An article by Steve Blake sent to us by Kent Goodrich – a member of the P–38 National Association
The three P–38 fighter/bomber groups of the tactical 9th Air Force – the 367th, 370th and 474th–were heavily and very successfully involved in the Battle of France, from D–Day, June 6, 1944, through the liberation of Paris at the end of August. Although their primary task was ground attack, strafing and bombing in support of the advancing Allied armies, they frequently got into dogfights with German fighters. These encounters were usually defensive in nature, as the Luftwaffe pilots targeted Allied planes that were harassing their ground troops. The 474th Fighter Group flew one such mission on July 18th.
It was a beautiful morning at the 474th’s base at Warmwell, in Dorset, which was just a few miles from the English Channel. The weather was CAVU and the pilots were eager. Their primary assignment for the first mission of the day was an armed reconnaissance of railroads in the Evreux/Mantes–Gassicourt area northwest of Paris. Each squadron scheduled twelve pilots (three flights) for the mission, plus a spare, and each P–38 carried a 1000-lb bomb. Take off was a few minutes after eight. The plan was for all three squadrons –the 428th, 429th and 430th – to fly from England to Evreux together, then separate to cover their individual targets and target areas.
Leading the group in his brand-new P–38J–25 was Lt. Col. Henry Darling, the Deputy Group Commander, at the head of the 428th Sq. The 429th Commanding Officer, Major Burl Glass, was leading his squadron when it took off, but shortly thereafter he discovered that his hydraulic system was on the blink, so he jettisoned his bomb in the Channel and returned to base. One of the other flight leaders, Major Vernon “Bill” Bowman, the Group Operations Officer, then took over the lead of the 429’11. At the head of the 430th Sq. was its CO., Capt. Ralph Embrey.
Landfall was made at Cabourg, France. As the three squadrons were flying in a southeasterly direction toward Evreux and preparing to split up, their controller warned them that, “The Germans know your target; they are being vectored into your area!” So instead of separating, ranks and they closed headed toward the 428th Squadron’s main target, the railroad bridge over the Eure River at Merey.
The 428th’s Yellow Flight, led by Major Earl Hedlund, the squadron C.O., had just begun the first bomb run on the bridge when at least two–dozen Fw 190s dove on the P–38s “out of the sun”. Most of the Lightning pilots quickly jettisoned their bombs and prepared to defend themselves.
First to engage was the 429th, at 0925. That squadron was a little higher than the 428th, while the 430th was above it. Major Bowman, an RAF veteran, quickly shot down an Fw 190 that was seen to hit the ground and catch fire. Lt. Dallas “Mac” McPherson, who had taken over as Red Leader when Major Glass aborted, downed another. He described the action later in his combat report:
“I circled with my flight and took three different deflection shots at a 190 on another P–38s tail. They all broke and I think that I got hits on one at 90 degrees. The 190 left and we started for home. We were jumped again and I turned into them. I took a 60 degree shot at one who was on a 38s tail. He broke off and I got on another 190’s tail. We turned together and I took a snap shot, 90 degree – about l½ radii. He broke down and I followed him down with my combat flaps down. The altitude was 6,000 feet when we broke. He did a half roll while going down and pulled out on the deck. I did a half roll and stayed with him. I let my flaps off as I pulled out. I fired one burst at 10 degrees and got a hit in the right wing root. He got right on the treetops and I took another burst at approximately no angle and he blew up.He had tried to lead me over a large town, but I got him before we reached the town.
“I turned and two more 190s were on my tail. I put down flaps and turned into them. One of them took a 90–degree shot at me. I turned to get on the other one’s tail and he went over the town. I kept turning around to get on the one who shot at me and he headed 100 degrees, so I broke off and found a P–38 flight about 30 miles away and joined them and came home.”
McPhersons squadron mate Lt. Dennis Chamberlain was also credited with an FW 190 destroyed, plus a damaged, and two others were likewise damaged, making a total of 3–0–3 for the 429th, including the victory by Major Bowman from Headquarters.
This was the first combat mission for that squadrons Lt. Charles Fleming. Asked how it went after his return, he said, “I’m still shaking – and it’s great to be back!”
Meanwhile, the other two squadrons had begun mixing it up with the enemy fighters.
Ralph Embrey, his crew chief, and their P–38 “Hardtime”, which he flew on the July 18 mission. This was a J–10 model, serial # 42-67675, and its squadron aircraft code letters were K6–T. Embrey had flown an earlier P-38 tour with the 82nd FG in North Africa and later was promoted to major and to 474th FG HQ as Operations Officer.
As the 429th fought the first group of 190s, Lieutenants Wilbur “Bill” Jarvis and Charles Patton of the 428th’s Yellow Flight had placed two bombs on the bridge, evidently putting it out of commission. By then, according to the squadrons history, “Dog fights raged all over the sky above the little town of Merey, on eastward toward Evreux, north toward the Seine. Within a matter of minutes, there were 190s and P–38s too – exploding on the ground, and more of the Nazi fighters were pouring smoke on their way to the deck. Wherever one looked, there were P–38s on 190s’ tails. Soon, the wave of the attack had been broken, but there was no time to think of the score. Scarcely had the Group begun to reform to set course for home when the second formation of Germans hit about thirty more fighters, Fw 190s and Me 109s.
“The battle began anew, but not before Lt. George Holland, flying his first combat mission with the 428th, had gone down in flames; Lt. Jarvis’ plane had been riddled by flak; and Major Hedlund had begun the closest call of his life. Hit by a cannon shell from an Me 109, his airplanes cockpit full of smoke, broken glass and leaking coolant, his radio shot to pieces two inches from where he sat, a wing almost torn off and an engine gone, the 428th commanding officer streaked unconscious toward the deck. Somehow, at 1,500 feet, he came to and pulled the P–38 out of its plunge. And he made it back to Warmwell.”
The 428th Sq. was the high–scorer that day, with six confirmed, three probables and six damaged. Its “kills” included two by Lt. Col. Darling from Headquarters and one that Lts. Bob Hanson and Jerome Zierlein shared with Lt. Ernie Carsten of the 430th. (About his shared victory, the only thing that Bob Hanson really remembered forty years later was “that Zierlein and I chased that Me 109 on the deck for what seemed an eternity. It was almost like one of those bad dreams that just won’t stop. I felt like I had fired many, many times and the 109 just wouldn’t quit. When the pilot stood up and bailed out, I finally realized it was all over.”) Also credited with confirmed kills were Capt. Jim Doyle (an Me 109), Lt. Dick Holt (an Me 109) and Lt. Bill Soiker (an Fw 90).
In his combat report, Earl Hedlund described what happened after his flight completed its dive–bombing run: “Having climbed to 7000 ft, we were engaged by twenty-plus Fw 190s. One of the E/A flew through my sights. I fired at a 90–degee deflection angle and observed hits but had no opportunity to gauge results because immediately thereafter another Fw 190 appeared in front of me. I fired; he half throttled and started down. My wingman [Lt. Holland] and I followed. As we drew within range, I fired until we were near the deck, by which time the E/A was smoking badly enough to convince me that his crashing was assured. We did not have the opportunity to watch him go in, however, because two more E/A were coming down on us from behind, necessitating our breaking off.” Holland was, of course, shot down shortly thereafter. Major Hedlund claimed a 190 destroyed but was credited with a probable, plus a damaged.
The 430th Squadrons total was 21/3-0-5, including confirmed Fw 190s by Lts. Lyn Cumbie and Clyde Fox. Capt. Embrey, who had damaged a 190, complimented his pilots on their good work after the mission but also gave them “a word of warning”: “Now when you get into a fight like that and get on someone else’s tail, be sure you keep an eye open behind you. That’s just the time when most planes get shot down.” Lt. Bill Byers then reportedly replied, “Well doggone; I guess that’s why I never got to fire a shot. I was looking behind all the time!”
Major James “Pappy” Doyle. An original member of the 428th FS, he later replaced Ralph Embrey as C.O of the 430th
Three of the P–38 pilots were MIA after the mission, one from each squadron. The 428th Lt. Holland was last seen by Lt. Zierlein, on his back in a dive and with fire coming from the pilot’s nacelle, right after “four Me 109s attacked from six o’clock high.” Holland was evidently able to avoid Major James “Pappy” Doyle. An original member of the 428th FS, be later replaced Ralph Embrey as CO. of the 430th. capture, as he was back flying with the squadron in November. Ironically, he was killed in another dogfight, with some Fw 190s, on December 17, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Lt. Glenn Goodrich of the 429th was KIA. Goodrich was flying on Lt. Bill Banks’ wing after a 190 when suddenly he had trouble with his left engine. It caught fire at around 1,000 feet, and Lt. Goodrich was last seen trying to gain altitude, his plane still under control. Lt. Harold “Link” Lyngstad of the 430th became separated from his flight after “making a pass at an Fw 190 that was on a P–38” and joined up with these two 429th Sq. ships “in a diving attack at a Fw 190.” He then noticed Goodrich’s P-38 smoking. “After closing with the smoking ship I noticed fire in the left engine,” and then it “pulled up in a right chandelle. The flight leader continued the chase and I did likewise. This was the last I saw of the ship.”
Clarence Harless, one of the newest pilots in the 430th, was shot down by some 190s early in the fight. Capt. Embrey saw his P–38 “burst into flames and go in.” Although his exact fate is unknown, Lt. Harless evidently survived the war.
“Pappy” Doyle, who led the 428th’s Blue Flight that day, recorded his recollections of this mission forty years later:
“When the 428th reached its assigned target Lt. Col. Darling started his flight on its dive bomb run. Major Hedlund’s flight followed immediately right behind the lead flight. At that time I spotted a large number of Fw 190s approaching us from straight ahead with a slight altitude advantage.
“With the 190s closing in fast there was no time for discussions. An on–the–spot decision had to be made immediately. The first two flights were on their dive bomb runs and were looking down at the target. I was the only one in a position to observe the entire situation – the remainder of our squadron diving below and the enemy approaching from ahead.
“I was still at approximately 9,000 feet, our cruising altitude to the target. I called in the information about the ‘bandits’ and said that my flight was dropping (jettisoning) its bombs and would fly top cover for the remainder of the squadron and prepare for the impending clash with the 190s.
“In addition to everything else, I had to worry about the brand-new second lieutenant [Hurshel Hopper], on his very first mission, flying on my wing. I always felt responsible for the welfare of my wingmen and was particularly careful to watch over the young, inexperienced ones.
“By the time I finished my terse radio transmission about the ‘bandits’,. Col. Darling was on the radio telling me to continue my dive bombing mission and that he was climbing up to meet the 190s. As soon as I started to call in the information about the enemy I noticed that Lt. Col. Darling was jettisoning his bombs and starting to climb.
“This had all happened in just seconds from the time Major Hedlund had started on his dive bomb run. I was sorely disappointed but I had no choice. I realized that Lt. Col. Darling was a dedicated flier and leader, completely void of any fear whatsoever, and felt he had a responsibility to be in the very center of every action.
“I was in a terrible predicament. With the 190s closing in I had to start my dive bomb run immediately behind Major Hedlund s flight. We were still in fairly close formation and I had no time to prepare my flight for the dive bomb run.
“I was so close to the other flight I had to move over to the right to keep from overrunning them. The 190s looked like they were beginning to come after us. About that time I began to encounter Lt. Col. Darlings flight on its way up. That dive bomb run was turning into a difficult course to say the least!
“Luckily, Major Hedlund, a true professional, was getting his flight in and out of the target area in a hurry, which started to give me room to maneuver properly. I glanced out and saw that my young wingman was so close to me that if I had run my window down I could have reached out and touched his wing tip with ease. I motioned with my hands that I was getting ready to drop my bomb and for him to spread out. He nodded and moved over every bit of three or four inches. As soon as I got a perfect bead on the target I dropped my bomb. I knew I had a good man with me.
“I watched Major Hedlund climb up to the left of me. As I came off the bomb run I was going exceptionally fast, as I had started the run at cruising speed, and I started a tight turn to the left to lose speed. I saw a number of Me 109s begin to attack Major Hedlund’s flight. Our flight was still below his. Some of the 109s were hit during the ensuing fight, then there was a flash at or in Major Hedlund’s cockpit and his plane began to act erratically. He started to lose altitude and did not appear to have good control over his plane.
“Luckily for him the 109s broke off their attack on his flight and headed for our flight. By the time the first 109 got to our flight we had lost speed and he overshot us. I got a good 45-degree deflection shot at him and he went in.
“It appeared that Major Hedlund began to get some sort of control over his plane slightly below 1,000 feet. It had looked like he might be going all the way in. Major Hedlund called and his transmission was garbled. He said a shell had exploded in his instrument panel and that he had no compass or any other important instrument. He said he was going to try to set a course for home.
“I could see him set a course for the coast of France on about as good a heading as any. There were still enemy fighters between Major Hedlund and our flight, but they remained out of our firing range. The Germans apparently did not see him alone or were not interested in him. They soon flew off.
“I did not try to overtake Major Hedlund, as it would have taken too much fuel and we did not have much to spare. When we got home we learned that the Me 109 cannon shell that had exploded in his cockpit had knocked him unconscious. A lesser man would not have recovered as rapidly as he did and more likely would have crashed before regaining consciousness. Luckily he was not hit by any sizable chunk of flying shrapnel. It would undoubtedly have been a totally different story if that shell had exploded in mid–air in the cockpit, as shrapnel would surely have hit him.” (Major Hedlund was, in fact, awarded a Purple Heart the following month, for those small pieces of shrapnel that hit him.)
Capt. Doyle provided more details about his encounters with the enemy fighters in his official combat report:
“During our first engagement, which was with a large number of Fw 190s, I spent most of my time looking out for [my wing–man], except for making a few unsuccessful passes at E/A. Meanwhile, I observed a number of Fw 190s on fire and/or smoking badly and also saw at least five A/C hit the ground and explode. On the way out of the target area, the flight on my right was jumped by four E/A. I went over to help, and by the time I got there they were fairly well split up. One of our aircraft was on the tail of an E/A heading for the deck, with an Me 109 on the P–38’s tail firing at him. I was about 4000 ft above them and made a 90–degree pass at the Me 109 on the tail of the P–38. I was not in position to fire, but the Me 109 broke his chase. By this time, the P–38 must have noticed the Me 109 on his tail because he also broke away from his E/A. I had the advantage of altitude, and so I took up the chase after the first E/A. I soon overtook him and got into very close range before I fired. He apparently didn’t know I was behind him because he made no violent turns, nor did he take any evasive action. I fired two long bursts at him, observing a few hits around the canopy and engine. We were very low at this time, and all he did was make a shallow diving turn. I had to pull up sharply at this time because two E/A above us had begun a pass at us. They broke off their attack and I turned back to concentrate on the E/A I had been chasing, but he was then crash–landing in a field. He did not explode but was torn up and completely wrecked.”
At least ten Luftwaffe fighter gruppen were patrolling the area northwest of Paris, from the French capitol to Caen, on the morning of July 18. Four of them made a total of twelve claims for Lightnings in that general area between nine-thirty and ten o’clock. Since the 474th FG was the only P–38 unit of either the 8th or 9th Air Force to report any claims for or losses to enemy aircraft that morning, it is obvious that the German fighter pilots seriously over–claimed.
The Fw 190s encountered by the P–38 pilots were from I/JG 26 and III/JG 54, which were based at Boissy Ie Bois, north of Paris. They had just taken off from there, along with the Me 109s of III/JG 26, and were forming up for their flight to Caen when they encountered the large formation of Lightnings. The Focke Wulf of Unteroffizier (Corporal) Josef Wendl of JG 26s 1st Staffel soon went down and he was killed. The only JG 26 claim was by Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Heinz Kemethmuller, its 4th Staffel C.O.– his 86th confirmed victory. III/JG 54 claimed three more Lightnings, its victorious pilots bringing their totals to 10, 17 and 18. Some of the 474th Group’s opponents that day were obviously highly skilled and experienced aces. On the debit side, two of the JG 54 pilots, both from the 7th Staffel, were shot down in this skirmish. Leutnant Kurt Siebe was wounded and Gefreiter (Private First Class) Klaus Hunger was later declared missing in action.
Another nice shot of Capt. Embrey and “Hardtime”.
Providing top cover for JG 26 and JG 54 were the Me 109s of I/JG 5, which was then stationed at Frieres, near Laon. It entered the fray soon after the Focke Wulfs and subsequently claimed five P–38s, including no less than three by Leutnant August Mors, Kommandeur of the 1st Staffel – his 52nd, 53rd and 54th victories. Unteroffizier Gunther Wimsche of the 2nd Staffel was shot down by a Lightning and crash-landed. He suffered a wound in his thigh.
Also entering the fight toward the end were the Me 109s of III Gruppe of JG 1 from La Fere, which was close to Fieres. It claimed three more P-38s for the loss of three of its planes. The Gruppenkommandeur, Hauptmann (Captain) Erich Woitke, was credited with one of them, his 28th victory.
Killed were Unteroffiziers Julius Mangerich of the 7th Staffel and Gottfried Dohnert of the 9th, both of who attempted to crash land their badly damaged Messerschmitts. Dohnert’s staffel mate Feldwebel (Technical Sergeant) Karl-Heinz Kutzera was MIA after he was seen to have been shot down.
This air battle over northern France on July 18, 1944 would, in retrospect, probably have to be considered a “draw.” Although the Luftwaffe lost more planes (at least seven) and pilots, it did shoot down three Lightnings and seriously damage several more. And even though the P–38 pilots also claimed to have disabled the target bridge and did some collateral damage to other nearby enemy material, most of them were forced to jettison their bombs because of the German fighters and were therefore unable to fully accomplish their mission.
Many more battles in the air and on the ground-were yet to be won, lost or fought to a draw before France was totally free of its Nazi occupiers. To that victory American P–38 and F–5 pilots and their support personnel would make a major contribution.