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Essay/Term paper: The effects of the p-51 mustang in world war ii

Essay, term paper, research paper:  World War

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This paper deals with the contributions of the P-51 Mustang to the


victory of the Allies in Europe during World War II. It describes the


scene in Europe before the P-51 was introduced, traces the development


the fighter, its advantages, and the abilities it was able to contribute


the Allies' arsenal. It concludes with the effect that the P-51 had on

German air superiority, and how it led the destruction of the Luftwaffe.

The thesis is that: it was not until the advent of the North American


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.

This paper was inspired largely by my grandfather, who flew the P-51 out


Leiston, England, during WW II and contributed to the eventual Allied

success that is traced in this paper. He flew over seventy missions


February and August 1944, and scored three kills against German


Table of Contents


Reasons for the Pre-P-51 Air Situation

The Pre-P-51 Situation

The Allied Purpose in the Air War

The Battle at Schweinfurt

The Development of the P-51

The Installation of the Merlin Engines

Features, Advantages, and Benefits of the P-51

The P-51's Battle Performance

The Change in Policy on Escort Fighter Function

P-51's Disrupt Luftwaffe Fighter Tactics

P-51's Give Bombers Better Support


Works Cited


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


military strategic theory -- blitzkrieg. Blitzkrieg, literally


war," involved the fast and deadly coordination of two distinct forces,


Wermacht and the Luftwaffe. The Wermacht advanced on the ground, while


Luftwaffe destroyed the enemy air force, attacked enemy ground forces,


disrupted enemy communication and transportation systems. This setup was

responsible for the successful invasions of Poland, Norway, Western


the Balkans and the initial success of the Russian invasion. For many


after the first of September, the air war in Europe was dominated by the

Luftwaffe. No other nation involved in the war had the experience,

technology, or numbers to challenge the Luftwaffe's superiority. It was


until the United States joined the war effort that any great harm was


to Germany and even then, German air superiority remained unscathed. It


not until the advent of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and all


the improvements, benefits, and side effects that it brought with it,


the Allies were able to achieve air superiority over the Germans.

Reasons for the Pre-P-51 Air Situation

The continued domination of the European skies by the Luftwaffe was


by two factors, the first of which was the difference in military theory

between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force. The theories concerning


purpose and function of the Luftwaffe and RAF were exactly opposite and

were a result of their experiences in World War I. During WW I, Germany

attempted a strategic bombing effort directed against England using


(biplane bombers) and Zeppelins (slow-moving hot-air balloons) which did

not give much of a result. This, plus the fact that German military


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


ground-attack aircraft in Spain (i.e. at Guernica), and so they figured

that their air force should mainly consist of this kind of planes. So

Germany made the Luftwaffe a ground support force that was essentially


extension of the army and functioned as a long- range, aerial artillery.

The RAF, on the other hand, had experimented with ground-attack fighters

during WW I, and had suffered grievous casualty rates. This, combined


the fact that the British had been deeply enraged and offended by the

German Gotha and Zeppelin attacks on their home soil, made them


to develop a strategic air force that would be capable of bombing German

soil in the next war. Thus, 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. (Boyne 21)

The Pre-P-51 Situation

Because of these fundamental differences, the situation that resulted


the air war began was: bombers in enemy territory vs. attack planes. The

"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


forced to fly most of their long journeys alone. (Perret 104) 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


range. The rule-of-thumb for fighter ranges was that they could go as


as Aachen, which was about 250 miles from the Allied fighters' home


in England, before they had to turn around. Unfortunately, most of the

bombers' targets were between 400 and 700 miles from England. (Bailey


This meant that bombers could only be escorted into the Benelux


northern France, and the very western fringe of Germany. When these

unescorted, ungainly, slow, unmaneuverable bombers flew over Germany,


were practically sitting ducks for the fast German fighters. On the


hand, the bombers were equipped with several machine guns and were able


consistently shoot down some of their attackers. Because of this, "U.S.

strategists were not yet convinced of the need for long-range fighters;

they continued to cling to the belief that their big bomber formations

could defend themselves over Germany." (Bailey 153)

The Allied Purpose in the Air War

The Allies knew that they had to drive German industry into the ground


order to win the war. Since the factories, refineries, assembly-lines,


other industry-related structures were all inland, the only way to


them was by sending in bombers. The only way that the bombers could


real success was by gaining air superiority, which meant that nearly all


the bombers would be able to drop their bombs without being harassed by

fighters, and return home to fight another day. The problem with this

sequence was that the Allies did not have this superiority, (Bailey 28)

because their bombers were consistently getting shot down in fairly


numbers, by the German fighters that kept coming. The Allies soon


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


be attacked with more aggression. Following this logic, the Allies began


intensified bombing effort that resulted in the famous bombings of


(July 24-28, 1943) and Ploesti (August 1, 1943), among others. And,


this did cause more fighters to come up to meet and engage the bombers.

Unfortunately, the bombers were overwhelmed by the German opposition,


their losses soon began to increase. (Copp 359) The Allied air forces


in effect, pushed a stick into a hornets' nest, hoping to kill the


when they came out, and been stung by the ferocity of their response.

The Battle at Schweinfurt

The culminating point of this backfiring plan was the second bombing


on Schweinfurt, which occurred on October 14, 1943. Schweinfurt was the

location of huge ball-bearing factories that supplied most of the

ball-bearings for the entire German military. The U.S. Eighth Air Force


staged a fairly successful raid on the same city two months earlier, but

the second time around, the Germans were ready for them. The official

report afterwards said that the Luftwaffe "turned in a performance

unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was

planned, and in the severity with which it was executed." Of the 229

bombers that actually made it all the way to Schweinfurt, 60 were shot

down, and 17 more made it home, but were damaged beyond repair. This was


26.5% battle loss rate for the Americans, while the Germans only lost 38

airplanes the whole day, from all causes. (Boyne 327) This battle was


of the key battles of the war, and undeniably proved to the Allies that


bomber offensive could not continue without a long-range fighter escort.

(Copp 444) Even before October of '43, some had begun to realize the


for this kind of fighter. In June, the Commanding General of the Army


Forces, General Hap Arnold, wrote a memo to his Chief of Staff, Major

General Barney Giles, which said:

This brings to my mind the absolute necessity for building a

fighter airplane that can go in and out with the bombers.

Moreover, this fighter has got to go into Germany. . . . Whether

you use an existing type or have to start from scratch is your

problem. 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. (Copp 413-414)

The Development of the P-51

In April of 1940, "Dutch" Kindleberger, president of North American

Aviation, visited Sir Henry Self, the head of the aircraft division of


British Purchasing Commission, asking if Britain would like to buy some


his B-25 bombers. Self was not interested in buying any more bombers,


was interested in buying a good fighter. He directed Kindleberger to the

Curtiss company, who had a new fighter design, but were too busy


P-40's to do anything with it. Kindleberger went to Curtiss and bought

their design for $56,000. He promised Self to have the planes ready by

September of 1941. The prototype of the NA-73, as it was called, was


to fly in October of 1940 and proved to have an excellent design. The


had a revolutionary wing design that allowed it to fly at high speeds

without adverse compression effects. In other planes, as they approached


certain speed, usually around 450 mph, the air would be flowing around


wing at nearly the speed of sound, putting huge amounts of pressure on


wings, which were unable to deal with the stress. The NA-73 did not have

this problem, which meant it could fly safely at much higher speeds.

Another revolutionary idea in the plane was the way heated air from the

radiator was dealt with. The NA-73's engineers designed it to expel this

air and boost the planes speed by 15 or 25 mph. The engineers also


especially hard on making the plane as aerodynamic as possible, and so


positioned the radiator in a new place, made the fuselage as narrow as

possible, and set the cockpit low in the fuselage. (Perret 118-119) It


at this point that an error was made that made the Mustang useless as a

long-range offensive fighter. When the NA-73 was mass produced as the


it was powered by a 1550 horsepower air-cooled Allison engine, which did

not have a supercharger and lost performance above 11,800 ft. At high

altitudes air pressure goes down, and so there is less oxygen in a given

amount of air, which means that engines do not burn as cleanly, and so


power. Superchargers compress air before it is pumped into the engine

cylinders so that there is enough oxygen for the engine to function


The early Allison-engined planes did not have the supercharger, and so


limited to low-altitude operations. Even without a high- altitude

capability, the Mustang was an impressive plane and was bought in


by the RAF. It flew its first mission on May 10, 1942, against

Berck-sur-Mer on the French coast. (Grant 17-18)

The Installation of the Merlin Engines

So, for the next eighteen months, the P-51A's continued to fly with the

RAF, doing their unexceptional jobs well. After the plane began to go


combat, some people began looking into the idea of fitting the Mustang


a more powerful engine. As the RAF said, it was "a bloody good airplane,

only it needs a bit more poke." (Grant 22) One day, an RAF test pilot


flying a P-51A and the thought occurred to him that the plane could be

fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which had about 300 more

horsepower and included a supercharger. He suggested it to Rolls-Royce's

Chief Aerodynamic Engineer and "both men realized that the combination


this sort of performance with the aerodynamically efficient airframe of


Mustang would revolutionize its potential." (Grant 22) This plan was


carried out and in November 1943, the first group of P-51B's arrived in


Features, Advantages, and Benefits of the P-51

This final Mustang design was superior to anything else that flew at the

time. The P-51B had a huge internal gasoline tank capacity (around 425

gallons) and its engine was very economical, using about half the


of other American fighters. This meant its range was 1080 miles and


be extended to 2600 miles when extra drop-tanks were attached to the


This made its range far more than any Allied or German fighter's. As far


performance went, it was superior to all others as well. Neither of the

other two main American fighters could compete; the P-47 was too heavy


the P-38 had too many technical problems. The British fighters, the

Spitfire and the Hurricane did not have the range, speed, or power. But

most important was its superiority over the German fighters, the most

important of which were the FW-190 and the Me-109. The Mustang was 50


faster than the Germans up to 28,000 ft beyond which it was much faster

than the FW-190 and still substantially faster than the Me-109. The


had between 3000 and 4000 lbs more weight, and so was able to outdive

either German plane. The tightness of its turns was much better than the

Me-109 and slightly better than the FW-190. (Grant 31, Boyne 389-390,

Bailey 153) The result of all of this was that the Allies now had a


that could go with the bombers all the way to and from their targets,


and defeat the bombers' German attackers, and not run out of fuel.

The P-51's Battle Performance

So, at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944, the new American


began arriving in England in force. (Dupuy 34) For the first few months


the year, the Mustangs were settling in and having their systems


But by March, the Mustangs had decisively taken control. The arrival and

subsequent heavy use of the P-51's had several effects.

The first effect that the Mustangs had was in the running air battles


Europe. Before the beginning of 1944, the bombers had been alone as they

approached their faraway targets. But the P-51 changed this, and quickly

made an impression on all concerned, enemy and ally alike. For example,


January 11, 1944, the Eighth Air Force launched its first deep


of Germany with P-51 coverage. The bombers' targets were the cities of

Oschersleben and Halberstadt, where many German planes were being

constructed. When they arrived, there were 49 Mustangs covering a force


around 220 bombers. Even though the bombers suffered heavy casualties,


were able to inflict substantial damage on their target factories. But


most significant thing about the battle was the shining performance of


P-51's. Since the bombers were attacking two different cities, the


force had to divide into two groups, to support the different attacks.

Because of the sensitive nature of the bombers' targets, the Luftwaffe


out in force to defend their factories. During the ensuing melee, the 49

P-51's shot down 15 enemy planes without suffering a single loss. Major

Howard, the group's leader, was credited with four kills within minutes.

(Bailey 155) In the grand scheme of things, this battle was


but it goes to show how much of advantage the P-51's had over their


counterparts. Considering that these were essentially first-time pilots


the Mustangs' first big battle, this is very impressive.

The Change in Policy on Escort Fighter Function

Another thing happened at the same time as the arrival of the P-51 that

greatly aided the Allies and fully utilized the great capabilities of


Mustang. Before the beginning of 1944, the bomber escort's primary


was to fly alongside the bombers, repel any attacks made on the bombers,

and generally make sure the bombers stayed safe. Indeed, the motto of


Eighth Air Force Fighter Command was "Our Mission is to Bring the


Back Alive." One day at the beginning of the year, Jimmy Doolittle, who


the commander of the Eighth Air Force, saw a plaque on the wall with


motto on it and said, "That's not so. Your mission is to destroy the


Air Force. . .Take that damned thing down." (Copp 456) And just days

before, in his New Year's Day address to the Eighth Air Force command,

General Arnold had said, "My personal message to you-this is a MUST- is


destroy the enemy air force wherever you find them, in the air, on the

ground and in the factories." (Copp 456) What this meant was that the

escort fighters were not tied to the bombers anymore, and were free to


over the countryside and through the towns and cities, destroying at


The sweeping Mustangs were released to ravage German convoys, trains,

antiaircraft gun emplacements, warehouses, airfields, factories, radar

installations, and other important things that would be impractical to


attacked by bombers. The fighters were also able to attack German


when they were least prepared for it, like when they were taking off or

forming up in the air. What made this possible was the increase in the

number of American planes present in Europe. This increase in the number


Allied planes compared to the number of German planes continued to the

point that, on D-Day, the Allies used 12,873 aircraft while the Germans

were only able to muster a mere 300. (Overy 77) By using this


numerical advantage, the Allied fighters were able to swamp their


in an unstoppable flood of planes.

P-51's Disrupt Luftwaffe Fighter Tactics

This increase in the number of fighters plus the change in fighter

philosophy allowed the escorts to cover the bombers while simultaneously

ranging far from the bomber stream and destroying all that they could


This caused the disruption of several effective German fighter tactics


had been used successfully in the past. One of these tactics was the

deployment of slow, ungainly German planes that would fly around the


formations, out of gun range, and report back on where the bombers were


where their weak spots were. The free-ranging P-51's soon wiped out


planes. Another popular tactic was to mount rocket launchers on the


of some of these slower craft, have them linger just out of range of the

bombers' guns, and send rockets flying into the bomber formations. These

rocket attacks were terrifying to the bomber crews, and often broke up

formations, sending some planes to the ground. Obviously, these attacks

also came to a halt. Most importantly, the fast German fighters had to

change their attack tactics. Beforehand, they would fly alongside the

formations and wait for the right moment to swoop in and attack a


Now, they were forced to group together several miles away from the

bombers, and then turn and made a mad rush at the bombers, hoping to

inflict sufficient damage on one pass to shoot down some number of enemy

bombers. They could not afford to stay with the bombers for very long


fear of being attacked by the Mustangs. (Perret 293) Indeed, soon after


P-51's entered onto the scene, Hermann Goering, the commander of the

Luftwaffe, recommended that the German defensive fighters avoid combat


the P-51, and only attack bomber formations when there were no fighters

around. The result of all of this is that the American fighters, led by


P-51's, soon began to gain air superiority. Not long after Goering's

recommendation, a sarcastic Luftwaffe officer commented that the safest

flying in the world was to be an American fighter over Germany. (Dupuy

35-36) It is obvious that the P-51, once it was supplied to the Eighth


Force in great quantities, and unleashed by Doolittle and Arnold's new

fighter policies, soon took a heavy toll on German air superiority.

P-51's Give Bombers Better Support

Another profound effect that the increased fighter coverage had was on


most important people, the bombers. After the entrance of the P-51, and


virtual elimination of the German fighter threat, the bombers were in


less danger from German fighters. The result of the decreased danger to


bombers is subtle, but obvious when thought about. Imagine a bomber crew

sitting in their cramped plane, unable to move around or evade attack

during their bombing run while numerous German fighters speed past their

plane firing at them. Second lieutenant William Brick, the bombardier of


B-17 bomber, tells about the day he flew to Linz, Austria on a bombing


. . . The remainder of the run must be perfectly straight and

level, without the slightest deviation, or our five-

thousand-pound bomb load will fall wide of the target. No evasive

action is possible. . . Then comes the sickening rattle of

machine-gun bullets and cannon fire hitting our ship; ignoring

the flak from the antiaircraft batteries, German fighter planes

zoom in so close that it seems they will ram us. . . Even at the

sub-zero temperatures of this altitude, salty sweat pours down my

face and burns my eyeballs. Cursing and praying, I am gripped by

the same brand of helpless fear that fliers experience during

every bomb run. I feel the terror in my hands, in my stomach,

even in my feet. Long after returning from the mission, its

effects will remain etched indelibly on my face. . . . (Brick 61)

This kind of terror experienced by the entire crew of the bombers was


to affect their concentration and their carefulness. Indeed, "it is an

undeniable, if unquantifiable, fact that it is easier to bomb precisely

when you know you will probably not be shot out of the sky." (Boyne 341)


In the end, the way that the Allied air forces gained air superiority


by destroying its opposition. The ways in which the fighters were able


destroy German fighters were diverse. The fighters utilized their high

speed and maneuverability to fly low-level strafing missions that ranged

over large expanses of territory and destroyed many Luftwaffe craft on


ground. This tactic was responsible for the destruction of many dozens


fighters that were unable to go on and fight in the air. Another way


the Allied fighters destroyed their opposition, and the most important


was by luring them into the air. Going back to the hornets' nest


the Allies stopped pushing the stick and decided to bide their time


the moment was right. When they did start pushing the stick into the


again, they were armed with a metaphoric insecticide. In real life, this

"insecticide" was the P-51. Beforehand, the Allies had nothing that


stop the "hornets" and so were helpless to stop their attack. But after

they had developed an "insecticide" capable of killing the "hornets,"


proceeded to lure the hornets into the open where they could be


In real life, the bombers were the lure that brought the Luftwaffe into


air. 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


to try to stop the bombers from wrecking their war effort. "Air


had been won not by bombing the enemy's factories into oblivion;


it was won by the long-range fighter, using the bomber formations as


to entice the Luftwaffe to fight." (Boyne 338) With the advent of great

numbers of the highly superior P-51 Mustang, the German fighters that


up to attack the bombers quickly met their match and were easily


by the Mustangs.

Works Cited

Bailey, Ronald H. The Air War in Europe. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life

Books, 1979. A simple, straight-forward book that includes much


on the development of military aviation, and includes many pictures that

chronicle the air war.

Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings: World War II in the Air. New York:

Simon &

Schuster, 1994. A very informative and user- friendly book that dealt


the air aspect of all fronts and theaters of WWII. It includes much data


numerous planes in its appendices.

Brick, William. "Bombardier." American History, April 1995, pp. 60-65. A

short magazine article following the story of how a U.S. airman was shot

down over Austria, and his subsequent imprisonment by the Nazis.

Copp, DeWitt S. Forged in Fire: Strategy and Decisions in the Airwar


Europe, 1940-1945. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1982. A


dealing mostly with the U.S. involvement in the War, with particular

emphasis on the politics of the military officials, and how the major

strategic decisions were made.

Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt. The Air War in the West: June 1941 to April 1945.


York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1963. A short, very basic book that did not


into depth, but did cover its material well.

Grant, William Newby. P-51 Mustang. London: Bison Books Limited, 1980. A

relatively short book, but one that dealt solely with the P-51, and went

into considerable depth concerning its construction and use during WWII


in later conflicts.

Overy, R.J. The Air War: 1939-1945. New York: Stein and Day Publishers,

1980. A fairly dry book that dealt mostly with the economics and

generalities of the air war, without dealing too much with the actual


Perret, Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II.


York: Random House, 1993. A good book that covered its topic well,


in-depth discussion of the contributions of the other allies' forces is


dealt with. 

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