This is a continuation of Strategic Bombing Part IV
Barndoors (a.k.a., Airframes)
As bad as the pilot differential was, Adolf Galland might have still been able to cobble together a defense even with tired airframes and exhausted pilots. That is, Galland might have been able to do it if Germany’s numerous strategic miscues hadn’t come home to roost with a vengeance. coming home to roost with a vengeance. This manifested first in First, as can be imagined by the discussion about 10,000 biplanes, the Nazi leadership had been completely unable to fathom just how utterly pissed off the American people were in 1941 when Japan decided “Sunday Morning Banzai” was the best way to tag Uncle Sam into the conflict. Perhaps because he’d seen Nazi Germany’s Byzantine, back-stabbing, barnyard fornication of an excuse for war production, Adolf Hitler had no idea what a shrewdly prepared industrial machine looked like. If he had, the Fuhrer may not have considered President Roosevelt’s goal of 10,000 airplanes a month laugh-worthy propaganda.
Unfortunately for Adolf Galland in particular and Germany in general, President Roosevelt had been anything but joking when he’d demanded that number of his advisors. While U.S. War Production in World War II would require a book (or two) in and of itself, let’s just say there are advantages to being able to literally turn on the lights and run things 24-7-365. Things like straight up turning a car manufacturer into an airframe manufacturer that could churn out some of the most complicated machines of the period. (This would be like Chrysler churning out B-1s now.) Nor was Ford the only automotive concern that suddenly got into the airplane business, as General Motors also began turning out aircraft (albeit mostly naval airframes). Backed by the United States’ populace’s willingness to sacrifice as well as America’s decision to replace drafted male workers with women, this intense focus on producing aircraft finally began to pay dividends in late 1943.
The above is not to suggest the above process was seamless. The U.S. never quite sustained the “10,000 aircraft a month” goal with regards to combat airframes. However, a simple statistic will tell the tale of just how utterly screwed the Germans were. In 1943, the Germans produced a grand total of 10,898 fighters. They would produce another 26,326 in 1944, with the majority of these being in the back half of the year once Albert Speer got some people’s minds right. In contrast, the United States alone produced 23,988 and 38,873 fighters, then added an additional 29,355 and 35,003 bombers respectively. Yes, not all those aircraft went to Europe (*cue video montage of Japanese pilot being tossed through the metaphorical frame with two black eyes and a bleeding nose* ). However, there’s also that little matter of over 100,000 British and Soviet aircraft that aren’t in this discussion either yet were, like a bully’s associates, also keeping the pressure on the Jagdwaffe. Overall, America was cooking on all industrial cylinders.
Almost as important as its ability to produce entire aircraft was America’s ability to produce ancillary equipment (drop tanks, oxygen tanks, machine guns, etc.) in huge numbers. 8th Air Force squadrons had plenty of spare parts up to and including entire end items. Groups that returned with damaged aircraft usually had replacements on hand within 24-48 hours, with the original aircraft being sent to the depot for repair. Tired airframes were either replaced by planes of the same type or, increasingly, newer models (e.g., P-47Ds with P-47D-25s). Said newer models increasingly had improvements (e.g., illuminated gunsights, water injection, better propellers, power-boosted controls, etc.) that gave them marked advantages.
Given all these factors, it should be unsurprising that American squadrons, unlike their German counterparts, actually matched their paper strength. As for the numbers of these squadrons, the 8th Air Force alone began fielding 2-3 times the squadrons of Jagdwaffe Gruppen stationed in the West. Said German fighters also were forced to contend with, as mentioned above, the RAF and, beginning in May 1944, the 9th Air Force.
The second part of the airframe equation, and where this section gets its name from, was that German leadership could not conceive of the speed or breadth of Allied technical advances. Allegedly, when told that the Americans were about to field a fighter that just might have the range to penetrate all the way to Berlin, famed aircraft designer Willi Messerschmitt allegedly replied, “That’s utter nonsense. Such an aircraft would have to be big as a barn door.” The legend goes on to say that Messerschmitt and Adolf Galland were at a test facility just west of Berlin in spring 1944. Upon having a flight of P-51 Mustangs show up over a test field and proceed to shoot up the place, both men took shelter in a slit trench. After a particular close strafing run, Adolf Galland allegedly turned to Willi and sarcastically remarked, “Those are some particular fine barn doors over our heads.”
Whether or not this happened, the fact remains that the P-51 Mustang, while not the end all be all of piston fighters that it’s often portrayed as, was a prime example of Allied ingenuity. Continuing on a theme, the Mustang is a book (or 20) in and of itself. As this is a blog, I’ll just hit the highlights. The P-51 started off as a British contract that became an American attack aircraft. Destined for the dustbin of mediocrity, some North American Aircraft engineer basically said, “Hey, let’s put a Merlin engine in that thing.” A ridiculously short amount of testing later, the Army Air Force realized if it put a pair of massive drop tanks on the airframe, the resultant fighter had extremely long range. As in, enough range to escort B-17s to Berlin, fight German interceptors to a standstill, then return to England.
The Luftwaffe was suddenly in deep trouble. Although both of its main fighters had little difficulty with the P-38 at altitude and could simply wait for the P-47 to run out of gas, the Mustang was an altogether different monster. It was faster than most models of the Fw 190 and Me-109 at high altitude. When one factored in the difference in industrial quality by this stage in the war (this discussion of engine manifold pressure tolerances is instructive) as well as the number of hours on German airframes, the differences became even more marked. Its battery of 4 (later six) .50-caliber machine guns was lethal enough to see off both of its likely opponents. While the Mustang‘s in-line engine was vulnerable to battle damage due to its glycol coolant, its airframe was strong enough to absorb a great deal of battle damage.
Rushing the P-51B into production, then to the 8th Air Force, the USAAF prepared itself to visit great violence upon the Luftwaffe in its lair. The first encounters with P-51s in early 1944 were just a harbinger of things to come for the German fighter arm.