Special Report

All the Way to Berlin with Mustangs

★ North American P-51 Mustang ★ Most people who know warbirds consider the P-51 (foreground, flying with a B-17 during a 2009 demonstration) the best fighter of World War II. It was conceived in April 1940, when the Royal Air Force asked North American Aviation to build more Curtiss P-40s. North American’s President Dutch Kindelberger countered with an offer to deliver a wholly new design, and the first Mustang flew six months later. In the following year, the addition of a Merlin 61 engine (upgraded in later models) gave the XP-51B the combination of range and speed that would come to secure the P-51’s legend. Escorting bombers to Berlin and whupping the German fighters that attacked them, the P-51 was significant in weakening the German air force. (Philip Makanna)
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The Supermarine Spitfire could bob and weave, but North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang was the fighter that could go the distance—and it did, escorting B-17s and B-24s on bombing missions deep inside Germany. When outfitted with external fuel tanks, the Mustang could fly more than 2,000 miles without a refill, but with a top speed of 437 mph, it was more akin to a racehorse than a camel. Four Browning .50- caliber machine guns (increased to six in the P-51Ds) made the Mustang a prodigious dogfighter, though pilots rarely passed up the opportunity to strafe Luftwaffe airfields on their way home from escort missions.

In 1942, a British-initiated upgrade endowed the Mustang with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (built Stateside by Packard); its two-stage supercharger gave the P-51 power up high, where the bombers flew, and made it 50 mph faster.

In August and October 1943, the Eighth Air Force lost so many B-17s during raids that the Allies temporarily suspended long-range bombing. In 1944, newly arrived P-51s gave the Eighth the confidence to again strike deep. After General Jimmy Doolittle ordered fighter squadrons to hunt the enemy interceptors instead of flying close formations with bombers they escorted, P-51 victories rose.

Mustangs were the mounts of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first African American fighter unit, which flew escort missions in Italy during 1944. Commanded by West Point graduate Benjamin O. Davis, the Red Tails—a nickname based on the identification paint on their airplanes—shot down 111 enemy aircraft.

By D-Day—June 6, 1944—the Combined Bomber Offensive from England and Italy had broken the Luftwaffe. Barely able to replace lost aircraft, having to ration fuel, and only marginally able to train replacements for the pilots lost each month, its leaders transferred pilots from the Eastern Front, with little consequence. “I don’t remember anyone who came to us from the East who survived,” recalled fighter commander Kurt Buehligen to historian Christian Sturm in 1985, adding “these fellows simply had no real comprehension of what we were faced with in the air.”

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