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The P-51 Mustang in Europe, The need for and effects of the P-51 Mustang in the skies over Europe

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On September 1, 1939, the German military forces invaded Poland to begin World War II. This invasion was very successful because of its use of a new military strategic theory – “blitzkrieg”. Blitzkrieg, literally “lightning war,” involved the fast and deadly coordination of two German forces, the Wermacht (army) and the Luftwaffe (airforce). The Wermacht advanced on the ground, while the Luftwaffe destroyed the enemy air force, attacked enemy ground forces, and disrupted enemy communication and transportation systems. This strategy was responsible for the successful invasions of Poland, Norway, Western Europe, the Balkans and the initial success of the Russian invasion. For many years after the attack on Poland, the Luftwaffe dominated the air war in Europe. The performance of the Messerschmitt 109 fighter, and the Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive-bombers dominated headlines during those weeks. Their terror from the skies campaign struck fear into the hearts and minds of the Allied nations of Europe. No other nation involved in the war had the experience, technology, or numbers to challenge the Luftwaffe’s superiority. It was not until the United States joined the war effort that any great harm was done to Germany and even then, German air superiority remained unscathed. It was not until the advent of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and all of the improvements, benefits, and side effects that it brought with it, that the Allies were able to achieve air superiority over the Germans.

The Birth of the P-51 Mustang dates back to before the war was present. In late 1939, with the likelihood of full-scale war in Europe, the British Royal Air Force was looking for ways of quickly increasing its fighter strength. In 1940, the British Air Purchasing Commission approached North American Aviation with the intent of having them build P-40′s for the RAF Instead, North American offered to build an entirely new fighter using the same Allison V-1710-39

"The Bottisham Four", a famous photo showing four U.S. Army Air Force North American P-51 Mustang fighters from the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, from RAF Bottisham, Cambridgeshire (UK), in flight on 26 July 1944.

“The Bottisham Four”, a famous photo showing four U.S. Army Air Force North American P-51 Mustang fighters from the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, from RAF Bottisham, Cambridgeshire (UK), in flight on 26 July 1944.

engine as the P-40. The British agreed only on the condition that a prototype be on hand within 120 days. North American designers immediately set about meeting the requirements. Edgar Schmued, a designer, had been a part of Willy Messerschmitt’s design group in Germany. It’s no coincidence that the somewhat jagged lines of the new fighter resembled the Messerschmitt. The continued domination of the European skies by the Luftwaffe was caused by two factors, the first of which was the difference in military theory between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force. The theories of the Luftwaffe and RAF were exactly opposite because of their experiences in World War I. During WW I, Germany attempted a strategic bombing effort directed against England using “Gothas” (biplane bombers) and Zeppelins (slow-moving hydrogen balloons) , which did not prove to be very effective. This along with the fact that the German military theory at the beginning of WW II was based much more on fast, quick results (Blitzkrieg), meant that Germany decided not to develop a strategic air force. The Luftwaffe had experienced great success when they used tactical ground-attack aircraft in Spain, and so they figured that their air force should mainly consist of this kind of plane. Germany made the Luftwaffe a ground support force that was in essence an extension of the army and served the role as a long- range, aerial artillery. The RAF, on the other hand, had experimented with ground-attack fighters during WW I, and had suffered huge casualty rates. This, combined with the fact that the British had been deeply offended by the German aerial attempts to attack them on their home soil, made them determined to develop a strategic air force that would be capable of bombing German soil in the next war. At the beginning of WW II, the RAF was mostly a strategic force that consisted of heavy bombers and backup fighters, and lacked any tactical dive-bombers or ground-attack fighters since they had failed to realize they needed fast fighters earlier on in the war. Because of these fundamental differences, the situation that resulted after the air war began was that the bombers in enemy territory were flying against the German attack planes. The fact that the Allied bombers were “in enemy territory” was the second reason for the domination of the Luftwaffe.

At the beginning of WW II, and for many years afterward, the Allies had no long-range escort fighters, which meant that the bombers were forced to fly most of their long journeys alone. Before the P-51 was brought into combat, the main Allied fighters were the American P-47 Thunderbolt and the British Spitfire, neither of which had a very long range. The rule-of-thumb for fighter ranges was that they could go as far as Aachen, which was about 250 miles from the Allied fighters” home bases in England, before they had to turn around. Unfortunately, most of the bombers’ targets were between 400 and 700 miles from England. This meant that bombers could only be escorted into the Benelux countries, northern France, and the very western fringe of Germany. When these unescorted, awkward, slow, and poor maneuvering bombers flew over Germany, they were practically sitting ducks for the fast German fighters. The Allies knew that they had to destroy German industry in order to win the war. Since the factories, refineries, assembly lines, and other industry-related structures were all inland; the only way to destroy them was by sending in bombers. The only way that the bombers could achieve real success was by gaining air superiority, which meant that nearly all of the bombers would have to be able to drop their bombs without being harassed by fighters, and return home to fight another day. The problem with this plan was that the Allies did not have this superiority because the German fighters were consistently shooting down their bombers. The Allies soon realized that in order to gain this superiority, they would have to destroy more German fighters. In order to destroy the fighters, they would have to be forced into the air in greater numbers. In order to get more German fighters into the air, the more sensitive German industries would have to be attacked with more aggression. Following this idea, the Allies began an extreme bombing effort that resulted in the bombings of Hamburg and Ploesti. This did cause more fighters to come up to meet and engage the bombers. Unfortunately, the German opposition overwhelmed the bombers, and their losses soon began to increase. The battle at Schweinfurt was a turning point in the way and opened the eyes of the allies. In the battle, the Germans shot down sixty bombers and seriously damaged seventeen. This was a 26.5% battle loss rate for the Allies. The Germans on the other hand only lost thirty-eight planes in the entire day. The Allies were greatly in need of a long-range escort. General Hap Arnold wrote a memo to his chief of staff saying: “This brings to my mind the absolute necessity for building a fighter plane that can go in and out with the bombers. Moreover, this fighter has got to go into Germany. Get to work on this right away because by January 44, I want a fighter escort for all our bombers from the U.K. into Germany.” The P-51 Mustang was exactly what they were looking for.

In April 1942, a British test pilot, Ronald Harker flew the Mustang and was very impressed by it. He did suggest that the new plane

P-51D-20NA Glamorous Glen III, is the aircraft in which the future test pilot achieved most of his 12.5 kills--Chuck Yeagers' plane

P-51D-20NA Glamorous Glen III, is the aircraft in which the future test pilot achieved most of his 12.5 kills–Chuck Yeagers’ plane

would be much more effective with the Rolls Royce Merlin 60 engine, which operated very well at high altitudes. The Americans began working along the same lines using the Packard license-built version of the Merlin. The first Merlin-equipped Mustang, the P-51B, flew in November 1942. The results were impressive. At 30,000 feet, the improved Mustang reached 440 MPH, almost 100 MPH faster than the Allison-equipped Mustang at that altitude. The P-51B was superior to anything that flew at the time. It had a huge internal gas tank capacity (425 gallons) and its engine used about half as much gasoline as the other American fighters did. This meant that its range was 1,080 miles and this could be boosted up to 2,600 miles when extra drop-tanks were attached to the wings. This made it superior to the P-38, P-47, Spitfire, and the Hurricane. The Mustang was lighter, faster, more agile, and could fly further than them all. Most importantly, it was superior to the Germans as well. The Mustang was 50 mph faster than the Germans up to 28,000 ft., beyond that altitude it was substantially faster. The tightness of its turns was much better than the Me-109 and slightly better than the FW-190. The result of this was that now the allies had a plane that could fly with the bombers all the way to and from their targets, fight the bomber’s attackers, and not run out of fuel. The P-51 became one of the aviation world’s elite. The total number of Mustangs, of all types that were built for the Army reached 14,819. American Mustangs destroyed 4,950 enemy aircraft in Europe to make them the highest scoring U. S. fighter in the theater. They were used as dive-bombers, bomber escorts, ground-attackers, interceptors, for photo-recon missions, trainers, transports, and after the war, high performance racers.

The P-51 mustang proved to be the answer to winning the air-war over Europe. The arrival of the P-51, the long range escort fighter the Americans so desperately needed, marked the beginning of the end for the Luftwaffe. Able to escort the bombers all the way to Berlin and back, the Mustang left the Luftwaffe no place to regroup and train. It was the P-51 that turned out to be decisive plane in the European Theater. The Americans could have won their daylight air war over Germany with the improved P-38L or P-47D, but in fact, it was the P-51, more then any other single fighter, that did it. Beforehand, the Allies had nothing that could stop the Luftwaffe fighters and so were helpless to stop their attack against their bombers. After they had developed the P-51 Mustang proceeded to lure the Luftwaffe fighters into the open where they could be destroyed. Using the long-range Mustangs, the Allies were able to make their bombing raids more effective and more deadly to Germany. The approaching end of the Third Reich was enough to get the German fighters into the air to try to stop the bombers from wrecking their war effort. Air superiority was not won by bombing the Germans factories, it was won by the long-range fighter, using the bomber formations as bait to get the Luftwaffe to fight. With the great numbers of the highly superior P-51 Mustang, the German fighters that came up to attack the bombers quickly met their match and were easily repelled by the Mustangs. The P51 was one of if not the most important plane to fight in the European Theater. It entered the war at a crucial point. Without this plane and its long-range capabilities, the war may have drug out longer and more bombers and their crews may have been lost. The P51D is and was considered the ultimate fighter.


Bailey, Ronald H. The Air War in Europe. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1979.
Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt. The Air War in the West: June 1941 to April 1945. New York: Franklin
Watts, Inc., 1963.
Grant, William Newby. P-51 Mustang. London: Bison Books Limited, 1980.
Perret, Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II. New York: Random House, 1993.

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