Donald Blakeslee: Advocate For Mustangs as Escort Fighters
Ironically, the decision to adopt the Mustang as the primary escort fighter did not come immediately after the adoption of the Merlin engine. Initially, the Merlin-powered P-51Bs were allocated to the tactical air forces that were being formed to support ground forces in Europe. The first P-51-equipped fighter group to see combat in Europe was the 354th Fighter Group, which arrived in England in October 1943 and was immediately assigned to the newly organized Ninth Air Force. The Ninth had previously been assigned to the Mediterranean, but the Allied victory in North Africa led to the unit’s transfer to England to become a tactical air force, with the mission of supporting the Allied ground forces when the invasion of Western Europe took place in mid-1944. Since the Ninth was scheduled to include a large number of fighter groups, the Eighth Air Force pressed for Ninth fighters to be temporarily assigned as bomber escorts.
In November 1943, Lt. Col. Donald Blakeslee, deputy commander of the 4th Fighter Group and one of the most experienced American fighter pilots in Europe, was sent to fly with the 354th Fighter Group. Blakeslee was a former RAF Eagle Squadron Spitfire pilot who had been flying Thunderbolts, and his lack of love for the P-47 was no secret. Whether he engineered the assignment to the 354th or was selected to evaluate the group’s P-51Bs is unclear; his enthusiasm for the highly maneuverable airplane is not. The main advantage of the new P-51 was the reduced fuel consumption of the Merlin engine compared with the radial engine P-47, which was then the primary escort fighter. The first Mustangs to arrive in England were fitted only with 184-gallon wing tanks, but the reduced fuel consumption of the Merlin engines increased their range substantially over similarly equipped P-47s. Plans were under way for the installation of an additional 85 gallons in a fuselage tank, while the hard points under the wings allowed an additional 150 gallons when two 75-gallon drop tanks were carried. Blakeslee believed the Mustang was the solution to the long-range escort problem, but all of the Mustangs were slated to go to the Ninth Air Force.
In the winter of 1943, Allied military planners in Europe were preparing for the invasion of Western Europe, followed by an advance toward Germany. Experiences in North Africa and New Guinea had revealed that air power served as what would come to be known as a “force multiplier,” an element that could aid ground commanders in the age-old endeavor of capturing territory.
The Ninth Air Force was a tactical unit, with the primary mission of supporting the theater commander, and a massive effort was under way to build up its force of fighter-bombers and light and medium bombers to support the ground forces. Once the troops were ashore in France, the war in Europe would turn from what had primarily been an air war against the Luftwaffe to a ground war, with the objective being the ultimate capture of Berlin and the defeat of Germany. The new Mustangs were seen as an ideal weapon for securing and maintaining air superiority over the battlefield and for taking the war to the enemy rear areas.
The Eighth Air Force Receives Their Mustangs
At this point military politics reared its ugly head, as Blakeslee and the leaders of VIII Fighter Command began maneuvering to have the Mustangs transferred to the Eighth. They saw the Eighth Air Force mission as strategic bombardment and recognized that if this mission was to succeed it was important to have a long-range escort fighter that could go with the bombers to their targets deep in Germany and fight at high altitude. Much of Western Europe was still in German hands at the time, and aerial bombardment of strategic targets was still seen as the primary mission for the air forces.
Their arguments fell on receptive minds in the Army Air Forces headquarters in England and won out. Preparations were begun to equip nearly all of the VIII Fighter Command squadrons with new Mustangs. In the meantime, IX Fighter Command P-51s (and other fighters) flew under the operational control of the Eighth Air Force and were used in the escort role. Three P-51 groups were scheduled to go to Ninth, but a compromise led to the assignment of one of these groups to the Eighth in return for the transfer of the recently arrived 358th Fighter Group and its P-47s to Ninth Air Force. VIII Fighter Command received the Mustang-equipped 357th and began making plans to convert all of its P-47 and P-38 groups to Mustangs.
There was one exception—the 56th Fighter Group was the first group to fly P-47s, and it remained with the Thunderbolt until the end of the war. The 56th, which had been nicknamed the Wolfpack because of the group’s reputation for hunting Germans like a pack of wolves, was the highest scoring American fighter group in the European Theater. The 56th finished the war with a total of 674 enemy aircraft claimed in the air and 311 on the ground. By contrast, Blakeslee’s 4th Fighter Group, which was the first Eighth group to convert to P-51s and was the longest in combat of any American fighter group in Europe, finished the war with 583 air-to-air kills and 469 strafing claims.
Although the 4th—which flew Spitfires and P-47s before making the transition to P-51s—was credited with a few more total aircraft destroyed, the P-47-equipped 56th was credited with almost 100 more air-to-air kills. So much for the oft-stated assertion that the fabulous P-51 was the “superior” fighter! The third highest scoring group, however, flew only Mustangs. The 357th Fighter Group was the first P-51 group in VIII Fighter Command. The group put in claims for 609 air-to-air kills and 106 destroyed on the ground.
Did the P-51 Win Allied Air Superiority Over Europe?
Many writers mistakenly advance the proposition that it was the appearance of the Mustang as an escort fighter that signaled the gaining of Allied air superiority in the skies over Europe. In fact, this was not the case. The advantage of the P-51 was that the later models had the range to go deeper into Germany than the P-47s, but the longer range Mustangs did not make their appearance in England until mid-spring of 1944. By this time the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe was already beginning to decline owing to a number of factors. Not the least of these was the interruption of petroleum supplies from refineries in Eastern Europe, prompted in large part by the advance of Soviet forces into the oil-rich Balkans, and the air campaign on transportation, including railroads and bridges. The first U.S. Army Mustangs used in Europe lacked the additional fuel tanks that gave the later models the range to go deep into Germany.
There was also another reason for the decline of the Luftwaffe. Throughout 1942 and 1943 German fighter pilots had pretty much steered clear of the Allied fighters, waiting just beyond their effective range and then going after the bombers as soon as their escorts reached their fuel limits and turned back. By the spring of 1944, the VIII Fighter Command had managed to extend the range of the P-38s and P-47s significantly through the addition of suitable external fuel tanks, and the escorts were able to go much deeper into German territory with the bombers. In fact, the twin-engine P-38s were able to accompany them all the way to Berlin. With the increased range of the fighters, VIII Fighter Command authorized them to drop down on the deck and attack the Luftwaffe airfields to destroy the German fighters on the ground as well as in the air. By the time P-51s were available in Europe in large numbers, the Allies were already gaining air superiority.
The modifications to the Mustangs to turn them into long-range fighters were not without problems. When the 85-gallon internal fuel tanks were added, test pilots discovered that full tanks affected the airplane’s control during combat maneuvers. To take advantage of the increased range, VIII Fighter Command was forced to fuel the fighters so that the tanks would have no more than 35 gallons in them when they reached the areas of likely combat. Since external tanks caused drag and were normally burned off first so they could be dropped, the stability problem reduced the effective range of the Mustangs. The stability problem was not the only problem with the Mustangs. They also experienced a lack of heating at high altitude, which had plagued the twin-engine P-38s during their early months in combat.
It is commonly believed that once the P-51s arrived in the European Theater, the P-47s were assigned solely to the fighter-bomber role while the Mustangs flew only escort. Such is not the case. With the appearance of the Mustangs, VIII Fighter Command adopted a strategy of assigning the more experienced P-47 groups to patrol the areas where the Luftwaffe fighters were most likely to hit the bomber stream while the longer legged P-38s and P-51s went all the way to the targets.