Military history

Chapter X — FIRST BLOOD

The historical archives of the VIII Fighter Command record the morning of October 14, 1943, as “virtually impossible for operations.” What was hazardous for the bombers was murder for the heavy single-engine P-47 Thunderbolts. Despite a forward visibility of barely 1,500 yards, and the ragged cloud ceiling that hung down to 200 feet over their fields, no less than 196 of the big-bellied Thunderbolts howled into the air.

No pilots this day were more frustrated and angered than the men of the 4th Fighter Group who took 51 of the P-47’s into the thick soup blanketing England. The planes took off in rain that totally obscured the ends of the runways. Because the bombers reported clouds extending as high as 15,000 feet, the fighter pilots decided to stick it out on the deck, and run for the coast where breaks were reported.

“Only a miracle,” reported these shaken fliers, averted what might well have become a terrible disaster. The route forced upon the Thunderbolts was a No-Man’s Land of balloon cables and the big barrage balloons, drifting invisibly just above the clouds. Maintaining formation as well as possible, the pilots swung and turned and skidded frantically to avoid plunging into the steel cables that swung ominously in their path* Somehow they eluded the obstacles, and tightened ranks into a mass wedge of Thunderbolts. In this superb formation they reached the area where a break in the clouds had been reported.

There was none; indeed, the visibility had worsened and the clouds were pressing closer to the earth. There was only one way out, and the heavy fighters drifted slightly from each other —except for flights of four airplanes, which stayed glued together-and bored into the overcast.

Several miles into the skies brilliant sunlight greeted the planes. But that was all. Not a single bomber was in sight, despite a climb to high altitude and a wide orbit to permit the maximum search. The 4th Group aborted the mission and busied itself with the task of groping its way back to earth.

The 352d Fighter Group, which sent a force of 53 Thunderbolts into the thick clouds over England, enjoyed no good for-tune. At 1314 hours the fighters spotted 25 B-24 bombers of the 3d Air Task Force, and swung into trail position behind the Liberators. For the next thirty minutes the force of 78 planes orbited the assembly group. Without any other bombers in the sky, and with reports of all fields closing in owing to weather, the bomber commander elected to abandon the mission.

The other two fighter forces hit pay dirt. First to see action was the 353d Fighter Group, whose 44 Thunderbolts rendezvoused with the 1st Air Division midway across the English Channel. At this point the B-17’s were approximately ten minutes behind schedule.

The three squadrons of Thunderbolts came in from a wide turn to assume escort positions. In the front and working over the top of the Fortresses was the 351st Squadron. The 350th Squadron took up escort position on the right, and the 352d Squadron swung far out to the left.

The top squadron, directly over the top of the 1st Air Division force, split into two sections in order to cover the entire front of the bombers and maintain a position where they could direct the other two squadrons flying off to the sides. On the left the 352d flew at high altitude, weaving along off to the side and well out in front of the bombers. This provided a flank against any enemy attacks that might come in from high and above. On the right, the 350th fighters flew at the same altitude with the bombers, weaving along the side of the formations and ranging to the front. Thus the two side squadrons were in position to block any German aircraft that would be moving into position for attacks.

These were the escort positions of the 353d Group as the mass formation made landfall over Walcheren Island. At that moment, at two o’clock high, the fighter pilots warned of twenty-plus contrails moving in from above 34,000 feet. One flight of six German fighters led the others, with a flight of five, and several flights of four fighters, all mixed in close.

At this moment the 352d Squadron was at 31,000 feet to the left of the bombers, with a second Thunderbolt echelon staggered in trail at 32,000 feet. Immediately the Thunderbolts went to full power. As one man, the pilots pulled back into climbs and turned directly into the enemy force—now identified more clearly as 16 Messerschmitt Me-109 and four Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters.

At once eight fighters—the four FW-190’s and four of the Me-109’s—broke from the attack. The eight fighters immediately half rolled onto their backs, and disappeared in vertical power dives for the coast line. It was an invitation for the Thunderbolts to follow and to deplete their force—leaving the bombers wide open—but the pilots weren’t buying the move.

Within seconds the mass of Thunderbolts spread out and scattered after the German fighters. Wherever possible, the P-47’s remained in flights of four, providing each other excellent support, and breaking apart further into two-ship elements— leader and wing man—as opportunities for close attacks appeared.

There was no question but that these Germans had come to stay and fight, and they hammered at the Thunderbolts with everything they had. The American fighters had an excellent advantage; the big Thunderbolt was designed to fly and fight at extreme altitude, and this fight was above 30,000 feet, where the P-47 was in its prime. The pilots used that advantage handsomely.

During the fight, which lasted for twenty minutes—an extraordinary engagement for fighters—the Thunderbolts set a-flame and exploded four Me-109’s and poured bullets into four more, inflicting major damage. While the 352d engaged the black-crossed planes, the other two squadrons went on with the bombers. As the mass formation drew away from the fierce air fight, two Me-109’s raced in at high speed for the last box of Fortresses. Eight Thunderbolts turned to meet them head on, but the Germans wanted no part of this. The two Messerschmitts broke off and dived for the deck,

The Germans used this engagement to test new combat tactics. When a Thunderbolt raced in to the tail of an Me-i 09, the German flier immediately snapped over into a half roll, and plunged almost vertically on his back. Watching the P-47 be-hind him break off the attack—the pilots were under orders not to pursue for any distance any German plane—the Messerschmitt rolled back to normal flight and came back to the fight with the great speed gained from a zoom climb. Unhappily for them, the new tactics proved ineffective. The Thunderbolt pilots simply waited until the Me-109’s were committed to the zoom, and rushed in. Two of the four fighters destroyed went down in this fashion.

Every Thunderbolt pilot lauded the performance of the big and heavy fighter above 30,000 feet. The Germans were convinced that the swift and light Me-109 was far more than a match for the P-47 in the swirling combat of the dogfight, and they endeavored constantly to get on the tail of a Thunderbolt.

But this was 30,000 feet, not close to earth. Not only did the P-47’s outclimb their opponents, but they dangled the bait of what seemed a perfect kill in front of the Germans. Here is an excerpt from the official record of the engagement:

All reports from our pilots who engaged in combat above 30,000 feet with the Me-109 agree that the P-47 will outturn and outclimb that airplane at that altitude. In several cases P-47’s maneuvered into position on the Me-109’s tail by letting the enemy aircraft come down from above and get into a Lufberry [tight horizontal circle] with them, then reef it in and outturn them.

Far ahead of the dogfight the lead boxes of bombers approached the vicinity of Düren, in the Rhineland, when the pilots of the 350th Squadron sighted 30 enemy fighters. These were quickly identified as yellow-nosed Focke-Wulf FW-190’s, climbing up from about eleven o’clock and splitting into two groups as they neared the Fortresses. One half went to the left side and the other half swung to the right. As this latter force came about in a fast, wide turn to hit the B-17’s, the Thunderbolts raced in to attack—coming in fast and from above* One look was enough, and the Focke-Wulfs at once pushed over and dived inland at maximum speed. Red Flight snapped out several long deflection bursts but without visible effect as the German fighters rushed away.

The 350th Squadron came around in a rapid, climbing turn, rushing under full throttle to reach the other force of Focke-Wulfs that had split off to the left side of the bombers. As the German fighters came around for dead-astern attacks against the Fortresses, the Thunderbolts hit them in the middle of their turn.

It was over in seconds. Concentrating on the bombers, the enemy fliers never even seemed to see the P-47’s. The big fighters scattered the German formation. Three FW-190’s were set aflame, a third was hit heavily, and the remainder fled for the deck without getting in a single shot at the bombers.

The second section of the 351st Squadron, then flying top cover for the lead bomber units, had an even better time. More than twenty mixed Me-109’s and FW-190’s rushed in against the Fortresses from three o’clock at 24,000 feet. As the Thunderbolts turned to meet them, the enemy fighters flashed by, to the right and beneath a P-47 section. And this made for a perfect setup.

Sticks all the way forward and rudder pedals tramped down, the Thunderbolts clawed around in a diving right turn, putting the sun directly behind them and blinding any enemy fliers who glanced back. Apparently none did, anyway, for the Germans never had any warning until the P-47*s were right on their tails, each Thunderbolt scoring heavily with its eight .50-caliber machine guns. In less than ten seconds the 351st Section destroyed four and damaged one. The remainder of the enemy force dived headlong out of the fight.

Score for the mission for the 353d: ten fighters shot down, one probably shot down, and at least three heavily damaged. For this victory the Thunderbolt force lost one of their number in combat; the pilot was listed as missing. A second plane, with its gear shot out by a cannon shell, landed on one wheel, and the pilot walked away. A third P-47 crashed near Hornchurch, killing the pilot.

To support the 2d Air Task Force (3d Air Division) the 56th Fighter Group put up a force of 48 Thunderbolts. These rendezvoused with the bombers at 1305 hours over Sas van Gent, and provided support along the bomber track to Düren.

In the vicinity of Dison, the Thunderbolts wheeled in a wide turn and headed for home. But the Germans provided some unfinished business, and at the same time showed the promise of what the B-17’s could expect once their fighter escort was on the way back to England.

Four Focke-Wulf FW-190’s cruised at 17,000 feet near Aachen, waiting patiently for the Thunderbolts to depart be-fore opening their attack. At the same time, 1335 hours, another eight fighters were spotted west of Aachen, at 5,000 feet, heading to the northwest. North of Aachen, and flying due north, was a force of 20 single-engine fighters. Then one of the Thunderbolt pilots called out 12 twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-110’s at 15,000 feet, following the rear bomber box and climbing. White and Blue Flights, of the 61st Squadron, hit these airplanes in a screaming dive. On the first pass two Me-110’s went down in flames, and another was crippled. Several Me-109’s passed nearby, headed for the bombers, and the Thunderbolts swerved long enough to explode one of these planes and to scatter the German formation.

But now their fuel was at the critical mark. It was either run for England, or ditch the fighters in the Channel.

The Thunderbolts flew into the west. For the loss in combat of one Thunderbolt the big American fighters had shot down 13, probably destroyed one, and damaged five of the enemy. Despite this ringing success, however, their last sight of the bombers was not a reassuring one. Two Fortresses were spinning, wrapped in flames.

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