Lightnings in Africa

by Capt William J Hoelle
As told to Roger Williams

Almost every criticism of the Lockheed Lightning has been proven false by the pilots who are fighting in Africa's skies.

The bewhiskered Italian army officer, his uniform tattered and torn, gazed sullenly at American intelligence officers firing questions at him at an advanced air base in North Africa. Suddenly, in response to a particularly pointed question, the Italian officer snapped to attention, threw back his head defiantly, and exclaimed:

"We were doing all right and winning the war until those damned forked-tail airplanes showed up!"

Our Italian captive made reference to the famed American P-38s, or Lockheed Lightnings, a twin-engined interceptor with 1,350-hp Allison engines. No higher compliment has been paid the P-38s and the boys who fly them.

Maj Gen Jimmy Doolittle, who led the spectacular bombing raid on Tokyo and who now is commanding our air forces in Africa, has said some mighty fine things about the P-38, but I doubt that anyone could have stated the point more forcibly than the disheveled and unhappy Italian officer.

No plane has taken more criticism than the Lockheed P-38, and to my mind no plane has more thoroughly demonstrated how unfair and uncalled for that criticism has been. The Lightning has proved of inestimable value in the fighting in North Africa, as well as on other fronts.

I have just returned from North Africa, where the Blank Fighter Squadrons, comprising the Blank Fighter Group, under command of Col Thayer S Olds, proved without shadow of a doubt that the P-38 is one of our most effective all-around fighter planes.

For three months it was my good fortune to participate in 47 missions over enemy lines with the Blank Fighter Squadron, which I now command. I've seen what the P-38 can do under any and all circumstances. I can honestly say the ship has come through with flying colors.

Criticism directed against the plane has been varied. For example, it was belittled as lacking sufficient firepower. I am not at liberty to disclose what the firepower is, but I can say it is ample.

When we first arrived in North Africa, we thought the P-38 would not work out well as a ground support airplane, but after seeing the results of concentrated firepower against trucks, columns and tanks, we knew we really had something.

The ease and accuracy with which firepower can be controlled in a P-38 is important. The fighter pilot is able to put a bead right on the target and the firepower, which centers in the nose, does not converge toward a point but remains intact throughout the pattern.

Another criticism of the P-38 has been directed against its alleged inability to perform on a single engine. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Such tales of single-engine operation cause apprehension among new pilots. When the engine quits on either side, the tendency is for the good engine to pull the plane over and into a spin. But this tendency can readily be offset.

In the Blank Squadron and its sister squadron, the Blank, commanded by Maj Wade C Walles of Beaumont, TX, there were numerous experiences where one engine was shot up, yet the pilot always managed to return to his base. This proved to us that one engine operation can be performed successfully even under combat conditions. [We have heard of numerous incidents, particularly in the Aleutians where the Lightning first proved itself, in which the failure of one engine was successfully coped with. In nearly every case, the pilots have stated flatly that they never would have been able to return to their bases had it not been for the fact that they had the second engine with which to fly home. —ED]

The procedure followed when one engine quits is to cut back both throttles and then gradually feed the good throttle forward, using opposite rudder to offset the thrust of the engine still functioning. Ability to relax and think clearly, which comes automatically after experience, will allow the pilot to cope with any emergencies that arise when one engine quits. In the event both engines cut out at the same time, it might be wise for the pilot to turn the selector switch on the tank containing the reserve gas supply.

This latter may seem like needless advice, but we actually had a couple of instances where pilots ran out of gas and crash-landed only to discover to their chagrin that their reserve tanks still carried plenty of gas.

They simply had forgotten all about them. I can readily cite a number of examples where P-38s came through combat on one motor, and did a good job of fighting the enemy at the same time. On one occasion, Lieuts Robert Carlton of San Jose, CA; Virgil Lusk of Santa Rosa, NM, and James Butler of Georgia were out strafing the airport at Gabes. Lieutenant Carlton's plane was hit by flak and the right engine disabled. The flight decided to head for home.

On the return trip, some 30 miles north of Gabes, the three ships ran across nine Italian troop transports. The trio of P-38s, with Lieutenant Carlton flying his ship on one engine, proceeded to shoot down the entire nine enemy ships, all heavily loaded with troops. Lieutenant Carlton got one, Lieutenant Lusk five and Lieutenant Butler three,

In flying over to inspect the blazing ships on the ground, Lieutenant Lusk's left engine was knocked out by an Italian soldier firing a tommy gun on the ground. Both Lusk and Carlton had to limp home with Lieutenant Butler watching out for them and navigating at the same time. But the boys got back with their damaged ships intact.

Another example of single-engine performance by the P-38 occurred when Capt W P Moore of Sacramento, CA, who wears the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal, shot down a giant flying boat over the Mediterranean. Captain Moore was on an escort mission with bombers seeking out shipping in the Mediterranean when he fired upon a six-engine Blohm & Voss Bv-222 flying boat. [This is a new German long-range transport and reconnaissance type. According to British sources its six engines are 1,000-hp air-cooled BMWs. Wing span is approximately 150 feet, length about 120 feet. Maximum speed is said to be 200 mph, cruising, 170. Its range is reported to be 4,400 miles. At first glance, the Bv-222 looks a good deal like the British Short Sunderland. —ED]

Captain Moore attacked the huge ship about 50 feet above the water. The plane caught fire and crashed almost immediately. Estimated passenger capacity of the flying boat was 200 troops, and it appeared to be heavily loaded.

Almost at the same instant that Captain Moore shot down the Italian transport, he was attacked by enemy fighters. They got in a burst that knocked out his left engine and also destroyed his hydraulic system. Moore warded off further attack and continued on one engine with the American bombers until returning to his base. Upon reaching the home field, Captain Moore had to employ the manual hand pump to lower his landing wheels. This is a job that requires approximately 400 strokes — and a stroke is comparable to the stroke used in rowing a boat. Moore couldn't hold up his arm when he finally got down.

Still another single-engine experience was reported by Capt Charlie Earnhart of Lebanon, OH, now missing in action. Captain Earnhart was on a strafing mission to Gabes, where he destroyed two enemy planes on the ground and strafed ground installations and guns.

His ship was struck by cannon fire from the field and a shell exploded in the cockpit, inflicting cuts and shrapnel wounds in Earnhart's left leg. At the same time his left motor was shot out of commission. Earnhart headed back to his base, manipulating the plane on one motor while administering his wounds. He even went so far as to apply a tourniquet, and any good first-aider knows this is no simple job under normal conditions, let alone while flying a P-38 on one engine. Captain Earnhart was later awarded the DFC, the Silver Star, Order of Purple Heart and the Air Medal.

As for criticism that the P-38 is a death trap because the pilot cannot bail out, I can only say this is so much nonsense. We found that in combat every pilot who had to hit the silk did so without any trouble whatsoever.

Bailing out can be accomplished by the pilot either by rolling the plane over on its back and falling out or by pulling the ship up into a stall and jumping out between the booms and elevators just as the plane starts to spin.

Lieutenant Carlton, who now wears the DFC and Air Medal, discovered still another way of getting out — and certainly one of the most unique ways experienced by any of the boys during our stay in England and North Africa.

We were in England when Lieutenant Carlton was ordered up to intercept a Junkers Ju-86, high-altitude photographic ship. Carlton's plane iced up in a solid overcast and fell off into a steep dive. The indicated air speed was 600 mph. Carlton decided to leave the ship at 25,000 feet. He tripped the canopy release, unfastened his safety belt — and the next thing he knew he was floating through space. Apparently a vacuum sucked him right out of the plane, and without injury to him other than a slight shaking up. Lieutenant Carlton explained later his only discomfort was in floating down through the overcast for 12 minutes, and trying to figure out his estimated time of arrival "somewhere over England."

In North Africa, another member of our squadron was escorting bombers on a mission over Sfax. His ship was hit by flak and caught fire in mid-air. The pilot, whose name I can't reveal, simply rolled the ship over on its back and bailed out from 1,500 feet.

I also had occasion to bail out one day. Six of us were strafing tanks when we were attacked from above by 16 German fighters. The first I knew about the attack was when the fellow flying on my left was shot down. Immediately I pulled the ship up into an Immelman, which brought the plane out above the fighters tailing me, and headed in the opposite direction.

It was useless for the enemy to follow because the radius of their turn in a loop or Immelman would have brought them out well below me. When I rolled the plane over and out of the Immelman, I found myself in the midst of another enemy flight. There was a Messerschmitt in my sights and I shot it down with one quick burst, but immediately I discovered three enemy planes on my tail.

I put the maneuvering flaps down in an effort to get away, only to have a cannon shell hit the flaps and make them jam in that position. When this happened, the best speed I could get was not sufficient to enable me to outdistance them and by this time I was separated from my flight.

Although I tried to maneuver out of range, I couldn't do so because of reduced speed. Finally they succeeded in hitting the left engine and it burst into flames. At this point I was only 50 feet above the ground. I pulled the plane up into a stall because I knew I had to get out. To crash land at this particular point over the terrain would have been fatal. As the ship stalled at about 500 feet, I jumped out through the booms and elevators just as the plane fell into a spin.

Fortunately, I landed behind our lines and, with the help of the Arabs and French, I managed to make my way back to base. Next time, however, I'll pull the rip cord of the chute a little sooner. Flying pieces of metal from the plane entered my body, but did no serious damage.

These examples of single-engine operation and bailing out in combat, regardless of the circumstances, should prove heartening to P-38 pilots on the verge of leaving this country for action against the enemy.

The P-38 was designed, as you may know, as an interceptor and high-altitude ship. But we soon discovered that if we were to get into combat in North Africa we had to fly at altitudes below 12,000 feet. There was far greater action at lower levels, and certainly there were more ships to attack. This put us on the offensive and was far more advantageous than entering combat by first warding off an enemy attack from above.

Our motto in the Air Forces is: "The sooner you start shooting, the better!" We always try to remember that the other fellow has much the same thought in mind, and since we are his idea of a target this motto is not one to be forgotten.

We were constantly looking for something to pick off, such as the German Junkers Ju-88 and Ju-87. These were more plentiful at lower levels and were seldom to be found above 15,000 feet. Therefore, despite the design of the P-38 for high-altitude fighting, we had to come down to lower levels to find a target.

Our low-level work included the strafing of trucks, tanks and columns, or anything else we could find. One day I wound up in a rather ticklish position, but once again the P-38 proved its worth and came through in grand style.

We were strafing trucks and tanks at low altitude, when our commanding officer of the Blank Fighter Squadron was shot down. A pill box got him, and as I looked back to identify the crashed plane the tail of my ship hit a telephone pole. The plane whipped over on its back, no more than 20 feet above the ground. I immediately kicked full top rudder and full left aileron, and this rolled me back into a right bank position. The ship trembled all over and sort of bounced crazily along through space. By holding full left aileron I retained this position and kept the plane flying at about 50 feet above the ground. I thought for a while I was a goner.

Finally I put the flaps down and this proved just what was needed to gain control of the plane, pick up altitude and return home. The flying speed had been greatly reduced by the accident and I had to hang on to the wheel for dear life, the plane vibrated so badly.

Other ships in the squadron saw I was in trouble, and I succeeded in telling them over the radio what had happened. As I headed for home, the rest of the squadron circled over me constantly and warded off any enemy attack. It was 360 miles back, or a two-hour trip at my reduced speed. When I finally landed, the pressure I had been forced to exert on the wheel had caused large blisters to break out on my hands. I was also dripping wet from sweat. But I owe plenty of thanks to that P-38 and members of the squadron who furnished me protection going home. I'd never have made it without them to help me. I don't mind saying I was scared to death when the plane hit that pole. Incidentally, the pole was knocked to smithereens.

Since returning to the United States, I am constantly being asked how the P-38 stacks up with the Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitts. My answer is that, due to the P-38's greater speed, we capitalized on that speed to come in and make a quick attack, then climbed to regain position for another attack. In doing this we achieved far better results than would have been possible in attempting to turn and dogfight with single-engined ships.

Nearly any single-engined ship can turn inside a twin-engined one if given the opportunity, consequently our tactics were based upon the fact that we had greater speed than the German planes. We always flew in units with teamwork between flights of four to afford us protection against attack and place us in position to go on the offensive.

The smallest flying unit was a two-unit element. We found it better for personal safety never to attack individually, but always fly with at least a unit of two ships. With this as a basic unit, we devised our tactics accordingly.

In most cases our flights (a flight comprises two two-ship elements) would fly almost abreast, each looking back across the tail of the other flights. This afforded complete protection from the rear in that we could see and turn towards any attack from that direction.

When attacking enemy planes, especially fighters, we enjoyed our greatest success in chasing them down to ground level. Using our overtaking speed to good advantage, we nearly always were able to either shoot down the enemy or leave him in very bad shape. One thing we had to adhere to when attacking in this fashion was to have some of our planes as top cover to protect us against rear attacks while concentrating on our own offensive.

This top cover was not always available, however, and at such times we had to remember "to look out the back way before going down the front way." The Germans often sent decoys down to draw some of us in pursuit, and then sent in others to take on the remaining planes in combat. Usually they planned this so that we were greatly outnumbered.

Whenever we started combat at a disadvantage, our first action was to ward off the enemy with a quick turn into the direction of the attack. Immediately after this maneuver we attempted to climb for altitude to deliver a return attack. If the situation was such that this was not possible, our flights would maneuver into abreast positions, which proved to be our best defensive order of flight. In this way we could continue safely until we were able to maneuver in such a way that the advantage of the next combat would favor us.

Too much stress cannot be placed on having "the advantage of the moment" in combat. Every fighter pilot must be ready to ward off attacks when at a disadvantage and always take immediate offensive action when certain of his advantage. The uppermost thought in a pilot's mind should always be to complete his mission successfully, whether it be bomber escort, fighter sweep or reconnaissance. Upon completion of his job, he must concentrate entirely on getting back to his base. Stooging around, especially in enemy territory, without any definite purpose in view has always brought unhappy results.

The P-38 has proved its worth as an all-around fighter by performing effectively on long-range missions, either providing lighter protection for bombers or putting on a surprise attack on ground forces well behind enemy lines. The only disadvantage, if it can be called that, was the discomfort forced on the pilot by being strapped to his seat for five or six hours at a time.

Needless to say, at such times we keenly envied the bomber boys, who could always move around a little and even exercise if they so desired. All we could do on such trips was wiggle our hands and ears. But would we trade places with the bomber pilots? The answer to that is an emphatic: "Hell, no!" All of which adds up to: "Once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot." And, frankly, that's the way I feel about it. I'll take fighter duty and the P-38 every time.

This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Flying including Industrial Aviation magazine, vol 32, no 5, pp 24-25, 136, 138, 140.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author and 3 photos.
Photos are credited to Lockheed (1 photo) and the author (3 photos.)