North American P-51 Mustang, famed for its service in the US Army Air Force as a long-rage escort fighter over western Europe, was no less successful in the other three major combat areas of World War Two: the Mediterranean, the China-Burma-India and the Pacific Theaters of Operations.
In fact, the USAAF Mustangs debuted in the MTO. They entered combat in Tunisia as tactical reconnaissance aircraft, flying their first combat mission – an armed reconnaissance in the area of Kairuan airfield – on 9th April 1943. Designated simply as the P-51 (with no letter suffix), they excelled in interdiction missions, making good use of their heavy armament (four wing-mounted 20 mm cannons). The first USAAF unit to employ the P-51 in combat was the 68th Observation Group, which equipped two of its squadrons (111th and 154th) with Mustangs. Soon thereafter a photo-reconnaissance version (the F-6 series), fitted with a camera mounted aft of the cockpit, came into use. When in mid-May 1943 the 154th was pulled out of the line for training duties, only 111th remained at the front. In July 1943 it moved to Sicily, and from September it was stationed on Italian mainland. In November it received its final designation – 111th TRS (Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron). In July 1944 it moved to Corsica, and in August to France. Although the squadron was never supposed to engage in aerial combat, it was credited with 39 victories by the end of the war, and had an ace (Capt. Valentine Rader) among its ranks.
Meanwhile, a dedicated ground-attack version was designed. Known as the A-36 Apache, it was fitted with underwing airbrakes, typical of dive bombers. Apache’s fixed armament consisted of six half-inch machine guns – two in each wing and two in lower nose section. It could carry two 500 lb bombs mounted under wings. The A-36 equipped two units in the MTO: 27th and 86th Bomber Groups. The first action of the ‘American Stuka’ came during air strikes against the Italian island of Pantelleria in June 1943, preparatory to the invasion of Sicily. Two months later both units were re-designated, more fittingly, as Fighter-Bomber Groups. The Apache remained in frontline service until mid-1944, being successively replaced by P-40 Warhawks, and later by P-47 Thunderbolts. The last airworthy A-36s were passed to the aforementioned 111th TRS.
Apache pilots didn’t seek air combat, but neither did they shirk from it when opportunity arose. Lieutenant Michael Russo of 27th FBG shot down five Luftwaffe aircraft (including three fighters) between mid-September and the end of 1943 – quite a feat for a ‘dive bomber’ pilot. He not only became a sole A-36 ace, but in fact the first Mustang ace.
A new chapter in the history of the Mustang service in the MTO opened, when the US 15th Army Air Force was constituted in November 1943. From then on, until the end of the war in Europe, the 15th AF carried out a strategic bombing campaign, operating over a huge area: southern France, northern Italy, southern Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, southern Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. Mustang pilots of the 15th AF clashed not only with the Luftwaffe, but with several air forces of the German allies in Europe: Italians, Romanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Slovaks and Croats.
The first escort fighters of the 15th AF were P-38 Lightnings (three fighter groups). Apart from them, the 15th AF had four more fighter groups on strength: two equipped with Spitfires (31st and 52nd), and two with Thunderbolts (325th and 332nd). All four were earmarked for conversion to Mustangs. In early April 1944 first P-51Bs were issued to 31st FG stationed at San Severo, at one of many airfields on the plain around Foggia. A month later 52nd FG, stationed at Madna, flew its first Mustang mission. Next in line was 325th FG, stationed at Lesina, the top-scoring American fighter unit in the MTO at that time. Better known as the ‘Checkertail Clan’ because of the distinctive black and yellow checkers adorning the tails of the group’s aircraft, it debuted on Mustangs in late May. In early June 325th FG participated in the first shuttle mission to Russia (operation ‘Frantic’).
In summer 1944 the Mustangs of the 15th AF fought their most momentous air battles. Raids against refineries in Austria, Hungary and Silesia were fiercely opposed by the Luftwaffe. The Germans were just as determined to protect oil fields in Romania. In mid-June 1944 first P-51Ds arrived in the MTO. The D model featured, among many other improvements, an increased armament of six wing-mounted .50 cal machine guns (as opposed to four in the P-51B/C) and a sliding, teardrop-shaped canopy. Arguably the most important improvement over the earlier model was the redesigning of ammunition feeding system, which largely solved the notorious gun-jamming problem. Early July saw the first escort mission on Mustangs by 332nd FG aka. ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’, stationed at Ramitelli – the only all-Negro fighter unit in the USAAF.
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