Saturday 12 November 2022

What made D-Day possible? Republic P-47 Thunderbolt: my new favourite aeroplane...

Until recently I knew very little about the US-made P-47 Thunderbolt (nicknamed the Jug - for obvious reasons - it's not exactly pretty). It was the biggest and heaviest single-engine fighter of World War II; and the fastest (propeller) combat aircraft at high altitudes and in a dive.  

(P-47s were two or three times larger and heavier than most other well-known WWII fighters such as the Spitfire.) 

Overshadowed in public perception by Spitfires, Mustangs, Messerschmitt 109s, Focke-Wulf 190s and Mitsubishi Zero - the Thunderbolt was nonetheless a truly great aeroplane, and I have been convinced by Greg - of the superb YouTube channel Greg's Airplanes and Automobiles * - that the P-47 was, more than any other craft, responsible for making D-Day possible. 

Perhaps its only type-rival, in terms of war outcome influence; were the Hurricanes/ Spitfires (in that order) of the Battle of Britain.  

As Greg describes in this very detailed and primary-source-evidenced video...

(which is the last in a series of eight); in early 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt met to plan the invasion of Europe; and their Number One War Priority (officially - Greg shows us the document) was the establishment of air superiority in Western Europe: that is, the destruction of Luftwaffe functionality

Without near-total air superiority; the seaborne invasion of Western Europe (D-Day) could not have happened. But air superiority was established during the next year; and mostly by the Thunderbolts who were escorting the US heavy bombers in their daylight raids. 

It was P-47s that shot down and killed so many Luftwaffe pilots that - from 1944 onwards, the German's were only able to field less and less trained, less and less experienced pilots; who were more and more likely to be killed more quickly- in a down-spiral from which they could not escape. 

By the time of the D-Day invasion in June 1944, the thousands of ships needed to transport the hundreds of thousands of troops could cross the English Channel unmolested by aircraft.  

This is a fascinatingly different perspective than the usual one. I already knew that the doctrine of winning a major war by air bombing was false; and the truly colossal expenditure of highly trained men and expensive machines by UK Bomber Command was misplaced effort, that damaged the overall war capability of the UK. 

But the US daylight bombing campaign is also put into a different light. The US heavy bombers are now seem mainly to function as lures for the Luftwaffe to attack, in order that German planes could be destroyed (and, especially, their pilots killed) by the (mostly) Thunderbolts - which were specifically designed to operate at high levels, with their powerful supercharged and turbocharged radial engines. 

(In retrospect; it would have made more sense for the Germans to use only anti-aircraft Flak to attack the US bombers, rather than destroy the Luftwaffe and render themselves helpless by losing air superiority.)  

The Thunderbolts had several other advantages in this role. Their armament of eight half-inch calibre heavy machine guns provided a tremendous weight and spread of bullets (each bullet of which was four times the weight of the .303 rounds used by Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain). 

And the aircraft themselves were beloved by their pilots because they were exceptionally well protected from enemy fire (both by armour, and the sheer size of the surrounding aircraft); they were very strong, did not break up easily; and even when badly damaged could get the pilots back to safety in an almost miraculous fashion. 

So, despite their 'homely' appearance - for their combination of being a deadly weapon and a pilot's friend - I think I would rather have flown a Thunderbolt than any other of the single seat Allied day fighters of WWII.   

The Thunderbolts were gradually replaced by P-51 Mustangs in the long range bomber escort role (yet only after the Thunderbolts had done most of the 'heavy lifting' in Luftwaffe pilot destruction); but (as Greg makes clear) mainly because the Mustang was only one-third of the cost of a P-47; not because the Mustang was overall better at the job, which it wasn't.

(The P-51 was better than the P-47 in some relevant ways, but it was worse in others - as Greg evidences.)  

After air superiority was achieved; the P-47s were then used as ground-attack fighter bombers - and performed superbly in this role; probably better overall than their nearest rival, the Hawker Typhoon.   

But it is their decisive role in the crucial year from middle 1943 to the summer of 1944, doing a job that made possible the Western allies victory; that makes the Thunderbolt one of the most important warplanes ever. 

* I strongly recommend this channel - but need to point-out that it is very techie/ engineering based. For instance; Greg's most commonly used words seem to be 'manifold pressure'; which I gather is A Good Thing for prop-driven aircraft. 


Stephen Macdonald said...

Fascinating. My only real connection to this world is that my closest mate's dad flow the F4U-4 Corsair in the South Pacific, with 5 1/2 Zeros to his credit. As I understand it, the Corsair also took advantage of a huge engine, although mated to a smaller airframe than the "Jug" since it was designed to be carrier-based. Both of these aircraft are very impressive, although to me nothing can ever top the sheer beauty and grace of the Spitfire.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephen - I have long been very keen on the Corsair too; the Thunderbolt is a more recent craze. BTW they both had the same (basic) engine.

Epimetheus said...

That is an absolute beast of a plane. Look how small the pilot looks!

World War 2 aviation is especially fascinating, with gun-armed propeller-driven fighters and bombers developed to their highest state of technological innovation before the advent of the turbojet and the air-to-air missile. I like the pictures of late-war P-51 pilots flying with modern-looking oxygen masks.

Against all expectations, the airborne machine gun has not been rendered obsolete, and probably never will be. They discovered this in Vietnam - a fighter's small number of anti-air missiles, no matter how advanced, still need to be backed up by a large number of bullets. The same holds true of naval air-defense systems.

The tail-gunner concept held on for many decades after the war. The B-52 was credited for two tail-gunner kills of Migs in Vietnam using its .50 caliber quad-cannon, and the Soviets were still mounting their Gast guns up through the Cold War. If I'm not mistaken, the Russians still have them on their TU-95s, the "Bears", and also of special interest is the remotely-control tail-mounted autocannon on the supersonic(!) Tupolev TU-22M.

Howard Sutherland said...

The P-47 was a rugged beast, but if this old USAF fighter pilot had to go back in time and fly in the WW2 USAAF, I’d want to go to war in the P-51D Mustang. Better air-to-air machine: smaller, so harder to spot and harder to hit; superior power:weight ratio, so quicker, tighter turn and energy maneuverability; superior cockpit visibility; much less induced and parasite drag, so maintained airspeed and accelerated better; much better endurance, so superior range and ability to get home; ample firepower for its missions; faster in everything but a steep dive; late-model Merlin engine.
In air-to-ground, while perhaps not as good a bomber as the P-47, an excellent strafer - with a much smaller cross-section, so again harder to see and hit.
The P-51D was probably the ultimate refinement of piston fighters that actually saw action.
WW2 USAAF fighters I’d rather not fly include the P-40 and P-38. And the hapless Brewster Buffalo.
I sense you’re really a dive-bomber pilot at heart!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Howard - If you watch through some of Greg's P-47 videos, I think you would be surprised by some of it - including the Thunderbolt/ Mustang comparisons. There have been some lies told!

I'm certainly fascinated by dive-bombing, although I'm not any kind of pilot at heart! The RAF high command's mania for horizontal, high altitude heavy bombing was the reason why we never made any decent dive bombers, and hardly ever used them - despite the remarkable success of the dive bomber in sinking ships.

The Royal Navy (and Fleet Air Arm) certainly appreciated the value of dive bombers. I think the Royal Navy lost more ships to Stukas than any other cause (unless that was just the the Med). There was only one British built specialist dive bomber - the Blackburn Skua, the design of which was crippled by an obsolete engine (because the RAF got the best engines), and which was mis-used as an ultra-slow and feebly-armed fighter - but nonetheless managed to sink the Konigsberg.

Guy Jean said...

P51 - reminds me of one of the best scenes in "Empire of the Sun" with a very young Christian Bale. "Cadillac of the Skies"!