Special Plane, Special Role: How the P-38 Lightning Helped Win World War II

By U.S. Air Force - https://media.defense.gov/2004/Mar/12/2000593925/-1/-1/0/021001-O-9999G-005.JPG, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4012931
December 30, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarLockheed Martin

Special Plane, Special Role: How the P-38 Lightning Helped Win World War II

The P-38 joined the war late, but it quickly became a famous workhorse.

Key point: The P-38 was one heck of a rugged airplane and it actually receded the vaunted P-51. Here is the Lightning's legacy.

Due largely to their use in the postwar U.S. Army Air Forces and present proliferation among the air show community, the North American P-51 Mustang is thought of by many as the most important American fighter of World War II. In reality, however, the P-51 was a relative latecomer to the war, and even though it achieved a remarkable record during the last year of the war in Europe, it was not the fighter that first allowed Allied forces to gain air superiority over the Axis. By the time the redesigned Mustang made its appearance in the skies in Europe in the late winter of 1944, the Allied air forces were already clearing the skies in both Europe and the Pacific of German and Japanese aircraft and were in the process of gaining complete air superiority. This was all due to the twin-boomed, twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the single-engine Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. And in the Pacific Theater, the P-38 was the preferred fighter right up to the end of the war, even above the soon-to-be-famous Mustang.

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.  

Lockheed began developing the P-38 Lightning in 1937 as the company’s first venture into the military airplane market at a time when the U.S. military was modernizing its air forces in response to developments in Europe. Although the Army was somewhat skeptical of Lockheed’s promise of a 400 mph-plus airplane, the twin-engine fighter design was approved in mid-1937, and in January 1939 the prototype made its maiden flight. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just ordered an increase in the production of new fighter designs, and the Army gave Lockheed an order for 13 test airplanes in April 1939. A followup order for 69 production aircraft was awarded by the Army in September. In spite of the company’s failure to deliver the first of the test airplanes, Lockheed was given a huge order for 607 P-38s in August 1940, as events in Europe indicated possible future U.S. involvement in the war that had increased in fury only a few weeks before. Production problems caused deliveries to lag. By December 7, 1941, only 69 Lockheed P-38s were in service with the U.S. Army Air Corps.

A P-38 flying over mountains.

Because of the airplane’s value as a high-altitude interceptor, P-38s were held in the United States for homeland defense during the early months of American involvement in the war, except for a handful that were sent north to Alaska in the late spring of 1942. Consequently, it was in the Aleutians that the famous Lightning made its combat debut. Eleventh Air Force P-38s were assigned primarily as escorts for long-range Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers, but also served in ground attack and reconnaissance roles.

The First Lockheed P-38 Lightning Fighter Groups to Deploy Overseas

Plans were made to deploy several squadrons of P-38s to England, but the logistics of delivery were difficult. The 1st, 14th, and 82nd fighter groups were the first P-38 groups to go overseas, joining the Eighth Air Force in England. The 1st remained in Iceland for a time, then continued on to England where the three groups flew a few missions over France without engaging the Luftwaffe.

In the fall of 1942, all three groups were ordered to deploy to North Africa to join the newly organized Twelfth Air Force, which had been created to support American forces assigned to Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. A fourth group, the 78th Fighter Group, was held in “strategic” reserve in England. When the three groups deployed to Africa, none of them had engaged in air-to-air combat and there were no indications of how the P-38 was going to perform in that role.

The P-38 Lightning groups were plagued with problems—two were lost to enemy air attack on November 20, and on the night of November 21, six airplanes were lost when they tried to land at an advance base after dark. Three days later the P-38s had their first successes, as they shot down several German and Italian transports near Gabes in Tunisia. The P-38s were used in a variety of roles in North Africa. In addition to their normal fighter duties of intercepting enemy formations and escorting friendly bombers, they were also used in a ground attack role, strafing enemy vehicles and troop concentrations. Their longer range and endurance made the P-38s the only fighters in the theater capable of the longest missions.

By early 1943, the P-38 groups in North Africa were desperately short of airplanes, forcing Twelfth Air Force commander General James H. Doolittle to scour the United Kingdom for more Lightnings. When Army Air Forces commander General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold came to Casablanca for a high-level conference, he recognized the seriousness of the situation. He ordered that all remaining P-38s in England be sent to North Africa and that additional P-38s should be sent directly to North Africa by ship from the United States. His order also brought the 78th Fighter Group’s planes and pilots down from England to reinforce the three Twelfth Air Force groups; other group personnel remained in England to re-equip with P-47s.

Due to British naval control of the Mediterranean, the German Army in North Africa depended heavily on air resupply and reinforcement. In the early spring of 1943, the Allied air forces elected to make the German transports a major target. P-38 Lightning sweeps over the Mediterranean became the order of the day.

“Palm Sunday Massacre”

On the morning of April 5, a group of 26 Lockheed P-38s intercepted a German formation of 50 to 70 Junkers Ju-52 transports escorted by about 30 other aircraft, including Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters and Junkers Ju-87 dive-bombers. The action resulted in claims of 11 of the transports and four other German aircraft shot down for a loss of two P-38s.

Another P-38 formation escorting North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers on a low-altitude attack on shipping claimed 15 German fighters. Over the next week the P-38s claimed scores of German transports and dozens of fighters. The successes of the P-38s set the stage for the “Palm Sunday Massacre,” when Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk and Supermarine Spitfire fighters intercepted a large formation of German transports and claimed one hundred, effectively cutting the German supply lines to the Afrika Korps, which was battling for its life in North Africa.

The diversion of the P-38s to North Africa left American fighter forces in England at a very low level—in fact, the P-47-equipped 4th Fighter Group was the only U.S. fighter unit in England in the spring of 1943. Plans for Torch called for the original P-38 groups to be replaced by P-47 groups in England, but the heavy single-engine P-47 lacked the range for long-range escort. New fighter groups were organized in the United States and equipped with P-38s, then moved to England for escort duty with the Eighth Fighter Command. Their longer range made the P-38s the only fighters capable of staying with the bombers on the deep-penetration raids into Germany, and P-38s were the first Allied fighters over Berlin.

The versatility of the P-38 made it a suitable airplane for many missions, one of which was a daring low-level attack that was a repeat of the Operation Tidal Wave mission against the oil fields and refineries of Ploesti, Romania, made by B-24s on August 1, 1943. On June 10, 1944, a formation of 36 P-38s carrying 1,000-pound bombs was sent to Ploesti, escorted by 39 other P-38s not carrying bombs. Twenty-three Lightnings were lost on this disastrous mission, many to the deadly flak that made Ploesti second only to Berlin as the most heavily defended target in Europe.

The P-38 was also badly needed in the Pacific War, but the low priority of the theater kept the twin-engine fighter out of the region until late in 1942. The first American fighter squadrons in the Pacific were equipped with the Bell P-39 Airacobra and the P-40, both of which were decidedly inferior to the best Japanese fighters.

When General George C. Kenney received his orders to report to Australia to assume command of air units in the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations, he asked General Henry H. Arnold for P-38s to replace the older designs. Kenney also asked for a particularly aggressive young lieutenant named Richard Ira Bong who he had called on the carpet for unauthorized low-altitude aerobatics in a P-38, including looping the loop around the Golden Gate Bridge. Bong would later become the U.S. ace of aces with 40 confirmed kills in a P-38.

When the first P-38s arrived in Australia, they were discovered to have some design problems, and their combat debut was delayed. But by late 1942, P-38s had replaced some of the P-39s in the 35th Fighter Group and were soon to make their presence known to the Japanese in the skies over New Guinea. The 49th Fighter Group was still equipped with P-40s but would soon transition to the Lightning as well.