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WONDER WEAPONS, PART II

After the unsuccessful Schweinfurt-Regensburg raid of August 17, 1943, which resulted in 60 aircraft lost, 4 damaged beyond repair, and 168 put out of commission, the Americans paused, pondered, and debated how to build the daylight bombing offensive that would have to succeed later that year if the Allies were going to invade occupied Europe in 1944. On both sides of the war, aircraft engineers and builders worked on new ideas in order to give themselves an advantage, but many of these ideas never became reality.

Today, it’s easy to believe that the United States might have benefited from putting newer aircraft into production. Shifting P-47 Thunderbolt production lines to build the P-72—an experimental heavy fighter—might have provided the Eighth Air Force a much needed escort fighter sooner than it received one. Or the United States could have stopped manufacturing P-38s, P-39s, P-40s, and concentrated its production line on the P-51 Mustang and, subsequently, the P-80 jet fighter. It didn’t happen that way. Instead of attempting to field small numbers of the most advanced weapon systems, the United States made a subconscious choice to put into the fray vast numbers of systems that were good enough.

In both the United States and Germany, the aircraft industry enjoyed the luxury of experimentation—even when a practical outcome was uncertain. Both sides designed dozens of aircraft that never got off the drawing board.

With hindsight, it’s obvious that the defense of the Reich would have been more effective had the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Air Ministry, the RLM) accepted a proposal from air ace Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland that Germany concentrate its manufacturing capacity on just two aircraft types—the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Me 262 fighters.

Instead of taking Galland’s advice, German industry continued manufacturing outdated warplanes such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and experimenting with new ideas that had merit, but also with many that clearly didn’t. This book now looks at one aircraft design in the latter category. Depending on how you look at it, the Blohm und Voss P.170— an attempt at a high-speed warplane that wasn’t a jet—was either a brilliant mistake, or just a mistake.

The design of the P.170 fighter-bomber dates to 1942 but was still being developed at the time of Schweinfurt-Regensburg raid in 1943. Simply put, it was both forward-thinking and strange looking.

If the P.170 with its three engines, broad wing, and cockpit astride the tail was a brilliant aircraft design, credit belongs to Dr.-Ing. Richard Vogt of Hamburger Flugzeubau, the aircraft company owned by the shipyard founded by Hermann Blohm and Ernst Voss in 1877. The company produced many unusual aircraft, including the BV 141, an asymmetrical reconnaissance aircraft, and the BV 222 Wiking (Viking), a giant flying boat. The BV 141 carried a three-man crew in a gondola mounted atop the wing to the right of an unmanned fuselage that was off-center to the left. The BV 238 was an even larger flying boat that had an appointment with U.S. pilot Ben Drew.

In a design that was either daring or foolish, the P.170 employed a forward-mounted, very broad rectangular, constant-chord wing spanning fifty-two feet six inches with one engine mounted in the nose and two more in gondolas at the wingtips. The gondolas mounted rudder fins, giving the rear fuselage a clean, tailless look. Each gondola, including the center fuselage, contained a fifty-two–U.S. gallon fuel tank that could feed only the engine ahead of it. The fuselage was forty-six feet eleven inches in length and wing area was 473.60 square feet.

It was intended that three 1,600-horsepower BMW 801D radial engines, each with a three-blade propeller fully eleven feet five inches in diameter, would power the P.170. This was the powerplant for the Fw 190; it was practical and reliable.

The two outer engines of the P.170 turned in opposing directions, all but eliminating torque on the aircraft. The aircraft had a traditional tail dragger configuration, except that its main landing gear consisted of three undercarriage legs. The P.170 was designed to carry 4,400 pounds of bombs on ordnance stations beneath its expansive wing.

This warplane was designed for speed, which is why it lacked defensive armament. It was the same kind of thinking that had gone into Britain’s speedy De Havilland Mosquito, which Adolf Hitler considered such a pest. According to Hamburger Flugzeubau documents, the P.170 was expected to reach the extraordinary speed of 510 miles per hour at twenty-six thousand feet. This aircraft was larger than surviving illustrations suggest and would have weighed almost thirty thousand pounds when fully loaded for combat.

Not many company documents survived the Allied bombing of the Hamburg aircraft manufacturer. It appears Vogt’s design team explored several variations on the design, including two-and three-crew versions for the Schnellbomber (fast bomber) and Schlachtflugzeug (ground attack aircraft).

Today, historians can only speculate as to why the Third Reich continued designing and developing a wide range of variations on aviation technology. Work on the P.170 may have continued long after men in Berlin knew they were losing the war. After all, the Germans continued their efforts on a variety of war readiness projects, including recruiting teenagers as fresh troops, right up until the final day of fighting.

What leaps out about the P.170 is that it would have been very, very difficult to taxi. The real question is not why Blohm und Voss didn’t build it, but why it survived so long as a viable proposal. In a different universe, perhaps swarms of P.170s might have been available in time to stymie the American daylight bombing campaign. In reality, with Germany’s attention and resources spread thin, it didn’t happen.

On the American side, the P-47 remained the most numerous and important fighter well into the fall and early winter of 1943.

Republic, the Farmingdale, New York, manufacturer of the Thunderbolt, was known as the Republic Iron Works and had a reputation for building fighters that were big, roomy, and brought airmen home. Pilots nicknamed the P-47 the “Jug” because of its corpulence and resemblance to a fat milk bottle. And, as pilot Valmore Beaudrault wrote, the P-47 was “sturdy and tough as a tin can.” One P-47 returned to its English base with body parts from a German fighter pilot embedded in its engine cowling. Another landed safely riddled with 183 holes from bullets and shrapnel.

P-47s rolled out of American factories in greater numbers than any other U.S. fighter ever. There were 15,683 Thunderbolts, a total that compares to 15,486 P-51 Mustangs and 10,037 P-38 Lightnings. In the Jug, pilots and ground crews had a rugged, reliable fighter, perfect for the wet, corrosive English weather and the mud that sometimes clogged taxiways.

The P-47 was already flying when the United States entered the war. Built around the two thousand–horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp eighteen-cylinder radial engine and the ducting for its turbo-supercharger, the brutish P-47 fuselage was wedded to a graceful pair of elliptical wings, mounting eight heavy .50-caliber machine guns. With full tanks, ammunition, and two 1,000-pound bombs, the P-47 weighed in at an astonishing 16,475 pounds to become the heaviest single-engine fighter of World War II. Yet its massive engine could push it to a speed of 420 miles per hour at thirty thousand feet, and the new Thunderbolt had a 200–mile combat radius, about 50 miles greater than the British Spitfire. Delayed by technical glitches after reaching England months earlier, the Jug entered combat in March 1943. The combat mission took place on March 10 and was simply a fighter sweep over France. The mission was plagued by radio malfunctions and achieved little.

“The 47s haven’t any combat yet, but should soon,” 2nd Lt. Grant Turley wrote in his diary on April 11, 1943. Turley was quite tall but otherwise was an exact double of a Hollywood actor who had not yet been born and whose life would not overlap with his own—Bill Murray. Turley had a slightly mischievous streak that sharpened his resemblance to the future actor.

Turley could be shy and inner-directed: he was made up of many parts, like all of the young citizen-soldiers from modest upbringings who squeezed into cockpits and went to war near the edge of the stratosphere. He was more withdrawn, more rural in his roots, perhaps a little less cocky than future P-51 Mustang pilot Clayton Kelly Gross, who underwent pilot training class a year before he did, or the decidedly urban, erudite B-17 Flying Fortress copilot Robert Des Lauriers, who took the pilot training course exactly a year later.

While these young pilots were in training, American bomber crews were going through their most difficult period of the war. The fighters and flak defending the Third Reich were taking a terrible toll. Eighth Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, VIII Bomber Command boss Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Anderson, and 3rd Air Division commander Brig. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay were among leaders who were forging new tactics for a new kind of warfare. Initially, however, they were placing too much trust in the combat box formation that concentrated the defensive fire of a bomber’s guns and not enough in the protection that could be provided by escort fighters. Bomber crews were fighting under unspeakably horrible conditions and sustaining almost unbearable numbers of killed, wounded, and captured. Yet Eaker, Anderson, and LeMay believed, correctly, that the bombing campaign was inflicting serious hurt on Hitler’s war machine. The risks to crewmembers would decline, and the size of the hurt would increase, once escort fighters could form a buffer between the Luftwaffe and the bombers.

While the Thunderbolt was the best escort available, bomber crewmembers were already referring to escort fighters—any kind of escort fighters—as “little friends.” But all too often, the “big friends” were still fending for themselves.

While Valmore Beaudrault, Grant Turley, and others were being introduced to the Jug, the Eighth Air Force’s VIII Fighter Command in England was struggling to give the P-47 enough range to accompany bombers to their targets. Equipping P-47s with big, bulbous two hundred–U.S. gallon ferry tanks dangling from the fuselage centerline was a partial solution. The tanks were unpressurized, so they proved to be effective only at low altitudes. However, they could be carried half full, used during the long climb over the English Channel, and then dropped, adding seventy-five miles of radius. This method was awkward and apparently used only briefly. Moreover, carrying this type of center point drop tank on the outbound leg of an escort mission increased the reach of the P-47 only to 325 miles, which was nowhere near enough. The Luftwaffe readily understood when Jug escorts would have to turn back because of fuel restrictions and waited to intercept bombers just a few miles beyond the Thunderbolt’s radius of action. The number of miles kept changing with the addition of larger tanks, but bombers kept traveling deeper into the Reich and no change to the Thunderbolt would enable it to keep up.

Eventually, under-wing shackles brought from the United States to England permitted several options for external fuel tanks for the Jug. By February 1944, the Thunderbolt could carry a single 150-gallon belly tank or, to travel even farther, two 108-gallon under-wing tanks, increasing the P-47’s radius of action to four hundred to five hundred miles. Thunderbolts could now reach Frankfurt or Hamburg (with difficulty), but not more distant targets such as Munich, Prague, and Berlin. By mid-1944, a P-51D Mustang with two 108-gallon tanks could travel anywhere American bombers might go, not merely to Berlin but as far as Prague. The Mustang’s range was the key as bombers kept going deeper and deeper into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Major General William E. Kepner, who headed up VIII Fighter Command from August 29, 1943, onward, wrote: “If it can be said that if the P-38s struck the Luftwaffe in its vitals and the P-51s gave the coup de grace, it was the Thunderbolt that broke its back.”

Lying in wait for the growing American air armada in East Anglia was a German fighter force that in 1942 and 1943 was experienced, robust, and aggressive—German officers constantly refreshing their tactics to defeat Allied fighters and attack four-engine bombers. In large measure, the air campaign was aimed at neutralizing the Luftwaffe fighter force. Early in the campaign, the Germans had the top hand. As the war progressed, the Allies overcame their air defenses not by shooting down their aircraft or bombing their production plants—although both actions inflicted horrendous harm—but by killing their pilots. As the air campaign in Europe progressed, the Luftwaffe would continue to have plenty of fighter planes, but its leadership, talent, and experience would become casualties of war.

Confronting the Americans were twin-engine, rocket-armed Messerschmitt Bf 110 and Me 210 fighters, joined later in the war by the Me 410 Hornisse (Hornet)—all of which would ultimately be defeated by single-engine Allied fighters. Later, the jet-propelled Messerschmitt Me 262 joined the mix. But in the early months of the campaign, the same months when only the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt were available as escorts, the German fighter force relied most heavily on its two iconic, single-engine fighters.

The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was a nimble, versatile, and reliable high-altitude fighter of light construction that crumpled easily when sustaining battle damage and was, as noted earlier, out of date. It was eclipsed by newer and better fighters in all air forces, including Germany’s. It remained the mount of most Luftwaffe aces, remained in production, and was a potent adversary until the final day of the war. The Bf 109G, or “Gustav,” version confronting the Eighth Air Force in 1943 was powered by a 1,475-horsepower DB 605A inverted V-12 liquid-cooled inline engine and armed with four nose- and wing-mounted machine guns and a hub-mounted cannon. A German pilot’s manual listed a top speed of 579 kilometers per hour (360 miles per hour), although the speeds of all fighters varied according to weight, temperature, payload, and other factors.

A 1,700-horsepower BMW 801D fourteen-cylinder radial engine powered the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Wurger (Butcher Bird). The powerplant initially caused overheating problems, high cockpit temperatures, and leaking gasses in the cockpit, but it overcame these teething troubles at an early stage when it was also being considered for the Blohm und Voss P.170.

The Focke Wulf had the fastest rate of roll of any fighter and featured an automatic system that operated the manifold pressure, revolutions per minute, and fuel mixture, relieving the pilot of these duties. The Butcher Bird lacked the leading edge automatic slats that sometimes caused gun-laying accuracy in the Bf 109, had better visibility, and had an unusually wide track main landing gear for easier takeoffs, landings, and ground handling. It was the only World War II fighter that had electrically operated flaps and landing gear. The Fw 190 had only a mediocre rate of climb and sometimes could not get to altitude quickly enough to be effective against American bombers.

Having attacked the center of the ball-bearing industry in force, the American bomber force hesitated to return. LeMay biographer Warren Kozak wrote:

[T]he Allies did not understand the impact of the mission on the other side, as ball bearing production dropped by 38 percent after the raid. Albert Speer said that Germany “barely escaped a catastrophic blow” and that the Allies were right to take aim at the ball bearing plants. But their crucial mistake was in spreading out their forces and not concentrating on Schweinfurt. It was not just the Allies who did not understand the impact of these attacks. When Speer spoke to Hitler after the attack on Schweinfurt, the German leader was in great spirits because “the countryside was strewn with downed American bombers.” Although true, every plant in Schweinfurt had been hit and was on fire. “But what really saved us was the fact that from this time on, the enemy, to our astonishment, once again ceased his attacks on the ball bearing industry,” Speer later revealed.

On September 13, 1943, pilot Turley arrived at Duxford, England, to become part of the 78th Fighter Group. Turley now had about 140 flying hours in the P-47. He flew his first routine mission on October 9. Unable to accompany the bombers all the way to their target, Turley wrote: “Had a long ‘Fort’ raid today, clear across Germany. Our group of 47s was supposed to give withdrawal support—meeting the bombers about 70 miles on the other side of Paris.” But the 78th Fighter Group’s portion of the mission was cancelled after Turley and his fellow pilots had warmed up and taxied out. “Orders came through to cut off the engines but remain in our planes,” Turley wrote. “We waited for 45 minutes this way and then were told to taxi back to the dispersal area and get out of our planes.” Though his part of the mission was scrubbed due to bad weather, Turley wrote that Messerschmitt Bf 110Gs and Me 210s intercepted the unescorted bombers firing air-to-air rockets and the Flying Fortress crews suffered terribly.

Turley may not have known the details, but the German twin-engine fighters each had four under-wing tubes firing spin-stabilized 248-pound Wurfgranate 210mm mortar rockets. This standoff method of air defense was decimating U.S. bomber formations. Twin-engine Messerschmitts could fire the rockets from almost a mile away, far beyond the reach of the bombers’ machine guns. If a rocket detonated within fifty feet of a bomber, it was likely to go down. In a tight formation, a bomber thrown out of control by a rocket blast could plow through several more bombers before falling from the sky. The Achilles tendon of the rocket-launching scheme was the launch platform. If the right fighter could be found to go up against them while far from home in hostile sky, the twin-engine Messerschmitts would be unable to continue using their rockets to pick off bombers like ducks in a shooting gallery.

Turley was describing a mortar rocket attack introduced on a large scale during the second big mission to Schweinfurt, the one that unfolded when the Eighth Air Force belatedly decided, as Turley put it, “to hit the big time again.” On “Second Schweinfurt” on October 14, “Black Thursday,” 196 Thunderbolts from other fighter groups, although not Turley’s, got into the air—but most were unable to find the bombers they were supposed to escort partway. The entire 4th Fighter Group, still equipped with P-47s, then had to be recalled after going astray in heavy clouds. The 352nd Fighter Group attached itself to a segment of the bomber stream that eventually abandoned the mission. Of the 291 bombers sent on the mission, 77 were lost. Despite the availability of P-38s and P-47s in vast numbers, despite the firepower of the bombers’ own guns when they clung together in tight, combat-box formations, and despite the growing size and reach of the bomber force, German defenses were still more formidable than the American attackers.

It was a time of bad news and great danger for bomber crews. A study showed that a typical bomber crew stood only a fifty-fifty chance of completing the required combat tour of twenty-five missions. While the ink was still wet on the study, the required total was raised to thirty. It was a time of heavy casualties and—for some—low morale.

But there was good news. The bombing campaign against the Third Reich was becoming serious. By October 1943, a second front was opened in the great air war when the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy began dispatching B-17s and B-24s in significant numbers against Reich targets.

Turley wrote in his diary that he flew his first escort mission on October 24, 1943, briefly glimpsing a gaggle of Bf 109s and logging four eventless flight hours. In fact, no bombers were launched that day; Thunderbolts flew a fighter sweep. The fighters of VIII Fighter Command were now the property of the tough-hewn Kepner, born in 1893 and now approaching fifty, an extraordinary figure who had been a marine, cavalryman, infantryman, and balloonist before flying fighters on the eve of war. Kepner apparently lacked the right chemistry with Eighth Air Force boss Eaker, but that would change within a couple of short months when Eaker, too, would be gone.

October and November 1943 marked a time of optimism for the Americans and their unprecedented air campaign. Cracks were beginning to show in Third Reich defenses and more bombers were getting through—just as the brass had said, all along, they would. The Luftwaffe could mount a formidable defense against combat boxes of Flying Fortresses and Liberators, but its forces could no longer counter both the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, which were hitting them from two directions. It was not unusual, now, for as many as five hundred heavy bombers to arrive over the Third Reich at once, and the Germans had to pick and choose where and when to mount a defense. The Eighth Air Force and its subordinate VIII Bomber Command and VII Fighter Command were continuing to grow. On November 4, 1943, the ground echelon of the 354th Fighter Group arrived in England, not yet accompanied by its aircraft but soon to be the first fighter group in Europe to operate the new, long-range P-51B Mustangs. The 354th was assigned to IX Fighter Command but was tapped to fly escort. More P-47 and P-51 fighter groups arrived before the end of November.

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