The finest fighter of World War II

The P-51 Mustang was the most successful and most significant single-seat fighter of World War Two. It was initially designed for the British RAF and the most amazing fact is that from the moment the chief designer, James Kindelberger, sharpened his pencil to start work, to the moment the prototype roared off down the runway, was only 119 days.

That early prototype certainly showed promise, and so did all the subsequent A-36 Apaches, although they clearly had serious limitations at altitude.

And then, at Hucknall Aerodrome, just five miles from where my trusty computer now sits, with yours truly at the controls, the senior liaison test pilot with Rolls-Royce. a New Zealander named Ronnie Harker, earned his best ever pay rise of one pound a week (just over one and a half dollars). Ronnie thought up the scheme to put a British Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engine into the underpowered North American Mustang. This was the same engine as the Spitfire IX, and it cured all the problems the aircraft was having over 15,000 feet and gave its newly invented Laminar Flow Wing the chance to shine. Here is that huge Merlin:


And poor Ronnie Harker. I suppose that for the rest of his life people must have introduced him at parties by saying, “Have you met Ronnie, the man who put the Merlin in the Mustang?”  You can read a much more detailed story via this link.  The article is called “The Cadillac of the Skies” Here’s the Hendon Mustang from a slightly unusual angle:


A second great leap forward for the aircraft was the fitting of the drop tanks which permitted Mustangs to fly and fight all the way to Berlin and back. The appearance of this superb fighter over the Brandenburg Gate sounded the death knell of the Third Reich, because in trying to fight off the B-17s and the B-24s, the Luftwaffe would slowly but surely be destroyed by the P-51 escort fighters. In 1944, for example, P-51 Mustangs would shoot down 6,039 German dayfighters.  That left the Germans with hardly any experienced pilots, considerably fewer defensive aircraft and a big, big problem.

Here’s the view after descending the stairs:


This particular example of a P-51 was constructed at Inglewood in California in 1945. It began in USAAF Air Training Command before, in 1950, being transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force. It then had an enormously long history of toing and froing until it reached Hendon in 2003, where it was finally painted as the Mustang belonging to Captain Donald R Emerson of the 336th Fighter Squadron  based at Debden, in Essex. Here is Donald’s nose art:


Captain Emerson was killed by ground fire on Christmas Day 1944, as he flew over Belgium on the very last of his 89 missions. He had scored 4½ victories in the air, plus 3½ on the ground. He is buried at Margrattan in Holland.

It says everything about the Mustang that over fifteen or so minutes, I was unable to take a photograph without somebody in shot. There was a constant, steady stream of admirers, with a good few photographers:


And married couples:


And my wife and daughter:


It is impossible to waste your time if you are looking at a Mustang:


As John Keats so rightly put it in a poem he wrote on his visit to the RAF Hendon Museum in 1818 :

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness.”










Filed under Aviation, Canada, History

27 responses to “The finest fighter of World War II

  1. Michael Wells

    Many thanks. In the text you mention 8 kills but the plane only has 7 shown. We’re half kills not added to the plane?

    • That is a very good question, and I’m not too sure of the answer. My own understanding has always been that in air-to-air combat, half kills were added to the total and might take you to the magical score needed to become an ace. I do not know, though, if ground kills were counted in the same way or if it varied from one air force to another. I googled the subject and the overall flavour of the websites was that ground kills were not counted in the same way as air-to-air, especially by contemporary wargamers.
      As far as I know, this particular P-51 has been painted as the aircraft of Captain Donald R Emerson who was killed in combat. Could it be possible that, had he lived, he would have gone back to base and asked his groundcrew to paint another “kill” on the nose of his plane, because that kill was so recent that they had not yet had the time to paint it on?
      That would explain a total of seven in one place and eight in another. But if anybody else has a better explanation, then please, let’s hear it!

  2. Chris Waller

    I was not aware of the P51 Mustang until relatively recently. I think that, in Britain at least, it was over-shadowed by the Spitfire perhaps because that latter was home-grown. The Spitfire was perhaps more elegant but the Mustang was indeed a formidable aircraft – though achieving it ultimate greatness with the Merlin engine, so we have every right to be just a little smug. Do you happen to know if the Dresden bombing raid was escorted by Mustangs?

    • Yes, it was, and the first time I have ever heard anybody mention it, so well done for thinking of it!
      Dresden involved a number of raids. Quoting from the “Bomber Command War Diaries” by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, it went as follows:

      Feb 13 1945, US daylight raid cancelled because of bad weather

      Later, a raid by 244 Lancasters dropped 800 tons. It was “moderately successful” because of cloud

      Three hours later, in clear weather, a second raid by 529 Lancasters, who dropped 1,800 tons of bombs and created a firestorm. Nine Lancasters lost.

      The next day, the 14th, 311 American B-17s dropped 771 tons of bombs, aiming at the railway yards. “Part of the Mustang fighter escort was ordered to strafe traffic on the roads around Dresden to increase the chaos. The Americans bombed Dresden again on the 15th and on March 2nd, but it is generally accepted that it was the RAF night raid which caused the most serious damage.”

      The Lancasters took off around 5.30pm-6.00pm, and then at 10.00-11.00pm. They all seem to have taken off from English bases. None of the losses were down to the Germans.

  3. It certainly is a thing of beauty

    • Indeed, it is, and having spent quite a lot of time waiting for just a few seconds with nobody about, I was finally forced to admit defeat.
      To be absolutely honest, I think most people would consider the Spitfire more beautiful than the Mustang, but the Mustang had such a huge impact on going forward to win the war in the West. The Spitfire made sure that England survived in 1940 (along with the Hurricane, of course).

  4. Such a beauty! Thanks for the overhead shot, not many people get to see that angle.

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it! Ever since I was a little boy, and made my first model of a Mustang, sometime around 1963, I have always thought that the P-51 did not look anything other than superb from any angle.
      You can see it at its very best in the film “Empire of the Sun”, starting at 1 hour 45 minutes. It truly is the “Cadillac of the Skies” and a perfect example of what two allies can achieve when they put their collective minds together.

  5. Great angles. I think the Mustang is beautiful. Outside of DC we have a museum featuring planes. I saw the Enola Gay.

    • Sounds like you were at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It’s a great museum!

    • The B-29 is a truly wonderful creation. I remember reading a book by a Japanese fighter pilot who said that they were, to him, unbelievably big aircraft and they flew so high and so fast that he couldn’t even catch them to fire at them, and that he could see straightaway that Japan had lost the war.
      The air museum at RAF Duxford near Cambridge has a B-29 in the American Hall along with a B-52. To accommodate them both, and the B-17 and the B-24, it took what was then the biggest unsupported dome in Europe. It is BIG !!

  6. I have always considered the artwork on US war planes to be rather vulgar.

  7. It’s great that you get a chance to take in this plane from above and at eye-level. How long did you admire this Mustang?

    • Well, I waited to take pictures of it without anybody being in shot for so long that I realised that it was never going to happen and I just had to press on regardless. Looking at the photos in the computer reveals that the time between first and last was eleven minutes. That was probably the longest I spent on any aircraft.
      Overall I took 467 photos that I kept and I don’t know how many I threw away. That wasn’t a bad total for a visit with a 150 mile drive before and after it. I certainly exhausted two batteries without taking any video.

  8. From any angle it is beauty personified. In the air, the sound of the Merlin gives it a voice. No wonder it struck fear into the heart of the Luftwaffe.

    • I would fully endorse everything you have said. I’ve never seen a Mustang in flight, but I have heard a Merlin or four and you’re right about that too.
      A few months ago I was sitting where I am sitting now, at the computer, and I heard an aircraft engine that I didn’t think was the Notts police helicopter. I went for a look and I was pretty amazed to see a Spitfire performing over the City Hospital, apparently thanking them for their bravery in the Covid outbreak. It was all dark blue with white rectangles under the wings. At one point he flipped over and I saw the elliptical wings perfectly. I shan’t forget that very easily!
      Perhaps if I’m patient (no pun intended) one day they’ll celebrate the Mustang at Hucknall and I’ll be able to go and see that.

      • That’s the NHS Spitfire you saw carrying out a tour over The hospitals across the country. It’s been around a for a while now touring different regions. I’ve not seen it myself. I did see a spitfire over the village here a year or two back, don’t really know why, but it was fabulous to see, and hear, locally.

  9. What a work of art, John! I too would have stood and stared at this incredible plane. How lucky you are to have a museum like this close by. Just really enjoyed this post. Every time I come here I learn something new. Thank you!

    • My pleasure, Amy. I learn something from your blog too though. And it is mostly just how beautiful the new world must have been to those very first western people to see it. And you are very lucky to have such wonderful countryside near to where you live.

  10. Your post reminds me of the book No Highway by Nevil Shute. It is one of my favourite books. And I am learning so much. I don’t think I would have read about aeroplanes in other books or magazines. Thank you.

    • I’m glad to have introduced you to something new. We should all be trying to learn things, even as we grow older, and even if, like me, we find it difficult to remember what we’ve learned.
      Neville Shute was, in fact, an aeronautical engineer. His life is described in Wikipedia….
      and the section “Career in aviation” is particularly interesting.

  11. You may be interested in the Mustangs built in Melbourne

    • Thank you very much for that link. It was an extremely interesting website. I knew that the RAAF used Mustangs but I hadn’t realised just how many they actually had. Thanks again.

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