P-51 Mustang and the Strategic Bombing Offensive

P-51 Mustang and the Strategic Bombing Offensive

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P-51 Mustang and the Strategic Bombing Offensive

The later Merlin powered P-51 Mustangs are famous for the role they played in destroying the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany in 1944. Somewhat ironically their fame was assured by Hermann Goering, who famously stated that when he saw the Mustangs over Berlin, he knew the war was lost. Given that this came in March 1944, with the Russians advance almost unstoppable, the British and Americans advancing up Italy and massive preparations for Operation Overlord underway this was perhaps not the most adventurous of predictions, but it had some validity. The arrival of the P-51B and C gave the USAAF a world class fighter aircraft, produced in large numbers, with the range to support their bombers to targets across Germany.

The first unit to receive the P-51B in Europe was the 354th Fighter Group, receiving its aircraft in November 1943. Although that unit was officially part of the tactical 9th Air Force, it was quickly co-opted to the 8th. Their first mission, a fighter sweep over France, came on 1 December 1943. It was followed by a series of escort missions, to Amiens on 5 December, Emden on 11 December and then Kiel on 13 December. This was the most important of the early missions, reaching 480 miles into Germany, and finally forcing the Luftwaffe to respond.

The Merlin powered P-51 soon became the main fighter aircraft used by the 8th Air Force. From a standing start in December 1943, by the middle of 1944 the P-51 had overtaken both the P-38 and P-47, and by the end of the year the P-51 equipped all but one of the 8th Air Forces fighter groups.

The move to provide long range escorts to support the bombers of the 8th Air Force is often associated with the appointment of General James Doolittle as commander of the 8th Air Force. In this version of event, his predecessor, Ira C. Eaker, remained convinced that the unescorted bomber could defend itself until he was replaced, and simply chose not to provide long range escorts, even though such aircraft were available.

The evidence does not support this idea. The most obvious flaw with it is that the first long range escort missions were flown using Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in October 1943. When the first P-51B/C Mustangs reached Europe, they were allocated to the 9th Air Force, but were immediately co-opted by the 8th to fly escort missions. The first P-51B escort missions over Germany came in December 1944. Doolittle did not become commander of the 8th until January 1944.

Second, the long range escort fighters simply did not exist until the end of 1943. The P-47 did not have the range to escort the bombers all the way to targets in Germany. Complicated arrangements were made to provide fighter escort as far as possible into Germany, but all the Luftwaffe had to do was wait until the fighters were forced to turn back.

The early P-38s had the theoretical potential to reach a long way into Germany, but in reality the drop tanks required to reach Berlin did not appear until early 1944, while the aircraft itself was always in short supply, with North Africa having the highest priority at the start of 1943. Worse, the turbo-supercharged P-38s were never entirely reliable when used from Britain, reducing the effective strength of the fighter groups.

Earlier versions of the Mustang had the range, but not the performance. With some Allied bombers flying close to the P-51A’s operational ceiling, the Allison engined aircraft were outclassed by the Bf 109s and Fw 190s of the Luftwaffe at the altitudes required for escort missions.

What Doolittle did was to make the best use of the aircraft available to him. Under his control, the 8th Air Force concentrated on the P-51, on some occasions swapping entire P-47 Fighter Groups for 9th Air Force P-51s. Under his command the P-51s played a huge part in the destruction of the Luftwaffe, first wearing down the day fighters, then sucking the elite night fighter units into the fray. By the end of 1944 the Luftwaffe fighter arm had been defeated, to such an extent that RAF Bomber Command returned to daylight bombing in 1945.

American Experience

General Carl Spaatz (center) reviewing plans, Getty Images

September 1, 1939 WWII Begins
Germany invades Poland, leading Great Britain and France to declare war against Germany.

May 15, 1940
In the first large scale “bombing war,” Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) bombs the Ruhr area of Germany, specifically civilian industrial targets that are known to aid the German war effort.

June 20, 1941
As U.S. participation in World War II looks more likely, Secretary of War Henry Stimson establishes the Army Air Forces, a reorganization of the previous Air Corps that enables increased autonomy within the U.S. War Department.

Summer 1941
A British study shows that RAF bombing is typically inaccurate, with only 20% of aircrews navigating to within five miles of their assigned targets. This report leads to a major shift in Britain’s bombing strategy, shifting away from military targets and towards the main residential and industrial centers in Germany.

December 7, 1941
In a surprise early morning attack, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and declares war on the U.S. and the U.K. Four days later, Germany and Italy will declare war on the U.S. as well.

December 22, 1941
Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt meet at the White House for the Washington/Arcadia Conference and agree to build up American air power in England.

January 28, 1942: The Mighty 8th Air Force
Allied forces activate the VIII Bomber Command, the first operational element of the 8th Air Force, to coordinate and lead the air attack on Germany. General “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the AAF, appoints Ira Eaker to lead this bombardment force. “The Mighty 8th” will dominate the American strategic air war against Germany, though it will become a part of the larger U.S. Strategic Air forces in a reorganization early in 1944.

February 1942
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appoints Air Marshal Arthur Harris to Commander in Chief of the Bomber Command in order to carry out the new strategy of the RAF.

April 8, 1942
272 British bombers of the RAF attack Hamburg at night, signifying the largest raid yet on a single target.

April 24, 1942
In response to Allied bombing that the Nazi’s call “terror raids,” the German air force — the Luftwaffe — bombs Exeter, England, in part of its “Baedeker Blitz.”

May 30, 1942
898 RAF bombers attack the German city of Cologne in Operation Millennium. This new “bomber stream” tactic will become the standard for air force operations until 1944.

June 12, 1942
In the first American mission against a European target, 12 U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) B-24 bomber planes attack the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. Ploesti will continue to be under attack throughout the war as a Nazi supplier of equipment and oil.

July 1, 1942: The Flying Fortress
The first B-17 “Flying Fortress” arrives in Great Britain, earning its name from its heavy armament and ability to return from missions despite sustaining extensive damage. American airmen hoped that such aircraft could get through German defenses and hit their targets without fighter escort.

July 4, 1942
USAAF pilots collaborate with the RAF on a bombing mission targeting German airfields in Holland.

August 17, 1942
General Ira Eaker flies with the first B-17 Flying Fortress strike on occupied France. Of the 18 Flying Fortress aircraft deployed, only two will be damaged, and all will return after the successful bombing of railroad yards in Rouen-Sotteville.

November 23, 1942
Brigadier General Curtis LeMay brings new “combat box” tactic to a bombing run over St. Nazaire, France. Rather than practice evasive maneuvering, LeMay’s group flies in staggered formation that allows them to defend themselves without escort planes. Allies lose only four bombers to the enemy and a greater percentage of bombs ultimately hits their targets.

Late November 1942
More than 1,200 aircraft and 27,000 men transfer to operations in the Mediterranean. Included in this transfer is the popular Brigadier General James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who will lead the 12th Air Force for Operation TORCH, and later the 15th Air Force in the Mediterranean, fighting the Axis forces in North Africa and Italy.

January 3, 1943
The 8th Air Force attacks St. Nazaire and loses seven bombers to a new German anti-aircraft tactic called “predicted barrage” in which Nazi ground gunners fire a lethal box of explosives into the air, hitting bombers who attempt to maneuver through the enemy airspace.

January 14, 1943: The British and Americans Team Up
As the Casablanca Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill confirm their goal of securing the Axis nations’ surrender. To achieve this, they agree upon a combined bomber offensive: the British will strike at night, while the Americans will bomb by daylight.

January 27, 1943
In their first attack on German soil, 91 B-17s and B-24s of the 8th Air Force target submarine yards in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The daytime operation is a success, as Wilhelmshaven sustains losses to many important industrial plants and the Nazis lose 22 planes to only three USAAF bombers.

January 30, 1943
The RAF attacks Berlin for the first time using Mosquito planes, unarmed bombers known for their speed. The RAF will continue to use Mosquito aircraft extensively in their strategic night raids.

April 1943
American P-51 Mustang fighter planes fly their first mission over Europe. The Mustang was designed for use as a bomber and reconnaissance plane, but evolved into an escort aircraft as the war progressed. The Mustang planes were heralded as an example of the Allied forces’ technological superiority in the air war.

April 17, 1943
In extensive air-to-air fighting with German planes over Bremen, the 8th Air Force loses 16 unescorted bombers due to heavy anti-aircraft artillery but are able to damage more than half of Bremen's Focke-Wulf airline production factories.

June 10, 1943
The Pointblank directive begins. A combined British and American offensive, Pointblank consists of a constant onslaught on German industry through British raids at night and American raids during the day.

July 7, 1943
Hitler makes the V2 Missile program a top priority. The V2 will be the world’s first long-range ballistic missile, and is created to help defend German forces from the Allies’ advanced air force technology.

Late July 1943: Attack on Hamburg
Over the course of ten days, the RAF and the 8th Air Force devastate Hamburg with heavy bombing. The attack, named “Operation Gomorrah,” will leave more than 13 square miles destroyed and kill more civilians than the Germans’ entire Blitz over Great Britain in April 1942.

August 1, 1943
Allied bombers suffer heavy losses in an attack over a heavily fortified oil refinery at Ploetsi, Romania. The attack results in 446 airmen killed or missing, 54 wounded and 79 captured as POWs. Although more than 175 B-24s participate in the operation, only 33 will be in working order after the raid.

Although initially damaged in the raid, the oil refinery will be quickly repaired and returned to operation.

October 14, 1943
Black Thursday - Nearly 600 crew members are lost in this long-range Allied bombing raid that targets a heavily defended ball-bearing factory in Schweinfurt, Germany. 60 B-17 Flying Fortresses are lost under heavy German antiaircraft fire.

December 13, 1943
Escorted by fighter planes for the first time both to and from their targets, 710 bombers take part in the largest daylight raid thus far over Kiel, Germany. The attack results in the loss of five Allied bombers and 15 Nazi fighter planes.

January 6, 1944: New Leadership
Lt. General Ira Eaker is removed from his command with the 8th Air Force and transferred to command air operations in the Mediterranean theater. General Spaatz takes command of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF). Lt. General James Doolittle is placed in command of the 8th Air Force.

James Doolittle will send Mustang fighters to defend bomber groups by going on the offense. The Mustangs fly ahead of bombers to attack the Luftwaffe, as well as hit them on the ground. The Mustang's success rate was reputed to equal 19 kills for every one Mustang lost. The P-51 is credited with the destruction of 4,950 German planes, more than any other Allied fighter plane.

February 20, 1944
As part of Operation Argument and what would become known as “Big Week,” the Allies wage a six-day air campaign over Western Europe that targets aircraft manufacturing plants in an attempt to cripple Germany’s aircraft industry.

March 1944: The Bombing of Berlin
The Allies bomb Berlin with 12,000 airmen, dropping thousands of tons of explosives. Heavy losses are sustained on both sides in one nighttime raid on the 24th, RAF forces lose 72 aircraft. Despite the losses, the Allies are able to replace their forces while the Germans are not.

June 2, 1944
For several days, British and American forces bomb transportation hubs, oil refineries, bridges and roads in occupied Europe, including dropping 81,110 tons of bombs on the French railway system. This air support, known as Operation Cover, will prove vital to Allied success on D-Day.

June 6, 1944
D-Day: after a nighttime air assault, over 160,000 Allied troops land along the Normandy coast. Operation Overlord, the maneuver to land troops on the beach, is the largest amphibious invasion of all time. D-Day marks the first day of the Anglo-American invasion of Europe.

Adolf Hitler issues an order that all shot down Allied airmen are to be “shot or lynched on capture.”

Summer 1944
Sustaining unprecedented damage, the Luftwaffe will lose an average of 300 aircraft per week.

August 1944
Allied troops liberate Paris. The Nazis retreat across the Seine.

September 8, 1944
Germany’s V2 missile technology is finalized and the first V2 is launched at Paris and London. The rocket V2 was the first long-range combat-ballistic missile ever created and the first missile to achieve sub-orbital spaceflight. Over the next few months, over 3,000 V2s are fired at various Allied locations, causing over 7,250 military personnel and civilian casualties.

September 11, 1944
As part of a strategy to discourage Nazi morale, the RAF bombs Darmstadt, Germany and the resulting firestorm kills more than 10,000 people. The Nazis condemn this raid as an example of Allied “terror bombing.”

December 16, 1944: The Battle of the Bulge
The Battle of the Bulge begins as a desperate attempt by the Nazis to defeat the approaching Allied army.

December 23, 1944
After being initially hampered by bad weather, the 8th Air Force provides desperately needed air support to Allied troops engaged in the Battle of the Bulge. The bombers drop more tonnage than any other single day of the war, helping to turn the course of the battle.

January 1, 1945
The Germans usher in the New Year by launching a pre-dawn raid against Allied airfields. More than 450 Allied planes are destroyed, but the attack proves more costly to the Germans, who lose 237 pilots, 59 of whom are commanders.

Mid-January 1945
German forces are pushed back and defeated, ending the Battle of the Bulge. In what was the bloodiest battle the Americans faced in the war, 19,000 troops were killed in the month-long fight. The Nazis, however, sustained an estimated 100,000 casualties.

January 31, 1945: American Principles
When Carl Spaatz directs General Jimmy Doolittle to bomb targets in the center of Berlin, Doolittle warns that this attack will “violate the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets of strictly military significance.”

February 3, 1945
More than 900 bombers and over 550 fighter escorts — the largest force ever sent against a single city to date — begin the bombing of Berlin. The American forces target German government centers and railway stations filled with civilian refugees.

February 4, 1945
Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt meet at Yalta to plan the final defeat of the Nazis. The leaders will also establish a guideline for post-war reorganization and re-establishment of European countries.

February 13, 1945
800 bombers drop 4,000 tons of explosives and incendiaries on Dresden, Germany targeting the train yard and passenger station. The combination sets off a firestorm that will kill more than 35,000 people.

February 22, 1945
The RAF and 8th Air Force bombers begin a two-day attack on lightly or non-defended transportation targets as part of Operation Clarion.

General Eaker had warned General Spaatz that the operation “would absolutely convince the Germans that we are the barbarians they say we are, for it would be perfectly obvious to them that this is primarily a large-scale attack on civilians as, in fact, it of course will be. Of all the people killed in this attack over 95% of them can be expected to be civilians.”

February 26, 1945
1,200 U.S. bombers strike Berlin in an attempt to disrupt the communications of the already impaired Nazi army. By the end of the next month, there will be a total of 363 air raids on Berlin with casualty estimate around 20,000.

March 4, 1945
Allied aircraft accidentally bomb Basel and Zurich, Switzerland. In response to bad press and a diplomatic crisis sparked by this mistake, General Spaatz issues a directive that only military objectives are to be attacked.

March 7, 1945: Nazis in Retreat
U.S. forces cross the Rhine River in Germany.

March 18, 1945
1,329 Allied bombers and 700 long-range fighters meet heavy resistance by German jets and fighters over Berlin. The 8th Air Force loses six Mustangs and 13 bombers while the Lutwaffe, using the new jet powered Me 262s and air-to-air rockets, lose only two planes, despite being outnumbered 32 to 1.

April 7, 1945
Germany sends out 120 student pilots to face 1,000 American bombers in a suicidal operation. In a plan approved by Hitler, pilots are ordered to ram their planes into the American fleet and attempt to parachute to safety. Only a few German attackers will hit the bombers, and 3/4 of the Luftwaffe fighter pilots will be killed in action.

April 10, 1945
In what will become known as the “day of the great jet massacre,” Allied aircraft shoot down half of the German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter planes. The loss proves fatal to the Luftwaffe and the defense of Berlin is abandoned.

April 12, 1945
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt dies, leaving Vice President Harry Truman in charge.

Carl Spaatz declares that the Strategic Air War has been “brought to a close” and “won with a decisiveness becoming increasingly evident as our armies overrun Germany.”

April 17, 1945
The 8th Air Force bombs train yards in Dresden, Germany, killing 500 civilians.

April 25. 1945
The Luftwaffe shoots down five Allied bombers in a mission over Aussig, Czechoslovakia. These will be the last planes lost to the Luftwaffe.

April 26, 1945: The Road to Victory
American and Soviet Armies meet at the Elbe River.

April 30, 1945
With Soviet troops fewer than 500 meters away, Adolf Hitler commits suicide in a bunker by a combination of cyanide poisoning and a gunshot wound to the head.

May 7, 1945
The German Army surrenders to the Allied expeditionary force in Reims.

May 8, 1945
V-E Day — Europeans flock to the streets in celebration of the victory over the Nazis one day after the German Army surrendered to the Allied expeditionary force in Reims.

May 19, 1945
The 8th Air Force begins to return to the United States, but soon redeploys to the Pacific Theater where they will be reassigned to Okinawa under Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, with the mission to organize and train new bomber groups for combat against Japan.

August 6, 1945
The Enola Gay, part of the USAAF's 509th Composite Group, drops the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

August 15, 1945
V-J Day — Japan surrenders to the Allies, officially ending World War II. Emperor Hirohito announces the unconditional surrender over Japanese radio, accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.

September 17, 1945
The Air Force becomes its own arm of the American Military, releasing its tie to the Army.

P-51 Mustang and the Strategic Bombing Offensive - History

Remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America.

Valor in Combat

This site is dedicated to the men of the 354th Fighter Group during World War II. The group was assigned to IX Fighter Command under the command of Brigadier General Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada. The 354th Fighter Group was the first unit to take the Rolls-Royce Merlin P-51B Mustang into combat. The Pioneer Mustang Fighter Group, as they were famously known, was instrumental in the development of the P-51 for use in long-range missions to escort Eighth Air Force heavy bombers on strategic bombing raids deep into enemy territory at a very critical time. This unit achieved the highest record of 701 enemy aircraft destroyed in air-to-air engagements.

There are literally hundreds of recorded pages meticulously written by group and squadron historians detailing day to day operations from its activation in November 1942 to the end of hostitlies in May 1945. Presented here is only a concise narrative, this is their story.

354th HQ

353rd FS

355th FS

356th FS

Items of Interest

Lt. Col. James H. Howard Dedication

William W. Louie, 356th Fighter Squadron, commissioned a Bronze plaque to honor Lt. Col. James H. Howard’s heroic actions over Germany on 11 January 1944. The Bronze plaque was dedicated at Boxted Airfield Museum's 75th Anniversary Commemoration in 2018.

Tactical Markings 1943 to 1945

Twelve full-color illustrations showing squadron code letters, camouflage paint schemes, tactical markings and squadron recognition colors of 353rd, 355th and 356th Fighter Squadron Mustangs and Thunderbolts from November 1943 to May 1945.

The Stars Look Down

The Supreme Allied Commander's flight with the Pioneer Mustang Fighter Group on the Fourth of July 1944.

Top Ten Fighter Groups

In the entire ETO, the 354th Fighter Group had the highest total of claims against enemy aircraft destroyed in the air.

Pioneer Cinema

The P-51 Mustang's development as a long-range escort fighter. Interviews with combat veterans. Five other videos available.


These people provided assistance and contributed materials. I am eternally grateful to the 354th Pioneer Mustang Fighter Group Association, without them this website would not be possible:

354th Fighter Group Historians: Capt. Arthur F. Brown (354th HQ), Rudolph A. Tholt (354th HQ),
Capt. Fredrick S. Burkhardt (354th HQ), Lt. Albert J. Feigen (353rd FS), Lt Donald F. Snow (355th FS), Lt. Gabriel M. Bernstein (356th FS), Capt. Albert D. Fowler (356th FS), and Lt. Charles F. Kennaw (353rd FS).

354th Pioneer Mustang Fighter Group Association Members, William W. Louie, Charles "Chuck" Tighe, Raymond Bain, Clayton K. Gross, Norman E. Davis, Alan Grant, Rosemary Krebs, Larry Wood, Roberta Roddy, Robert D. Davis, Walter Harrington, Jon Teboe, JMT Productions, Robert W. Lamb, Paul Cornell, Jr., Joesph A. Kronek, Ted Skowronek, Hugh Gibson, Jeff Stephens, Al Styrsky family, Robert L. Young, Jr., Tripp Alyn, Michael F. Triventi, Jack E. Wimer, Doug Gifford, Jim Pierce, Walt Fink, Catherine and Millicent Carrizales.

Why the P-51 Mustang Was So Vital to Winning World War II

This fighter helped protect bombers on long-range missions.

The weeklong operation became known as “Big Week.” This operation, planned since early November 1943, called for a series of combined attacks by the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces against the highest priority objectives. Sixteen combat wings of heavy bombers (more than 1,000 bombers), all 17 USAAF fighter groups (835 fighter planes), and 16 RAF squadrons (to assist in short-range penetration and withdrawal escort) began their takeoff runs, assembled, turned to the east, and headed for 12 major assembly and component plants that constituted the heart of Hitler’s fighter production. The mere fact that the Eighth intended to hit 12 German targets in one mission spoke to the newfound confidence of its commanders and their determination to strike hard. Only 21 heavy bombers of the 889 that reached their targets (2.4 percent) failed to return to base.

Over the following days, both the Eighth and Fifteenth put up large missions against German targets in Denmark, Austria, and Germany. Over the course of Big Week, the Americans had proved that they could fly into the worst the Luftwaffe could muster, as long as they had fighter escort, and could do so with an overall loss rate of less than 5 percent. In all, the combination of U.S. strategic bomber and supporting fighter forces in Europe lost approximately 266 heavy bombers, 2,600 aircrew members (killed, wounded, or captured), and 28 fighters. In all of February, the Eighth wrote off 299 bombers, one fifth of its force, whereas the Luftwaffe wrote off more than one third of its single-engine fighters and lost almost 18 percent of its fighter pilots.

Big Week was big not only due to the physical damage inflicted on the German fighter industry and frontline fighter strength, but also to the psychological effect it had on the Army Air Forces. In one week Doolittle dropped almost as much bomb tonnage as the Eighth had dropped in its entire first year. In combat the AAF had shown that precision bombing in daylight not only performed as claimed, but also at no greater cost than the supposedly safer and less accurate night area bombing. What is more, the American fighter escorts destroyed many enemy fighters. German sources supported the conclusion that the Germans lost between 225 and 275 aircraft during Argument, primarily to U.S. long-range escort fighters. In their own minds, General Spaatz and other high-ranking American air officers had validated their belief in their basic strategy of precision daylight bombing.

The Decline of the Luftwaffe

Although the Luftwaffe fighter force actually increased its bomber kills in March and April 1944, Big Week was the beginning of the end for the German daylight fighter. The United States Strategic Air Forces’ (USSTAF) assistant director of intelligence said three weeks later, “I consider the result of the week’s attack to be the funeral of the German Fighter Force.” He added that USSTAF now realized that it could bomb any target in Germany at will. A key contributor to the eventual success of the strategic bombing campaign was the development of the long-range escort fighter, primarily the P-51.

In 1937, the German Luftwaffe had the best interceptor fighter in the world in the Messerschmitt Me-109. After the war began, German fighter development faltered. The Luftwaffe’s primary mission was support of the German Army. Air-to-air fighting had only been considered to the extent it supported gaining air superiority for the land battle. Also, the meddling of Hitler, who insisted it be developed as a bomber, delayed the production of the Me-262 jet fighter to a time so late in the air war that the Allies had already achieved overwhelming air superiority.

By the time the P-51s entered the fight in large numbers, the Luftwaffe pilot force had been greatly reduced in effectiveness. U.S. commanders knew of the sorry state of German pilot training and combat experience from decrypted radio messages. The AAF intentionally put up large bomber formations to lure the Germans into air-to-air combat with U.S. escort fighters. By the time of the D-Day landings in France in 1944, the Germans could mount only a few hundred sorties to oppose the Allied landings. Most of the German fighters had been drawn back into Germany to oppose the devastating Allied bomber raids.

The 273,841 Sorties of the Eighth Air Force

For the bomber offensive as a whole, the Eighth Air Force lost 4,182 aircraft from a total of 273,841 sorties, a rate of 1.5 percent. RAF Bomber Command, whose leadership shifted to night bombing to reduce losses, had a higher loss rate of 2.5 percent over the course of the war. The 250,000 aircrew members who flew bomber missions in the Eighth Air Force during the course of the war sustained 58,000 casualties—18,000 killed, 6,500 wounded, and 33,500 missing. The RAF Bomber Command lost 49,000 killed.

It is easy in hindsight to criticize the conduct of the strategic bombing campaign and the development of bombers and escort fighters. However, the postwar occupation of Germany found that its economy and its national infrastructure had been devastated to the point that they barely functioned. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stated, “Allied airpower was decisive in the war in Western Europe.” This was confirmed by German Armaments Minister Albert Speer after the war when he said that bombing created a “third Front” and that “without this great drain on our manpower, logistics, and weapons, we might have knocked Russia out of the war before your invasion of France.”

While the P-51 provided the answer to the need for a highly effective, long-range escort fighter in Europe, it was to prove less successful in the Pacific, where the long-range B-29s were used against the Japanese homeland, and even the improved P-51 did not have the necessary range. Many GIs died to secure islands close to the Japanese homeland as bases for the P-51s to escort the bombers.

After more than 70 years, it is easy to overlook the context of the times when assessing bomber and fighter strategies of World War II. The difficulties the planners encountered at the time far exceeded what can be readily seen. The air power planners of the 1930s could not know with any certainty that Hitler would start a war in Europe, that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor, that the laminar wing would be invented, that radar would enable integrated air defense, that outnumbered Britain would survive a German bombing campaign, and that the German people and industry could endure the destruction of their major cities.

It is all too easy to conclude that solutions like the long-range, high-performance escort fighter were obvious. However, when viewed in context, it is reasonable to conclude that Allied air leaders did well given the complexity of the times and the rapid pace of technological evolution.

P-51 Mustang

U.S.A. (1940)
Fighter Plane – 15,000 Built

The P-51 Mustang is one of the most famous fighters of WWII and of all time thanks to its exceptional performance characteristics, strong airframe and the role this fighter plane played in the European Theatre against the German Luftwaffe. Contributing to its defeat and aiding the Allies in gaining full control of the skies. It was also a long-enduring aircraft, with the last ones retired in 1984. It was by far the best day and night-time fighter of the Allies’ arsenal, with the Lockheed P-38 being its closest in-service rival.

The Origins of the Mustang

The Mustang was a single-seat and single engine fighter/fighter-bomber for day and night-time, with low wings. Its development began after a 1940 request by the Royal Air Force (RAF) for further license-built Curtiss P-40 Fighters to the North American Aviation. The British realized that bombing missions over German occupied territories were risky, suffering heavy casualties at the hands of the highly skilled Luftwaffe pilots and their fighters. The company made a move that would have a ripple effect throughout history, as it proposed to develop a new fighter instead of issuing the RAF an old model that was in short supply. The P-40 chain of production was already overloaded, with the P-40 component manufacturers reportedly turning down requests.

As a result, in 1940 the development of the Mustang began, which was by itself a feat as it took only four months. Its first flight took place in October 1940. The plane was a very advanced aircraft for its time, as it had an entirely metallic airframe, while slightly bigger than the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf-109. The P-51 featured laminar wings and a radiator located in the rear. It developed speeds of 615 km/h thanks to its Allison V-1710 engine, found in the early P-51 Mk I and P-51A Mk II. By 1942 it had joined the ranks of the RAF, with nearly 620 units issued, executing reconnaissance missions during the first landings the Allies attempted at the French port of Dieppe in August 1942, as well as ground-attack missions following poor high-altitude performance. The V-1710 tended to underperform at altitudes above 4500 meters.


As time went by, the Mustang would receive improvements that would enhance its already stellar performance. By late 1942 North American improved the propeller, the radiator and the aircraft’s aerodynamics. The developments in the engine design gave the Mustang increased horsepower and climbing ability, thus making the aircraft an exceptional air asset. The initial 12 cylinder Allison V-1710 engine was replaced with a Packard V-1650, which itself was based on the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin. As a result speed and range both were increased, with the top speed nudging up to 703 km/h and the range increasing up to 3703 km in the P-51B and C models. Furthermore, the upgrades were the key behind the Mustang’s celebrated reputation alongside its 6 12.7mm Browning machine guns. The Mustang reportedly shot down nearly 5000 enemy airplanes in air combat sorties, and destroyed nearly 4000 ground targets. Further improvements followed in the P-51D which had its airframe slightly shortened in the rear while received a revolutionary new bubble-shaped canopy. Additionally it had greater oil capacity and provisions for carrying rockets under the wings.

During the Sicily campaign the Mustang devastated the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force.) It also served as a notable escort fighter on bombing missions deep into Germany, wiping out the Luftwaffe’s defending fighters from the skies. It also had a very limited participation in the Pacific during WWII, seeing more action during the Korea War with the US Air Force, the Republic of Korea Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the South African Air Force, until all of the aforementioned replaced the Mustang with newer platforms. During the Korean conflict Mustangs were used for ground-attack and reconnaissance missions sustaining heavy losses due to ground fire. It was then in service with reserve units until 1956, except for three F-51Ds. The nomenclature for US fighters was changed from P for ‘Pursuit’ for F for ‘Fighter’ after WWII. These F-51s were used as chase planes for the Lockheed YAH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter project and other experimental purposes until the late 60s.


The Mustang also saw extensive use in combat with other air forces. The Netherlands used them during the Indonesian War of Independence. Israel deployed the Mustang during its War of Independence and the Suez Canal Crisis also known as Operation Kadesh. The Philippines used the Mustangs for counter-insurgency purposes during the Huk campaign against communist guerrillas. Indonesia and many South American countries used the P51 in many similar campaigns against guerrilla fighters. Sweden used the Mustangs on reconnaissance versions for Operation Falun, a reconnaissance of soviet Baltic coast military installations in 1946-47 El Salvador’s Air force also made use of this model during the 1969 Soccer War against Honduras, being the last combat use between piston engine fighters (with Honduras using the Vought Chance F4U-5) and the Dominican Republic, were they took part in Operation Power Pack, an US intervention during the brief 1965 Dominican Republic Civil War. This was the last air force in withdrawing the Mustang from active duty in 1984.

The Mustang also had a civilian life after WWII and other conflicts it served. Many are now privately owned with some now in museums and on static display. Others are still airworthy and maintained by hobbyists and historical societies. Some have even been modified for racing. A total of 15.386 Mustangs were built.


The Mustang is a low-wing fighter, with a single tail and a single engine: 1 Allison V-1710 V-12 developing 1,325 hp used in the P-51 Mk.I and P-51A Mk.II or 1 Packard V-1650 V-12 of 1,315 hp in the P-51D and onwards. Its wings featured a laminar flow airfoils that generated very low drag at high speed, also providing outstanding aerodynamic characteristics. The radiator is a remarkable feature of the Mustang, in both its shape and performance as it takes advantage of the ‘Meredith effect’ which creates a slight jet thrust from the heated air flowing outward providing more propulsion to the engine and increasing the speed of the aircraft. A 2 stage supercharger gave the Mustang power enough to outperform its German counterparts. This designs also had incidence with the length of the aircraft, which allowing the fitting of a bigger inner fuel oil tank that increased its maximum range and speed. The fuselage shares the same features as the Lansen, which was lofted mathematically using conic sections. This resulted in a smooth fuselage with low drag surfaces. The Mustang had another unique feature: its fuselage was divided into 5 sections – forward, center, rear fuselage, and two wing halves which made assembly during production very efficient.

The aircraft material was covered in aluminum overall, which made the Mustang a lightweight aircraft for its day. Combined with its aerodynamic characteristics, it was an aircraft easy to fly with good performance in-flight and during combat.

The first versions of the Mustang (P-51 to P-51C) had conventional canopy setup with the door opening and closing upwards and downwards to the side albeit possessing poor rearward visibility. The P-51D and the following versions introduced the bubble-shaped canopy that is widely known which gave the pilot a full 360° view. This design slid on rails that moved backwards, making easy entry and exit. This would influence the design of future fighters and light bombers canopies alongside its bullet-proof windscreen.

Earlier versions were armed with 4 X 12.7mm / .50 caliber AN/M2 Browning machine guns. As North American decided to upgrade the firepower, the P-51D through H versions received 6 Browning guns.

A Reliable “Little Friend”

The Mustang would go on to win the skies and the hearts of the bombers crews, as it provided good escort to the very risky and dangerous long-range bombings deep into German territory. Needless to say, it also won the respect and fear of its adversaries. The crew of the bombers dubbed the Mustangs as “little friends” for the invaluable protection they afforded to the bombers during the deep raid missions over German-controlled skies.

The P-51 Mustang came about initially by request from the RAF to be provided with a fighter capable enough to match the German Messerschmitt, but it had the P-40 in mind. North American, the manufacturing company, proposed instead a new airplane. When it came in service with the RAF, it became the first fighter capable of penetrating deep into the German skies from England. As a result, the US decided to operate it over the skies of Italy and Sicily. Evaluating the performance and range, the P-51 was then used as bomber escort plane, being capable of reaching even Poland and Czech Republic. When executing this particular task, it became an important air asset for the Allies to control the skies of Europe. But it was not mere realization about such need what brought the P-51 into the scene. In fact, there were two factors that pushed the Allies into adopting the Mustang as escort airplane: First, the initially reluctant allies were able to assess the potential the Mustang had once the D type was introduced with all of its improvements. Second, two disastrous raids over the German city of Schweinfurt, where the bombers suffered heavy casualties at 59 destroyed, morale was low. The resulting evaluation showcased the need for bombers to be provided with escort fighters to carry out strategic bombing operations with minimal losses.

The Mustang also executed the similar escort missions in the Pacific theatre alongside the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers over Japan. Once the island of Iwo Jima was taken by the Marines, the Americans had a base from which both bombers and escort fighters could strike mainland Japan.


  • NA.73X – The only prototype of the Mustang, which was ready only four months after contracts were signed
  • A-36 Apache / A-36 Invader – Dive-bomber and ground attack. The ‘Apache’ and ‘Invader’ were the original nicknames for the airframe, before Mustang was adopted. Fitted with the same Allison engine of the earlier versions. It was also equipped with dive brakes and two hardpoints allowing 2 X 500 lb (227 kg) bombs on each wing, as well as two fuel drop tanks of 75 gallons. It was armed with six guns .50 cal Browning machine guns, 2 of those guns were placed at the nose. It could have a secondary role as low-altitude fighter, being as a P-51A. 500 produced.
  • P-51 – Mustang Mk IA taken over by the USAAC. 57 units.
  • F-6A – Reconnaissance version fitted with cameras. Number unknown.
  • P-51A – Fighter version. Was a good low-altitude fighter. It also had two hardpoints allowing bombs or drop fuel tanks. It served also in the China,Burma, and India theatre as fighter and escort. 310 delivered.
  • P-51B – Fighter version. This model featured a better engine in the form of the Packard V-1650-3, based on the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This version was capable of performing as high-altitude fighter. However it had problems of poor rear visibility and guns jamming when intense G maneuvers were performed. All in all, this version began to turn the tide against the Luftwaffe and Germany’s infrastructure. 1,988 delivered.
  • P-51C – Fighter version. Built in Dallas, Texas. It had the same engine of the P-51B, but also the same visibility and gun jamming problems. 1750 delivered.
  • TP-51C – A field modification intended at creating a dual-control variant, for VIP transport and training. 5 built.
  • P-51D – Fighter version that received a suite of improvements that would make the Mustang a powerful fighter, becoming a milestone for fighter development and the Allies’ air superiority in Europe. Amongst the improvements, there was the bubble canopy, shortened fuselage, greater on-board fuel capacity, and a modified wing allowing 3 Browning .50 cal machine guns on each. Provisions for rockets were also complemented by a K-14 gun sight that used an analog computer, which improved accuracy. 7966 delivered.
  • XP-51F – Lightweight version. 3 built.
  • XP-51G – Lightweight version, with a 5-bladed propeller. 2 delivered.
  • P-51H – A lightweight version, powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 1650-9, decreased fuel capacity, and a distinctive tall tail. 555 delivered.
  • XP-51J – A lightweight version powered with an Allison engine. 2 built.
  • P-51K – A P-51D having a different propeller (A Hamilton Standard 11’12’’ 4-blade. 1337 delivered.
  • P-51L – Cancelled version.
  • P-51M – Cancelled version
  • Mustang Mk I – The very first operational version of the Mustang, entering in service with the RAF in October 1941. Having the same engine as the models P-51 and P-51A, as well as the same armament but bombs and rockets. 620 delivered.
  • Mustang Mk IA – A second version for the RAF, being the version with the most powerful armament as it had 4 X 20 mm Hispano guns at the wings, being the machineguns of the nose removed. 150 delivered and 57 deviated for US use.
  • Mustang Mk II – A third version for the RAF, based on the P-51A. Equipped with an Allison V-1710-81 engine with an improved supercharger that enhanced mid-altitude performance, making of the Mk II the fastest fighter for such altitude. It was equipped also with a fixed belly scoop, drop tanks but only 4 X 12,7mm machine guns
  • Mustang Mk III – A fourth version for the RAF that also received the same improvements than the P-51B in regards of the power plant, yet having the same 4 X 12,7mm machine guns of previous models. It was widely used to chase and take down the German V-1 flying bombs. 852 delivered under Lend Lease programme.
  • Mustang Mk IV and IVA – Fifth and sixth versions for the RAF, receiving the upgraded canopy and other upgrades similar to those of the P-51D (including the 6 12,7mm guns and the K-14 gun sight). These versions were based on the P-51D and P-51K, respectively. 284 Mk IV and 594 Mk IVA were delivered.
  • Rolls Royce Mustang Mk X – An experimental version developed by the Great Britain powered with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, taking as a basis the airframes of Mustangs Mk I, for medium and high altitudes. Despite success, the 500 planned series production was cancelled. 5 airframes modified.
  • Commonwealth CA-17 Mustang Mk 20 – The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was in need of new fighters and high-altitude interceptors. An agreement between the RAAF and North American resulted in the Australian Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) allowed to build the P-51D version under license. Powered by the Merlin engine. 100 unassembled P-51D were issued, with only 80 being fully completed by CAC (CA-17 Mk 20).
  • Commonwealth CA-18 Mustang Mk 21, Mk 22 and Mk 23 – These versions were licensed built versions by CAC. The Mk 21 was powered by a Merlin V-1650-7, the Mk23 was powered with Rolls Royce Merlin engines. The Mk22 was modified to be a reconnaissance version similar to the F-6D. 120 CA-18 were built.
  • Mustang Cavaliers (or Mustang II F-51/Mustang III-Piper PA-48 Enforcer) – Surplus P-51Ds that were modified, with all the military equipment initially removed, and a second seat added. Some received increased fuel capacity with wing tip tanks, upgraded avionics and a tall tail. Some F-51 were repaired and upgraded by Cavalier, being delivered to the Dominican Air Force (36), to the Salvadorian Air Force (9), to the Indonesian Air Force (6), and two to the US Army serving as chase planes for the Cheyenne AH-54 attack helicopter program. Attempts to keep the P-51 in service by adding a turboprop (Rolls Royce Dart) were made, resulting in the Mustang III, but they came to no avail. The project was sold to Piper, which developed the Piper PA-48 Enforcer, finding the same fate. Only two PA-48 Enforcers exist as museum pieces.
  • P-82/F-82 Twin Mustang – Designed as a long-range, high-altitude bomber escort, with a high maximum range (3600 km/2300 miles) and very high ceiling 12192m (40,000 ft), being able to escort the B-29 bombers over Japan. It had two elongated P-51 fuselages (hence its name) that gave the aforementioned characteristics, having two pilots as crew, with one later on operating a radar. The power plants were the same of the P-51D, reaching speeds of 750 km/h (500 mph). Its firepower was the same 12,7mm machineguns, placed at the central wing, 25 air-to-ground rockets or up to 4000 lbs of bombs. It saw action in the early Cold War protecting US mainland against soviet bombers, and during the earlier stages of the Korean War, as night-fighters and ground attackers.


  • United States of America – The US Air Corps/Air Force became the second and the main operator of the P-51. As the US needed a capable bomber escort, the P-51 became the choice for this purpose with the P-38 and P-47 for the initial stages of the bombing operations. The Mustang became the mostly used escort fighter in Europe by the US. When the Mustang was used in advanced formations to the bombers, fighting the German fighters before they were able to strike the bombers, it achieved air superiority. After the Luftwaffe was nearly wiped out, it performed ground-attack mission. It was on this sort of missions that the Mustang was able to destroy the German-introduced Messerschmitt 262. The top ace using Mustangs shot down 26 enemy airplanes. It had a secondary participation in the Pacific theatre. It lasts service with the USAF was during the Korean War, when it was re-denominated as F-51, until it came to be replaced with F-86 Sabres.
  • United Kingdom – The nation whose request gave birth to the Mustang P-51, being the very first operator in January 1942. 620 were Mustangs Mk I, 93 were Mk IA, 50 were Mustangs Mk II, 308, 944 were Mustangs Mk III, 208 were Mk IV, and 600 were MK VIA. The RAF used the P-51 initially as close cooperation, ground-attack and reconnaissance, due to earlier models poor performance at high altitude. Mostly returned to the US or scrapped, remained in service with the RAF until 1947.
  • Australia – Became an operator of the P-51 in 1944, although operated the Mustangs under RAF badge. It received its first P-51 in Italy, in 1944. Received 80 and 120 later on as CA-17 and CA-18, respectively. It was deployed in the Pacific, as part of the occupation force in Japan and in the Korean War. The Citizens Air Force (CAF)reserve units used the P-51s until 1960.
  • Netherlands (East Indies Air Force) – The Netherlands used the P-51 on its East Indies Air Force, receiving 40 P-51D, using them during the Indonesian War of Independence. After the war, it handed some Mustangs to the nascent Indonesian Air Force.
  • New Zealand – Ordered 370 P-51 but received only 30 P-51D when the war came to an end. The delivered Mustangs were stored in their packing cases until 1951, when they were assembled and assigned to 4 squadrons of the Territorial Air Force. Remained in service until 1955 following corrosion problems in the undercarriage and coolant system. Some P-51s were flown as loaned airplanes with the RAF, and even some flew with the USAAC.
  • Sweden – The Flygvapnet operated initially 4 P-51s (2 P-51B and 2 P-51D) that were diverted to Sweden during operations. 50 additional P-51D were purchased, later on 111 being acquired, forming two wings. 12 were modified for photo reconnaissance, being designated as S 26 and taking part in Operation Falun, Sweden’s operation in mapping the new Soviet military installations in the Baltic countries in 1946-47. Replaced by the S 29C Tunnan in the early 50’s, selling some 25 P-51 to Israel and some Latin American countries.
  • Switzerland – The Schweizer Luftwaffe operated 100 P-51 that were diverted to Switzerland during operations, purchasing additional 130 P-51. They were in service until 1958
  • Israel – Around 4 P-51 were obtained by Israel in 1948 by buying surplus scrapped airframes, assembling and disassembling them again, packing and smuggling them to Israel in crates labelled as irrigation equipment, using them during the Israeli Independence War. They also were used as reprisal-attack aircraft, protection of an Israeli Navy Ship that ran aground, latter destroying it, and reconnaissance operations. Received 25 further P-51 from Sweden in 1951. They took part in the Operation Kadesh during the Suez Crisis, and even disrupted communications of Egypt during a parachute drop at Mitla Pass. In service until 1957.
  • Italy – Italy operated 173 P-51s after the war, with fighter, training, experimental and acrobatic purposes. Had to fly with some restrictions due to some factors affecting flight.
  • South Africa – 95 Mustangs were used in the Korean War, suffering heavy casualties yet performing well. The models used were Mk IV, Mk IVA, and P-51D. In service until 1952-53 when replaced with F-86 Sabres.
  • Canada – The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had five squadrons equipped with Mustangs during the war (Mk I, Mk III and Mk IVA). After the war, it received 150. Most were retired in 1956, with some remaining on special purposes service until the early 60s.
  • France – France began to operate with Mustangs by 1944, operating some of the F-6 series on reconnaissance missions in Germany in 1945. Remained in service until the earlier 50s, as they were replaced with jet fighters.
  • Poland – It operated Mustangs Mk I as the Polish Air Force in Britain, under RAF command. Then it operated Mk III until 1944, replacing the Mk III with Mk IV and IVAs in 1945. After the war, 80 Mk III and 20 Mk IV and Mk IVAs were returned to the RAF, and then to the US.
  • Japan – Only one unit that was damaged by gunfire and forced to do a belly landing in 1945 was used by Japan for testing purposes.
  • South Korea – 10 P-51D were supplied to the Republic of Korea Air Force following the beginning of the war, being the backbone of the ROKAF until they were replaced by F-86 Sabres. They also served as the black Eagles acrobatic team until 1954.
  • Taiwan – Some P-51 were used by the Nationalist forces against the Japanese, and then against the communists. In 1949 and following the Nationalist withdrawal to Taiwan, some P-51 were flown to the island, becoming part of the Taiwanese Air Force.
  • Germany – Some captured P-51s were used by the Luftwaffe, with some P-51B, P-51C and P-51D operating with the Germans for testing purposes.
  • Costa Rica – Four P-51D were operated from 1955 to 1964.
  • Cuba – 3 P-51D were smuggled into the country to serve with the rebel forces, but never gained operational status, becoming instead pieces of museum.
  • Dominican Republic – It was the second largest air force and the largest Latin American air force to operate the P-51, having 44 in its arsenal in 1948, and in service until 1984.
  • Guatemala – 30 Mustangs P-51D were in service with this country from 1954 to the first half of the 70s.
  • Haiti – 4 were operated by this country from 1951 to 1971, selling them for spare parts to the Dominican Air Force.
  • El Salvador – 6 Cavaliers (5 Mustang II and 1 dual control Cavalier TF-51) were purchased in 1968-69, in service until 1974. They saw combat action during the 1969 Soccer War against Honduras, with one being lost by a F4U.
  • China – 39 P-51s were captured from the Nationalists.
  • Indonesia – Some P-51D were acquired following the Netherlands withdrawal from the country, used against the Commonwealth (RAF, RAAF and RNZAF) during the Indonesian crisis in the early 60’s. Six Cavalier II were shipped to Indonesia in 1972-73, remaining in service until 1976.
  • Nicaragua – 26 P-51D were purchased from Sweden by this nation, receiving a further 30 P-51D US surplus along with two TF-51. In service until 1964.
  • Philippines – 103 P-51D were acquired after the war, becoming the backbone of the Philippine Air force and Air Corps, having action during the Huk campaign, fighting communist insurgents. It served also in the Blue Diamonds demonstration squadron and serving as COIN until the early 80’s, when 56 F-86 relegated them from first-line fighter missions in the late 50s.
  • Uruguay – 25 P-51D Mustangs were in service from 1950 to 1960, with some being sold to Bolivia.
  • Bolivia – 7 Cavalier F-51D and 2 TF-51 were issued to Bolivia under Peace Condor program. 23 P-51 were also sold to Bolivia. All remained in service from 1958 to 1978.
  • Somalia – 8 P-51D served in this nation after the war.
  • Soviet Union – 10 Mustang Mk I from the RAF were received, relegated for training missions after tests supposedly rendered them as underperforming to soviet fighters.

Mustang Specifications

  • 6 X .50 caliber (12.7mm) AN/M2 Browning Machine Guns
  • 2 hardpoints that could allow 453 lb (907 kg) of payload. 2 x 100 lb (45 kg) bombs 2 x 250 lb (113 kg) or 2 x 500 lb (226 kg) bombs. 6 or 10 x 5.0 in (127mm) T64 H.V.A.R rockets
  • 2 X 75 gallon (284 Liter) fuel oil drop tanks


P-51D-25-NA “Swamp Fox” P-15D-5-NA “Tika IV” P-51D Mustang – 464153 P-51D-5-NA 8AF 44-13691 P-51D-25-NA “The Enchantress” P-51D “Nooky Booky IV” P-51D “Old Crow” Royal Australian Air Force – 3 Sq H677 P-51D-25-NA 21FS Republic of China Air Force Captured P-51D with German Markings The dual fuselage ‘twin’ Mustang P-51D – Miss Kandy

P-51 Mustang and the Strategic Bombing Offensive - History

By Herb Kugel

The Eighth Air Force—the “Mighty Eighth”—became the stuff of U.S. Air Force legend when its fleets of unprotected Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bombers flew massive air raids against the heavily guarded German industrial heartland during the period between the end of January through the middle of October 1943.

This was the time of the Air Force’s unescorted daylight precision bombing, and while this form of aerial assault was virtually a belief system to the Air Force officers who designed and implemented it, it was deeply flawed. These flaws led to results that its designers could never have imagined.

Unescorted Daylight Precision Bombing: A World War I Legacy

Unescorted daylight precision bombing was a concept developed in the 1930s at the Army Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field, Alabama. It was a major concept change in that unescorted daylight precision bombing concentrated on specific targets of military significance rather than bombing broad areas more or less haphazardly.

The Air Force stood alone in accepting this strategy they were the lone champion of daylight precision bombing. The Navy rejected it in favor of dive-bombing. When the British found they could not hit targets with precision, they switched to night “area” bombing.

In addition to going it alone, the Air Force’s long-range unescorted bombing missions would be flown with bombers about which there was grave concern. On August 16, 1942, Peter Masefield, a man respected in British aviation and the air correspondent to the Sunday Times, summed up the British and American worries when he wrote: “American heavy bombers—the latest Fortresses and Liberators—are … not suited for bombing in Europe. Their bomb-loads are small, their armor and armament are not up to the standards now found necessary, and their speeds are low.” He even went as far as suggesting that the American aircraft industry should drop the B-17 and instead begin building the four-engine British Avro Lancaster heavy bomber for night bombardment.

In spite of these concerns, the Air Force officers dedicated to unescorted daylight precision bombing were unmoved. They shared a virtually obsessive belief in a form of aerial warfare that was first put forth during World War I by Italian Army officer Giulio Douhet. He wrote, “A slower, heavily armed plane, able to clear its way with its own armament, can always get the best of a faster pursuit plane…. A unit … of … slower heavily armed planes is in a position to stand up to the fire of enemy pursuit planes and carry out its mission successfully.”

This view was shared in the years after World War I by Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, regarded by many as the founder of the U.S. Air Force, and it was a view firmly held by many of the officers who served under him. By the beginning of World War II, many of these officers were now generals in senior command positions. Regardless of the changes in military aviation and especially in fighter technology that had taken place in the 20 years between the two wars, many of these men remained rigidly committed to Douhet’s and Mitchell’s views on aerial warfare.

Because of their inflexible attitudes, there was a complete lack of any planning for long-range escort fighters to protect the “invincible” bombers. These officers felt that such bombers would never need protection. While these men had put dedicated and continuous efforts into campaigning for the building of long-range heavy bombers, their efforts on behalf of long-range escort fighters to protect these bombers was nonexistent. They believed escort fighters were not only unnecessary but also impossible to build.

Perceived Challenges of the Escort Fighter

In 1935, an Army Air Corps board determined an escort fighter would have to meet the following standards: (1) Construction safety factors would have to be as rigid as those required for interceptors (2) Its top speed would have to be at least 25 percent greater than the bomber it would be protecting (3) It needed a range at least as great as the bomber it was protecting (4) Service ceilings would need to be as high as and preferably higher than the bomber’s (5) It needed a high rate of climb.

While much of this seems reasonable, the board then came to the extremely dubious conclusion that the escort fighter apparently would be larger than the bomber it would be protecting and would require three engines rather than the two generally installed on bombers during this period.

One study board went even further, stating that the need for escort fighters “has not as yet been thoroughly demonstrated.” Although additional Army Air Corps boards came to the same conclusions, there was certainly no consensus agreement. Meanwhile, the ACTS conducted “tests” that Captain Claire Chennault, then an ACTS instructor in pursuit tactics, claimed were “stacking the deck” in favor of bombers over fighters. The bottom line was that the Air Force went into World War II and unescorted daylight precision bombing without the semblance of a long-range escort fighter in its planning.

A Decision on Daylight Bombing at Casablanca

The controversy involving unescorted daylight precision bombing began with the Casablanca Conference, which commenced on January 14, 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, accompanied by their military staffs, met in Morocco to consider the future conduct of the war.

Churchill, unhappy with American daylight bombing efforts to date, arrived determined to convince Roosevelt to order the U.S. Air Force to join the Royal Air Force’s night bombing raids, which had been striking into Germany and German-occupied Europe since 1940.

Churchill made certain his staff understood his position when, on January 4, 1943, he sent a message to his secretary of state for air in which he wrote pointedly, “I note that the Americans have not yet succeeded in dropping a single bomb on Germany.”

The prime minister was correct. Beginning with the England-based Eighth Bomber Command’s first strike into occupied territory on August 17, 1942, in an attack against the Rouen-Sotteville marshaling yards in France, through December 31, 1942, the Eighth Bomber Command’s heavy bombers flew 27 missions. However, none of these were into Germany, which at this time was well beyond the range of any available American or British escort fighter.

Soon after the Casablanca Conference began, Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, a World War I fighter pilot and commander of the Eighth Air Force, received a “panicked” message from the commanding general of the Army Air Forces, General Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold, ordering him to “get to Casablanca as soon as possible.” Upon arriving, Eaker was warned that Churchill was on the verge of convincing Roosevelt to switch the American bombing effort away from daylight raiding and into joining with the RAF in their night bombing missions.

Eaker, a strong advocate for daylight precision bombing, was urgently directed to do everything possible to change Churchill’s mind. Possessing a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California, Eaker enjoyed writing long memos to Arnold, but with Churchill he knew better. He met with Churchill and provided a succinct one-page memo outlining the case for continuing American daylight bombing.

The memo pointed out that the time and cost of retraining would greatly hamper the war effort, and the strategy change would maximize the probability of accidents with two great air fleets hovering in the same dark skies at the same time. However, the key element in Eaker’s memo was the last sentence. He wrote elegantly, “If the RAF continues night bombing and we bomb by day, we shall bomb them round the clock and the devil shall get no rest.” The erudite Churchill, delighting in this sentence, was won over and ceased his opposition to American daylight bombing.

Arnold was pleased as well as relieved. He was a firm supporter of daylight bombing and as early as 1940 had declared, “The Air Corps is committed to a strategy of high-altitude precision bombing of military objectives.”

A tight formation of Eighth Air Force B-17s releases its bomb loads during a daylight raid over Betzdorf, Germany, March 12, 1945.

After the Casablanca Conference ended on January 24, the final resolutions were hurriedly written because Churchill wanted to cut short his attendance and rush away to paint the nearby Atlas Mountains. As a result, the wording of the Casablanca directive caused some misunderstanding. It stated that the purpose of a combined British and American air offensive against Germany was the “progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” Specifically, the American bombers were ordered to “attack Germany by day.”

Eaker interpreted the phrase “attack Germany by day” to mean exactly what he wanted it to mean. It meant that the U.S. Air Force, particularly the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command, would be conducting unescorted daylight precision bombing raids into the German heartland.

On January 27, three days after the conference ended, Eaker ordered up the Eighth Bomber Command’s Mission Number 31 as the first unescorted American heavy bomber raid over Germany. However, in doing this, Eaker was introducing concepts and tactics based on World War I thinking and planning. In addition, he was relying on American weapons systems that had never been tested under combat conditions.

The Luftwaffe vs the Eighth Air Force

Ninety-one unprotected bombers were sent on this first raid, but, because of bad weather, just 53 planes reached their target—the U-boat yards at Wilhelmshaven. Fortunately, only three bombers were lost because the unexpected daylight raid caught the defenders off guard. Also, at that time, the elite Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were stationed in France or were fighting against Russia on the Eastern Front. But this would change during the next seven months as the Americans pushed their raids deeper into Germany.

The Germans realized these attacks, if uncurbed, would critically weaken their capacity to wage war. They proved grimly efficient in raising airplane production. In the first six months of 1943, the Luftwaffe day-fighter force in Germany and its occupied western countries rose from 635 to over 800 planes. Concurrently, American losses continued to climb as the Germans found their mark. For example, on Eighth Bomber Command Raid Number 52, an April 17 attack against the Port of Bremen, 16 out of the 106 bombers that succeeded in reaching their target were shot down on Raid Number 63, a June 13 follow-up raid on Bremen, 26 out of the 102 bombers that succeeded in reaching their target were lost. Each B-17 carried a crew of 10 men.

Compounding the substantial losses suffered by the Eighth Bomber Command in the spring and early summer of 1943, there was no certainty that the Allies would win the war against Germany. When America went to war, German fighter plane production was 360 planes per month. By June 1943, German air minister Erhard Milch had pushed fighter plane production up to a 1,000 planes per month. Unless the Allies gained and maintained air superiority, they would not be able to mount a strategic bombing campaign against Germany and, should that happen, they might be unable to launch a successful invasion of France in 1944. D-Day, if it happened at all, could well turn out to be a disaster.

Because of this, on June 10, 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued the “Pointblank” directive. This directive, in actuality, pushed German air strength to the top of the Eighth Bomber Command’s target list and ordered Bomber Command to demolish the Luftwaffe. Not only would American bombers have to go head-to-head against the German fighters, they would have to do it alone.

The best protection bombers could get from their “little friends,” as the bomber crews called their escort fighters, was primarily from the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. But, like the Spitfires, the Thunderbolts were very limited in range and always had to turn back for England by the time they reached the vicinity of the German border.

Thus, from the German border eastward, the B-17s were completely on their own and suddenly perilously vulnerable because the Luftwaffe had discovered, and was exploiting, a significant weakness in their armor.

The German fighters initially found themselves lacking firepower when taking on the well-armed heavy bombers. After the Luftwaffe examined crashed B-17s and B-24s, they discovered that it took at least 20 hits with 20mm shells fired from the rear to bring down a bomber. Armament experts, after analyzing combat camera footage, learned that pilots of average ability hit the bombers with only about two percent of the rounds they fired. To obtain 20 hits, the average pilot had to aim 1,000 20mm rounds at the bomber. The best German fighter, the FW-190, carried only 500 rounds, so the pilot would probably only obtain 10 hits—not enough to shoot down his target unless he was extremely lucky.

A twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 banks sharply to avoid a collision with a B-17 above Germany, June 21, 1944.

The solution, they determined, was to attack the bombers head-on. When the bomber was hit from the front, there was nothing to stop the bullets and shells. Four or five 20mm hits were often enough to knock the plane out of the sky. Moreover, the bombers had fewer guns capable of firing forward. The high closing speed gave B-17 and B-24 gunners little chance to hit the small, rapidly moving target. The combined closing speed of nearly 500 mph allowed the German pilots time for only a half-second burst of fire, commencing at 500 yards. If it was accurate, though, it was deadly.

One bombardier recalled, “They came in from ten, twelve, two o’clock, guns winking, then, just a few feet away would break below, some of the hot-shots actually doing a roll as they went. You could feel the shells hitting the ship, but you were holding formation, and apart from a quick burst from the forward guns, there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.”

Striking Schweinfurt and Regensburg

The first series of American attacks deeper into Germany and the occupied countries began in late July 1943. Brig. Gen. Frederick L. Anderson, Jr., was given command of the Eighth Bomber Command, serving under the Eighth Air Force’s CG, Eaker.

Anderson unleashed “Blitz Week”—a series of raids during the period of July 24-30, 1943. While Blitz Week produced mixed results, the fact remained that 88 B-17s were shot down and many more were damaged beyond repair. German industry’s fighter output in July, meanwhile, exceeded 1,200 planes. Although the Blitz Week losses clearly demonstrated the B-17’s vulnerability without a powerful fighter escort, the Air Force felt something had to be done without delay to stop the Luftwaffe’s growth. What they tried led to disaster.

On August 17, 1943, Eighth Bomber Command staged Mission Number 84, its first deep-penetration strike into the German industrial heartland. The bombers would be totally unprotected over Germany as they attacked both the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg and the ball-bearing production center at Schweinfurt, both cities located in Bavaria. A total of 376 bombers were dispatched 146 of them were to strike Regensburg and the other 230 were to attack Schweinfurt.

Under the initial plan, the two raiding forces, flying southeast from their bases in England, were to merge and then make their initial penetration deep into Germany as one powerful force. Then, south of Frankfurt, which is 76 miles from Schweinfurt, the Schweinfurt strike force was to veer northeast to attack the ball-bearing factories. At the same time, the Regensburg force would continue southeast to hit the Messerschmitt factories, but then, instead of turning northwest to return to England as the Germans would expect, the force would swerve south over Austria and Italy and continue across the Mediterranean to North Africa. Once over North Africa, it would land at the American bases there.

The heart of the initial plan was for the Regensburg force to strike first. Flying just 15 minutes behind, the Schweinfurt force would then move in to attack the ball-bearing factories. As Schweinfurt and Regensburg are only 109 miles apart, the time and the takeoff interval between the two forces was absolutely critical. The plan assumed the Regensburg strike force, by turning unexpectedly toward North Africa, would mislead the German fighter pilots.

During this critical period of hoped-for Luftwaffe confusion, and shortly thereafter, while the German fighters were on the ground refueling after wasting crucial fruitless moments searching for the Regensburg flight, the Schweinfurt raiders would attack the ball-bearing plants that should be, at least for a few moments, without air protection.

The all-important factor in making this plan succeed was the takeoff times of both the Schweinfurt and Regensburg air fleets—times that fell victim to Mother Nature. Because of bad weather, the Regensburg force was delayed by one-and-a-half hours before take-off and the Schweinfurt force was delayed five hours before going into the air.

These changes in takeoff times totally destroyed any chance for surprise and, worse yet, created two separate and unrelated bombing raids instead of a single, powerful, critically timed attack.

Disaster Over Germany

In allowing what was, in essence, two separate missions to proceed, Anderson presented the Luftwaffe with an abundance of time to get ready and attack each force separately, something they did as soon as the short-range P-47 Thunderbolt fighter escorts turned back at the German border. Ferocious and bloody air battles ensued.

The German fighters attacked en masse, hitting the bomber formations head-on, exploiting the known weakness in the B-17s’ nose armament. The B-17Es and B-17Fs were equipped with one .30-caliber nose gun and two .30-caliber cheek guns, manned by the navigator and bombardier—hardly the most skilled gunners. Lieutenant Edwin Frost, who was in the nose of a B-17 and firing a cheek gun, recalled: “It was just pandemonium. It seemed that every gun was firing at once and the noise was terrific…. Most [German fighters] were coming straight through, tearing right through us….”

In addition to the moments of terror brought about German fighters slashing through the bomber formations, and the black puffs of deadly flak exploding all around, the surviving crewmembers remembered the numbing cold at high altitudes and the frightening sight of their fellow bombers being shot out of the sky in great numbers.

No one escaped from this flaming B-17 shot down over the rail yards at Nis, Yugoslavia, April 25, 1944.

Lieutenant Colonel Beirne Lay, Jr., one of Eaker’s staff officers, flew as an observer on the Regensburg raid. In his November 6, 1943, article in The Saturday Evening Post, “I Saw Regensburg Destroyed,” he described the carnage: “On we flew through the cluttered wake of a desperate air battle, where disintegrating air craft were commonplace and the white dots of sixty parachutes in the air at one time were hardly worth a second look. The spectacle on my eyes became so fantastic that my brain turned numb to the actuality of the death and destruction all around us. Had it not been for the squeezing in my stomach, which was trying to purge, I might have easily been watching an animated cartoon in a movie theater.”

John Comer, a flight engineer serving in the top turret of a 381st Bomb Group B-17, reported, “At times it looked like the entire Luftwaffe was lined up at twelve o’clock high.” A navigator in the Schweinfurt wave, looking down, wondered why so many haystacks were burning. He discovered they were not haystacks they were the wrecks of flaming B-17s.

Elmer Bendiner, a navigator fortunate enough to have survived the raid on Schweinfurt, recalled what he thought and felt when he came back. Bendiner, later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three clusters, and a Purple Heart, poured his memories into his 1980 book, The Fall of Fortresses:

“We had been in the air for eight hours and forty minutes. We had been in incessant combat for close to six hours. It had been fourteen hours since we had risen in the predawn. In that time sixty B-17s had been shot down, six hundred men were missing. The first major strategic air battle of the war had been fought. Did we win? Did we lose? Did we really see those planes burning on the ground? Did we see this one fall and that one fart black smoke from his engine? Whose chute opened? Whose did not? Questions turned in the hollow mind bereft of thought, like an awl in wormwood, biting into nothingness, the nothingness of spent men at last asleep.”

The American losses were devastating 60 bombers were lost, 36 from the Schweinfurt flight and 24 from the Regensburg flight. In addition, 87 bombers were damaged beyond repair, or were forced to be left behind in North Africa because of inadequate repair facilities. This led to a total loss to the Eighth Air Force of 147 B-17s.

While many of the B-17s left behind in North Africa were eventually repaired and assigned to the Africa-based Twelfth Air Force, the fact remained that of the 376 B-17s dispatched on this raid, the loss of 147 bombers amounted to a staggering 39 percent of the dispatched force.

The air generals struggled to put a good face on the raid with claims of success, but they could not hide the fact that the losses made it impossible for Anderson to mount an immediate follow-up raid. A second raid soon after the first raid might have crippled Luftwaffe production, something the first raid did not do. There would be a second raid on Schweinfurt within two months, but then, as with the first raid, the results would prove insignificant. However, this fact would only become known when the war was over.

Emerson reports,“After the war, German experts estimated that even if the bearings industry had been wholly destroyed─… it could have been rebuilt absolutely from scratch in about four months time…. [But] … on the basis of available allied intelligence in 1943, Schweinfurt appeared to be a target of the first importance.”

“Black Thursday”

After the Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids, there were fewer long-range bomber attacks into Germany as the Eighth Bomber Command licked its wounds and replaced its losses. It did not resume the heavy bombing of Germany until September 6 with Mission Number 91, when 338 bombers were dispatched to attack Stuttgart.

The Luftwaffe again fought viciously and, as the bombers’ primary targets were clouded over by bad weather, the Fortresses attacked “targets of opportunity” on their way home. Two hundred and sixty-two of the dispatched bombers reached their targets, but 45 of them were shot down.

Losses continued to mount as 106 bombers were knocked out of the sky during the first 10 days of October. One reason for the heavy losses was the Luftwaffe’s 20mm cannon.

Perret reports that Lieutenant Paul Perceful, a copilot with the 95th Bomb Group, saw a B-17 “cut in two by the concentrated cannon fire of a German fighter.… It appeared to happen in slow motion. The Fortress was struck and slowly came apart at the radio room. From the front half of the fuselage, wings, still functioning engines and the cockpit, seemed to slowly rise upwards, completely separate from the rear fuselage and tail unit. Then both halves twisted and tumbled down and away.…”

The forward half of a B-17 plunges to earth after colliding with another bomber. There were no survivors.

On Thursday, October 14, 1943, with Mission Number 115, the still-unescorted and vulnerable B-17s were again ordered to attack the German ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt. Two hundred and ninety-one bombers were dispatched, with about 2,910 airmen. Initially, the bombers were to be protected by twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters equipped with drop tanks. However, the P-38s were not ready in time and once again the bombers were on their own.

The crews learned about their destination with deep gloom. There were boos and groans from the officers when the mission was announced. Perret reported, “The flight engineers and gunners waiting outside listened with dismay.” At one briefing, the commanding officer of the 385th Bomb Group, Colonel Elliot Vandevanter, concluded a pep-talk with, “It’s a tough job, but I know you can do it. Good luck, good hunting and good bombing.” At this, someone in the rear of the briefing hut added, “And good-bye.”

Not surprisingly, the raid was a disaster. The Luftwaffe was ready and attacked the 291 B-17s at points just south of Aachen when lack of fuel forced the bombers’ “Little Friends” to turn for home. Hundreds of German planes of various types swarmed into the bombers’ formations on their way to and from their target.

Of the 291 bombers dispatched, 257 were able to penetrate into German airspace, and, of these, 229 bombers managed to reach Schweinfurt and drop their bombs. Sixty were shot down—slightly less than 21 percent of the total force. Thus, 197 of the 257 bombers that had penetrated German airspace managed to return to England. Of these, five crashed on landing while 17 more managed to land but were damaged beyond repair. The total number of B-17s lost was therefore 82 (60+5+17) of the 291 dispatched bombers.

In addition, 142 of the remaining 175 planes (197-5-17) that had returned to England were damaged. Therefore, a mere 33 of the 291 dispatched bombers returned unscathed—a little more than 11 percent of the force. Five complete air crews were reported killed in action, 10 were seriously wounded, and 33 lightly wounded 594 men were missing in action, many of them dead. In total, there were 642 casualties—22 percent of the 2,910 men who took to the air.

The Air Force called October 14th “Black Thursday,” and for good reason. It signaled the end of unescorted daylight precision bombing, although some air generals refused to accept this.

“The Care and Accuracy of a Marksman Firing a Rifle”

Even after Black Thursday’s horrific loses, General Arnold, evidently still a strong supporter of unescorted daylight precision bombing, said during an interview shortly after the raid: “We did it in daylight with precision, aiming our explosives with the care and accuracy of a marksman firing a rifle.”

Whether Arnold believed what he told the newspaper, magazine, and radio reporters, his words were simply not true. Mark Arnold-Forster in his 1973 book, The World at War, succinctly explained: “When the war began, both the British and Americans were convinced that their bombing would be accurate. In fact, it never was. The Americans devoutly believed in the efficiency of their Norden bombsight, which, they contended, enabled them to hit a ‘pickle barrel’ from a vast height in daylight. But … as long as the defenses were strong, the bombers were unable to bomb with accuracy because they could not fly straight and level for long enough to take aim.”

The loss percentages were grim for the entire month of October 1943. William Emerson reports: “214 heavy bombers had been lost … almost 10% of the number dispatched. The damage rate was 42% for both major and minor damage. Losses and damages added together totaled to more than half of the credit sorties flown during the month. At this rate, an entirely new bomber force would have to be created almost every three months in order to sustain the level of the current bomber offensive.”

It was obvious that the Air Force could not do this, and it was equally certain that the bomber generals’ belief in unescorted daylight precision bombing—a belief to which they had been faithfully dedicated for virtually their entire military careers—was a complete disaster, a military dogma destroyed by the burning B-17s over Schweinfurt on Black Thursday.

Indeed, unescorted daylight precision bombing died hard. On October 22, eight days after Black Thursday, General Anderson, at a meeting of the Eighth Bomber Command wing and group commanders, canceled the daylight heavy bomber offensive against Germany. “We can afford to come up,” he said, “only when we have our fighters with us.” One of the bomber crewmen had been more blunt at his post-raid debriefing: “‘Any comments?’ the debriefing officer asked. ‘Yeah,’ the crewman replied. ‘Jesus Christ, give us fighters for escort!’”

The fighters eventually came. But, in the meantime, deep penetration raids into Germany were suspended until February 1944.

The North American P-51 Mustang and the Death of the Luftwaffe

It was a tragic irony that a long-range escort fighter had been readily available for about two years. The plane was the North American P-51 Mustang, a fighter first flown in October 1940 but seriously underpowered at altitudes above 15,000 feet. However, the plane “grew mighty indeed” when it became the P-51B after its American Allison engine was replaced by the Packard supercharged version of the British Rolls Royce Merlin engine in late 1942. Both the P-51B and P-51C went into production at the same time the only real difference between the two models was that the “B” was manufactured in Inglewood, California, while the “C” was built in Dallas, Texas.

The first P-51B/C fighters entered service in England in December 1943, but relatively few planes were involved. The P-51D was a different story. It was a significant upgrade from the P-51B/C. It possessed a combat range of 950 miles and, with drop tanks, an operational range of 1,300 miles. It was capable of a top speed of 437 miles per hour and carried six, rather than four, .50 caliber machine guns.

The reprieve that the German heartland had enjoyed from American daylight bombing ended in February 1944 as hundreds of P-51Ds began arriving in England. These new “Little Friends” began to race across the German skies protecting their “Big Friends,” the “heavies.”

A formation of Consolidated B-24s leaves behind the burning, German-controlled Ploesti, Romania, oil-production facilities, May 31, 1944.

When reports of the first dogfights over Germany reached Nazi Air Minister Hermann Göring, he refused to believe them. He knew of no Allied fighter that had the range to reach so far into Germany. However, when he was finally convinced the dogfights did indeed take place, he was reported to have muttered, “We have lost the war.”

While Göring was right, the Mustang did not win the air war over Germany on its own. All operating P-47 Thunderbolts and the Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, which had returned to England in force by September 1943, had their ranges extended through the addition of new external tanks. These planes, too, played a significant role in the death of the Luftwaffe.

The End of Unescorted Daylight Precision Bombing

What unescorted daylight precision bombing accomplished can only be judged in retrospect. Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, writing in The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, noted, “The achievement [and] the subsequent attack on the aircraft industry was to reduce not the production of aircraft but the fighting capacity of the Luftwaffe. The attack on the aircraft industry was, in fact, another example of the failure of selective bombing. This combat was provoked by the American heavy bombers which carried the threat of the bomb to the heart of Germany by reaching out to targets of deep penetration and leaving the German fighters with no alternative other than to defend them. But the combat was primarily fought and certainly won by long-range fighters of VIII Fighter Command….”

This was certainly not what the American “bomber generals” envisioned would happen. The failure in their unescorted daylight precision-bombing planning was in rejecting any potential need for long-range escort fighters and, instead, concentrating all their efforts on “invincible” heavy bombers.

The “success” of unescorted daylight precision bombing came about when, unexpectedly, the “heavies” so desperately needed the protection of long-range escort fighters, which in the end led to the Mustang. The resulting dogfights between the American and German fighters and the Luftwaffe’s hemorrhaging losses as it was sucked into the meat grinder of air battle after air battle against a constantly growing number of American escort fighters became a primal factor in the Luftwaffe’s destruction—a destruction, which in turn, allowed D-Day to proceed and succeed.

On D-Day, General Dwight Eisenhower assured his troops that, “If you see fighter aircraft over you, they will be ours.” He was right, and both unescorted daylight precision bombing and the Luftwaffe moved into the pages of history.


The German plane identified as a BF110 appears to be a BF210 or 410, with a 50mm cannon.

LSU Digital Commons

The purposes of this study were to trace the evolution of the North American P-51 Mustang as an escort fighter in World War Two and to enumerate the reasons why it played a leading role in the extension of the American strategic bombing campaign into Germany and the ultimate defeat of the German Luftwaffe. The Mustang prototype was built in 1940 in response to a British request for a fighter to help repel German invaders. The original model, powered by an Allison engine and three-bladed propeller, was fast and maneuverable at low altitudes, but its performance deteriorated rapidly at altitudes above 12,000 feet. In an experiment to improve its high-altitude performance, the British installed a Rolls Royce Merlin engine in the Mustang, and the resulting high altitude performance of the airplane was exceptional. However, at that time neither the British nor the Americans opted to pursue further development and production of the airplane. After America entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Allied powers agreed that the main war effort should be to "Defeat Germany First." A principal aspect of the war plan was a daylight strategic bombing campaign against German forces in Continental Europe by American bombers. The bombing campaign from bases in England began in July of 1942. As the program progressed and targets were attacked that were beyond the range of escorting Allied fighters, it became apparent that the bombers could not adequately defend themselves against defending German fighters. A desperate effort was made to develop a high-performance escort fighter that could accompany the bombers to all targets of interest. The Merlin-powered Mustang with a four-bladed propeller proved to be that airplane. This thesis discusses the technical reasons why the Mustang was a superior escort and air combat fighter. The energy maneuverability analysis is used to explain how the fighter gained an air combat advantage over the principal Luftwaffe fighter aircraft. The roles of bomber escort doctrine, pilot training and aircraft production in bringing the Mustang into its position of superiority are also indicated.

How America's Spunky P-51 Mustang Helped in World War II

Key point: The P-51 fought well and was able to hold its own against Imperial Japan. Yet this vaunted aircraft had very humble beginnings.

If a single airplane has captured the public imagination more than any other, it is undoubtedly the North American P-51 Mustang fighter. In the minds of many, including the young fighter pilots who flew it during the final year of combat in Europe, it was the P-51 that allowed the Allies to attain complete air superiority over Europe.

Many of the accolades bestowed upon the Mustang are not quite in tune with the facts, however. The airplane truly did develop into an outstanding fighter—but it did not start out that way. Oddly enough, the design of the Mustang came about completely by accident and was more the result of corporate pride than military necessity. Its subsequent development also was more accidental than by design. The U.S. Army never even wanted the airplane, and the British were not happy with it when they got theirs.

North America Makes Their Own Fighter

Before America entered the war, the British Purchasing Commission placed orders for a variety of American-produced military aircraft, including Curtiss fighters powered by Allison engines, which had been designated as the P-40 Tomahawk by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Curtiss lacked the facilities to meet the British orders and made an offer to North American Aircraft to have them manufacture some planes under license. North American’s president, West Virginian James S. “Dutch” Kindelberger, was not happy with the offer. He proposed instead that his company produce an entirely new fighter that would be built around the same Allison V-1710 engine that powered the P-40. Kindelberger believed his company could produce an aerodynamically superior airplane that could utilize new mass production methods that were just coming into use in the American aircraft industry.

The British asked for a preliminary design study. North American promised that a prototype would be ready to fly in an amazing four months! The North American management convinced Curtiss to furnish them data from the design of their P-40, thus cutting several months of preliminary design from the new fighter project. The company promised the British that they would begin deliveries in January 1941 and would produce 50 airplanes a month through the end of 1941. The British gave the airplane its name—Mustang—apparently adopting the name of the wild ponies that roamed the American West, although no reason for the choice is known. To cut down on production time, North American elected to use a non-turbocharged version of the Allison V-1710 engine, a move that would reduce the airplane’s high-altitude performance.

A Design Ruined by an Underpowered Engine

When the first Mustangs arrived in England, Royal Air Force test pilots quickly discovered that although the new fighter was very agile and fast its performance began to degrade at altitudes above 15,000 feet as the normally aspirated Allison engines lost power. Consequently, the RAF decided to assign the Mustangs to its Army Cooperation Command, which had previously used the light and maneuverable Westland Lysander as its primary aircraft.

The Mustangs were equipped with cameras and assigned to the tactical reconnaissance role, in which the airplane continued for the duration of the war. The first operational use of the RAF Mustangs was in support of the disastrous Dieppe raid in August 1942. It was also in the support role that the U.S. Army Air Corps assigned its first Mustangs, a batch of 57 airplanes that was diverted from the British production immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Perhaps prompted by the RAF’s use of the Mustang in the Cooperation Command, the U.S. Army decided to adapt the Mustang as a dive-bomber. At the time, the Army’s standard dive-bomber was the Douglas Dauntless, which the Army designated as the A-24. Unfortunately, their lack of defensive capabilities led to heavy losses among the A-24s in the Southwest Pacific in early 1942, a factor that no doubt influenced the decision to seek a more maneuverable and better armed design for dive-bombing.

Dive brakes and hard points to carry bombs up to 1,000 pounds were added to the basic design to convert the plane into a dive-bomber, which was designated as the A-36. The 27th and 86th Bombardment Groups (Light) were equipped with A-36s and sent into combat in North Africa in the spring of 1943. RAF Mustangs also saw combat duty in North Africa, although the primary tactical fighters used by the British in North Africa were Curtiss Kittyhawks and Hawker Hurricanes. The 311th Bombardment Group, also equipped with A-36s, was sent to China. Over time, the U.S. Army came to believe that the value of the dive- bomber had been overestimated, and even though more than 300 A-36s were built, they were all eventually replaced either by fighters or light and medium bombers. Dive-bombing would remain popular in the Navy and Marine Corps, but the Army abandoned the practice.

Transforming the Mustang With the Rolls Royce Merlin Engine

With the decision to assign its new Mustangs to the Cooperation Command, the Royal Air Force elected to continue the development of the already famous Supermarine Spitfire as its primary interceptor. Still, some of the RAF test pilots believed that with a high-altitude engine the Mustang would be suitable for air-to-air combat at the altitudes where combat usually took place in European skies. The turbocharged Rolls Royce Merlin was the ideal candidate, but the entire production of the Merlin-61 was slated for Spitfires.

To increase Merlin production, Rolls Royce contracted with the Packard automobile company in the United States to produce their engines under license. Although famous for its luxury automobiles, Packard had designed and produced the Liberty engine that came into use during the Great War, and which powered U.S.-built aircraft into the 1920s. The first flight by a Merlin-powered British Mustang took place in October 1942. A month later a Mustang powered by a Packard-built Merlin had been produced for the U.S. Army, and it took to the air for the first time.

With the Merlin engine, the Mustang was transformed. Comparisons between Mustangs and Spitfires revealed that the North American design had significantly greater range, while the Mustang’s high-altitude performance had been greatly improved. It was a combination that came about at the right time, as the U.S. Army Air Forces’ experience in Europe had demonstrated the need for a high-performance, long-range fighter.

Converted For Escort Missions

Throughout 1942 and most of 1943, the Mustang fighters sat out the war, although the A-36 and RAF Cooperation versions were seeing combat, particularly in North Africa. But events in Europe were leading toward the further development of the Mustang into the airplane that is so often referred to as the best Allied fighter of the war. By the summer of 1942, the U.S. Eighth Air Force had been waging a steadily mounting strategic bombing campaign against Axis targets in France and the other occupied countries from bases in England. In early 1943, the daylight bombing campaign expanded into German airspace. The B-17 groups that constituted the bulk of VIII Bomber Command strength at the time began taking very heavy losses from German fighter attacks. The Eighth Air Force leadership had gone to war believing that their four-engine Flying Fortresses were properly named, but soon found otherwise when the B-17s began encountering Luftwaffe fighters. Especially heavy losses in the late summer and early fall of 1943 led to the cancellation of further daylight deep- penetration raids into Germany until a long-range escort fighter could be developed.

Throughout 1943, the primary escort fighters available in Europe were RAF Spitfires and USAAF Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. While the P-38 had the range to go all the way to Berlin, the P-47s were limited owing to the higher fuel consumption of their radial engines, and there were not enough available P-38s for the job. All of the P-38s in England had been transferred to North Africa early in the year and were not replaced until late summer, leaving Spitfires as the only escorts available until April, when the first P-47s became operational in the theater. It was not until September that P-38s returned to English skies. Meanwhile, the bombers were left without escorts once they reached the operational range of the Spitfires.

The USAAF engineers at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, began looking around for a suitable escort fighter that could be mass-produced in a hurry, and their attention soon settled on the Mustang. The adoption of the Merlin engine had solved the Mustang’s high-altitude performance problems, and the Mustang had been shown to be highly maneuverable, with some restrictions, mainly owing to weight and balance considerations.

Increasing the airplane’s effective range was the primary problem. The Air Corps engineering facilities at Wright Field began working on modifications to increase the Mustang’s fuel capacity and thus increase its effective combat range. Additional fuselage tanks were added to complement the droppable external fuel tanks that had been previously developed for other types.

Donald Blakeslee: Advocate For Mustangs as Escort Fighters

Ironically, the decision to adopt the Mustang as the primary escort fighter did not come immediately after the adoption of the Merlin engine. Initially, the Merlin-powered P-51Bs were allocated to the tactical air forces that were being formed to support ground forces in Europe. The first P-51-equipped fighter group to see combat in Europe was the 354th Fighter Group, which arrived in England in October 1943 and was immediately assigned to the newly organized Ninth Air Force. The Ninth had previously been assigned to the Mediterranean, but the Allied victory in North Africa led to the unit’s transfer to England to become a tactical air force, with the mission of supporting the Allied ground forces when the invasion of Western Europe took place in mid-1944. Since the Ninth was scheduled to include a large number of fighter groups, the Eighth Air Force pressed for Ninth fighters to be temporarily assigned as bomber escorts.

In November 1943, Lt. Col. Donald Blakeslee, deputy commander of the 4th Fighter Group and one of the most experienced American fighter pilots in Europe, was sent to fly with the 354th Fighter Group. Blakeslee was a former RAF Eagle Squadron Spitfire pilot who had been flying Thunderbolts, and his lack of love for the P-47 was no secret. Whether he engineered the assignment to the 354th or was selected to evaluate the group’s P-51Bs is unclear his enthusiasm for the highly maneuverable airplane is not. The main advantage of the new P-51 was the reduced fuel consumption of the Merlin engine compared with the radial engine P-47, which was then the primary escort fighter. The first Mustangs to arrive in England were fitted only with 184-gallon wing tanks, but the reduced fuel consumption of the Merlin engines increased their range substantially over similarly equipped P-47s. Plans were under way for the installation of an additional 85 gallons in a fuselage tank, while the hard points under the wings allowed an additional 150 gallons when two 75-gallon drop tanks were carried. Blakeslee believed the Mustang was the solution to the long-range escort problem, but all of the Mustangs were slated to go to the Ninth Air Force.

In the winter of 1943, Allied military planners in Europe were preparing for the invasion of Western Europe, followed by an advance toward Germany. Experiences in North Africa and New Guinea had revealed that air power served as what would come to be known as a “force multiplier,” an element that could aid ground commanders in the age-old endeavor of capturing territory.

The Ninth Air Force was a tactical unit, with the primary mission of supporting the theater commander, and a massive effort was under way to build up its force of fighter-bombers and light and medium bombers to support the ground forces. Once the troops were ashore in France, the war in Europe would turn from what had primarily been an air war against the Luftwaffe to a ground war, with the objective being the ultimate capture of Berlin and the defeat of Germany. The new Mustangs were seen as an ideal weapon for securing and maintaining air superiority over the battlefield and for taking the war to the enemy rear areas.

The Eighth Air Force Receives Their Mustangs

At this point military politics reared its ugly head, as Blakeslee and the leaders of VIII Fighter Command began maneuvering to have the Mustangs transferred to the Eighth. They saw the Eighth Air Force mission as strategic bombardment and recognized that if this mission was to succeed it was important to have a long-range escort fighter that could go with the bombers to their targets deep in Germany and fight at high altitude. Much of Western Europe was still in German hands at the time, and aerial bombardment of strategic targets was still seen as the primary mission for the air forces.

Their arguments fell on receptive minds in the Army Air Forces headquarters in England and won out. Preparations were begun to equip nearly all of the VIII Fighter Command squadrons with new Mustangs. In the meantime, IX Fighter Command P-51s (and other fighters) flew under the operational control of the Eighth Air Force and were used in the escort role. Three P-51 groups were scheduled to go to Ninth, but a compromise led to the assignment of one of these groups to the Eighth in return for the transfer of the recently arrived 358th Fighter Group and its P-47s to Ninth Air Force. VIII Fighter Command received the Mustang-equipped 357th and began making plans to convert all of its P-47 and P-38 groups to Mustangs.

There was one exception—the 56th Fighter Group was the first group to fly P-47s, and it remained with the Thunderbolt until the end of the war. The 56th, which had been nicknamed the Wolfpack because of the group’s reputation for hunting Germans like a pack of wolves, was the highest scoring American fighter group in the European Theater. The 56th finished the war with a total of 674 enemy aircraft claimed in the air and 311 on the ground. By contrast, Blakeslee’s 4th Fighter Group, which was the first Eighth group to convert to P-51s and was the longest in combat of any American fighter group in Europe, finished the war with 583 air-to-air kills and 469 strafing claims.

Although the 4th—which flew Spitfires and P-47s before making the transition to P-51s—was credited with a few more total aircraft destroyed, the P-47-equipped 56th was credited with almost 100 more air-to-air kills. So much for the oft-stated assertion that the fabulous P-51 was the “superior” fighter! The third highest scoring group, however, flew only Mustangs. The 357th Fighter Group was the first P-51 group in VIII Fighter Command. The group put in claims for 609 air-to-air kills and 106 destroyed on the ground.

Did the P-51 Win Allied Air Superiority Over Europe?

Many writers mistakenly advance the proposition that it was the appearance of the Mustang as an escort fighter that signaled the gaining of Allied air superiority in the skies over Europe. In fact, this was not the case. The advantage of the P-51 was that the later models had the range to go deeper into Germany than the P-47s, but the longer range Mustangs did not make their appearance in England until mid-spring of 1944. By this time the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe was already beginning to decline owing to a number of factors. Not the least of these was the interruption of petroleum supplies from refineries in Eastern Europe, prompted in large part by the advance of Soviet forces into the oil-rich Balkans, and the air campaign on transportation, including railroads and bridges. The first U.S. Army Mustangs used in Europe lacked the additional fuel tanks that gave the later models the range to go deep into Germany.

There was also another reason for the decline of the Luftwaffe. Throughout 1942 and 1943 German fighter pilots had pretty much steered clear of the Allied fighters, waiting just beyond their effective range and then going after the bombers as soon as their escorts reached their fuel limits and turned back. By the spring of 1944, the VIII Fighter Command had managed to extend the range of the P-38s and P-47s significantly through the addition of suitable external fuel tanks, and the escorts were able to go much deeper into German territory with the bombers. In fact, the twin-engine P-38s were able to accompany them all the way to Berlin. With the increased range of the fighters, VIII Fighter Command authorized them to drop down on the deck and attack the Luftwaffe airfields to destroy the German fighters on the ground as well as in the air. By the time P-51s were available in Europe in large numbers, the Allies were already gaining air superiority.

The modifications to the Mustangs to turn them into long-range fighters were not without problems. When the 85-gallon internal fuel tanks were added, test pilots discovered that full tanks affected the airplane’s control during combat maneuvers. To take advantage of the increased range, VIII Fighter Command was forced to fuel the fighters so that the tanks would have no more than 35 gallons in them when they reached the areas of likely combat. Since external tanks caused drag and were normally burned off first so they could be dropped, the stability problem reduced the effective range of the Mustangs. The stability problem was not the only problem with the Mustangs. They also experienced a lack of heating at high altitude, which had plagued the twin-engine P-38s during their early months in combat.

It is commonly believed that once the P-51s arrived in the European Theater, the P-47s were assigned solely to the fighter-bomber role while the Mustangs flew only escort. Such is not the case. With the appearance of the Mustangs, VIII Fighter Command adopted a strategy of assigning the more experienced P-47 groups to patrol the areas where the Luftwaffe fighters were most likely to hit the bomber stream while the longer legged P-38s and P-51s went all the way to the targets.

Mustangs as Ground Attack Aircraft

Mustangs were also used as fighter-bombers, especially after the Luftwaffe’s fighter squadrons were practically grounded because of lack of gasoline and oil. Thunderbolts and Lightnings continued flying escort missions until Mustangs replaced them in most VIII Fighter Command squadrons in the latter part of 1944. But the conversion did not take place until comparatively late in the war as more Mustangs became available. Thunderbolts and Lightnings continued to be the primary escort fighters in Europe until mid-1944. Ironically, at about the same time that Mustangs started appearing in European skies in large numbers, the air war moved down, as providing close air support for ground troops became the primary Army Air Forces mission.

While the Mustang became the primary escort fighter with VIII Fighter Command, P-51s were not absent from the tactical air commands of the Ninth Air Force. Brig. Gen. O.P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command included one group of Mustangs when it went operational on July 31, 1944, to support General George S. Patton’s Third Army, and other Mustang groups transferred in and out as operational needs changed. The Mustang faced a major drawback when it came to low-altitude attack. The liquid-cooled Merlin engines made the P-51s more vulnerable to ground fire than the radial-engine P-47s, so they were often assigned to fly fighter cover over the battlefield to protect against German aircraft.

Thunderbolts were equipped with two more machine guns than Mustangs and were thus more suited for attacks on German armor and other ground targets. Still, the P-51s flew their share of ground attack missions, using their six .50-caliber machine guns to strafe and fire rockets and drop bombs and napalm. Eighth Air Force Mustangs often transferred to Ninth Air Force control, particularly during the battle to regain the Allied initiative during the German Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-1945.

The Red Tails of the Tuskegee Airmen

Mustang-equipped groups entered combat with the Fifteenth Air Force from Italian bases in the late spring of 1944 when three groups that had been flying P-40s received P-51s. The 52nd Fighter Group of the Twelfth Air Force traded in Spitfires for Mustangs as well. A fourth Fifteenth Air Force group that received P-51s was the controversial 332nd Fighter Group, an all-black unit popularly associated with the Tuskegee Airmen, that had most recently flown P-47s. Group pilots painted their airplane tails red, making them easily identifiable to both friend and foe. Group members would later claim that they “never lost a bomber” while flying escort missions, although the qualifications for such a claim are somewhat murky.

Standardizing the P-51

With the appearance and acceptance of the Merlin-powered Mustangs, the Army Air Forces began making plans to eliminate production of other types in an effort to standardize maintenance and supply roles. But all of the combat commanders were not as enthusiastic about the Mustang as was VIII Fighter Command’s Brig. Gen. William Kepner. When notified by Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces that his command’s P-38s and P-47s were slated to be replaced by P-51s, Far East Air Forces commander Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney flatly said “No!” Early in the war, Kenney had told General Henry H. Arnold that he really did not care what kind of airplanes he received in his theater, but as the war continued he developed a preference for the twin-engine P-38.

Kenney commanded a theater that included a great expanse of water, and he felt that the second engine on the P-38 gave his pilots a chance at returning home that the P-51 failed to offer. Furthermore, Fifth and Thirteenth Air Force P-38s in the Pacific had been doing a pretty good job of shooting down Japanese airplanes since they made their combat debut at the end of 1942. By mid-1944, Far East Air Forces P-38s were flying 700-mile missions, distances far greater than any encountered in Europe. The P-38 remained the fighter of choice in Far East Air Forces until the end of the war.

In spite of General Kenney’s initial refusal to accept Mustangs as replacements in his veteran fighter squadrons, some newly arriving units were equipped with the P-51. In early 1945, the 460th Fighter Squadron joined the P-47- equipped 348th Fighter Group with P-51s, and the rest of the group began making the transition to the more maneuverable fighter. The first Mustangs in the Southwest Pacific were actually F-6D reconnaissance airplanes that began operations in late 1944 with the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron.


14 October 1943 - 291 US Army Air Force (USAAF) heavy bombers took off from England to attack a Ball Bearing factory in the heart of Germany. The goal was to destroy the Nazi war machine’s fighting ability and means of war production. As the bombers flew deeper into enemy territory their supporting escorts had to return to England due to the fighters’ shorter range. The unescorted bombers were vulnerable to enemy fighters and paid a heavy price. 60 did not return leading to a loss rate of over 20% thus cementing October 14, 1943 as ‘Black Thursday ’. The ten crewmen on each of those planes had to survive 25 (later pushed to 30) missions to return home. They could not sustain losses like this indefinitely.

But they wouldn't have to for long. Within a year similar missions could be completed with far fewer casualties - often well below 5%.

The above plot shows raids for the Eighth Air Force during two time periods on the left the second half of 1943 and the right July - Mid August 1944. Each point represents a raid’s distance and percentage of planes that did not return back to base. This does not count bombers scrapped after landing due to heavy damage. Nor does it account for wounded, killed, or POWs in a mission (even if a plane came back not all of the crew did).

In the chart on the left one can see a fairly strong if imperfect relationship between distance (I chose London as a starting point but airfields were scattered throughout southern England) and bomber losses. The second chart on the right shows this relationship is far less prevalent. The average loss rate of planes during the second half of 1943 was around 3.9% compared with 1% loss rate in the summer of 1944. Using these as proxies for survival probabilities and 30 as the number of missions required before a crew member finished a tour of duty the probability a member came home went from 30% to 74%. How did the loss ratio decrease by so much during this period?

The consensus story of those two plots goes something like this: after Black Thursday USAAF operations suspended long range attacks into Germany until a fighter was capable of escorting the bombers. Enter the P-51 Mustang.

A P-51 with drop tanks. Notice the Swastikas underneath the canopy - the only acceptable place to display a swastika - each indicating an aerial victory. Having met the criteria of five aerial victories this pilot has earned the moniker of “ace”.

An American aircraft (with an English designed engine) it was capable of flying to Berlin and back. Not only did it have the necessary range but also outclassed the German interceptors of the period. The P-51 was therefore able to ‘break the back’ of the Luftwaffe and gain air supremacy over europe. This allowed USAAF bombers to go into Germany and beyond without heavy losses.

But the claims of the P-51’s importance often goes farther than that. With air superiority the Allies launched the D-Day landings of Normandy unencumbered. And with Allies now fighting Germany in the west a Nazi Defeat was inevitable. A causal line of reasoning is therefore established between the P-51 and the ultimate destruction of Nazi Germany. Perhaps this is why - somewhat uniquely for a fighter plane - it’s achieved something of a totem status .

But did the P-51 Mustang “break the back” of the Luftwaffe? This post will go over the consensus history of operations between the summers of 1943 and 1944. It will go over Mission Level data. An index is created of German Pilot Strength over time.

This follows the history laid out by McFarland and Newton . But it seems most histories are similar to this and conclude that the Luftwaffe was defeated prior to D-Day.

Strategic Bombing and Pointblank

Air power was still relatively new at the beginning of WW2. It wasn’t clear at the outset how best to use it in a military conflict. Broadly speaking there were two ways of thinking how the airplane could affect the course of the war.

This first and most obvious use of airpower was as a tactical force. A precision armaments system that can provide ground support in real time to assist tank and infantry forces. The Germans seized on this use of airpower as a form of ‘mobile artillery’ with devastating effectiveness.

In contrast the English and American Armies focused more on Strategic Bombing. Instead of focusing and directly influencing a battle the bombers would fly deep into enemy territory destroying the means of waging war. The target wasn’t tanks and enemy defenses but enemy factories, oil refineries, transportation networks, and even civilian populations. However, an enemy has never been subdued by strategic bombing before. The USAAF got their chance to see whether they could destroy the enemy from the air with Operation Pointblank.

To prepare for the D-Day Landings in summer of 1944 the Allied command issued the Pointblank Directive in June 1943. The objective was to destroy German Morale and ‘capacity for armed resistance’. It was to do this by imposing ‘heavy losses on Germany day fighter force’ and draw German fighters ‘away from Russian and Mediterranean theatres of war’. Once completing the objective the heavy bomber forces would be put to use in a supportive role of the D-Day in the Spring of 1944.

For a brief overview of tactics in the European Air War see here .

Between the summer and through the fall of 1943 US bombers attacked German factories with high losses. After regrouping forces in late 1943 the allied offensive continued in early 1944. The new P-51 Mustangs were thrown into combat as soon as they could arrive during this period thus providing some cover to bombers at long distances.

Despite the imminent need to destroy the enemy before the summer of 1944 they were often grounded due to poor weather. A break came through at the end of February with a forecasted week of clear weather. This was to be the start of Operation Argument (also known as “Big Week”) targeted specifically against the Luftwaffe in order to gain air supremacy. It’s objective was to minimise the ‘Production-wastage’ differential by attacking both the factories on the ground and Luftwaffe in the air.

However, it became clear that the bombing offensive actually wasn't destroying industry at a rate where Germans could be kept up. Indeed during this period of increasing attacks German industry was put on a ‘war footing’ and increased fighter plane production despite the increase in bombing. In 1943 Germany Produced 25,500 planes. That number increased to 40,500 in 1944.

But a realization occurred to US high command - even if the Germans could replace their fighters they could not replace their experienced pilots as easily. Instead of minimizing German ‘production’ they’d focus on maximizing the ‘wastage’ of german pilots in combat. They just needed to lure the enemy up to attack the bombers with the knowledge enough would be shot down by P-51s.

This was the logic behind attacking Berlin in early March 1944. The bombers would be used more as bait for the Luftwaffe than the bombing of industry. The USAAF did so with enormous costs. The largest one day loss of the eight air forces occurred on the first Berlin Raid of march 6 1944 with 69 heavy bombers lost and known as “Black Monday”. Due to the large number of aircraft dispatched this amounted to a 10% loss rate.

These were losses the US could sustain. Luftwaffe pilot losses weren’t. After the Battle of Berlin and heavy fighting the Luftwaffe changed tactics. They would only attack en masse and other times not confront the invading bombers at all. But ultimately they ceded air control to the USAAF. The German Luftwaffe was defeated before D-Day. Or so the consensus history goes.

To look into this I gathered some data on Eight Air force missions and did some analysis.

The original data set came from . There is an excel spreadsheet that has missions broken out between the start of operations and August of 1944. This data includes (among many things) target location, number of planes dispatched and lost for both bombers and escorts. I used this as a template and then edited it as necessary, often looking at the WWII chronology on which it was based to fix any errors (also in that link). I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible but this was a manual process so there are probably errors. I appended Latitude and Longitude to the dataset using ggmap functionality in R.

Some problems with the dataset are:

Some names of places have changed since the original. German names are now in modern day Poland for instance.

The location of dispatched planes are often ambiguous. Often there are several targets for a set of planes. I’ve no way to be sure which particular location each plane went to so I just chose one location for the lot.

After July 1944 escort by plane type wasn't broken out so I am unable to show the relative distribution of fighter types per mission.

As noted previously a key feature of bombing losses was the distance travelled to the target. The longer the distance the more likely there were

The above plot shows a scatterplot of Distance travelled by Date for a unique raid location between January 1943 and August 1944. It’s colored and numbers by percentage lossed (red is higher, blue is lower). I’ve also removed missions that exceeded 800 miles for readability as they were few in number.

One can see that loss rates decrease in both the time and increase with distance. Heavy fighting before winter of 1943 for distances more than 400 miles were particularly costly for the USAAF. These raids included Hamburg and the first two Schweinfurt Raids. One can also see a decrease in activity at the end of 1943 as weather conditions were poor and USAAF regrouped after those costly raids.

Starting in February and March the USAAF went deeper into enemy territory - a period that covered both Operation Argument and the Battle of Berlin. While these raids sustained high losses they are represented in the low teens of percentages because of the larger number of bombers attacking.

As Operation Pointblank ended focus shifted to targets in France and therefore smaller distances. In April, May, and June they attacked transportation targets, airfields, and sometimes more direct tactical support.

Overall one can clearly see that as time progressed it became less and less costly for USAAF forces to fly far into Germany as a percentage of aircraft dispatched.

Below is a plot of statistics by month to better see the aggregate losses more clearly.

The above are aggregate statistics by month for heavy bombers: total dispatched, total lost and the lost ratio.

Heavy monthly loss ratio existed prior to 1944 with a maximum of over 7% in October of 1943 (Black Thursday was the culprit). In part this was due to the small number of planes dispatched.

Starting in February the number of planes dispatched increased to a maximum in June 1944 and then slightly back down in July 1944. Total lost planes increased throughout this period as well reaching a high point in April of 1944. Even in May 1944 the USAAF lost 300 heavy bombers. In June it dropped to 200 heavy Bombers. Why was there such a drop in losses between May and June?

Looking at the increase in P-51 usage there was a sizable increase in escorts p-51 more than doubling from April (3151 to 6844) to May but only slightly from May to June. Moreover there doesn’t appear to be an obvious relationship between increased P-51 Escort usage and decrease in Heavy Bomber Losses (at least on the aggregate data - see below for further analysis).

The history I’ve described above suggested that most of the fighting was done in February and March. After this period the Luftwaffe was supposedly defeated and air supremacy passed to the USAAF. Looking at the loss ratio statistics one can see they were much more acceptable range for USAAF forces - especially compared with 1943. In some sense the Luftwaffe may have been irrelevant at that point in that the USAAF could expect replacements at that point to replace any lost bombers.

But the evidence suggests that the Luftwaffe was still inflicting heavy damage through May and didn’t cease after March as the original history suggested. What happened? I think we need to continue looking into data from the German perspective and its relative strength over time.

I couldn’t find similar mission-level data for the Luftwaffe during WW2. (Who knows, maybe some of that data was destroyed by the Eighth Air Force?) I did find there is a good amount of data on Luftwaffe Pilot aerial claims and planes they shot down. Pilots had strong incentives to report the planes they shot down and such claims are probably overstated. However it’s a dataset that should provide some indication of fighting strength and activity over time.

This Dataset comprises two parts.The first are the aerial claims for a pilot that includes (among other information) date, aircraft destroyed, and fighter group. The second includes data on when a pilot was removed from the war either MIA, KIA, or POW.

Ater joining these two datasets to get precise entrance (first claim in database) and exit dates there are 2,565 pilots with a total of 50,419 combined claimed victories. As the average pilot in the dataset as over 19 claims it clearly is biased towards the elite pilots and doesn’t include those pilots who had no claims. However, this could still be a useful dataset to show relative strength over time.

As an EDA I first looked at first entrances and exits by front over time. If a person transferred between fronts it would not show up in these charts. Note that I removed two entrance points from the graph as they were so extreme May 1940 on West had 273 and June 1941 had 251 entries of pilots in the dataset. These correspond to the Battle of Britain and Invasion of Russia so we can expect a lot of pilots had their first claims during those periods.

Also Note that the West involves mediterainan, north african, and southern europe where the Eight Air Force did not generally operate. They also include night fighters targeting against English bombing raids that were somewhat distinct from the day fighters against the USAAF.

On the Eastern front one can see exits and entrance follow a seasonality pattern that corresponds to German offenses summer offenses: Invasion of Russia in 1941, road to Stalingrad in 1942, and Battle of Kursk in 1943.

For both fronts the Germans had Entries higher than existed throughout most of 1943 and early 1944. Only after the summer of 1944 were losses consistently higher than entries for both fronts.

On the Western form there was a lot of activity for the Battle of Britain - this was the Luftwaffe’s failed attempt at strategic bombing. Starting January 1944 there was a sustained increase in exits corresponding to the attrition warfare of the Eighth Air Force discussed above. While there was clear damage to the Luftwaffe during this time it reached a maximum loss of 66 pilots in July second only to losses in December 1944. If the Luftwaffe was defeated by the USAAF before D-Day then why were they losing so many pilots after that?

Luftwaffe Defeated at Normandy?

As mentioned above the Luftwaffe was a tactical air force designed to support ground offenses. German command clearly intended to use it as such during the expected Allied invasion of France as they moved a large number of Fighters towards France after June 6, 1944.

To better understand this dynamic I created an index of fighter strength by day for Reich Defense with the pilot entrance / exit and claimed data. For a particular date a pilot was included in the dataset he had claimed an aerial victory before that date and did not exit by that time. We can also see, from the most recent claim, which fighter group he was in. Using this we can tie a particular pilot to a location and therefore if he was actually under the Reich Defense.

Determining which Fighter Group and squadron were actually defending the Reich at a particular point in time was a manual process greatly helped by this website . It showed that most fighter groups defending Germany moved to France immediately after the allied invasion of Normany in June 1944. For example III Gruppe of JG 54 went from Illesheim, Germany to Villacoublay, France on June 7 1944. Moreover one can see (but not shown here) the claimed planes shot down after June 6 changed from US heavy bombers to short range english fighters (Spitfires and Typhoons) adding further evidence of the shift in priorities.

Above is a plot of the number of Pilots defending the Reich compared to all other fronts combined between Summer 1943 to October 1944. I narrowed down the Dense of Reich to those that were likely to face the Eighth Air Force in Battle so did not include fighter groups in Italy or Nordic countries. One can see it remains relatively constant up through the spring of 1944 when it actually shows an increase in the relative number of pilots. By the early summer over half of the pilots in this sample were in Defense of the Reich. It then dropped dramatically when Day Fighter forces moved to France following the invasion of Normandy.

But wait, an increase in pilots when there’s heavy attrition fighting in the first half of 1944? How is this possible?

To check I created a stacked barchart by time. If the Pilots exited it counted a negative number and if they entered it counted as a positive number. One could either enter from another front or be a new pilot. They could exit to another front or exit the war entirely. (For an additional check see 2) below in the appendix. )

While there was an increase in pilots exiting throughout the first half of 1944 it appears that was offset by a combination of new pilots and reallocation of pilots from other fronts. There were few pilots exiting to other fronts until June of 1944. While it seems hard to imagine the fighting strength of the Luftwaffe increasing significantly during this time the evidence suggests that the USAAF did not destroy the Luftwaffe prior to D-Day.

But that doesn’t mean the P-51 wasn’t instrumental in defending the bombers. I created a regression for the time period before June 5 1944 using data from the Eighth Air Force and combined it with Luftwaffe data. The response variable of interest is the number of bombers lost in combat for each unique raid.

The data generally gave precise locations of where the bombers went it did not give similar information of where Escorts went for all missions. For example, Mission Number 367 on May 24, 1944 USAAF sent 616 bombers to Berlin and 490 bombers to French Airfields. They were escorted by 144 P-38’s, 178 P-47’s and 280 P-51’s. While USAAF would probably have sent a majority of P-51’s to Berlin there’s no way to encode that. Instead I assume an weighted percentage of fighters going to each location proportional to the relative size of the bomber fleet. In this case I calculate a weighted_p51 score of 156 (616/(616+490)*280 ) escorting the Berlin Bombers.

Using the Luftwaffe Claims Data I am able to calculate the sum of all claimed kills for pilots defending the Reich on any particular day. This is something akin to the liberty ship ‘learning by doing’ literature. I’ve found this to be the strongest predictor for any single Luftwaffe pilot data.

I include date as a continuous feature and also include dummy variables if there were no particular escorts.

One can see that distance is a very important feature but that time isn’t statistically significant. This is promising as it shows there isn’t a trend that cannot be explained with features given. Also note that the total_kills variable - a proxy for strength of luftwaffe - is positively correlated and has a p-value of .06. While it’s not a strong variable in the regression it adds some credibility as a feature in general.

Of particular interest is that the P-51 is negatively correlated with a p-value of .02. This indicates that the more P-51 escorts there were the fewer the bombers lost. Interestingly we also see a somewhat positive correlation with regard to P-47’s. This could be due to the fact that Pilot’s transitioned from P-47’s to P-51’s and the regression is picking up on that trend.

While evidence presented here is contrary to the general story of the Air War over Europe I believe it displays a more nuanced and realistic version of events. The Eighth Air Force did not defeat the Luftwaffe but it clearly made an impact and drew resources away from other fronts - a key objective of the Pointblank Directive. Moreover it made sure the Luftwaffe was tied down in Germany and not defending France while D-Day occured. It also seems clear that the P-51 was instrumental as it allowed the Eighth Air Force to launch attacks deep into Germany while maintaining acceptable losses.

But it also seems clear that the Luftwaffe threw a large number of fighters from defending the Reich towards defending the western front and lost many pilots as a result. It wasn’t so much that the Eighth Air force defeated the Luftwaffe so D-Day could happen. Instead it seems like D-Day drew Luftwaffe resources away from Reich Defense so that the Eight Air Force could fly more freely over Germany after June 1944.

Thought I’d just add this chart that shows the types of targets the Eighth Air Force attacked during that period. Initially U-Boats and naval sites were a large target but after they became less and less of an issue they focused more on aircraft and industrial targets in Germany in early 1944. During that time they also attacked V-Weapon sites . I thought that was interesting since it wouldn’t be until the summer when they were operational. Towards the end of the sample period they started attacking oil and even some tactical support in France .

2) As an additional check to using this data I compared the monthly exit rates by a dataset at the end of To Command the Sky (curiously they didn’t make a similar plot in their book). While the index I created using Tony Wood’s focuses on Pilots this dataset from TCTS looks at the number of planes shot down. They should be correlated and that is what we see below. However the scale of TCTS data is almost an order of magnitude higher suggesting that my index is missing a lot of data and is incomplete. I think it’s ok as a relative changes but probably not as levels

World War II Strategic Bombing Campaign Online Interactive Released

During World War II, Allied strategic bombing destroyed crucial German infrastructure, degraded critical logistics, damaged civilian morale, and forced the German air force into losing battles. It contributed heavily to Germany’s eventual surrender in May 1945. To help tell this story and explain its significance, the American Battle Monuments Commission has released the Strategic Bombing Campaign online interactive.

This free, digital tool covers all aspects of the campaign, and allows the user to determine what they want to learn, and to what extent. From maps showing the location of American bomber groups to narrative videos to an encyclopedia of the people, places and equipment involved, the Strategic Bombing Campaign interactive serves as a comprehensive resource concerning this massive World War II endeavor.

When France fell to the Germans in 1940, the English Channel remained the only effective barrier between the United Kingdom and Hitler’s formidable military machine. The embattled British fought on alone, defending their islands against massive air attacks and the threat of amphibious invasion. In the midst of these dangerous times, the British Royal Air Force struck back with a strategic bombing campaign focusing on German industrial areas. Daylight bombing proved too dangerous, so the British resorted to bombing at night. Precision bombing was virtually impossible at night, which often led to high rates of civilian casualties while attacking strategic targets.

In June 1942 U.S. air forces joined the fight. Soon they attacked targets throughout occupied Europe, and ranged as far as the oil fields in Ploesti, Romania. Long range missions proved to be extremely dangerous for the bombers because fighter escorts could not travel far enough to reach distant targets. Formations of “flying fortresses” could put out large volumes of all-round machinegun fire, but even this was not enough to adequately protect them against determined German fighter planes.

In 1943 British and American air forces formally launched their Combined Bomber Offensive. Americans bombed key targets during the day using precision bombing, and the British bombed critical area targets at night. They aimed to destroy marshalling yards, oil fields, factories, railroads, and other industrial targets. Long range daylight bombing continued to suffer heavy losses because not enough could be done to protect the bombers. The newly introduced long range P-51 Mustang fighter changed this.

Now able to escort bombers all the way to the Berlin, the Allies launched Operation Argument, known as “Big Week,” in February 1944. Every day as many as 1,000 bombers and 800 fighter planes roared over Germany, relentlessly bombing their targets. The bombing focused on German industries related to air power, and forced the German air force (Luftwaffe) into decisive battle against superior forces. Luftwaffe losses sent it into a death spiral.

With the Luftwaffe crippled and the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy approaching, the Allies focused on missions over France and Holland, hoping to cripple German supply lines and aid the Allied advance inland. Air support proved critical to the advancing Allied ground troops after the invasion was ashore and the liberation of Europe commenced. The Germans attempted to strike back with revolutionary ME-262 fighter jets, V-1 cruise missiles and V-2 rockets, but these proved to be too little and too late.

The Allied Combined Bomber Offensive continued to devastate German industry until the final collapse in the spring of 1945. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and dozens of cities left in ruins. Bomber crews suffered heavy losses as well.

During the course of the Strategic Bombing Campaign, American forces dropped nearly one million tons of bombs, and flew more than 400,000 missions.

Veterans of the Strategic Bombing Campaign are honored at many ABMC cemeteries and memorials, but they particularly shape the story at the Cambridge and Sicily-Rome American Cemeteries.

Watch the video: 1 P 51 Mustang Vs 30 German Fighter Planes The Best Fighter Pilot Story Of WWII (June 2022).


  1. Nazuru

    Of course not.

  2. Guhn

    Till what time?

  3. Raleah

    I apologise, but it does not approach me.

  4. Elvyn

    I'm sorry, but, in my opinion, mistakes are made. Write to me in PM, speak.

  5. Pryderi


  6. Tirell

    There is something in this. Thank you so much for the explanation, now I will not make such a mistake.

  7. Re-Harakhty

    Granted, that's fun opinion

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