When the beaches were won, P-47 Thun­der­bolts were ready to take the air war to the ground.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking - BY RICHARD P. HALLION

tions,” Nor­man “Bud” Fortier of the 353rd re­called, “never ex­pect­ing others to take risks he didn’t take him­self.” In March 1944, Dun­can per­suaded com­man­ders to au­tho­rize an op­er­a­tional eval­u­a­tion of the P-47 as a fast, low-level strafer.

Fight­ers, half-again as fast as a typ­i­cal at­tack air­plane, had a de­gree of speed and agility that made them much more sur­viv­able than the light, low-level at­tack bombers in­tended for the job. And this fighter had an im­pos­ing ap­pear­ance: Its tail-sit­ting at­ti­tude, wide-stance land­ing gear, and flat-face ra­dial engine gave it the ag­gres­sive look of a bull­dog. With a 2,000-horse­power Pratt & Whit­ney R-2800 18-cylin­der ra­dial engine, it could fly faster than 400 mph. And it was big. Its porcine fuse­lage—nec­es­sary for hous­ing the com­plex duct­ing run­ning from the tur­bo­su­per­charger to the engine—earned it the nick­name “Jug.” The P-47B wing spanned more than 40 feet, and, with an empty weight of more than 9,300 pounds, the fighter was heav­ier than the Supermarine Spit­fire and its U.S. stable­mates, the Bell P-39C, Cur­tiss P-40B, and North Amer­i­can P-51B. Only Kelly John­son’s dis­tinc­tive twin-engine P-38 weighed more. The late Don­ald Lopez, a long­time deputy di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum and a fighter ace who flew P-40s and P-51s dur­ing the war, rarely missed an op­por­tu­nity to joke about the Thun­der­bolt’s size. In his mem­oir, he wrote, “the cock­pit was so roomy that sup­pos­edly, when a pi­lot

was un­der at­tack, he could run around the cock­pit and yell help ev­ery time he passed the ra­dio.”

Dun­can found 16 vol­un­teers who de­vised at­tack strate­gies, then took their Jugs down to ground level to test how they per­formed at straf­ing. After five suc­cess­ful mis­sions, the pi­lots re­turned to their orig­i­nal units to im­part their newly ac­quired ex­pe­ri­ence in low-level at­tack. In the months be­fore Nor­mandy, P-47s con­tin­ued to es­cort bombers on raids deep into oc­cu­pied Eu­rope and Ger­many, but once the bombers were safe, they be­gan de­scend­ing “on the deck” to strafe air­fields and find other tar­gets of op­por­tu­nity be­fore head­ing home.

FOR THE GROUND CREWS and pi­lots of the P-47 fighter-bomber groups in the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, D-day be­gan well be­fore dawn. The air­men had learned their part in the in­va­sion the day be­fore, and Lieu­tenant Ernest Stowe wrote in the 50th Fighter Group his­tor­i­cal re­port that “it be­came ap­par­ent that no­body was go­ing to get much sleep.” Pi­lots, ground crew, and other sup­port per­son­nel “stood by, check­ing last minute ar­range­ments, maps and time sched­ules, and drink­ing great quan­ti­ties of hot cof­fee, sweat­ing out take-off time, and the weather.” Fi­nally, at 3:36 a.m., the first Thun­der­bolts took off. “The sky seemed full of cir­cling lights” as “one P-47 after an­other, with nav­i­ga­tion and dome lights wink­ing,” climbed away, joined up in for­ma­tion, and then turned to­ward France.

All day, at any par­tic­u­lar mo­ment, hun­dreds of P-47s were rang­ing across France and pa­trolling over the beach­head. Early mis­sions sighted no en­emy air­craft and lit­tle flak, as the P-47 pi­lots, en­joy­ing com­plete air supremacy, mar­veled at the un­fold­ing in­va­sion. In a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple, one group watched shell splashes and shore bursts as Al­lied ships and Ger­man coastal bat­ter­ies ex­changed fire.

The Ger­man per­spec­tive was markedly dif­fer­ent. An early morn­ing fog had of­fered some chance of hid­ing units on the move, but as it burned off, road con­voys and ve­hi­cles stood out starkly. Ni­co­laus von Be­low, Adolf Hitler’s Luft­waffe ad­ju­tant, re­called that from the out­set, “en­emy air su­pe­ri­or­ity was clear-cut,” adding: “By that same evening it was al­ready clear the in­va­sion was a suc­cess.”

JUNE 6 SERVED MERELY as an in­tro­duc­tion to the mas­sive air-ground cam­paign that fol­lowed. The 50th Fighter-bomber Group’s daily ac­tion re­port of June 8 gives a sense of the pace of ac­tiv­ity of the en­tire Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-47 squadrons in the days after Nor­mandy:

“One squadron... com­prised of 16 P47D’S took off on a Dive Bomb­ing mis­sion at 1356 hours 8 June 1944…. Good re­sults were claimed. At [Cerisy-la-forêt] a tank col­umn of 12 plus was at­tacked at 1440 hours and many were left burn­ing

and de­mol­ished. About 30 bombs were dropped on these tanks and they were strafed as well. A di­rect hit was made on a half­track at road in­ter­sec­tion S of Cerisy La Ford [ sic] and left a com­plete wreck. 18 bombs were dropped on a hut­ment area near Foret des Biards and area was then strafed.”

U.S. and Bri­tish com­bat en­gi­neers had landed im­me­di­ately after the first in­vaders, and be­gun scrap­ing and clear­ing the area to build for­ward airstrips, the first of which was avail­able for emer­gency use within a day. These in­creased the num­ber of sor­ties fighter-bombers could fly, their on-sta­tion du­ra­tion, and—by elim­i­nat­ing the need for shot-up air­planes to make per­ilous over­wa­ter cross­ings to get back to Bri­tish bases—a pi­lot’s chances of sur­vival if hit.

The Thun­der­bolts quickly re­lo­cated to France. Lieu­tenant Gen­eral El­wood “Pete” Que­sada re­called, “There was a pe­riod of time when we were mov­ing one group ev­ery two days.” If saved from ditch­ing, how­ever, Jug pi­lots were now so close to the fight­ing that, as Lieu­tenant Jimmy Wells from the 365th Fighter Group re­called, they “got shot at by ri­fle or ma­chine gun fire right in the traf­fic pat­tern.”

In the ad­vanc­ing ar­mored col­umns, fighter-bomber pi­lots were placed in com­mand tanks equipped with air-ground ra­dio. The part­ner­ship be­tween air­men and tankers her­alded a new mis­sion: “ar­mored col­umn cover,” which trans­formed the op­er­a­tions of ground forces from blind, in­cre­men­tal pro­gres­sion to in­formed, speedy break­out. So rapidly did the ground forces ad­vance that by the end of Au­gust, even French-based P-47s had to carry drop tanks to en­sure they had both the range and the du­ra­tion on sta­tion to meet the needs of the tankers.

Amer­ica’s most fa­mous ar­mored com­man­der, Gen­eral Ge­orge Pat­ton, had warned one fighter com­man­der, “I will go so fast that the Air Forces are go­ing to have a hel­luva time keep­ing up with me,” and in the break­out across France, that’s just what hap­pened. In the first month of the ad­vance, Pat­ton’s Third Army moved so far and so quickly that his air sup­port head­quar­ters re­lo­cated five times.

The pace of air op­er­a­tions re­mained in­tense; on July 29, for ex­am­ple, the three P-47 squadrons of the 50th Fighter-bomber Group flew a to­tal of 23 mis­sions. At the cost of three air­craft lost to flak and three others dam­aged, the group’s pi­lots re­ported de­stroy­ing 46 tanks, more than 80 other ve­hi­cles, eight horse-drawn guns, “many” build­ings, and an anti-air­craft gun, as well as killing an es­ti­mated 50 Ger­man troops. Al­to­gether, the Wehrma­cht lost thou­sands of tanks, ar­mored cars, mo­bile ar­tillery, and other trans­ports. Units for­tu­nate enough to with­draw from France did so with few, and in some cases no, mech­a­nized ve­hi­cles, re­turn­ing on foot or by horse-drawn wagon.

A des­per­ate Ger­man coun­ter­at­tack in early Au­gust, at­tempt­ing to split the Al­lied front in two, with­ered at Mor­tain, a town close to the Nor­mandy-brit­tany bor­der. In­ten­sive Bri­tish Typhoon and U.S. P-47 at­tacks, cou­pled with res­o­lute re­sis­tance on the ground, quickly ended the ad­vance. The Panz­ers made good progress un­til “Al­lied fighter- bombers swooped out of the sky,” Gen­er­alleut­nant Hein­rich von Lüt­twitz, com­man­der of the Sec­ond Panzer Di­vi­sion, re­called mo­rosely.

Daily, fighter-bomber pi­lots whit­tled away at the Wehrma­cht. On Au­gust 8, they claimed the de­struc­tion of 47 tanks and 122 other mo­tor ve­hi­cles. On Au­gust 12, they de­stroyed or dam­aged an es­ti­mated 350 lo­co­mo­tives and over 3,000 rail cars, trans­ports, and wag­ons, to­gether with nearly 800 other ve­hi­cles and nine oil barges. “It was a big day,” re­ported Bri­gadier Gen­eral Fran­cis H. Gris­wold, Chief of Staff of the Eighth Fighter Com­mand, “but not unique.”

Just days af­ter­ward, over the FalaiseAr­gen­tan gap in north­ern France, the full fury of Al­lied tac­ti­cal fighter-bombers fell upon the Wehrma­cht as it des­per­ately strove to es­cape. De­stroyed and aban­doned ve­hi­cles, and the bod­ies of sol­diers and horses, clogged the roads and coun­try lanes. “Ap­palling scenes took place,” vet­eran Panzer com­man­der Hans von Luck re­called, adding, “En­emy planes were swoop­ing down un­in­ter­rupt­edly on any­thing that moved. I could see the mush­room clouds of ex­plod­ing bombs, burn­ing ve­hi­cles, and the wounded, who were picked up by re­treat­ing trans­ports.” Jack Dentz, then fly­ing with the 386th Fighter Squadron, had sim­i­lar mem­o­ries. “We went in like fly­ing ar­tillery and just

FAST FACT: Straf­ing pi­lots of­ten dis­abled tanks by ric­o­chet­ing bul­lets off the road and bounc­ing them into the tanks’ vul­ner­a­ble un­der­sides.

de­stroyed it all,” he told his­to­ri­ans Robert Dorr and Thomas Jones, re­counted in their book Hell Hawks, adding re­morse­fully, “It was hideous. It was the only time I ac­tu­ally came home feel­ing sick. I killed over 60 horses on just one mis­sion; they had been pulling 88mm guns.”

THE NINTH AIR FORCE P-47S were par­tic­u­larly in­flu­en­tial dur­ing at­tacks on Brest, a Ger­man-oc­cu­pied coastal fortress city, and in forc­ing the sur­ren­der of Ger­man troops south of the Loire in Au­gust and Septem­ber 1944. A XIX Tac­ti­cal Air Com­mand re­port gives an ac­count of the ac­tion at Brest: “In the fi­nal phases of the as­sault, fighter bombers were di­rected to at­tack in­di­vid­ual houses which were ob­struct­ing progress of the ground at­tack—in ef­fect street fight­ing with P- 47s.” So feared were Al­lied fighter-bombers that Gen­eral­ma­jor Botho El­ster sur­ren­dered his en­tire com­mand of 20,000 troops to the ad­vanc­ing Amer­i­cans, and at the sur­ren­der cer­e­mony, he point­edly sur­ren­dered not to the Ninth Army’s gen­eral but to the gen­eral’s Army Air Forces rep­re­sen­ta­tive. P- 47S WERE, OF COURSE, ac­tive in Amer­ica’s other com­bat the­aters. Dur­ing the Ital­ian cam­paign, 12th and 15th Air Force P-47s flew on Op­er­a­tion Stran­gle, an air cam­paign to in­ter­dict Ger­man sup­ply lines. In June 1944, 12th Air Force P-47s even took on Axis ship­ping, dive-bomb­ing and crip­pling the ex-ital­ian air­craft car­rier Aquila at its dock in Genoa har­bor.

On Au­gust 15, the Al­lies launched the in­va­sion of south­ern France. As with Nor­mandy, Al­lied air­men had worked out their tar­gets weeks be­fore the in­va­sion— in this case, air­fields, roads, and rail lines. On Au­gust 28, Cap­tain Wil­liam B. Col­gan was lead­ing a flight of three P-47s up the Rhône River val­ley when he spot­ted a long col­umn of ve­hi­cles head­ing north. It mea­sured fully 30 miles long, with many ve­hi­cles pro­ceed­ing two, and even three, abreast.

When the three P-47s at­tacked, a storm of light flak greeted them. They pressed on, de­stroy­ing and dam­ag­ing sev­eral ve­hi­cles and bring­ing the col­umn to a halt. All three were badly shot up, and two crashed. “Straf­ing was tougher shoot­ing than air-to-air,” Col­gan re­called at a vet­eran’s re­union over seven decades later, adding “20mm light flak was a killer.” One pi­lot died, but the other who had crashed hid in a vine­yard and then, shel­tered by French farm­ers, made his way to safety.

Col­gan’s own P-47 took a hit in the

right wing that blew out two of its guns and the am­mu­ni­tion bay, leav­ing it in a ver­ti­cal bank, fol­lowed by an­other pun­ish­ing hit that dam­aged the engine and caused a se­ri­ous oil leak. Pre­pared to bail out, Col­gan was amazed that the badly dam­aged Pratt & Whit­ney R-2800 con­tin­ued to run, and even more that the land­ing gear func­tioned, en­abling him to land safely back at base, though his air­plane was beyond re­pair.

The three air­men’s at­tack had bought time for an­other flight of four P-47s to ar­rive, and over sev­eral days of mul­ti­ple air at­tacks, the en­tire col­umn was de­stroyed. Al­to­gether, the U.S. Sev­enth Army re­ported more than 2,000 ve­hi­cles of all sorts lit­ter­ing the route.

THOUGH ITS RUGGED struc­ture and R-2800 engine gave the P-47 a de­gree of sur­viv­abil­ity un­matched by sleeker thor­ough­breds with in­line liq­uid-cooled en­gines, such as the P-38 and P-51, it was not in­vul­ner­a­ble, and many fell to an­ti­air­craft fire. Others were lost when their pi­lots be­came fix­ated and flew into their tar­gets, or flew too low and struck trees or the ground, or flew through their own bomb blast or the ex­plo­sion of their vic­tims.

Pi­lots had to bal­ance the value of the tar­get against the dan­ger that could take them and their air­plane out of the fight. “The tar­get should be worth what you have to pay,” Lieu­tenant Colonel Ben Rimer­man of the 353rd Fighter Group warned fel­low air­men, “mean­ing that it is fool­ish to lead a flight across a heav­ily de­fended air­drome to shoot up an old beat-down Fieseler Storch [a light ob­ser­va­tion and li­ai­son air­craft] if that is all you can see.” Air­field at­tacks that went awry caused sev­eral lead­ing Thun­der­bolt pi­lots to be lost or taken as prisoners of war, no­tably Fran­cis “Gabby” Gabreski, the Army Air Forces’ lead­ing ace in the Euro­pean theater, with 28 vic­to­ries—all in P-47s. On July 20, 1944, fly­ing a bub­ble-top P-47D, Gabreski mushed into the ground on a low straf­ing run against some Heinkel He 111 bombers. He bel­lied the air­plane in and was taken pris­oner.

Over the length of its Euro­pean cam­paign, the XIX Tac­ti­cal Air Com­mand lost nearly 600 pi­lots, ei­ther killed or miss­ing in ac­tion—an av­er­age of more than two per day. Over the sum­mer of 1944, the Ninth Air Force lost nearly 23 per­cent of its fighter force each month, an av­er­age of 227 fight­ers, the vast ma­jor­ity to flak and small arms fire. One rea­son for the high losses is the ex­tra­or­di­nary num­ber of sor­ties flown. For ev­ery 100 sor­ties, one Thun­der­bolt was lost.

ON DE­CEM­BER 16, 1944, the Nazi high com­mand launched an of­fen­sive through the snow-filled woods of the Ar­dennes. Known as the Bat­tle of the Bulge, the at­tack was planned by Hitler and his se­nior gen­er­als for win­ter, when the weather would pre­vent the Al­lies from us­ing their crush­ing air­power.

Though weather did con­strain Al­lied op­er­a­tions, fa­mously caus­ing Pat­ton to sum­mon his com­mand chap­lain to write a “weather prayer,” the air­men flew when­ever a chance ex­isted of get­ting aloft, spot­ting a tar­get, and get­ting back.

The Bulge of­fen­sive marked the last gasp of the Luft­waffe, which hav­ing been hus­banded for one last push, proved it could still bite the un­wary. On Jan­uary 1, 1945, nearly 1,000 Ger­man fight­ers and bombers un­der­took a sur­prise strike against Al­lied air­fields on the Con­ti­nent. More than 200 Al­lied air­craft were lost, in­clud­ing nu­mer­ous P-47s. But the in­dus­trial be­he­moth that was the Al­lied air­craft in­dus­try could eas­ily draw on ex­ist­ing stocks to re­place any of those lost, while more than 300 Ger­man fight­ers had been shot down, with nearly all their pi­lots out of ac­tion. Fighter Gen­eral Adolf Gal­land wrote: “The Luft­waffe re­ceived its death-blow at the Ar­dennes.”

In the wake of the failed Ar­dennes of­fen­sive, the Al­lied armies con­tin­ued their ad­vance into the heart­land of the Re­ich. As the armies pushed for­ward, vil­lage by vil­lage, they con­fronted dogged re­sis­tance. Con­se­quently, for the P-47s, the war be­came a re­morse­less one of bomb­ing and straf­ing any likely source of op­po­si­tion.

By March, the Thun­der­bolts car­ried fewer bombs and re­lied in­stead on the power of .50-cal­iber straf­ing against cars, trucks, and other light craft. One such strike, on the road to Bad Durkheim, caused a U.S. Army Air Forces ob­server to write: “It is so enor­mous that the mind can­not mea­sure it! The only im­pres­sion made is that this is the acme and ul­ti­mate of death, de­struc­tion, and chaos.”

The Hitler regime col­lapsed into sur­ren­der at one minute past mid­night on May 9, 1945. The air­men be­hind the P-47 had fought a hard and costly war. Re­pub­lic and Cur­tiss pro­duced 15,683 of the big fight­ers, of which fully a third—5,222— were lost in com­bat.

FAST FACT: The first P-47 pi­lots based in France after the in­va­sion flew up to five sor­ties a day, some no longer than 15 min­utes.

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