The Iconic P-51 Mustang: The Fighter That Destroyed Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Won the War

Last month, I had yet another opportunity to ride in and fly one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time, the North American P-51 Mustang. Sadly, it did not happen. Maybe next year!

P51-7[1]

The chance to ride in a P-51 materializes yearly when the Collings Foundation and its “Wings of Freedom” nationwide tour of restored World War II aircraft lands at nearby Moffett Field. For nearly a week, the public has the opportunity of getting up-close-and-personal with several “survivors” from the mass post-war scrapping of airplanes which defeated Hitler and Japan not so long ago.

The Betty Jane P-51 is a flying survivor from 1945, one of the very few Mustangs outfitted with two seats and dual flight controls (that’s her pictured above in a Collings Foundation photo and below, in one of mine). For $2200 along with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” attitude, a visitor can reserve a half-hour ride over the San Francisco bay area in that venerable war-bird along with the opportunity of briefly guiding her through a gentle turn or two.

thumb_IMG_6235_1024

Linda and I took our two young grandsons to Moffett for an afternoon of gawking at and clambering through the foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. These two aircraft were the major weapons used to dismantle Hitler’s war machine by destroying German factories, airfields, and infrastructure. Implementing a revamped allied strategy in late 1943, these four-engine airplanes commenced attacking the civilian populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden in a successful effort to erode the German people’s support of Hitler’s war effort. The Collings Foundation’s B-24, Witchcraft, is the lone remaining flying example of its genre (close to nineteen-thousand of them were built during the war)!

DSCN0601

The B-17 Flying Fortress was the more storied of the two workhorse bombers early in the war, and the Foundation’s Nine O’Nine is a beautiful example. It was anticipated that the multiple 50 caliber machine guns protruding from the aptly named “Fortress” would provide an adequate defense against German fighter-interceptors. That soon proved to be misplaced idealism as the Luftwaffe and flak from the ground took its toll on the “heavies.”

DSCN0638

b17hit[1]

But the airplane on the tour that, as in years past, captured my imagination even more than the others, was the Betty Jane. The P-51 Mustang rapidly became the best friend of the B-17 and B-24 bomber crews who flew mission after mission in large formations from their airfields dotting Great Britain’s countryside. Their destination: Targets deep into German airspace. Earlier in the war, the slow-flying four-engine bombers and their deadly cargo were initially escorted during the long flight into Germany by allied fighter planes like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane of limited flying range and mediocre maneuverability. Typically, well before the heavy bombers reached their targets over Germany, the fighter escorts were forced to break-off and return to base due to their limited range (fuel). At that point, the bomber formations became sitting ducks for the agile and deadly German fighter planes which came up to meet them.

The P-51 Mustang: Just-In-Time Delivery to Allied Fighter Groups

The deeper the penetration into German airspace, the greater the allied bomber losses. The turning point came during the infamous raid over Regensburg, Germany, where 60 bombers were lost, each with a ten-man crew – 600 men. Just at this critical point, the newly-developed P-51 Mustang reached operational status and became available to the fighter groups based in England. Designed from the get-go to be a superior fighter, the P-51 was just that. With its fine maneuverability and the powerful, in-line, twelve cylinder, liquid-cooled engine conceived by Rolls-Royce but built under license by the Packard motor car company in the United States, the Mustang was superior to its German counterparts, the Messerschmidt Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190.

357th Gun Film

 A German Me 109 caught in the gun cameras of a P-51

 Critically important was the Mustang’s superior range, aided by external, under-the-wing, drop-tanks carrying fuel. Now, the bombers had an escort fighter which could not only accompany them deep into German territory in a defensive, protective posture, but could inflict losses on the Luftwaffe as its pilots attacked the bomber formations. In this dual sense, it can justifiably be said that the P-51 both destroyed the Luftwaffe and won the war by allowing the “heavies” to reach and destroy their targets.

At about that time, allied commanders expanded bombing targets to include the populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden. Late in the war, General Jimmy Doolittle also famously altered the successful defensive role of the P-51 from solely  a long-range bomber escort by ordering the fighter groups to adopt a more offensive posture, attacking Luftwaffe fighters wherever they could be found. The mandate was to leave the bomber formations, when feasible, and destroy the German interceptors before they could locate and reach and the bombers. Doolittle wanted to strafe and destroy German planes on the ground – at their airfields – when possible. The goal: To gain complete air superiority prior to the planned ground invasions central to D-Day. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen by D-Day, thanks in large part to the effective dual role of the P-51 both as bomber escort and Luftwaffe killer.

Firing-Up the Big Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.

Lt_James_L_Brooks_with_P51_1944[1]

Lt. Jim Brooks and his P-51, February – 1945

Perhaps next year, when the Collings Foundation tour returns, I will have an extra $2200 to go up in Betty Jane as well as the requisite moxie to do so. I cannot think of a greater, more meaningful thrill.

A Higher Call : Humanity Trumps Hate in the Skies Over Germany

The immense canvas of World War II serves also as a mirror on the attitudes and behavior of us human beings. That viewpoint motivates me to read more of the history surrounding the conflict – as I wrote in a recent blog post, here. Almost before that new quest began, a World War II story came to my attention (via a recent Facebook post) which relates a fascinating encounter in the skies over Germany on December 20, 1943. I post this account as a prime example of the complex human attitudes and emotions exhibited in all-out warfare.

 Higher Call PS_2A sure “kill” is spared: Aviation artwork by John Shaw

The main characters: A German fighter pilot on the hunt for another “kill” to add to his already burgeoning total and the pilot of a crippled and hapless B-17F “Flying Fortress” bomber, barely able to fly and struggling to reach friendly territory. Pilot Charles (Charlie) Brown, his crew, and his torn and tattered plane quickly found themselves in the gunsight of German Luftwaffe ace, Franz Stigler. One press of the “fire button” and Ye Olde Pub and its crew of ten would be history – torn apart by 20 mm cannon shells from the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter.

AHigherCall_zps52a29ee5[1]

Charles Brown and Franz Stigler

Pilot Brown and his nine-member crew were flying their very first mission together on that twentieth day of December, 1943. The target: A German aircraft factory in Bremen, Germany. As the B-17 was preparing for its bomb-run on the target, German anti-aircraft fire and its exploding shrapnel found the aircraft and quickly left its deadly imprint upon Ye Olde Pub.

With its Plexiglas nose-dome shattered and its number two engine disabled, the bomber fell out of formation and became a straggler – an easy target for the swarms of Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters which came up to defend the German target area.

While being harassed in retreat for several minutes by German fighter aircraft, the venerable Flying Fortress suffered considerable additional damage. Now flying alone over German territory, the B-17 could barely stay aloft. One of her engines was out, half of her rudder was shot-off, and most of her left horizontal stabilizer (tail) was gone. Most of her guns were disabled and some of the crew badly wounded. The tail gunner was hunched dead and bloody behind his downward-facing guns.

As the B-17 lumbered precariously at low altitude, struggling to make it home back in England, she was spotted passing over a small airfield by a German crew on the ground which was refueling and re-arming the Bf 109 fighter of Franz Stigler. At first surprised by the low-flying bomber, Stigler instinctively jumped into the cockpit of his aircraft and took off after the crippled B-17. In no time at all, the German ace settled in on the tattered tail of the bomber and prepared for the kill. He could afford to take his time in that position, for the tail-guns of the Fortress remained pointed downward during the entire encounter – a sure sign that the gunner was dead or the guns disabled. Pilot Stigler already had 22 air “victories” to his credit; one more and he would earn the coveted Luftwaffe award, the Knight’s Cross.  Maneuvering to several vantage points around the lumbering bomber, the German ace could see, through a few gaping holes in the fuselage, that there were badly wounded fliers in the belly of the aircraft. He also sensed that he was relatively safe from any rash behavior on the part of the surviving crew and the one or two operational gun stations, but he was taking a chance, nevertheless, by closing in for a better look.

Bf-109g6real[1]

A German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter like that of Franz Stigler

As Stigler trailed the hapless bomber while considering his options, he recalled a comment made by Gustav Rodel, his Luftwaffe Commanding Officer: “If I ever hear of any of you shooting at someone in a parachute (a helpless flyer who had bailed-out), I’ll shoot you myself.” Rejecting his inbred instincts as a fighter pilot, Franz Stigler heeded a higher call – namely, his personal humanity. Stigler slipped into a “10 o’clock” position over the B-17, and proceeded to escort the bomber over hostile territory toward open water. He gestured from his cockpit to the astonished bomber pilot to turn and head for Sweden and safe, neutral territory. Instead, Brown opted to continue on the longer course to England, hoping to make it back home. At that point, Stigler saluted to Charles Brown and peeled off, leaving the bomber and her crew in the hands of fate.

91y6AaiYq7L._SL1500_[1]It is that moment which is so beautifully captured in the aviation artwork of artist John Shaw. Given the quality of the piece and its depiction, it is no wonder that limited editions of those prints sold out and are hard to locate, today.

Franz Stigler answered “a higher call” in showing mercy to the hapless bomber and its helpless crew. Despite the obvious difficulties one has with the nature of Nazi Germany, we are reminded that many who fought on that side earnestly felt they were defending the motherland – an essentially patriotic attitude. Franz Stigler assumed huge personal risk in not summarily dispatching the helpless bomber. His was an action for which he could have been executed had it been reported to German authorities. One could easily imagine a second German fighter pilot happening upon the scenario described and formulating many pointed questions! At an altitude of only a few thousand feet, the incident could have been observed on the ground, as well.

Second Lieutenant Charles Brown went on to complete a full tour of duty as a bomber pilot. After the war, Brown returned home to West Virginia, went to college, and – following stints in the newly created Air Force and the U.S. State Department – retired in 1972. The harrowing episode of Ye Olde Pub and its crew remained indelibly etched in Brown’s memory, and, in 1986, he decided to try to find the German pilot who spared the lives of him and his crew.

After numerous efforts, Brown finally received a letter responding to his outreach attempts. Stigler, living in Canada since 1953, wrote that he was the one, and he verified his claim by describing the entire episode in detail – right down to the departing salute to Brown and his hapless bomber. The two met, and developed a great, ongoing friendship from 1990 until 2008, the year in which they both passed away within several months of one another.

Franz Stigler’s enlistment in the Luftwaffe began in 1939. In 1940, his brother was killed in action, an event which he hoped to avenge through his personal wartime contributions. Long after it was all over and the two protagonists of this story were reunited, Stigler inscribed a book to his former enemy, Charles Brown:

In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying. The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie,
Your Brother,
Franz

I have seen the YouTube video account of the story, including film footage of the reunited flyers reminiscing together at the time of their initial meeting. In one touching scene with Franz, the stoic German fighter ace, visibly struggling to hold back multiple emotions which had suddenly descended upon his brow like a dark cloud, he turns to Brown and blurts out, “I love you Charlie!” A higher call, indeed, and such a poignant commentary on humans at war.  

Toyland, Toyland – Little Girl and Boy Land….Wishfully, Forever!

Talbot's Bus. Card Hdr

The $50 gift certificate from Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo, California had been burning a hole in my “pocket” for several months – reminiscent of my boyhood enthusiasms. A gift from my daughter Ginny’s family, I just redeemed it for a 1/72 scale, Corgi die-cast WWII British Spitfire airplane – and a beautiful little model she is!

IMG_3559

This is the airplane that saved England in WWII by winning the Battle of Britain in the skies overhead. I knew about all of that, but a recent PBS documentary really drove home to me just how heroic and crucial the aerial combat over England at the opening of the war was in deterring Hitler’s Luftwaffe from devastating the country.

A Senior Citizen Lost in a Toy Store?

Yes, a toy store like Talbot’s can still thrill a seventy-four year old guy with its offerings. I have been a customer of Talbot’s in downtown San Mateo since 1955, the year it first opened its doors – in the very same location! I was fifteen years old, living a few miles from the downtown and still building model airplanes, buying plastic kits from Talbot’s and more substantial models from the venerable Hobby Haven several blocks across town. Now, sixty years later, Hobby Haven has long-since disappeared, but the greatly-expanded Talbot’s continues today as THE place in the entire region to shop for electric trains, RC airplanes and cars, educational toys, bikes, and everything else in between.

IMG_3543

Things ARE changing, however. Many old-timers are no longer with us. As we disappear, so does the demand for airplanes that we knew so well from our youth, replaced in the young’s affections by space-age toys and conveyances from the post Star Wars era. I knew this to be true after noticing a relatively slow turnover of the “warbird” stock in the brilliantly illuminated display cases at Talbot’s. The long-term, friendly, and knowledgeable staff at Talbot’s confirmed that business in WWII aircraft has slowed considerably. My little Spitfire model had been on display for at least a few months, it seems, begging for an old-timer to come along, take it home, and lavish it with affection! I decided to be that “hero,” equally because I love the model’s graceful lines, its beautifully crafted detail, and because it is so historically relevant to the great history of WWII.

To Fly and Fight_1I have many personal accounts sitting on my bookshelves from the men who flew such aircraft in the war; their stories project unparalleled drama and adventure in a time and setting which can never be repeated. Unlike today’s trend toward automated drone warfare, these men actually climbed into a cold cockpit on some far away airfield, fired-up their coughing, belching engines, and taxied off  to today’s mission and, often, into oblivion. Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson, one of America’s greatest aces flying the storied P-51 Mustang fighter expressed it succinctly, yet poignantly, in his fine book:

 

“Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.”

Today’s allure for youngsters involves Star Wars style spacecraft dripping with laser cannons and chock full of presumed, computer-based systems! That modern allure and fascination seems no match for the real-life drama of the “stick and rudder” men wearing leather helmets who flew their machines in both World Wars – no match, at least, for us old-timers. Those men survived to fly yet another day thanks only to their unconventional courage and skill at maneuvering to get the enemy’s “tail” within the line of fire of their machine guns, all the while insuring that another of the enemy was not closing in on their tail. Skill, daring, and “just plain luck” were each factors in the survival equation. But that was then, and today belongs to the young, though I cannot help but wonder if, in their old-age, today’s youngsters will view their boyhood passions in the same dramatic human light as we do. Perhaps so.

For me, this post is a collage of mixed messages: The wonder still present for all ages and interests, and both sexes (Talbot’s has a great doll department) in a really fine toy store; the fleeting vision over passing time of the receding culture which so influenced our childhood; our changing attitudes and outlooks; and, finally, the joy of still encountering a surviving link to our fondest personal memories and recollections. Talbot’s sixty year tenure and enduring influence in downtown San Mateo represents an uncommon, present-day reminder of who we were and what life was like, many years ago. I will think of all this whenever I gaze at my latest gem from Talbot’s.

Talbot's Storefront