November 26, 1943
The skies over Germany
Aircraft from the US Army Air Forces’ 56th Fighter Group climb toward a formation of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses returning from a bombing run on the heavily industrialized city of Bremen, Germany.
The lumbering Fortresses are sitting ducks for the Nazi fighters now swarming around them, and it’s up to airman like Major Stanley “Gabby” Gabreski to distract them long enough to allow the B-17s to slip through and make it home.
From the cockpit of his hulking warbird, Gabreski eases the throttle forward.
Fuel pours into the big radial engine’s 18 cylinders sending more than 2,000 horsepower coursing through the driveshaft to the massive four-bladed propeller chopping through the thin air.
Leering through his canopy Gabreski is overwhelmed.
The sky is so full of enemy fighters that he’s having trouble deciding which to engage first.
Then a twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 appears 700 yards out, and the decision becomes clearer.
Maneuvering into position and squeezing the stick-mounted trigger, the eight .50 caliber Brownings in the wings snarl to life unleashing a hail of bullets that slam into their target.
Barely avoiding huge chunks of aluminum flying off the 110, Gabreski watches the mangled plane plummet toward the earth as another enemy aircraft flies through his gun sights.
Already throttled up, he pounces and fires.
Moments later, succumbing to heavy damage sustained between its wing and fuselage, it too spirals downward in a dramatic fireball.
With his fourth and fifth kills in the books, Gabreski is officially an ace.
The 25-year-old Pennsylvanian will go on to shoot down more than two dozen enemy aircraft, but he isn’t the first to record a confirmed kill in a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
That honor goes to Don Blakeslee who downed a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 a few months earlier.
Blakeslee would end up with 15 victories, but what makes Gabreski’s kills so special is that all were made from the cockpit of a Republic P-47, one of the fastest, toughest, and most effective high-altitude fighters and ground attack aircraft of the Second World War.
Development of what would become the P-47 Thunderbolt got underway in the late 1930s, when Long Island, New York-based Republic Aviation began designing and building a number of demonstrators to test new concepts and engines.
Early prototypes were stockier and less powerful than later production models, but with empty weights around 10,000 pounds (4,536 kg) and maximum takeoff weights approaching 18,000 pounds (8,160 kg), the planes were absolute behemoths.
By comparison, North American P-51 Mustangs and Supermarine Spitfires had maximum takeoff weights that were between 30 and 50% lighter than the P-47’s.
Designated the XP-47, the US Army Air Corp – the predecessor of the US Army Air Forces – backed the project, but by the spring of 1940 it was evident that the 47 wouldn’t match up well against Luftwaffe fighters.
Both the Messerschmitt Bf 109 which entered service in 1937, and the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 which was nearing the final stages of development were superior in a number of critical areas.
Each had a better power-to-weight ratio, was more agile, and could climb better at low and medium altitudes.
In addition, XP-47s and early production models featured canopies that were partially embedded in the rear of the fuselage.
The forward end of the tail assembly extended over the rear portion of the cockpit which added strength to the airframe and allowed more space for fuel, but it meant that pilots couldn’t see what was behind them – a huge drawback in an aircraft that would ultimately be tasked with tangling with some of the world’s best fighters.
With so many shortcomings, the P-47’s future was far from certain.
Republic addressed many of these issues, but the plane was still plagued by its weight and insufficient power, though each was eventually overcome with the addition of a turbo-supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial engine, and a massive four-bladed propeller that measured nearly 12 feet (3.7 m) from tip to tip.
The supercharger system was complex and presented a number of engineering challenges because it took up tons of space that would have otherwise been used for undercarriage components and fuel tanks, and it made the already bulky airplane about as aerodynamic as a brick.
On the other hand, it produced enormous power which allowed P-47s to operate efficiently at very high altitudes – something many of its contemporaries just couldn’t do.
In fact, the P-47’s engine was capable of producing maximum power even in the thin air at 27,000 feet (8,200 m), where normally aspirated (non supercharged) engines became oxygen starved and lost power by the boatload.
Now with a power plant potent enough to compensate for its heft, the new machine was finally shaping up.
It was also taking on its iconic form, thanks largely to its ovular cowling which allowed the air-cooled engine and oil coolers to remain at normal operating temperatures even at full throttle when the turbo supercharger was spinning at nearly 22,000 rpm.
Armament came from eight .50 caliber Browning machine guns split between the wings, that together could spew out nearly 100 rounds per second.
Designated the The XP-47B, the impressive fighter first flew in early May 1941 with only minor mechanical issues.
Though multiple prototypes were lost during testing, the XP-47B achieved 412 miles per hour (663 km/h) in level flight, and later production models would be even faster.
Sufficiently impressed, the US Army Air Forces ordered more than 170 units, but the first combat missions in the European and Pacific theaters wouldn’t take place until mid-1943.
Tactics and Missions
Though they had gobs of firepower, superior endurance and performed well at high-altitude, tactics were as responsible for the P-47’s successes as the machine itself.
In fact, some pilots considered their Thunderbolts mechanically inferior to the aircraft they faced nearly every day, and they weren’t shy about voicing their opinions.
P-47’s were alternately referred to as “jugs” because they resembled glass milk bottles of the day, and “flying bathtubs” for their sheer bulk.
But though they weren’t great climbers, P-47s had unmatched dive performance.
In fact, with their noses down they could reach nearly 550 mph (890 km/h), and many pilots used this advantage to shake threatening enemy fighters from their tails.
Don Blakeslee famously said of the P-47 – “It ought to be able to dive because it certainly can’t climb.”
German pilots learned to avoid diving away from Thunderbolts, instead relying on tight turns and quick climbs.
Due to their weight and lack of maneuverability, these actions often resulted in Thunderbolts overshooting their adversaries, after which the hunter became the hunted.
Even English aviators from the British Eagle Squadron who’d previously flown light and nimble Spitfire Mark V’s got in on the action, claiming that all a pilot had to to defend himself from more agile German fighters was to run around to the far side of the cockpit and hunker down until the firing stopped.
Though meant as a tongue-in-cheek slight against the Thunderbolt’s size, it was a testament to the plane’s unmatched ability to sustain heavy damage and keep on flying.
Despite its rugged design however, low-altitude climb rate was always a constant concern for pilots, but with the addition of the Curtiss paddle blade propeller the playing field became much more level.
Early versions had only moderate operational ranges, but upgrades meant that P-47s were eventually able to accompany British and American bombers all the way to Germany and back, thanks largely to external drop tanks.
Later, P-47Ds also got bubble canopies which gave pilots improved all-around vision, and its air-cooled engine was capable of sustaining much more damage than aircraft with water-cooled power plants, which were particularly susceptible to being knocked out.
Despite their drawbacks, with skilled pilots at the helm P-47s were natural long-range escorts and fighters.
Of 750,000 sorties flown, they downed more than 3,700 enemy aircraft of all types, and they were standouts at attacking ground targets as well.
On the way home from escort duties when they had ample fuel and ammo left over, Thunderbolts were often allowed to peel away and strafe ground targets like airfields, factories, trains, and tanks.
In fact, P-47s performed so well in this role that many ultimately became dedicated to it.
Capable of carrying up to 2,000 pounds (907 kg) of bombs, some were also fitted with high-explosive M8 and M10 rockets that were capable of punching through the thick armor of King Tiger tanks and Jagdtiger tank destroyers.
In conjunction with their heavy machine guns, these armaments gave P-47s the most firepower of any American single-engine fighter of the war.
It’s estimated that between D-Day and VE Day, P-47s destroyed more than 90,000 railcars and locomotives, 6,000 armored vehicles like tanks and halftracks, and approximately 60,000 trucks.
In one instance during Operation Cobra in the summer of 1944, P-47s from the 405th Fighter Group knocked out more than 120 tanks, 250 trucks and nearly a dozen artillery pieces in just a few days.
The Jet Threat
Though P-47s cemented their status as fighters, escorts and ground attack aircraft, by mid-1944 there were newer, faster and far more lethal German planes with which they’d need to contend – namely Me-262s.
Powered by twin turbojets and with top speeds approaching 550 miles per hour (885 km/h), the Luftwaffe’s new wonder weapons were in a class of their own.
To combat this new threat, Republic Aviation earmarked a few new P-47Ds on its New York production line for upgrades, the most notable of which was a tweaked engine capable of generating nearly 3,000 horsepower.
Though still not as fast as 262s, the new Thunderbolts could achieve maximum speeds of approximately 470 miles per hour (756 km/h) and climb much more rapidly.
On March 25, American pilots Major George Bostwick and Edwin Crosthwait shot down two Me-262s gliding in for landings at Parchim airfield in northeast Germany.
This was a common tactic among P-47 airman as the jets were particularly vulnerable during takeoffs and landings, but Thunderbolt pilots scored a number of conventional kills as well.
Over Germany in early April of 1944 a single Me-262 slashed into a formation of B-17s at over 500 miles per hour (804 km/h), blasting one from the sky with a long burst from its four 30 mm cannons.
Jettisoning their drop tanks, two Thunderbolts gave chase, and though he could’ve outrun his pursuers, the Luftwaffe pilot made the error of attempting to outturn them.
Moments later Captain John C. Fahringer unleashed his Brownings from 500 yards.
Smoke immediately began bellowing from the stricken jet and the pilot ejected as Fahringer flew by.
In the skies over Europe P-47s downed 20 Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters, and at least four Arado Ar 234 jet bombers.
All told, more than 15,000 Thunderbolts were built, making it the most produced US fighter of the Second World War.
By war’s end the 8th Air Force’s 56th Fighter Group was the only unit still flying P-47s by choice, though they’d been offered newer P-51s.
Nearly 3,500 were lost in combat, but pilots in P-47s were credited with more than 3,700 air-to-air kills.
With the cessation of hostilities orders for nearly 6,000 additional aircraft were immediately cancelled.
Thunderbolts continued to actively serve with the US Army Air Forces until 1947, until 1949 with Air National Guard Units around the country, and as spotter planes working in conjunction with maritime patrol and rescue aircraft like OA-10 Catalina flying boats.
Though the dawn of the jet age had arrived, previously mothballed P-47s were once again pressed into service as trainers for pilots making the jump from piston engine aircraft to new jets like the F-84 Thunderjet, which made its debut in the early ‘50s.
Piston and propeller planes like P-51 Mustangs fought in the Korean conflict as ground attack aircraft, but many pilots, especially veterans of World War II, suggested that they’d have been better off with their old “jugs,” because they were faster, tougher, and could carry much larger weapons loads.
Now dozens of perfectly restored P-47s bide their time in aviation museums around the world, and some still fly regularly.