Bud's P-51B "Old Crow" sits on ramp at Leiston.
The P-51 Mustang
By CE “Bud” Anderson
In considering a most significant aircraft of World War II one should keep in mind that World War II was a total effort and no single entity “won the war.” It was a total effort of all the armed services and the home front that brought World War II to an end in 1945
A case can be made for the P-51 Mustang as one of the more significant aircraft developed during World War II, especially in the European Theater of Operations. Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe. England was the only place where significant military operations could be launched against Germany. First, air operations would be conducted against the German military machine and war production, and then men and equipment would be massed in England for the eventual invasion of the mainland. Air superiority would have to be gained before an invasion would be possible.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) tried daylight bombing of German military and industrial targets but soon found that the combat losses were unacceptable and therefore turned to night bombing raids. The loss rate was more acceptable, but the accuracy of the bombings was not as good. The Army Air Corp’s concept of bombing strategic industrial targets was that it had to be done in daylight to get the desired bombing accuracy. It was believed that it could be done in daylight with massive formations of bombers that could fight their way to the target and back without fighter escort. Remember, we called the B-17 the Flying Fortress with all of its defensive .50-caliber machine guns.
There were P-47 and P-38 fighters available in England to supply protection, but they did not have the range to cover all the desired targets in Europe. It soon was obvious that the bombers could not survive without fighter escort. The German Luftwaffe would wait until the fighter escort had to turn back, and then they attacked the bombers, inflicting unacceptable losses. A mad scramble resulted for an escort fighter that could stay with and protect the bombers. We would like to think that brilliant planning resulted in the creation of the P-51 Mustang, but that is not the case. It almost happened by accident.
The British wanted the United States war industry to produce the P-40 in large numbers for the RAF as soon as possible. In negotiations with North American Aviation they were told that a better aircraft could be built in less time than tooling up for production of P-40s. Fortunately the British decided to gamble on this seemingly risky proposition. The P-51 was created in a remarkably short time.
The early Mustangs were powered with the same Allison engine that was installed in the P-40 and other U.S. fighters. The result was an aircraft that was significantly faster than the P-40 but still considered a low altitude fighter. Consequently the RAF used the Mustang for low level reconnaissance. The air war over Europe was fought at high altitude. Some practical thinking individuals in England decided to install the British Royce Merlin engine in the P-51 Mustang. Packard was producing the Merlin engine in large numbers in America for the British. The engine had a two stage, two speed supercharger. The result was spectacular high- and low- altitude performance for the P-51 Mustang.
Meanwhile there was little interest in the Mustang since the planned solution for long-range escort was the P-67 to be produced by General Motors. A fighter pilot at Wright Field flew the P-67 and reported that it could not defend itself, let alone the bombers. He suggested that the Merlin-powered Mustang be investigated. North American began producing the P-51 with the Packard Merlin engines in large numbers. With modifications to increase the range, the Mustang became the answer for the continuation of daylight bombing of Germany. The P-51B and later the P-51D had an extra fuel tank installed in the fuselage and external under wing tanks. It had remarkable range and could escort the heavy bombers anywhere they wanted to go.
The P-51 was very fast in level flight and in a dive. It was excellent at high and low altitudes and could defeat – or at least hold its own – in dogfights with German fighters. You would think that the P-51Bs would immediately be assigned to the 8th Air Force in England for fighter escort, but that was not the case. They were assigned to the 9th Air Force as part of the tactical support of ground forces during the planned invasion of Europe. This leads me to one of my philosophies about warfare. It is not brilliant planning that wins wars. It is the side that screws up the least that wins.
Fortunately the first combat unit to receive the P-51Bs was in the 9th Air Force in England. The 354th Fighter Group was receiving their aircraft and waiting for the coming invasion still months away. With nothing to do (so to speak) the famed Pioneer Mustang Group was loaned to the 8th Air Force for fighter escort. The rest is history. The Mustang was so wildly successful that the 8th Air Force demanded that they be provided with P-51 long-range escort. To illustrate how successful the Mustang was, consider the make up of the 8th Air Force Fighter command at the end of the European war: 15 fighter groups, all converted to Mustangs, except one. The 56th Fighter Group retained their P-47s probably more out of pride since they had a marvelous record and were the first unit to be equipped with the Thunderbolts.
Now getting back to the significance of the P-51 – control of the skies was essential if we were going to have a successful invasion of Europe from England. Without it, German air power could have disrupted the invasion forces. Two things were significant in breaking the back of the Luftwaffe and the gaining of air superiority. First was the appearance of the P-51B Mustang in the skies over Europe in late 1942 and second was the decision made by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in February 1944 to allow our fighter pilots to kill enemy rather than just drive them away from the bombers.
Prior orders from 8th Air Force required the fighters to stay close to the bombers at all times. If the bombers were attacked, fighters were to drive the enemy away and return to close escort as soon as possible. If fighter pilots were chasing an enemy fighter and went through 18,000 feet, they were to break off the attack and return to close escort. Now they were ordered to pursue and destroy the enemy. That is when the victories started to soar. There was a time when Gen. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Corps, spoke of getting more bombers in the air because the German fighters would respond and then our fighters would have the opportunity to destroy them. There was no safe place where German aircraft could fly without being attacked. The Mustang even flew mission to Poland, Czechoslovakia and shuttle missions to Russia with the bombers.
My association with the Mustang started about this time. I was a member of the 357th Fighter Group – the first P-51 unit to be assigned to 8th Air Force. We arrive in theater in November 1943 and flew our first combat mission in February of 1944. The spring of 1944 appears to be the time that historians agree that we broke the back of the German Luftwaffe and gained air superiority. Only two enemy aircraft responded to the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.
The Mustang truly was a remarkable aircraft. Its superiority cam e from the revolutionary laminar flow airfoil, a drag-reducing radiator cooling system, lots of fuel and a marvelous blend of airframe and powerful engine. It had excellent performance at both high and low altitudes and enough fuel to fly anywhere the bombers were sent in Europe. My average combat mission was about 4 and ˝ hours in duration; the longest mission flown on D-Day when I logged 6 hours and 55 minutes. I still had enough fuel in reserve for about another hour. As far as maneuverability, I always felt that I could handle any type of German fighter anywhere I found them.
In the hands of a good pilot the Mustang could certainly hold its own. I recall a mission on May 27, 1944, when my flight of four was attacked from above by four ME 109Gs. We were at 30,000 feet, and we were able to break their attack and then shoot down three out of four ME 109s. The P-51 contributed to the destruction of more enemy aircraft in air-to air combat than any other American aircraft by a wide margin. This is remarkable since the P-51B/D did not see combat until late 1943.
Another interesting point is that the Germans were not short of fighter; they had plenty of aircraft right up to the end of the war. Allied fighters killed so many experience German fighter pilots that there was a shortage of pilots to fill the cockpits. Further, they did not have an adequate replacement pilot training program.
The P-51Mustang was a truly significant aircraft, probably the best all around fighter developed during World War II. It had a major impact in the European air war by helping to clear the skies of the Luftwaffe, permitting the invasion of the mainland and the defeat of Germany.
This article appeared in the Fall 2004 Dispatch, The Commemorative Air Force Magazine.
Look Around the Cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. Takes a while to load, but you can scan around the cockpit on the site.
Some great reference links on the P-51 Mustang: