The morning stillness was shattered as the Merlin coughed to life. Briefly a cloud of oil-rich smoke filled the air as the cylinders turned over, came to life, and began to warm for the mission before them. The Rolls-Royce Merlin made the North American Mustang the envy of the sky. With this airplane, the 8th AF could now reach Berlin with fighter escort for its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers. Its twelve cylinders, coupled with a supercharger could take the Mustang to the stratosphere and was the equal of every fighter in the sky, save the Messerschmidt-262. But that is hardly a fair comparison as one was a jet and in a class by itself.
Along the RAF Duxford perimeter another eleven Merlins sputtered, coughed and settled into a sound that can only be described as power waiting to be unleashed. The twelve pilots of the 82nd Fighter Squadron had just recently transitioned from the P-47 Thunderbolt with its huge air cooled radial engine. For most -- the transition was like moving from a Clydesdale to a Thoroughbred with the Mustang proving to be all a fighter pilot could want. Speed, grace, lethality, and strength. True, it wasn’t as stout as the Thunderbolt, but it could run, climb and turn with the best of them.
The morning sky was gray, a typical English spring day, but there was enough ceiling to allow a formation departure and climb to the rally point. The squadron commander called for check-in and confirmation the aircraft were ready to taxi. Ten aircraft responded with a positive status, and two were working issues they thought would be cleared up shortly. Leaving four aircraft behind the eight aircraft began their taxi, and sure enough the two sick birds came up before the squadron had reached the parallel moving from their dispersal hardstands. By the time they reached the end of the runway for final checks and engine run up they were back to full squadron strength.
They took off as three 4-ship elements from Duxford’s runway 06 heading east to the rally point over Felixstowe where it would join other fighter squadrons before pushing off to catch the bombers as the entered Germany. Passing ten thousand feet the squadron commander called for check in to confirm everyone was on oxygen. About that time, they passed into the clear blue sky hidden from the earth by the English clouds. Flight leads checked in and they assumed a tactical formation as they reached the rally point. A couple of turns and the rest of the groups arrived. Once assembled they headed east, into the morning sun to find their bomber groups. It looked to be a good day.
Climbing to 30,000 feet the 82nd would be providing top cover for the mission. Major Charles Thomas was the squadron commander, and he had named his plane after his High School sweetheart Mary Sue Jenkins. It was hard to believe he had been commissioned in 1939 through the Reserve Officer Training Corps and had completed flight school in 1940, going first to P-36s and then P-38s before coming to command the 82nd as they transitioned to P-51. Five years ago, a Second Lieutenant and now an “old hand” Major with 40 combat missions and two confirmed kills. Thomas checked his formation and allowed a wry smile to form under his mask, all his men were in a tight formation exactly where they were supposed to be. The war was going well, its end now in sight, although the German advances of December 1944 in the Ardennes was scary. The 82nd, brand new in the Mustangs, had been diverted to provide close air support once the weather broke. This had cost them their last Squadron Commander when ack-ack had shot him down. Thomas knew the risks but he was leading men who were combat proven in the Thunderbolt. From his seat the job was an easy one. Point them at the Nazis and let them loose. His squadron patch had the winged helmet of Mercury and three Iron Crosses symbolizing their prowess against the Germans.
A quick check behind to see if they were spewing contrails and he was satisfied they were at a good altitude. About thirty minutes after departing Felixstowe they began to see the contrails of the bombers. Why did they stay where it made the hunters job so easy Thomas thought, but that was quickly pushed aside as he heard the fighter group lead check in with the bombers to let them know their escorts had arrived.
Thomas signaled for the squadron to pull the throttles back to long-range cruise and he began the S-Turns to keep from overrunning the heavies. Even with this technique soon or later the speed difference became too much and he would have to turn around to head to the back of the formation and start the overtake all over. This was, for the 82nd the worst of times because they were not pointed at the most likely direction of enemy advance.
With about two and a half hours of the eight-hour mission down the sky opened up with anti-aircraft fire. As top cover the 82nd was above most of it, but he could look down and what the bombers and lower escorts getting hammered. Still they plodded on. He watched with a dispatched and fatalistic view that comes with combat as first one and then several of the bombers fell away. Either too heavily damaged to go on, or damaged to a point they would no longer fly and the crews would abandon them if possible. These were the times he was thankful to be a fighter pilot and not have to worry about the closeness of the crews whose lives depended completely on each other.
Major Thomas knew as soon as the ack-ack or flack stopped the German fighter defense would appear so he checked his squadron, put them in the best position he knew and prepared them for combat. That combat came almost before he was ready for it. Twenty-four bandits, three o’clock low and climbing for the bombers. His wingman had seen them, and made the call on squadron frequency. Thomas rolled the radio to the bomber frequency called the bandits and then back to squadron where he assigned tasks to the three formations in his charge. That took about 10 seconds and once done he rolled the Mustang into a hard Split-S, and dove for the Germans, pulling a lead to put his aircraft between the lead fighter and the bombers. Had they seen them soon enough? That was always the question.
As the two groups of fighters merged at over 700 knots Thomas saw they were FW190s equipped with four machine guns in the wings and four more on pods under the wings. There was also a possible 20mm cannon on some of the aircraft, or perhaps up to four rockets. The rockets were for the bombers and not too much of a threat to the Mustang. As the merged Thomas rolled right side up and his wingman stuck to him like glue. The wingman had one job. Protect lead. He was to alert him if there were aircraft approaching the six O’clock and roll in to engage if necessary.
As they dove, Thompson checked to make sure Mary Sue’s eight 50-caliber machine guns were armed and ready and the gun camera was on. That formality done he lined up the nose of the FW190 and at about 600 yards let go a burst. The Germans had not seen the 82nd coming down and that first pass was a good one. Thomas watched as his target blew apart, and flew through the debris. His other 2-ship leads each scored a kill as they blew the attacking formation apart.
He pulled hard to get the aircraft back into the fight, kicking the rudder left and right to make sure his tail was clear. By the time they got back up the bomber formation that first formation was gone, and the other escorts were engaged. Thomas called his squadron to resume top cover and check in with damage. The third element lead had some oil pressure issues, probably from damage in flying through the debris field. Otherwise, everyone was okay.
By this time the bombers were approaching their initial point, or IP. That was the point where they make their final turn towards the target and the bombardiers, using their Norden bomb sights would guide the aircraft to their release point. Since the targets were defended by flak, and German fighters wouldn’t be around the fighters would pick them up once they came off the target and escort them home.
The expectation was fighters would chew at the formation looking for stragglers and easy prey all the way to the English Channel. The fighters would do what they could to protect the formation, but all too often the straggler was on his own.
Today it was a quiet return for the 82nd. All the aircraft made it back to England, although Martha’s Revenge, the Mustang with the oil problem had to put it down as soon as they crossed the coast. By the time Thomas and the rest of the squadron landed word of Lt. Cowell’s safe landing was waiting for them.
Once the Merlins had wound down the jeeps arrived to take the pilots to debrief. The squadron claimed six kills, four were confirmed. It had been a good day. Now it was time to hit the Open Mess and grab a drink. No one knew what tomorrow would bring.