The nagging thought returned as I crossed the English Channel: ‘Did I make the right choice?’ As CO of the 352nd Fighter Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group flying the P-47 Thunderbolt, beside and behind me at 26,000ft were an additional 15 olive drab P-47s containing pilots for whose lives I was responsible.
The P-47, although huge in comparison to other Allied fighters, was a delight to fly. With its big Pratt & Whitney R-2800 out front, it was intimidating at first, but once inside this spacious cockpit the ‘Jug’ was a real honest airplane, stable and easy to fly at all altitudes. The P-47 was also an excellent gun platform, both in aerial combat and its desired use as a high-speed strafer.
In the air-to-air combat arena, the ‘Jug’s’ major advantage was that it was considerably faster in a dive than the Bfl09 and Fwl90. However, once at low altitude, it had a marginal turning radius, and in such situations pilot experience and skill were the deciding factors between life and death. The ‘Jug’ also carried its own set of trump cards, the first being the R-2800 engine, which always seemed to get us home no matter how much had been shot out of it. The second was the rugged construction of the airframe, which could take an extreme amount of battle damage yet still fly on as if it were just missing a chip of paint.
I re-focused on the task at hand, leading my flight in a ‘Jug’ named Butch. I picked this name because it was a more refined version of ‘Butcher’, which I hoped would be the role of the aircraft in combat. We were getting closer to the rendezvous point. Assigned with escorting the lead force of B-l7s to Schweinfurt, my flight picked up our bomber formation in mid-Channel and made landfall in the Dutch Walcheren Island area.
Our intention was to stay with the bombers as long as our fuel status allowed. I had hoped to take the B-l7s as far as the Rhine but the ever-changing German tactics had something else in mind. Their scenario called for Luftwaffe fighters to attack the Allied fighters as our formation reached the coast, the goal being to separate all the Allied fighter escorts from the bombers. The bombers would have to proceed unescorted into a gauntlet of German fighters that lay in wait.
There they were, unmistakable — 20 Bfl09s coming at us from the north-east. The l09s were above us and began their headlong dive to attack. Now l6 P-47s turned into the threat and accelerated to meet the enemy. Airplanes were everywhere as the melee intensified. At one point I saw a l09 on the tail of a fellow P-47. I called for the distressed ‘Jug’ to break and dive. As he did, the l09 followed, and then broke off and began to climb. As I dived on the unsuspecting l09, letting loose with my guns at close range, I observed many bullet strikes, structural disintegration and an explosion. Oil covered my windshield as the l09 entered a spin.
The initial attack was completely broken up, with four enemy aircraft destroyed and no losses to my squadron. Unfortunately for the bombers, they had to continue on without us due to our fuel constraints. What lay ahead for them was pure hell. Over 60 were shot down as they made their way to the target. That nagging thought in my head never returned. I knew I was flying an airplane that would help turn the tide.
Much thought was given by the high command about the disastrous Schweinfurt mission. Although we were primarily tasked with bomber escorts, the ‘Jug’ would now be utilised as the best all-round strafer and fighter-bomber in the ETO. VIII Fighter Command had a new-found aggressive attitude towards German fighters, both in the air and on the ground, and our group employed revised tactics with an improved P-47.
In the spring of l944, our group began to receive this new, more powerful version. This ‘Jug’ contained water injection at the heart of the R-2800, boosting the available horsepower. A clear bubble-top canopy replaced the ‘razorback’ look, allowing for greater all-around vision. The use of paddle blade props added to the refinements. I christened my new mount [P-47D-25-RE serial 42-26459] Butch II and adapted a different colour scheme.
We had been asked more and more as a group to operate at low level, not only against targets of opportunity when returning from escort missions but also on an increasing number of specific dive-bombing sorties. As a result, I thought it a good idea to have my ‘Jug’ painted in European camouflage so it would be harder to see on the deck. The idea was to use RAF Spitfire colours, but our paint crew used more grey and the total effect was somewhat different. The ‘Jug’ really stood out from the crowd when invasion stripes were added.
June l944 was a very busy month for the 353rd Fighter Group. Most missions were low-level. Armed with bombs designed to isolate the invasion area, we suppressed airfield activity, destroyed bridges and interdicted any ground vehicle movements in our assigned corridor. On D-Day, each squadron had the task of keeping eight aircraft in the area from dusk to dawn. I flew two missions that day with much success, but six days later I almost swallowed some poisonous German bait.
On l2 June l944, we had just finished tearing up and bombing the airfield at Evreux just west of Paris when I observed a fast-moving train proceeding east-bound. Not wanting to let it go unscathed, I began my dive onto the target. Eight machine guns barked in unison as tracer rounds flashed across the freight cars. As I passed over the train at about l00ft, throttle to the wall, I began my climb out for another go. I didn’t notice the flat car rigged with folding sides and a canvas top hiding twin 20mm anti-aircraft guns. As I roared overhead, large tracer rounds began to streak over my canopy less than a foot away. I stomped down hard on the rudder, skidding the aircraft and pushing the nose down forcibly. Luckily I was not hit as I flew away.
Others in our squadron encountered similar threats. One ‘Jug’ pilot brought home some ‘souvenirs’ after flying through a farmhouse chimney. The aircraft was covered with oil, the windscreen opaque. When he landed back, six bricks were found embedded in the cowling and one cylinder head was completely detached, proving once again the attributes that made the P-47 ideal for ground support.