Robin Olds – September 18, 1944

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Maj. (later Brig.Gen.) Robin Olds. 434th Fighter Squadron. P-51D 44-##### L2-W “Scat VI”. Original artwork by Fred Hayner. Profile by Nick King

Shuddering violently, the P-51 bit into the thin air and continued to climb. The pilot winced; he knew that the vibration was from his supercharger, but he still didn’t like the sound. The results were hard to beat, though, and he leaned forward a bit as the fighter passed 21,000 feet. As he bunted over a few seconds later, his butt came off the chute pack and mist spat out of the air-conditioning vents.

There!

Three distinct groups of dark flecks against the puffy clouds, about five miles away. Focke-Wulf 190 fighters. A little lower than him and not turning toward the flight of four Mustangs. He’d seen it before: they were going directly for the lumbering, slow-moving bombers. Unlike other escort missions he’d been on, these B-24s were loaded with supplies, not bombs. Operation Market Garden, an enormous Allied airborne assault, had begun the day before.

Forty thousand British and American paratroopers had been dropped along Highway 69 in Holland; the Americans were to take the bridges at Eindhoven and Nijmegen while the British 1st Airborne and the Polish Brigade would take Arnhem. Capt. Robin Olds shook his head, staring at the distant German fighters. Maybe it would work. He was a fighter pilot, not a ground pounder, but trying to move tens of thousands of troops along a single narrow road didn’t seem a great idea. Then, of course, the poor Brits and Poles landed right on top of two SS panzer divisions that had been put in Arnhem for a rest. Talk about a bad break . . .

Which was why he was here right now. The lightly armed paratroopers were running out of food, medical supplies, and, above all, ammunition. So these B-24s had to get through. As the radio erupted with chatter, he shoved his goggles up and squinted up at the deep blue sky. That was where the threat would be—the new German jet. From higher up and incredibly, unbelievably fast.

Sunlight flashed off metal to his left as the P-51s closest to the bombers ramped over and dove at the Focke-Wulfs. The 190 was an awesome aircraft, tough, fast, and heavily armed with four 20 mm cannons plus two 12.7 mm machine guns. In the right hands it was a match for his Mustang below 20,000 feet. And one just never knew these days. It was either a novice who could barely fire his guns or one of the experten, aces with years of combat experience. His job this September morning was covering the high ground against any Messerschmitts that showed up. Again, you just never knew.

Glancing down, Olds reached around the stick and touched a toggle switch on the console. It was up, where it should be, in the GUNS CAMERA & SIGHT position that armed his weapons and filmed whatever he shot. The glowing yellow dot on the combining glass could be activated with the camera for training, and it all looked the same. He wouldn’t be the first pilot to squeeze the trigger and have nothing happen because the damn switch was in the wrong position.

Methodically scanning the sky, he then glanced at the line of fighters floating loosely nearly four miles above the earth. Most retained their silver paint on the top surfaces except for a dark strip along the cowling to the cockpit. Some had the rudders painted olive drab, and a few were solid green. The rudder bars and spinners were either red or yellow depending on the squadron, and most of the 18-inch alternating black and white invasion stripes had been removed by now. It didn’t matter; they were beautiful planes. It always amazed him how motionless flying seemed to be unless you were passing a cloud or looking down at the ground.

Or in a dogfight.

Up ahead a deadly spiderweb of tracers began streaking over, into, and below the bomber formation. Darting black specks merged like a swarm of gnats and began twisting together. A bright flash popped from the mess and a fighter dropped away, burning and trailing black smoke. Then another . . . and another. His headset was alive with voices: excited yelling from the new guys and much calmer, terse directives from the veterans, who sometimes didn’t say anything at all.

Suddenly the Mustang to his left sparkled brilliantly, and he flinched, surprised, as it staggered, pieces breaking loose and fluttering away. As he opened his mouth to call out, a mottled, torpedo-shaped plane flashed past overhead, heading for the bombers.

The jet!

Actually, there were two of them. He shoved the throttle forward and dumped his nose to follow, keying the mike at the same time.

“Roundtree Lead . . . Greenhouse Yellow One’s got bandits . . . your seven o’clock level . . . inbound fast . . . jets!”

Like a thoroughbred out of the gate, the Mustang surged ahead as the Packard Merlin engine spun up. Jettisoning his own wing tanks, Olds looked left to see his wingmen do the same as the big 12-foot prop bit hard into the thin air.

“Gre—Yellow Two is hit! Hit . . . I’m . . .”

The pilot clicked his mike and shot a glance at the map on his kneeboard for an approximate position. Close to Maastricht . . . it was the best he could do. In a matter of seconds the P-51 accelerated past 400 knots, and he stared through the clear bubble canopy at the mess before him. The bombers had all turned north toward Arnhem, and he could see a few Mustangs in the vicinity. The rest were all below him, wrapped up with the Germans. Black smoke trails hung in the air, most curving straight down, but others streamed away east and west as wounded fighters tried to make it back home.

One of the B-24s was spinning in, and another looked like it had lost most of its right wing. The jets had slashed through the bomber formation then disappeared. Below to his right a dark, compact fighter turned wildly with three . . . no, four Mustangs. The yellow cowling on the Focke-Wulf was plain to see as the skillful pilot pirouetted away from the other planes. Kicking the rudder, Olds skidded his Mustang sideways and was about to jump in from above when he caught movement off to the east.

The jet again. This time he could only see one.

“Greenhouse Yellow One . . . tally bandit . . . three o’clock level . . . ah, three miles . . .”

Flipping the P-51 over, he sliced to the right as his two surviving wingmen rolled and maneuvered to stay with him. The Me 262 was about three miles away, sliding across the horizon like a cruising shark. As he watched, the thing cranked up on one wing and turned in toward the bombers.

“Yellow Three, tally one . . .”

The Liberators were heading due north. Racing in from the southeast was the jet, and the three Mustangs were right in the middle. With a combined closing velocity of 1,400 feet per second, there was less than ten seconds until firing range—no time for anything fancy.

Ten . . . nine. . .

And the German never hesitated.

Aiming straight at him, Robin Olds stared through the glass reflector of his gunsight. He’d already set the dial at 35 feet to account for the Focke-Wulf’s wingspan and didn’t bother to change it. The jet was a little bigger, but it wouldn’t matter. His throttle was all the way forward, and Olds pushed it hard enough to feel the safety wire break. It moved another two inches, and five seconds of emergency power boosted the Merlin up to maximum power. This was only used in combat, since it could, and did, burn up engines.

Six . . . five. . .

He also twisted the throttle grip counterclockwise till the range indicator read 2,400 feet. The yellow aiming pipper stayed as it was, but the circle formed by the six surrounding diamonds shrank as the range setting was increased. The K-14 gyroscopic gunsight was a marvel that compensated for bullet drop and calculated the lead required for deflection shots. All the pilot had to do was put the pipper on the target, twist the grip until the diamonds matched the wingspan, and open fire.

Three . . . two . . .

Left hand rock steady on the throttle and his right hand on the stick, the pilot instinctively nudged the controls to keep the pipper on the deadly-looking fighter. What a strange plane—no props.

One . . .

Robin kept the pipper on the pointed nose and hammered down, the Mustang instantly vibrating against the recoil of six .50-caliber machine guns. Older P-51s had dangerous jamming problems because the guns were mounted sideways so they’d fit inside the wings. Not so with this Mustang; all six guns were electrically boosted to fire 1,200 rounds per minute per gun. The tracers streaked out, and even as Olds let up, the German’s nose sparkled as he fired in return.

Olds quit firing, his two-second burst having sent more than 120 rounds at the other plane. Pushing over savagely, he kicked the left rudder and twitched the stick, skidding the P-51 down and right as the German’s shells went exactly where he’d just been.

The 262 zipped past, and the Mustang pilot corkscrewed his fighter around, nose low, and pulled. Taking a deep breath against the g’s, he felt the air bladders on his new Berger G suit inflate and for once was grateful to be wearing the damn thing. Both wingmen cross-turned above him, then sliced back to bring their noses to bear.

With the stick back in his lap, Olds brought the nose around in the direction of the bombers to cut off the jet, but he wasn’t there! Blinking against the glare, he swallowed. Not there. Then he saw the smoke. A thin, dark gray trail that curved around to the south. Reversing the turn, he followed the smoke with his eyes and saw the jet. Two miles away already and arcing toward the ground, now heading southeast, back toward Germany.

“Ya got ’em, Yellow One . . .”

Well . . . a piece of him, anyway.

His number three man sounded relieved. Fighting something that different was disconcerting, especially after being told the Mustang was the best fighter in the world. And the men flying the jets were no novices; the Messerschmitts were too valuable for that.

Olds shook his head and watched a second longer before banking smoothly around to the north. Pulling the throttle back, he set a cruise speed of about 350 knots and glanced over the gauges: oil pressure, rpm, and especially coolant. All good. Exhaling, he checked his fuel and then the rounds counter to see how many shells were left. Everything was fine.

For a brief moment Robin Olds felt everything: heart thudding against his chest, the deep throb of the big Merlin engine, and his quick breathing slowly returning to normal. Cool air from the vents was drying the sweat on his neck, and the pilot sighed, shaking his head. He would’ve loved to send the German down in flames and watch that beautiful jet break apart under his guns. To fight and not kill was frustrating.

But if the Mustangs hadn’t been there, then the Messerschmitt would’ve shredded those bombers and everything they carried would be lost. Squirming against the harness, he took a deep breath and shrugged. It was enough this time. And besides, Robin thought as he smiled under the mask, there would be other Germans on another day.

There always were.

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“In Scat III, Olds shot down two Fw-190s following a low-level bridge-bombing mission to Montmirail, France, on August 14. Eleven days later he and his wingman became separated from the group on an escort mission to Berlin, and attacked a large gaggle of Bf-109s, estimated at 50 or more in number. Despite severe battle damage to his own plane, including loss of a side window of its canopy, Olds shot down two during the dogfight and another on the way home to become an ace. He made eight claims while flying the P-38 </span> (five of which are credited by the Air Force Historical Research Agency) and was originally credited as the top-scoring P-38 pilot of the ETO.”

The 479th FG converted to the P-51 Mustang in mid-September and Olds scored his first kill in his new Scat V on October 6. Promoted to major on February 9, 1945, he claimed his seventh victory southeast of Magdeburg, Germany the same day, downing another Bf-109. On February 14, he claimed three victories, two Bf-109s and an Fw-190, but the latter was later changed to a “probable”.

His final aerial kill occurred on April 7, 1945, when Olds in Scat VI led the 479th Fighter Group on a mission escorting B-24s bombing an ammunition dump in Lüneburg, Germany. The engagement marked the only combat appearance of Sonderkommando Elbe, a Luftwaffe geschwader formed to ram Allied bombers. South of Bremen, Olds noticed contrails popping up above a bank of cirrus clouds, of aircraft flying above and to the left of the bombers. For five minutes these bogies paralleled the bomber stream while the 479th held station. Turning to investigate, Olds saw pairs of Me 262s turn towards and dive on the Liberators. After damaging one of the jets in a chase meant to lure the fighter escort away from the bombers, the Mustangs returned to the bomber stream. Olds observed an Me 109 of Sonderkommando Elbe attack the bombers and shoot down a B-24, pursued it through the formation, and shot it down.

Olds achieved the bulk of his strafing credits the following week in attacks on Lübeck Blankensee and Tarnewitz airdromes on April 13, and Reichersburg airfield in Austria on April 16, when he destroyed six Luftwaffe planes on the ground. He later reflected on the hazards of such missions:

“I was hit by flak as I was pulling out of a dive-strafing pass on an airfield called Tarnewitz, up on the Baltic. Five P-51s made a pass on the airdrome that April day. I was the only one to return home…When I tested the stall characteristics of my wounded bird over our home airfield, I found it quit flying at a little over 175 mph indicated and rolled violently into the dead wing (note: the right flap had been blown away and two large holes knocked in the same wing). What to do? Bailout seemed the logical response, but here’s where sentiment got in the way of reason. That airplane (note: “Scat VI”) had taken me through a lot and I was damned if I was going to give up on her…why the bird and I survived the careening, bouncing and juttering ride down the length of the field, I guess I’ll never know.”

Olds had not only risen in rank to field grade but was given command of his squadron on March 25, less than two years out of West Point and at only 22 years of age. By the end of his combat tour he was officially credited with 12 German planes shot down and 11.5 others destroyed on the ground.