P-51B/C Mustangs Over The Third Reich

On 27th January 1943 the 8th AF invaded the airspace over the Third Reich for the first time, bombing the German Navy base at Wilhelmshaven. More raids of the kind followed, mostly against targets located in the north-western corner of Germany, near the Dutch border. The German air defenses seemed to be taken by surprise and the losses among American bombers were in single figures. The first shock came on 17th April 1943, during the raid against Bremen. As a result of a massive attack by Luftwaffe fighters, 16 out of 115 bombers went down. After this event, losses averaging 10% were to become more of a rule than exception. In summer 1943 a heavy bomber crew’s life expectancy was as low as 12-14 missions. Indeed, the attrition rate for bomber crews was so high that, at that period, less than 10% of them completed the 25-mission requirement. The introduction of the 8th AF’s other heavy bomber type, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, only worsened the situation.

bl01   z4

Meanwhile, at the turn of 1942/43, the first units of the VIII Fighter Command (the fighter part of the 8th AF; VIII FC for short) were issued with a new American-produced fighter: the Republican P-47 Thunderbolt. These were 4th, 56th and 78th Fighter Groups. The first P-47s, which in the spring 1943 appeared over coastal regions of northern France and Belgium, did not at first provide a breakthrough in the aerial war over Europe. Their range did not differ much from that of their British counterparts, which could fly only as far as Paris or Brussels. The real milestone in the concept of the long-range escort was introduction of auxiliary, drop fuel tanks. In July 1943 Thunderbolts were equipped with pressurized, metal 75-gallon tanks, mounted under fuselage, which enabled them to accompany bombers to the German border. In August, fitted with 108-gallon belly tanks, Thunderbolts were able to go as far as Kiel, Hamburg, Hannover or Stuttgart. This was however of little consolation to bomber crews who were ordered to fly as far as central and southern Germany, far beyond the range of their assigned escorts.
The apogee of the bloody summer 1943 took place in August, during the double raid against Schweinfurt and Regensburg. The American losses amounted to 60 Flying Fortresses, which was an appalling 16% of their strength. The return to the ball-bearing factories of Schweinfurt in October 1943 again decimated the 8th AF bomber fleet – this time as many as 20% of those dispatched did not make it back.
Around that time the USAAF brought to England another fighter to fulfill the role of an escort aircraft – the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. This twin-boomed, twin-engined P-38 had already proven itself in the North Africa and in the Pacific, and its escort range was 250 km better than that of the Thunderbolt. Nevertheless, Lightnings in the VIII Fighter Command’s service quickly turned out to be a dismal failure. Due to their faulty engine cooling system, which did not tolerate very low temperatures, P-38s could barely fly at 30,000 feet, the altitude preferred by heavy bombers, let alone fight in their defense. Worse than that, it was discovered that in the thin air of high altitudes the Lightning suffered severely from compressibility and flutter effects. Once in a steep dive, the P-38 was almost impossible to pull out. Luftwaffe pilots quickly became aware of this vice and would exploit it by diving into a split-S after attacking bombers, secure in the knowledge that a Lightning pilot would be more than reluctant to follow them down.
Hence, at the turn of 1943/44, the 8th AF apparently came to a deadlock. It had the P-47, an excellent high-altitude fighter, which lacked sufficient range, and the P-38, a long-range fighter, which nevertheless could barely fly at the operational altitude of heavy bombers! Once again, against such odds, the point of continuing the daylight bomber offensive became increasingly questionable.


bl01   z5

Mustang Reborn

After the bitter experiences of the latter part
of 1943 it became apparent that half mea-
sures wouldn’t cure the problem. The concept of external drop tanks itself was, in a sense, a compromise. The basic problem with range was that insufficient amount of fuel was left in internal cells of escort fighters, once they dropped their auxiliary tanks. What was needed was an aircraft which could not only carry more fuel on board, but also use it more economically. The urgent need for such an aircraft meant that there was no time to design it from scratch. Fortunately, there was a design ready at hand, of great and yet unexplored potential.
In early 1940 the British were eager to purchase as many fighter aircraft as were available in the United States in order to supplement their own meager stocks. The first American design in this class, which – just barely – met their demands, was Curtiss P-40. However, the Curtiss factory was at that time fully occupied with orders from the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC). With few options left, the British approached another American manufacturer, which they knew well, with the idea of building the Curtiss fighter for the RAF under sub-contract. In the early years of the war the North American Aviation (NNA) Company had made a name for itself as the producer of a very popular AT-6 Texan advanced trainer (known to the Commonwealth countries as Harvard). Reluctant to produce on license his competitor’s design, especially the one which he considered to be outmoded, the president of the NNA came up with its own project.
The prototype, designated NA-73X, was first flown in October 1940. Equipped with V-1710 Allison engine and its inefficient one-stage supercharger, the NNA fighter performed well only at lower and medium altitudes. On the other hand, at 15,000 feet its maximum level speed was 375 mph, which made him a good 30 mph faster than Spitfire Mk V, the then best frontline fighter in the RAF. Furthermore, it could stay in the air for four hours, which gave it twice the range of the Spitfire! Although the aerodynamically refined NA‑73X looked like a ‘pure breed’ fighter aircraft, it was flawed with decidedly poor performance above 15,000 ft, where most aerial combat was taking place. Hence it was doomed to be relegated to Army co-operation and reconnaissance work. The aircraft entered serial production in spring 1941 under British designation Mustang Mk I.
In service with the RAF operational units from the beginning of 1942, the Mustang diligently worked on its reputation. On 27th July 1942 the British reconnaissance Mk Is carried out a daring, daylight raid over the Ruhr Valley, collecting data on potential targets for the RAF Bomber Command. They were in fact the first Allied fighters in WWII which crossed the German border. On 19th August 1942 the RAF Mustangs formed part of the aerial cover for the Dieppe landings. On that occasion P/O Hollis Hills (curiously, an American) of the Canadian No 414 Sqn RCAF scored the first, historic victory on Mustang, shooting down a Focke-Wulf 190. In July 1942 the NNA began to deliver Mk IA variant, powerfully armed with four wing-mounted 20 mm cannons.



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