Book Excerpt: Hell Hawks!
How P-47s became the tank busters of World War II
- By Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones
- AirSpaceMag.com, July 14, 2008
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
The Ninth Air Force efforts to counter the massive German attack during the Battle of the Bulge are among the most storied close air support missions of all time. The star of the action was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. In Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones follow the combat experiences of the 365th Fighter Group, three squadrons of pilots who flew P-47s, from just before D-day, June 6, 1944, to the German surrender on May 8, 1945. The following excerpt demonstrates how the attacks flown by the 365th helped blunt the German winter offensive of 1944-45 and pave the way for the final Allied advance into Germany.
The Hell Hawks pilots and hard-working ground crews faced their biggest combat challenge during Hitler’s last big offensive in the West. A furious attack by 250,000 German troops on December 16, 1944, surprised Allied troops in the Ardennes, a forested plateau on the Belgian-German border that had been the scene of earlier fighting in both world wars. The Germans opened the assault along a fifty-mile front, initially committing twenty-one infantry and armored divisions. They called the operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine); the Americans called it the Battle of the Bulge. It was the largest and most desperate battle U.S. forces would fight.
With the German attack in full swing on the 16th, the outnumbered GIs on the Ardennes front needed every plane in the air, putting bombs and bullets on the enemy. But the weather—low clouds, snow, and fog—was with Hitler, grounding every Allied aircraft and making air support impossible.
Morning on December 18, the third day of the Wacht am Rhein offensive, found the Hell Hawks in Belgium blanketed by an icy, opaque fog. In near zero-zero conditions, Maj. Bob Fry led seventeen planes off at mid-morning, but all were forced to return; bad visibility obscured any possible target in the Stavelot, Belgium, area, where German tanks were reported moving up. Only flares lining the runway enabled the pilots to feel their way back to the ground at Chièvres.
According to a report of that day’s action in Yank magazine, Col. Ray Stecker’s phone rang about noon. On the line was Col. Gilbert L. “Gil” Meyers, the operations officer at IX Tactical Air Command, who knew of Stecker’s long experience and success in conducting air-support operations in North Africa. No other IX TAC groups got the call that day, wrote the Yank correspondent, adding that Meyers had long regarded Stecker as a specialist at getting at the enemy under the worst conditions.
“That Jerry column you hit the other day,” Meyers said, “has been reinforced and has broken through our lines to Stavelot [twenty-five miles south of Aachen]. In fact, there is now nothing between it and the English Channel but service troops and cooks and bakers.”
“The weather—” said Stecker.
“I know,” said Meyers, “the weather is down on the deck, and it probably will be suicide, but we’ve got to get something in there or the bastards will be in Liège. If you can just send a four-plane flight, it might help.”
“I’ll see what we can do,” said Stecker. The group commander hung up and called in the 386th Squadron commander, Bob Brooking. His men had been standing by since daybreak. Stecker briefed him on what was at stake, and Brooking returned to brief his men.
“I heard Brooking say that the old man had just told him we had to get a four-man flight up, and we were the only four there!” recalled Capt. James G. Wells, Jr. “That’s how we happened to luck into the mission, if you want to call it luck. They told us the flight had to go, because we had to go look for these tanks.”
Brooking finished briefing his flight, and the four boarded the beat-up pilots’ truck, the Weepin’ Carrier, to take them to the flight line. They arrived at their Thunderbolts around 12:30 p.m., the bone-chilling fog still swirling around the planes. Ceilings were less than a hundred feet, with visibility almost nil. “The weather was bad,” said Brooking, “but when you’re doing it every day you don’t get intimidated.” At 1:05 p.m. he led his flight—2nd Lt. Roy Wayne Price on his wing, with Wells leading 1st Lt. Robert C. Thoman—down the runway into an enveloping fog. “We just stuck close together” in the soup, said Wells. Each Thunderbolt carried two five-hundred-pound delayed-action bombs, one under each wing. Stecker ordered successive flights to launch at twenty-minute intervals.
Brooking, having fought in the area the day before, led his flight to the battle. A thick blanket of fog cloaked the countryside below, a solid white floor beneath their P-47s. Searching for a break in the undercast, Brooking orbited for half an hour without success. Two successive flights of Hell Hawks arrived, only to be sent back to Chièvres by Brooking. Frustrated, he keyed his mike button:
“I’m going down there to poke around by myself. There must be a break somewhere in these mountains.”
“You’re crazy,” said Bob Thoman, who knew that some of the wooded ridgelines below topped two thousand feet above sea level. But Brooking circled lower, looking for an opening.
Finally, he spotted a hole in the undercast, with a bare minimum of flying room between the snow-covered forest and the clouds above. Brooking squeezed in, just above the tree tops, searching the valley floor beneath him. He found nothing; the valley roads were empty, and he managed a tight 180-degree turn and returned. Determined, Brooking tried another tactic.
Going low again, between the hilly terrain and the fog above, Brooking searched for an opening beneath the overcast that could lead him to the target. Ridge-hopping into the next valley, he nosed up into the overcast just long enough to clear the terrain, then dropped lower, tensing against an impact with the treetops just beneath this wings.
The Yank correspondent described what followed: “Suddenly he broke through the clouds! He wasn’t more than twenty feet above a huge concentration of German tanks and armored vehicles. . . . The Germans looked at Major Brooking, and Major Brooking looked at the Germans,” both parties so stunned at the appearance of the other that no one fired.
Brooking remembered, “it was hilly, rolling terrain, with a little village nearby. It looked like a mad scramble below, total confusion. I think they were completely surprised.” He squeezed off one burst, then pulled back up and gathered his other three pilots in the clear. Finding the same hole, Brooking led the four in after the panzers together, hoping again to thread the needle to clear the adjoining ridge.
Wells remembered that “we finally got talking to [a ground] controller who could see the tanks, and could hear us, and he said that we were on the other side of this little mountain range from them. They kept trying to talk us in, and we tried to get there, but we kept running out of space. We were getting right into the treetops and we had to make a one-eighty to stay in contact [with each other]. Then, finally we found a spot where we could stay on top of the trees and get over.”
The four Thunderbolts crested the ridge and whistled down into the adjoining valley, barely a hundred feet off the deck. Wells was astonished: “When we went over, we saw all these tanks lined up on the road.”
The P-47s lined up for their attack runs. Brooking led, skimming the deck, just a few feet beneath the curtain of fog. The Hell Hawks chose targets in the column and opened up with their .50-calibers. Hurtling in on the line of armored vehicles, they were met with a tremendous concentration of flak thrown up by the now-alerted gunners. The tracers didn’t stop the release of all eight bombs, which detonated up and down the road.
Wells recalled, “Well, when we found them, we did a three-sixty and went around, and each of us picked out a side of this tank column to hit. And we went in with delayed-action bombs [with an] eight- to eleven-second delay. So it was timed so that you could drop the bomb and you could look back. And I looked back and I saw that my bombs had hit right in this group of tanks.”
Wells knew how to aim. “We were probably, I don’t know, a hundred yards from them when we released . . . doing probably right around 350 or 400 [miles per hour].”
He put his bombs into a cluster of panzers cresting a small hill. The close-range blast effect was devastating, even to the seasoned Wells. “It just blew ‘em apart,” he said. “I just saw tank pieces flying everywhere. And where the tanks had been was a big gap in the road,” blocked by his two bomb craters. Wells observed several tanks upended down the hillside, their 88mm main guns twisted at crazy angles. Soon, fires were burning amid the trapped vehicles, but the ground fire was undiminished in its ferocity.
Wells was asked if the Germans were trying to shoot back. “They were doing a pretty good job of it!” he answered, with the barest hint of a chuckle. “What you could see was the tracers coming, and they looked like they were coming right at you, and then they looked like they turned and went behind you, most of ‘em. As soon as we got down from the run, that’s when Brooking’s wingman called and told us he was hit.”
Lieutenant Price, from Sunnyvale, California, reported that his P-47 had been badly damaged. After radioing his intention to belly land, he disappeared, trailing flames, into the white fog bank over the battle. Price put the plane down gently enough to skid to a stop, shaken but unhurt. He stayed off the roads while heading generally west, and two days later met troops from the 30th Infantry Division near Stavelot. The GIs, wary of infiltrators, treated him with suspicion, especially after finding Price’s sidearm: a German P-38 automatic. Fortunately, a first sergeant from Sunnyvale soon established Price’s bona fides. He returned to the Hell Hawks just before Christmas, but not before his squadron mates had divided up his clothes, booze, and cigarettes.
As the flare from Price’s P-47 disappeared into the white mist, Jim Wells noticed his own aircraft was trailing smoke. “Brook, I’m hit awful bad,” called Wells. “Well, we passed a hospital a way back,” Brooking answered. “I don’t know whether it’s American or German, but it had red crosses on it. Why don’t you go and try to belly in close to it?
Wells wasn’t keen on the suggestion. “I said, ‘The hell with that. I’m taking this thing west as far as it’ll go.’” Wells and Thoman popped up through the five hundred–foot overcast and got a vector for Liège, where the weather was marginally better.
Wells’ Thunderbolt, an all-aluminum-finish P-47D-25 named Betty Girl, streamed a thick trail of oily black smoke. “As we were coming in,” Wells said, “I saw this crowd of guys standing out there, and it looked like they were changing money. When I landed I asked the mechanic what was going on, and he said ‘Those guys was giving five-to-one odds that you would blow up before you got on the ground.’”
The 20mm hit had knocked out three or four cylinders on Wells’ engine, yet the twin-row Pratt & Whitney had produced power all the way back to Liège. Wells couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning that Thunderbolt; he waited a few days for repairs to D5-J, Betty Girl. Then, with her shrapnel holes patched and sporting a new engine, Wells flew her back to Chièvres.
Back in the target area, Brooking saw Thoman off with Wells, then orbited the enemy column, asking the IX TAC controller to send every available fighter-bomber. “When they get here,” he said, “tell them to call me and I’ll put them on the target. There’s plenty for all.” The 386th commander found other roads nearby packed with tanks and transports, and he repeatedly strafed and burned the lead vehicle, which in this hilly, snow-covered country effectively blocked the narrow lanes.
Other Thunderbolt squadrons arrived, the first from the 368th Fighter Group. Each flight checked in with Brooking, who led them to the proper hole in the shifting undercast. The Thunderbolts could now play hide-and-seek with the gunners, easing up into the mist to avoid flak and reappearing at will to snap into a sudden, devastating strafing run.
Brooking stayed as long as he dared, guiding each round of attackers in, only returning to Chièvres when his fuel was critically low. He turned his flak-scarred Thunderbolt off the runway two and a half hours after takeoff, running on fumes.
The Hell Hawks launched ten strike missions into the fog over the Ardennes that day. Major Arlo C. Henry, Jr. and Capt. Neal E. Worley both led missions from the 387th Squadron in mid-afternoon, following up on Brooking’s initial strikes on the enemy column. Worley, just back from leave, recalled December 18 as “the hairiest and scariest of days for the Hell Hawks. The weather was snowy all over Belgium, with ceilings of 250 to 350 feet and nine-tenths cloud cover. In that fog, squadron-sized missions were impossible. We had to go with individual flights.”
Worley, a flight leader, had been scouring his maps all morning for usable landmarks near the target. “We were antsy from the week or more of bad weather, anxious to get back into flying,” he said. The Royal Air Force charts provided to the Hell Hawks were so detailed that even the shape of individual woodlots could be used as navigation checkpoints.
His flight, the seventh from the Hell Hawks to grapple with fog and German armor in the Ardennes that day, followed Arlo Henry’s into the air at 2:55 p.m. Arriving near the battle area, Worley called his mentor (“I grew up flying on Arlo’s wing,” said Worley) to guide him in. “Arlo, where are you?”, said Worley, and the reply was instant. “I’m working over the panzer division, over the mountain from where they told you,” said Henry.
“I told my wingman and second element to come in close,” said Worley, to keep from losing them in the clouds. The flight nosed up into the soup and climbed to clear the ridge tops hidden in the murk. “This is a hell of a way to fight a war,” thought Worley, inching down now through the mist into what he hoped was the valley beneath them. “We broke out of the clouds so low that off my wing I could see this big black raven sitting on a tree branch.” Worley’s flight hurtled down the slope beneath ragged gaps in the low clouds, exposing the smoke and flames still rising from the now-dispersed column. The four Thunderbolts picked their targets and dive-bombed deliberately.
“On my first run I spotted the biggest, tallest SS officer I ever saw, standing there in his black uniform, emptying his pistol at me,” said Worley. “We stayed on them for fifteen minutes. One bombing pass, maybe four passes altogether. When we left, half-tracks and trucks were burning, and smoke was going up to about three thousand feet.”
During their strafing runs, one of Worley’s wingmen, 1st Lt. James F. McCabe, had his Thunderbolt bracketed by truck-mounted 20mm cannon. One pilot from another group wrote that “the flak tracers were like garden hoses with projectiles arcing lazily through the air towards me. I remember so violently slipping and skidding as streams of flak fire reached for me, sometimes within three feet of my wing surfaces.” McCabe’s DFC citation read: “Despite adverse weather and the hazards of intense and accurate enemy fire, Lt. McCabe fearlessly and skillfully dropped his bombs and completely destroyed three enemy tanks. . . . The explosion that followed caught his plane and seriously damaged it, but . . . he brought his plane to a safe landing.”
Worley’s flight claimed forty trucks upon debriefing back at Chièvres. Looking back, he was emphatic about his group’s contribution to the fight in the Ardennes. “I got a lot of satisfaction from that mission. We were a tactical outfit. If you could pick one day to show what the Hell Hawks were all about—their value as a combat outfit—this was it. December 18 was one of our finest days in showing off our capabilities.”
Late afternoon saw more Hell Hawks arrive over Stavelot, blasting tanks, half-tracks, and trucks. The combination of clear bombing conditions and determined attacks from these later missions destroyed nearly one hundred enemy vehicles. Pilots groped their way back to Chièvres through fog so thick that ground crewmen set burning flares along the runway to help them spot the base. By the close of the day’s combat, the Hell Hawks claimed 15 panzers among a grand total of more than 125 armored vehicles and transports destroyed, with another 34 damaged. Given the tracer-filled skies over Stavelot that day, the toll from German gunners on December 18 was surprisingly light: two P-47s lost to crash landings and seven heavily damaged.
Next day, a high-ranking First Army officer phoned Ninth Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, saying, “Thank God for your men yesterday.”
Vandenberg’s headquarters received a teletype on December 19, confirming that the air attacks on the enemy column forced it from its westward advance, diverting it south. Advancing First Army units, shoring up the northern flank of the Bulge on the 20th, discovered that the actual damage inflicted by the Hell Hawks and other fighter-bomber groups on the wrecked German column exceeded the pilots’ claims. One who grudgingly recognized the effectiveness of the P-47s was Waffen-SS Gen. Sepp Dietrich, commander of the Sixth Panzer Army, who complained, “The worst of it is that those damned Jabos don’t distinguish between generals and anyone else—it was terrible.”
Ray Stecker wrote commendations for both Motzenbecker and Brooking, but didn’t hold out much hope for approval, noting that headquarters would dismiss the pair’s heroism because “they didn’t shoot down a single enemy aircraft.” Of his boss, Brooking, Bob Hagan said simply, “He had a lot of guts, letting down in those clouds over the Bulge.” For once, headquarters agreed with a lowly second lieutenant. The author of Brooking’s citation noted how he led his four planes against the spearhead of the German attack: “Although weather conditions were extremely unfavorable and anti-aircraft fire from the ground emplacements extremely heavy, Major Brooking remained alone . . . he fearlessly led and guided other flights to attack the tank column although his own aircraft was seriously damaged.” For his gallantry, “skill, cool judgement, and courage,” Brooking received the Silver Star.