Flight Journal

Zemke's Wolfpack

- By William Hess

The 56th Fighter Group racks up the kills

COL. HUBERT ZEMKE, CO of the 56th FG, had seen his Republic P-47 Thunderbol­t pilots mature from the first group trained on that type aircraft to a group that was ready to fight when it arrived in England in April l943. And he had commanded them through their initial combat problems, such as the fight for droppable fuel tanks to extend their range to paddle-bladed propellers to improve their rate of climb. As these improvemen­ts were made, the 56th became one of the stellar fighter units in the 8th Air Force. By the spring of 1944, they were the top air to air scorers in the force and their escort missions for the bombers had become some of the most successful provided by fighters.

There was a problem, however, of maintainin­g air superiorit­y over the Luftwaffe as time for the Allied invasion of Europe neared. Zemke had studied the problem and thought he had a solution to the enemy’s refusal to come up to do battle. Zemke proposed that a fighter group lead the bombers in a formation large enough to make the German fighter-intercepti­on plotters believe they were all a bomber unit. Once they entered about 20 miles into enemy territory, the escort fighters would split off in two directions to cover a l80degree arc and be ready when the Luftwaffe came up to intercept what they thought were only bombers. A conference at 8th Air Force headquarte­rs accepted the plan, and Zemke went home to put it in effect.

Zemke had picked a good time for the 8th Air Force bomber missions because May

12, l944, marked the first strikes against oil targets in the Third Reich flown from Great Britain. The 56th Group sent out an A Group that consisted of three squadrons each with 18 aircraft that led the mission until they reached a point 35 miles south of Koblenz,

Germany. There, the squadrons fanned out. B Group, composed of the same size force, followed and swept into the KoblenzFra­nkfurt area where they would assist A Group, if needed. Col. Zemke led A Group, and Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski led B Group. Col. Zemke and his flight took off at 0946 hours, climbed out and headed for the continent, where they leveled off at 22,000 feet. His flight was composed of three P-47s as one ship aborted, which left Zemke with Lt. Col. Preston Piper, a bomber leader, and Lt. John McDonnell. The flight moved out to scout an area north of Frankfurt, where they were bounced by a formation of seven Messerschm­itt 109s. Lt. McDonnell was immediatel­y shot down, and Zemke and Piper broke and attempted to escape, but Piper was downed also. Zemke used the Thunderbol­t’s dive ability and managed to get away from his attackers.

Heading westward, Zemke evaded another flight of four Bf 109s, and while headed home, he sighted another flight of four 109s about 5,000 feet below him circling at l5,000 feet. He thought of

ZEMKE THOUGHT HE HAD A SOLUTION TO THE ENEMY’S REFUSAL TO COME UP TO DO BATTLE ... HE PROPOSED THAT A FIGHTER GROUP LEAD THE BOMBERS IN A FORMATION LARGE ENOUGH TO MAKE THE GERMAN FIGHTER-INTERCEPTI­ON PLOTTERS BELIEVE THEY WERE ALL A BOMBER UNIT.

attacking this flight but noted that they seemed have several other 109s and FockeWulf 190s joining them. They continued to assemble until there were more than 40 enemy aircraft present. This was, no doubt, an assembly point for the Luftwaffe pilots to attack the bombers.

Meanwhile, Lt. Robert “Shorty” Rankin led his flight northwest of Marburg. They got a call from another flight, but on the way, they encountere­d 25 109s climbing in a left-hand turn at l9,000 feet and forming up to attack the bombers. Rankin attacked the last two of the formation. He fired a short burst from 350 yards, and the 109 performed a Split-S for the deck; he went after it. Rankin fired another short burst and continued the dive. He noted the 109’s wings begin to vibrate, and Rankin pulled out at l,500 feet as the enemy crashed into a small town.

After climbing back to about to 8,000 feet, Rankin saw another 109 headed east in a shallow dive; he went after it. He and his flight closed rapidly. The 109 pilot turned left, and Rankin hit him with a good solid burst in the engine and fuselage. The pilot popped his canopy and bailed out, but his parachute never opened.

Meanwhile, Zemke continued to circle the assembling enemy fighters and called for assistance from members of the 56th Group. Lt. Rankin heard his call, but just before he departed, F/O Gerick in his flight sighted an Fw l90 below and went after it along with his wingman.

Rankin and his wingman, Lt. Cleon Thomton, continued on their vector to intercept Zemke and found him over Koblenz circling 30 enemy aircraft. Rankin called he would join him, but Zemke said he was bouncing the enemy below and to cover him. Zemke immediatel­y went down after a 109 on the outer edge of a formation. When he arrived, the enemy presented a 60- to 90-degree deflection. Then Zemke led him about two gunsight rings, fired, and let the 109 fly into the bullets. The enemy craft took numerous hits and went into a spin before the engine flamed and the pilot bailed out.

Zemke pulled up from his attack, and Rankin went down. He pulled in behind two 109s and began to fire. The one on the left took heavy hits and the landing gear came down. He then moved behind the other 109 and fired a good solid burst from dead astern. The enemy craft was hit heavily and its landing gear came down also. Both damaged 109s were seen going down at a 50-degree angle and crashing into the ground.

Rankin continued to turn in the area that was still teeming with enemy aircraft. He pulled up on three other 109s, two of them together and another slightly ahead, when for some unknown reason, all three pilots bailed out. Rankin had not fired, nor had Zemke. Neither pilot claimed these.

Rankin climbed and tacked onto two more 109s but was not able to get good deflection shots on them; he still fired and may have damaged them. At this time, he sighted a lone 109 climbing up underneath Col. Zemke. He called for him to break and turned onto the tail of his attacker. Rankin fired and saw a little smoke coming back, but his gear came down. He broke into two more 109s that were coming in on his wingman, and as he did, he saw the pilot he had just fired at bail out.

Rankin maneuvered with these two until his wingman had to break down and away. While Rankin continued to go around with the two, his wingman, Lt. Thomton, came from below and attacked one of the 109s head-on. He attained good strikes, and the pilot bailed out.

The two Thunderbol­t pilots continued to seek action and Rankin got on the tail of another 109 but ran out of ammunition. Rankin had enjoyed a great day with five

kills, while his wingman—on his first mission—had scored a single.

While Zemke and Rankin had their action, quite a bit was taking place elsewhere.

Capt. Paul Conger and his two wingmen were finding a bevy of targets. North of Marburg, where they had been dispersed in the fan flying at 23,000 feet, they sighted a formation of 40 plus Focke-Wulf 190s. Conger and his men tried a sneak attack, but they were bounced by four other l90s. The Thunderbol­t pilots broke into them, and they departed. Conger picked out two stragglers and attacked. He hit one from 800 yards and knocked parts off his left wing. The pilot went into a shallow dive and bailed out. He then pulled into position behind the leader and hit him with a long burst from 500 yards. A second burst from 300 yards hit his tank and “all hell exploded.”

Conger got his flight together and positioned them for a line-abreast attack. As the flight pulled up, Lt. Arthur Maul

HE SIGHTED A LONE 109 CLIMBING UP UNDERNEATH COL. ZEMKE. HE CALLED FOR HIM TO BREAK AND TURNED ONTO THE TAIL OF HIS ATTACKER.

attacked a 109 that flew between him and his leader. Maul fired and saw good strikes on the fuselage. Smoke poured out and then flames. The 109 rolled over on its back and went down in a 90-degree dive. Maul last saw him at about 5,000 feet, still in a dive.

At about the same time as Lt. Maul attacked his 109, another 109 came under attack from Lt. Praeger Neyland at 21,000 feet. Very good hits were scored, and the enemy craft rolled over on its side, then on its back and went straight down. Last seen, it was leaving a trail of smoke.

Capt. Joe Powers was leading his flight in the vicinity of Frankfurt when he attacked a 109 at 22,000 feet. He and his wingman,

Lt. Joseph Vitale, chased this aircraft all the way from their altitude to the deck. The enemy pilot crash-landed it in a small field, where it flipped over and burned.

Lt. Jack Green destroyed a 109 that he and his flight encountere­d at l4,000 feet over Frankfurt. The aircraft went down trailing black smoke.

Lt. J. Carroll Wakefield took his flight to their designated area between Frankfurt and Giessen. They lost one member of their flight owing to heavy flak as they set out to find another flight that had called for assistance. They were unable to find the flight, but they did sight some l2 or so 109s stalking a P-47 flight. Wakefield took his flight up over the Thunderbol­ts and did a l80 to get the 109s to come after him. He was going to call a break, but his number-4 man prematurel­y called a break to the left, for he had not seen the whole force behind him. Wakefield’s two wingmen broke left, and he broke right and did a 360 and found himself on the tail of the enemy formation. He closed on one 109 at 50 yards. Hits were scored all over the craft and the canopy came off, but the pilot did not get out.

Wakefield then went to the rescue of one of his wingmen. He saw two 109s on the tail of a Thunderbol­t and made a pass at the craft closest to the P-47. It rolled over and went down. He then made a pass at the other 109 and scored hits on its engine. This aircraft then skidded to the right of the P-47 and exploded.

A single 109 was sighted diving away, so Wakefield went after it. Several deflection shots did not seem to do any damage, but the canopy came off and the pilot bailed out.

All in all, it was an outstandin­g day for Zemke’s Wolfpack, and although they lost several pilots on May 12, 1944, the 18 to three kill-to-loss ratio proved that his fan deployment idea worked.

Avro Lancaster L7583 EM-A of 207 Squadron Royal Air Force, photograph­ed from the cockpit of another of the unit’s Lancasters in 1942. Note the engine exhaust shroud covering the exhaust stubs on the Lancaster’s engine cowling, which were designed to reduce the exhaust flames’ glare at night, to make visual detection by enemy night fighters less likely. (John Dibbs Collection)

The Avro Lancaster in this haunting photo is L7583, which in 1942 was serving with 207 Squadron based at RAF Langar in Nottingham­shire, England, wearing the code letters EM-A.

This aircraft was one of 94 Lancaster bombers that flew on Operation Robinson, a daring long-range, low-level, daylight bombing raid against the Schneider factory at Le Creusot, 300 miles inside France, on October 17, 1942. L7583 was flown and captained by 22-year-old Sergeant Pilot Ron Wilson with his all-NCO crew.

One of the aircraft’s four engines failed before reaching the target, and the crew was forced to turn back alone, flying on three engines. Over the sea near to the French coast, while flying 40 feet above the water, the Lancaster was attacked by three German Arado seaplanes (probably Arado AR 196s) and a running combat ensued, with the Lancaster evading and jinking hard as the Arados attacked in unison. During combat, the Lancaster’s flight engineer, 19-year-old Sergeant

Kenneth Chalmers, was killed outright by a single stray bullet. In a display of fine airmanship, courage, and superb teamwork, the Lancaster’s gunners shot down two of the Arados and damaged and drove off the third. The Lancaster reached its base at Langar carrying the body of the dead crewman. Five of the surviving crewmen of L7583 were awarded immediate Distinguis­hed Flying Medals.

Just three weeks later, the now newly commission­ed Pilot Officer Ron Wilson and his crew were all killed in another 207 Squadron Lancaster, L7546, when it crashed in central France during a night bombing raid to Genoa, Italy, after what is believed to have been a midair collision with an unknown aircraft.

Lancaster L7583, the aircraft in this photograph, was slightly more fortunate. It survived the war after being transferre­d to training duties with No. 1661 Conversion Unit and then No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School. It was scrapped in November 1946.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? In the 56th FG, LM represente­d the 62nd FS; HV the 61st; and UN the 63rd.
In the 56th FG, LM represente­d the 62nd FS; HV the 61st; and UN the 63rd.
 ??  ?? Col. Hubert“Hub” Zemke, the 56th FG’s CO, who came up with the idea of the “Zemke fan”—a tactic devised to get the Luftwaffe to come up and fight.
Col. Hubert“Hub” Zemke, the 56th FG’s CO, who came up with the idea of the “Zemke fan”—a tactic devised to get the Luftwaffe to come up and fight.
 ??  ?? Lt. Robert “Shorty “Rankin’s performanc­e of downing five enemy aircraft in one day, including one on the tail of his CO, was classified as “Super.” (Photo courtesy of author)
Lt. Robert “Shorty “Rankin’s performanc­e of downing five enemy aircraft in one day, including one on the tail of his CO, was classified as “Super.” (Photo courtesy of author)
 ??  ?? Capt. Paul Conger became an ace on the May 12, 1944, mission with two Fw 190s falling to his guns. His and the other victories of the day—a result of the “Zemke Fan”—totaled 18 for the loss of three P-47s, all of whose pilots survived. (Photo courtesy of author)
Capt. Paul Conger became an ace on the May 12, 1944, mission with two Fw 190s falling to his guns. His and the other victories of the day—a result of the “Zemke Fan”—totaled 18 for the loss of three P-47s, all of whose pilots survived. (Photo courtesy of author)
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? After striking trees and possibly other things in France, a lucky 62nd FS, 56th FG P-47 pilot was able to crash-land his D-model Jug back at the Manston air base in Great Britain.
After striking trees and possibly other things in France, a lucky 62nd FS, 56th FG P-47 pilot was able to crash-land his D-model Jug back at the Manston air base in Great Britain.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States