Low-Level Thunderbolts

The clearing of beachheads and the smashing of defense installations, communication lines and supply trains by planes of the RAF and AAF, including large numbers of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, spotted battlefront news of D-Day and the ensuing Allied sweep across the Cherbourg peninsula. The low-level dive-bombing and strafing performance of the Thunderbolts made spectacular reading, but it caused many people to ask how the Army’s best known high altitude long-range escort fighter found itself down on the deck slugging it out with the enemy, at almost zero altitude, from improvised airfields barely a stone’s throw from the front lines. Fencing with flak towers, blowing up bridges, catapulting bombs into tunnels, and giving spot delivery of demolition bombs on five minute’s call, is certainly a far cry from the public notion that Thunderbolt pilots must keep pretty well above 20,000 feet altitude for their best fighting. I

t was in Italy that a Thunderbolt first rose from a runway carrying a wing load of bombs, that the new role of the Thunderbolt as a dive-bomber was given birth and developed into full-grown vitality. It was north of Rome that Thunderbolts, unleashing their new-found fury, paralyzed enemy communication and supply lines, destroying tunnels and bridges, wiping out trains and tanks, leaving no choice other than disorganized retreat for the German forces when the Allies made their final assault on Rome.

Maj Gen John K Cannon, commanding officer of the 12th US Air Force, gave the Thunderbolt its opportunity to prove that it could do a full-time job in ground operations.

Prevailing belief was that a P-47 Thunderbolt was ineffective below 20,000 feet — that it would crash into the ground if it attempted low-altitude dive-bombing.

General Cannon considered those available Thunderbolts, considered the work that lay ahead of him, and ordered a test. He assigned twelve Thunderbolts to Colonel Wymond’s squadron. He wanted to know what they could do as dive-bombers and strafers.

"General Cannon told us he wanted a report on the adaptability of the P-47 for ground support, by the end of January," Colonel Wymond said. "We went into the experiment knowing that it was the general belief that the Thunderbolt could not cope with German Me-109s and FW-190s under 20,000 feet, and that it was not fit for low-level dive-bombing. After a month of experiment, we reported, as the composite findings of ground crews, technical representatives and pilots, that we were convinced the Thunderbolt would prove to be the most potent dive-bomber in the United States Air Forces. It is competently versatile and has unexcelled accuracy in dive-bombing.

"As to operations below 20,000 feet, we made two dive-bombing tests, one from 8,000 feet and the second from 6,000 feet, maintaining better than a 60 percent dive. Bombs were released at exactly 2,000 feet. Pull-out was completed by 900 feet.

"After the first dive-bombing mission, every pilot in the squadron dive-bombed at least once. The summary of their experiences and opinions established that the Thunderbolt is easy to control in a dive-bomb run, easy to get on the target and stay on it without skidding, that bombs can be dropped at a low altitude, the bomb concussion being the governing factor rather than the pullout, and that no pilot noticed any mushing effect in dive-bombing."

The damage inflicted by the 16 Thunderbolts on the mission described was accomplished after the group had used its bombs to cut railroad tracks. For that work, Colonel Wymond said, delayed action fuses were used and bombs were released at 50 to 100 feet above the ground from shallow dives. He said six cuts were made out of twelve ships dropping bombs. The Thunderbolts then reformed and proceeded to a marshaling yard in Central Italy, where the strafing program that inflicted the itemized damage was staged.

This article was originally published in the September, 1944, issue of Air Tech magazine, vol 5, no 3, p 65