Fighters in the West


CLASH OF EAGLES – Roy Grinnell
On the morning of May 25, 1944, three pilots from the 4th Fighter Group, the “Debden Eagles”, 336th Fighter Squadron, 8th Air Force, were over Germany looking for trouble. Flying near Botenheim, they encountered German planes from III JG1, 9th Staffel.During the ensuing dogfight, a Messerschmitt Bf109G-6/AS (also known as an Ausburg Eagle) came up behind Captain Joseph H. Bennett’s P-51B Mustang, while staying below the P-51’s propeller gust.The Bf109’s guns jammed, but the young Luftwaffe pilot, Oberfähnrich Hubert Heckmann, was determined not to let the American flyer get away. Heckmann pulled up to the P-51’s height and rammed his Bf109 fighter right into the tail of Bennett’s aircraft.The impact sheared off the tail and rear fuselage section and came within a few feet of the rear fuselage tank. With his aircraft’s nose thrust skyward, Bennett bailed out near Botenheim. Going into a loop, the P-51 crashed into a house in the middle of the village. His own plane seriously damaged, Heckmann managed to make a belly crash landing.Bennett, a former RAF Eagle Squadron pilot, was captured and taken to a jail by German military officials. Heckmann later came to introduce himself and meet the first American flier he had put out of commission as a German pilot. Bennett remain a German prisoner until the end of the war. The 336th Fighter Squadron lost another Mustang in this fight but made claims of shooting down five of the enemy. After the war, the two airmen became friends and met every year for their reunion.


DESPERATE DAYS – Gareth Hector
1945 – Focke-Wulf Fw 190D-9’s of JG-26 squadron intercepting B-24s high above Germany during the last desperate months of the war.

Attack aircraft came into their own by the last year of World War I, after first appearing in the skies only a few years earlier. During the 1920s into the mid-1930s, design and development proceeded at a more stately pace. But from 1935 there was a revolution in fighter design and engine power that rendered all earlier fighter models obsolete by vastly improving the key features of any successful fighter: speed, maneuverability, reachable ceiling, and rate of climb. Fighter armament and firepower also made major breakthroughs. The single seat, all-metal monoplane was the culmination of all these trends. Air forces that did not catch this design wave—notably the Regia Aeronautica and large components of the VVS—were blasted from the sky in the first hours and days of their respective wars. Others enjoyed an initial advantage only to lose out as enemies brought superior designs into production over the course of a protracted air war. That was the fate of the Japanese army and naval air forces and of the Luftwaffe, despite the latter’s aggressive but scattershot experiments with jets and other innovations.

The Luftwaffe’s standard early war fighter was the Messerschmitt Me109C (also known as the Bf109C). It had a top speed of 292 mph, a range of 388 miles, and a ceiling of 32,800 feet. The Bf109E had the same ceiling but could fly at 410 mph. Over 33,000 were built. The Bf110C had a maximum speed of 348 mph, a range of 410 miles, and the same ceiling as the early Bf109 models. It mounted five machine guns and two 20 mm cannon. The Bf109G-10 had a lower top speed at just 385 mph, but could reach 39,400 feet. The Bf109k had a top speed of 450 mph and a ceiling of 41,000 feet. The Focke-Wulf Fw190A-3 “Sturmbock” reached a ceiling of 37,500 feet and flew at 395 mph. It was heavily armed, with devastating firepower from two machine guns and four 20 mm cannon. Its appearance stunned the Royal Air Force (RAF), forcing the British to rededicate significant intelligence resources to winnow out other Luftwaffe secret weapons development they might have missed. The limited production Ta152 flew at 472 mph to a range of 1,250 miles and a ceiling of over 48,000 feet. German jet research began before the war. The late-war Me262 jet fighter—it first flew in July 1943, but was deployed only in the spring of 1944—reached 540 mph with a ceiling just under 38,000 feet. As with other Luftwaffe jets such as the jet-glider Me163, the Me262 was produced in too few numbers far too late in the air war to make any difference to the outcome. Fuel shortages and poor late-war pilots were further handicaps.

The opposing l’Armée de l’Air of France flew obsolescent Moraine 445s that were 80 kph slower than German fighters in 1940. Most did not survive long in the air. Others were caught on the ground in the first hours of FALL GELB (1940). The RAF also started the war with several older model biplane fighters such as the “Gladiator,” but it had two excellent modern monoplanes: the Hawker “Hurricane” and the elliptical-winged “Supermarine Spitfire.” Over 14,200 Hurricanes (all versions) were built between 1935 and 1944, of which 2,800 were shipped to the Soviet Union. Nearly 22,400 Spitfires, built in 24 distinct marks came off British assembly lines from 1936 to 1948. The varying marks included a “Seafire II” naval version capable of aircraft carrier operations, and a special high altitude model. Although the Spitfire remained in production all through the war, the RAF introduced a second generation of modern fighters to compete with improved German models such as the Fw190. These second generation British fighters included the Hawker “Typhoon” and “Tempest.” Some 3,300 Typhoons entered service from 1941. They had a maximum speed of 412 mph, heavy weapons and armor, and were equipped with bomb racks to deliver up to 2,000 lbs of conventional ordinance or eight 60 lb rockets. Rocket-armed Typhoons specialized in a ground support role of smashing Panzers and were much feared by the Germans. The RAF also developed the “Meteor” twin-engine jet fighter. It was retained exclusively in British skies for late-war homeland defense.

Claim tallies were not as high over Germany, but even there kill ratios climbed to high levels as thousands of barely trained Luftwaffe recruits flying outdated aircraft proved easy marks in late-war dogfights. So many were killed that Luftwaffe veterans wistfully referred to the young replacements as “Nachwuchs” (“new growth”). During the final month of the war, missions flown by Luftwaffe pilots against heavily escorted bomber streams were cynically called “Himmelfahrtskommando” (“missions to heaven”). Other U.S. fighters bore feral names such as the P61 “Bearcat,” P61B “Black Widow,” and the jet-engined P80 “Shooting Star,” which never saw combat.


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