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North American P-51
The first USAAF order for the P-51 was not originally intended to provide aircraft for American service. When it was placed, on 7 July 1941, the two Mustang Is allocated to the USAAF had yet to be properly evaluated. Instead, the order for 150 aircraft was actually intended to go to the RAF as part of the Lend Lease program. USAAF interest at the time was centred on the A-36 ground attack version of the aircraft.
When tests revealed how good the Mustang was, the USAAF kept back 57 of these aircraft. Two were used to develop the Merlin powered P-51B, while the remaining 55 aircraft were given cameras, and used in the tactical reconnaissance role, under the designation F-6A. The first American unit to use the P-51 on active service was the 154th Observation Squadron, from bases in Tunisia, in April 1943.
The P-51 was powered by the Allison V-1710-39 engine, and armed with four 20mm cannon, two in each wing.
North American P-51 - History
By Kelly Bell
Darwin, Australia, was hot even though it was mid-winter. On the afternoon of July 12, 1942, four newly deployed pilots of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) 49th Fighter Group climbed into the cockpits of their Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk single-engine fighters and lifted off for a training mission. The youngsters were 1st Lt. J.B. “Jack” Donalson and 2nd Lts. John Sauber, Richard Taylor, and George Preddy, Jr.
Japanese air raids had recently plagued the area, and this quartet of airmen was being groomed to do something about it. Preddy and Taylor peeled off and played the role of Imperial Japanese bombers while Donalson and Sauber rehearsed their intercepting skills by making dummy attacks on their comrades, but something went wrong. The sun may have blinded Sauber or, rookie that he was, he may simply have misjudged the distance between his and Preddy’s planes. He waited too long to pull up and crashed into Preddy’s tail at 12,000 feet, sending both machines tumbling.
Preddy managed to bail out at the last moment, but Sauber’s cockpit was apparently jammed shut. He was killed on impact. Preddy’s chute cracked open seconds before he came down in a tall gum tree that shredded the parachute and sent him crashing through the branches to the ground.
Maj. George Preddy, Jr.
Lieutenant Clay Tice happened to be passing by in his own P-40 and saw the mishap. He radioed its coordinates to the nearby airfield, and ground crewmen Lucien Hubbard and Bill Irving jumped in a truck and raced to the critically injured Preddy’s aid. The young man had a broken leg and deep gashes in his shoulder and hip. He was bleeding as the mechanics rushed him to the infirmary. After a long session in the operating room, the base surgeon reported that if not for his comrades’ prompt response Preddy would quickly have bled to death. It would not be the last time he would be victimized by his own side’s mistakes.
Following a lengthy recovery, Preddy was transferred to the 352nd Fighter Group, which the liner Queen Elizabeth delivered to Scotland’s Firth of Clyde on July 5, 1943. Despite still being green he was one of the most experienced men in the outfit. Virtually all the other pilots were fresh from flight school, and Preddy’s modest experience meant little because he had to forget his work with the P-40 and begin learning to fly the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. After being indisposed a full year, he was chafing for action and already knew what he was going to call his new warplane. A habitual gambler, he believed yelling “Cripes A’ Mighty!” brought him luck when he tossed the dice. This crap game cry would be painted on every machine he flew.
First Victories for Preddy
Assigned to Bodney airfield, the 352nd started out flying cover for ammunition- and fuel-bereft Thunderbolts of the 56th and 353rd Fighter Groups as they returned from escort missions. This gave Preddy and his buddies little action, but the Allied strategic bombing offensive was just reaching a serious and costly stage.
October 14, 1943 is still known as “Black Thursday.” It was the day Preddy was among 196 frustrated Thunderbolt pilots whose near-empty fuel tanks forced them to turn back for Britain just as swarms of experienced, opportunistic Luftwaffe airmen tore into Eighth Air Force bomber formations approaching the Schweinfurt ball bearing works. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers fell like snowflakes, making it clear the fuel-guzzling Thunderbolt was not suitable as a long-range escort fighter. For the time being, though, it was the best plane available.
The autumn of 1943 was pivotal in the air war over Western Europe as the Allies tried to pour bombers into the skies over the Third Reich faster than the Germans could shoot them down. Despite its high kill rate versus the big birds, however, the Luftwaffe was also suffering mightily. On December 1, Preddy got his first victory when he flamed a German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter attacking a bomber returning from a raid on Solingen. Cripes A’Mighty’s eight .50-caliber machine guns virtually disintegrated the interceptor. Preddy’s 487th Fighter Squadron was the only one from the 352nd Group to score any kills that day, but many more were coming.
On December 22, the group lifted off to meet 574 bombers returning from immolating the marshaling yards in Munster and Onabruck. Preddy’s wingman was a talented young concert pianist named Richard R. Grow. The pair became separated from the rest of their flight when they plunged into a massive, confused dogfight in a huge cloud bank just east of the Zuider Zee. Emerging from the bottom of the cumulus they found themselves alone and began climbing to rejoin the bomber formation.
Entering a break in the clouds they spied a gaggle of 16 Messerschmidts attacking a smoking B-24. Preddy torched the German closest to the bomber and then plunged back into the overcast. Surprisingly, the rest of the interceptors turned away from the bomber and took off after the pair of Thunderbolts. The 13,000-pound Cripes A’Mighty easily outdove its pursuers, but they evidently did catch up with Grow. He never made it out of the clouds. Still, the crippled Liberator, Lizzie, made it home. Preddy was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross for this episode but instead received America’s third highest decoration, the Silver Star.
The Risky Sea Rescue of Preddy
After Christmas massive ice storms bracketed the European Continent, aborting major air operations by both sides. On January 29, 1944, the weather cleared long enough for a shoal of 800 bombers to target Frankfurt-an-der-Main’s industrial complexes. When the 487th flew out to meet the returning formations, Preddy shot down an FW-190 over the French coast but passed too low over a flak pit and suffered a direct hit. He managed to coax the smoking Cripes A’Mighty up to 5,000 feet, but then the heavy plane began to lose altitude.
Reaching 2,000 feet, Preddy realized he would soon be too low to bail out, so he jumped and inflated his pressurized dinghy. His wingman, 1st Lt. William Whisner, risked running out of fuel by circling over Preddy and repeatedly radioing his coordinates until air-sea rescue could triangulate the position. A Royal Air Force flying boat arrived, but in the rough, freezing seas it ran over Preddy, severely bruising and almost drowning him. When the British pilot tried to take off, a wave hit the plane and broke off one of its pontoons. This made it impossible to get airborne in the huge swells, so the crew had to call for a Royal Navy launch to tow the crippled flying boat to port. The Englishmen had some contraband brandy aboard, however, and by the time the launch arrived Preddy and his rescuers were well thawed.
Falling in Love with the P-51 Mustang
Soon after his frosty baptism, Preddy and the 352nd began switching over to the new North American P-51 Mustang fighter and immediately fell in love with it. On April 22, the group flew a protracted escort mission for bombers attacking Hamm, Sost, Bonn, and Koblenz. Between bombing runs Preddy and two other pilots strafed the Luftwaffe airfield at Stade. They simultaneously opened their guns on a Junkers Ju-88 twin-engine bomber that had just taken off, tearing it apart. After making their report back at Bodney, the three were amused to be awarded a .33 kill credit apiece.
Painted in alternating black and white D-Day invasion recognition stripes, the P-51 Mustang that Major George Preddy flew while scoring most of his kills sits on a runway. Preddy’s planes were named Cripes A’Mighty, a reference to his favorite exclamation while gambling.
On April 30, Preddy, newly promoted to major, accepted combat with an FW-190 at 17,000 feet over Clermont, France, quickly flaming his opponent. From this point his kill total mounted steadily as he and Cripes A’ Mighty II became better acquainted. It came at a good time.
Six Kills with a Hangover
The Normandy invasion was in the offing, and the USAAF was concentrating on neutralizing Luftwaffe opposition in northwestern Europe. From April 30 until the D-Day landings on June 6, Preddy downed another 4.5 planes. By this point he had already completed a standard 200-hour tour of duty along with two 50-hour extensions. He could have returned home but was thinking only of what he could do to end the war. He acquired a third 50-hour extension. As northern France convulsed with the massive land battles of the summer of 1944, he scored nine kills from June 12 to August 5. His greatest adventure was at hand.
After returning to base on the evening of August 5, he read the meteorologist report forecasting widespread thunderstorms for the next day, and announcing no flights were scheduled. It was the night of the 352nd’s war bond drive party, and the combat-weary Preddy had a merry time until almost dawn. During the night’s revelry nobody noticed the skies clearing. The young hero went staggering off to bed just before daybreak. Twenty minutes later an aide woke him with the news that a bombing raid had been scheduled, and he was slated as flight leader for the escort elements.
During the preflight briefing, Preddy was so drunk he fell off the podium. For want of anything better, several pilots propped him in a chair and held an oxygen mask over his nose as he slowly and somewhat sobered. After he got to his feet, his comrades threw a glass of ice water in his face, slapped him with a wet towel, and led him to his plane. After they helped him into the cockpit he lifted off normally and led his squadron on a maximum effort mission to Berlin. The weather turned out to be beautiful with cloudless skies and unlimited visibility. The Luftwaffe was also up in force.
Before the Americans reached their target, 30 German Me-109s assailed the B-17s Preddy’s squadron was escorting but did not seem to notice the accompanying Mustangs. Leading an attack from astern, Preddy opened on an interceptor and apparently killed the pilot. The blazing plane spun earthward, and no parachute blossomed. Preddy next sent a flurry of bullets into another 109’s port wing root, igniting it as its pilot bailed out. As the Mustang pilots waded deeper into the enemy formation, picking off one German plane after another, those in front continued to fire on the bombers, seemingly oblivious to the trailing menace.
Preddy downed another two Me-109s before the remaining interceptors suddenly realized they were under attack. When these survivors dove to escape, the Americans followed. Preddy torched his fifth victim of this battle, and as the flock of fighters descended to just 5,000 feet he latched onto the tail of yet another. The German yanked his plane to the left in an attempt to get on his pursuer’s tail, but Preddy reacted too quickly, also shearing left and passing over the Messerschmitt. Using the speed he had built up in his dive, he dropped astern of the Me-109 and opened fire from close range. This pilot, too, bailed out.
The top scoring P-51 Mustang fighter ace of World War II, Major George Preddy describes the action upon his return from a successful mission.
After Preddy landed back at Bodney, combat photographer 1st Lt. George Arnold photographed the pale, sick-looking hero climbing from Cripes A’MightyII’s vomit spattered cockpit. Not bothering to report his kills, Preddy let his gun camera footage and comrades speak for him. Over the next few days the press descended in droves on the airfield as Major George Preddy, Jr., sleek and handsome as a movie star, became the toast of Allied Europe. It all seemed to embarrass him. His commander, Lt. Col. John C. Meyer, recommended him for the Medal of Honor for his six-kill flight and was angry when, on August 12, Brig. Gen. Edward H. Anderson instead pinned a Distinguished Flying Cross on Preddy’s tunic. Typically, the young major did not seem to care.
“Reverend, I Must Go Back”
Combining aerial, ground, and partial kills, Preddy now had 31 victories, and his third 50-hour combat extension had expired. This time he did consent to return home on leave and would never again fly Cripes A’Mighty II. The 352nd’s senior officers erroneously assumed he was leaving for good and assigned the plane to another pilot.
While home in Greensboro, North Carolina, Preddy told his pastor, “Reverend, I must go back.” There was little room for ego in this selfless young soldier. Awards, medals, and adulation did not interest him. All he really cared about was bringing the war to a victorious conclusion, and he figured this would happen sooner if he were flying combat missions.
Preddy spent seven weeks in the States before securing yet another 50-hour extension. When he returned to England he was given command of the 352nd Group’s 328th Squadron. He was also presented with a brand-new P-51D-15NA fighter that he refused to fly until the name Cripes A’ Mighty III was painted on its fuselage. Preddy was placed in command of the 328th Squadron because it had the worst kill tally in the group, and he was expected to do something about this. He did his best in the time he had remaining.
On November 2, he led his pilots on a mission to guard bombers headed for Merseburg. When he spied a number of suspicious contrails at 33,000 feet, he realized a flight of interceptors had leveled off at their altitude ceiling in hopes of attacking the bombers from above. The Mustangs could fly as high as the Messerschmidts, though, and Preddy led his formation to the Germans’ rear and was first to attack. Although this was the first time he had ever looked through the new British-designed K-14 gunsight, he used it expertly, quickly downing an Me-109 as he and his men scattered the enemy formation before it could molest the bombers.
The next day he shot down an FW-190. This was his last victory for more than a month as the thinly stretched Luftwaffe, overburdened by a war on three fronts, essentially disappeared for several weeks. This also helped lull the Allies’ air and ground units into a dangerous overconfidence as Nazi Germany coiled to strike one last time.
Ghastly devastation was wrought on the Third Reich during 1944. Also, every military historian knew the German Army traditionally did not launch major offensives during winter, especially when it was already and obviously beaten. Therefore, not since Pearl Harbor was the U.S. military so totally taken by surprise as at 5 am on December 16, 1944, when 600,000 undetected German soldiers exploded from the frozen Ardennes Forest in what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The worst weather in months cloaked Western Europe and protected the surging Wehrmacht from Allied air power.
Like the rest of the USAAF, the 352nd was socked in by the overcast and blizzards. Billeted in a forest clearing outside Asche, Belgium, the 328th Squadron gamely lifted off on December 23 in hopes of strafing enemy ground units, but after a fruitless patrol during which the cloud ceiling was so close to the ground the pilots had to dodge trees, they returned to base without firing a shot. Without reconnaissance flights, they did not know where to look for targets, and radio reports from ground units in the confused forest fighting contradicted each other. For the next two days the frustrated airmen wrote and read letters, played cards, and shot dice in their freezing forest encampment.
On Christmas Day, Preddy was one of 10 pilots who took off in hopes of supporting their infantry and armored units that were trying to stem the enemy stream grinding westward. They found nothing for three hours, then got a radio report of a flight of hostiles just to the southwest of Koblenz. Heading to the sector they found the bandits and attacked from above. Typically in the lead, Preddy flamed two Me-109s and led his men in pursuit of the rest of the Germans as they turned toward Liege.
Closing in on an FW-190, he opened fire at close range at the same time an American antiaircraft crew opened up on him. The ground gunners quickly realized they were shooting at one of their own planes and ceased fire, but it was too late. One of the .50-caliber bullets had gone through Preddy’s right thigh, severing his femoral artery. He crash landed near the flak pit, and infantrymen carried him to a field hospital, but he bled to death before reaching it.
Major George Preddy was never defeated in combat. At age 25 he had fallen prey to human error. With 27.5 confirmed kills, he was the war’s top-scoring Mustang ace despite having flown this magnificent aircraft for less than one year. All of this crystallizes his standing as one of America’s greatest war heroes.
On April 17, 1945, Preddy’s 20-year-old brother, William, a Mustang pilot with two victories, was killed by antiaircraft fire over Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
Author Kelly Bell writes regularly on various aspects of World War II, including the air war in Western Europe. He resides in Tyler, Texas.
The P-51 Mustang Made a Korean War Comeback
The public mostly remembers the North American P-51 Mustang as the fighter plane that protected Allied bombers over Germany and Japan during World War.
The public mostly remembers the North American P-51 Mustang as the fighter plane that protected Allied bombers over Germany and Japan during World War II. Overshadowed by newer jet fighters by the time war broke out in Korea in 1950, the re-designated F-51’s relative technological backwardness became a qualified blessing for close air support and battlefield interdiction sorties against the Korean People’s Army.
Warren Thompson’s new book F-51 Mustang Units of the Korean War focuses on the veteran fighter’s role in Korea, and also exposes the plane’s little-known history with Australia, South Africa and the Republic of Korea.
North Korea’s invasion of the South on June 25, 1950 startled the U.S. military in the Far East, which was enfeebled by post-World War II demobilization. The only U.S. warplanes in the region were F-82G Twin Mustangs and F-80C Shooting Stars operating from Japan.
While these aircraft did a commendable job conducting reconnaissance and ground attack and covering the evacuation of U.S. nationals from the war zone, there were not enough of them to go around. Additionally, the F-80Cs’ high fuel consumption, limited bomb pylon slots and the long flight transit from Japan to Korea constrained their loiter time over the battlefield to mere minutes.
The F-51D Mustang, which by 1950 was predominantly assigned to Air National Guard and Reserve squadrons based in the continental United States, turned out to be the ideal aircraft for relieving the pressure on the United Nations forces. The Mustang’s long operating range and endurance, which had served it so well in World War II now allowed it to roam over the battlefield for a more protracted time than the F-80C was capable of.
Unlike the newer jet fighters, the F-51D was more tolerant of the rough, improvised air fields typical to Korea – so they didn’t have to spend hours flying back and forth from air bases in Japan. In addition to its six .50 caliber machine guns, the Mustang could sling a respectable array of napalm, bombs and anti-vehicle rockets under its wings.
As Thompson explains, in the first month of the North Korean invasion the only F-51s within Korea were 10 which the ROK Air Force was using for training its first combat pilots. American pilots, many of whom were transitioning to the F-80C, were put back in their previous mounts alongside B-26B Invaders and U.S. Navy F4U Corsairs that were joining the battle to hold back the KPA.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force was busy harvesting as many F-51s as it could from United States-based squadrons and hastily packing them on the aircraft carrier USS Boxer for delivery to the war zone. Upon their arrival, the Mustangs immediately launched harassing raids upon the hordes of KPA troops and T-34/85 tanks that were squeezing the U.N. forces around the Pusan perimeter.
At top — ROKAF F-51Ds. Above — A U.S. Air Force F-51D in Korea. Below — F-51Ds on the USS Boxer en route to Korea. All photos via Wikimedia Commons
Thompson describes how several problems cropped up during this phase of the war for the Mustangs and their crews. Conditions at Korean airfields were, plainly speaking, hellish. The blazing summer turned Pohang airfield, on the eastern side of the Pusan perimeter, into an open air sweatshop for pilots and ground crews who subsisted on C rations and tepid water rendered distasteful by purification tablets, while sticky dust choked up the Mustangs’ engines and fuel lines.
Targeting the advancing KPA was difficult owing to the presence of civilian refugees using the same roads as their pursuers.
Punishing attacks inflicted by U.N. air power forced the KPA to restrict troop movements to nighttime and to camouflage soldiers and equipment with any available cover — sometimes by driving tanks into houses or haystacks. Of all the various ordnance types the Mustangs used, KPA troops feared napalm the most.
F-51 pilots from the 51st Fighter Interceptor Squadron employed hybrid napalm — thermite bombs that melted the rubber right off tank road wheels.
After the Americans’ successful amphibious assault on Inchon, the F-51D squadrons aided the pursuit of the retreating KPA into North Korea — but their casualties spiked. Ground fire was the primary threat to F-51s owing to the fragility of their Merlin engines. Chinese MiG-15 jets flying out of Manchurian sanctuaries posed an additional hazard from November 1950 onward.
The speedy Soviet jet’s 23-millimeter and 37-millimeter cannons out-ranged the Mustang’s own machine guns and could critically maim most aircraft with a single explosive hit. Over-matched in almost every way, the only way for a Mustang pilot to survive was to turn into the oncoming MiG and fly straight under its flight path and escape.
North Korean Yakovlev Yak-9s fighters were more manageable adversaries for the F-51D. The Yak-9 was a capable fighter that, like the Mustang, had proved itself in battle against the Germans during World War II. Its lightweight construction allowed it to climb faster than the F-51D and out-turn the American plane. But the American pilots were more skilled than their North Korean rivals and U.N. fighter jets helped protect the F-51Ds from the Yaks when the weather was clear.
Thompson’s book offers a fascinating look at at the Mustang’s service with Australia’s No. 77 Squadron, South Africa’s No. 2 Squadron and the Republic of Korea Air Force. The Royal Australian Air Force employed F-51Ds for just nine months between July 1950 and April 1951 prior to replacing them with Gloster Meteor jet fighters. The Australians lost 10 pilots killed in action and four more to accidents. Before assisting other U.N. forces in hammering KPA hordes around Pusan, the Aussie F-51s escorted American B-29s razing Yonpo airfield.
South Africa’s tenure with the aircraft began in November 1950, when the Africans flew their first combat missions from Pyongyang. Their losses totaled 12 killed in action and 30 missing.
Arrogant U.S. Generals Made the P-51 Mustang a NecessityB-17 bombers during World War II. Air Force photo
With better leadership, the iconic fighter plane might’ve been unnecessary
by JAMES PERRY STEVENSON and PIERRE SPREY
The benefits the P-51 Mustang brought to aerial battles in World War II, particularly over Germany, are reasonably well known. The iconic fighter plane could fly higher, faster, farther and generate more kills per sortie than the U.S. Army Air Force’s aviation bureaucracy’s preferred P-47s or P-38s.
However, the real P-51 Mustang story is just as much about the difficult gestation of a great new fighter as it is about the quashing of the drop tanks urgently needed to extend the range of existing fighters. Then there’s the guerilla tactics some officials unleashed in the corridors of power to overcome the Army’s “not invented here” hostility to the plane, as well as the mendacious post-war rewriting of history by the newly minted U.S. Air Force.
Between World War I and World War II, bombers began flying higher and faster than existing obsolete biplane fighters. Still, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ bomber generals refused to foresee that enemy fighters might prevent the lumbering aircraft from always getting through to the target.
These officers even ran field exercises designed to support their premises of bomber invincibility. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a leading bomber advocate who would eventually become chief of the service’s Air Corps, was particularly determined to prove this point.
“Exercises held in 1931 seem to reinforce the idea that fast bombers could fare well on their own,” military historian Dr. Tami Davis Biddle wrote in Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare. “Arnold reached this conclusion, as did the umpires, one of whom proclaimed: ‘[I]t is impossible for fighters to intercept bombers and therefore it is inconsistent with the employment of air force to develop fighters.’”An early P-51B Mustang. Air Force photo
This rigid mindset became embedded in the Army’s air power strategy, its budget battles and its endless barrages of air power propaganda.
Within just a few years, however, fighter war games and actual air combat abroad provided ample evidence the Army Air Corps brass was committed to the wrong conclusion.
“[I]n 1933, … squadrons intercepted 55 percent of enemy day-formations as they flew toward the target, … another 26 percent as they left it [and] 67 percent of individual night raiders were intercepted,” Biddle noted. “But what might have seemed clear defensive victories were not perceived as such: proponents of strategic bombing refused to grasp the devastating bomber attrition forecast by these exercise outcomes.”
“When assessing results, the bomber advocates created both formal rules and cognitive filters [to insure] they would see what they expected to see: the primacy of the aerial offensive waged by determined bombers,” she added. “The rules under which the exercise were run gave advantages to bombers, and umpire rulings explained away unexpected, [inconvenient] results.”
Contrary combat evidence came soon after, starting in July 1936. The 33-month Spanish Civil War offered the opportunity to observe fighters demonstrate just how lethal they really were against bombers, and their ability to survive the bombers’ machine guns. The decidedly unfavorable bomber loss ratios experienced in Spain clearly foretold what American bombers would face in the next war.
“The escort of bomber formations proceeding to and from their objective by double, and more than double, their number of fighters, has been found by both sides to be a necessity notwithstanding the ability of the bomber to shoot down fighters,” Army officials declared, according to Biddle.
U.S. Army Cpt. Claire Chennault, the chief fighter instructor at the Air Corps Tactical School, argued the bomber was not immune to the “ancient principle that for every weapon there is a new and effective counter weapon,” Biddle explained. As a reward for his clear and prophetic tactical teachings, the Tactical School’s bomber leadership passed him over for promotion, prompting the officer to resign in 1937.
Ironically, that made Chennault available to train and lead China’s legendary Flying Tigers. Their brilliant combat record using his tactics vindicated all his ideas about the devastating effectiveness of small fighter groups against vastly larger Japanese bomber forces.
Just as the Army Air Corps leadership ignored Chennault’s ideas and results, its mindset would not brook an objective interpretation of the Spanish Civil War. The conflict suggested that fighter escort was essential to avoid unsustainable bomber losses.
The U.S. Army Air Force’s much touted “accuracy” on display. Air Force photo
The Army’s aviation branch certainly didn’t want to divert bomber money to buy escort fighters. With generals fixated on flying deep in an enemy’s heartland, the stronger objection was that the short range of available fighters prevented bombers from reaching these distant targets.
In truth, this was a self-inflicted wound. The Army’s P-47s and P-38s could indeed have escorted the bombers deep into Germany from the moment they deployed to Britain. Arnold made that impossible by prohibiting external drop tanks on fighters.
Since drop tanks cut into the bomb load he considered so all-important, “[i]n February 1939, Arnold forbid the development of a 52-gallon drop tank for the P-36 fighter because of ‘safety reasons’,” Trent Telenko wrote in a detailed post for the blog Chicago Boyz. “A fuel tank rack that had a 52 gallon fuel tank could carry a 300 pound bomb.”
Arnold did show occasional moments of clear tactical reasoning. In April 1940, he reviewed the recommendations of the board he had established to set priorities for the Army Air Corps.
The Emmons Board recommended, unsurprisingly, a very long range heavy bomber as its first priority. The fourth priority was an escort fighter with 1,500-mile range.
To Arnold’s credit, he swapped the first and fourth priority, moving long-range fighter escort to first place. The attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines no doubt increased his incentives to solve the fighter range problem.
At a meeting on Feb. 20, 1942, “Arnold ordered the all-out development of auxiliary fuel tanks,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Robert Eslinger wrote in a research paper at the Air Command and Staff College. This decision came just two and a half months after Japanese Zero fighters used bamboo-and-paper drop tanks to escort bombers that wiped out America’s own Philippine-based B-17 bomber force.
Unfortunately, in the heat of his budget battles for more and larger four-engine bombers, the bomber general failed to follow up on the nickel-and-dime drop tank issue.
Eight months later, in October 1942 “… Eighth Air Force … inquired whether jettisonable fuel tanks could be made available for the P-47,” scholar William Emerson said in a lecture, titled Operation POINTBLANK: A Tale of Bombers and Fighters. “Nothing came of the request.”
“In February 1943 [another request was made],” Emerson continued. “It is not clear from the record what response was forthcoming to this request … but it is clear that little was accomplished up to June 29, 1943, when [Army Materiel Command] belatedly held a final design conference on P-47 auxiliary tanks.”
“On August 8, 1943, … [Army Materiel Command] had to confess that although some experimental types had been completed, none were yet available for use in operational theaters.”
A P-47 fighter plane with a drop tank. Air Force photo
Out of frustration, the Eighth Fighter Command in England made its own tanks. In addition, the unit hired local British craftsmen to make some out of glue-impregnated kraft paper.
Elsewhere, U.S. Army Gen. George Kenney’s Fifth Air Force in the Pacific developed its versions from old Spam cans. These tanks turned out better than the ones that finally arrived through official Army Air Forces channels.
Upon discovering this, Arnold wrote “there is no reason in God’s world why General Kenney should have to develop his own belly tanks,” according to Emerson. “If he can develop one over there in two months, we should be able to develop one here in the States in one month.”
Of course, it was Arnold’s failure to follow up on the issue that allowed 20 months to pass without anyone supplying a single U.S.-built belly tank to American fighter pilots in combat. The Army bureaucracy’s perennial hostility to ideas from the field — especially really cheap and embarrassingly effective ones — surely didn’t help matters.
Map showing the range of the P-47 with and without tanks. Air Force art
Throughout World War II, the Army Air Forces bombarded the American public with press releases about the accuracy of the Norden bombsight and how it and the four-engine bomber would bring Germany to its knees. Both the gullible public and the politicians, believing in the integrity of high ranking officers, swallowed the propaganda about American bombers flying so high and so fast that enemy fighters and surface-to-air guns couldn’t possibly prevent them from destroying the Hun’s means and will to wage war.
Indeed, even before the war started, the Army was already pushing the idea of winning wars through air power without any need to send in the troops at all. American bomber generals, having preached that the B-17 was an invincible, self-defending flying fortress, couldn’t wait to start bombing Germany — even without fighter escort and drop tanks.
When the Eighth Air Force dropped the first bombs on German soil on Jan. 27, 1943, the mission exposed the mismatch between this concept and the brutal reality of war. The crews targeted the naval port at Wilhelmshaven in a raid involving more than 90 B-17 and B-24 bombers.
Only 58 bombers — 60 percent — found the target. The bomber force had no escort fighters, but crews claimed they shot down 22 German defenders.
German after-action reports show the Luftwaffe lost seven fighters — confirming the savvy air historian’s working premise that combat claims are usually exaggerated by a factor of pi. The Nazis shot down three bombers — five percent of those that reached the target — killing or wounding 35 American fliers, according to the official record.
This seemingly low loss rate was, in fact, already unsustainable due to the inexorable arithmetic of combat attrition. A five percent loss rate means you’ve lost half your bombers — and more than half your crews because of the extra casualties aboard the shot-up bombers that manage to limp home — after only 11 missions.
Far worse was yet to come.
This B-17 lost most of its nose to enemy fire in a raid over Europe. Air Force photo
U.S. Army Gen. Ira Eaker, in charge of the Eighth Air Force in England, persisted in launching bomber raids without escorts deep into Germany. Bomber losses mounted during spring 1943, running 80 per month between April and June and increasing to 110 per month by summer.
Eaker’s commitment to the strategy remained unshaken. In Fall 1943, he launched a major raid on an aircraft and ball bearings plants in and around Schweinfurt, followed by another against automotive factories in Stuttgart. The missions proved disastrous.
Eighth Air Force lost 19 and 17 percent of the bombers sent on each operation, respectively, along with 1,200 crew casualties. The bombing only reduced factory production by one third for a few weeks.
Oblivious to these crushingly unsustainable losses, in October 1943, the unit’s aircraft mounted a whole week of maximum effort bombing. This culminated in Black Thursday — Oct 14, 1943 — the nickname for yet another large Schweinfurt raid.
This attack proved even more brutal on American fliers than the first attempt. After the mission was over, the Eighth had to write off 26 percent of its bombers.
By this time, Eaker’s bomber losses were so high that he would have to replace his entire bomber force every three months — a clearly impossible proposition. Even worse, he would be losing 100 percent of his bomber crews every three months, as well.
In the graph above, the vertical red bars indicate the available bombers for the Eighth Air Force for a given month whereas the green and red line indicate the cumulative loss of bombers. Using the data from Williamson Murray’s Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933–1945, a quick scan indicates that Army bombers on hand were getting replaced too slowly to make up for losses starting in September 1943.
Black October and the 2,030 dead crews lost that month ended the myth of the bomber always “getting through” without the benefit of escorts.
For the nine months from that first raid on Wilhelmshaven through Black October, thousands of bomber crewmen died unnecessarily while British bases were chock full of fighters that could have protected them all the way to their German targets. To Arnold and his failure to implement his belly tank directive must go the responsibility for their deaths.
Black October made it obvious that losses of bombers and crews exceeded America’s ability to replace them. With the utter failure of the bomber mafia’s fanatical faith in the self-defending bomber exposed, Eaker had no choice but to abandon the unescorted bomber raids he had championed so relentlessly.
“With the Schweinfurt missions went the virtual end of the idea that the heavy bomber could ‘go it alone’,” the Air Force conceded in a 1955 history. “The debate that had continued since the early 1930’s was now all but over.”
“To reach targets in Germany would require more than a regrouping of bomber formations and an inculcation of an offensive spirit,” the review added. “These would help, but they were not answers to the German Me-109 and Fw-190 [fighter planes].”
“The Eighth Bomber Command’s Operational Research Section stated: ‘…enemy fighter activity is probably the sole cause of two out of five of our loses, and that is the final cause of seven out of ten of our losses.’”
Turning the bombers loose with fighters that could fly only a short distance was like providing a fire escape that went down to the fourth floor and, when fire broke out, forcing residents to jump the final three stories.
The Army suspended unescorted bomber raids until 1944. The order came from U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Fred Anderson, head of the Eighth Bomber Command, on Oct. 22, 1943, U.S. Army Maj. Greg Grabow explained in a Command and General Staff College thesis.
A map comparing the ranges of the P-38 and P-51 fighter planes. Air Force art
Two months later, like the deus ex machina of a Greek play, the Merlin-engine powered P-51B Mustang made its serendipitous debut in December 1943. The new escort fighter could fly almost as far as the bombers could bomb. Equally important, U.S. Army Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, a firm believer in the value of fighter escort, took over for Eaker.
On Dec. 11, 1943, the P-51Bs flew their first escort mission, bringing bombers to Emdem on the German coast, just short of Wilhelmshaven. Two days later the Mustangs escorted bombers on a raid deep into Germany, flying 480 miles to hit the German naval base at Kiel.
With P-51Bs providing escort, losses immediately dropped.
As Pentagon staff officers are fond of saying, “success has many fathers failure is always an orphan.” Arnold was no exception.
In his post-war autobiography Global Mission, the officer took credit — with the help of an invented chronology — for allegedly fathering the early decision to draft the P-51 into Army Air Forces service:
Briefly, in 1940, “Dutch” Kindelberger, of North American, was asked to build P-40’s for the British. “Dutch” could not see his way to building P-40’s, so he had his engineers dig down in their files, pull out a substitute for the P-40. Our Materiel Division was not particularly interested, but they did say that if North American built these for the British, we were to get two P-51’s for nothing.
The first airplane was completed toward the latter part of 1940. Production was not started until the middle part of 1941 (Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft states December, 1941). When I went overseas in the Spring of 1941, Tommy Hitchcock and Mr. Winant talked to me about the P-51, although they didn’t know much about it at the time. Spaatz and I went out to the North American plant in January or February — anyway, early in 1942 — and it was then that we saw and inspected it and decided that we must have the P-51 for our own Air Force, in spite of the Materiel Division’s turning it down.
In truth, the Mustang’s birth and entry into World War II had nothing to do with the prescience of either Arnold or the Army. The general’s two paragraph explanation differs in important respects from several considerably more detached and detailed histories of the origins of the P-51, including Nelson Aldrich’s American Hero, Ray Wagner’s Mustang Designer, Jeff Ethell’s Mustang: A Documentary History of the P-51 and Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London.
A brief summary of their meticulously documented research into the evolution of the P-51 Mustang makes this very clear.
An early Mustang prototype with an Allison engine. North American Aviation photo
The Mustang was an example of chance favoring the prepared mind. In early 1940, officials in London set up the British Direct Purchase Commission to use American lend-lease funds to buy from American factories the weapons Britain most urgently needed — and to do so as quickly as possible.
With funds earmarked for a close support fighter — aka “army cooperation,” in British parlance — for the Royal Air Force, the commission decided to buy the in-production P-40 Warhawk. As it turned out, this aircraft was poorly suited for any form of ground attack.
However, the Army Air Corps warned the commission that the United States needed all the P-40s the Curtiss factory could produce. Instead, American officers suggested the British approach North American Aviation’s president James “Dutch” Kindelberger to see if his company might produce additional P-40s under license.
Kindelberger ran this idea by his brilliant young chief designer Ed Schmued, a naturalized citizen born in Germany. Schmued immediately replied he could design a much better airplane in three months. Many years later, one of the authors asked Schmued in interview if he had ever designed a fighter before.
“No, but I had been carrying around in my head concepts of what I would do if ever given the chance,” Schmued replied. “The design that became the P-51 is the result.”
The British accepted North American Aviation’s counter-offer to design and produce a completely new airplane for them on two conditions. First, North American had to deliver planes by January 1941 and second, the design had to use the same Allison engine as the P-40.
The British Direct Purchase Commission approved the contract on April 10, 1940 and the new prototype was on the runway 102 days after North American signed the document. Unfortunately, since Allison delivered engines three months late, the first flight only came on Oct. 26, 1940.
Production for the RAF started in early 1941 and the British named the production airplane the Mustang I. In August 1942, the first RAF Mustangs attacked Dieppe in France and enemy ships in the English channel.
In early 1943, the Army Air Forces sent the A-36 Apache version into combat in Italy. These aircraft were predictably vulnerable to even light anti-aircraft fire due to the liquid-cooled Allison engine.
In both RAF testing and in limited air combat over the channel, the Mustang Is showed some promise as an air-to-air fighter at low altitudes. Unfortunately, due to the Allison engine, the initial variant was decidedly inadequate for the high altitude bomber escort mission in the European theater.
Nevertheless, these disappointing early models led directly to the new and remarkably improved P-51 that saved Arnold and Spaatz’s failed bombing campaign. But neither Arnold nor Spaatz nor the Army’s procurement bureaucracy deserve credit for bringing the new, improved aircraft into American inventory.
A late-war P-51 Mustang. Air Force photo
Instead, it was an internationally-famous polo player, Tommy Hitchcock. He skillfully wielded his high level social and political connections to impose the P-51 on the reluctant bomber generals and a hostile bureaucracy.
Hitchcock came from a wealthy New York family, shot down two enemy planes as a volunteer pilot in World War I, got captured, escaped as a prisoner of war, spent the interwar years becoming what many considered the world’s best polo player, married into the Mellon fortune, served as the model for two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most glamorous characters and wanted to get back into the cockpit as soon as World War II broke out.
His age — 41 years old — prevented him from following through with that plan.
Instead, the closest he could get to the war was as the assistant air attaché in the American Embassy in London. On May 1, 1942, nearly five months after Pearl Harbor attack, Hitchcock arrived at the post with the Army rank of major.
Hitchcock served as liaison between the Eighth Air Force and both British forces and the U.K.’s aviation industry. Some Americans found it difficult to accept that the British might have better ideas.
So, one of Hitchcock’s primary functions was to sniff out and pass on useful British innovations without revealing their foreign origins. In this role, Hitchcock learned that a test pilot for Rolls Royce, Ronnie Harker, had observed the nearly identical dimensions of the Allison and Merlin engines.
Harker had been urging Rolls Royce management to drop the Merlin — the powerplant behind the famous Spitfire fighter plane — into the Mustang’s engine bay. Harker and Hitchcock had each flown the Allison-powered Mustang and were impressed with the Mustang’s maneuvering performance at low altitude.
Harker noticed that at similar horsepower settings, the Mustang was both 30 miles per hour faster than the highly regarded Spitfire and had three times the fuel capacity — both clear signs of greatly improved range. Since the Allison engine ran out of power at higher altitudes and the Merlin engine performed superbly there, the potential combat benefits were obvious.
Rolls Royce notified Hitchcock of the planned Merlin-Mustang conversion test. There is some evidence that Hitchcock was already thinking in the same vein and had passed his thoughts to North American Aviation.
Around the same time, the Packard Motor Company was completing negotiations with Rolls Royce for an American license to build the Merlin engine. On July 25, 1942, North American Aviation was authorized to convert two of the British Mustangs to Merlin engines.
American officials dubbed these two airplanes XP-78s, before renaming them as XP-51Bs shortly thereafter. Back in England, British authorities officially authorized the Rolls Royce Merlin-Mustang conversion project on Aug. 12, 1942.
On Oct. 13, 1942, the first converted Mustang took off. With the Merlin engine, the plane’s top speed leapt from 390 to 433 miles per hour, could climb rate of 3,440 feet per minute and had a range of up to 2,000 miles with external drop tanks.
On Nov. 30, 1942, the month after Rolls Royce tested the improved Mustang, North American flew its own version with the Packard-licensed Merlin engine — and got even better results. The XP-51B reached 441 miles per hour in level flight at 29,800 feet — 100 miles per hour more than a Mustang with the Allison motor.
On top of that, the Merlin doubled the Mustang’s climb rate. The P-51B was better in virtually every dogfighting performance characteristic than either of the two top performing German fighters, the Me-109 and Fw-190.
According to Global Mission, Arnold claims he saw military attaché Tommy Hitchcock in London in spring 1941. This was impossible because Hitchcock did not arrive in London until May 1942.
Arnold’s own diary confirms this. “Tuesday, May 26, 1942 Went to Claridge[’s] Hotel with [U.S. Ambassador Gil] Winant. Breakfast with Winant, Chaney and military attache.”
Although the general didn’t name the “attaché,” Hitchcock arrived on May 1, 1942. It is likely that Arnold was referring to Hitchcock when he wrote the entry.
“Long discussion with Chaney and Winant re [sic] efficiency of U.S. pursuit, P-39 especially,” Arnold continued in his notes. “Chaney doubts efficiency of both P-38 and P-39, thinks we are doing wrong by using either.”
And it appears Hitchcock shared what he learned about the Merlin engine — or that U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had somehow learned about it separately. On Oct. 22, 1942, Churchill met with Arnold and raised a long list of staff-prepared issues for improving allied air operations, one of which was the Merlin-powered P-51.
Churchill “went on to recommend…the development of the P-51 Mustang fighter ‘with the right [Rolls-Royce] engines’,” Arnold noted.
Loaded with engineering estimates for Merlin-powered P-51 performance, in November 1942, Hitchcock flew back to Washington, D.C. to visit Arnold and share the good news. After the briefing, Arnold expressed tepid interest in the P-51, dismissing the data as merely “estimated.”
Hitchcock, un-cowed by four-star rank and not seeking a military career, went over Arnold’s head to Robert Lovett, then Assistant Secretary of War for Air. Presumably Lovett listened attentively.
Both men flew together in World War I. As fellow members of New York’s “400” social elite they often got together with other well-to-do individuals to play polo.
“Pressed hard by Lovett and others in the War Department, Arnold reluctantly gave in, ordering the production of an initial 2,200 P-51Bs, as hybrid Mustangs [with the British Rolls Royce engine] were called,” Olson wrote in Citizens of London. “But while the order was supposed to have the highest priority, there was a lag in producing the planes, and Arnold did little to speed it up.
“‘His hands were tied by his mouth’ Lovett noted,” according to Olson “[Arnold] said our only need was flying fortresses … [that] very few fighters could keep up with them.”
“But as Lovett added, ‘the Messerschmitts had no difficulty at all.’”
The troubling disparities between Arnold’s two paragraph account in his autobiography and the published Mustang histories are best summarized in the table below.
“It may be said that we could have had the long-range P-51 in Europe rather sooner that we did,” Arnold noted in Global Mission. “That we did not have it sooner was the Air Force’s own fault.”
His comment would have been more accurate if he had written: “That we did not have it sooner was my fault.”
In truth, with the right Army leadership priorities, the long range P-51B could have been in combat over Germany five months earlier, in July 1943. This assumes the planes would have been ready a conservative nine months after the first flight in October 1942.
With these fighters, the Eighth Air Force might have avoided devastating bomber and crew losses of the disastrous operations in summer and fall 1943. Even more importantly, Arnold could have added: “that our P-47s did not have the external tanks to accompany bombers deep into Germany far sooner was also my fault.”
Arnold mindset, which caused him to forbid drop tank development in 1939, doomed thousands of unescorted bomber crew members throughout all of 1943 to death and dismemberment. This needless slaughter remained unrelieved until the belated deliveries in 1944 of adequate quantities of drop tanks — and of long range P-51Bs.
James Perry Stevenson is the former editor of the Topgun Journal and the author of The $5 Billion Misunderstanding and The Pentagon Paradox.
Commemorative Air Force North American P-51 “Red Nose”
In 1957, a small group of ex-service pilots pooled their money to purchase a P-51 Mustang, beginning what is now called the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). With the addition of a pair of F8F Bearcats, the CAF became the founders of the Warbird Movement, an effort to preserve and honor our military history with the rallying cry to “Keep ‘Em Flying!” Now, 55 years later, the CAF is the premier Warbird organization, operating 156 vintage aircraft in Honor of American Military Aviation. A non-profit educational association, the CAF has approximately 9,000 members operating this fleet of historic aircraft, distributed to 70 units located in 28 states. For more information, visit www.commemorativeairforce.org or call (432) 563-1000.
This was that plane that launched the Confederate Air Force (now known as the Commemorative Air Force).
Though in storage for six years, this aircraft, now known as USAF F-51D-25NA S/N 42-73843, had not yet finished its tour of duty. In January of 1951, this aircraft was dropped from the USAF inventory and transferred to Canada under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. It was officially accepted by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on 11 January 1951, and was placed in Stored Reserve in Trenton, Ontario. A month later, on 26 February, this aircraft was once again flying, now with the No. 416 “LYNX” Squadron (Regular) of the RCAF, based in Uplands, Ontario.
It served with this regular unit for little more than a year before transfer to the No. 10 Technical Services Unit in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on 28 March 1952. Here it stayed until assigned to the No. 420 “SNOWY OWLS” Squadron (Auxiliary) of the RCAF in London, Ontario. Its tenure with this unit lasted until 19 July 1956, when the aircraft was listed as awaiting disposal and placed into storage. It was then bought by a private company in the United States, and ended back in San Antonio, Texas, now as the property of Stinson Field Aircraft.
It was in 1957 that the aircraft was acquired by the founding members of the CAF including Lloyd P. Nolen himself. This airplane is not only historically significant, but it is thoroughly engrained in the CAF’s heritage as well. The Dixie Wing was selected to become the new home for the P-51 “Red Nose” by the CAF General Staff in November of 2002.
North American P-51 - History
North American designed and built the P-51 in an unbelievable 117 days. An exceptional long range bomber escort and a fast and furious dog fighter, the P-51 qualified 281 allied pilots as Aces, second only to the Hellcat with 307 Aces. Most P-51s were manufactured in Inglewood, CA and tested over Mines Field, now LAX.
The answer to a fighter pilot’s dream, the Mustang had the ability to fly farther and faster than any other combat aircraft of WWII. The D model sported a new bubble canopy, six .50 caliber Browning machine guns and the new Merlin engine improved its high altitude performance. Two other developments improved the capabilities of the P-51, the G-Suit, which applied pressure to the lower body to increased blood flow to the head, and the K-14 gyroscopic gunsight. This P-51 was a well-known racer and won a string of victories in the Bendix Air Races.
It was procured by Yanks in 1987.
|DISPLAY STATUS||COUNTRY OF ORIGIN||CURRENT LOCATION|
|Own||United States||Legends Hangar|
|PURPOSE & TYPE||MATERIALS||ERA & DATE RANGE|
|Bomber, Fighter||Steel||World War II |
1939 – 1945
|PRODUCTION & |
|MFG: North American |
First Produced: 1941
Number Built: 15,686 total 7,956 P-51D Models
Armament: (6) .50 caliber machine guns in wings, (2) 1,000 lb bombsIt was procured by Yanks in 1987.
|Wingspan: 37’ |
Wing Area: 233 sq ft
Empty Weight: 6,970 lbs
Gross Weight: 10,5000 lbs
Powerplant: Packard V1650-7 Merlin 68
Cruise Speed: 362 mph
Maximum Speed: 437 mph
Range: 2,080 miles
|Delivered: July 10, 1945|
July 1945 – 2116th AAF Base Unit (ATC), Napier AAF, AL
Nov 1945 – 2225th AAF Base Unit (ATC), Moody AAF, GA
Mar 1946 – 2537th AAF Base Unit (ATC), Perrin AAF, TX
Nov 1946 – San Antonio Air Material Center, Kelly AAF, TX
Jan 1948 – 195th Fighter Squadron (ANG), Van Nuys AP, CA
Jun 1948 – 188th FS (ANG), Kirtland AFB, NM
Feb 1951 – 188th FS Assigned to Air Defense Command
May 1951 – 188th FS (ADC), Long Beach AFB, CA
Nov 1952 – 354th FS (ADC), Long Beach AFB, CA
Feb 1953 – To Oxnard AFB, CA
June 1953 – 440th FS (ADC) Geiger AFB, WA with a deployment to McChord AFB, WA
Sept 1953 – 116th FS (ANG) Geiger AFB, WA
Jan 1954 – 179th FS (ANG) Duluth AP, MN
Aug 1954 – 112th Fighter-Bomber Squadron (ANG) Akron-Canton AP, OH
Aug 1956 – Sacramento Air Materiel Are, McClellan AFB
All the Way to Berlin with Mustangs
The Supermarine Spitfire could bob and weave, but North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang was the fighter that could go the distance—and it did, escorting B-17s and B-24s on bombing missions deep inside Germany. When outfitted with external fuel tanks, the Mustang could fly more than 2,000 miles without a refill, but with a top speed of 437 mph, it was more akin to a racehorse than a camel. Four Browning .50- caliber machine guns (increased to six in the P-51Ds) made the Mustang a prodigious dogfighter, though pilots rarely passed up the opportunity to strafe Luftwaffe airfields on their way home from escort missions.
In 1942, a British-initiated upgrade endowed the Mustang with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (built Stateside by Packard) its two-stage supercharger gave the P-51 power up high, where the bombers flew, and made it 50 mph faster.
In August and October 1943, the Eighth Air Force lost so many B-17s during raids that the Allies temporarily suspended long-range bombing. In 1944, newly arrived P-51s gave the Eighth the confidence to again strike deep. After General Jimmy Doolittle ordered fighter squadrons to hunt the enemy interceptors instead of flying close formations with bombers they escorted, P-51 victories rose.
Mustangs were the mounts of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first African American fighter unit, which flew escort missions in Italy during 1944. Commanded by West Point graduate Benjamin O. Davis, the Red Tails—a nickname based on the identification paint on their airplanes—shot down 111 enemy aircraft.
By D-Day—June 6, 1944—the Combined Bomber Offensive from England and Italy had broken the Luftwaffe. Barely able to replace lost aircraft, having to ration fuel, and only marginally able to train replacements for the pilots lost each month, its leaders transferred pilots from the Eastern Front, with little consequence. “I don’t remember anyone who came to us from the East who survived,” recalled fighter commander Kurt Buehligen to historian Christian Sturm in 1985, adding “these fellows simply had no real comprehension of what we were faced with in the air.”
The P-51 Mustang Fighter, a North American Aviation, is one of the most iconic fighter / fighter bombers that is single-seated and was used during World War 2. In total over 15,000 of these were manufactured.
The Mustang was designed originally to be used with the Allison V-1710 engine – making it a very good aircraft. When the B & C models were made of the P-51, they added a Rolls Royce Merlin engine and this completely transformed its performance at high altitude (15,000+ feet) which meant it matched or even bettered that of the Luftwaffe’s fighter jets.
The final version of the P-51 was the P-51D, and this was powered by yet another engine, the Packard V-1650-7, and was fully armed with .50 caliber M2 machine guns (6 in total on each jet).
From late in 1943 P-51’s were used to escort bombers in raids over occupied Europe and over Germany, all the way to Berlin. The P-51’s with the Merlin engines were also used as fighter-bombers which made sure that the Allied ruled supreme in the air in 1944.
The P-51 was also used in service with Allied air forces in Italian, Mediterranean and North African areas of service and also saw action in the Pacific War against the Japanese. Within World War 2, P-51 pilots claim to have shot down 4,950 enemy aircraft.
The P-51D Mustang – A Very Brief History
The P-51 was originally designed for the British who needed more aircraft than they could produce for their fight with the Allies against the Nazis. The United States had not yet joined the fight, but they were assisting with essential supplies including aircraft.
The British Purchasing Commission was negotiating with North American Aviation to build Curtiss P-40 fighters under license however NAA preferred to design their own aircraft rather than reproduce an older design.
Remarkably, NAA had the prototype NA-73X airframe ready just 102 days after the contract with the Purchasing Commission was signed. It first flew a little over a month later after fit out.
The first P-51s relied on the Allison V-1710 aero engine however it lacked high-altitude performance compared to the British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. This issue was solved with the Packard V-1650-7, this was a license-built version of the Merlin that transformed the P-51, turning it into one of the best fighters of WWII.
Over the course of the war the various iterations of the Mustang would have claimed 4,950 enemy aircraft in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific, and other theatres of war. The Mustang would be put to use in the Korean War until it was largely replaced by jets, but some airforces would keep the Mustang flying well into the 1980s.
Today the Mustang remains a very popular choice with wealthy private owners and air racers, they’re a common sight at events like the Reno Air Races and they’ve typically been modified heavily from their original military configuration to produce even more power.
Images courtesy of Platinum Fighter Sales
Ben has had his work featured on CNN, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Magazine, Road & Track Magazine, the official Pinterest blog, the official eBay Motors blog, BuzzFeed, and many more.
Silodrome was founded by Ben back in 2010, in the years since the site has grown to become a world leader in the alternative and vintage motoring sector, with millions of readers around the world and many hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
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North American P-51D Mustang
The North American P-51 Mustang was one of the most important aircraft, and arguably the finest all-around fighter type, of World War II. The prototype NA-73X first flew in October 1940. It was designed and built in 120 days in response to an urgent request by the British for a low-altitude fighter/reconnaissance aircraft. It combined the proven Allison V-1710 engine with an innovative cooling system, based on earlier work by the Curtiss Aircraft Company, with laminar-flow wings to reduce aerodynamic drag and increase speed. The U.S. Army Air Forces soon began acquiring their own Allison-powered version and a dive-bombing variant called the A-36 Apache. These first Mustangs were a capable aircraft but much potential remained.
Needing a fighter with better high-altitude performance and following the example of the Curtiss P-40F, North American mated the proven Mustang airframe with the British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The result was the P-51B Mustang, a long-range, high-performance fighter-bomber with the range to escort bombers from Britain to Berlin and back again. The famous D model incorporated a bubbletop canopy and a total of six .50-caliber machine guns. In the Pacific, the P-51 escorted B-29s on very long range bombing raids over Tokyo.
P-51s continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force into the Korean War (redesignated F-51) and Air National Guard Units well into the 1950s. Many served in the air forces of other countries into the 1980s. Additionally, highly modified Mustangs have enjoyed great success as air racers. More than 15,000 units of the famous fighter were produced.
Although almost certainly one of the best P-51D restorations in existence, the Museum's aircraft retains a certain mystery as to its history. The aircraft is likely serial number 44-72423, which was built by North American Aviation in 1944. It was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Forces for shipment to Europe for duty with the Eighth or Ninth Air Force. After the war, it was acquired for the Swedish Air Force in 1945 or 1946. The Swedes acquired nearly all of their 100 P-51s from war-surplus U.S. Army Air Forces stockpiles in Germany at the end of World War II, making this airframe a probable wartime veteran.
Last serving operationally with the Israeli Defense Force/Air Force (IDF/AF 146), the aircraft was probably acquired by Israel from surplus Royal Swedish Air Force stocks in 1952. (Unfortunately, when Israel acquired its P-51s, many of them had their original manufacturer's data plates removed.) The Mustang was later acquired by UK citizen Robs Lamplough between 1976 and 1978, then sold to a Canadian broker, and later sold to Jack Erickson in Tillamook, Oregon.
This restored aircraft displays the colors and markings of Lieutenant Colonel Glenn T. Eagleston while he was commanding officer of the 353rd Fighter Squadron, 354th Fighter Group, flying from Rosières-en-Haye, France in early 1945. This was the same unit of young Lieutenant Kenneth H. Dahlberg. Many years later, Ken Dahlberg, an ace in his own right, was the primary benefactor in the creation of the Kenneth H. Dahlberg Military Aviation Research Center, now the Dahlberg Research Center, here at the Museum. This accurate restoration was completed for The Museum of Flight by the Champion Air Group and the restoration team at Vintage Airframes in Caldwell, Idaho.