P-51D/K Mustangs Over the Third Reich

The combat debut of American Mustangs in European airspace in December 1943 was a long-awaited turning point in the battle for air-superiority over the territory of the Third Reich2. The Mustangs excelled as long-range escort fighters – bomber crews commonly referred to them as “little friends”. The USAAF commenced its daylight bomber offensive as early as August 1942. The ensuing losses, suffered by the unescorted heavy bombers of both U.S. strategic air forces – the 8th AF operating from England and the Italy-based (from November 1943) 15th AF – were deemed unacceptable. Even worse, the destruction of the Luftwaffe’s resources through the bombing of German aviation industry centres – the objective of operation “Pointblank” – proved unfeasible. The Germans had effectively dispersed their aircraft production. The number of fighters assembled in Germany had actually increased: production tripled from spring 1944 up until the year’s end; in the month of September it reached a record of 3,000 aircraft. It became clear that the Jagdwaffe – the fighter arm of the Luftwaffe – could only be destroyed in the air by being goaded into a series of decisive battles. This task was bestowed upon the escort fighters, with the bombers acting as bait. It was easier said than done, however. The Jagdwaffe had begun to withdraw its units into the Reich’s territory, far beyond the range of most allied fighters. In fact, the superb performance and combat radius of the P-51 made it practically the only fighter in the Allies’ inventory capable of suppressing the German fighter force over its own turf.

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In spring 1944, new, 108-gallon disposable fuel tanks became available. When rigged to carry them, the heavily loaded Mustangs (one full tank weighed 700 pounds) had a combat range of about 1,000 miles. This was enough to take off from England and land at the other end of Europe. This was proved in summer 1944, when the 8th AF began to fly shuttle missions to Ukraine in the Soviet Union. The Germans recognized the threat posed by the American strategic air offensive and began to bolster their homeland defences by withdrawing fighter units and some of their best pilots from other theatres. In March 1944 the 8th AF launched a series of bombing raids against Berlin and in mid-May switched its major effort to the oil industry; the air war over Germany was reaching its climax.
After the start of the allied invasion of Normandy on 6th June 1944, all RAF and USAAF air units stationed in England (some 3,000 fighters alone) – including the Mustangs of the 8th AF – were deployed over France. At the same time, the 15th AF staged several raids against targets along the southern flank of the Third Reich in an effort to tie up some of the German fighter force. These missions were particularly tough, since the 15th AF had not only to fight its way through a screen of German and Italian interceptors stationed in northern Italy, but also to face the Luftwaffe’s Reichsverteidigung (Reich Defence) units over the target area. This meant the escorting Mustangs often had to engage the enemy much earlier than expected – and in the process dispose of their drop tanks. This occurred on 9th June 1944, when some 500 Liberators and Flying Fortresses set off for the Oberpfaffenhofen and Weßling airfields near Munich. For the 31st and 52nd FGs, which had converted to Mustangs in April of the same year, it was their first foray over Germany. Whilst the 31st FG met no opposition in the air, the 52nd FG got more action than it had bargained for. The group was scheduled to pick up the bombers near Traunstein in Bavaria before shepherding them to the target. However, over Udine in Italy the 52nd FG chanced upon a box of B-24s being harassed by a swarm of enemy fighters (some from JG 77). 16 of the 55 machines dispatched by the 52nd FG that day immediately jettisoned their long-range tanks and hurried to the rescue. The remaining 39 pressed on, and over the target area had to slug it out with a bunch of single– and twin-engined fighters (of JG 302 and ZG 1, respectively). The day’s fighting yielded 15 ‘destroyed’ credits for the 52nd FG, without a single loss being incurred. This was quite a remarkable feat for a 15th AF unit, as they rarely engaged in the massive air battles fought by the 8th AF over western Europe.
A week later, on 17th June 1944, the first P-51Ds arrived at the 31st FG’s base at San Severo, Italy. Over the next few weeks an increasing number of them were ferried from North Africa. The first fighter squadron of the 15th AF equipped with the D model was the 307th FS of the 31st FG.


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Enter the P-51D

Although the success of the P-51B/C model in the role of ‘long-range escort fighter’ was indisputable, the first few months of its operational service revealed several issues – a common situation for an early production series. The most alarming faults concerned the wing-mounted guns (which became notorious for jamming), various oil and coolant leaks, and rough running of the engines. Furthermore, visibility from the cockpit was notably poor. However, North American Aviation, the company that designed and produced the Mustang, was already working on a successor to the P-51B/C. It was designated the P-51D.
One of the production P-51Bs (s/n 43-12102) was pulled from the assembly line and rebuilt with a lowered fuselage spine aft of the cockpit. The modified rear fuselage allowed the installation of a Perspex frameless hood, which slid to the rear on rails (unlike the hinged canopy of the original P-51B/C, which opened sideways). The new teardrop-shaped, ‘bubble’ canopy offered an unparalleled all-round view from the cockpit. The modified Mustang made its first flight at Inglewood on 17th November 1943, with Bob Chilton, the chief test-pilot of the NAA, at the controls. On later production variants (starting with the P‑51D-10-NA) a dorsal fin was fitted just ahead of the rudder to compensate for the slight loss of directional stability that resulted from the reduced aft keel area. The dorsal fin fillet was also retrofitted to operational aircraft as a field modification kit. Metal elevators were added in February 1945. The P-51D continued to have a fabric rudder. When equipped with 108-gallon drop tanks, the gross weight of the P-51D reached 11,600 lb.



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