The American fighter pilot spotted two shapes cutting diagonally across a road just slightly above and in front of him. They were blemishes in motion.
Twelve o’clock high, he thought.
He rechecked his armament switches, rammed his throttles to full power, and went down, low, as low as he dared, hugging treetops. The afternoon shadow of his P-38 Lightning raced across French hedgerows and fields, the pilot trying now to identify the other two aircraft, wanting them to be Focke-Wulf Fw 190s falling so nicely into the crosshairs of his nose-mounted 20mm cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns.
Captain Robin Olds applied left rudder, slid his pipper across the nearest plane’s left wing, and, in an instant of epiphany, saw the Iron Cross painted on the rear fuselage. Until that instant, he hadn’t been certain the planes were German.
Olds shot down one Fw 190 in a few seconds, followed the second into a violent left break, fired, and watched the pilot bail out. It was August 14, 1944, and Olds had just used his heavy, robust, fast P-38 to rack up the first two of his sixteen air-to-air combat victories.
“I loved the P-38, but I got those kills in spite of the airplane, not because of it,” Olds said. “There were a lot of advantages to having two engines. But the fact is, the P-38 Lightning was too much airplane for a new kid, and a full-time job for even a mature fighter pilot. Our enemies had difficulty defeating the P-38, but, as much as we gloried in it, we were defeating ourselves with this airplane.”
It was, Olds hastened to add, “the most beautiful plane of our generation.” And it fought well in the Pacific and the Mediterranean. So what happened in northern Europe, and how did things go so wrong?
The P-47 Thunderbolt was proving effective against the German air arm, and the P-51 Mustang would become decisive. However, during the critical late months of 1943—the period when the Eighth Air Force suffered heavy losses and both the air campaign and the future invasion of Europe appeared in doubt—the P-38 was the bulwark. Although its effectiveness as an escort was a bit of a myth, the P-38 was beloved by bomber crews perhaps because they, too, like fighter pilots, were simply so infatuated with its looks and style. The fact that it had two engines was important. Exactly as the designers of the Messerschmitt Me 262 were in the process of demonstrating, two engines meant greater reliability. If you lost one engine, you had another to keep you aloft. By the end of the twentieth century, nearly every fighter in the world would have two engines.
One advocate for twin-engine powerplants was none other than Adolf Hitler. He spoke favorably of the Messerschmitt Me 410 Hornisse (Hornet) twin-engine fighter developed from the Bf 110. He had high hopes for the twin-engine Dornier Do 335 pusher-tractor. In a military staff meeting, the Führer expressed the need for “a fast aircraft with an absolutely superior speed and great security, so they can land even when one engine fails, in order to fight the Mosquito attacks that are looming more and more frequent.” Hitler also said, “A twin-engine aircraft is better than a single-engine aircraft—there’s no doubt.”
Just as the Heinkel He 280 was a twin-engine fighter, from its very inception the Me 262 was not intended to have anything but twin engines. On the Me 262, the matched powerplants would be slung in pods beneath a wing with a slight sweepback of 18.5 degrees. The original plan was to use turbojet engines from BMW that would confer 1,323 pounds (600 kilograms) of thrust. The subsequent Junkers Jumo 004 would offer up to 2,000 pounds thrust. The Me 262 would never be as complex to operate as the P-38, but as a comparative heavyweight at 14,272 pounds (6,473 kilograms), it would have more in common with the P-38 than with the Americans’ single-engine warplanes. At the juncture when the P-38 was crucial in the European war, the Me 262 was still being brought up to operational standard.
A survey of stateside training bases in 1941 showed that 87 percent of prospective pilots requested to be assigned to the big, sleek, twin-engine, twin-boom Lockheed P-38 Lightning. “We were in awe of the P-38,” said future air ace Jack Ilfrey. “It looked like a beautiful monster.” “If you were a boy in America, you wanted to fly it,” said another future ace, Lt. Gen. Winton “Bones” Marshall. “If you played with Dinky metal toys and balsa wood airplane models, you wanted to fly it.”
The P-38 captured the imagination of young Americans on the eve of Pearl Harbor in a way that other fighters could not. Eighth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle called the P-38 “the sweetest-flying plane in the sky.”
With tricycle gear, twin booms, and a centerline fuselage pod brimming with guns, the P-38 was pulled through the air by two 1,600-horsepower Allison V-1710-111/113 liquid-cooled piston engines driving three-bladed, nine-foot Curtiss Electric propellers. Although a fully loaded P-38 weighed more than ten U.S. tons, or nearly twice as much as a single-engine P-51 Mustang, a skilled pilot could fling the P-38 around like a lightweight. The problem was that while American pilots were generally well trained, they weren’t well trained for a complex fighter with more than one engine.
Struggling to keep the air campaign over Europe alive in the face of unspeakable bomber losses, the Army Air Forces rushed two P-38 combat groups to England. The 55th Fighter Group became the first to conduct operations on October 15, 1943. On November 6, the Lightning men mixed it up with Bf 109s and Fw 190s and racked up their first aerial victories. “We were arrayed against the Luftwaffe and they were facing us head-on,” one of the pilots said, “and we were not winning.”
The P-38 and P-47 Thunderbolt performed usefully, but not usefully enough. The P-38’s Allison engine had a tendency to blow up, and its GE turbo-supercharger could get stuck in overboosted or underboosted mode. This occurred mainly when the P-38 was flown in the freezing cold above thirty thousand feet, which was the standard situation in the European air war (the P-38 was more successful in the Pacific; the weather was warmer and Japanese planes did not operate at such high altitudes). Another difficulty was that early P-38 versions had only one generator. Losing the associated engine meant that all the pilot had available for power was the battery. Historian Roger Freeman described how bravery plus the P-38 was not enough on the November 13, 1943, mission to Bremen:
… An unlucky day for the 55th. In typical English November weather, damp and overcast, forty-eight P-38s set out to escort bombers on the target leg of a mission to Bremen; one turned back before the enemy coast was crossed and two more aborted later. At 26,000 feet over Germany, pilots shivered in bitterly cold cockpits, flying conditions were unusually bad, and the probability of mechanical troubles at that temperature did not help. Again outnumbered, the 55th was heavily engaged near the target as it strove to defend the bombers, for which it paid dearly. Seven P-38s fell, five to enemy fighters and the others to unknown causes.
Two weeks later another sixteen Lightnings limped home with battle damage. Things did get better, but the P-38 Lightning had to claw its way toward reaping successes that had been expected to come easier and earlier. Lightning pilot 2nd Lt. Jim Kunkle of the 370th Fighter Group remembered that the Lightning was big, but not roomy. “The cockpit was a little tight,” Kunkle said. “I would find my head rubbing up against the top of the canopy. You had fairly long travel on the rudder pedals, but you got used to it. The critical problem with us was we didn’t have much heat in the cockpit. On high-altitude missions, it was very cold. And we didn’t have the engine in front of us to help keep us warm. Bomber guys had those heated blue union suits that they wore, but we tried heated clothing and it didn’t work for us.”
It was actually worse than that. Rather than being merely uncomfortable, Lightning pilots were sometimes in near agony. Wrote Freeman: “Their hands and feet became numb with cold and in some instances frost-bitten; not infrequently a pilot was so weakened by conditions that he had to be assisted out of the cockpit upon return.” The only source of heat in the cockpit was warm air ducted from the engines, and it was little help. The fiery commanding general of VIII Fighter Command wondered, as so many others did, why the P-38 wasn’t producing the results everyone wanted and what to do about it.
Asked to provide a written report, 20th Fighter Group commander Col. Harold J. Rau put pen to paper (and had the report typed up) only with reluctance and only because he was ordered to. He wrote: “After flying the P-38 for a little over one hundred hours on combat missions it is my belief that the airplane, as it stands now, is too complicated for the ‘average’ pilot. I want to put strong emphasis on the word ‘average,’ taking full consideration just how little combat training our pilots have before going on as operational status.”
Rau wrote that he was being asked to put kids fresh from flight school into P-38 cockpits and it wasn’t working. He asked his boss to imagine a pilot fresh out of flying school with about a total of twenty-five hours in a P-38, starting out on a combat mission. Rau’s young pilot was, according to him, on “auto lean and running on external tanks. His gun heater is off to relieve the load on his generator, which frequently gives out (under sustained heavy load). His sight is off to save burning out the bulb. His combat switch may or may not be on.” So, flying along in this condition, wrote Rau, the kid suddenly gets bounced by Germany fighters. Now, Rau wrote, he wonders what to do.
“He must turn, he must increase power and get rid of those external tanks and get on his main [fuel tank],” Rau wrote. “So, he reaches down and turns two stiff, difficult gas switches (valves) to main, turns on his drop tank switches, presses his release button, puts the mixture to auto rich (two separate and clumsy operations), increases his RPM, increases his manifold pressure, turns on his gun heater switch (which he must feel for and cannot possibly see), turns on his combat switch and he is ready to fight.” To generations to come in the future, this would be called multitasking, and it was not what you wanted to be doing when Luftwaffe fighters were pouring down on you.
“At this point, he has probably been shot down,” Rau wrote, “or he has done one of several things wrong. Most common error is to push the throttles wide open before increasing RPM. This causes detonation and subsequent engine failure. Or, he forgets to switch back to auto rich, and gets excessive cylinder head temperature with subsequent engine failure.”
Another P-38 pilot described the multitasking challenge this way: “When you reduce power, you must pull back the throttle (manifold pressure) first, then the prop RPM, and then the mixture. To increase power you must first put the mixture rich, then increase prop rpm, then increase manifold pressure. If you don’t follow this order, you can ruin the engine.” This is a lot to think about when under attack!
Rau added that in his own limited experience, his P-38 group had lost at least four pilots, who, when bounced, took no evasive action. “The logical assumption is that they were so busy in the cockpit trying to get organized that they were shot down before they could get going,” Rau wrote.
Rau described part of the solution: “It is standard procedure for the group leader to call, five minutes before [rendezvous with the bombers being escorted] and tell all pilots to ‘prepare for trouble.’ This is the signal for everyone to get into auto rich, turn drop tank switches on, gun heaters on, combat and sight switches on, and to increase RPM and manifold pressure to maximum cruise. This procedure, however, will not help the pilot who is bounced on the way in and who is trying to conserve his gasoline and equipment for the escort job ahead.”
Pointing to advisory visits to his fighter group by representatives from plane maker Lockheed and engine maker Allison, Rau wrote that among their suggestions, the most-needed was a unit power control, incorporating an automatic manifold pressure regulator (which would control power), RPM, and mixture by use of a single lever. He may not have known that in the P-51 Mustang a pilot could perform all of these functions with one hand—something that never became possible in the P-38, even in later versions.
Rau also pointed to the need “to simplify the gas switching system in this airplane. The switches [valve selector handles] are all in awkward positions and extremely hard to turn. The toggle switches for outboard tanks are almost impossible to operate with gloves on.” That last issue was no small thing. P-38 pilots were always so cold that a pilot without gloves was all but dead anyway.
Critics and champions of the P-38 alike often failed to remark on the obvious—that it was a multiengine aircraft while most fighters were single-engine.
Long after the war, former 1st Lt. Arthur W. Heiden, in an outburst that made Rau seem tame by comparison, wrote: “The quality of multi-engine training during World War II bordered on the ridiculous. I am convinced that with training methods now in use we could take most of civilian private pilots who might be about to fly the Aztec or Cessna 310, and in ten hours, have a more confident pilot than the ones who flew off to war in the P-38. A P-38 pilot usually got his training in two ways. The first way, of course, was twin-engine advanced training in Curtiss AT-9s, which had the unhappy feature of having propellers you couldn’t feather. After sixty hours of this, the student received ten hours of AT-6 gunnery, although he might get his gunnery training in the AT-9, since AT-6s were in short supply.”
Frank E. Birtciel, who flew seventy-two combat missions in the P-38 and forty-nine in the P-51 Mustang, said that near the end of training in the AT-9, the usual practice was to give a student pilot a piggyback ride in a P-38 with a second seat, and then check him out in the RP-322, a version of the same fighter with simpler systems. Birtciel said that procedures were so lax that a training instructor simply appeared amid a group of students one day and asked, “Anyone want to fly a ’38?” Britciel raised his hand, expecting to be a back-seater, and found a fully operational, single-seat P-38—not an RP-322—waiting for him on the ramp. “The crew chief told me how to start it up, and I took off and flew it without any instruction,” said Birtciel.
Edward Giller joined the 55th Fighter Group in time to fly the P-38 in combat and to hear rumors that the Germans were developing a new generation of warplanes with a new kind of engine. “We didn’t think much of it at first,” said Giller. He was busy being annoyed by other aspects of the P-38, including its need for constant attention and the fact that it was the only Allied fighter that emitted two contrails—a quick way for the foe to identify the type of aircraft approaching and to plan accordingly.
Giller felt the P-38 needed to be more nimble: “If you got on a German fighter’s tail, he would do a split S, meaning he would flip upside-down and then go straight down at four hundred miles per hour or faster. We couldn’t do that in the P-38.” Giller piloted a series of planes named Millie G., after his wife, Mildred, and practiced his skills to anticipate what German fighters would do before they did it. He did not want to be caught unawares in his P-38.
Every pilot interviewed for this book agreed that it was difficult to learn to fly the P-38 and easier to fly the P-51 Mustang. Even the most ardent supporter of the P-38—and it inspired support like no other war machine—knew that the Lightning was neither numerous enough nor capable enough to turn the tide.
So what of the closest German equivalent to the P-38, the comparatively lackluster Messerschmitt Bf 110?
The ability of the Bf 110 to haul heavy metal into the battle space was nothing to scoff at. Air-to-air missiles were a relatively new concept, and the Germans had worked on them earlier and more than anyone else. Combining missiles with the Bf 110 initially produced a formidable tool for the defense of the Reich.
The first air-to-air rocket projectiles carried into battle by Bf 110s were Werfer-Granate Gr. 21s, which required launch tubes that added to aerodynamic drag and were awkward to use. The Luftwaffe replaced these with the better-known R4M air-to-air rocket projectile. With the R4M, the Bf 110 lived up to its name as a destroyer. It could approach a combat box of American bombers and fire rockets without drawing in range of gunners.
Another Bf 110 weapon was Schräge Musik (Jazz Music)—the name given to installations of upward-firing autocannons mounted in night fighters by the Luftwaffe. Other Reich warplanes, including the Junkers Ju 88, also used upward firing guns, but the Bf 110G-4 may have been the most numerous. In the fall of 1943, when it was unclear whether the bombing campaign would be able to continue or whether an Allied invasion of Europe would be possible, Schräge Musik–equipped Bf 110s were wreaking havoc with Royal Air Force bombers in Germany’s nocturnal skies. The upward-firing guns were responsible for dozens of air-to-air kills, including many Avro Lancaster four-engine heavy bombers, but their success was short-lived. Sighting the guns using mirrors was a cumbersome process, and bringing the guns into firing position exposed the Bf 110 to fire from the bombers’ gunners. Whatever its merits, Schräge Musik demonstrated that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: like many German ideas, the concept was copied and tested—with little success—on an American Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star jet fighter in the postwar era (see chapter 12).
The Bf 110 wasn’t especially maneuverable and wasn’t ever likely to prevail in a close-quarters dogfight. Once escort fighters began to accompany bombers into the Reich, the Luftwaffe wisely withdrew the Bf 110 from daylight operations. More than one Allied pilot remarked that a Bf 110 in daylight was “meat on the table” for his gunsight and guns.
As the fighting wore on, the Bf 110 was ever more likely to face opposition it couldn’t contend with. Giller said he was piloting a P-38 on February 25, 1944, when he was credited with shooting down a twin-engine, propeller-driven German fighter—his recollection and the record are unclear whether it was a Bf 110 or a Me 410—“but it didn’t amount to much,” Giller said. “It was an airplane that I stumbled onto with my flight. Since I was the flight leader, I got there first. I just came up on him from behind and started shooting and shot him down,” he added.
Useless in daylight after the early part of its era, the Bf 110 was more effective during the hours of darkness. It was beautifully configured to carry an aerial search radar unit and a radar operation, which it did to good effect during nocturnal fighting. Major Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, the Reich’s successful night fighter pilot, flew the Bf 110 and claimed 121 aerial victories.
Another pilot with experience in twin-engine, propeller-driven fighters was Hans Guido Mutke, an imposing, six-foot-two looming presence of a man. If fighter pilots were supposed to be loud and crude, Mutke did not fit the bill. He was something of an intellectual who was always brimming with ideas and was intrigued by the Reich’s scientific advances. Before flying jets, Mutke flew combat missions in the Dornier Do 217, which he did not like, and the Bf 110, which he did, although he readily admitted that neither could hold its own against a P-38.
Mutke’s experiences were similar to those of former Hitler Youth member Hans Busch. Both logged extensive combat hours in twin-engine fighters. Both bailed out of an aircraft once without significant injury—Mutke, from a Bf 110 at night in the middle of a snowstorm. Both also survived serious crashes—Mutke in a Dornier Do 217 after hundreds of night-intercept missions in the Bf 110 and Do 217. Both expressed agreement that their twin-engine Messerschmitts were in a far more sluggish category than the more powerful, more nimble P-38. Both would eventually strap themselves into the cockpit of the Me 262 jet. Neither was an ace and neither held high rank, but both fought for the Reich from early in the war until its final days.
The advantage of having two engines and the capabilities of the Bf 110 inspired Messerschmitt to develop the improved Me 210. But while it looked like a winner, the Me 210 was plagued with poor flight characteristics and technical glitches. After extensive redesign, it morphed into the Messerschmitt Me 410 Hornisse (Hornet), which came late to the war, joining the Defense of the Reich around the beginning of 1944. The Me 410, too, carried both guns and rocket projectiles. On April 11, 1944, Me 410s achieved a spectacular success, shooting down ten B-17 Flying Fortresses while sustaining no losses. It was a fluke. Although Hitler personally expressed his admiration for the Me 410, it was an easy target for P-38, P-47, and P-51 pilots.
“There were reports available to us about what was going on with the Germans in aviation,” said American ace Giller. “They analyzed intelligence data at Wright Field and we had a steady flow of feedback. We also received a monthly publication that told us about technical developments.” Giller was referring to the pictorial Impact magazine, published between April 1943 and December 1945 and classified confidential. It came to troops with a warning from Army Air Forces boss Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold: “Impact is highly classified. It should be handled with due regard for its classification, yet it is desired that this information about our operations be disseminated to those of our forces to whom it may be of value.”
“We had very good intelligence on the German fighters,” said American ace Capt. Robin Olds, who flew numerous combat missions in the P-38 and P-51 (and many more in Vietnam in the F-4 Phantom II, another fighter with the advantage of two engines). “We were briefed on their capabilities and we felt knew how to fight them.” That was particularly true of the entire range of German twin-prop fighters—the Do 17, Do 217, Ju 88, Ju 388, Bf 110, Me 210, and Me 410—because examples of nearly all were captured intact in an early stage of fighting. By mid-1944, found to be too vulnerable to American fighters, nearly all Me 410s were withdrawn from operational service.
While the Americans struggled to make the P-38, P-47, and P-51 ready and able to wage war high over Europe—taking a breather after the disastrous bombing missions in August and October 1943 and still trying to sort out how to make their air campaign work—the Germans were missing opportunities to bring about a revolution in air combat.
Testing of the jet Me 262 continued. Flight testing of the Me 262 dragged out more than a year and a half. The notorious reliability problems of the early jet engines were so severe that some had to be replaced after a single flight. A quantum leap in technology was coming, but it did not arrive until the beginning of combat operations in April 1944. Long before that, many P-38 Lightning pilots learned that their planes were going to be replaced. Even though the P-38 faced challenges in the freezing skies of northern Europe, pilots such as Olds were not initially pleased that they were getting a new fighter called the P-51 Mustang. Inspiration died hard.
At the end of 1943 and the start of 1944, with the U.S. daylight bombing campaign still moving in fits and starts, the first P-51 Mustangs were in service, not with one of the experienced fighter groups such as the 4th or the 56th but with the 354th Fighter Group. Its airmen never experienced any other fighter once they reached England.
Arrival of Mustangs in Britain altered every aspect of the Americans’ aerial campaign against Hitler’s “Festung Europa,” or Fortress Europe. Whatever Lightning or Jug pilots might have said then, or might say today with a half-century of hindsight, the Mustang’s combination of speed and maneuverability was superior to other U. S. fighters, and it had the legs to go deep into enemy territory. A P-51B could carry four hundred gallons of fuel, almost as much as the bigger P-47 Thunderbolt, but the Mustang got 3.3 miles per gallon while the P-47 (and P-38 Lightning) got less than 1.8. Its lower rate of fuel consumption gave the P-51 a combat radius of more than seven hundred miles, enough to reach any target the bombers could. Additionally, unlike the P-38 and P-47, the P-51B’s performance was superior to all German fighters. The P-51 was thirty to seventy miles per hour faster than any German piston engine fighter and had better acceleration, while its maneuverability and climb rate matched or exceeded anything the Luftwaffe could offer.
The 55th Fighter Group was the first to get the new P-51D, trading in its old P-38s for the new bubble canopy fighters. The change from the torque-less twin-engine P-38 to the single-engine P-51 caused some initial problems, and the lack of directional stability (caused by the presence of a full fuselage tank) took some getting used to. However, once the pilots became fully adjusted to their new rides, they found that the P-51D gave them an edge in both speed and maneuverability over all Luftwaffe piston-engine fighters at altitudes above twenty thousand feet. Luftwaffe pilots considered the Mustang to be rather vulnerable to cannon fire, particularly the liquid-cooled Merlin engine, which could be put out of action with a single hit. The Mustang was the only Allied fighter with enough range to accompany bombers on their “shuttle” missions, in which landings were made in Russia after deep-penetration targets had been attacked from bases in England. The Mustangs also participated in low-altitude strikes on Luftwaffe airfields, a rather dangerous undertaking as these fields were very heavily defended by flak. Heavy losses were suffered by American airmen in these raids due to Mustang’s comparatively poor ability to withstand battle damage.
The 20th Fighter Group’s official history tells us that the P-38 “was not equal to the extreme cold and moisture conditions that prevailed at operating altitudes [of] 20,000–30000 feet [over] northern Europe.”
Warren M. Bodie, author of The Lockheed P-38 Lightning wrote that the P-38 should have been converted from Allison to Merlin power, exactly as was done with the P-51. “Neither P-38 pilots, mechanics, facilities or logistics were prepared to operate efficiently in one of the bitterest European winters on record [1943–1944],” Bodie wrote. “No other Allison-powered aircraft ever operated at altitudes of more than twenty thousand feet over the Continent for even a half hour.” Still, Bodie was a staunch advocate of the P-38, but in a 1991 interview he acknowledged that it achieved mixed results in air-to-air battle with the Luftwaffe in northern Europe.
The P-38 Lightning inspired young men, fought a great war, and established its place as one of the greats of all time. In the European Theater of Operations, it was miscast, misused, and severely challenged. Only one fighter group in northern Europe, the 474th, flew the Lightning from arrival in Europe until war’s end on May 8, 1945. It remained, as always, the mount of preference for great men who loved this aircraft like no other. Twin-engine fighters drew mixed reactions from both sides, and except for the Lightning, none was ever truly loved by the men who flew and maintained it. Many German pilots in Bf 110s and Me 410s wondered if they would be stuck in the cockpits of their inadequately performing twins until the war was resolved.