Book Excerpt: Hell Hawks!

How P-47s became the tank busters of World War II

The P-47D carried eight guns and, on some models, rocket launchers. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

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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.”

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