The P-47 Thunderbolt was the first American fighter truly capable of holding its own against the Bf 109 and Fw 190 to enter service in Europe. After a slightly shaky start, in which the true strengths of the type were not properly appreciated, its combination of firepower, survivability and high diving speed made the P-47 a very dangerous opponent for the Luftwaffe. The Thunderbolt was eventually credited with close to 4,000 air to air victories, as well as destroyed 6,000 tanks and armoured vehicles in ground attacks. It served with the 8th and 9th Air Forces from bases in Britain, and eventually on the Continent. As its range increased, the P-47 (with the P-51 Mustang) helped to sweep the Luftwaffe from the skies over Germany, to the extent that RAF Bomber Command was able to return to daylight bombing during 1945.
8th Air Force
The P-47 had something of a troubled introduction to the war in Europe. Its exact role was unclear – its slow climb rate made it unsuitable to intercept high flying raiders, it poor low level performance limited its use against low flying tip and run attackers and its short range limited its usefulness as a bomber escort. The three fighter groups that first operated it also had very different opinions of the aircraft. The 4th Fighter Group had been in Britain for some time, operating with Spitfires. They were initially rather unimpressed by the new monster. The 78th Fighter Group had trained on the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and many still preferred their original mount. The 56th Fighter Group had been the original group to receive the P-47, and had played an important role in preparing the P-47 for combat. They had a much more positive view of the P-47, appreciating its high dive speed, firepower and rugged construction.
The first successful Thunderbolt missions came in April 1943. On 8 April the 4th FG launched a fighter sweep over Dunkirk. Although this mission saw no action, it was certainly the sort of mission that the P-47 was ideally suited for. The 56th FG entered the fray five days later, with a similar sweep across the channel. The first combat victory would be won on 15 April, when Major Donald Blakeslee “bounced” and shot down a Fw 190.
The bomber escort role began slowly. At first the limited range of the P-47 meant that it could only escort the bombers on the first and last legs of their long missions. The summer of 1943 finally saw the first external fuel tanks begin to appear in sufficient numbers. The initial belly tank provided was not entirely suited to combat, although on 28 July the 4th FG did reach the German border while using the new tanks for the first time, claiming nine victories amongst unsuspected German fighters.
On 30 July the first mission was flown with proper 75 gallon drop tanks. This gave the P-47 an endurance of nearly three hours, allowing it to meet up with returning American bombers inside the German border. This was the ideal role for the P-47. The returning bombers were flying at 24,000ft, a high enough altitude for the P-47 to perform to its best. Taking advantage of the aircraft’s speed in the dive the P-47s flew another 4000 feet above the bombers, waiting for the Germans to attack. In the resulting melee the P-47s scored a series of victories, taking the pressure off the bombers.
August 1943 showed the limits of the escort fighters. On 17 August the USAAF launched its notorious raid against Schweinfurt and Regensburg. Sixty B-17s were lost, most while the bombers were out of range of their escort fighters. Although the P-47s took a heavy toll of German fighters while they could, the bombers were dangerously exposed over much of Germany.
The P-47 reached its peak as a pure fighter in the European theatre in the spring on 1944. In February 1944 eight fighter groups of the 8th Air Force were using the aircraft, providing 550 of the 750 available fighters. During the year the P-47 would also gain the range to reach as far as Berlin (from March 1944), dramatically reducing the effectiveness of the German fighter forces. However, the year would also see the appearance of the Packard Merlin powered P-51 Mustang, which would eventually all but replace the P-47 in the 8th Air Force. By the end of the war only the 56th FG would still be flying the P-47, having been equipped with the very fast P-47M.
A significant reason for the slow disappearance of the P-47 as a pure fighter was its impressive performance as a fighter bomber. During 1944 the 8th Air Force was to standardise on the P-51, while the tactical 9th Air Force would concentrate on the P-47.
9th Air Force
The second main user of the Thunderbolt in Europe was the Ninth Air Force. This was the tactical arm of the USAAF in Britain, and had been created in Britain on 16 October 1943 to support the Normandy invasion. This group was to be based on airbases along the south coast of England, before moving to the Continent as quickly as possible after D-Day.
In the first half of 1944 the Thunderbolt units of the Ninth Air Force spent much of their time on bomber escort duties, in support of the Eighth Air Force. However as D-Day approached they turned increasingly to their intended ground attack role. The P-47 could carry a payload of up to 2,500lbs, and could carry bombs or rockets, depending on target. Its rugged construction made it a very good ground attack aircraft, allowing it to survive ground fire that would have destroyed many other aircraft.
On D-Day the Thunderbolts of the 9th Air Force were concentrated along the south coast, from where they flew regular patrols over the Normandy beaches, attacking German defensive positions. Only two days after the invasion, an emergency fighter strip had been constructed on Utah Beach. On 19 June the 368th Fighter Group became the first Thunderbolt unit to move permanently to the continent. As the Allies advanced towards Germany an increasingly high proportion of P-47 units would be allocated to the tactical support role, leaving the Mustang to perform the bomber escort role.
One of the P-47’s most impressive achievements came at the start of September 1944. As the allies advanced east, sizable German forces were left intact in the south of France. Nine squadrons of P-47s, under the command of the XIXth Tactical Air Force, were dispatched to destroy a major German force that threatened the right flank of the American army. Their attacks inflicted such heavy losses on the German columns that they surrendered purely as a result of the air attacks.