P-51B/C Mustangs Over The Third Reich

I was amazed to find that my engine continued to operate, but we had lost our quarry. He had broken off his attack and dived for the ground. At least we had got him off the Mustang’s tail. Suddenly all was quiet and I led my flight back up. We had dropped behind and below the main bomber stream, and as we caught up we saw a B‑17 straggler. They were always easy meat for German fighters, so I eased over to come up behind him. Then I saw two FW 190s closing on him. By this time we were above the Fortress, so we were able to pull in behind and dive in to come up behind the two Germans. I selected one, but before I could close, he flipped into a tight break. I immediately followed – but maybe not quite fast or tight enough. It had been a long time since a German fighter had stayed around for a dogfight, and we believed the P-51 could out-turn the 190 anyway. That day I learned the hard way. I suddenly realized the 190 was gaining on me in the turn. And yet I was fighting it around as tight as I could. The gravity was pulling my oxygen mask down from my nose. My breath was coming in gasps and gulps and still the spinner of the sinister 190 crept up. I thought he must have enough deflection to hit me and I pulled tighter and felt my plane judder and buck on the edge of a stall. He was firing now and would soon be hitting. In my moment of need, I dropped my right hand to the flap lever beside me and dropped just a few degrees of flap. Miraculously the plane stopped its bucking and I pulled out of the line of fire. Immediately the 190 dived for the deck in the usual Luftwaffe evasive action and I was after him.

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But now something strange happened. Normally a P-51 could at least stay with a 190 in a dive, and maybe catch him – at least when he pulled out. But here was my 190 pulling away from me as if I was standing still. Then it came to me: ‘Idiot’ – the flaps were still on. As I took them off, the plane picked up speed. We were hurtling down in a vertical dive. But, although it had only been a few seconds, my 190 was gone”1.
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The concept of long-range escort fighter, so obvious with the advantage of hindsight, took time to evolve. During the inter-war period a popular theory claimed that fast and well-armed bombers could either defend themselves or avoid being engaged using their superior speed. That a multi-engined aircraft, considerably slowed down by its load of bombs, could maintain speed advantage over enemy interceptors, proved to be an illusion. Even the jet-powered German Arado Ar 234, the fastest bomber of the WWII era, was successfully intercepted by the contemporary propeller-driven fighters, whenever the latter could exploit the advantage of height and the resultant advantage of speed in a dive. Equally fruitless were attempts to turn bombers into impervious fortresses. There was a limit of how many gun stations even the heaviest bomber could carry. Furthermore, against such a static target as a formation of heavy bombers the enemy could and did turn even more lethal weapons: twin-engined heavy fighters, the so-called destroyers, armed with large-caliber cannons and rocket missiles. There were even attempts to hit bombers with their own weapon – that is, bomb them from above. It all boiled down to one conclusion – no matter how fast and how well-armed, bombers were vulnerable.
When the first wartime experiences refuted the theory that the bomber would always get through, the need for a long-range escort fighter became obvious and urgent. This was easier said than done, however. The relatively small, single-engined fighter was a short-distance runner. The further ventured bombers into hostile airspace, the more they outdistanced their ‘short-legged’ escort. Germans learned it hard way in the summer of 1940, during the Battle of Britain. Although from their bases on the French coast, scattered along the Channel, England was in visual range, Messerschmitt 109s could barely make it to London and back. Shortly afterwards, the RAF, after a few very costly daylight raids over Germany, turned to night bombing campaign. Still, when the United States Army Air Force arrived in England, its commanders were reluctant to learn from others’ mistakes. As events were to demonstrate, such impudence could not go unpunished.
The U.S. 8th Army Air Force (8th AF for short), which with time became the biggest military air fleet ever seen, was activated in January 1942. Its task was the daytime strategic bomber offensive against the Third Reich, carried out from airfields in eastern England. The first heavy bombers of the 8th AF to arrive in England (in July 1942) were the four-engined Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Their combat debut came in August. During the following months small groups of B-17s, shepherded by numerous British Spitfires, bombed targets in Holland and northern France. By the end of 1942 the VIII Bomber Command (the heavy bomber part of the 8th AF) flew a total of 27 missions over the occupied Europe, losing 32 aircraft. This was a reassuring 2% of the deployed strength (losses below 4% were deemed acceptable).