Key point: These warplanes became the backbone of the Air Force's efforts to protect its bombers.
Losses were high and morale low when the U.S. Eighth Air Force intensified its heavy bomber missions over Nazi-occupied Europe in late 1942.
As the Americans persisted with their daylight offensive, complementing the Royal Air Force’s nightly raids, the air crews were eager and gallant, but misgivings mounted. The major threat came from the German fighter force, with its experienced pilots and rugged planes ready to maul the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator formations.
Some planners had promised that the fabled Flying Fortress with its 10 machine guns could easily hold its own against enemy interference, but this proved to be a pipe dream. Effective escorts were desperately needed.
The first U.S. bombardment groups were accompanied to targets in France by RAF Supermarine Spitfires, but their limited range precluded them from longer forays. There was a clamor in the USAAF high echelons for the rapid development of a fighter that could stay with the bombers and fend off the Luftwaffe’s predatory Messerschmitt Me-109s and Focke Wulf FW-190s, but help was on the way.
It came from Republic Aviation Corp. of Farmingdale, Long Island, following a conference in June 1940 at which Army Air Corps leaders explained the urgent need for a high-performance fighter that could compare with European planes. One of the attendees, Republic’s brilliant, Russian-born chief designer, Alexander “Sasha” Kartveli, began work on the back of an envelope, and then he and his team drafted blueprints for an improved version of the former Seversky Aircraft Corp.’s disappointing P-43 Lancer fighter.
The result was the P-47 Thunderbolt, a big single-seat fighter powered by a 2,300-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine, with a top speed of 428 miles an hour, a range of 1,000 miles, and a ceiling of about 42,000 feet. It mounted six or eight .50-caliber machine guns and could carry up to 2,500 pounds of bombs or rockets. The P-47 would prove to be one of the most effective and widely used Allied fighters of World War II.
A prototype, XP-47B, flew for the first time on May 6, 1941. In addition to the Farmingdale plant, production lines were established in Evansville, Indiana, and Buffalo, New York. Many teething problems were encountered in getting the new planes operational, and the XP-47B crashed on August 8, 1942. But deliveries of P-47B models to Army Air Forces squadrons began on March 18, 1942. The early P-47s were called “razorbacks” because of their raised rear fuselage leading to the framed cockpit hood. Several hundred of the planes went to British, Soviet, and Free French fighter units under the Lend Lease Program. The RAF used Thunderbolts extensively in North Africa, India, and Burma.
The first P-47s to see service under American colors were received in June 1942 by the Army Air Forces’ 56th Fighter Group, which, by January 1943, had joined the Eighth Air Force in Britain. It was reinforced by the 78th Fighter Group, and they began operational sorties on the following April 13. They flew their first escort mission on May 4, 1943, when the 56th Fighter Group accompanied B-17s to Antwerp.
Initial encounters with German fighters showed that, while the Thunderbolt was lacking in performance and maneuverability, it was rugged and could out-dive any other fighter. It was the first USAAF fighter to provide the sorely needed protection to the Eighth Air Force B-17 and B-24 streams.
Colonel Edward W. Anderson’s 4th Fighter Group, based at the Debden RAF station near Saffron Walden, Essex, was equipped with the new planes in March 1943. Formed the previous September from the 71st, 121st, and 133rd Eagle Squadrons of the RAF, the group’s experienced pilots, who had been blooded in graceful Spitfires, were less than enthusiastic when they climbed into the bulky Thunderbolts. The P-47 weighed almost three times as much as the British fighter, and the Eagles had doubts about its firepower—eight machine guns compared with the Spitfire’s four 20mm cannons.
Enemy kills came slowly, but the P-47 scored its first aerial victory south of Dieppe on April 15, 1943, and the American fliers came to appreciate the plane’s qualities. In fact, they soon fell in love with it. The Thunderbolt was nicknamed the “Jug” because it was thought to resemble a container for homemade whiskey.
Major (later Lt. Col.) James A. Goodson, who had joined the RAF in 1940 and downed a total of 14 German planes, said, “The P-47, in spite of its weight and size, was an amazing aircraft, and we continued to build up our score, almost in spite of ourselves.”
At Debden, Goodson checked out Captain Don Blakeslee on the Thunderbolt. Blakeslee, a bold natural flier who had piloted Spitfires with the RAF and the Eagle Squadrons since May 1941, was not impressed. “Of course, he didn’t like it,” Goodson observed. “It was daunting to haul seven tons of plane around the sky after the finger-tip touch needed for the Spit.” After his initial flight, Blakeslee griped to Flight Cmdr. James E. “Johnny” Johnson, the RAF’s leading British-born ace of the war, that the bulky, low-slung P-47 seemed reluctant to leave the ground and anxious to get back on it. It was the largest and heaviest piston-engine fighter ever to have served with the USAAF.
RAF pilots who looked over the plane shuddered and politely informed their American comrades that they were about to die. The largest single-engine fighter of the war was considered too slow and unresponsive to survive in the sky against Luftwaffe Me-109s and FW1-190s. The men of the 4th Fighter Group and other units had to be convinced otherwise by their commanders.
During a P-47 sortie over Belgium on April 15, 1943, Blakeslee blasted an FW-190 and sent it flaming into a suburb of Ostend. At the debriefing, Major Goodson told him, “I told you the Jug could out-dive them.” Blakeslee grudgingly conceded, “Well, it damn well ought to be able to dive; it sure as hell can’t climb.”
Blakeslee went on to down three more FW-190s but was twice badly shot up. He eventually led the 4th Fighter Group and emerged as one of the outstanding U.S. flight leaders of the European war. In the air continually for three years, he logged more than 1,000 combat hours during 500 sorties and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross twice.
Despite its weight and size, the P-47 proved to be a highly effective fighter that performed sterling service through the rest of the war. It was a devastating dive bomber and more than satisfactory in dogfights. Many USAAF aces in the European Theater racked up high scores in Thunderbolts. The plane could absorb considerable damage and still bring its pilot home.
Colonel Francis S. “Gabby” Gabreski of the 56th Fighter Group, who shot down 31 enemy planes while flying P-47s, reported that one of his comrades took five direct 20mm cannon hits in his right wing but still managed to return to base. During one sortie, Blakeslee’s Thunderbolt was hit by 68 cannon shells. Yet, he returned to England, escorted by Major Goodson.
Gabreski, also a veteran of RAF Spitfire squadrons, praised the P-47’s roomy cockpit, “nice” handling, and “truly spectacular” dive performance. He and the other pilots loved and trusted the plane. One flier who preferred the Thunderbolt to the sleek, elegant North American P-51 Mustang remarked, “When flying the Jug, I always felt as if I was in my mother’s arms.”
Lieutenant Will Burgsteiner of the 359th Fighter Group wrote in his diary, “We never realized we loved the old barrel and her eight guns so much.” Boyish Captain Marvin Bledsoe of the 350th Fighter Squadron, based at Raydon, Suffolk, rhapsodized, “How I loved to fly that airplane…. I felt a surge of pride that I was a member of a combat fighter squadron and was flying the most powerful fighter ship in the world…. The P-47 Thunderbolt was the hottest American fighter plane. The more I flew the Thunderbolt, the more I liked it.”
A veteran of the Normandy invasion and Operation Market Garden, Bledsoe flew 70 combat sorties in his P-47 named Little Princess,was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oakleaf clusters, and published a memoir, Thunderbolt,in 1982.
Among many other fliers who were impressed with the P-47 was Luftwaffe ace and Battle of Britain veteran General Adolf Galland. After flying a captured Thunderbolt, he reported that the cockpit was big enough to walk around in. A standing joke during the war was that the best way to take evasive action in a P-47 was to undo the straps and run around the cockpit. The plane’s attributes included a low internal noise level, little vibration, prompt control response, and an efficient cockpit heating system, which, unlike the Spitfire, kept the windshield clear of frost when diving.
One distinction of the P-47 was that it probably gathered more nicknames than any other Allied plane of the war. Besides the Jug, it was affectionately known by its pilots and ground crews as “Big Ugly,” “Bucket of Bolts,” “Cast-Iron Beast,” “Repulsive Scatterbolt,” “Seven-Ton Milk Bottle,” “T-Bolt,” and “Thunder Mug.”