The North American P-51 Mustang was perhaps the only airplane to seriously rival the Spitfire for the title of most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing fighter of the Second World War. When it came to performance, however, the Mustang had no serious rival for the title of best fighter of that conflict. It embodied the pinnacle of propeller driven fighter technology, and proved itself a credible match against all Axis opponents in all of the war’s theaters, even the revolutionary Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.
The Mustang was initially designed for the RAF. The plane that was manufactured in accordance with the British buyers’ specifications, and delivered in October of 1941, was mediocre. Equipped with an underpowered engine, those early Mustangs were poor competition for German fighters at high altitude. As such, the RAF’s Fighter Command saw no use for the plane, and it was relegated to tactical reconnaissance and ground attack duties. In 1943, the US Eighth Air Force joined the bombing campaign against Germany and suffered horrendous losses during raids deep into Reich territory beyond the range of fighter escorts. That was when the Mustang got a second look.
The front line American fighters at the time, the P-38s and P-47s, had shortcomings as bomber escorts. Biggest one was that they lacked sufficient range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep into Germany. After evaluation, it was determined that the P-51 Mustang might solve that problem. If modified to carry additional fuel internally and fitted with external fuel tanks, it would have enough range to escort the bombers anywhere in Europe. That fixed half of the problem: transforming the Mustang into a fighter that could accompany American bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany.
Fixing the other half of the problem – improving the Mustang’s performance so it could beat back German fighters and actually protect the bombers it would now escort – transformed the Mustang into a legend. What had kept the Mustang mediocre was a mediocre engine that performed poorly at high altitudes. Equipped with that stock engine, the initial Mustangs had a top speed of 390 miles per hour, and an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet. If they flew any higher, their performance suffered. Then, as seen below, a solution was found.
17. A Brainstorm That Transformed an OK Fighter Into the Greatest One
Eventually, a British test pilot had the bright idea of replacing the P-51’s stock engine with the Rolls Royce engine used in the Spitfire IX. The results were immediate and dramatic. The new engine allowed the Mustang to realize its potential, and transformed it from a mediocrity to the war’s best fighter. From a 390 mph top speed, the Rolls Royce Mustang zoomed to 440 mph, and later models reached 490 mph. From an effective ceiling of 15,000 feet, the improved Mustang soared to 42,000 feet. The test results were passed on to the Americans, and converted Mustangs, equipped with the Rolls Royce engine and now designated the P-51B, began to roll out of factories in June, 1943.
By late 1943, P-51s were in place and ready for action in Europe. When they entered action in 1944, they broke the Luftwaffe’s back. German Messerschmitt Bf 109s had good engines that performed well at the high altitudes in which the bombers flew. But to actually down the rugged B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers, the 109s needed to be fitted with heavy armaments. The problem was that the addition of heavy armaments to the Bf 109s’ light airframe negatively impacted their performance. It made them vulnerable to the bombers’ escorting P-51s, unencumbered by heavy armaments, and armed and optimized instead for the task of ending fighters.
16. An Aggressive Change in Tactics That Created Many an American Ace Over German Skies
German Focke-Wulf Fw 190s had it even worse than the Bf 109s when they tried to penetrate the protective screen of P-51s in order to get at the bombers. While the 109s at least had engines that were suited for high altitude dog fighting, the Fw 190s did not have even that. Fw 190 radial engines were no match for the Mustangs’ Rolls Royce engines at high altitudes. That combined with the dilemma of needing heavy armaments in order to shoot down heavy bombers, even as those heavy armaments reduced their ability to take on enemy fighters not similarly encumbered. It placed the Fw 190s found themselves at a severe disadvantage against the P-51s. After months of heavy losses to the Mustangs, and unsustainable attrition that bled the German fighter arm white, the Luftwaffe effectively ceded the skies over Germany to the P-51 escorted bombers.
German fighters eventually began to shadow bomber formations, without attacking them. Instead, they pounced on stragglers with mechanical malfunctions or damaged by flak. The P-51s begrudged them even that, and would not allow the once proud Luftwaffe to skulk and scavenge in peace. If German fighters would not come up to fight them, then they would go down to find and fight the German fighters. When Jimmy Doolittle, of Tokyo Raid fame, was appointed to command the Eighth Air Force, he was not content with simply protecting the bombers. Instead, he sought to achieve aerial supremacy over German skies. To do that, he changed the orders that had required escorting fighters to stick with the bombers at all times, and freed them to sweep far ahead of the formations to engage any Germans they could find. Seemingly overnight, many an American P-51 ace was created.
15. The American Fighter That Sealed the Luftwaffe’s Coffin
Once American bombers hit their targets and began their return trip, their P-51 escorts were free to leave the formations and “hit the deck” on their way back home. They descended from their high altitudes and tangled with any planes they came across. They strafed German airfields, attacked trains or road traffic, engaged any targets of opportunity they spotted, and otherwise provoked and dared the Luftwaffe to come out and do something about it. In the runup to the D-Day landings, some P-51 groups were released from bomber escort duties altogether, and unleashed on German airfields instead. Such aggressive tactics finally crippled the Luftwaffe. The P-51s proved such a success, and were such a marked improvement over the P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts, that by the end of 1944, fourteen out of the Eighth Air Force’s fifteen fighter groups had switched from those fighters to P-51s.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Mustangs came from the Luftwaffe’s chief, Hermann Goering. He reportedly said “I knew the jig was up” when he saw P-51s over Berlin. Even the arrival of futuristic German airplanes late in the war failed to wrest aerial supremacy from the P-51s. The most formidable of those planes, the Messerschmitt Me 262, was kept in check by a shortage of both fuel and experienced pilots. Also by the expedients of attacking their airfields and strafing them on the ground, or keeping fighter air patrols near their airfields to catch them at their most vulnerable as they took off or landed.
African Americans played a significant role in America’s military history. They did so despite the limited opportunities, adversity, and open hostility that they frequently had to contend with when they tried to serve their country. Particularly from higher ups who believed that blacks were racially unsuited for leadership or combat duty. Accordingly, they designed and implemented policies to deny them leadership opportunities and training. An example was the widespread conviction in American military aviation circles, before and throughout WWII, that blacks were manifestly unsuited for aerial combat.
Notwithstanding, African American pilots were trained and organized into racially segregated all-black squadrons that were sent to serve overseas. They came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen, after their training base in Tuskegee, Alabama. They flew P-40 Warhawks, Bell P-39 Airacobras, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, and finally, the planes with which they became most closely associated, P-51 Mustangs. The black airmen put up impressive numbers during the conflict, and by the time the war was over, they had put to rest the myth that aviation was too challenging for African Americans.
13. Segregation in the US Armed Forces Led to Calls for the Creation of an All-Black Fighter Unit
In the First World War, African Americans tried to fly or serve as aerial observers in the US military, but were rejected. Their numbers included Eugene Bullard, a black pilot who flew for the French air force during the war, because his own country’s military aviation would not have him. Blacks continued to be barred from service in US military aviation until pressure and successful lobbying by civil rights groups got Congress to pass a bill in 1939 to train black flyers.
The War Department and the military aviation establishment dragged their feet and slow walked the implementation of the legislation. In 1941, they finally gave in to pressure and created the 99th Pursuit Squadron. In accordance with the military’s racial segregation policies, the 99th was an all-black flying outfit. The unit had 47 officers and 429 men, and training began in Tuskegee, Alabama, in July of 1941. The first class of five black fighter pilots graduated in March, 1942. They included Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps plane. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel that July, and placed in command of the 99th.
12. American Commanders Were Lukewarm to the Idea of Black Pilots
Even as the Tuskegee training pipeline began to pump out black aviators, most were left to cool their heels. The new black pilots were given no assignments, as plans to place them into command slots were slow walked or resisted by higher ups. The US Army Air Forces’ commanding general, Henry “Hap” Arnold, was among those who were lukewarm about the placement of black officers in operational slots. One of his stated objections was that: “Negro pilots cannot be used in our present Air Corps units since this would result in Negro officers serving over white enlisted men creating an impossible social situation“.
It took even more public pressure from civil rights groups and the black press, plus the personal intercession of the president, before the military finally relented, and declared the 99th Pursuit Squadron combat ready in April, 1943. It was shipped to North Africa, where it flew P-40 Warhawks as operational fighters. Its first combat assignment was to participate in Operation Corkscrew, the air assault on the Italian island of Pantelleria, to clear the way for the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily.
11. America’s Black Pilots Finally Saw Combat in the Mediterranean Theater
Flying out of Tunis, the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron carried out its first combat mission on June 2nd, 1943, and Operation Corkscrew turned out to be an auspicious start for the Tuskegee Airmen. Pantelleria, with a garrison of about 11,000 Italians and 100 Germans, surrendered on June 11th – the first time in history that a sizeable ground force surrendered because of aerial attacks. However, the 99th was unfairly criticized by some white aviators. They included the unit’s own commander, who accused the black pilots of “failure to … display aggressiveness and daring for combat“, and called for the unit’s disbandment. The 99th was cleared by an Army Air Forces investigation, which revealed that the unit had performed just as well or better than other squadrons flying P-40s. Rather than get disbanded, the close look at the black flyers’ performance earned their squadron a Distinguished Unit Citation.
After Operation Corkscrew, the 99th flew in support of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in July, 1944. Once airfields were secured in Sicily, the black flyers relocated from North Africa to that island, then flew in support of the Allied invasion of Italy that September. The 99th was then tasked with providing close air support to the US 5th Army during some of its major operations. They included the capture of Foggia and its vital airfields, and the amphibious Anzio landings. Attached to the 79th Fighter Group, the black flyers of the 99th saw significant action as one of eight fighter squadrons that defended the Anzio beachhead from German aerial attacks.
On January 27th to 28th, 1944, the eight squadrons defending Anzio collectively shot down 32 German airplanes. The 99th claimed the highest score among them, with 13 victories. A week later, the 99th was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and tasked with harbor protection, convoy escort, and armed reconnaissance missions. The 99th also provided close air support to the French and Polish armies during their assault on Monte Cassino in May, 1944. The unit distinguished itself in the latter engagement. It surprised and devastated German infantry massing for a counterattack, then bombed and strafed a nearby strongpoint, forcing its surrender to French colonial troops. That performance earned the 99th its second Distinguished Unit Citation.
In the meantime, the airbase in Tuskegee pumped out more black aviators. By February, 1944, there were three all-black fighter squadrons ready and waiting in the US: the 100th, 301st, and 302nd. The units were shipped to North Africa, where they were combined into the all-black 332nd Fighter Group. The new group with its novice squadrons was then sent to Italy, where it was joined by the now-veteran 99th Pursuit Squadron in June, 1944. The Tuskegee Airmen initially flew P-40s, then were switched to Bell P-39 Airacobras in March , 1944, and upgraded to P-47 Thunderbolts in June. In July, 1944, they were finally equipped with the airplane with which they became most associated: the P-51 Mustang. Operating out of Ramitelli Airfield in the city of Campomarino on the Adriatic coast, the 332nd Fighter Group was tasked with escorting the Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers.
9. The “Red Tails” Distinguish Themselves Over Berlin
For the rest of the war, the Tuskegee airmen accompanied the Fifteenth Air Force’s bombers on strategic raids. The black flyers flew cover on missions that targeted oil refineries, marshalling yards, factories, and airfields. The assignments took them to Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, and Poland. The 332nd earned an impressive combat record while escorting the heavy bombers, whose crews referred to the black flyers as “Red Tails” or “Red Tail Angels” because of the distinctive red paint the unit used on its airplanes’ tails. They earned another nickname from their opponents: “Schwarze Vogelmenschen“, or “Black Birdmen”.
The Tuskegee Airmen’s most famous mission, in which they went up against German Me 262 fighter jets, came on March 24th, 1945. That day, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis led 43 Mustangs of 332nd Fighter Group as bomber escorts for Fifteenth Air Force B-17s, who flew a 1600 mile round trip to raid a tank factory in Berlin. The Luftwaffe put up stiff resistance, and sent up clouds of Fw 190s, Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, plus 25 Me 262 jet fighters. Tuskegee Airmen Roscoe Brown, Charles Brantley, and Earl Lane, all managed to shoot down Luftwaffe jets over Berlin that day. The 332nd Fighter Group earned another Distinguished Unit Citations for its feats on that mission.
8. A Distinguished Combat Record That Proved the Doubters Wrong
In total, the all-black squadrons flew 1578 combat missions, including 179 bomber escort missions, and put up some pretty good statistics while they were at it. They lost bombers on only seven missions, for a total of 27 airplanes, compared to an average loss of 46 bombers for other Fifteenth Air Force P-51 fighter groups. They shot down 112 enemy airplanes, destroyed another 150 on the ground, and damaged 148 more. On ground attack runs, they destroyed 600 rail cars, plus 350 trucks and motor vehicles. At sea, they destroyed 40 boats and barges, plus a German torpedo boat.
Collectively, the Tuskegee Airmen earned three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC). The first of them went to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for its performance in the aerial assault on Pantelleria in June of 1943. The 99th earned another DUC in May of 1944, for actions at Monte Cassino. The third Distinguished Unit Citation went to the 332nd Fighter Group (including the 99th Pursuit Squadron plus two other black squadrons, the 100th and 301st) for action over Berlin in March of 1945.
7. The Tuskegee Airmen Turned Out to be Some of America’s Best Fighter Pilots
Despite the predictions of many that blacks were unsuited to fly combat, the Tuskegee Airmen turned out to be some of the best fighter pilots in the US Army Air Forces. During WWII, Tuskegee Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 8 Purple Hearts. Their accomplishments came at a price. Nearly a thousand pilots were trained at Tuskegee, of whom 355 were deployed overseas. 68 of them perished in combat or accidents related thereto, another 12 didn’t make it through training and on non-combat missions, and 32 were taken as prisoners of war.
The numbers should have spoken for themselves. Predictably, though, they did little to silence racists who continued to attack the black airmen. Nonetheless, after the US military was finally desegregated in 1948, the veteran black pilots blossomed in the newly formed United States Air Force, and found themselves in high demand. The 332nd Fighter Group was deactivated in 1949, as part of the Air Force’s plan to achieve racial integration. As a last hurrah, shortly before deactivation, Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group won first place in the US Annual Gunnery Meet – a competition that included shooting aerial targets, strafing ground targets, and dropping bombs.
6. The Ace Who Went Out on a Mission in an American Fighter, and Returned in a German One
WWII has no shortage of feats of heroism, derring-do, and intrepidity. However, few feats of heroic derring-do in that or any other conflict could match the intrepid escape of US Army Air Forces Second Lieutenant Bruce Ward Carr (1924 – 1998) from the Nazis’ clutches. An ace, Carr holds the distinction of being the only USAAF to leave on a combat mission in an American plane, and return to base in a German one. It happened in November, 1944, when Carr flew a strafing mission in P-51 fighter, but was shot down over enemy territory. He evaded capture, then stole an Fw 190 fighter from a German airfield and flew it back home.
Bruce Carr learned to fly in 1939, when he was only fifteen-years-old. In 1942, at age eighteen, he joined the USAAF’s Flying Cadet Training Program. He had the good fortune to get assigned to the same flight instructor who had taught him how to fly in 1939. Carr’s prior experience in the cockpit got him sent to Spence Airfield in Georgia, for an accelerated pilot training program in P-40 Warhawk fighters. After 240 hours in the air, he graduated as a flight officer in late August, 1943, and was sent for more specialized training.
After he graduated from Spence Airfield, Bruce Carr spent two months on more advanced training. It included qualifying in early models of the North American P-51 Mustang fighter, and its ground attack and dive-bombing variant, the A-36 Apache. He was sent to England in early 1944, and assigned to the 380th Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force. Until then, Carr had never flown about 10,000 feet. When he took his P-51 to 30,000 feet, he was so impressed by its handling that he named his airplane “Angel’s Playmate“.
Carr notched his squadron’s first victory on March 8th, 1944, when he pursued a Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Berlin, and chased it to near-ground-level while he fired his guns. Only a single bullet hit the enemy fighter, but its pilot panicked. Unable to escape in his 109 from Carr’s P-51, the Luftwaffe airman tried to escape by abandoning his plane and parachuting to the ground. Unfortunately for the German, he jumped too close to the ground for his parachute to fully open.
4. A Fresh Start With a New Squadron Was What This Fighter Pilot Needed to Become an Ace
Unfortunately for Bruce Carr, higher ups declined to give him credit for the downed Bf 109, arguing that it had crashed, rather than been shot down. He argued that his aggressive actions and pursuit had caused the crash. As he saw it, he had literally scared the enemy pilot to death, and caused him to kill himself. Carr was not only denied credit for his first victory, he was also labeled “overaggressive” by his superiors. So he was transferred to 353rd Squadron, 354th Fighter Group. It was his old outfit’s loss. In his new unit, Carr became not only an ace, but one of the 354th Fighter Group’s top aces. His rise to ace began on June 14th, 1944, when he was credited with a probable extermination of a Bf 109 over Normandy, France.
Three days later, on the 17th, he shared a victory, when he helped another pilot down an Fw 190. That August, Carr was commissioned a second lieutenant. On September 12th, 1944, Second Lieutenant Bruce Carr’s squadron strafed Ju-88 bombers on a German airfield. On the way back, his flight spotted more than thirty Fw 190s two thousand feet below them. The Americans pounced, and in just a few minutes, Carr personally shot down three enemy fighters – an aerial hat trick. He then escorted a fellow American pilot, whose airplane was badly damaged, back to base. His exploits that day earned Carr a Silver Star, America’s third-highest decoration for valor in combat.
Bruce Carr became an ace on October 29th, 1944, when he shot down two more Bf 109s over Germany. Four days later, as he led his flight on a strafing run over a German airfield in Czechoslovakia, Carr’s P-51, Angel’s Playmate, was hit by antiaircraft fire. He bailed out from his fatally damaged plane, and parachuted safely to earth. Carr had managed to escape death in the air. Now he set out to escape Germans on the ground. Stranded deep in enemy territory, hundreds of miles from friendly lines, Carr evaded capture for several days. Eventually, cold, wet, exhausted, and starving, he decided to surrender. Aware that German airmen treated enemy airmen better than other POWs, Carr headed to a Luftwaffe airfield he had spotted.
He made it to the surrounding fence, and decided to hide in adjacent woods that night, then walk up to the front gate and surrender the following morning. Then Carr saw something that made him change his mind: German ground-crew fueling and performing maintenance on an Fw 190 near the edge of the runway, close to his hiding spot. When they were done, the Germans tightened the panels back on the plane and left, leaving it ready for combat the next day. That night, Carr worked up the nerve to sneak up to the enemy fighter, and climbed into its cockpit. He fought off sleep until dawn’s early light allowed him to inspect the instruments. Everything was labeled in German, but there were enough similarities between the German and American cockpits for Carr to guesstimate what did what.
Bruce Carr found the Fw 190’s starter lever, spent half an hour building up his courage, then pulled it. Nothing happened. German starters worked the other way around. He eventually pushed it forward, and the fighter’s BMW motor roared to life. Carr would not risk his escape by wasting any time taxing to and lining up on the runway. Pouring on full throttle, the American ace raced across a corner of the airfield, between two airplane hangars, then over the heads of sleepy and befuddled Germans.
When he reached Allied territory, ground troops opened fire on Carr’s Fw 190. To avoid friendly fire, he flew just above treetop level at 350 mph. After flying about 200 miles, he reached his airfield. Unable to deploy the landing gear or communicate via radio, Carr made a belly landing before his escape was ruined by his own airfield’s defenses blasting him out of the sky. Military police surrounded the crashed Fw 190, and refused to accept Carr’s word that he was American. It was finally sorted out when the group commander arrived, and identified his missing pilot. Carr is the only Allied pilot to fly off in a P-51, and return in an Fw 190.
1. After His Escape, Bruce Carr Joined the “Ace in a Day” Club
Bruce Carr was promoted to first lieutenant, and given a well-deserved leave. However, his wartime exploits were not over. On April 2nd, 1945, First Lieutenant Carr led three other American fighters on a reconnaissance mission, when they spotted sixty German fighters above them. Despite the 15:1 odds against his flight, the fighter ace immediately led an attack. Within minutes, Carr and his companions had downed fifteen Germans. Carr personally downed two Fw 190s, three Bf 109s, and damaged a sixth plane. His downing of five airplanes on that occasion made Carr the European Theater of Operations’ last “Ace in a Day”.
It also earned him a Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second highest award for valor. By war’s end, Carr had flown 172 combat missions, scored fifteen confirmed air-to-air victories, several more unconfirmed victories, and numerous ground victories. He flew another 57 combat missions in the Korean War, and 286 more in Vietnam, earning a Legion of Merit and Three Distinguished Flying Crosses. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1973, died of prostate cancer in 1998, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading