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.

North American P-51 Mustang with Drop Tanks
North American P-51 Mustang with Drop Tanks

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.  

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 June 2007), P-51 Mustang and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_P-51_escort.html

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