On 6th March 1944 the day dawned murky and cloudy. It was hardly a surprise for this season of the year in England.
Despite heavy overcast clouds stretching over most of the continent, an aerial armada of 730 American four-engined bombers, escorted by 801 fighters, boldly took to the air. Their target was Berlin, the capital city of the Third Reich. The American formation was spearheaded by Mustangs of the 4th Fighter Group, the ‘Debden Eagles’, led by Col. Donald Blakeslee. Their task was to fend off German fighters, known in radio code as ‘bandits’. Cpt. James ‘Goody’ Goodson, who on that day was in charge of one of the group’s three squadrons, recalled:
“I had just identified Magdeburg on my left, when I saw the bomber fleet ahead. Although we had seen their contrails for some time, now we saw the flashes as the sun glinted on their canopies, and then the small black forms of the different boxes gliding majestically through a few flak puffs towards their target. We caught up with them on schedule and started to weave over them; but almost immediately we saw that the forwards elements were under attack, and the R/T reports were coming in: ‘Bandits at 12 o’clock’ ‘Millions of them at 1 o’clock!’
Blakeslee led the Group into the attack. He was heading for a gaggle of attackers ahead of us which seemed to include Ju 88s firing rockets. As the speed built up in a dive, the slight curve of the attack brought my squadron lower and closer to the bombers. Glancing towards the nearest group, I saw they were about to be jumped by some ten 109s. We were in a good position and had the speed. A quick look behind indicated that we could get in a quick attack and break back up to join the rest of the Group before the top German cover could hit us.
I told Blakeslee I was taking my squadron down, and increased the angle of the dive almost to vertical to pick up the speed necessary to close faster with the 109s before they could reach the bombers. I still had time to check behind to see that the squadron was following and that there was nothing on our tails. Then I saw about thirty 109s starting down after us. I figured with our speed we could still make a good attack and a quick getaway. I told the squadron to make a hard break right after hitting. Then I pulled out of the dive to come up under the gaggle of 109s. We were closing very fast, but I forced myself to keep looking behind. I picked out my 109, and bored in until I could see black crosses. I had found this to be the best way to judge my range if the target was not yet alerted and if I wanted to be sure of a kill. The 109s were close to the bombers and concentrating on their attack.
I got hits on mine as soon as I opened fire, and more hits and flashes with each burst. When I broke hard to avoid ramming him, I saw him spiraling down, smoking and with flames along a side of the fuselage. I often see that scene in my mind’s eye. Somehow there is something terribly stark about that cold combination: gray fuselage, black cross, black smoke, yellow-and-red flame. It is brought back to me every time I see the black, yellow and red of the German flag.
By now we were in the thick of it with planes everywhere. My plan had been to pull up around in a hard break to come in behind the last section of the squadron to protect their tails, and I guess that’s more or less what happened. I checked and found my three wingmen still with me, and then almost immediately saw a 109 on the tail of a P‑51. I dived, pulled in behind and below and soon had the German fighter in my sights. I was lucky that he was concentrating on his attack. Again my first burst hit him, but almost immediately a piece flew off his plane and loomed up in front of me. I threw the stick into the corner, but not soon enough to avoid the piece of fuselage from the German plane. I felt a jerk and heard a chunk as it hit my propeller.
I was amazed to find that my engine continued to operate, but we had lost our quarry. He had broken off his attack and dived for the ground. At least we had got him off the Mustang’s tail. Suddenly all was quiet and I led my flight back up. We had dropped behind and below the main bomber stream, and as we caught up we saw a B‑17 straggler. They were always easy meat for German fighters, so I eased over to come up behind him. Then I saw two FW 190s closing on him. By this time we were above the Fortress, so we were able to pull in behind and dive in to come up behind the two Germans. I selected one, but before I could close, he flipped into a tight break. I immediately followed – but maybe not quite fast or tight enough. It had been a long time since a German fighter had stayed around for a dogfight, and we believed the P-51 could out-turn the 190 anyway. That day I learned the hard way. I suddenly realized the 190 was gaining on me in the turn. And yet I was fighting it around as tight as I could. The gravity was pulling my oxygen mask down from my nose. My breath was coming in gasps and gulps and still the spinner of the sinister 190 crept up. I thought he must have enough deflection to hit me and I pulled tighter and felt my plane judder and buck on the edge of a stall. He was firing now and would soon be hitting. In my moment of need, I dropped my right hand to the flap lever beside me and dropped just a few degrees of flap. Miraculously the plane stopped its bucking and I pulled out of the line of fire. Immediately the 190 dived for the deck in the usual Luftwaffe evasive action and I was after him.
But now something strange happened. Normally a P-51 could at least stay with a 190 in a dive, and maybe catch him – at least when he pulled out. But here was my 190 pulling away from me as if I was standing still. Then it came to me: ‘Idiot’ – the flaps were still on. As I took them off, the plane picked up speed. We were hurtling down in a vertical dive. But, although it had only been a few seconds, my 190 was gone”1.
* * *
The concept of long-range escort fighter, so obvious with the advantage of hindsight, took time to evolve. During the inter-war period a popular theory claimed that fast and well-armed bombers could either defend themselves or avoid being engaged using their superior speed. That a multi-engined aircraft, considerably slowed down by its load of bombs, could maintain speed advantage over enemy interceptors, proved to be an illusion. Even the jet-powered German Arado Ar 234, the fastest bomber of the WWII era, was successfully intercepted by the contemporary propeller-driven fighters, whenever the latter could exploit the advantage of height and the resultant advantage of speed in a dive. Equally fruitless were attempts to turn bombers into impervious fortresses. There was a limit of how many gun stations even the heaviest bomber could carry. Furthermore, against such a static target as a formation of heavy bombers the enemy could and did turn even more lethal weapons: twin-engined heavy fighters, the so-called destroyers, armed with large-caliber cannons and rocket missiles. There were even attempts to hit bombers with their own weapon – that is, bomb them from above. It all boiled down to one conclusion – no matter how fast and how well-armed, bombers were vulnerable.
When the first wartime experiences refuted the theory that the bomber would always get through, the need for a long-range escort fighter became obvious and urgent. This was easier said than done, however. The relatively small, single-engined fighter was a short-distance runner. The further ventured bombers into hostile airspace, the more they outdistanced their ‘short-legged’ escort. Germans learned it hard way in the summer of 1940, during the Battle of Britain. Although from their bases on the French coast, scattered along the Channel, England was in visual range, Messerschmitt 109s could barely make it to London and back. Shortly afterwards, the RAF, after a few very costly daylight raids over Germany, turned to night bombing campaign. Still, when the United States Army Air Force arrived in England, its commanders were reluctant to learn from others’ mistakes. As events were to demonstrate, such impudence could not go unpunished.
The U.S. 8th Army Air Force (8th AF for short), which with time became the biggest military air fleet ever seen, was activated in January 1942. Its task was the daytime strategic bomber offensive against the Third Reich, carried out from airfields in eastern England. The first heavy bombers of the 8th AF to arrive in England (in July 1942) were the four-engined Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Their combat debut came in August. During the following months small groups of B-17s, shepherded by numerous British Spitfires, bombed targets in Holland and northern France. By the end of 1942 the VIII Bomber Command (the heavy bomber part of the 8th AF) flew a total of 27 missions over the occupied Europe, losing 32 aircraft. This was a reassuring 2% of the deployed strength (losses below 4% were deemed acceptable).
On 27th January 1943 the 8th AF invaded the airspace over the Third Reich for the first time, bombing the German Navy base at Wilhelmshaven. More raids of the kind followed, mostly against targets located in the north-western corner of Germany, near the Dutch border. The German air defenses seemed to be taken by surprise and the losses among American bombers were in single figures. The first shock came on 17th April 1943, during the raid against Bremen. As a result of a massive attack by Luftwaffe fighters, 16 out of 115 bombers went down. After this event, losses averaging 10% were to become more of a rule than exception. In summer 1943 a heavy bomber crew’s life expectancy was as low as 12-14 missions. Indeed, the attrition rate for bomber crews was so high that, at that period, less than 10% of them completed the 25-mission requirement. The introduction of the 8th AF’s other heavy bomber type, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, only worsened the situation.
Meanwhile, at the turn of 1942/43, the first units of the VIII Fighter Command (the fighter part of the 8th AF; VIII FC for short) were issued with a new American-produced fighter: the Republican P-47 Thunderbolt. These were 4th, 56th and 78th Fighter Groups. The first P-47s, which in the spring 1943 appeared over coastal regions of northern France and Belgium, did not at first provide a breakthrough in the aerial war over Europe. Their range did not differ much from that of their British counterparts, which could fly only as far as Paris or Brussels. The real milestone in the concept of the long-range escort was introduction of auxiliary, drop fuel tanks. In July 1943 Thunderbolts were equipped with pressurized, metal 75-gallon tanks, mounted under fuselage, which enabled them to accompany bombers to the German border. In August, fitted with 108-gallon belly tanks, Thunderbolts were able to go as far as Kiel, Hamburg, Hannover or Stuttgart. This was however of little consolation to bomber crews who were ordered to fly as far as central and southern Germany, far beyond the range of their assigned escorts.
The apogee of the bloody summer 1943 took place in August, during the double raid against Schweinfurt and Regensburg. The American losses amounted to 60 Flying Fortresses, which was an appalling 16% of their strength. The return to the ball-bearing factories of Schweinfurt in October 1943 again decimated the 8th AF bomber fleet – this time as many as 20% of those dispatched did not make it back.
Around that time the USAAF brought to England another fighter to fulfill the role of an escort aircraft – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. This twin-boomed, twin-engined P-38 had already proven itself in the North Africa and in the Pacific, and its escort range was 250 km better than that of the Thunderbolt. Nevertheless, Lightnings in the VIII Fighter Command’s service quickly turned out to be a dismal failure. Due to their faulty engine cooling system, which did not tolerate very low temperatures, P-38s could barely fly at 30,000 feet, the altitude preferred by heavy bombers, let alone fight in their defense. Worse than that, it was discovered that in the thin air of high altitudes the Lightning suffered severely from compressibility and flutter effects. Once in a steep dive, the P-38 was almost impossible to pull out. Luftwaffe pilots quickly became aware of this vice and would exploit it by diving into a split-S after attacking bombers, secure in the knowledge that a Lightning pilot would be more than reluctant to follow them down.
Hence, at the turn of 1943/44, the 8th AF apparently came to a deadlock. It had the P-47, an excellent high-altitude fighter, which lacked sufficient range, and the P-38, a long-range fighter, which nevertheless could barely fly at the operational altitude of heavy bombers! Once again, against such odds, the point of continuing the daylight bomber offensive became increasingly questionable.
After the bitter experiences of the latter part
of 1943 it became apparent that half mea-
sures wouldn’t cure the problem. The concept of external drop tanks itself was, in a sense, a compromise. The basic problem with range was that insufficient amount of fuel was left in internal cells of escort fighters, once they dropped their auxiliary tanks. What was needed was an aircraft which could not only carry more fuel on board, but also use it more economically. The urgent need for such an aircraft meant that there was no time to design it from scratch. Fortunately, there was a design ready at hand, of great and yet unexplored potential.
In early 1940 the British were eager to purchase as many fighter aircraft as were available in the United States in order to supplement their own meager stocks. The first American design in this class, which – just barely – met their demands, was Curtiss P-40. However, the Curtiss factory was at that time fully occupied with orders from the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC). With few options left, the British approached another American manufacturer, which they knew well, with the idea of building the Curtiss fighter for the RAF under sub-contract. In the early years of the war the North American Aviation (NNA) Company had made a name for itself as the producer of a very popular AT-6 Texan advanced trainer (known to the Commonwealth countries as Harvard). Reluctant to produce on license his competitor’s design, especially the one which he considered to be outmoded, the president of the NNA came up with its own project.
The prototype, designated NA-73X, was first flown in October 1940. Equipped with V-1710 Allison engine and its inefficient one-stage supercharger, the NNA fighter performed well only at lower and medium altitudes. On the other hand, at 15,000 feet its maximum level speed was 375 mph, which made him a good 30 mph faster than Spitfire Mk V, the then best frontline fighter in the RAF. Furthermore, it could stay in the air for four hours, which gave it twice the range of the Spitfire! Although the aerodynamically refined NA‑73X looked like a ‘pure breed’ fighter aircraft, it was flawed with decidedly poor performance above 15,000 ft, where most aerial combat was taking place. Hence it was doomed to be relegated to Army co-operation and reconnaissance work. The aircraft entered serial production in spring 1941 under British designation Mustang Mk I.
In service with the RAF operational units from the beginning of 1942, the Mustang diligently worked on its reputation. On 27th July 1942 the British reconnaissance Mk Is carried out a daring, daylight raid over the Ruhr Valley, collecting data on potential targets for the RAF Bomber Command. They were in fact the first Allied fighters in WWII which crossed the German border. On 19th August 1942 the RAF Mustangs formed part of the aerial cover for the Dieppe landings. On that occasion P/O Hollis Hills (curiously, an American) of the Canadian No 414 Sqn RCAF scored the first, historic victory on Mustang, shooting down a Focke-Wulf 190. In July 1942 the NNA began to deliver Mk IA variant, powerfully armed with four wing-mounted 20 mm cannons.
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