Dog Fight over Germany
by Ken Hodges
Leonard "Kit" Carson's account of the air battle of 14 January, 1945.
The 357th Fighter Group came to life by the clatter of the teleprinter machine in group operations, punching out Field Order 1515A from 8th Fighter Command, northwest of London, a hundred miles away.
The night watch at group ops scanned it and then the field phone and the one in our squadron orderly room buzzed lightly. The Charge of Quarters picked it up and heard, "Roust'em, the briefings in one hour". He then knocked cautiously at our door, as if he knew the hostility inside to being roused at such an uncivilized hour. In the blackest part of the January night we groped our way to consciousness, pulled on cold boots and stumbled to the mess hall through the half frozen mud that comprised the local real estate. The Nissan huts that were our home looked like igloo-shaped freighters floating in a sea of mud. The freezing cold was the wet kind that permeates the soul. The only thing good about the morning was that the weather wasn't as rotten as it could have been.
No one bathed or shaved after getting up. Sleep was more important and if doing something didn't make the missions shorter, improve the weather or your chances, why bother? All the amenities plus a combat ration of bourbon or scotch, administered by the flight surgeon, would come after the mission if you wanted it. Many pilots ate nothing before a mission except for the usual fighter pilot breakfast, a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Some believed that having an empty stomach made them more alert. Some believed if they were gut shot in combat, the likelihood of peritonitis was less on an empty stomach, if they got back at all which was unlikely in the event. However, I'll leave the medical truth of that belief to the experts. Who's going to argue with a man trying to shave the odds of survival in his favor?
Being a farm boy I ate everything in sight, because I had learned about the need of food to generate body heat when you're going out to work in sub-zero temperatures. None of the misgivings had anything to do with the Luftwaffe per se. Most of the pilots believed as I did, that, with the superb fighting machine we had in the Mustang, they couldn't lay a glove on us if we saw them coming. We made it our business to see them, that's what it was all about. Escort fighters were the defensive line backers, as in football, and you can't clothesline the opposition if you don't see them.
My first concern was of having to bail out or ditch in the North Sea in winter and dying of exposure. Nobody hates cold water more than I do. I've never taken a cold shower in my life if there was any other choice. If you didn't get out of the water into your dinghy within 20 minutes, death from exposure was almost certain. The near freezing water would take the body heat from you that quickly.
The second was bailing out and lying in a PW camp hospital with a broken back or a gangrenous arm or leg with drugs and medical expertise in short supply, or non-existent.
Third was of being massacred by the civilian population if I went down in the area of a heavily bombed target. It happened to others. I had no illusions about my reception by a hostile, overwrought mob of bombed out civilians, especially if I were standing next to a wrecked Mustang with 19 swastikas painted on its side. They weren't going to hand me any bouquets. The Geneva Convention and the Rules of War would be several light years removed. It could be a one-on-one gut level confrontation with a mob. That's the reason I carried my service Colt .45 and two extra clips of ammo.
After bacon, pancakes and coffee the pilots took the dirt path that had been scuffed across a small meadow and walked almost idly in clumps of 3 to 4 to group operations for the briefing. Small talk, the latest jokes, a lot of bull and some bitching passed back and forth, mostly about weather. The Army was recouping the situation i the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, in the worst weather that Europe had seen in 30 years. For the past two weeks we tried to climb up through that crap, as much as 25 or 30,000 feet thick, picking up ice most of the way, only to have the mission scrubbed and ordered to return home. We lost 13 pilots that month, at least 6 of the losses were directly attributable to the weather. The P-51 was a fine weather airplane but if an inexperienced pilot panics, gets vertigo or collides with someone in that muck, nobody can help him.
The pilots were fed up with the morning scramble to get to briefings and then having the mission scrubbed, sometimes before the actual briefing started. Hurry and wait. Attitudes on the morning of January 14th were no different. As the 66 pilots of the 3 squadrons filed into the briefing room they were watched by Doc Barker, our group flight surgeon, checking for red eyeballs, sniffles, and bronchial coughs. I walked in with John Sublett and my wing man, "Hot Shot Charlie" Duncan ... both aces. Damned comforting to have an ace for a wing man. That kid's got his head screwed on real good and is a fine a shooter and rudder stomper that ever came down the pike. "Is it scrubbed yet?" "Nope still on." "Fraid so, the B-17s have already taken off, I heard'em forming up to the west as we came in."
The ominous red ribbon that marked our route and target ran eight feet across the large briefing map of Europe pasted to the wall at the rear of the speaker's stage.
"What's the Target?" "Berlin" "Dammit, I can see that." "Someone said Derben/Stendahl, but for you and me, that's Berlin" "All I need is one more trip to Berlin to round out my career in aviation" "What's at Derben?" "Snow and sauerkraut."
Briefing time. Over six thousand kids just out of their teens, but in reality light years away, and a few old timers over 30, in Mustangs and Fortresses were converging for a single purpose. The bombers had indeed taken off and a corps of crew chiefs, armorers and radiomen were in a last minute hustle to get the fighter escort off. The name of the village, Derben, at the end of the ribbon, really didn't matter. It was Berlin - in January.
The chances of evading the enemy and walking out if you were shot down that time of year were zero. The nearest friendly territory was occupied Denmark, but even that was a 250 mile hike from the target area. The chances of being mobbed and cut down by civilians, the SS, or a trigger happy private in the Wehrmacht were excellent. The chances of becoming a POW, with your skin in one piece, in that populated area were somewhere between mediocre and non existent. The best bet was to put yourself in the hands of the Luftwaffe, if you could spot an airfield on the way down. Failing that - well, be sure and take mother's little helper along in the shoulder holster. Wisely used, it could put some distance between you and any hostile parties on the ground and make the difference in staying alive.
"The target's probably a couple of forty pfennig outhouses." "Yeah, they'll think the sauerkraut backfired. It'll cause a national stampede." "That's our secret weapon." Talk. Just idle, nervous loose talk while you're standing by waiting for something to happen.
This was my 99th mission n a year, the 14th to Berlin. No sweat. The vital characteristic of the whole group was that they still had the "spirit of attack." If that spirit doesn't exist you're out of business. The fundamental characteristic of fighter action was at all times and in all places to be on the offensive, because only the fighter that attacks has the advantage. He was the hunter to avoid being the hunted. If he, or his airplane, could not perform sufficiently well to do this, then neither had any reason to exist. The pilot was trained and the airplane was designed to carry the fight to the enemy. The cavalry had sprouted wings.
We came to attention as the Group Commander arrive. Colonel Dregne had planned and was leading the mission. A congenial and thoughtful man, he'd fly all day and write papers on tactics at night and shoot them up to Fighter Command. He wasn't asking them, he was telling them how it was done. There had been no precedent for strategic escort against the Luftwaffe and we wrote the book, mission-by-mission, as we went along. Dregne had a strong intuition about how to put a fighter group in the right spot to clobber the opposition. The mission was to be a North Sea cruise over 300 miles of water to the coast of Denmark, avoiding land fall and flak to the last minute and then turning southeast to Derben/Stendahl just west of Berlin. The target was 180,000 tons of oil storage. The weather was clear over the target. The 357th was assigned the lead escort position to the 13 Combat Wing of Fortresses which was leading the 3rd Air Division column of B-17s. Within the 13th Combat Wing, the 95th Bomb Group was leading the whole force, followed by the "Bloody" 100th and the 390th. All three of these veteran groups had participated in the Schweinfurt ball bearing plant raids in October 1943 and the 95th had been the first group to bomb Berlin in March, 1944. We were at Berlin too, that day, as the first P-51 group assigned to General Doolittle's 8th Air Force. Now we were to rendezvous again west of Denmark over the North Sea. The intelligence portion of the briefing centered on the massed "company front" attacks by the Luftwaffe Fighter Command that could be expected. We were aware of this from previous missions but the reminder did no harm. In round numbers they would probably attack in groups of 40 to 50 Focke Wulf 190s or Me-109s, spread out in lines 6 or 8 abreast and coming head on to the Forts in wave after wave. There might be a few of the Me-262 jet fightgers which were 80 mph faster than the P-51s. They could be a problem. A general assessment of the air war did not reveal any tendency on the part of the Luftwaffe to ease up on their defenses. On Christmas eve 1944, General Doolittle dispatched 2034 heavy bombers and 1000 plus fighters over Fortress Europe, probably the greatest air armada that history will ever record. While escorting a part of that force into central Germany our group destroyed 31 Luftwaffe fighters for a loss of 3. On Christmas day we went to Kassel, just east of the Ruhr with no opposition in sight ... 5 hours sitting on that rock hard dinghy before pulling up to a government issue plate of turkey and cranberries. Riding the "point" position on escort today, we could expect to meet the first assault of the company front attack. Timing on our part was imperative. We had to be in position at the point of the column of Forts at all times. If they got into the column head on there would be no getting them out ... and they would most certainly be there. The weather was good over Germany and our line of flight was a clear threat to the Berlin area.
At the appointed time 66 airplanes came to life around the perimeter of the field. To anyone standing at the control tower it sounded like as if 2 or 3 new Merlin engines were born every second. The sun cut itself on the edge of a cloud and a shaft of light bled down-onto the field, giving some promise of relief in the weather. There's no chatter on the radio. There's nothing to talk about. The radio was for emergencies, enemy surprises, or if someone had to abort the mission. Otherwise stay off the air. Hotshot Charlie came puttering down the taxi strip and waited for me to pull out ahead of him - I was leading Blue flight so we were the 9th and 10th airplanes in sequence in takeoff position. Getting into the right position in the group gaggle of airplanes was easy. Once you're in the right sequence taxiing out, the chore of getting airborne into the right formation slot was only a matter of throttle and bending.
Once airborne, we settled back for the two hour haul to rendezvous with the Forts. A few of our Mustangs called in to abort and return to base. Landing gear won't retract, engine too rough, coolant hot. Once in a while someone had a slight case of flu that developed into stomach cramps, in that event there's only one thing you can do; abort and hope to hell you make it back before the pressure overcomes you sphincter valve. There are no toilets in fighters. When you get the cramps 2 hours from home base it's a crisis of will power. We did have relief tubes with a plastic funnel on the end to urinate in, but the residue would freeze and plug up the tube. The second time you relieved yourself on a long mission you were stuck with a plastic funnel of cold pee in your left hand while flying with your right. After another crisis of will power you drop it to the floor and hope that you don't have to get inverted in a dog fight any time soon.
We came up on the 3rd Division column of Forts with their red, black and yellow rudders clearly visible. Tooling on up front to th e13th Combat Wing, we found our three bomb groups. Once again we rendezvoused on time as briefed. Our good reputation was maintained; we had never missed a rendezvous. Colonel Dregne, as "Judson Red Leader" put his lead squadron of escort high over the 95th Bomb Group at 30,000 feet, my squadron on the right flank at 26,000 feet and the third squadron on the left flank at the same altitude. The division column of Forts was at 24,000 feet. Now for the wait. Everyone got their eyeballs focused into the distance waiting for those tell-tale specks on the horizon or condensation trail to show. We could see for 50 miles in that air. We turned right and headed southeast to Berlin They were tracking us and now they knew our intent. There was a Jagdgeschwader forming up out there somewhere (literally translated, a "hunting group" consisting of about 120 fighters). We would fight in pairs when they hit. That was a basic article of faith in American fighter training. Our group of 58 planes would break up into 29 pairs (8 had aborted with problems); a leader, who was also the shooter, and a wing man to cover his tail and back him up with another set of guns. After a year in combat we did those things intuitively. We hadn't been in escort position more that 30 minutes when the enemy force was sighted pulling condensation trails and approaching from Brandenburg. They were coming at us out of the sun at about 32,000 feet.
'JUDSON RED LEADER, CON TRAILS AT 11 O'CLOCK HIGH, ABOUT 100 OF 'EM" "JUDSON RED LEADER HERE, ROGER. DOLLAR, CEMENT AND GREENHOUSE DROP YOUR TANKS'
That was understood to be the order for our three squadrons to attack' no need for any other chit-chat. What was there to talk about? The moment of truth had arrived, this was where the propaganda stopped. It was time to clothesline the opposition and put some numbers on the scoreboard for our team.
'JEEZUS, LOOK AT 'EM COMIN'' "SHUT UP AND DROP YOUR GODDAMN TANKS'
Switch to an internal tank, punch the red button on top of the stick and away they drop; 116 wing tanks streamed fuel out the broken connections into the stratosphere as a prelude to the clash. It was a reassuring sight to the crews and gunners in the Forts. below. They knew we were spring-loaded and ready to go. Flick on your gun and camera switches. It all took 5 seconds. The head-on rate of closure was fast. The opposing force was about 60 Me 109s at 32,000 feet flying as top cover for 60 Focke Wulf 190s at 28,000 feet, which was the main attack group. The 190 group was spread in the anticipated "company front", flying 6 or 8 abreast and several lines deep.
Both fighter forces drove home the attack. We had not been pulling contrails at our altitude so they had no idea of our actual strength. The odds were 2:1 in favor of the Luftwaffe. My squadron and the one of the left flank met the FW-190s head on. Col. Dregne met the Me-109s with his high squadron. Our position and timing were perfect but we couldn't completely stop the first assault. Nothing but a brick wall could have.
"Hot Shot Charlie" had kicked his Mustang about four wing spans out to my right where he could see me in his peripheral vision and watch the 190s come in. He was waiting for my first move. We both fired as we met them and just a half second before the first wave passed. I hauled it around at full power in a steep, tight chandelle to reverse course and attack from the rear. At this point our three squadrons broke up into fighting pairs, a leader and a wing man. I closed to about 200 yards on a Focke Wulf and fired a good burst, getting strikes all over the fuselage and closed the range to about 50 yards. No long range gunnery here. Just shove all six guns up his butt, pull the trigger and watch him fly apart. I hit him again and he rolled to the right and peeled down and started a series of rolls which became more and more violent. He was smoking badly and the ship was obviously out of control. I pulled up and watched him fall. The pilot did not get out, in fact he didn't even release his canopy.
Duncan and I pulled back up toward the bombers when we saw another formation of 20 to 30 Focke Wulfs to our rear. Another P-51 joined up so there were three of us. We turned 180 degrees into them, it was all we could do. Pure chance had put us on the spot. We fired head on but got no hits. I popped maneuvering flaps and again with full power did the tightest chandelle with all the "g" force I could stand, probably about 5 or 6 gs. I fired at about 300 yards, getting strikes on the nearest 190 that was turning into me. He headed into me violently but evidently pulled too hard on the stick in the turn and did a couple of high speed snap rolls and wound up on his back with his auxiliary fuselage fuel tank perched upwards against the horizon. While he was poised there I hit him with another burst, pieces came off the ship and he began boiling smoke. He split-essed and headed for the deck. I followed until he hit the sod at a shallow angle, bounced in a shower of dirt and crashed; again, the pilot never left the ship.
I was by myself now, Duncan and the other Mustang having left to take care of their own fortunes. That's the way it was in a massive dog fight such as this; it quickly broke down into 40 or 50 private battlegrounds. I learned later that Duncan was busily engaged in the destruction of two FW-190s in another corner of the sky.
I climbed back up to 14,000 feet when two Me-109s with barber pole stripes on the spinners came by beneath me. The reson for the stripes was that we were up against Jagdgeschwader 300 of the Reich Defense Force located around Berlin. Neither one saw me as I dropped to their rear and fired at the closest one. They dropped partial flaps and broke violently away from my line of fire. I used my excess speed to haul back up and regain my altitude advantage. The two enemy ships pulled into a tight Luftberry circle but I stayed out of it. I made a fast headon pass at their defensive circle but got no hits. The bore of the cannon mounted in the center of the 109 spinner looked as big as a laundry tub in the brief instant that we met. The leader broke out of the circle and headed for the deck. I dropped down to engage tail-end Charlie as he too headed for the deck in a nearly vertical dive. All of a sudden he pulled it up into a climb and shopped his power, losing nearly all his speed. this was the old sucker trap maneuver that would put me in front, and him behind, in firing position. I kept my excessive speed and fire walled the Merlin and stated firing, closing the range down to 40 or 50 yards. I was so close that the 109 virtually blocked my vision through the windshield. I was getting hits all over the fuselage and as I pulled up vertically over him, a maneuver that he could not have followed at his low speed, his engine coolant system blew. Over my left shoulder I could see that he went into a tumbling spiral, out of control. Again, undoubtedly, the pilot was hit.
So ended the engagement for me, two Focke Wulf 190s and one Me-109 destroyed; 1050 rounds of ammo fired. Our group destroyed 57 1/2 enemy aircraft, that's an Air Force record that still stand today. We lost three pilots as the price of the victory. Things were not all that great, however, in the Combat Wing of Fortresses. One entire squadron of B-17s of the 390th did not return. The 390th "C" squadron was attacked by Focke Wulf 190s and all 8 Fortresses were destroyed. In addition one ship from the 390th "A" squadron also went down. The reason that the FW-190s hit the 390th Forts so hard is that they were lagging a few miles behind, because of engine trouble, and could not catch up. When the attack came they lost the benefit of the fighter escort ahead of them or the collective defensive firepower of the 95th and 100th Bomb Groups. The Luftwaffe singled them out as the obvious weak spot in the division column and chewed them up with cannon fire for half an hour. Cut off from the support, nine fortresses and nearly a hundred men disappeared from the sky.
About five hours after takeoff our squadron telephone reports on confirmed victories began trickling into Groups Ops. They couldn't believe it. There were so many claims; maybe the same planes were being reported twice? "What the hell, don'tcha think I can count?" "Well check it again goddammit, somebody's gone ape down there." "Okay, Okay, Quitcher bitchin." Hanging up, wait 30 minutes and reconfirm. No individual was making excessive claims but nearly everyone did something to help the total score.
The report went on to 8th Air Force at High Wycombe. They didn't believe it either and wanted it rechecked. Unusual to say the least. It broke the old record of 38 destroyed in a single engagement by 19 1/2 (one gets a 1/2 victory by sharing it with another pilot who attacks the same enemy ship). Everyone finally became convinced that the reports were correct. However, it was two days later before General Doolittle , assured that he had the correct figures reported the victories at a staff conference. This follow-up report is about 30 years late, General, but we owe it to you anyway. The real reason for our success comes in two parts. First, our position and timing were perfect., We had 58 Mustangs exactly where they were supposed to be when the attack came. When the 100 plus contrails of the Luftwaffe appeared out to the southeast there were no surprises. Secondly, of the 58 Mustang pilots at that spot, 23 of them were aces. The leadership of the flights and squadrons of the 357th and many of the wing men were aces. You had the first team on the line, General; 58 Mustangs with 23 positions manned by aces was one hell of a potent force. Those 23 pilots accounted for 41 of the 57 1/2 destroyed.
That's the report that should have been made but it wasn't, because the facts were buried in the statistics of the pilot's roster for that day and no one thought to look there ... but it's true. The Luftwaffe never attacked in such force again; the war was over 4 months later. General Doolittle sent a message to the pilots of the 357th that reads: "You gave the Hun the most humiliating beating that he has ever taken in the air. Extend my personal admiration and congratulations to each member of you command both ground and air, for a superb victory." Coming from the man that raided Tokyo in an Army B-25 from the deck of a carrier, the message had a special meaning that will never be forgotten.
Presented with permission of Leonard "Kit" Carson's sons, Leonard K Carson, Jr. and Steve Carson. Quoted from Kit Carson's book Pursue and Destroy. Currently out of print. Look for used copies, only 5000 were printed. One of the best books on the Mustang ever written.