By the beginning of March 1944 the Eighth Air Force considered itself in a position to undertake a daylight strike on Berlin, the most heavily defended target in Germany. This would be a very dangerous mission for all the crews involved and fraught with danger. The actual attack took place on March 6, 1944. A total of 563 B-17 Flying Fortresses and 249 B-24 Liberators were assigned to the mission to bomb Berlin. The 1st Bomb Division, with 301 B-17s in five Wing formations, was to attack the VKF ball-bearing factory at Erkner, the third largest plant of its kind in Germany. The 2nd Bomb Division, with 249 B-24 Liberators in three Wing formations, was to bomb the Daimler-Benz works at Genshagen, then turning out more than a thousand aero engines per month. The 3rd Bomb Division, with 262 B-17s in six Wing formations, was to strike at the Bosch factory at Klein Machnow, which manufactured electrical equipment for aircraft and military vehicles. It was a lengthy penetration of enemy airspace – some 800 miles from the Dutch coast to Berlin and back. Te success and the number of bombers able to not only reach their target but return would depend on the escorting fighters to ward off attacks by German fighters. Fifteen Groups of P-38 Lightnings, P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs of the Eighth Air Force, four Groups of Thunderbolts and Mustangs of the Ninth Air Force and three squadrons of RAF Mustangs. Which gave a total of 691 fighters were to support the operation. After they had covered the bombers’ initial penetration, the plan called for 130 Thunderbolts to return to the base, refuel and re-arm, then return to eastern Holland to cover the final part of the bombers’ withdrawal. Numerically, the escorting force was quite formidable. However, two factors put limits on the number of escorts in position to protect the bombers if they came under attack. The first factor was the limited radius of action of the escorts. Even with drop tanks they could only fly in a straight line to penetrate deep into Germany. The bombers moved at a much slower speed than the fighters, which called for a zig zag flight pattern to ensure the fighters were not flying too slow. This added to the distance the escort fighters would actually fly.
The P-47 was inferior to the Bf109 and FW190 at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, and the German aircraft also had a much better rate of climb. The P-47 was rather sluggish near ground level and a top speed of barley 310mph.As soon as the P-47 got above 15,000 feet its performance steadily improved and between 25,000 and 30,000 feet it actually surpassed the Bf109G and FW190A in all areas except rate of climb and acceleration. Its weight being the greatest hindrance, weighing twice as much as a Bf109 and FW190. Its excellent exhaust driven superturbocharger was what gave the P-47 engine its power at high altitudes. This excellent high altitude performance, and dive speed, proved to be assets that we could use to counter the FW190 and Bf109 threat. By flying above enemy fighters, we could swoop down at high speed, and even if the enemy fighters tried to celebrate – we could still catch them up. Think of the P-47 as a rugged beast with a sound radial engine to pull you along, with heavy firepower – enough to chew up an opponent at close range. It accelerated poorly though and climbed not much better. A P-47 took twenty minutes to climb to 30,000 feet from near ground level, compared to around 11 minutes for a Bf109G and 14 minutes for a FW190A.
But once at a high altitude, and with a high cruising speed the P-47 could more than match the opposition. The rate of roll and maneuverability were good at high speed. Our attack plan was always to swoop down and then get back up to a high level, ready for the next attack. Get pulled below 15,000 feet and it was almost suicidal. Although later on in the war the P-47s low altitude performance was improved with paddle blade propellers and water injection in early 1944. For now we had to ensure we kept ourselves at around 30,000 feet when approaching the enemy coastline. This ensured we were above the optimum altitude of the 109 and 190.
We had taken off from Britain just over two hours ago, found ourselves over Germany, keeping ever vigilant for enemy fighters, that would soon be vectored in to intercept us. Sure enough, on the horizon a series of small dots appeared and these would be enemy fighters, most likely FW190s.
I hit the throttle and we swooped down to meet a gaggle of approaching FW190s. Making use of the P-47s ability to dive quickly we raced towards them, trying to head off their attack on the bomber stream. With only a few wispy clouds in the sky, visibility was excellent.
As I drew close to my intended 190 target on his six, he abandoned his flight and turned to face me rather than be hit side on and trapped. However, I was too close behind him now, and I simply followed him in the turn, hoping he would not out turn me, before I had had a chance to line up my sights and let off a burst of fire.
He was almost in the circle of my gun sights as I got my finger ready to press the trigger. The FW190 was in my sight for a split second and in the same instance, I pressed the firing button and let off a short burst from the eight, M2 Browning machine guns. I saw some of the rounds hit the 190 and little bits of metal fall off. A second later I heard several quite loud bangs behind me, almost like popcorn, popping off, mixed with the sound of rain on a tin roof. I then realized I had been hit from behind. The loud bang was probably cannon round hitting me. All I could do was break off the attack and pull the control column with all my might to turn in the opposite direction. It was a wasted effort my attacker had already flashed by below and ahead, and I now saw him wheeling to come back, his black crosses vivid on top of his wings as he appeared spread-eagled in a vertical turn. The FW190 was a formidable aircraft and in many ways superior to the P-47, whose strength lay in being very robust and the ability to make use of its weight and out dive many would be pursuers.
The attacking 190 must have dived on me and fired a shot as he went down past. I had been too focused, even for a split second to keep my situational awareness up and spot the threat. All I could do was do a quick check on my instruments and the bits of airframe I could see from the cockpit, to see if my P-47 was still in one piece and flyable. I was now in a full on dogfight, climbing, diving, rolling, and pirouetting in screaming vertical turns to gain an advantage over my opponent at each other. This was a true fight to the death dogfight, the 190 pilots were highly skilled and made full use of the 190. One moment, I would be maneuvering for my life to get away from a 190 who was almost on my tail, and in the next moment I would have one of them in the same situation and would be trying just as desperately to hold him long enough to get a shot off. On the odd occasions I broke free briefly, I would see bright flashes and puffs of white or black smoke in the air near me – shells from German anti-aircraft guns. The German batteries below had joined the fight and were shooting at me whenever they got a chance to do so without hitting their own machines. This went on for several minutes, before I finally managed to get one of the 190s all by themselves away for a few seconds. I was in an excellent firing position right on his tail. I kept on his tail as hard as it was – he was dodging wildly, expecting my bullets every second. I saw some tracer rounds fly over my port side wing, letting me know that the other FW190 was now on my tail, and again I had to make a violent breakaway, pushing both me and my aircraft almost to their g-limit. The P-47 had an excellent roll rate and I used this to my advantage. Rolling and diving away to evade the next hail of bullets blasting out from the 190.
It paid off and I once again was able to shake my pursuer. The mêlée continued. I was very hot and tired and sweaty, and was conscious of that more than of being scared. I could feel the fatigue of days upon days of endless flying on long missions and I knew this was affecting my ability to fly. My neck was sore from constantly looking around inside and outside of the cockpit, I could feel the warmth from the bright summer sunshine, piercing through my Perspex canopy. During those next few minutes I think I must have blacked out at least ten times in ever tighter turns. I remember starting to spin at least once from turning too violently. I wanted to flee, but, couldn’t get my directions straight because I was maneuvering so fast. My compass couldn’t help me unless I’d give it a chance to settle down. It was spinning like a top.
My final option was to dive right down to ground level and try to use my speed to flee. I was feeling quite disorientated and still needed to work out my direction of travel. For now that would have to wait until I had shook off my attackers. From 10,000 feet and pushed the control column forward d began my dive, soon picking up speed and leaving the two 190s behind. The P-47 began to feel heavier and heavier on the controls, but I knew the greater the speed the greater distance I could put between my attackers. I felt as though I was running away from a fight, but in reality I was saving myself and bombers, by drawing the 190s away from them. As I dropped to around 2,000 feet, I pulled back on the heavy control column and initially nothing happened, then slowly the nose began to pull up. At 500 feet above the ground, I was now level and streaking across the German countryside at low level.
Once my compass had settled back down, I was able to realize that I only needed to turn 70 degrees to be on the correct heading for home. It was a lonely flight home, with the odd bit of ground fire coming my way, but nothing that actually hit me.
When I came into land at my airbase I found that the trimming controls for my tail had been hit. The wheels actuating them spun loosely, so I knew the cables must have snapped. On landing I taxied to one end of the field and onto the hard standing area. Ground crew swarmed over my P-47 the moment I had come to a standstill and shut the engine down. The ground crew began to examine my handy work, and it was easy to see that it had been struck by an exploding cannon shell, as I had thought. The shell had blown a fairly large hole in one side of the fuselage toward the rudder was big enough to put your whole arm through. The control cables, which ran close by where the shell had hit, were in bad shape, I had been lucky that they had not snapped during the dogfight or on the journey home. In addition to the trimming control cables being broken, the main elevator and rudder cables were also nearly severed by the blast. The bottom of the plane was littered with bits of light shrapnel from the shell and there was a myriad of small holes on the opposite side to where the shell had hit and pieces of shrapnel had been blasted out. My P-47 would need to be patched up, but yet gain had shown its ability to withstand a fair amount of punishment and continue to engage in a deadly dogfight.
Captain John Tilley