.. Benefits of the P-51 This final Mustang design was superior to anything else that flew at the time. The P-51B had a huge internal gasoline tank capacity (around 425 gallons) and its engine was very economical, using about half the gasoline of other American fighters. This meant its range was 1080 miles and could be extended to 2600 miles when extra drop-tanks were attached to the wings. This made its range far more than any Allied or German fighter’s. As far as performance went, it was superior to all others as well.
Neither of the other two main American fighters could compete; the P-47 was too heavy and the P-38 had too many technical problems. The British fighters, the Spitfire and the Hurricane did not have the range, speed, or power. But most important was its superiority over the German fighters, the most important of which were the FW-190 and the Me-109. The Mustang was 50 mph faster than the Germans up to 28,000 ft beyond which it was much faster than the FW-190 and still substantially faster than the Me-109. The Mustang had between 3000 and 4000 lbs more weight, and so was able to outdive either German plane. The tightness of its turns was much better than the Me-109 and slightly better than the FW-190.
(Grant 31, Boyne 389-390, Bailey 153) The result of all of this was that the Allies now had a plane that could go with the bombers all the way to and from their targets, fight and defeat the bombers’ German attackers, and not run out of fuel. The P-51’s Battle Performance So, at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944, the new American P-51B’s began arriving in England in force. (Dupuy 34) For the first few months of the year, the Mustangs were settling in and having their systems perfected. But by March, the Mustangs had decisively taken control. The arrival and subsequent heavy use of the P-51’s had several effects.
The first effect that the Mustangs had was in the running air battles over Europe. Before the beginning of 1944, the bombers had been alone as they approached their faraway targets. But the P-51 changed this, and quickly made an impression on all concerned, enemy and ally alike. For example, on January 11, 1944, the Eighth Air Force launched its first deep penetration of Germany with P-51 coverage. The bombers’ targets were the cities of Oschersleben and Halberstadt, where many German planes were being constructed.
When they arrived, there were 49 Mustangs covering a force of around 220 bombers. Even though the bombers suffered heavy casualties, they were able to inflict substantial damage on their target factories. But the most significant thing about the battle was the shining performance of the P-51’s. Since the bombers were attacking two different cities, the Mustang force had to divide into two groups, to support the different attacks. Because of the sensitive nature of the bombers’ targets, the Luftwaffe came out in force to defend their factories. During the ensuing melee, the 49 P-51’s shot down 15 enemy planes without suffering a single loss.
Major Howard, the group’s leader, was credited with four kills within minutes. (Bailey 155) In the grand scheme of things, this battle was insignificant, but it goes to show how much of advantage the P-51’s had over their German counterparts. Considering that these were essentially first-time pilots in the Mustangs’ first big battle, this is very impressive. The Change in Policy on Escort Fighter Function Another thing happened at the same time as the arrival of the P-51 that greatly aided the Allies and fully utilized the great capabilities of the Mustang. Before the beginning of 1944, the bomber escort’s primary function was to fly alongside the bombers, repel any attacks made on the bombers, and generally make sure the bombers stayed safe. Indeed, the motto of the Eighth Air Force Fighter Command was “Our Mission is to Bring the Bombers Back Alive.” One day at the beginning of the year, Jimmy Doolittle, who was the commander of the Eighth Air Force, saw a plaque on the wall with this motto on it and said, “That’s not so. Your mission is to destroy the German Air Force.
. .Take that damned thing down.” (Copp 456) And just days before, in his New Year’s Day address to the Eighth Air Force command, General Arnold had said, “My personal message to you-this is a MUST- is to destroy the enemy air force wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories.” (Copp 456) What this meant was that the escort fighters were not tied to the bombers anymore, and were free to roam over the countryside and through the towns and cities, destroying at will. The sweeping Mustangs were released to ravage German convoys, trains, antiaircraft gun emplacements, warehouses, airfields, factories, radar installations, and other important things that would be impractical to be attacked by bombers. The fighters were also able to attack German fighters when they were least prepared for it, like when they were taking off or forming up in the air. What made this possible was the increase in the number of American planes present in Europe. This increase in the number of Allied planes compared to the number of German planes continued to the point that, on D-Day, the Allies used 12,873 aircraft while the Germans were only able to muster a mere 300.
(Overy 77) By using this overwhelming numerical advantage, the Allied fighters were able to swamp their opponents in an unstoppable flood of planes. P-51’s Disrupt Luftwaffe Fighter Tactics This increase in the number of fighters plus the change in fighter philosophy allowed the escorts to cover the bombers while simultaneously ranging far from the bomber stream and destroying all that they could find. This caused the disruption of several effective German fighter tactics that had been used successfully in the past. One of these tactics was the deployment of slow, ungainly German planes that would fly around the bomber formations, out of gun range, and report back on where the bombers were and where their weak spots were. The free-ranging P-51’s soon wiped out these planes.
Another popular tactic was to mount rocket launchers on the wings of some of these slower craft, have them linger just out of range of the bombers’ guns, and send rockets flying into the bomber formations. These rocket attacks were terrifying to the bomber crews, and often broke up formations, sending some planes to the ground. Obviously, these attacks also came to a halt. Most importantly, the fast German fighters had to change their attack tactics. Beforehand, they would fly alongside the formations and wait for the right moment to swoop in and attack a bomber.
Now, they were forced to group together several miles away from the bombers, and then turn and made a mad rush at the bombers, hoping to inflict sufficient damage on one pass to shoot down some number of enemy bombers. They could not afford to stay with the bombers for very long for fear of being attacked by the Mustangs. (Perret 293) Indeed, soon after the P-51’s entered onto the scene, Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe, recommended that the German defensive fighters avoid combat with the P-51, and only attack bomber formations when there were no fighters around. The result of all of this is that the American fighters, led by the P-51’s, soon began to gain air superiority. Not long after Goering’s recommendation, a sarcastic Luftwaffe officer commented that the safest flying in the world was to be an American fighter over Germany.
(Dupuy 35-36) It is obvious that the P-51, once it was supplied to the Eighth Air Force in great quantities, and unleashed by Doolittle and Arnold’s new fighter policies, soon took a heavy toll on German air superiority. P-51’s Give Bombers Better Support Another profound effect that the increased fighter coverage had was on the most important people, the bombers. After the entrance of the P-51, and the virtual elimination of the German fighter threat, the bombers were in much less danger from German fighters. The result of the decreased danger to the bombers is subtle, but obvious when thought about. Imagine a bomber crew sitting in their cramped plane, unable to move around or evade attack during their bombing run while numerous German fighters speed past their plane firing at them.
Second lieutenant William Brick, the bombardier of a B-17 bomber, tells about the day he flew to Linz, Austria on a bombing run: . . . The remainder of the run must be perfectly straight and level, without the slightest deviation, or our five- thousand-pound bomb load will fall wide of the target. No evasive action is possible.
. . Then comes the sickening rattle of machine-gun bullets and cannon fire hitting our ship; ignoring the flak from the antiaircraft batteries, German fighter planes zoom in so close that it seems they will ram us. . . Even at the sub-zero temperatures of this altitude, salty sweat pours down my face and burns my eyeballs.
Cursing and praying, I am gripped by the same brand of helpless fear that fliers experience during every bomb run. I feel the terror in my hands, in my stomach, even in my feet. Long after returning from the mission, its effects will remain etched indelibly on my face. . . .
(Brick 61) This kind of terror experienced by the entire crew of the bombers was sure to affect their concentration and their carefulness. Indeed, “it is an undeniable, if unquantifiable, fact that it is easier to bomb precisely when you know you will probably not be shot out of the sky.” (Boyne 341) Conclusion In the end, the way that the Allied air forces gained air superiority was by destroying its opposition. The ways in which the fighters were able to destroy German fighters were diverse. The fighters utilized their high speed and maneuverability to fly low-level strafing missions that ranged over large expanses of territory and destroyed many Luftwaffe craft on the ground. This tactic was responsible for the destruction of many dozens of fighters that were unable to go on and fight in the air.
Another way that the Allied fighters destroyed their opposition, and the most important way, was by luring them into the air. Going back to the hornets’ nest analogy, the Allies stopped pushing the stick and decided to bide their time until the moment was right. When they did start pushing the stick into the nest again, they were armed with a metaphoric insecticide. In real life, this “insecticide” was the P-51. Beforehand, the Allies had nothing that could stop the “hornets” and so were helpless to stop their attack.
But after they had developed an “insecticide” capable of killing the “hornets,” they proceeded to lure the hornets into the open where they could be destroyed. In real life, the bombers were the lure that brought the Luftwaffe into the air. Using the long-range Mustangs, the Allies were able to make their bombing raids more effective and more deadly to Germany. The approaching end of the Third Reich was enough to get the German fighters into the air to try to stop the bombers from wrecking their war effort. “Air superiority had been won not by bombing the enemy’s factories into oblivion; instead, it was won by the long-range fighter, using the bomber formations as bait to entice the Luftwaffe to fight.” (Boyne 338) With the advent of great numbers of the highly superior P-51 Mustang, the German fighters that came up to attack the bombers quickly met their match and were easily repelled by the Mustangs.
Works Cited Bailey, Ronald H. The Air War in Europe. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1979. A simple, straight-forward book that includes much background on the development of military aviation, and includes many pictures that chronicle the air war. Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings: World War II in the Air.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. A very informative and user- friendly book that dealt with the air aspect of all fronts and theaters of WWII. It includes much data on numerous planes in its appendices. Brick, William. “Bombardier.” American History, April 1995, pp.
60-65. A short magazine article following the story of how a U.S. airman was shot down over Austria, and his subsequent imprisonment by the Nazis. Copp, DeWitt S. Forged in Fire: Strategy and Decisions in the Airwar over Europe, 1940-1945.
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1982. A book dealing mostly with the U.S. involvement in the War, with particular emphasis on the politics of the military officials, and how the major strategic decisions were made. Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt. The Air War in the West: June 1941 to April 1945. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1963.
A short, very basic book that did not go into depth, but did cover its material well. Grant, William Newby. P-51 Mustang. London: Bison Books Limited, 1980. A relatively short book, but one that dealt solely with the P-51, and went into considerable depth concerning its construction and use during WWII and in later conflicts. Overy, R.J.
The Air War: 1939-1945. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1980. A fairly dry book that dealt mostly with the economics and generalities of the air war, without dealing too much with the actual fighting. Perret, Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II.
New York: Random House, 1993. A good book that covered its topic well, although in-depth discussion of the contributions of the other allies’ forces is not dealt with.