Main title


P-47 Thunderbolt: Aviation Darwinism

Chapter Five:

With three Fighter Groups setting up in Britain, the 8th Air Force hoped to have all three operational by mid February. This would not be possible due to problems with radios and engine troubles encountered during high altitude test flights. Many of the Pratt & Whitney engines were suffering from ignition breakdown and distributor leakage. This resulted in fouled spark plugs and serious loss of power. These problems would plague the P-47 for several months. By the end of the Spring of 1943, most of the teething woes will have been overcome.


This is how the P-47's arrived in England
Typically, this is how most P-47's arrived in England. The extent of the
effort required to get these fighters operational can be appreciated.


Finally, on March 10th, the 4th Fighter Group went on operational status. They fly an offensive fighter sweep over France. 14 Thunderbolts, accompanied by an even dozen Spitfire Mk.V’s, (still remaining with the 4th FG) head out to gain some combat experience in their new fighter. They are ignored by the Luftwaffe. Several of the 4th’s pilots assigned to the Thunderbolts refuse to fly it. The P-47 is very much disliked by these veterans of the Eagle Squadron, who prefer their Spitfires. This first mission does nothing to reduce their unhappiness. Radio communication was all but impossible due to interference. The attitude of the 4th FG was not just the result of having to fly a fighter they believed to be unsuited for aerial combat with the Luftwaffe. Their experience during work ups was not very positive. Some pilots were forced to bailout due to fires. Others suffered landing gear collapse on landing. Still others suffered engine failures. They flew their first combat sweep with virtually zero confidence in the P-47.


P-47C-5-RE Thunderbolt of the 56th FG
This P-47C-5-RE is piloted by Eugene O'Neill of the 62nd FS, 56th FG.
Note the Li'l Abner cartoon nose art. This was the typical P-47 flown
by the 4th, 56th and 78th Fighter Groups in the spring and summer of
1943. This aircraft has been updated in the field to include the new
bulged keel plumbed for an external drop tank.


What most pilots did not understand was that most of the problems were a result of the hasty assembly work performed in England. Each aircraft would need a great deal of attention to iron out the bugs. Republic technical personnel worked long hours rectifying the problems.

During the first week of April, all three P-47 Groups (4th, 56th and 78th) are formally declared operational. On April 8th, all three Groups turned out for a joint fighter sweep over France. Once again, the Luftwaffe ignores their presence. Several more sweeps are flown during the following days, all uneventful. Finally, on April 15th, Major Donald Blakeslee, of the 4th FG gets the P-47’s first kill by shooting down an Fw 190 near Dieppe. Two weeks later, the 56th loses two Thunderbolts when bounced by Focke Wulfs. They fail to shoot down any of their attackers. These lost fighters are replaced with the first P-47D models to arrive in the theater. Externally, the difference between the early D models and the P-47C is virtually undetectable to the untrained eye. The single most important difference is that the D models are equipped with water injection, that provides for greater power when the throttle is advanced to Combat power.


P-47C, right elevator nearly shot off
This unknown pilot of the 56th FG managed to nurse this battered
P-47 home after taking a flak hit over Dieppe. It must have taken
great skill to bring home this Thunderbolt.


With the coming of May, escort operations begin. The 78th claims one German fighter and two probables while escorting heavy bombers to Antwerp. In exchange, three of the 78th’s P-47’s fail to make it home. The 56th is doing even worse. After 31 combat missions, they have yet to claim a single enemy fighter against their several losses. Eventually, they score their first victory during a sweep over Rouen on June 12th. On the very next day, Robert Johnson got his first kill, blasting an Fw 190 to pieces. However, on June 26th, the 56th lost five Thunderbolts with four more shot to pieces. All they can claim is two German fighters.


Early model P-47D's on a British airfield
Several P-47D-2-RE fighters on a British airfield, circa July 1943. Not uncommon
at the time, many P-47's operated off of unpaved sod fields.


It was on this mission that Johnson’s P-47 is crippled by enemy fire. Refusing to break formation (after being chewed out for doing just that when he gained his first victory) Johnson repeatedly tried to warn his Group of attacking Fw 190’s. For some reason, no one heard his frantic radio calls. Johnson’s fighter was clobbered by German 20mm cannon shells. The engine was hit, the hydraulic system shot out, spraying Johnson with fluid. His canopy was jammed closed and his oxygen system destroyed. The leaking hydraulic fluid and oxygen came in contact with each other and burst into flame inside the cockpit. Fortunately, it was only a flash fire, but Johnson was properly singed, losing his eyebrows and taking on the appearance of a cooked lobster. Having flown without his goggles (they were being repaired), the mist of hydraulic fluid nearly blinded him and caused swelling that threatened to eliminate what limited vision he retained.

Without oxygen, hypoxia began to cloud Johnson’s reasoning. In a panic, he fought to get out of the wrecked P-47. The canopy would not slide back more than a few inches. Jamming his feet against the shot up instrument panel, he pulled with all his considerable strength. No luck, it would not budge. One of the side plexiglass panels had been blown out of the canopy. Johnson tried to squeeze through it, but his parachute snagged. No sense in climbing out unless he brings his chute with him. What to do?


The bottom of Johnson's rudder was shot away
This well known photo shows the bottom portion of Johnson's
rudder having been blasted away by 20 mm cannon shells.


While Johnson was struggling with his situation, the P-47 was rapidly descending. As he lost altitude, the effects of hypoxia were wearing off and the cobwebs began to dissipate. Quite suddenly, it dawned on him that the Thunderbolt was actually flying. Upon this realization, Johnson decided to see how far he could nurse it towards the English channel. He eased off the throttle and the Pratt & Whitney radial stopped its shaking. The big fighter answered its controls with authority. Johnson was elated. Maybe, just maybe, he could make it home.

Then he saw it. Sliding in from his left rear, a fighter closes in. But, whose fighter? Then, he recognized it. A beautiful but deadly Fw-190 with a gleaming yellow nose. Flying just off Johnson's wing, the German pilot scans the shot up P-47. Wondering what is going through the German pilot's mind, Johnson watches as he eases away and swings around in a graceful turn; sliding in behind the Thunderbolt. Knowing full well what’s to come, Johnson grabs the seat adjuster lever and drops the seat full down where he is afforded the full protection of the armor plate behind the seat. Johnson thinks to himself; “let him shoot, this Thunderbolt can’t be hurt anymore than it already is.” The Fw 190 opens up on the flying wreck. Like hail on a tin roof, 7.92 mm rounds pour into the Jug. What, no 20 mm? Thankfully, these have all been expended in some other fight. Johnson sits, hunkered down behind the armor as the German pilot ripsaws the battered Thunderbolt with hundreds of rounds.

Finally, his anger building, Johnson decides that he must do something. Kicking hard right and left rudder, the big fighter yaws right, then left. This scrubs off speed and caught off guard, the German cannot avoid over-running the P-47. Johnson sees him go by, but is unable to see anything through his oil covered windscreen. Shoving his head out through the shattered canopy, Johnson sees the Fw 190 turn gently to the right. Seeing an opportunity, he kicks hard right rudder, skidding the Thunderbolt, Johnson depresses the gun switch button. A stream of tracers heads towards the German fighter. But, it doesn’t falter.

Instead, it continues around in a perfect turn and slides in alongside the perforated P-47 once again. Johnson makes eye contact with the German pilot. He can see the dismay on the German’s face. There is no way that this American fighter can still be flying. It is impossible that it could absorb such a pounding and keep on flying. The Focke Wulf eases out to the right, and slides back into perfect firing position once again. Johnson cowers behind his armor plate as 7.92 mm bullets rain upon the utterly mangled Thunderbolt. Just when Johnson is convinced that it will never stop, he stamps down hard on the rudder pedals again. This time the German expects just such a move and pulls off his throttle. The dappled 190 eases up on Johnson’s wing once again, the German pilot shaking his head in silent amazement. They fly this way for several minutes. Finally, the German waves an informal salute and slides in behind Johnson’s invulnerable fighter for the third time. As before, the Jug is pounded by streams of lead. The Fw 190 swings gently from left to right, spraying the indestructible P-47 with an incessant barrage of machine gun fire. Suddenly, it stops. The Focke Wulf eases alongside again. The German looks over the Thunderbolt. The pilot stares with a look of admiration on his face. Pulling even with Johnson, the 190 wags its wings in salute and peels away in a climbing turn. Having fired his last rounds at the stubborn Jug, the German heads for home, certainly convinced that the mauled fighter will never make home.


20 mm damage to Johnson's canopy
Another well known photo showing the damage to Johnson's canopy
that caused it to jam. The large holes are from 20 mm cannon hits. The
smaller holes are mostly from 7.92 mm bullets.


Finally free of the Focke Wulf, Johnson suddenly realizes that during the entire attack, he had depressed his mike button. Releasing the button, the accented voice of an Englishman fills his headphones. “Hello, hello, climb if you can, you’re getting very faint”. It was Air-Sea Rescue. They had heard the entire fight, including Johnson cursing his tormentor. Johnson’s spirit soars, and he responds, “I’ll try, but I’m down to less than 1,000 feet”. Shouting with joy, he eases back on the stick. Not only will the Thunderbolt fly, hot damn, She’ll climb! Slowly, Johnson nurses the P-47 up to 8,000 feet. The big fighter hauls herself up, instilling greater confidence in a man who was ready to bail out but a few minutes before. “Blue four, blue four, I have you loud and clear. Steer three-four–five degrees.”

“I can’t do that mayday control, my compass is shot out” answers Johnson.

The calm British voice issues instructions to “turn slightly right”, and continues to provide course corrections until, after 40 minutes Johnson spots the coast of Dover through broken clouds. Directed to an emergency airfield, Johnson circles but cannot spot the sod runway. After checking his fuel, he pushes the mike button;

“Mayday control, this is blue four, I’m ok now. I’m going to fly onto Manston. I’d like to land back at my outfit.”

Johnson continues on to Manston. Contacting the tower, he describes his situation. The last test comes as he moves the landing gear lever to the “down” position. Not only does the gear drop and lock, but by some miracle, the tires have not been hit. Easing onto the grass, Johnson has no flaps and no brakes. The big fighter does not slow and is heading towards a row of RAF Spitfires and Typhoons parked at the end of the runway. In desperation, he stomps on the left rudder pedal. The Thunderbolt ground loops and slides backwards in between two of the British fighters just like it had been parked there.


Johnson's replacement for his scrapped P-47C
Robert Johnson and his crew chief, Pappy Gould, pose in front his new
P-47D-5-RE. This fighter was the replacement for his battered and
scrapped P-47C. Johnson would name the new fighter "Lucky".


Slowly, Johnson gathers his wits and removing his parachute, squeezes out of the shattered canopy. Once on the ground he realizes the extent of the damage. Not only to the plane, but to himself. A bullet had nicked his nose. His hands were bleeding from the shrapnel of 20 mm shells that exploded in the cockpit. Two 7.92 mm rounds had hit him in his leg. 21 holes from 20 mm shells are counted in the airframe. He quits counting bullet holes when he reaches 100. It seems as if every square foot of the fighter has a hole in it. Somehow, the P-47 had shrugged off the damage and refused to die. Johnson will recover quickly. The Thunderbolt will not. It was scrapped on the spot, very little could be salvaged that was not damaged.

Robert Johnson would go on to shoot down 28 (revised down to 27 after the war) German fighters, with 6 probables and 4 more damaged. After the war, Luftwaffe records indicated that Johnson might have shot down as many as 32 German fighters. Johnson flew 91 combat missions. On those missions, he encountered German fighters 43 times. In 36 of the 43 encounters, Johnson fired his guns at the enemy. A result of those 36 instances where he fired on German aircraft, 37 of those aircraft were hit; with as few as 27 or as many as 32 going down. Rather impressive for a pilot who flunked gunnery school.

Events were really beginning to speed up in the ETO. Yet, on the other side of the world, the P-47 was about to enter service against the Japanese. How successful would the massive Thunderbolt be against the lightweight and agile fighters of the Japanese Army Air Force and the much vaunted Zero of the Imperial Japanese Navy?


Go to Chapter Six


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