MUSTANG MEN

Keith Ferris‘ painting, Nowotny’s Final Encounter, depicting the event over Achmer on Nov. 8, 1944, when 1st Lt. Edward R. “Buddy” Haydon [1] of the 357th Fighter Group surprised Major Walter Nowotny, the 23 year old Kommodore of his own operation jet unit, Kommando Nowotny.

At the start of November 1944, no fewer than seven P-47 Thunderbolt pilots had achieved success against Me 262s: Joseph Myers and Manford Croy on August 28; Richard Conner and Ben Drew on October 1; Huie Lamb on October 25; and Walter Groce and William Gerbe on November 1. The newly arrived P-51 Mustang was marking its mark in profound ways, but had not yet bagged a jet.

This would be no easy task for the Mustang men. In early 1944, German defenses were formidable. Under the command of Gen. Gunter Korten, the Luftwaffe pulled back many of its far-flung fighter squadrons to defend the Reich. The Eighth Air Force’s primary targets, German centers of production and operation, were ringed by hundreds of deadly 88mm antiaircraft guns. The morale of the German citizenry on the ground was high.

On November 6, 1944, some P-47s were still in the air—one piloted by 1st Lt. William J. Quinn who was the next Thunderbolt pilot to be credited with a kill of an Me 262. But most of the action took place when four combat groups of the newly arrived P-51 Mustangs escorted B-24 Liberator heavy bombers near Minden, Germany. Although one Mustang was lost near Minden, it was not in air-to-air combat. Major Robert Foy of the 357th Fighter Group, “The Yoxford Boys,” was leading the Mustang formation. When the Me 262s arrived in force, the Mustang men were ready for them. Foy tangled with them inconclusively.

Air ace Capt. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager of the 357th Fighter Group—who had been previously shot down, evaded capture, and returned to combat—became the first P-51 Mustang pilot to chalk up a score. In his after-action report, Yeager wrote: “I was leading ‘Cement White Flight’ when north of Osnabrück we spotted three Me 262s going 280 degrees to us at about two o’clock, low. We were at 10,000 feet. I and my flight turned to the right and headed the last man off. I got a hit or two on him before he pulled away. They were flying a loose V-formation and they did not take any evasive action, but seemed to depend on their superior speed. They pulled out of range in the haze.

“We were flying along in overcast, which was very thin and the edge of it was over to the right, altitude about 5,000 feet. I went under it and flew along for a minute or two and I met them head-on again only they were now flying at about 2,000 feet. I split-S’ed on the leader and they all separated. I fired a high deflection burst from above on the leader, got behind him and was pulling 75 inches of mercury and indicating 430 miles per hour. I fired two or three bursts and got hits on the fuselage and wings from 300 yards, then he pulled away and went into the haze where I lost him.

“In this engagement I lost the rest of the flight and found myself alone. I climbed to 8,000 feet and headed north. I found a large airfield with black runways about 6,000 feet long and started flying around it. [He was referring to the base at Achmer.] I got a few bursts of flak, but it was very inaccurate.

“I spotted a lone 262 approaching the field from the south at 500 feet. Flak started coming up very thick and accurate. I fired a short burst at him from about 400 yards and got hits on the wings. I had to break off at 300 yards because the flak was getting too close. I broke straight up, looked back, and saw the enemy jet aircraft crash-land about 400 yards short of the field in a wooded area. A wing flew off outside the right jet, but the plane did not burn.”

Yeager’s opponent appears to have been one Oberfeldwebel (First Sgt.) Freutzer, whose first name is lost to history, although Fruetzer survived the encounter and walked away from his wrecked jet.

Yeager, of course, would go on to serve as a postwar test pilot flying dozens of aircraft types that were strongly influenced by wartime German designs. Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight at Muroc, California, in the Bell XS-1 rocket plane is the first recorded supersonic flight, although an Me 262 pilot named Hans Guido Mutke, whom we will meet soon, did not think so. Yeager’s success against an Me 262 in the airfield pattern brought a visit to Achmer the next day—November 7, 1944—by the ubiquitous and often angry Generalleutnant (Maj. Gen.) Adolf “Dolfo” Galland. The German fighter leader had cordial talks with Maj. Walter “Nowi” Nowotny, whom he’d hand-picked to lead history’s first fighter jet unit, but was annoyed that Kommando Nowotny hadn’t followed the practice of keeping a patrol of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s in the air to protect the Me 262s during their vulnerable period when taking off and landing. For various reasons, the long-nosed Fw 190D-9 “Dora” fighters never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Galland believed that many in the fledgling Me 262 force were unaware of how big a target they’d become, or how important the Fw 190 support mission was.

The FW 190D-9s were stationed at Achmer and nearby Hesepe. The idea was that the Focke-Wulfs would prowl above the airfields and form a shield between marauding Mustangs, Tempests, and Typhoons, and the Me 262s when taking off and landing. But the Fw 190D-9 pilots were in a separate unit and underestimated their adversary. Nowotny and others initially believed they needed as few as six Fw 190D-9s in the air to provide adequate protection and that the Focke-Wulfs could achieve their purpose flying very short sorties. In one air battle shortly before Galland’s arrival, P-51 pilots of the 78th Fighter Group, who outnumbered the Focke-Wulfs forty to six, shot down several of the “Doras,” and damaged others. The plan wasn’t working. Galland made it clear he wanted larger numbers of the Focke-Wulfs in the air for longer periods to coincide with jet operations in the airfield pattern.

Over coffee in Nowotny’s hut, Galland expressed his concern that the Allies had identified Me 262 bases and were singling them out for attention. Galland also had to tell his handpicked wing commander that he could do little or nothing about a serious shortage of J-2 jet aviation fuel. The bombing campaign was disrupting the flow of all fuel, everywhere, and the jet force would continue to be directly impacted.

Both sides were making a maximum effort in the air battles over Europe on November 8, 1944. To the German side it was part of what the Luftwaffe called “The Big Blow,” a maximum effort to put as many as one thousand fighters into the sky to confront oncoming American bombers. Galland followed the action from the radio shack at Achmer.

Oberleutnant (1st Lt.) Franz Schäll engaged 1st Lt. Warren Corwin and mixed it up in a close-quarters maneuvering contest. Corwin made the mistake of pulling a sharp turn in front of the Me 262, and his Mustang was torn apart by shells from Schäll’s guns. Some of his wingmen heard Corwin cry out, “This jet job got me!” First Lieutenant James W. Kenney, nearby, should have heard the transmission but didn’t. Neither Corwin nor the wreckage of his Mustang has ever been found.

Kenney shot down an Me 262 with short bursts and photographed its pilot dangling from a yellow parachute. Second Lieutenant Anthony Maurice also shot down an Me 262 while 1st Lt. Ernest C. “Feeb” Fiebelkorn Jr. and 1st Lt. Edward “Buddy” Haydon combined their skills to shoot down another. But it was left for 1st Lt. Richard W. Stevens of the 364th Fighter Group to rack up the most important tally of the day. While Galland listened on the radio, Nowotny talked of being under attack by a Mustang—it was Stevens—and of his left engine being damaged. “My god, I’m burning!” were the last four words ever spoken by Maj. Walter Nowotny. Galland burst out of the radio shack in time to see Nowotny’s jet crash. Galland and others rushed to the scene in a car, but it was too late. It was the only sortie on which Nowotny was not wearing his storied “victory pants.” On his death, Galland promoted Hauptmann (Capt.) Georg-Pete Eder to command the unit, but Kommando Nowotny never reached its potential: it claimed twenty-two Allied aircraft shot down in exchange for twenty-six Me 262s before the Kommando was withdrawn for further training and a revision of combat tactics to optimize the Me 262’s strengths. The unit was broken up with most of its pilots going to Jagdgeschwader 7, or JG 7, the first jet line unit. Kommando Nowotny essentially became part of JG 7.

[1] While the evidence is strong that Stevens got Nowotny, some sources credit the kill to Haydon and Fiebelkorn, while British pilots believed for years that Nowotny was bagged by a Typhoon. The credit to Stevens appears to be the best case that historians can make, however.

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