On May 4, 1943, the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 56th Fighter Group was ordered to meet a formation of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers returning from a run over Antwerp, Belgium.
Colonel Hubert Zemke, commanding the American fighters, lost his radio communications as he reached the Dutch coast, forcing him to hand over command to Colonel Loreen McCollum, commander of the 61st Fighter Squadron and return to base. It was Zemke’s second aborted fighter mission due to radio failure, and since he was unable to inform his men as to why he left he was concerned they would misconstrue his departure as cowardice. After arriving back at his base outside the English town of Horsham St. Faith, he vented his wrath on the hapless mechanics. His radio would not break down again.
Meanwhile, his squadron met the B-17s over the German coastline. As the bombers passed over Walcheren Island a squadron of Focke-Wulf FW-190 single-engine fighters assaulted them. McCollum eagerly turned his flight toward the approaching “Butcher Birds” and attacked. Latching onto the tail of a fighter, he opened fire and was thrilled when it exploded into flames under his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt’s brutal pounding, but as he eagerly watched the stricken aircraft plummet he was horrified to realize it was not German. Flushed with the exhilaration of his baptismal dogfight, McCollum had attacked the first aircraft he saw and shot down a British Supermarine Spitfire.
Despite his absence from the engagement, Zemke’s status as group commander made him liable for the tragedy, and it was he who was summoned to 1st Fighter Command headquarters to answer to a livid Brig. Gen. Frank Hunter. Nevertheless, although he was just getting started in World War II combat, Zemke had already come a long way.
Hubert Zemke: An Experienced American Fighter Pilot
When Lieutenant Hubert Zemke had reported to the 56th Fighter Group in March 1942, he was a priceless commodity to his country in this new war. After spending the past two years overseas training British, Russian, and Chinese pilots to fly the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighter, he was a rare and sorely needed gem—an experienced fighter pilot.
At the end of June, he was promoted to major and given command of the 56th’s newly formed 89th Squadron. The ex-boxer from Montana was finally back in the ring, but this time the stakes were much higher than in his earlier bouts.
Soon after his advancement to major, Zemke was promoted to lieutenant colonel and made group commander. Six months earlier he had been an obscure lieutenant with nobody to give orders to, but he had no time to be overwhelmed by his vastly expanded status and the pressures that came with it. The group’s aircraft were arriving.
For the rest of 1942, Zemke and his fellow group commanders relentlessly drilled their men in their new Thunderbolt fighters in preparation for the inevitable day when they would be called on to face the polished pilots and sleek flying machines of Germany’s renowned and feared Luftwaffe. Word came on Thanksgiving Day. The 56th was officially alerted that overseas transport was imminent.
The pilots and ground crewmen arrived (without their aircraft) in England just after the new year, and like most Yanks these newly arrived young fliers were impatient. As days kept passing with still no sign of their planes, their agitation mounted. On January 24, 1943, two full weeks after the 56th’s arrival, the first machines were delivered. Within a few days the group was fully equipped, and the men were testing their planes and themselves in the dreary English skies. By spring it was time to fight.
For the bulk of April, the 56th, 61st, 62nd, 63rd, and 4th Fighter Groups made relatively short-range “rodeo” sweeps over coastal areas of occupied France in attempts to lure enemy fighters away from the routes of B-17s and Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers. The Germans rarely accepted fighter combat, preferring to go after the bombers.
On May 9, Zemke received notification of his promotion to full colonel. This action was a policy matter in which senior commanders received promotions more or less automatically so there would be room for the advancement of junior officers. In most cases this would be a pleasing but unsurprising event for a man in Zemke’s position. However, the fact that his command had no German kills (only a British one) so far fueled already widespread derision of the 56th as the European Theater’s black sheep outfit, and any of its personnel being promoted came as something as a surprise. The 29-year-old colonel and his men were grimly resolved to shake off their reputation. It would not take long.
First Kills For the 56th
Things started to look up on June 12 when McCollum led a sweep over Belgium and closed with a hostile flight. Captain Walter Cook knocked down an FW-190 for the 56th’s first confirmed kill. The next morning Zemke and eight of his men waylaid a formation of unsuspecting Focke-Wulfs that were climbing to attack another Thunderbolt flight. Leading the charge, Zemke shot down two planes while Lieutenant Robert Johnson got a third.
When Zemke was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on July 19, he figured he had better make sure nobody thought it was merely to boost morale. He put his pilots through such intensive flight training that headquarters called to learn why the 56th was using so much more fuel than the other groups. It would be gasoline well spent.
The Luftwaffe’s policy of avoiding combat with the U.S. fighters backfired. The Germans had refused to accept battle with inexperienced fliers. These men were now becoming battle tested, dangerous pilots.
On the afternoon of August 17, Zemke and one of his squadrons headed east to meet and escort home a flight of B-17s returning from the costly first raid on the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory. Their range extended by exterior fuel tanks, the P-47s made it as far as Antwerp before they had to switch to their interior fuel supply.
Soon after jettisoning their empty tanks, the American fighters encountered the surviving homebound B-17s under heavy fighter attack. The Germans were not expecting to encounter Thunderbolts so far east and were taken totally by surprise. Zemke immediately downed a Messerschmitt Me-110 twin-engine fighter as the sprawling dogfight commenced, and the 56th drove the enemy from the battered bombers.
The group destroyed 17 enemy fighters, damaged nine, and had one probable in exchange for one lost and two missing. The news that the 56th had accounted for all but two enemy kills that day further bolstered the pilots’ soaring confidence and morale. When they learned one of their victims was renowned Major Wilhelm Galland, commander of II Squadron of Jadgergeschwader 26 with 55 kills of his own, the young Americans knew the enemy was theirs. At this point some enterprising individual first referred to the 56th as “Zemke’s Wolfpack.” The moniker stuck.
Schweinfurt Raid Disaster
With his fifth kill on October 2, 1943, Zemke became an ace. On bomber support missions during the month, the 56th shot down 29 German planes. The Luftwaffe ruefully noted this success and withdrew its squadrons from coastal areas, clustering them around likely bombing targets. On October 14, while Zemke was at Eighth Air Force headquarters receiving a British Distinguished Flying Cross, his men went aloft to escort bombers on the ill-fated second Schweinfurt raid. The Germans waited until the P-47s were nearing their range limit then attacked in force. They shot down 60 B-17s against a loss of just 13 of their fighters.
This debacle sobered Zemke and his men. It jarred them into the realization that the Luftwaffe was far from beaten, and it was a grim 56th that took off November 5 on a vital bomber support mission to Munster. Rendezvousing with the B-24s over the Zuider Zee, they were one of eight fighter groups sent up in relays to provide the Liberators with near continuous protection. As it neared the target, the formation encountered a flight of 30 rocket-armed FW-190s.
As the Germans assembled to attack the bombers they never thought to look above and to either side of their targets, where the vengeful Wolfpack lurked. Nothing in the sky was as fast as a diving Thunderbolt, and these were diving as they tore into the enemy formation from both sides.
Plunging out of the sun, Zemke and his flight knocked down two bandits on their first pass, scattering the rest. They encircled the bombers in a protective swarm, shooting down six interceptors and losing just one B-24. The day’s work brought the 56th’s tally to 102 kills.
Zemke’s Stateside Speaking Tour
Despite the stunning success of the 56th and other U.S. fighter groups late in 1943, the Eighth Air Force bomber wing was slowly bleeding to death. Its fleets were being decimated in the constant, crucial raids on Hitler’s industry, and the flow of replacements could not keep up with the rate of attrition. Back in Washington there was a feeling in some quarters that the Britain-based strategic bombing offensive was a failure, and some sorely needed planes and crews were diverted to Italy to comprise another bomber wing. There was also a faction favoring the virtual abandonment of the war in Europe and total concentration on the war with Japan.