The US Eighth Army Air Force, stationed in England, carried out a daylight strategic bombing campaign against the Third Reich beginning with the summer of 1942
Initially the 8th AF lacked an effective long-range escort fighter to accompany heavy bombers, which repeatedly suffered horrendous losses. The turning point in this prolonged and bloody struggle came about in November 1943, when a new breed of P-51 Mustang fighters entered service. The P-51B/C models, fitted with the superb, British-designed Rolls-Royce Merlin/Packard engines, had the desired high-altitude performance (which the early Mustangs powered by Allison engines lacked) and enough range to protect the bombers all the way to their targets and back.
Meanwhile, a second UK-stationed American Army Air Force – the 9th AF – steadily grew in strength. It was to provide close air-support to ground troops during the forthcoming invasion of the Continent. As it happened, it was the tactical 9th AF, and not the strategic 8th AF, which received the first Mustang fighter group – 354th FG, fittingly nicknamed the Pioneer Mustang Group. The Pioneers flew their first combat mission, an uneventful sweep over Belgian coast, on 1st December 1943.
Although formally 354th FG remained part of the 9th AF, it was promptly commandeered by the 8th AF, which needed Mustangs for long-range escort duties. The Pioneers flew their first mission of this type on 11th December 1943, shepherding nearly 500 B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators to Emden. On 16th December, on a mission to Bremen, Lt. Charles Gumm shot down a Bf 109, scoring the first victory credited to American Mustangs operating in the ETO.
The Mustang pilots, few as they were for the time being, quickly made their presence felt. On a mission to Kiel, on 5th January 1944, they shot down 15 enemy fighters for no losses of their own. On 11th January the Pioneers took over the escort as the bombers neared Halberstadt, their target of the day. What followed went down to history as a fight of epic proportions. Major James Howard, a former pilot of the famed ‘Flying Tigers’, now commanding one of the 354th’s component squadrons, single-handedly fended off Luftwaffe fighters attacking a group of B-17s for as long as half an hour. The praise from the bomber crews led to the recommendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor, which Howard received a few weeks later. He was the only fighter pilot in the ETO awarded this highest American decoration for bravery in action against enemy. Howard also earned the title of the first Mustang ace – he scored five victories over Europe by 30th January.
By the end of January 357th FG, another Mustang outfit assigned to the tactical 9th AF, was declared operational. This time the 8th AF commanders, instead of ‘loaning’ another fighter group from the Ninth, exchanged one of its Thunderbolt-equipped outfit for the freshly-arrived 357th FG. Pilots were so enthused about the new Mustangs that the next group in line for conversion (4th FG) re-equipped within 24 hours! Colonel Blakeslee, the CO of the 4th FG, was quoted saying to his subordinates, “You will learn to fly them on your way to target”.
At the end of February 1944 new type of canopies, commonly known as the Malcolm Hood, began to filter into the Mustang fighter groups. This was a bulged, Perspex frameless canopy that slid to the rear on rails, a great improvement in all-around vision over the standard, hinged and heavily framed ‘birdcage’ canopy. Contrary to popular belief, Malcolm Hood used on the P-51B/C was not an adapted Spitfire canopy, if only because of different dimensions and cross sections of the two aircraft. The Mustang’s ‘blown’ hood was merely inspired by that produced for the Spitfire. In fact, it was not invented by the British, either. It had been designed by a team of the North American Aviation engineers in UK for the British reconnaissance Mustangs back in 1942, long before the Merlin-powered P-51B was created. Once tested on Mustang Mk I, it was turned over for production to Malcolm Ltd. company (hence the name), the producer of Spitfire canopies. A sliding, clear-vision canopy was eventually incorporated into the successor of the B/C model, the P-51D.
On 4th March 1944, despite atrocious weather, the 8th AF bombers for the first time bombed the German capital. The fact that American bombers arrived escorted by fighters (Mustangs of the 4th FG), apparently made quite an impression on Germans. Shortly after the war, while being held in American custody, the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring stated: “When I saw fighters escorting the bombers over Berlin, I knew the jig was up”. By the end of the month the 8th AF re-equipped two more fighter groups, 352nd and 355th, with Mustangs. And when the tactical 9th AF received one more Mustang outfit (363rd FG), it was also temporarily subordinated to the 8th AF.
In March 1944 the 8th AF groups were authorized to paint their machines in unit-specific color patterns. These painting schemes not only helped to recognize one’s own lot in the heat of an aerial battle, but reinforced the growing sense of esprit de corps among the personnel. Red spinners and cowl bands distinguished 4th FG, blue ones 352nd FG, and white ones 355th FG. 357th FG chose red, yellow and red ringed spinners supplemented by a red and yellow checkerboard band round cowling.
Late April 1944 saw introduction of 108-gallon drop tanks. Unlike the hitherto used aluminum 75-gallon tanks, the new ones, of British production, were made of impregnated paper. Although prone to leaking, they were cheap to produce. They saw widespread use with the 8th AF during long-range escort missions.
In May 1944 three more groups, 339th, 359th and 361st, switched to Mustangs. The 339th chose white, red and white ringed spinners, with a red and white checkerboard band around cowling, for its ‘war paint’ scheme; the 359th chose a bright green spinner and cowl band for its color marking, whilst 361st FG favored the same elements painted in yellow. By then the 8th AF had seven Mustang fighter groups on strength: 4th, 339th, 352nd, 355th, 357th, 359th and 361st (besides the 354th and 363rd on loan from the 9th AF). This number was to double by the end of the war. It was a force to recon with. At that time each fighter group usually sent out 48 fighters – 16 from each of the three component squadrons. It meant that whenever the heavy bombers ranged out, there would be a few hundred Mustangs to protect them (obviously not all of them at the same time – the fighters furnished protective cover in relays, each group giving support to the bombers only for a limited period of time, until relieved by another fighter unit).
On 8th May 1944 another milestone occurred – in the area of Braunschweig Lt. Carl Luksic of 352nd FG shot down three Fw 190s and two Bf 109s, becoming the first of the so-called aces in a day. Four pilots of the 352nd FG won that title by the end of the war, and as many as fifteen in the entire 8th AF. Notably, Luksic was shot down by German antiaircraft fire (the dreaded Flak) and made a PoW before the month was out. Quite a few Mustang aces were to share his fate in the following months.
When on 6th June 1944 the invasion went underway, all the USAAF forces stationed in England gave their support. By that time 354th and 363rd FGs returned to the operational control of the 9th AF and, as soon as it was feasible, moved to forward landing grounds in France (in the preceding months the two groups had alternatively flew long-range escort missions for the 8th AF and, armed with 500-pound bombs, one under each wing, hit targets in France). It was not until mid-June 1944, when the situation on the beachheads was deemed stable, that the 8th AF reverted to its primary role of the strategic air force.