Tag Archives: Spitfires

The Cadillac of the Skies

 

On August 17th, 1943 the Eighth Air Force had tried to eliminate the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, deep inside the German heartland. Flying in daylight, and unescorted for the vast majority of the trip, the raid had been an audacious catastrophe. Some 230 bombers had taken part, and sixty of these were completely destroyed. As well as these sixty B-17s, a further 55-95 bombers were badly damaged. Many of these were too severely damaged ever to be repaired.

Living legends

The Eighth Air Force regained its composure, made good its losses in both men and aircraft, and, on October 14th 1943, they attacked again.  Flying in daylight, and unescorted for the vast majority of the trip, the raid was arguably a bigger disaster than the previous one. Of the 291 B-17s on the mission, 60 were shot down over enemy territory and another 17 damaged so severely that they had to be scrapped. A further 121 aircraft were damaged to a greater or lesser extent. These losses represented more than 26% of the attacking force.

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The losses of aircrew were equally devastating. Some 650 well trained and skilful specialists were killed, which constituted some 22% of the 2,900 brave young airmen who went on the raid. The 306th Bomb Group lost 100 men, with 35 either killed in the air or died of wounds and 65 made Prisoners of War. The 305th Bomb Group lost 130 men, which was 87% of their complement.
General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was later to state that the Black Thursday loss of American bombers in the Schweinfurt raid was “incidental”. Despite this callous dismissal of the lives of well over six hundred of his own men, further unescorted daylight bomber raids deep into Germany were immediately suspended until further notice. Cynics might well ask how many more B-17s  were left after the two disastrous attacks on Schweinfurt? Long distance bombing raids would only recommence in February 1944 with the advent of Operation Argument, a series of missions which would later be more commonly known as “Big Week”.

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I live in Sherwood, a suburb in the north of the Nottingham conurbation in England. At the end of our street is “Hucknall Road” which leads the seven or so miles to the much smaller market town of Hucknall.

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Strangely enough, Hucknall has a small grass airfield which is less than six miles from our street. Most days we can hear light planes making an enormous noise as they drone slowly overhead.

Hucknall RunwayxxxxxxDuring the course of April 1942, one man who frequently worked at Hucknall Aerodrome was to come up with an idea which would go a very long way indeed to winning the war in Western Europe. His name was Ronald W. Harker and he was usually known as “Ronnie”. Harker was the senior liaison test pilot with Rolls-Royce. Perhaps with Harker’s employer in their minds as an ulterior motive, the RAF had already invited the experienced test pilot to test fly the North American Mustang Mark 1, an American aircraft which was designed and built in the unbelievably short time of 117 days. This amazing feat was in response to a request by the British Purchasing Commission for an RAF fighter which would be an advance on the Spitfire.

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The original North American Mustang was powered by an Allison V-1710 piston engine and Harker was quite impressed with the plane’s handling qualities. Its performance up to 20.000 feet or so was commendable, but any higher, and the aircraft quickly became rather disappointing. Harker concluded that the problem was the inadequate Allison engine which was too low-powered to exploit the plane’s advanced aerodynamic features including a much more fuel efficient laminar flow wing. This innovation cut down the amount of turbulence as the air passed over the wing and would eventually lead to almost phenomenally low fuel consumption.

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Initially though, the new American fighter had an extremely unimpressive maximum range of only 400 miles, and when delivered to the RAF it was quickly relegated to Army co-operation and photographic work.
Ronnie Harker was employed by Rolls-Royce and was therefore presumably somewhat biased, but it was his suggestion to take out the Allison engine and to replace it with the Rolls-Royce Merlin 61, an act which was to transform a rather disappointing aircraft and to turn it into a war winner.
Despite a great deal of initial reluctance, mostly from the British Air Ministry, the first flight of the newly engined Mustang took place at Hucknall Airfield on October 13th 1942 with Captain R.T. Shepherd, the Rolls-Royce chief test pilot, at the controls. The Merlin-Mustang fighter’s performance was spectacular, particularly at high altitude. Thus the greatest fighter of the war was born and Harker acquired for the rest of his life the sobriquet of “the man who put the Merlin in the Mustang.” Harker also got a pay rise of a pound a week (just over one and a half dollars).

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Some four hundred of the Merlin-Mustangs were ordered for the US Army Air Force as the P-51 and Great Britain wanted more than a thousand, although only 25 were eventually delivered to the RAF because Rolls-Royce’s own Merlin production was already allocated to Spitfires, Lancasters and Mosquitos. In the USA, however, North American, now almost overwhelmed by the orders to be filled, had no such problems, using Packard and Continental versions of the Rolls-Royce engine built under licence. Eventually, more than 15,000 aircraft were to be manufactured.

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The P-51B carried just about the same amount of fuel as the P-47 Thunderbolt, but with its new Merlin engine “got 3.3 miles per gallon while the P-47 got less than 1.8.”. Brigadier General “Tommy” Hayes said that the Merlin-Mustang “had the three qualities you need most if you were going to escort bombers to Berlin – range, range and range.” The latter was extended even further by the carrying of two 512 gallon drop tanks which gave a maximum range of around 2,000 miles. In addition, the aircraft’s top speed increased from 390m.p.h. to 440m.p.h. and in the days after the war had finished there were to be many no doubt apocryphal tales of Mustangs which had exceeded the sound barrier in a steep or even vertical dive. In his memoirs, the P-51 ace Colonel Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson said that the Mustang “went like hell” because “the Merlin had great gobs of power and was equally at home high or low, thanks to its two-stage, two-speed supercharger.”

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This newly updated Mustang was, of course, exactly the aircraft that the beleaguered bomber crews in the B-17s of the Eighth Air Force had been waiting for. Now, with help of “our little friends” they could go about their business with considerably less apprehension than had previously been the case. The new aircraft is certainly said to have had an impact on Herr Reichsmarschall Göring who “when (he) saw the Mustangs escorting the American air armadas over the capital of the Reich is said to have realised that Germany had lost the war.”

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The mechanism by which the Third Reich was, along with Göring himself, quite rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of History, was by no means a complex one. The Mustang pilots were quite simply encouraged to engage the Luftwaffe fighters in combat at every opportunity.  Given the quality of the new P-51, especially the P-51D with its superb all round visibility bubble canopy, the Americans duly shot down both the aging Bf109s and the newer Fw190s. Gradually over the months, the Mustangs killed off all the most experienced and most effective pilots in the Luftwaffe. Between January and April 1944, the Germans lost more than 1,000 fighter pilots, of which 28 had more than 30 kills and eight had more than 100. On one mission to Augsburg, much later in the war, Mustangs put a final full stop to the last and greatest German threat, namely the twin-engined fighter armed with multiple rockets. They destroyed 23 of the 77 that came up to oppose them.

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At the same time, as part of the same process, it became increasingly difficult for the Luftwaffe to find calm skies where rookie pilots might practice. And in any case there was soon too great a shortage of fuel for these young replacements to waste on practice flights. The situation swiftly went from bad to worse, and the Mustangs, and many other Allied fighters, all began to enjoy enormous success against increasingly weak opponents. The Germans were never ever throughout the rest of the war to enjoy air superiority.

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Allied bombers began by day and by night to operate with increasing impunity and to have an increasingly greater impact on the overall fighting capabilities of the Third Reich.

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The situation is perhaps best summarised by a joke which remains as yet unverified on Wikipedia. It was supposedly told by Wehrmacht soldiers in the weeks after D-Day:

“If the plane in the sky is silver, it’s American, if it’s blue, it’s British, if it’s invisible, it’s ours.”
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“This all happened because of the Mustang, and the Mustang succeeded because of the Merlin.”

I cannot resist finishing my hymn of praise to the most effective fighter ever by quoting the episode in “Empire of the Sun”, when the “Cadillac of the Skies” makes its appearance, strangely not in Europe but in China. Enjoy.

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Schweinfurt One: sixty B-17s downed, 559 airmen killed

I am sure that most people would understand the difference between “hot courage” and “cold courage”. During a robbery, the person who suddenly confronts the would-be robber and tries, as the English say, to “have a go” is showing hot courage. The same would be true of the person who tries to drag an unconscious victim out of a burning car crash. In the context of war, it may be the man who solves the sudden problem of an enemy tank by jumping onto the top of it and throwing a hand grenade in through the hatch.
All of these acts show great heroism, but as far as I am concerned, “cold courage” takes it all into a different dimension. “Cold courage” is the person who faces a painful terminal disease without losing his dignity. “Cold courage” is the person who sets off to walk along a highwire stretched hundreds of feet off the ground between two skyscrapers. “Cold courage” is the fireman who looks up at that staircase in the North or South Tower, and starts climbing, because he knows that it is his duty to try and save people, even if it may be at the expense of his own life. In the context of war, “cold courage” is the man who sits on his bunk for a whole afternoon, waiting for the chance to get into a bomber at nine o’clock and then fly off into the night skies over Germany, not only risking death, but knowing that, statistically, death is a very likely outcome. The only thing more difficult than doing this as far as I’m concerned, would be the chance to fly over Germany in broad daylight, when you have the opportunity to see exactly what is happening to everybody else, and may well happen to you.
Early on in the Second World War, the RAF tried to place their tiny bombs accurately on exclusively military targets during the hours of daylight when, theoretically, it should have been relatively easy to do so. The only problem was that the German fighters of the day were all easily capable of shooting down these poorly armed bombers without any real problems. Between May 10th-May 28th 1940, losses of the Bristol Blenheim bomber, for example, were almost unbelievable. (Search for “Known Individual Aircraft Records”)

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For that reason, the RAF soon turned to night bombing. Equally swiftly, they found that it was virtually impossible to hit relatively small military targets with any accuracy at night. They would be better employed in bombing the areas of the city around the enemy factories, in an effort to kill or injure the workers who worked there. This new tactic carried out the directive that had been agreed on at the Casablanca Conference.

“Your Primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

When the United States came into the war in Europe, effectively in 1942, their bombers were equipped with the famous Norden bombsight, which was supposedly capable of dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet up. Putting their faith into the bombing accuracy achievable with their marvellous bombsight, the Eighth Air Force ignored British advice that, because of the very high standards of Luftwaffe fighter pilots, bombing at night was the only sustainable method of carrying on the struggle against the Germans. The Americans, therefore, persisted with their daylight raids.

B-17G%20Flying%20FortresszzzzzzzzAfter a few months of daylight bombing, much of it over France rather than the Reich itself, the idea was mooted that enormous and significant damage could be inflicted by bombing the German factories which produced ball-bearings, as they were vitally important to the entire German war machine. Virtually every single military vehicle and aircraft depended on them. The Mighty Eighth, therefore, exactly a year to the day after their first gentle raid, Mission 1 on August 17, 1942 against the Sotteville Marshalling Yard at Rouen in France, decided to attack these important factories . This would be Mission 84, scheduled for August 17, 1943, a complex two-pronged attack on the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft works at Regensburg. The raid would be the furthest penetration into German territory to date, some 800 miles from the coast. What happened is the most wonderful example of “cold courage” that anybody could wish to meet.
The greatest problem for the Eighth Air Force was that none of their own fighters, nor those of the RAF, had anywhere near the range required to escort the slow, heavily laden B-17s to their targets. The main defensive tactic, therefore, was to form up the Flying Fortress bombers into huge boxes, where, theoretically, every single aircraft could protect, and could be protected by, all the other aircraft.

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This procedure took a very long time to organise with hundreds of bombers to be fitted into the formation. And this was the first problem: all this activity was completely visible to the German radar. I can remember my own father telling me how he had watched these brave young men get ready to go into battle…

“ On a number of occasions, Fred had stood on a long forgotten airfield in East Anglia and watched the American Eighth Air Force prepare to depart on a daylight raid over Germany. Their B-17 Flying Fortresses would circle seemingly for hours over their bases, as they slowly and precisely formed up into their famous defensive boxes, intricate arrangements of, perhaps, up to a thousand heavily armed bombers whose almost countless machine guns, in theory, were capable of offering covering fire to all of their fellow aircraft. Once the B-17s were ready, it was as if somebody blew a bugle unheard far below on the ground and all the bombers would then suddenly set off to war, tracing their gleaming contrails across the blue sky, eastwards in the sunshine towards the Third Reich.”

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The Eighth Air Force raid caused a 34 per cent loss of production at Schweinfurt but this was soon made up for by surplus supplies of ball bearings from all over Germany. The industry’s infrastructure, while vulnerable to a sustained campaign, was not vulnerable to destruction by a single raid.
The Nazi Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer , later wrote that the Eighth Air Force’s major error was to attempt a second attack on Regensburg at the same time as the main attack on Schweinfurt, and not to continue with further raids on Schweinfurt after the first one.
Some of the B-17s were over Germany for a period in excess of two hours with no fighter protection whatsoever, and the Luftwaffe were quick to take advantage of the situation. Given the fact that they had picked them up on radar over East Anglia, the Germans were able to call up extra fighters from all of their bases, stretching from southern France to Norway in the north. Many fighters were able to expend their ammunition in massed attacks on the American bombers, land again for fresh supplies of fuel and weapons and then rejoin the battle.

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The German fighters were well aware of the B-17s’ inadequate forward armament and their vulnerability to head-on attack. Against the 0.50 calibre Browning machine guns of the Flying Fortresses, the German fighters were all equipped with cannon which fired explosive shells. In theory, just one hit could bring down a bomber. Much longer ranged than the machine guns, this enabled the Germans to fly well out of the range of the B-17s’ machine guns and fire off short bursts of cannon shells at intervals. Some fighters carried sophisticated rocket weapons, including mortars propelled by rockets, all of them capable of wiping out a B-17 in just one shot.

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Tales are also told of the Germans using either obsolete combat aircraft or training aircraft to fly high above the American formation and drop air-to-air bombs.
This account from  Archie J.Old Junior, a thirty seven year old Texan,  is quoted in “The Mighty Eighth” by Gerald Astor

“The fighters were all over us. They really got interested in me. German fighters came up from every point of the compass after our fighters turned around. (Just before the German frontier). And they were already throwing flak at us when we were five to ten minutes away from the target.” (Some thirty or forty miles)

In “Eighth Air Force”, Donald L.Miller describes pretty much the same situation, once the P-47s had been forced to turn back…

“…a hailstorm of fighter assaults that continued almost all the way to the target. (Beirne Lay, Jr) wrote, “I knew that I was going to die, and so were a lot of others.”

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Overall, American casualties were way beyond the sustainable. For Bomber Command that most basic of figures had been set at 4%. On this raid 230 bombers had taken part, and sixty of these were destroyed. A tiny number finished up in Switzerland, and “thanks to the luck and the skill of the RAF Air-Sea rescue teams”, everybody who went into the icy waters of the North Sea (yes, even in August) was rescued. Five hundred and fifty two men were killed in the air, and seven poor souls made it back home, but, alas, were to succumb to their injuries. Twenty one men were badly wounded.
Beyond the sixty B-17s shot down, between 55-95 further aircraft were badly damaged. Of these, many were too severely damaged ever to be repaired.

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Of the fighter escort, two P-47s of the 56th Fighter Group were destroyed and so too were two Spitfires from the RAF. The fighters claimed more than 30 kills, but the gunners on the B-17s were very optimistic with their claim of 288 German fighters destroyed. After the war, Luftwaffe records showed just 27 aircraft had been lost.
The very biggest problem of daylight raids by the Eighth Air Force deep into enemy territory was the lack of adequate long-range fighter escort. Some of the Schweinfurt Flying Fortresses were over German-occupied territory for three hours and thirty minutes. Of this period of time, there was no fighter support whatsoever for two hours and ten minutes, which included all of the time spent over Germany itself.

By one of those extraordinary coincidences which are sometimes thrown up, the night of August 17th-18th 1943, saw the British RAF engaged in “Operation Hydra”, which turned out to be one of the more significant raids of the war. Using 324 Avro Lancasters, 218 Handley Page Halifaxes and 54 Short Stirlings, attacks were made on the V-Weapon rocket testing grounds at Peenemünde in the Baltic to the east of Denmark.

Clearly, rocket weapons of the calibre of the V-1 and the V-2 quite simply had to be destroyed, certainly with the Allies envisaging a landing on the coast of France within less than a year.

Indeed, the bomber crews were actually told at their briefings that unless they were successful that particular night, they would be going back to Peenemünde again on the 18th, the 19th, the 20th, and, indeed, they would keep returning until the target was completely destroyed. This certainly concentrated their minds enormously, and, with  operations directed for the first time by a “Master Bomber”, namely  Group Captain John Searby, the Commanding Officer of 83 Squadron, they achieved great success.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, himself said that the raid had cost the German efforts “six to eight weeks”, a figure agreed by the RAF who wrote in their official history that the attack “may well have caused a delay of two months.”

Although there were those who judged that the raid was “not effective”, an important figure, Chief Engineer Walther, was killed, but most significantly perhaps, so too was the hugely influential Doctor Walter Thiel who had provided the key ideas for the A4 rocket engine, later used to power the horrendous V-2 and indeed, in its developed form, NASA’s rockets into space.
The protection of the darkness was obvious in the casualty figures. Bomber Command lost 6.7% of their bombers and a total of 215 men were killed out of an approximate total of just over four thousand participants. Focke-Wulf Fw 190 night fighters claimed 29 of the 40 bombers shot down. Coincidentally again, the German night forces had employed for the first time ever, three twin engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with the deadly combination of radar and Schräge Musik upward firing cannons.

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To make their night fighters even more formidable, the Luftwaffe taught  all their crews exactly where a Lancaster’s most vulnerable spots were…the enormous fuel tanks.

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In another blog post, I will look at what the Eighth Air Force did next after the Schweinfurt raid, and their continuing “cold courage”, as they regrouped their strength after what must surely be considered, despite the immense resolution and extraordinary bravery of the Americans, one of the great catastrophes of the Allied air war.

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