Aces High: How the 56th Fighter Group Smashed Hitler’s Air Force

World War II History
April 22, 2021 Topic: World War II History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIAir WarFighter AcesAir WarfareBombers

Aces High: How the 56th Fighter Group Smashed Hitler’s Air Force

Germany might have had some good aces, but this entire Fighter Group was one of the finest of the war.

The men at the front could see the threat still posed by Nazi Germany despite its recent reverses in Russia and Africa. Giving Hitler respite now could prove suicidal. His scientists were working on a new generation of revolutionary weapons the Allies could not afford to allow to come into widespread use. The Fortresses and Liberators had to keep the pressure on the Third Reich, so the high command organized a lecture team to tour the States and drum up support for the European bombing offensive. Since he had come to be regarded as the top fighter commander in Europe, Zemke was included in the group.

The young war hero was unhappy about leaving his command just as it finally had achieved such a high degree of effectiveness, but he could not deny the importance of this assignment. Support for the European air war was at a critical low, and the controlling interests had to realize the absolute necessity of taking the fight to the enemy’s heartland and destroying his ability to support his armies.

Zemke and his lecture team did an excellent job of impressing on the politicians and voters the need for a continuing air war against Hitler. By Christmas the continued flow of men and aircraft to Europe was assured.

“Get Back to Halesworth.”

Just after the new year, Zemke reported to the Pentagon for his orders back to his base at Halesworth Airfield in England but was informed he was to be reassigned stateside to the Directorate of Operations of the First Air Force at Mitchel Field. The army was absurdly trying to consign Zemke to a desk. He had no intention of allowing it.

Since he had not yet received written orders for his new posting, Zemke saw an escape route. He still had his original written orders which stipulated he was to return to his command in Britain after the speaking tour, so he caught a cab to Andrews Field where he showed these papers to an Air Transport Command clerk without telling the man they were obsolete. The clerk directed him to an empty seat on a C-54 transport plane bound for  Britain. Later presenting himself at the office of his commanding officer, General Bill Kepner, he truthfully informed the general he was reporting for duty as per his original orders, and that he had not received any subsequent written orders. Kepner also regarded this new assignment as ludicrous and went all the way to Eighth Air Force commander General Jimmy Doolittle to have the stateside posting rescinded.

At Kepner’s suggestion, Zemke made himself scarce until the matter could be settled. He hid out in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a week, after which Kepner summoned him and told him merely, “Get back to Halesworth.” Zemke did so without asking questions. Things were changing, though.

200th Kill on FDR’s Birthday

Zemke was one of the few Thunderbolt pilots to recognize the potential of the North American Corporation’s new P-51 Mustang fighter, and had he been present at the time of their delivery, the Wolfpack would have been one of the six fighter groups that switched from the Thunderbolt to the Mustang.

Under McCollum’s command the 56th had continued to perform superbly, notching 80 more kills and setting a one-day record with 23 on November 26. McCollum was not on hand to greet his returning chief. He had been shot down by antiaircraft fire and captured a few days earlier. Yet the Wolfpack did not let his loss slow its depredations.

Despite the Luftwaffe’s ever greater efforts to avoid the increasing numbers of diversifying Allied fighters over Europe, the 56th scored its 200th kill on January 30, dedicating it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on his birthday. That same day the 4th Fighter Group, in second place, claimed its 100th victory. Still, the Wolfpack’s days at high altitude were numbered.

In February the 56th commenced serious ground attacks, concentrating on airfields despite their notoriously deadly antiaircraft defenses. The Thunderbolt’s extreme toughness and pulverizing firepower made it the obvious selection to send after the dwindling Luftwaffe on the ground.

“Happy Hunting Ground”

At the end of the month, the group took time off from strafing and dive bombing for Big Week. With preparations for the Normandy invasion underway, the high command was giving neutralization of the Luftwaffe top priority. Attacking the problem at its source called for heavy bombing of airframe and engine factories. With the arrival of optimum weather on the 20th, the Italy-based Fifteenth Air Force joined the England-based bomber wings in a major offensive against aircraft production facilities in Schweinfurt, Hanover, and other targets in the region of central Germany that Zemke and his Wolfpack had come to call their “Happy Hunting Ground.”

Aided by new, pressurized 150-gallon drop tanks, the group ranged deeper than ever into enemy airspace, marvelously protecting the B-17s and B-24s. From February 20 to 25, the 56th lost two planes and shot down 72. Its domination of the German skies was so total that the bulk of the damage to its planes came from flying through debris from exploding enemy aircraft. Also, the quality of the German pilots was declining due to attrition. The Me-109 was not an easy plane to fly, and training men for it took time that the reeling Reich no longer had. The strain on the Luftwaffe was never so apparent than when, on the last major raid in February, Zemke and his fliers encountered no enemy interceptors as they escorted bombers to Brunswick.

However, on March 6, American bombers made their first major strike on Berlin, and swarms of Germans rose in desperate defense of their capital. Perhaps a spy had tipped them off to the coming raid and they clustered their remaining veteran squadrons around Berlin, but regardless of how they did it their performance was lethal. The Eighth Air Force took its worst pounding of the war, losing 80 planes, 69 of them bombers, on that one mission.

Two days later the heavies resolutely hit Berlin again, and the Wolfpack stayed busy as the enemy threw everything it had at the bombers. With 27 kills, the 56th accounted for more than a third of all aerial victories made by Eighth Air Force fighters that day, becoming the first fighter group to reach the 300 mark.

38 Aces in the Wolfpack

Following the fruitful first days of the month, severe weather grounded the air war over Europe. Zemke was stunned on March 14 when Generals Kepner, Doolittle, and Carl Spaatz arrived at Halesworth and decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Cross. During the next few days he would earn it all over again.

On the 15th and 16th, the group knocked down 32 Germans while losing just one of their own. It was a performance they were making seem commonplace, but their days of freewheeling mastery of aerial combat were drawing to an end.

The Mustang was easing the Thunderbolt out of escort duty. These new P-51s did not leave much aloft for the P-47. The increasingly frustrated Wolfpack grew weary of patrolling skies devoid of targets and took its frustration out on ground marks. Railways, shipping, airfields, and truck convoys became the main victims of the Thunderbolts’ .50-caliber machine guns. The main danger now was also on the ground.  Several high-scoring veterans wound up dead or as prisoners when they strayed too near the flak pits. Still, on July 4, 1944, the group surpassed the 500 mark. There were 38 aces in the outfit.

As the fighting in France progressed, the 56th became as proficient at ground attack as it had in aerial combat the previous year, but there was too much of the gladiator in Zemke for him to be fulfilled by shooting up locomotives and parked cargo planes. When the commander of the rookie 479th Fighter Group was killed in action on August 10, Zemke applied for the vacancy and was quickly accepted.

Transferred to the 479th

After its arrival in May, the 479th had been too quickly hustled into combat to give it some crucial battle seasoning before the Normandy invasion. It had so far shot down just 10 Germans while losing 35 of its own. By September, Zemke had his new command of Mustang wranglers believing in themselves.  One of his men had even achieved ace status. In a massive dogfight over the Arnhem battlefield in September, the 479th shot down 29 planes while losing just one.

Despite air superiority, the onrushing Allies were bloodily halted at Arnhem, and it became apparent that the European war would not be over by Christmas as so many had hoped. If nothing else, this setback gave the 479th time for more seasoning, and its colonel was able to get back to his passion of escort duty. It was not quite the same.

Zemke and his fliers began to encounter strange jet aircraft and others that looked like rocket-powered gliders. These developments, however, were coming too late to impact the outcome of the war in favor of Germany.