atlantic

to Great Britain in June. Once there, the now

re-designated 31st FG became the beneficiary

of ‘reverse Lend-Lease’, and took on strength

Spitfire Mk. Vs. The unit loved the aircraft, one



member of the ground personnel remarking

after the war: “It was a mighty beautiful airplane!” A pilot wrote: “It did everything well”,

while 307th FS ace J.D. Collinsworth noted:

“a [Spitfire Mk.] Five was about as manoeuvrable and a flyable an aircraft as you could

ever hope to get your hands on”. However, it

had some obvious weak points. The single-stage supercharger meant that its horsepower decreased with altitude. This issue was

most noticeable above 12,000 feet, and would

be rectified in the Spitfire Mk. IX. The topicalization modifications made to the 31st FG in

North Africa created some additional performance issues.

Conversion and training in England occupied

several weeks, during which time there were

many accidents, including 21 aircraft lost or

badly damaged in just sixteen days! The 31st

FG went into action in August after being adjudged operationally ready, and its first real

challenge came during the failed Allied landing at Dieppe on 19 August 1942, when the

American unit claimed its first aerial victories,

but also suffered several losses in duels with

experienced German foes.

The 31st FG was then earmarked for Operation TORCH, the Anglo-American invasion of

Vichy French-held North-West Africa. The pilots and ground personnel sailed to Gibraltar,

and the pilots flew their desert-camouflaged

Spitfire Mk. Vs from there to Tafaraoui near

Oran on 8 November 1942, the opening day

of the invasion. Dewoitine D.520s attacked

them on landing and killed a 31st FG pilot,

and three American Spitfire pilots claimed

victories in return. Strafing missions were

also flown against Vichy French troops and

vehicles. After that initial excitement, the 31st

FG would not engage in aerial combat again

for three long months. Instead, Lt. Col. Fred

M. Dean’s unit operated from various bases

in Algeria and Morocco, flying convoy patrols,

courier missions, and routine escort sorties

for transport aircraft far behind the frontline.

It was important but tedious work, and the

American pilots grew restless as their wait

for action continued.

One of the squadron commanders was surprised at the situation:

“For some unstated reason we were kept at

La Senia and not sent up to the forward airfields. Most of [our flying] consisted of patrols over Allied shipping in the Mediterranean

which … was very boring.”

On 4 February, one pilot wrote simply in his

diary: “Same dull routine.” The men had signed

up for combat, been trained as fighter pilots,

and wanted to go where the action was, and it

was very frustrating to be based so far from

the land fighting. Commander of the 307th

FS/31st FG, George J. LaBreche, later wrote:

“we were chaffing at the bit to get back into


INFO Eduard - September 2021