"It seems to me
... that one of the great 'miracles' of the war was the fact that the full
long-range fighter escort did appear over Germany at just the saving moment, in
the very nick of time to keep our bomber offensive going without a break.
..." —From Global Mission Memoirs
of Gen. Henry H. (Hap) Arnold Commanding General, US Army Air Forces World War
LIKE giant moths, their antennas and guns bristling, 376 US
bombers lifted off their runways in England into the gray dawn of a mid-August
morning 1943. Quickly coagulating into tight formations in e frigid
substratosphere, they rendezvoused with their P-47 escort fighters. The mission
for the day was deep penetration of Nazi Germany—to the ball-bear factory at
Schweinfurt and an aircraft assembly ant at Regensburg. Over the ancient city
of Antwerp e fighters banked sharply and headed back for England. Their tanks
were low, and they could go no further. The bombers, unprotected, continued on.
Soon the enemy struck. ME-109s and FW-190s Vowed down from above in darkly
symbolic javelin formations and sprayed the Flying Fortresses with 20-mm shellfire.
The bombers huddled protectively closer to one another and returned the fire as
best they could. The fighters buzzed them like angry gnats. Many of the
bombers, bleeding gasoline from ruptured inks or spewing fire from shattered
engines, dropped from formation. Others pressed on toward their targets and
dumped their bombs. A few hours later, 316 of the bombers made it home. But
sixty did not return, and 600 bunks were empty in the barracks rooms of England
This was the costliest raid of the fledgling VIII Bomber
Command up to that time. It was the first time the German Air Force had come up
in numbers to try to stop a large formation of daylight bombers. They had not
succeeded; the targets were bombed. But the toll was too high.
A short time later, on October 14, "Black
Thursday," another mission to Schweinfurt was laid on. This time 291
bombers headed for the target, accompanied on the first leg by 196 escort
fighters of the VIII Fighter Command. Near Aachen, 240 miles from England, the
short-legged fighters had to turn back. Almost at once the Germans attacked, in
wave after wave, and the high battleground was again littered with flaming and
falling bombers. Another sixty Forts were destroyed over the continent;
another 600 airmen lost.
The meaning of these two catastrophes was chillingly clear:
the US did not have air superiority over Germany. Without long-range fighter
escort, the daylight precision-bombing effort could not be maintained. The
Eighth simply could not take the high rate of attrition.
For months, since even before June 1943 when the combined
bomber offensive began, the Allied High Command had been aware of the need for
long-range fighter escort. Actually such a plane existed, though in the
shadows. It was a remarkable airplane, and the story behind it—as well as the
story ahead of it when it finally got into combat—is one of the more thrilling
episodes in the literature of flight. The airplane was the P-51 Mustang, and it
was born at the moment it was needed, thereby fulfilling the first requisite of
greatness. And before the final shots of the war were fired, it filled every
In April 1940, the war in Europe had been on for eight and a
half months. The Stukas and ME-1093 were clouding the skies over the Low
Countries and France, and the British were carefully nursing their few
Spitfires and Hurricanes. The RAF, more sophisticated in aerial doctrine than
most major powers, knew it needed another kind of plane—one for offensive
action against Germany. The Spitfire was to be its great defensive fighter, the
interceptor that would so greatly inhibit the Luftwaffe over England and win
the Battle of Britain. But the fighter that RAF commanders wanted in great
numbers was the American Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, an Allison-powered plane
ideally suited for low-level work. The Flying Tigers used it successfully in
China against the Japanese, and it proved invaluable in the Western Desert
against Rommel's tanks. In order to build up a large P-40 force quickly, the
British sent an Air Purchasing Commission to place an order for P-40s with a
young, aggressive aircraft company named North American Aviation.
At that time North American was only six years old as a
producer of aircraft. Its best-known product was the AT-6 Texan or Harvard
trainer which the AAF and the RAF and, eventually, the air forces of
thirty-four allied nations used extensively. Built along fighter lines, it was
the training plane in which most British war pilots learned their flying. The
British remembered the speed with which North American had produced it in 1938.
It was built, crated, shipped through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic,
uncrated, and test-flown in 120 days from the time production was first begun.
When the British purchasing commission approached James H.
"Dutch" Kindelberger, the salty president of North American, and
offered him an attractive production contract for P-40s, Kindelberger turned
them down. He had many reasons. First off, he was convinced his crack
engineering team headed by Lee Atwood, who in 1948 was to succeed Kindelberger
as president of North American, could build a better plane—and in greater
numbers. Dutch had been watching the air war in Europe closely, and, as World
War I pilot, he knew second best in air warfare meant being last. Even before
the British had approached him he had Atwood design a basic fight "No one
ever pulled a rabbit out of a hat," Kindelberger once explained, "without
carefully putting one in." The Mustang was Dutch's exquisite rabbit.
Another reason Dutch wanted to build the Mustang was that it
was designed for mass production—the P-40 was not. "The time to start
worrying about production is before you begin product engineering," he
said. The plane was designed, by a team headed by Raymond Rice and Edgar Schmued,
to be made in many parts; large units were broken down into smaller components
for ease of assembly and installation. The wings alone were made in six
sections. Dutch brought Detroit techniques to Southern California.
The Mustang design was first shown to the British in April
of 1940. They were assured in New York that North American could build the best
fighter plane in the world, and within 120 days! This was convincing, and the
British gave a preliminary go-ahead for further detail design. At North
American's plant in Inglewood, Calif., that same day, Saturday, the structural
des' group began the inboard profile drawings and labor on them until
Kindelberger entered the room at 10:00 a.m. Sunday. Dutch initialed his approval.
A preliminary weight study was attached, and all data was airmailed to the
Britishers who were impatiently waiting in New York. They liked the design,
and in three days North American had an order to proceed.
Kindelberger swung NAA into its vital work with a vigor that
was dazzling. Paperwork and red tape were forgotten. Interoffice memos took the
place of official orders and even drawings. The instant data could be released
it was sent to the experimental shop where the full-size wooden mockup of the airplane
was being made by a large crew of cabinetmakers. The wind-tunnel group carved
a $20,000 quarter-scale model of laminated mahogany to tolerances as fine as
.001 of an inch—rare in those days.
The loftsmen laid out the full-scale drawings on large
tables from which templates used in production were made. The purchasing
department waived all regulations and sent men out on trucks to have made on
verbal instructions from the preliminary design group.
One casting was needed in four days because a critical part
had to be machined properly. Normally it would have taken three weeks, but the
engineers couldn't wait. A worker was dispatched to stand by until the hot
casting was peeled out of the mold, and in two days the casting was delivered.
The design group was housed in a drab room directly over
Kindelberger's office, and one engineer later recalled that "the Mustang
materialized out of that smoke-filled room where men knew no hours, where
lights never went out, where for days all you could hear was the rattle of
paper, the sharpening pencils, and the noise of men knocking out their pipes on
wastebaskets. ..." Engineers worked an average of sixteen hours a day.
"Sunday was different," one recalled, "only because the hum from
the adjacent factory was missing."
To get the kind of airplane that was needed, daring and
ingenious innovations had to be made. Speaking later of the engineering effort,
Kindelberger said that "the situation called for the highest degree of
initiative, speed, and caution—three attributes which normally do not descend
together on an engineering department. ..."
The design touchstone of the Mustang was the laminar-flow
wing, a high-lift, low-drag airfoil developed by the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and considered by most engineers as being too
revolutionary for use in a mass-produced airplane. But the chiefs of North
American's aerodynamics section believed in it so thoroughly that they
promised in case of failure to produce a conventional wing within thirty days.
Since wing design is the toughest of all components and usually determines the
schedule for the rest of the design job, the entire project hung tenuously on
the then-unproved laminar-flow concept.
There were times when Kindelberger and Atwood thought they
had failed. The first wind-tunnel test of the quarter-scale model wing in the
California Institute of Technology tunnel showed that although the drag was
the lowest on record—fifty percent less—the stalling characteristics were bad.
The airfoil was quickly but carefully modified, and a new model was built in a
week. Again, the silk tufts glued to the wing surfaces did not act
satisfactorily. But now the engineers suspected that the model was too large
for the tunnel; the walls were affecting the airflow at the wingtips. The wing
was loaded into an airliner—its first flight was inside a plane—and flown to a
larger wind tunnel at the University of Washington in Seattle. There it passed
all tests with flying colors. The laminar design, wherein the greatest
thickness of the wing was moved well back and was followed by a teardrop-shaped
trailing edge, gave tremendously improved lift and also the structural
strength to withstand the "shock waves" which the plane would later
experience in its high-speed combat maneuvers, maneuvers that tore ME-109s and
To reduce the frontal area as much as possible, North
American chose the same liquid-cooled in-line Allison engine that powered the
P-40. This presented the problem of a large drag-producing radiator scoop
conventionally placed at the nose of the ship. Atwood placed it under the
fuselage and aft of the pilot. But early flight tests showed the engine was not
being cooled adequately. Further wind-tunnel tests showed that the disturbed
boundary layers of air beneath the wing and fuselage prevented a
"clean" flow through the radiator. The entrance lip of the scoop was
lowered one inch. The turbulent air was thus bypassed and perfect air
circulation was attained. The fuselage, the smallest cross-sectional area ever
to be placed behind an Allison engine, offered low drag but demanded
high-density packing of the equipment—radios, compasses, hydraulic systems,
and the like—that had to go into it. "It's like stuffing the insides of a
bomber into a fighter," one engineer lamented.
The first Mustang, minus an engine and with landing gear
borrowed from an AT-6, was rolled out of Building No. 1 and into the bright
California sunlight just 117 days from the placement of the order. Designated
NA-73, it got its first taste of air on October 26, 1940, in a test flight that
was eminently successful.
A year later, in November 1941, the first Mustang arrived in
Liverpool in crates: the merchantman carrying it had been bombed en route but
the airplane was undamaged. But it could not be flown until British
antiaircraft batteries and RAF fighter squadrons could be briefed—the plane
looked too much like an ME-109 and might have been shot down.
On the P-51's first demonstration flight, an American test
pilot put it through a 500-mph dive and several low-level speed runs. RAF
officials at first refused to believe the performance data, and the flight had
to be rerun. It was not long before they admitted that it outperformed their
beloved Spitfire, but more meaningful British recognition of the plane's
greatness came later when a London pub named a drink after it.
The Mustang was a pilot's airplane. Control and balance were
such that when a pilot operated the stick he was not conscious of moving the
control column. "You don't fly this airplane," said one pilot,
"you wear it." Armed with two .50-caliber MG 53-2 Browning machine
guns mounted below the engine, plus a single .50-caliber MG-53 and two
.30-caliber MG 40 guns in each wing, its striking power was formidable. In October
1942, on its first flight to Germany—the first flight any single-engine
fighter based in the UK had made to the Reich—a Mustang hit a military camp on
the Dutch border, strafed a factory and gas tanks at Lathen, Germany, shot up
barges and lock gates along the Dortmund-Ems Canal, and, on the way back, set
fire to a 500-ton ship on the Zuider Zee and exploded another vessel. Earlier,
in the commando raid on Dieppe in August 1942, the Mustang supported ground
troops, flew reconnaissance, and provided a key segment of the 1,000-fighter
aerial umbrella that kept the Luftwaffe from making a shambles of the orderly
Even before the P-51's first flight on October 26, 1940, the
British, impressed by the startling progress of Kindelberger's team, placed an
order for 320 Mustangs. The US government approved this with proviso that two
of the aircraft be turned over to Army Air Corps for test and evaluation.
Accordingly, the fifth and tenth ships to roll off the North American assembly
line were sent to Wright Field and designated XP-51. The plane performed
exceptionally well, but not as a high-altitude airplane.
"Below 22,000 feet," an official report said,
"the P-51 ... has the best all-around fighting qualities of any
fighter." Its top speed of 386 mph was reached a 15,500 feet and its
service ceiling was 33,800 fee (compared with 450 mph at 24,000 feet and a
43,300-foot ceiling for the "D," built in mid-1944), but it,
outmaneuvered anything in the air. It was an excellent low-level ground-support
aircraft. But USAAF fighter policy at the time was hinged to the P-47 and the
P-38, and the two P-51 prototypes did not quickly change that policy.
In the autumn of 1942, the US military attaché in London,
Maj. Tommy Hitchcock, reported to Washington that the Mustang was one of the
best, "if not the best," fighter airframes developed to that date. A
world-renowned polo player before the war, Hitchcock was also a pilot and he
had flown the Mustang. He suggested—and American Ambassador to the Court of St.
James John Winant endorsed the suggestion—that the Mustang be crossbred with
the powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 engine. This would give it a high-altitude
capability. Hitchcock's opinion was soundly seconded by such aviation
authorities as Eddie Rickenbacker and RAF Air Marshal Sir Trafford
But the Army Air Forces dragged its heels. Somehow it
regarded the Mustang as a "foreign" airplane, designed to British
specifications for British use. The Mustang's spectacular performance at Wright
Field and in the skies over Europe, however, inexorably von over even the most
dogged skeptics. After the war General Hap Arnold said that on only one occasion
did he overrule an Air Materiel Command recommendation on aircraft
procurement. The decision came after he toured the North American production he
and had a talk with Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, who was then organizing the Eighth Air
Force. "That's the plane I want," said Spaatz. "If that's what
you really want," said Arnold, "you'll get it." Testifying
before the House Armed Services Committee later, Arnold said: "I was never
sorry for that decision." The Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin engine,
which converted the P-51A to the P-51B, proved a spectacular improvement and
gave the Mustang the high-altitude capability that put it in a class by itself.
Flight tests in September 1942 showed that it climbed to 20,000 feet in 5.9
minutes compared with 9.1 minutes for the P-51A and that it had an over-all
speed increase of twenty-six percent. Even before the flight tests were
completed, General Arnold reported to President Roosevelt that 2,200
Merlin-powered Mustangs had been ordered by the AAF. By the summer of 1943 they
were in full-scale production at Inglewood and a new North American plant at
Dallas. It was this airplane that in 1944 the Senate War Investigating
Committee, headed by Harry Truman, called "the most aerodynamically
perfect pursuit plane in existence."
In December 1943, the P-51B joined the Eighth Air Force
inventory in the UK. Overnight the bomber escort radius jumped from 320 to 650
miles. When the dual 108-gallon external tanks were added to the P-51 a few
months later, the escort radius fanned out to 750850 miles. The new plane was
not only a dependable escort, it was a tough fighter as well. It could turn on
a dime at high speed, it could climb like a bullet, and best of all it had
shrugged off the label of a low-level performer. A report of the AAF Tactical
Employment Trials, dated February 12, 1944, said, "There is a
considerable difference in the over-all handling and performance of the P-51A
and the P-51B. The latter is far superior, particularly at high altitudes.
"The P-51B has good performance at all altitudes, but
above 20,000 feet the performance improves rapidly, and its best fighting altitude
is between 25,000 and 35,000 feet. The aircraft maintains a speed of 400 mph or
better from about 11,000 feet to 40,000 feet. At 40,000 feet the aircraft
indicates 210 mph in level flight, and can still be maneuvered, as it is not
hanging on its propeller. The rate of climb is outstanding. Above 20,000 feet
the over-all fighting qualities of the P-51B-1 aircraft are superior to those
of all the other types used in the trials."
In its first fifty-five days of combat the P-51B shot down
13.1 enemy aircraft per 100 sorties as contrasted with 4.3 for the P-38
Lightning and 2.7 for the P-47 Thunderbolt.
The dribble of new planes swelled into a flood, and by May
1944 there were seven P-51 groups in the VIII Fighter Command, then headed by
Maj. Gen. William E. Kepner. Of these, one group, the 4th, was destined to
distinguish itself as the outstanding Mustang unit anywhere. -
The 4th Fighter Group, composed of the 334th, 335th, and
336th Squadrons and headed by Col. Donald J. Blakeslee, was stationed at Debden,
forty miles north of London. The pilots got their P-51s on February 28, 1944.
They had the planes ready for operational flying the next day. Some of the
pilots took off with less than an hour's checkout in the new plane. Four days
later, on March 4, they escorted a force of B-17s and B-24s to Berlin. It was
the first time single-engine fighters had made the 1,100-mile trip.
The following day the P-51B group escorted some Liberators
almost to Spain. And the day after that they were again over Berlin, gunning
down seventeen enemy planes which tried to interdict the bombers. They rested a
day, then went back again into action.
When Colonel Blakeslee, RAF-trained, first flew in Spitfires
in the early days of the war, he did well to stay up for an hour and a half.
With the Mustangs he led his men on seven-hour missions.
The extreme range of the P-Si led to a dual mission effort.
Some Mustang groups, after seeing their bombers safely en route home over the
North Sea, returned to the fray without landing and made additional sweeps over
the Hamburg area, destroying shipping, locomotives, troop concentrations -
"anything that moves," as one mission directive read.
In their very first month of operation the P-Si pilots with
Blakeslee's 4th Fighter Group accounted for 156 German planes, a new one-month
record for any US fighter group. For that hectic period the group won a
Distinguished Unit Citation.
In April '44 the record for monthly kills was again broken
by the 4th with a score of 207. Generals Eisenhower, Doolittle, Spaatz, and
Kepner came to the base to look at the plane that was helping change the course
of the war. Two months later Eisenhower flew over the Normandy beachhead to
survey battle progress in a specially modified two-place Mustang piloted by Maj.
Gen. E. R. "Pete" Quesada.
The VIII Fighter Command, after its initial experience with
the Mustang, said in a report on tactics and techniques, "The P-Si has met
with tremendous success by being able to accompany the bombers over their
deepest and final penetration where formerly they had little if any
"When did you know that the Luftwaffe was losing
control of the air?" General Spaatz asked Goering after the war.
"When the American long-range fighters were able to
escort the bombers as far as Hanover," Goering replied, "it was not
long before they got to Berlin." Goering said he could not believe his
eyes when he saw them over his capital.
Goering then observed: "The reason for the failure of
the Luftwaffe against the Allied Air Forces was the success of the American Air
Forces in putting out a long-range escort fighter airplane which enabled the
bombers to penetrate deep into Reich territory and still have a constant and
strong fighter cover. Without this escort the air offensive would never have
Early in 1944, the systematic destruction of Goering's
Luftwaffe began. The all-out offensive was carried on by all Allied fighter
groups, but nowhere with more striking results than those of the 4th. In one
mission in April the 336th Squadron claimed twenty-six enemy aircraft
destroyed and sixteen damaged—the greatest score ever claimed by one squadron
in the United States Army Air Forces for a single mission. Blakeslee's P-51
pilots were the first in VIII Fighter Command to reach 400, 500, 600, and then
700 enemy aircraft destroyed. The 4th ended the war with a total of more than a
thousand—both ground and air.
On June 21, 1944, sixty-five Mustangs attached to the group
flew for seven hours and fifteen minutes on the first of the historic shuttle
raids from England to Russia. They joined over Poland with three bomber combat
wings and fought their way to Piryatin airdrome in Russia. They returned by
way of Italy, destroying fifteen enemy aircraft during the mission, with the
loss of only one plane.
The plane also flew its way into the hearts of the men whose
lives depended on it. 1st Lt. Leonard Warner spoke of the toughness of the P-51
when he stated in his official report on return from a Berlin mission on
October 6, 1944: "I tacked on to an ME-109 that slipped through the
bombers and hit for the deck. The last time I looked at my meter I was clocking
600 mph and still gaining. The wingtips and the rudder of the ME came flying
back at me. I didn't have to fire. The ME went in, still shedding its controls."
From another combat report: "A patrol of eight P-51s
sighted twenty ME-109s south of Dreux at 11,000 feet. Orbiting in elements of
two, the squadron climbed to 14,000 feet and attacked from above. At the same
instant sixty ME-109s joined the combat, emerging from a cloud to the north. In
the next fifteen minutes, the Mustangs, outnumbered ten to one, were busily
embattled from 11,000 feet to the deck. The enemy was aggressive and apparently
experienced, but they tried to turn with our aircraft. When it was all over,
the squadron pilots had destroyed eleven and damaged two enemy aircraft against
the loss of two planes."
The Mustangs fought with distinction in every theater of
World War II. In the early months of 1944, Mustangs began operating in Burma in
support of airborne troops attacking Japanese lines of communications 200
miles behind the Assam-Burma front. P-51Bs were also introduced into the
Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, and, on May 5, 1944, RAF Mustangs operating from
eastern Italy smashed the great Pescara Dam by bombing. Not one Mustang was
lost on that operation, which was a remarkable feat for single-engine fighters.
It was in this same theater that two A-36s, the dive-bomber version of the
Mustang, attacked and sank a 50,000-ton Italian transport of the Conte Di
Savoia class, the world's sixth largest liner, at anchor off a quay at Bagnara
in southwestern Italy.
But it was in VIII Fighter Command that the P-51 came into
its own: by the end of 1944 fourteen fifteen fighter groups in the Eighth Air
Force converted to Mustangs. The fifteenth, of course, the celebrated 56th
Fighter Group, whose P-47 "J wrote their own special history in the skies
over rope and produced such Thunderbolt aces as Gabreski, Zemke, Schilling, and
In Blakeslee's P-51 group the top aces were Capt. Don S.
Gentile and Capt. John T. Godfrey, who between them racked up a total of
sixty-six victories' the air and on the ground.
As the war neared its end, the last of the nine M tang
models appeared. This was the P-51H, power by a 2,000-hp Packard/Rolls-Royce
engine. It was ten percent stronger than the "D" and 700 pounds
lighter. It was the fastest—490 mph—most maneuverable, highest, and
fastest-climbing and the longest-ranged (2,000 miles) Mustang. On April 7,
1945, operating from newly captured Iwo Jima, the P-51 was the first land-based
fighter plane to attack Tokyo.
The "H" was taken out of mothballs during the
Korean War when ground-support aircraft were u gently needed. It held its own
until relieved by another North American airplane, the F-86 Sabrejet, and then
was retired permanently.
A total of 15,757 Mustangs of all models, including the A-36
dive bomber, F-6 photo version, and P-82 Twin Mustang, were built, according to
North American records. Those which reached combat flew 213,878 missions and
in the European Theater alone destroyed 4,950 enemy aircraft in the air and
4,131 on the ground.
But the full measure of the Mustang cannot be taken in
figures. That it was superior to enemy fighters and knocked them out of the
skies in great numbers was not the most significant contribution the airplane
made to the successful Allied war effort. Rather, it was the fact that it made
daylight precision bombing possible, and it was daylight precision bombing that
brought victory in a thousand days over a foe whose boast was that his empire
would last a thousand years.
The Mustang earned a warm place in the memories of the
thousands of crewmen of Flying Fortresses and Liberator bombers, men who knew
them by their radio call of "Little Friends." It was those Little
Friends who faithfully flew their good shepherd missions, sweeping the skies of
enemy fighters before them and, wing-to-wing, guiding crippled bombers with
their helpless crews safely back to base.
The author, Ed Rees,
is Assistant Director of Administrative Operations for TRW Space Technology
Laboratories. He was formerly Assistant Corporate Director of Public Relations
at North American Aviation and prior to that was Senior Military Correspondent
for Time Magazine, based in Washington. His beat covered the world, and he did
articles on location in both the Antarctic and the Arctic. He is the author of
two books: The Manned Missile, about the B-70, and The Seas and the Subs, about
our nuclear submarine fleet. Mr. Rees was an AAF radio operator in World War II
and flew thirty-two missions in the European Theater. A slightly longer version
of this article appeared in The Airpower Historian, issue of October 1962, and
appears here by special arrangement.
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