“The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”
- Hermann Goering, German Luftwaffe commander, WWII
The P-51 Mustang is generally considered the best fighter plane of WWII. It was the first plane with the range, maneuverability and reliability necessary to accompany bombers on long-range missions from England to Germany, and was thus a critical component of eventual Allied victory in Europe. Over 15,000 planes were produced, and less than 300 survive today, of which only about 150 are flying.
From the Ace Pilots website:
North American Aviation originally designed the Mustang in response to a British specification (440 mpg, six 50-caliber machine guns). They agreed to produce the first prototype only 4 months after signing the contract in April 1940. By the end of 1941 North American had delivered the first Mustang to England for test flights. These first Mustangs were powered by the Allison V-1710 engine, a good engine, but one which didn’t operate well at high altitudes.
In April, 1942, a British test pilot, Ronald Harker, flew the Mustang and was very impressed by it. He suggested that the new plane would be a natural fit with the Rolls Royce Merlin 60-series engine, well-suited to high altitudes. At the prodding of Major Thomas Hitchcock, the Americans began working along the same lines (using the Packard license-built version of the Merlin), and the first Merlin-equipped Mustang, the P-51B, flew in November, 1942. The results were impressive, to say the least. At 30,000 feet, the improved Mustang reached 440 MPH, almost 100 MPH faster than the Allison-equipped Mustang at that altitude.
[The P-51] first flew in Royal Air Force (RAF) service as a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft before conversion to a bomber escort, employed in raids over Germany, helping ensure Allied air superiority from early 1944. The P-51 also saw limited service against the Japanese in the Pacific War. The Mustang began the Korean War as the United Nations’ main fighter, but was relegated to a ground attack role when superseded by jet fighters early in the conflict. Nevertheless, it remained in service with some air forces until the early 1980s.
After World War II and the Korean War, many Mustangs were converted for civilian use, especially air racing. The Mustang’s reputation was such that, in the mid-1960s, Ford Motor Company’s Designer John Najjar proposed the name for a new youth-oriented coupe automobile after the fighter…
In June 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued the Pointblank Directive to destroy the Luftwaffe before the invasion of Europe… The 8th Air Force heavy-bomber force conducted a series of deep-penetration raids into Germany beyond the range of available escort fighters. German fighter reaction was fierce, and bomber losses were severe—20% in an October 14 attack on the German ball-bearing industry. This made it too costly to continue such long-range raids without adequate fighter escort.
The Lockheed P-38 Lightning had the range to escort the bombers, but was available in very limited numbers in the European theater due to its Allison engines proving difficult to maintain. With the extensive use of the P-38 in the Pacific Theater of Operations, where its twin engines were deemed vital to long-range “over-water” operations, nearly all European-based P-38 units converted to the P-51 in 1944. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was capable of meeting the Luftwaffe on more than even terms, but did not at the time have sufficient range. The Mustang changed all that… It used a single, well-understood, reliable engine and had internal space for a huge fuel load. With external fuel tanks, it could accompany the bombers all the way to Germany and back.
Enough P-51s became available to the 8th and 9th Air Forces in the winter of 1943-44, and, when the Pointblank offensive resumed in early 1944, matters changed dramatically. The P-51 proved perfect for the task of escorting bombers all the way to the deepest targets, thus complementing the more numerous P-47s until sufficient Mustangs became available. The Eighth Air Force immediately began to switch its fighter groups to the Mustang, first exchanging arriving P-47 groups for those of the 9th Air Force using P-51s, then gradually converting its Thunderbolt and Lightning groups until, by the end of the year, 14 of its 15 groups flew the Mustang.
Luftwaffe Experten were confident that they could out-maneuver the P-51 in a dogfight. Kurt Bühlingen, the third-highest scoring German fighter pilot of the Second World War on the Western Front, with 112 victories, later recalled that “We would out-turn the P-51 and the other American fighters, with the (Bf)109 or the (Fw)190. Their turn rate was about the same. The P-51 was faster than us but our munitions and cannon were better”. Robert S. Johnson, the second-highest scoring U.S. fighter pilot in European theater flew the P-47 against German fighters. Johnson pointed out “Generally speaking, I’d say the best (Focke-Wulf) 190s and the P-51 were very close in performance; the difference was probably in the pilot in these combats.”
Usually Luftwaffe pilots attempted to avoid U.S. fighters by massing in huge numbers well in front of the bombers, attacking in a single pass, then breaking off the attack, allowing escorting fighters little time to react. The need to inflict heavy casualties on the American bombers was now more pressing than ever. To do this, the German fighters needed to carry very heavy armament. The weight of this armament decreased performance to the point where their aircraft were sitting ducks if caught by the P-51s, likely to appear in large numbers anywhere over Germany. The Luftwaffe answer was the Gefechtsverband (battle formation). It consisted of a Sturmgruppe of heavily armed and armoured Fw 190s escorted by two Begleitgruppen of light fighters, often Bf 109Gs, whose task was to keep the Mustangs away from the Fw 190s attacking the bombers. This scheme was excellent in theory but difficult to apply in practice. The massive German formation took a long time to assemble and was difficult to maneuver…
Beginning in late February 1944, 8th Air Force fighter units began systematic strafing attacks on German airfields that picked up in frequency and intensity throughout the spring, with the objective of gaining air supremacy over the Normandy battlefield. In general, these were conducted by units returning from escort missions, but beginning in March, many groups also were assigned airfield attacks instead of bomber support. On 15 April, VIII FC began Operation Jackpot, attacks on specific Luftwaffe fighter airfields, and on 21 May, these attacks were expanded to include railways, locomotives, and rolling stock used by the Germans to transport materiel and troops, in missions dubbed “Chattanooga”. The P-51 also excelled at this mission, although losses were much higher on strafing missions than in air-to-air combat, partially because, like other fighters using liquid-cooled engines, the Mustang’s coolant system could be punctured by small arms hits, even from a single bullet.
The numerical superiority of the USAAF fighters, superb flying characteristics of the P-51 and pilot proficiency helped cripple the Luftwaffe’s fighter force. As a result, the fighter threat to US, and later British bombers, was greatly diminished by summer 1944. Reichmarshal Hermann Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe during the war, was quoted as saying, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”