Spitfires of the US Navy

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During the Second World War, the skies over France and Germany were the responsibility of Britain’s Royal Air Force and the United States Army ...

During the Second World War, the skies over France and Germany were the responsibility of Britain’s Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces. US Naval aviation had only limited opportunities to engage Hitler’s armed forces. Although no fast carrier task force was present to support the landings at Normandy on 6 June 1944, Naval Aviators did, in fact, participate in this greatest amphibious invasion in history.

The best known of the US Navy Spitfires is probably this one, carrying the designation 4Q. Mechanics of VCS-7 posing with the aircraft are (from left to right): James J. O’Connor; C.N. Pfanenstiel; Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate V.G. Disa; Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class R.P. Theirauld; and Edmund Pachgio.

During its short-time combat tour VCS-7 used a miscellany of second-hand Spitfires Mk. V. All of their aircraft carried ordinary RAF markings and paint schemes. The swastika victory mark below the cockpit originates from previous use of the aircraft; it was evidently left out during the more recent repaint of the airframe. [US Navy]

VCS-7, Seagulls to Spitfires

Naval Aviation’s mission on 6 June was to provide air spotting support for the cruisers and battleships bombarding targets along the Normandy beachhead.

For this purpose, each vessel normally carried several aviators and two or three floatplanes, either SOC Seagulls or OS2U Kingfishers. Both aircraft performed the spotting mission quite well. Operations in the Mediterranean during 1943 had shown, however, that against strong enemy aerial opposition the SOCs and OS2Us were far too vulnerable. They lacked the speed and manoeuvrability to escape attacks made by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s. In the Mediterranean, efforts were being made to train VCS pilots in the handling of fighters such as the P-40 Warhawk and P-51 Mustang. Flying fighters, the air spotting pilots stood a much better chance of eluding enemy air attacks.

Perhaps because of the high demand on P-51s for strategic bomber escort duties, it was decided that 17 VCS and Battleship Observation (VO) pilots aboard the cruisers Quincy (CA 71) Tuscaloosa (CA 37) and Augusta (CA 31) and the battleships Nevada (BB 36) Arkansas (BB 33) and Texas (BB 35) would be checked out in RAF Spitfire Mk Vbs.

At the time of VCS-7 operations, Naval Curtiss SOC Seagulls and Vought OS2U Kingfishers (in the background) were stored ashore. [US Navy]

The 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Ninth Air Force, under the command of Colonel George W. Peck, was assigned the task of checking out the VCS-7 aviators in Spitfires. Training was conducted at the 67th’s base in Middle Wallop, Hampshire. The training syllabus consisted of defensive fighter tactics, aerobatics, navigation, formation flying and spotting procedures.

On 8 May, Lieutenant Robert W. Calland, senior aviator aboard Nevada, assumed command of the squadron. He was relieved by Lieutenant Commander William Denton, Jr., senior aviator aboard Quincy, on the 28th. That same day, the squadron became fully operational and moved to Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Lee-on-Solent.

Ten squadrons, five RAF, four Royal Navy FAA (Fleet Air Arm) and VCS-7, were brought together at Lee-on-Solent to provide air spotting for the fire support ships of the Western and Eastern Naval Task Forces. The Western Naval Task Force, Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk commanding, would land the US. First Army on beaches Utah and Omaha. The Eastern Naval Task Force would land the British Second Army on beaches Gold, Juno and Sword. Two of the RAF squadrons, Nos. 26 and 63, flew Spitfires. The other three, Nos. 2, 268 and 414, flew Mustang Mk. Is and Mk. lAs. The four FAA squadrons, Nos. 808, 897, 885 and 886, were assigned Seafire Mk. Ills.

On D-day, all aircraft were pooled. This meant that VCS-7 flew whatever type was available, either Seafire or Spitfire. Although Mustangs were present, they were not flown by any VCS-7 aviators-the reason being that they had not been checked out in the type.

At noon on D-Day, the RAF Mustangs were withdrawn for tactical reconnaissance duties. This left some 95 aircraft available for air spotting support at RNAS Lee-on-Solent.

VCS-7 pilots are briefed before flying a gunfire spotting mission over the Normandy beachheads, June-July 1944. Those present are (from left to right): Wing Commander Robert J. Hardiman, RAF, Commanding Allied Spotter Pilots; Ensign Robert J. Adams, USNR; Major Noel East, British Army Intelligence; Lieutenant Harris Hammersmith, Jr., USNR; and Captain John Ruscoe, Royal Artillery, Gunnery Liaison Officer. [US Navy]

Another photo taken in Lee-on-Solent showing VCS-7 pilots and English personnel in readiness. Shown on the photo are Ensign Robert J. Adams, USNR, (drinking a cup of tea); Lieutenant Alexander A. Smith, USNR, studying maps, second from the right. [US Navy]

Typical spotting missions utilized two aircraft. The lead plane functioned as the spotter. The wingman, or “weaver”, provided escort and protected the flight against enemy aerial attack. The clocking, or ship control, method was utilized on the majority of spotting sorties. Standard altitude for spotting missions was 6,000 feet, but poor weather forced the spotter to operate between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. Occasionally, missions were flown at even lower altitudes. Drop tanks were used to increase range. A typical spotting sortie lasted close to two hours. This provided 45 minutes on station and 1 hour in transit.

The Luftwaffe was rarely encountered, although six of the station’s aircraft were shot down by German fighters. Four VCS-7 pilots were attacked by Bf 109s and Fw 190s, putting the fine defensive capabilities of the Spitfire to the test. All four aviators successfully avoided being shot down.

Flak, however, was common and accounted for the squadron’s only loss, Lieutenant Richard M. Barclay, senior aviator aboard Tuscaloosa. Lt. Barclay’s wingman, Lieutenant (jg) Charles S. Zinn, also from Tuscaloosa, managed to return home despite severe damage to his right wing and aileron.

The exact number of aircraft lost by VCS-7 during the Normandy campaign cannot be verified as of this writing. VCS-7’s action report mentions only the loss of Lt. Barclay’s aircraft. Author David Brown in his book, The Seafire, the Spitfire that went to sea, claims that VCS-7 lost 7 aircraft to enemy action and 1 operationally in 209 sorties flown. Unfortunately, Mr. Brown fails to cite the source of his information. According to VCS7’s action report, the squadron flew a total of 191 sorties between 6 and 25 June. The busiest days were the 6th, 7th and 8th. During those three days, a total of 94 sorties were flown.

4Z was a late-production Spitfire Mk. VC featuring individual exhaust manifolds of the same type which were adopted for Spitfire Mk. IX. An interesting and non-standard feature is the single reinforcing “fence” above the wheel well.
The pilots are Lieutenant Robert F. Doyle, USNR, shaking hands with his wingman, Ensign John F. Mudge, USNR, after their return from a gunfire-spotting and strafing mission over the Normandy. [US Navy]

Following the bombardment of Cherbourg on 26 June, naval gunfire support operations ceased. The fighting had moved inland out of the range of the ships big guns. VCS-7 was, therefore, disbanded by order of Adm. Kirk, and all personnel returned to their ships.

During 20 days of combat operations, the aviators of VCS-7 were awarded 9 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 6 Air Medals and 5 Gold Stars in lieu of additional Air Medals. Ten VCS-7 aviators went on to participate in the invasion of southern France and three others took part in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific during 1945.

This article was first published in Naval Aviation News, May-June 1994

17 Comments | Add New

By J. Silverfox  |  2017-07-18 at 23:08  |  permalink

Several years ago I interviewed a WWII vet who flew Spitfires in VCS-7. He flew off cruiser in OSCU-2 Kingfisher. His name was Ensign Crawford. Unfortunately he died about 5 years ago. He was a real gentleman. He mentioned also that they didn’t want AC on the cruisers and battlewagons because of the aviation fuel in case the ships were hit.

By Joseph Bucemi  |  2018-05-15 at 20:15  |  permalink

I can find nothing, anywhere, that suggests that American flown Spitfire squadrons operated out of Malta. I, also, cannot find any information on U.S. Navy flying photo missions in Spits ’til the end of the war. The only U.S. unit operating photo recon Spitfires was the 14th squadron of the 8th Air Force’s 7th Photo Recon Group.
Also, the U.S. Spitifire Groups did not give up their Spits by the end of 1943. The 31st and 52nd Fighter Groups operated their Spitfires from North Africa and then into Italy and finally traded their Spits for Mustangs April of 1944.

By Joseph Bucemi  |  2018-05-15 at 20:27  |  permalink

Ah, I see. The U.S. Units did not fly missions out of Gibralter. They used it as a staging base from which they flew their planes to N. Africa for operation Torch.

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