From Guadal­canal to Rus­sia: Deadly Down Low

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking - —ZACH ROSEN­BERG

WHEN U. S. MARINES stormed the shores of Guadal­canal in Au­gust 1942 in the first ma­jor U.S. Pa­cific of­fen­sive of the war, both Amer­i­cans and Ja­panese threw what­ever nearby air forces they could find into the mix. The re­sult was an ad hoc unit called the Cac­tus Air Force, after the is­land’s code name. Its most lack­lus­ter mem­ber was the Bell P-39 Aira­co­bra.

Lost in the ado­ra­tion of the su­perb fighter air­craft that both sides pro­duced in World War II are air­planes like the P-39, which couldn’t at­tain the per­for­mance of those later, more ad­vanced de­signs but proved crit­i­cal early in the war. The Aira­co­bra was de­signed around its pow­er­ful 37mm can­non, which fired through the pro­pel­ler nosecone; to make room for the gun, the engine was mounted be­hind the cock­pit. The un­armed, un­ar­mored, hand-crafted pro­to­type demon­strated ex­cel­lent per­for­mance, but the pro­duc­tion model was a dis­ap­point­ment: After ar­mor was added and the tur­bocharger, con­sid­ered too finicky for com­bat and field main­te­nance, was re­moved, the air­craft couldn’t fly very far or fast. It was nearly use­less above 12,000 feet, where bomber raids took place, and was no match against nim­ble Ja­panese fight­ers.

The P-400, an ex­port vari­ant of the P-39, was pressed into ser­vice as the U.S. Army geared up for the Pa­cific of­fen­sive. A hand­ful ar­rived on Guadal­canal to bol­ster U.S. Ma­rine Corps air­craft, but a Ja­panese naval bar­rage and bomb­ing raids promptly de­stroyed most of them. Once it be­came clear that the pre- ferred in­ter­cep­tors were the res­i­dent F4F Wild­cats, the re­main­ing P-39s were used mainly for ground at­tack. But there was still plenty of op­por­tu­nity—ja­panese sup­ply ships made for tempt­ing tar­gets, and the ground troops the ships sup­plied were easy to find. In one in­stance, three P-39s strafed an open field filled with hun­dreds of Ja­panese troops; the at­tack was cred­ited with blunt­ing an of­fen­sive against what be­came known as “Bloody Ridge,” and earned the mis­sion leader the Navy Cross. ( The P- 39 was dropped by many of its cus­tomers, in­clud­ing the first, the United King­dom, after it be­came clear that it sim­ply couldn’t per­form well enough at alti­tude to in­ter­cept Ger­man bombers and lacked the range for cross-channel as­saults.

But the air­planes Bri­tain cast off were wel­comed on the other side of Eu­rope. In the Soviet Union the air war was fought mainly at low al­ti­tudes and short ranges, and when Ger­man air­craft flew low for close air sup­port, the Lit­tle Co­bras, as the Sovi­ets called their P-39s, were there to strike.

“If we had flown it [as] the Amer­i­cans out­lined in the air­craft’s spec­i­fi­ca­tions, they would have shot us down im­me­di­ately,” pi­lot Nick­o­lay Golod­nikov told a Rus­sian in­ter­viewer in 2003. “This fighter was a dud in its [de­sign] regimes.”

The Sovi­ets got nearly half of the 9,558 P-39s built, through the Lend-lease pro­gram, and or­dered still more of an im­proved ver­sion, the P-63. At least eight Soviet pi­lots scored 20 kills in the fighter, in­clud­ing high­est-scor­ing ace R.A. Rechkalov, with 48 of his 54 con­firmed kills in the P-39.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.