Flight Journal

Impossible Odds

He hoped the Jug was as tough as they said it was

- By Dr. Timothy M. Grace, with George Sutcliffe

He hoped the Jug was as tough as they said it was

For 368th Fighter Group (FG) pilot, 1st Lt. George L. Sutcliffe, what began as a routine mission on June 14, 1944, over Lisieux, France, took an unexpected and unsettling turn for the worse. Just minutes before, he and his fellow 397th Fighter Squadron (FS) pilots were looking for targets of opportunit­y after they had bombed and strafed their primary target. Suddenly, Sutcliffe found himself isolated from his squadron and trapped in his P-47 down on the deck by 40 Me 109s that had formed two counterrot­ating lufberrys just below a 2,000-foot cloud cover. With nowhere to run or hide, Lt. Sutcliffe would have to hold steadfast against all odds and fight his way upward through his German pursuers and escape to the safety of the clouds—or die trying!

George L. Sutcliffe was born in Smithfield, Rhode Island, on February 7, 1923. When the War broke out, Sutcliffe did not have the two years of college education required for the air cadet program. He enlisted in the Navy. “They said I had a deviated septum, and that I couldn’t join until it was surgically fixed,” Sutcliffe recalled for this story.

As an alternativ­e for students to test and qualify for pilot training, he completed a five-month course and passed the examinatio­n. Although Sutcliffe suffered from asthma [and still does], when he took his physical exam, he did not disclose that fact, or he never would have flown.

Cadet Sutcliffe completed all three phases of flight training in Texas. His primary training was at Avenger Field in Sweetwater flying Fairchild PT-19 Cornells. He completed basic training aboard Vultee BT-13 Valiants at Randolph Field. He finished advance training at Moore Field, flying North American AT-6 Texans.

Sutcliffe’s first assignment was with the 320th FS of the 326th FG in late 1942 at Westover Field, Massachuse­tts. The 326th was an Operationa­l Training Unit whose function was to train fighter groups in P-47s for overseas deployment to the various theaters of war. Sutcliffe’s flying proficienc­y did not go unnoticed. The 326th was commanded by Lt. Col. Gilbert L. Meyers. Meyers was about to receive command of a fighter group destined to operate in the

War abroad. In anticipati­on, Meyers told his squadron commanders, including Capt. John D. W. Haesler of the 320th, to select their best pilots. The 368th FG was activated on June 3, 1943, and before long, 2nd Lt. George Sutcliffe was among the original cadre of pilots assigned to the 397th FS, known as the “Jabo Angels.” Little did Sutcliffe know that he would become a valuable pilot with one of the most successful fighter groups during WW II. Lt. Sutcliffe flew in the group’s first mission on March 14, 1944. He was an excellent wingman and began to pile up missions, eventually completing 80. He stated, “I think you’ll find out from just about anybody who had 75 to 100 missions that probably half a dozen will stand out. The rest are routine, and many you forget because it is like going to work and coming home. But there are usually a few incidents that stamp some missions in your mind. I had four that I always remember.”

It is the mission that Lt. Sutcliffe flew on June 14, 1944, that is his most memorable. The 368th flew 142 sorties that day, many to provide high cover over the invasion assault areas. Deputy group commander Lt. Col. Frank S. Perego led 36 P-47s off at 0950 hours, and they proceeded to their assigned areas. After being released from patrol, the squadrons flew south looking for targets of opportunit­y between Alençon and Lisieux.

Squadrons and flights became separated. The 397th FS commander Lt.

Col. John Haesler’s Whiskey Blue flight

[the squadron’s call sign] included his wingman Lt. Sutcliffe and element leader Lt. Marv Rosvold and his wingman, Lt. Robert Bechtold. They were flying at 1,800 feet and preparing to leave, when they were bounced by 40-plus Me 109s. During a wild 15-minute encounter, Lt. Bechtold was hit and had to bail out over Lisieux, but not before he had shot down two enemy aircraft. Lt. Sutcliffe claimed one enemy aircraft destroyed, and Lt. Rosvold claimed one damaged. When they arrived back at Chilbolton afterward, Maj. Haesler said in his report, “It would have been a cinch, but there were just too many of them.”

Such is the general descriptio­n of the mission. A closer look reveals the extraordin­ary aerial proficienc­y of Lt.

George Sutcliffe. The weather was poor, with a 2,000-foot ceiling, and Sutcliffe’s job was to keep his head on a swivel to spot anybody who might attack them from the rear.

“Col. Haesler was talking on the mic about how we could not see anything down there worth shooting at,” said Sutcliffe. “Everything was quiet,” he continued, “Haesler was yakking away, while my head was spinning around. I looked back, and

coming out of the cloud deck were 40 Me 109s. They were headed towards us fast, so I knew that we had to play it quick. I pushed the radio button and tried to get through, but Haesler’s still talking about how we can’t find anything. I pressed on the button and kept hollering, ‘Break left, Colonel; break left, break left,’ because I knew he had to let up on the radio eventually.”

Haesler was flying a gleaming new silver bubble canopy, while the other pilots flew the older razorback version. Two Me 109s flew up by Sutcliffe’s wing and were starting to shoot at him as Haesler heard the call to break left. Haesler broke, and two enemy aircraft in back of him also broke. Sutcliffe broke with his leader and saw three enemy aircraft in back of him. He laid several .50-caliber hits on one of the planes on Haesler’s tail and saw him go down.

Sutcliffe continued to make his sharp 180-degree turn. “As I straighten­ed out, I went head-on through a fur ball of 109s that were coming at us. I fired away at any I could get a bead on. As soon as I made that commitment and got in the middle of them, I realized we had picked up more of them and were in trouble. Haesler said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here. There are too many of them.’ He pulled up into the cloud bank, and Rosvold managed to get up there too. But I had already committed. I was in the middle of these guys, and there were more enemy aircraft above me. I knew I couldn’t go through them. Instinct told me, I’ve got everything forward, full throttle with the water mixture for military power. I figured maybe I could outrun them and dived for the deck. I looked back, and they were coming down. I told myself, ‘That’s a stupid move.’”

The 7-ton P-47 Thunderbol­t was the heaviest single-engine fighter produced in WW II, and it could out-dive any plane. Although this was a distinct advantage

COMING OUT OF THE CLOUD DECK WERE 40 ME 109S. THEY WERE HEADED TOWARDS US FAST, SO I KNEW THAT WE HAD TO PLAY IT QUICK.

at higher altitudes, Sutcliffe had gained nothing in his dive since the cloud cover was merely 2,000 feet. He was trapped. Although desperate, Sutcliffe managed to keep his situationa­l awareness. “I had read that the Me 109 doesn’t turn as well to the right as it does to the left. So I put the Jug in a tight right spiral and tried to reach the clouds. It was the only way I was going to escape and was a purely defensive move since they had me surrounded every minute. I saw Bechtold going around in a circle with two or three of them. He was hit and bailed out. Meanwhile, I was still trying to reach the clouds. Even with everything forward and the momentum gained from the dive, I was killing the speed quickly as I climbed.”

As Sutcliffe climbed toward the cloud bank, he was on the verge of a stall. He dropped the nose and regained speed to resume his climb. Sutcliffe estimates that 10 enemy aircraft chased Haesler and Rosvold into the clouds. By that time, the remaining Luftwaffe pilots had formed up into two counterrot­ating lufberrys under the cloud deck on either side of him. “Each time I dropped my nose, a 109 from either lufberry was on my fanny and clobbering me, no matter which way I turned.

“When I approached the clouds after recovering from the first dive,” Sutcliffe said, “I leveled the nose at a shallow angle to gain some speed. I spotted a guy coming down from the lufberry on my left side. Everything was blinking, so I knew he was shooting at me. I saw tracers flash behind me and realized he was not leading me. He was so intent on getting me that he was closing too fast, and I was sure he would hit me. Live ammunition hit my tail. At the last split second before we collided, I rolled over his canopy. He went under me by about 10 feet, and our eyes met, but not before he hit me with three 20mm cannon shells across the left wing that blew up some of my ammunition. I dived for the deck, regained airspeed and started up in another spiraling turn. Before I reached the clouds, I had to level off to regain airspeed.”

One of the times when Lt. Sutcliffe had leveled off, he was alone. While heading for the clouds, he suddenly observed tracers flashing by his wings on both sides of the cockpit. He pulled back the stick, hit the right rudder and did a half-roll. It was too late, as the center of the plane was hit with a 30mm shell that cut the cable on his elevator trim, which made it hot and heavy. Then he was hit by a 20mm shell in the armor plate behind his head. “I didn’t know I had lost my elevator trim, so I went down again and started back, and I realized that this mission was not coming out like I had thought. I pulled on the stick with both hands and legs, really feeling the G.”

Fighting a blackout, Sutcliffe pulled out of this dive with no altitude to spare. His wings were clipping the treetops.

Sutcliffe climbed again, and as he leveled off, an Me 109 headed down his way much too fast.

“He was taking shots at me, but he was also going under me. As he went underneath, he pulled up, and he slid right back to the side, coming back towards me. The next thing I knew, he was flying flight formation with me. He looked straight at me and shook his head. My impression was that he meant there was no way I was going to get out of this jam. I shook my head at him. He was on the verge of a stall but still trying to get an angle. Finally, I don’t know if he dropped his flaps or what, but he actually started to get slower than I was and started to come down so he could just get enough

HE WENT UNDER ME BY ABOUT 10 FEET, AND OUR EYES MET, BUT NOT BEFORE HE HIT ME WITH THREE 20MM CANNON SHELLS ACROSS THE LEFT WING

angle on me to fire. I watched him closely, and as soon as I saw his nose coming through where he barely had an angle, I rolled over his canopy and went down again. Each time I leveled off, somebody was right on me. All told, I did this maneuver about five times against the enemy planes.”

Sutcliffe was still on full military power, a system where a mixture of water and alcohol is introduced into the engine that provides 300 extra horsepower. It lasts about 15 minutes. “I knew I was getting short because I had been up there a long time. I figured to take my chances before it ran out. I put my nose up and started going for the clouds, watching these guys coming at me. Another pilot overflew me but then slid back up very close. We were both climbing slowly, but before he could get an angle to fire, we hit the clouds. After five seconds, I saw his belly roll off. I was alone—and what a relief! Immediatel­y my engine lost power, and I thought I was hit. It was the water injection that had finally run out. What a difference that made. I realized everything was working. I calmed down and figured since we were in France, I had to head north. ‘Relax, I’m going north.’ I looked at my compass, and it indicated I was heading south. I thought it was broken. They teach you to trust your instrument­s and not to fly by the seat of your pants. I made a 180-degree turn and followed a northerly heading. I was not feeling good about it, but it was the correct thing to do.”

When the encounter began, Haesler and Rosvold escaped in the clouds. Some of the Me 109s broke off and chased them, hoping

to pick them up as they emerged from the top cloud cover. When Sutcliffe broke out of the overcast east of Le Havre, he was directly over the Normandy coast. He looked around to see if someone had followed him, but there was no sign of enemy aircraft. He realized that by taking the wrong heading into the clouds, he had inadvertan­tly evaded any planes that might have been following him.

Sutcliffe saw two planes heading toward him from the right. He recognized them as Thunderbol­ts and hoped they belonged to

Lt. Col. Haesler and Lt. Rosvold. They were indeed his friends, who proceeded to circle his plane and assess the damage. He had a 20mm hole across the wing, and his tail was badly shot up by the 30mm shell that penetrated the center of the fuselage. He had hydraulic pressure and some control.

Sutcliffe wasn’t completely out of the woods. “I looked at my fuel supply and realized I could not get back across the Channel to England. I remembered they had put down a strip on Omaha Beach for emergencie­s like this. We flew up the coastline and, sure enough, picked up a little corrugated strip [A-2, Criquevill­e]. I landed, and the engineers used big shears to cut off the jagged edges from the hits I took. They grabbed 5-gallon Jerry cans and fueled me up. I taxied to the other end of the strip, fired it up, dropped some flaps and took off.”

When Sutcliffe landed back in England, he learned his squadron mates had heard he was shot down. “After we landed, I went to the barracks,” he recalled. “There were two or three guys picking out some of my clothes that would fit them. They were a bit embarrasse­d when I walked in but were awfully glad to see me. Right after that, we had to make out a will with what had to go home; everything else they could share and pass around, if you were lost.”

Lt. George Sutcliffe was awarded the

Silver Star for his action that day. He was also awarded the Distinguis­hed Flying Cross and the Air Medal with 12 Oak Leaf Clusters during his time in combat. By November 1944, Sutcliffe was one of the first pilots from the 368th who had enough missions and points to be sent home. “I was assigned to Luke Field in Arizona to instruct some cadets, kind of a step down, but those are things you have to accept. It turned out pretty nice, as I put a class through advance training. Then I was assigned to Punta

Gorda Air Field in Florida, where I did some instructin­g in the P-51. I joined the Air Force Reserve, flying the F-86 Sabre. For personal reasons, I resigned my commission just three days before the invasion of Korea.

Our reserve outfit was frozen and activated. But for the three days, I would have been in Korea flying the F-86.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Vlado Lenoch flying Butch Schroeder’s P-47D-40 Thunderbol­t, near Danville, Illinois. It’s painted to represent Col. David Schilling’s wartime mount, “Hairless Joe,” while he commanded the 56th FG. David Frasca was flying the camera ship. (Photo by John Dibbs/facebook.com/theplanepi­cture)
Vlado Lenoch flying Butch Schroeder’s P-47D-40 Thunderbol­t, near Danville, Illinois. It’s painted to represent Col. David Schilling’s wartime mount, “Hairless Joe,” while he commanded the 56th FG. David Frasca was flying the camera ship. (Photo by John Dibbs/facebook.com/theplanepi­cture)
 ?? (Photo courtesy 368th FG Associatio­n archives.) ?? Lt. Sutcliffe prepares his parachute for a mission using the squadron pingpong table in July, 1944, at A-3 Cardonvill­e, France.
(Photo courtesy 368th FG Associatio­n archives.) Lt. Sutcliffe prepares his parachute for a mission using the squadron pingpong table in July, 1944, at A-3 Cardonvill­e, France.
 ??  ?? Lt. George Sutcliffe, front row second from left, with pilots form the 320th FS, 326th FG, taken at Westover Field in 1943.
Lt. George Sutcliffe, front row second from left, with pilots form the 320th FS, 326th FG, taken at Westover Field in 1943.
 ?? (Photo courtesy 368th FG Associatio­n archives.) ?? 395th FS Jug is damaged at Y-34, Metz, France, during Operation Bodenplatt­e, January 1, 1945.
(Photo courtesy 368th FG Associatio­n archives.) 395th FS Jug is damaged at Y-34, Metz, France, during Operation Bodenplatt­e, January 1, 1945.
 ?? (Photo by John Dibbs/ facebook.com/ theplanepi­cture) ?? Steve Hinton flies the Planes of Fame’s Curtissbui­lt P-47G Thunderbol­t. At the time of the photo shoot, it was the world’s sole flying Razorback. The aircraft is painted to represent Capt. Walker “Bud” Mahurin’s WW II Thunderbol­t UN-M “The Spirit of Atlantic City.”
(Photo by John Dibbs/ facebook.com/ theplanepi­cture) Steve Hinton flies the Planes of Fame’s Curtissbui­lt P-47G Thunderbol­t. At the time of the photo shoot, it was the world’s sole flying Razorback. The aircraft is painted to represent Capt. Walker “Bud” Mahurin’s WW II Thunderbol­t UN-M “The Spirit of Atlantic City.”

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