Major George J. Labreche led the 307th FS/31st FG with distinction in Tunisia.

First Real Scrap: 10 February 1943

After several fleeting encounters with German

reconnaissance aircraft on previous days, the

31st FG really came to grips with the enemy

on 10 February, but unfortunately, it did not

distinguish itself. An early mission to Sened

was a precursor of what was to come, when

Capt. Louis M. Zimlich, Jr. and Lt. Vincent E.

Baker of the 307th FS/31st FG became hopelessly lost during a P-39 escort mission in low

overcast soon after midday, and had to land

at Youks-les-Bains. They had stayed behind to

protect the rearmost P-39s as they pulled out

of their strafing runs, but the ungrateful 81st

FG pilots then opened their throttles and left

their escorts far behind! The two Spitfire pilots returned to Thelepte in coming days.

The first combat with German fighters would

come on the next P-39 escort mission, beginning at 13:00. Twelve Spitfires of the 308th

FS/31st FG took off, led by Major Delwin B.

Avery, to accompany four P-39s of the 92nd

FS/81st FG. The objective for the mission was

to reconnoitre the Kairouan area, and given

the expert German fighter pilots based there,

it was really asking for trouble. FW 190s were

seen on four different occasions during the

mission, after the P-39 pilots had witnessed

them scrambling from Kairouan. The Germans seemed reluctant to attack, but eventually jumped the Americans from out of the

clouds and 2,000 feet above. A brief combat

ensued, during which Major Avery was the

only American to open fire.

The shock of being jumped badly disorientated the Spitfire pilots, and they used the Thelepte homing service for vectors. However,

the directions provided were faulty and they

ended up a long way to the south-west of Thelepte. Running low on fuel, ten aircraft tried

to put down on a road, with varying results.

Major Avery and Lt. Corrigan overturned their

aircraft and received injuries, and Lt. Mosby

and Lt. M.P. Smith belly-landed. The rest landed wheels down. Lt. Taylor and 2/Lt. Overend were the only ones able to make it back

to Thelepte, at 15:00 and “with only a couple

INFO Eduard - September 2021

gallons of petrol”. They alerted the unit about

what had happened. Merritt C. Wolfe recalled:

“We had thought they were down in enemy

territory and were overjoyed to hear that all

were safe.” Capt. ‘Doc’ Crawford, with 2/Lt.

Overend as a guide, set out overland with fuel,

aircraft parts and medical supplies to rescue

the pilots, some of whom endured a freezing

night in their aircraft, while the two injured

men were tended to by friendly Arabs. Eight

aircraft were eventually flown home after repairs and refuelling, and two were used for


The outcome was unsurprising given the men

were not used to aerial combat. J.D. Collinsworth remembered being shocked at what

a dogfight actually involved: “I was surprised

at how quickly it started and ended”. To worsen the situation, the Thelepte homing station

had a very bad reputation, as Major LaBreche

wrote: “I hoped I would never need them in an


After the excitement of the previous day, 11

February 1943 was much quieter. The strong

wind had been ever-present since the 31st FG

arrived at Thelepte, but on the eleventh it was

particularly bad. Two missions were flown in

the morning, and then the Group ‘battened

down the hatches’, trying to avoid the strong

winds and biting cold. Unit records noted:

“Wind so strong that aircraft not tied down

blew across field”!

A morning P-39 escort mission by the 309th

FS/31st FG on 12 February was disrupted by

another desert problem: sand. Major LaBreche wrote that Thelepte: “was subject to dust

storms, known as Siroccos, which closed the

airport and created maintenance difficulties.”

The sand got into everything, including living

quarters and aircraft. The mission report for

this day noted that some of the Spitfires and

P-39s were “having mechanical difficulty, probably because of high winds and sand on the

night of 11/12 February”, and one 31st FG Spitfire pilot crash-landed on returning to base due

to those two factors. The unit did not fly again

during the day, and Merritt C. Wolfe noted in

his diary: “Wind made flying almost impossible.” Lt. Col. Dean later wrote about the problems caused by sand at Thelepte:

“Guns frequently clogged by sand. We now put

canvas bags over tail end of cannon. Toilet paper and cellophane paper over muzzles and

on machine-guns, we now use canvas over

front and fire through it. This helps but does

not solve problem. It just helps to keep guns

from being ruined permanently! Guns get daily inspection.”

Fortunately, the weather situation improved

a little on 13 February, although no operations

were possible in the morning, as mechanics

checked all the Group’s Spitfires for damage

from the wind and sand. Lt. Col. Dean led off

the first of two P-39 escort missions at 14:25,

‘Walt’ Overend initially served with the Royal Air Force, before joining the 308th FS/31st FG. He was one of two pilots

to make it back to Thelepte after the afternoon mission of 10 February 1943.