WORLD WAR II WITHOUT MUSTANGS

That newspaper article was never written, but it could have been. The reason for its non-appearance at the height of the Second World War can be summarized in one word: Mustangs.

In the two decades before the war, the Army Air Corps developed the theory and practice of strategic bombing. Because there were no long-range fighters, the necessary concept arose around the self-defending bomber, a flying fortress, so to speak, that would escort itself. Thus, the lack of a technology drove the emerging doctrine: the technological tail wagging the doctrinal doggie.

The concept didn’t work. It was demonstrated in Spain 1936-1939, and forcibly driven home over England in the summer of 1940, when the Luftwaffe recognised the need for substantial fighter escort to protect its light and medium bombers. The German Schnellbomber (fast bomber) worked no better than the American fortress because no Luftwaffe bombers were faster than British fighters.

Therefore, imagine an AAF in late 1943 with no Merlin-powered P-5 Is. No single-engine fighters with the range and performance to engage Luftwaffe fighters on even terms or better. The Lockheed P-38, though relatively long-legged, seldom could compete with single-engine opponents at altitudes above 25,000 feet, where the bombers flew. Technical problems with Lightnings’ Allison engines only aggravated the situation.

An air force is built around the concept of attrition: a mathematical calculation based upon the loss rate of particular aircraft over a defined period. Typically, it ran 4% of effective sorties, a barely sustainable rate. But in the summer and fall of 1943, the Eighth Air Force in Britain suffered spectacular losses on some deep-penetration missions. The notorious strikes against aircraft plants at Regensburg and Schweinfurt reached 15% losses, approaching 20%. At that rate, it was statistically impossible for a bomber crew to survive a 25-mission tour. Consequently, the entire concept of daylight heavy bombardment was called into question.

And not only in Britain. In November 1943, the 15th Air Force was established in Italy, aimed at Romanian oil fields that provided about one-third of the Weh-rmacht’s fuel. The P-38 and P-47 groups lacked the range to take the bombers all the way to Ploesti, Vienna, and other significant targets, so the 15th’s bombers received only penetration and withdrawal support—usually none over the most heavily defended targets themselves.

In reality, the Eighth received Merlin Mustangs in February 1944 and the 15th two to three months later, with war-winning results. Bomber attrition dropped while Luftwaffe fighter losses soared.

But absent the Mustang, how would the European air war have developed? We’ll never know for certain, but it would not have been pretty.

Three options immediately arise:

1. The AAF would have increased bomber production beyond the actual Olympian level (12,000 B-17s and 18,000 B-24s from 1941-45) and absorbed the increased losses in planes and crews. 2. America would have abandoned its cherished doctrine of high-altitude daylight bombing in favor of the British solution—night area bombing, with less accuracy and still significant losses. (RAF Bomber Command suffered more than three times the ratio of aircrew killed and captured versus the Eighth Air Force.)

3. A rush project would have arisen in 1943, likely to extend the range of the P-38 and/or P-47, or (less likely) to develop something like the P-51 from scratch.

Various factors have been attributed to the P-38’s marginal success as a bomber escort in Europe. ETO and MTO Lightnings often flew at higher altitudes than their Pacific counterparts, and the extreme cold certainly had an effect. The quality of fuel available in Britain has been blamed for part of the Allison’s problems there, and the J model’s 12 percent greater power over previous variants led to maintenance problems. However, Charles Lindbergh’s cruise control technique that extended P-38 range in the Pacific during 1944 might have succeeded over Europe.

Perhaps the P-47N would have been conceived and rushed through texting in late 1943 rather than flying in September 1944 and entering service in the summer of ’45. The «Pacific Thunderbolt» certainly had all the range needed to escort the heavies to Berlin and beyond. The actual total of 1,800 N models undoubtedly would have been far exceeded if the ultimate T-bolt had been drafted into service in the European and Mediterranean theaters.

Lack of the P-51 in the Pacific would not have made a significant difference. Even after Mustangs began operating from Iwo Jima in early 1945, their presence over Japan bore little effect upon B-29 operations, as Japanese fighters were largely ineffective against Superforts. Most Mustang missions were strike missions rather than escorts. As already noted, arrival of the P-47N provided long-range escorts in 1945.

In the China-Burma-India Theater, Merlin Mustangs entered combat in mid-1944 but never fully replaced the P-40 series.

One intriguing prospect remains. At least two wartime joint fighter conferences pitted Army and Navy aircraft against each other, flown by military and factory pilots. In the May 1943 event at Eglin Field, Florida, the original F4U-1 «bird cage» Corsair bested contemporary Army fighters including the P-38G, P-51 A, and P-47C.

At the NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, conference in 1944, the best fighters above 25,000 feet proved the P-47, P-51, and F4U, while below Angels 25 the Mustang and Corsair were a near tie. Therefore, without the P-51, it is conceivable that the AAF might have bought Corsairs until an interim Army type emerged. In fact, Col. Rex T. Barber of Yamamoto mission fame said, «If the United States had to pick one fighter-bomber to produce during the war, it should have been the Corsair.»

It’s diverting to speculate on the likely AAF designation for the Corsair. Apparently, the only unused numeral was 74, though if the Mustang had not existed, might the Vought have been the P-51?

My brain hurts.

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