Even tight formations failed to protect USAAF bombers effectively from attacks by Luftwaffe fighters. Only the deployment of the P-51 turned the situation in the Allies’ favor. [photo: 487th BG]
The 66th Fighter Wing Over Europe
The strategic bombing offensive of the Western Allies, whose main goal was to weaken German industry and supply, stood on several pillars. The British Royal Air Force began to attack Germany with a gradually increasing intensity by the time of the Battle of Britain (apart from a few rather desperate attempts made sporadically from September 1939). Even before the American Air Force entered the European campaign, RAF Bomber Command moved to night operations and, with few exceptions, remained there until the end of the war. The daytime skies over Germany and occupied Europe were to belong primarily to the Americans, at least as far as long-range bombing operations are concerned.
Achieving the goals that the Americans had set for themselves in this regard consisted primarily in building a strong bomber force and support units, which were supposed to ensure supremacy in the skies over continental Europe through joint operations. Another pillar was war logistics, which was supposed to transport not only new aircraft and fresh crews to Europe, but also spare parts, equipment, hundreds of thousands of tons of fuel, bombs and other ammunition. It was such a complex and today a rather neglected component of the war effort that even a brief description of it would be well beyond the scope of this article. The third but no less important pillar was fighter support for the bombers.
In Europe, the US Air Force's bombing operations rested on the shoulders of two separate air armies, the 8th Air Force, based in Great Britain, and the 15th Air Force, operating first from North Africa and then from southern Italy.
8th Air Force
The main strength wielded by the US Air Force in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) was undoubtedly the 8th AF, nicknamed the “Mighty Eighth”. As the air component of the Air Force arm of the United States Army (Army Air Force), it was established in January 1942, as VIII. Bomber Command. Under the designation VIII. Bomber Command (which later became a permanent part of the 8th AF structure), it undertook its first operation in the ETO on July 4, 1942, with A-20 Havoc aircraft borrowed from the RAF. At the same time, airfields over eastern England began to see the arrival of regular units of VIII. Bomber Command armed with B-17E bombers. The first distinct operation was a mission to Rouen-Sotteville, France, on August 17th, 1942. In February 1944, VIII. Bomber Command headquarters was integrated into the 8th Air Force and along with it, as part of the ‘new’ VIII. Bomber Command, existing bomber groups. Simultaneously, the VIII. Fighter Command was created, whose main task was to provide protection for the bombers.
The 8th AF reached its peak strength in the summer of 1944. By the end of August of that year, it consisted of three Bomb Divisions (later Air Division) with forty Bombardment Groups (or simply Bomb Groups) spread among fourteen Bombardment Wings and a separate Fighter Command, with three Fighter Wings with sixteen fighter Groups, each with three squadrons. In addition to these, the 8th AF included several reconnaissance and special operations, training and other support units. This was a force that was able to send 1,200 four-engine bombers and around 500 escort fighters over Germany in one day. Since the summer of 1944, the German Luftwaffe had rarely been able to effectively oppose such a force.
In 1945, all but one of the Fighter Groups of the 8th AF were armed with P-51D aircraft, or the P-51K.
It is not without interest that the last combat operation of the 8th AF was a mission to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia on April 25th, 1945. A few days later, the bombers of the 8th AF participated in Operation Mana to supply food to the population of the Netherlands, which was on the brink of starvation, after German troops cut off the food supply.
Range of RAF and USAAF fighters during escort missions over the continent on a WWII map.
15th Air Force
The Second US strategic air force in Europe was the 15th Air Force, formed in November 1943 in North Africa from parts of the tactical 12th and 9th AFs. It was only in December 1943 that the newly formed units of the 15th AF received four-engine bombers and a successful series of bombing missions could thus be undertaken, although the first raid by heavy bombers of the 15th AF on the west coast of Italy on January 22, 1944 had more of a tactical support flavor to it. Major missions were to come mainly after the transfer of the 15th AF to Italy (January - March 1944), when their bombers could reach deeper into occupied Europe and into Germany itself. At the end of the war, the 15th AF had four B-24 Liberator Bomber Wings and one B-17 Flying Fortress Wing. Fighter support was provided by two Fighter Wings with P-38, P-47 and, later, P-51 aircraft. The last mission of the 15th AF came on May 1st, 1945, the target being Salzburg in Austria.
66th Fighter Wing
As noted above, in August 1944, the 8th AF had sixteen Fighter Groups. These were incorporated into three Fighter Wings, namely the 65th FW, 66th FW and 67th FW. The affiliation of specific fighter groups to a given Wing was more or less stable. At the same time, these Wings usually provided escort for bombers of specific divisions from the 8th AF (65th FW for Liberators from the 2nd BD, 66th FW escorted B-17s from the 3rd BD and 67th FW B-17s from the 1st BD).
P-51 Mustang flight from 503rd FS, 339th FG photo: Museum of Air Battle over the Ore Mountains, via Russ Abbey
The 66th FW was formed around five Fighter Groups
Nuthampstead September 1943 – April 1944
Wormingford April 1044 – May 1945
For the first six months of its operational activity, the unit was based at Nuthampstead Base north of London, which it later had to leave to make way for the newly arrived 398th BG. Until the summer of 1944, the unit flew the P-38 Lightning, which was replaced by the P-51D Mustang. A number of pilots of this unit thus flew in combat on both types. The identification marking applied up to the P-51 was initially a black stripe on the front of the engine cowl and a black spinner. This was soon replaced by a yellow-green checkerboard pattern and stripes of the same colors on the spinner. A distinguishing feature of the unit was also the color differences in the fuselages of the Mustangs of the individual squadrons, a practice that was abandoned especially by the later months of the war. While the 38th FS had horizontal and vertical tail surfaces painted olive green, the 338th FS flew mostly without any coloring of the tail surfaces. The most impressive livery of this unit were the Mustangs of the 343rd FS, whose anti-glare panels in front of the cockpit arced back to encompass the rest of the fuselage, with the entire fuselage behind the cockpit being sprayed the same olive green. These were not remnants of the OD/NG (olive drab / neutral gray) coloring, because the 55th FG converted over to Mustangs later, meaning that their machines would have been delivered in natural metal and aluminum spray. The arc of green on the fuselages of 343rd FS Mustangs was often edged with dark red or yellow. On occasion, this coloring also appeared on the aircraft of the 338th FS. On the other hand, at the end of the war, the 343rd FS often had its machines only in bare metal coloring, only with a checkerboard pattern on the nose. Also, the 38th FS in 1945 was abandoning the full coloring of the tail surfaces. Instead, identifier colors were applied to the rudders– 38th FS red, 338th FS light green and 343rd FS yellow.
Lt. Jones’ Mustang from the 38th FS, 55th FG shortly after returning from a combat operation. [photo: Museum of Air Battle over the Ore Mountains, via David Jewell]
Fowlmere April 1944 – May 1945
The 339th FG was among the newer units of the 8thAF, and therefore arrived in England already wielding P-51 aircraft. Fowlmere, near Duxford, became its base throughout its operational deployment in Europe. The P-51Bs and Cs used at first were replaced by more modern P-51D and K versions during the summer of 1944, but some older B and C fighters remained in service for quite a long time, until the fall of 1944. The identification marking of the unit was a red and white checkerboard on the front of the engine cowl and included the spinner. Later, unit specific squadron colors were applied to the rudder - the 503rd FS received a red rudder, the 504th FS received a green one, while the 505th FS received yellow.
339th FG´s P-51 escorts a damaged B-17 returning from enemy territory [photo: Public Domain]
Raydon November 1943 – January 1944
Leiston January 1944 – May 1948
The “Yoxford Boys”, as the 357th FG was nicknamed, moved to England in November 1943. The unit spent a short time at Raydon Base before being moved to Leiston. The 357th FG marking is one of the most impressive to appear in the 8th AF. Many of her early P-51Bs and Cs were still in OD/NG livery, and that combined with the yellow-red checkerboard and, for a period of time, invasion stripes really suited the Mustangs of this unit. However, even natural metal airplanes (and sprayed aluminum) appear unusually colorful in conjunction with that unit's markings. Although a wide variety of markings cannot be denied to other units within the 66th FW, the 357th FG itself was certainly the most varied. Later, this unit also added identification markings of individual squadrons by spraying its rudders – the 363rd FS used red, the 364th FS yellow, and the 362nd FS rudders often remained unpainted, unless the entire fuselage was sprayed olive. With 609 credited aerial victories and 109 aircraft destroyed on the ground, the 357th FG was the most successful unit with the P-51 and the second most successful unit within the USAAF. It is therefore not surprising that more than half of the fighter aces who earned their glory with the 66th FW came from the 357th FG.
P-51D 44-64051 from the 362nd FS, 357th FG at Leiston. [photo: Public Domain]
Goxhill June 1943 – August 1943
Metfield August 1943 – April 1944
Raydon April 1944 – May 1945
For more than a year, this unit operated the P-47 and re-armed with the P-51D in October, 1944. The marking of the group was a black and yellow checkerboard on the nose. Sometimes, it consisted of only three rows, sometimes it was applied to more than half of the nose of the aircraft, even to the extent that it obliterated the anti-glare panel in front of the cockpit. For the P-47, the checkerboards were originally skewed diagonally, later they were sprayed parallel to the horizontal axis of the aircraft. These were also applied to the P-51. The color identifiers of individual squadrons also later appeared for this unit: the 350th FS yellow, 351st FS usually without, the 352nd FS black. The coloring of 353rd FG Mustang rudders was not consistent, and the mentioned colors also appeared on aircraft of other squadrons and therefore cannot be considered definitive identifiers of squadrons within the FG.
Goxhill December 1942 – April 1943
Duxford April 1943 – May 1945
One of the oldest fighter units of the 8th AF saw its baptism of fire in the service of the 12th AF in Africa, flying P-38 Lightnings at the time. It returned to England much weakened and in April, 1943 was re-equipped with P-47s. It was on this type that the unit would gain its fame. It did not convert on to the P-51 until December, 1944. The unit's marking was a distinctive black-and-white checkerboard over almost the entire nose of their Mustangs (and previously over the P-47 engine cowls). The individual squadrons were later distinguished by the color applied to the rudder: the 82nd FS used red, the 83rd FS white, and the 84th FS black.
P-51D 44-15469 “Bucephalus” from 78th FG. On this aircraft Lt. William E. Hydorn achieved an aerial victory over a Me 262 on February 2, 1945. [photo: Public Domain]
3rd Scouting Force
Wormingford February 1945 – May 1945
A special unit, built and supported by the 55th FG, was based with this fighter group at Wormingford. Although it was independent, it was functionally related to the 66th FW and was intended to support the 3rd BD. Administratively, however, it fell under the 493rd BG. Its task was to cooperate closely with the bomber associations in weather reconnaissance en route to the target and especially over the target. The Mustang pilots of the 3rd SF were initially dedicated pilots of the 55th FG, but later, their role was taken over mainly by volunteers - experienced former heavy bomber pilots who completed their operational tour with the required number of missions. They knew best what information was needed, and when by their colleagues flying the route behind them. In addition to Mustangs, the unit also flew P-47s and B-17Fs. The color identifiers of their P-51s consisted of red trim on the leading edge of the fillet. The different checkerboards on the cowls were consistent with the unit that the aircraft being flown originated with, predominantly being the 55th FG.
For a very short time, the 66th FW also had other groups, most of the time assigned to other Wings – the 4th FG (1945), 56th FG (1945), 359th FG (1943), 361st FG (1943-44, 1945) and the 479th FG (1945), possibly to the 9th AF (358th FG). However, their temporary involvement with the 66th FW was marginal and we only mention them because they are mistakenly listed as a permanent part of the 66th FW by some sources. Despite this, one of them – the 361st FG - is worth bringing up. This unit was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, plugging holes where needed. It gradually went through service with all three FWs and at the turn of 1944/45 it was even temporarily tasked with ground support with the 9th Air Force.
The plans for the reorganization of the 8th AF from March 1944, included a version of things that would see the 352nd FG falling under the 66th FW, but in the end it remained part of the 67th FW as did the 50th FG. However, after coming to the ETO, it found itself subordinate to the 9th AF. At the same time, the 353rd FG was to be integrated into the 67th FW. The same document also assigned individual FWs to respective Bombing Divisions, but later reality proved to be different. The 66th FW was to support the 2nd BD, the 67th FW the 1st BD, and the 65th FW was to accompany the 3rd BD on missions.
Excerpt from a strategy document of the 8th AF displaying their bases in East Anglia. Bases utilized by fighter units of the 66th FW are marked with a white star, while yellow stars indicate bases initially used by these units but later handed over to other units.
Big Brothers and Little Friends
From the very first operations of American bombers in Europe in 1942, it was clear that the current group defense tactics of the USAAF bombers was inadequate to deal with the capabilities of the German Luftwaffe. Bomber formations, at the mercy of German single and twin-engine fighter packs, suffered heavy losses. So much so that stopping this method of operations was considered. This can be seen in the raids of the 8th Air Force from the summer of 1942 and especially during the spring to autumn of 1943. It was obvious that without high-quality fighter protection these operations were doomed to failure. The generally known problem was the fact that neither the RAF nor the USAAF had the kind of fighter aircraft that could accompany their Big Brothers over Germany. In August, 1943, the P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft, equipped with drop tanks, were able to accompany the bombers to a distance of approximately 375nm, which roughly corresponded to the area of Frankfurt am Main, Hanover, or Kassel. This, of course, provided that they did not get into a fight with German fighters. Any significant change in the flight regime, let alone the necessity of premature jettisoning of the extra tanks, of course significantly shortened their range. The P-38 had a greater range and in December 1943 they were able to scrape the area of “Big B”, Berlin itself (approx. 520 nm). However, their combat capabilities at that time were already significantly behind the newer versions of the Luftwaffe’s main fighter types, the Bf 109G-6 and Fw 190A-5 and their following variants. Only the P-51B and C, which appeared in Europe at the turn of 1943 / 1944, were able to escort bombers deeper over the Reich itself and the center of Europe. Significantly better protection of the bombers was provided by the P-51D, which entered service during the summer of 1944. These were not only able to escort the bombers to the vast majority of their targets on the continent, but in several cases of special operations of the Frantic type, they protected their Big Brothers taking off from their home bases in Great Britain up to the region of Poltava and Mirgorod in Ukraine (approximately 1,300 nm).
As the Luftwaffe’s ability to respond to American raids weakened, the role of escort fighters shifted partly to ground attack. American aviators destroyed locomotives, substations, German planes on the ground, river boats and other means of transport. In essence, everything that could even remotely appear to be a target of military importance had to be on the lookout for the hunters' thirst
A photo from early period of 8th AF bomber escorts shows a P-38 Lightning of 338th FS, 55th FG. [photo: Museum of Air Battle over the Ore Mountains, via David Jewell]
Protecting the bombers from Luftwaffe aircraft remained a priority task, as long as there was something to protect them from. However, the impression that the German air force was already completely defeated could be very dangerous. This was especially true in the closing months of the war, when Me 262 jets began to appear more and more regularly among the intercepting fighters, which in classic combat were a difficult opponent even for Mustang pilots. Unfortunately for the Germans, realizations regarding the conduct of the war came too late. “Jets” became the prestigious hunting trophy of many USAAF fighters.
It will probably remain an eternal topic of historical debate, which weapon, vehicle or aircraft primarily provided the Allies with the opportunity to end the war in Europe by the spring of 1945 and which element thus ensured the air supremacy necessary for victory. Among the main favorites of the debates will understandably be the planes participating in the strategic bombing of German war industry and transport. And even among proponents of this theory, there will be differences of opinion as to whether these were the four-engined B-17s and B-24s, or their “Little Friends”. Even if the final answer were to be the four-engined heavies, it is quite certain that without their “little brothers” and among them the P-51D, they would never have been able to do their job.
- Maurer Maurer: Combat Squadrons of the Air Force – World War II, Office of Air Force History, HQ USAF, 1982
- Maurer Maurer: Air Force Combat Units of World War II, Office of Air Force History, HQ USAF, 1983
- Archives of the Air Battle over the Ore Mountains, September 11th, 1944 in Kovářská
- US National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland; Unit Histories, Reports and Mission Orders
- Proposed plans for organization of the Eight Air Force, HQ EIGHT AIR FORCE, March 1944
- Eight Air Force – Tactical development August 1943 – May 1945, AAF Evaluation Board, 1945
- Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. - Color profiles and emblem of the 8th Air Force – Jan Zdiarský