This World War II Fighter Could Both Take a Punch and Deliver One

 In China, Germany, GDI, Air, France

Key point: The juiced-up engines of the P‑47Ms were plagued by seri­ous tech­ni­cal prob­lems.

Pilots nick­named early-model P‑47 Thunderbolts the “Razorback,” a ref­er­ence to the chunky fight­er plane’s angu­lar canopy. However, the name was more gen­er­al­ly appro­pri­ate — like a wild boar, the hulk­ing single-engine “Jug” was tough and hard-charg­ing, and its eight .50 cal­iber machine guns packed a hell of a punch.

Lugging under­wing fuel tanks, Thunderbolts based in Britain could accom­pa­ny four-engine B‑17 and B‑24 bombers of the 8th Air Force on dan­ger­ous raids deep over Nazi Germany — and still engage German fight­ers on rough­ly even terms, espe­cial­ly while diving.

However, start­ing mid-1944, the Allied fliers grew con­cerned about new Nazi tur­bo­jet-pow­ered Me-262 fight­ers and rocket-pow­ered Me-163s that could outrun the speed­i­est Allied piston-engine air­craft like the Mustang or British Tempest by 100 miles per hour or more. V‑1 “Buzz Bomb” cruise mis­siles bom­bard­ing London, though slower, also proved dif­fi­cult for Allied fight­ers to inter­cept.

On its own ini­tia­tive, Thunderbolt man­u­fac­tur­er Republic set aside four bubble-canopy P‑47Ds from its pro­duc­tion line in Farmingdale, New York and fit them with souped-up Pratt & Whitney R‑2800 – 57 Double Wasp engine with a turbo-super­charg­er. Together, these could gen­er­ate 2,800 horse­pow­er.

At high alti­tude, the yellow-paint­ed YP-47M pro­to­types could attain a climb rate of 3,500 feet per second and a max­i­mum speed of 473 miles per hour in level flight — though some pilots report­ed achiev­ing 490 to 500 mph when using Wartime Emergency Power. This made the P‑47M arguably the fastest piston-engine fight­er to see combat in the war — though still slower than the Me-262’s 540-miles per hour max­i­mum speed.

Though Republic pro­duced more rad­i­cal XP-47H and J pro­to­types that could go even faster, the YP-47 could be easily put into pro­duc­tion, so in September 1944 the Army Air Corps approved a lim­it­ed run of 130 P‑47M-1-RE air­craft. These were deliv­ered in December 1944 and began to be received by their sole oper­a­tor, the elite 56th Fighter Group based at Boxted Airfield near Colchester, England on January 3.

The 56th, better known as Zemke’s Wolfpack after its leg­endary first ace com­man­der, was the only unit in the strate­gic-bomb­ing-focused 8th Air Force not to trade its Thunderbolts for P‑51D Mustangs, a sleek­er and more agile (though less robust) fight­er. The Wolfpack’s three squadrons com­plet­ed con­ver­sion to the P‑47M by March, each with a unique cam­ou­flage scheme: dark black wing-tops for the 61st, green/grey dis­rup­tive pat­tern for the 62nd, and a strik­ing blue/teal pat­tern for the 63rd.

The 56th also received new exper­i­men­tal T48 .50-cal­iber incen­di­ary rounds designed to ignite kerosene jet fuel, which has a higher com­bus­tion tem­per­a­ture. The 500-grain rounds, man­u­fac­tured by the Des Moines Ordnance Plant, were stuffed with 5.4 ounces of incen­di­ary com­pos­ite — twice the quan­ti­ty in the stan­dard M1 round.

However, the juiced-up engines of the P‑47Ms were plagued by seri­ous tech­ni­cal prob­lems. After a Thunderbolt crash landed due to engine trou­ble, a crack igni­tion har­ness was dis­cov­ered. Then, on February 26, a prob­lem with the fuel car­bu­re­tor diaphragm was iden­ti­fied, caus­ing the P‑47Ms to be ground­ed while a local com­pa­ny built new gas­kets.

But these fixes didn’t bring an end to the P‑47M’s woes. On an escort mis­sion on April 4, six out of four­teen Thunderbolts had to abort mis­sion with engine trou­ble. The break­downs took a deadly turn between April 11 and 15 as three pilots were killed in engine-relat­ed acci­dents. The P‑47Ms were ground­ed again on April 16, and the Wolfpack pilots reluc­tant­ly began train­ing on Mustangs.

Meanwhile, tech­ni­cians poured over the trou­ble R2800-57’s engines — and dis­cov­ered rust in the pis­tons. The super Double Wasp engines had been improp­er­ly sealed for trans­port across the Atlantic, allow­ing humid ocean air to cor­rode the pis­tons.

By March 25, replace­ment engines had been pro­cured and the 56th was back to oper­a­tional status. Despite the grow­ing pauci­ty of Luftwaffe tar­gets, the P‑47M went on to dis­tin­guish itself per­form­ing exact­ly the kind of mis­sion it had been designed for — shoot­ing down Nazi jets.

In fact, the P‑47M’s first two jet kills occurred prior to solv­ing the cor­ro­sion prob­lem. On March 14, three P‑47s of the 62nd fight­er squadron swooped down upon two low-flying Arado 234B jet bombers. The twin-engine jet bombers were likely tar­get­ing the bat­tered Ludendorff Bridge in Remagen over which the U.S. 1st Army was pour­ing into Germany. The P‑47Ms, rough­ly equal­ing the Arado’s in speed, shot down both.

Then on March 25, Wisconsinite Major George Bostwick, com­man­der of the 63rd Squadron, and wing­man Edwin Crosthwait dis­patched two Me-262s as they came in for a land­ing at Parchim air­field — a time at which jet fight­ers were noto­ri­ous­ly vul­ner­a­ble. Bostwick and his Thunderbolt “Ugly Duckling” (pic­tured togeth­er here) ended the war with eight air-to-air kills.

Though the Luftwaffe was increas­ing­ly crip­pled by a lack of fuel and trained pilots, Me-262’s still posed a deadly threat to U.S. bombers. Fifty-three Thunderbolts were escort­ing a raid tar­get­ing Regensburg on April 5 when a lone Me-262 came streak­ing in from 3 o’clock at over 500 miles per hour, zipped unscathed through a hail of defen­sive machine gun fire and blast­ed a B‑17 out of the sky with its four pow­er­ful 30-mil­lime­ter can­nons. The escort­ing Razorbacks tore after the speed­ing jet as it peeled away at 9 o’clock — includ­ing “Devastatin’ Deb,” pilot­ed by Captain John C. Fahringer.

Stephen Chapis described the action in Allied Jet Killers of World War II:

The P‑47s jet­ti­soned their tanks and headed down in pur­suit. 1st Lt. Phillip Kuhn fired first, before over­shoot­ing, after which Fahringer rolled in on the Me-262’s tail and let it have sev­er­al bursts to no effect. However, the German pilot then made the fatal mis­take of tight­en­ing his turn, which allowed Fahringer to close into lethal range. At 500 yards, he opened up again with this Thunderbolt’s eight .50-cal machine guns, and as the smoke began pour­ing from the jet Fahringer saw some­thing go down the right side of his P‑47. It was the pilot of the Me 262.”

On April 10, Lieutenants Walter Sharbo and Bill Wilkerson shot down two more Me-262s over Muritz lake while return­ing from a fight­er sweep over Berlin. These were the last two aerial vic­to­ries of the 56th Fighter Group.

Three days later, after fail­ing to encounter enemy fight­ers on an escort mis­sion, the Wolfpack swooped down on Eggebek air­field, their chat­ter­ing machine-guns expend­ing 85,000 rounds and destroy­ing ninety-five parked air­craft on the ground.

The new incen­di­ary ammu­ni­tion proved espe­cial­ly dev­as­tat­ing. After the German sur­ren­der, an air force report enthused “…enemy air­craft burned after having been hit only two or three times.… One pilot destroyed 10 air­craft on a single mis­sion by firing short bursts.” This may be refer­ring to 2nd Lt. Randall Murphy, whose gun camera record­ed the destruc­tion of ten air­craft during the Eggebek strike.

Zemke’s Wolfpack ended the war the top-scor­ing U.S. fight­er group of the 8th Air Force, with 665.5 rec­og­nized aerial kills — or one thou­sand air­craft destroyed, includ­ing those strafed on the ground. The P‑47Ms, which served after the Luftwaffe was large­ly defeat­ed, claimed only fif­teen of those vic­to­ries — though that includ­ed at least seven jet air­craft. Twelve P‑47Ms were lost in acci­dents, and two shot down by ground fire, but not one fell in air-to-air combat.

In recog­ni­tion of the Wolfpack’s achieve­ments, a P‑47M was dis­played under the Eiffel Tower for a vic­to­ry cel­e­bra­tion that July. Meanwhile, Republic devel­oped the P‑47M into to the ulti­mate P‑47N model, 1,800 of which were built. Though slight­ly slower than the P‑47M due to greater weight, the N was mod­i­fied to fly up to 1,800 miles on inter­nal fuel thanks to addi­tion­al tanks incor­po­rat­ed in the wings — a useful qual­i­ty for the long-range mis­sions it flew in the final months of the War in the Pacific.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in con­flict res­o­lu­tion from Georgetown University and served as a uni­ver­si­ty instruc­tor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in edu­ca­tion, edit­ing, and refugee reset­tle­ment in France and the United States. He cur­rent­ly writes on secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary his­to­ry for War Is Boring. This first appeared in January 2019.

Image: Wikipedia.

Source: National Interest

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