VIII Fighter Command
|VIII Fighter Command|
|Branch||United States Army Air Forces|
|Brigadier General Frank O’Driscoll Hunter|
|Emblem of the VIII Fighter Command|
The VIII Fighter Command was a United States Army Air Forces formation. Its last assignment was with the United States Air Forces in Europe, being stationed at RAF Honington, England. It was inactivated on 20 March 1946.
VIII Fighter Command was the fighter arm of Eighth Air Force in the World War II European Theater. Its primary mission was to escort the heavy bombers of VIII Bomber Command to their targets in Occupied Europe, providing protection against Luftwaffe interceptors.
It was formed at Selfridge Field, Michigan in February 1942. In May, the headquarters moved to England to conduct combat operations over Occupied Europe. After the end of the European War in May 1945, VIII Fighter Command took part in the occupation of Germany until May 1946 while simultaneously coordinating its own demobilization. It inactivated in March 1946 at RAF Honington, the last Royal Air Force station used by the USAAF to be returned to the British Ministry of Defence.
The VIII Fighter Command was constituted initially as "VIII Interceptor Command" at Selfridge Field, Michigan on 19 January 1942. Equipped with the 4th and 5th Air Defense wings, the command's mission was air defense over the north central United States. The command's mission was changed as it was ordered to deploy to Britain in February 1942 as first it was reassigned to Charleston AAF on 13 February, then shipped overseas to England where on 12 May it set up headquarters at Bushey Hall.
Bomber escort for VIII Bomber Command was the fighters' primary mission. VIII Fighter Command initially flew three types of aircraft during 1942-43: the Supermarine Spitfire, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
Even though the defense of the United States West Coast initially took priority, plans were made in the spring of 1942 to deploy P-38F Lightning squadrons to Britain. This deployment caused logistical problems, since the U-boat menace made shipping across the Atlantic quite risky. However, development by Lockheed of reliable drop tanks for the P-38F increased the ferry range from 1300 to 2200 miles. This made it possible to ferry the Lightnings from Maine to the UK via Goose Bay, Labrador to Greenland to Reykjavík, Iceland and finally to Prestwick, Scotland. Also, following the American victory at the Battle of Midway, the USAAF felt sufficiently confident that the Japanese fleet was not about to show up off the west coast and it was decided to redeploy the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups to Britain. By August 1942, 81 P-38Fs of four of the six squadrons of the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups had arrived in Great Britain to complete the first transatlantic crossing by single-seat fighters. On 14 August 1942, a P-38F flown by 2nd Lieut Elza Shaham of the 342d Composite Group in Iceland shared with a P-40C in the destruction of a Focke-Wulf Fw 200C-3 over the Atlantic Ocean to obtain the first victory of a P-38 over a Luftwaffe aircraft.
The P-38F-equipped 82nd Fighter Group arrived in Northern Ireland in November 1942. However, the P-38 was not to become famous for its exploits in Europe as the needs of the North African Invasion took priority in the fall of 1942 and the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups were transferred to the Twelfth Air Force in the North African Campaign. The fighter plane which would be used most extensively over the skies of Europe would first be the P-47 Thunderbolt in 1943, then in 1944, be joined in the sky by the P-51 Mustang.
The P-38 equipped groups of the 6th Fighter Wing were reassigned to Twelfth Air Force on 14 September 1942 and later sent to French Morocco and Algeria in support of the North African and Tunisian Campaigns.
The first P-47C Thunderbolts arrived in England in late December 1942, and equipped the 4th Fighter Group which somewhat reluctantly traded in their Spitfires for the type. P-47Cs also reequipped the 82nd, 83rd, and 84th Squadrons of the 78th Fighter Group. P-47Cs were also supplied to the 56th Fighter Group which left their P-47Bs back home in the States when they transferred to England. Engine and radio problems caused some delays, but the first operational sorties began on 10 March 1943, and consisted of high-altitude escort duties and fighter sweeps. The first encounter with German fighters came on 15 April when the P-47Cs of the 335th Squadron shot down three German fighters for a loss of three of its own.
The high-altitude performance of the P-47C was far superior to anything the Luftwaffe could put up against it, but at low and medium altitudes the P-47C could not match the maneuverability and climb rates of its opponents. However, the P-47C could out-dive just about anything in the sky, and many a Thunderbolt saved itself from a sticky situation by using its superior diving performance to break off combat at will when it proved necessary to do so. The P-47Cs of the 56th, 4th and 78th Groups were intended as bomber escorts, but were ineffectual until fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks to lengthen their range at the end of July 1943. These three groups were joined later in 1943 by seven new groups flying P-47Ds - the 352nd, 353rd, 355th, 356th, 358th, 359th, and 361st Fighter Groups. P-47s flew escort missions until the end of 1943, when they began to be replaced by longer-range and P-51 Mustangs which were better suited for the long-range escort role.
The P-51 Mustang first entered squadron service in Europe with the British in early 1942. The Allison V-1710-engined P-51A (Mustang I) was successful in RAF service, although the British found the aircraft's performance inadequate at higher altitudes. Rolls-Royce engineers rapidly realized that by equipping the Mustang with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine with its two speed, two stage supercharger, performance would substantially improve. Also, by using a four-bladed propeller, rather than the three-bladed one used on the P-51A, the performance was again greatly improved. The XP-51B achieved a level speed of 441 mph at 29,800 feet, over 100 mph faster than the Allison-engined P-51A at the same altitude. At all altitudes, the rate of climb was approximately doubled.
The USAAF finally had an aircraft which could compete on equal terms with the Fw 190 and the later models of the Bf 109. The USAAF was finally fully sold on the Mustang, and a letter contract for 2200 P-51Bs was issued. The engine was to be the Packard V-1650-3, based on the Merlin 68. The P-51B, and subsequently the P-51C and P-51D models, became one of the most memorable fighter of the war.
In late 1943, the P-51B Mustang was introduced to the European Theater by the USAAF. It could fly as far on its internal fuel tanks as the P-47 could with drop tanks. However the P-51B was introduced as a tactical fighter, so the first deliveries of the P-51B in November 1943 were assigned to three groups in the tactical Ninth Air Force at the expense of VIII Bomber Command, whose need for a long range escort fighter was critical. The first escort mission for the bombers was not flown until 5 December.
A compromise was reached between 8th and 9th Air Force and the first Eighth Air Force unit to receive the P-51B was the 357th Fighter Group based at RAF Raydon in Essex. From this point, the P-51 saw widespread use as an escort fighter on long-range penetration raids deep into Germany. In March 1944, P-51Bs flew to Berlin and back for the first time. The 2,000 mile range of the Mustang, when equipped with drop tanks, was far in excess of what was available to other fighters of the day.
The P-51B, C, and D models (merlin engine derivatives) were ideally suited to high altitude bomber escort duties. The streamlined fuselage and thin laminar flow wing made it able to escort bombers to Berlin and back. These features also made it better suited to high altitude combat (above 20,000 ft). The main Luftwaffe opponents were the Bf-109 and the Fw-190A. The Fw-190A's main performance band was between 15,000 to 20,000 ft, and so the arrival of the Merlin-engined Mustangs spawned the development of the Fw-190D and Ta-152 high altitude fighters. Forcing Luftwaffe pilots to fight the P-51B/D/K's strengths, and the Allies' ability to mount escorts in force (with 3-to-1 and later 4-to-1 odds) proved devastating to Germany. P-51D pilots achieved many of their victories due to overwhelming Allied numerical superiority.
The reasons for the Mustang's successes were due to the Allies' (mainly American) industrial might, the Mustang's tactical use in combat, and its offensive capabilities, which truly separated it from its contemporaries. Looking at combat aircraft production numbers will really show the differences in German versus Allied industrial might. During 1943, Nazi Germany produced 18,953 combat aircraft (Axis total 19,584) compared to 101,639 produced by the Allies. During 1944 the numbers were 33,804 vs 125,718. During 1945 the numerical difference was even greater, at 6,987 vs 60,494. The Allies' strategy of using large formations of bombers to attack targets deep within German-occupied territory forced the Luftwaffe to fight a war of attrition. By mid 1944, most of the Luftwaffe's most experienced fighter pilots in the west were killed.
The effect of the Mustang on the Luftwaffe was swift and decisive. The result was that the Luftwaffe was notable by its absence over the skies of the Europe after D-Day, and the Allies were starting to achieve air superiority over the continent. Although the Luftwaffe could (and did) mount effective attacks on the ever-increasing number of Allied heavy bomber formations, the sheer numbers of Allied bombers attacking targets throughout occupied Europe overwhelmed the German fighter force, which simply could not sustain the losses the Eighth Air Force bombers and fighters were inflicting on it.
When Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle took command of the Eighth Air Force in January 1944, he initiated a policy change. Previously, fighters were largely tied to the bombers, but Doolittle and Kepner freed many fighters to go "down on the deck" and allowed them to become far more aggressive. The fighters were now able to seek out the Luftwaffe and actively attack their airfields. This resulted in Luftwaffe losses rising to unsustainable levels, increasing pressure on the German fighter arm, with an attendant reduction in USAAF bomber losses, while fighter losses inevitably rose.
By mid-1944, Eighth Air Force had reached a total strength of more than 200,000 personnel (it is estimated that more than 350,000 Americans served in Eighth Air Force during the war in Europe.) At peak strength, Eighth Air Force had forty heavy bomber groups, fifteen fighter groups, and four specialized support groups.
In September 1944, the VIII Fighter Command attached its fighter wings to the Eighth Air Force's Bombardment Divisions. This administrative move allowed each division operational control of several fighter groups to fly escort to their heavy bomb wings. The 65th Fighter Wing was attached to the 2nd Bombardment Division, the 66th Fighter Wing to the 3rd Bombardment Division, and 67th Fighter Wing to the 1st Bombardment Division.
VIII Fighter Command also attacked German transport, logistics centers, and troops during the Normandy campaign, though tactical operations in the European Theater largely were the realm of the Ninth Air Force. During the Battle of the Bulge in late December 1944, several VIII Fighter Command groups were attached to Ninth Air Force Tactical Air Command to relieve the Army's ground forces with close-air support. After the initial German attack was blunted by early January, the units remained attached until February 1945, assisting the counter-attack by Allied forces.
First seen by Allied airmen during the late summer of 1944, it wasn't until March 1945 that German Jet aircraft started to attack Allied bomber formations in earnest. On 2 March, when Eighth Air Force bombers were dispatched to attack the synthetic oil refineries at Leipzig, Messerschmitt Me 262s attacked the formation near Dresden. The next day, the largest formation of German jets ever seen, most likely from the Luftwaffe's specialist 7th Fighter Wing, Jagdgeschwader 7 Nowotny, made attacks on Eighth Air Force bomber formations over Dresden and the oil targets at Essen, shooting down a total of three bombers.
However, the Luftwaffe jets were simply too few and too late to have any serious effect on the Allied air armadas, now sweeping over the Reich with near-impunity. V-1 and V-2 rocket sites were gradually overrrun and the lack of fuel and available pilots for the new jets had virtually driven the Luftwaffe from the skies. The Me-262 was an elusive foe in the skies for the P-47s and P-51s, which outclassed the American fighters. Despite its great speed advantage. Allied bomber escort fighters would fly high above the bombers — diving from this height gave them extra speed, thus reducing the speed difference. The Me 262 was less maneuverable than the P-51 and trained Allied pilots could catch up to a turning Me 262. However, the only reliable way of dealing with the jets, as with the even faster Me 163 Komet rocket fighters, was to attack them on the ground and during takeoff and landing. Luftwaffe airfields that were identified as jet bases were frequently bombed by medium bombers, and Allied fighters patrolled over the fields to attack jets trying to land. The Luftwaffe countered by installing flak alleys along the approach lines in order to protect the Me 262s from the ground and providing top cover with conventional fighters during takeoff and landing. Nevertheless, in March and April 1945, Allied fighter patrol patterns over Me 262 airfields resulted in numerous losses of jets and serious attrition of the force.
On 7 April, the Eighth Air Force dispatched thirty-two B-17 and B-24 groups and fourteen Mustang groups (the sheer numbers of attacking Allied aircraft were so large in 1945 that they were now counted by the group) to targets in the small area of Germany still controlled by the Nazis, hitting the remaining airfields where the Luftwaffe jets were stationed. In addition, almost 300 German aircraft of all types were destroyed in strafing attacks. On 16 April, this record was broken when over 700 German aircraft were destroyed on the ground.
The Luftwaffe was, simply, finished.
At war's end the 8th's fighters had claimed 5,280 enemy aircraft shot down and 4,100 more claimed destroyed on the ground. Losses were 2,113 in total. Some 260 VIII FC pilots became aces, each with five or more aerial victories, though the command also recognized planes destroyed on the ground. The top aces were Lt. Col. Francis S. Gabreski (28) and Capt. Robert S. Johnson (28) of the 56th Fighter Group plus Maj. George E. Preddy (26.83) and Lt. Col. John C. Meyer (24) of the 352nd. Gabreski was shot down and captured in July 1944, and Preddy was killed in December. Some 5,000 pilots served with the VIII FC of which 2,156 made at least one part share claim for a kill. Just 57 pilots made claims into double figures.
- Constituted as VIII Interceptor Command on 19 January 1942
- Activated on 1 February 1942
- Redesignated VIII Fighter Command in May 1942
- Inactivated on 20 March 1946
- Disbanded on 8 October 1948
- 8th Air Force (later Eighth Air Force): 1 February 1942
- Eighth Air Force, 22 February 1944
- United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, 16 July 1945
- United States Air Forces in Europe, 7 August 1945 – 20 March 1946
- 6th Fighter Wing, 7 June 1942 – 14 September 1942
- 65th (formerly 4th Air Defense) Fighter Wing, 4 June 1943 – 15 September 1944
- 66th (formerly 5th Air Defense) Fighter Wing, 3 July 1943 – 15 September 1944
- 67th Fighter Wing, 26 August 1943 – 15 September 1944
Groups (assigned to VIII Fighter Command)
* Formed in England by Eighth Air Force; reassigned to Twelfth Air Force.
** Training unit with no permanent aircraft assigned.
Groups (assigned to wings)
- 6th Fighter Wing
- Wing and assigned groups reassigned to Twelfth Air Force, 14 September 1942
- 1st Fighter Group: (P-38), 16 August-14 September 1942
- 14th Fighter Group: (P-38), 14 August-14 September 1942
- 31st Fighter Group: (P-38), 16 August-14 September 1942
- 52d Fighter Group (Spitfire) 18 August-14 September 1942
- 65th Fighter Wing
- 66th Fighter Wing
- 67th Fighter Wing
- Selfridge Field, Michigan, 1 February 1942
- Charleston Army Airfield, South Carolina, c. 13 February-c. 1 May 1942
- RAF High Wycombe (AAF-101), England, c. 12 May 1942
- RAF Bushey Hall (AAF-341), England, c. 27 July 1942
- Charleroi Airfield (A-87), Belgium, c. 15 January 1945
- RAF High Wycombe (AAF-101), England, 17 July 1945
- RAF Honington (AAF-375), England, 26 October 1945-C. 20 March 1946.
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- Woolnough, John H. (Ed.) The 8th Air Force Album: The Story of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in WW II. Hollywood, Florida: 8th AF News, 1978.
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- United States Army Air Forces, 8th Air Force
- usaaf.com, Eighth Air Force