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Just Right: the B-17/P-51 Combination

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: July 10, 2012 
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The past few weeks I've written about photos my fellow professors have posted to me via Facebook. They're all globetrotters, visiting battlefields the world over during the summer, and they love to lord it over a stay-at-home like me. And hell, I admit: I don't mind. In fact, I love it.

Nowadays, however, it isn't just your colleagues who send you photos that make you sit up and take notice. I am fortunate to have some amazing students at the University of North Texas. We have a well staffed military history program here, and it attracts very fine students. I have one current student whom I'll call K. She sits in the front row, where all the good ones sit. She can throw down on World War II like nobody's business, she knows her Panzer IVs from her Panzer Vs, and she can become Highly Offended when I make the occasional disparaging comment about the Desert Fox. She knows her Wehrmacht.

Yeah. I actually get paid to teach students like this. I do love my job.

As befits someone with her interests, K also studies the Second World War outside of the classroom. She has a gig working at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, located at Love Field, or as I like to call it, the thinking man's DFW. Recently, the museum played host to some beautiful visiting aircraft, a B-17 (nicknamed "Nine o Nine"), a B-24 ("Witchcraft"), and a P-51 ("Betty Jane"). Student K took some sweet photos of all of them while they were in town, and I post a couple of them here for your edification.

In the past few weeks, I posted an Italian tank that was arguably too light for its mission, and a German gun that was arguably too heavy. What I found interesting about the images I'm sharing today was the synergy between them. Let's look first at the "Nine o Nine." The B-17 Flying Fortress was invented before the war. It represented a school of thought, as yet untested, called strategic bombing. Its foundational notions were that the bomber would "always get through," that precision daylight bombing could destroy the enemy's crucial industrial nodes, and that air power could force the foe to his knees in a very brief period, without the massed infantry assaults and the million-man casualties that were the inevitable result. It was a happy notion of wars won quickly and bloodlessly, and it captivated the U.S. public and the decision-making elite alike.

Like a lot of prewar notions, this one failed spectacularly. The B-17, for all its heavy defensive armament guns and alleged invulnerability, proved highly vulnerable indeed in the skies over Western Europe in 1943. Once their short-ranged fighter escorts had to turn back (roughly at the German border), the bombers had to go it alone against the Luftwaffe and the flak, and the losses were usually horrific. Anyone who still thinks of the American bomber offensive over Europe as a clean "above it all" venture just isn't reading the current literature. "Wild blue yonder"? Hardly. How about "nightmare"?

Imagine being a B-17 crew approaching the German border, and–quite literally–watching your fighter escorts peeling off for home. Then imagine looking ahead, and seeing a horde of Luftwaffe fighter aircraft waiting for you. Licking their chops. Maybe even smiling,

Willkommen. Welcome to Germany.

And that's where "Betty Jane," our magnificent P-51, comes into play. Every student of the war knows the tortured story of this aircraft's development. An American airframe that consistently puzzled its designers by underperforming. Engine problems. Low altitude. Short range. The bright idea of attaching a British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine changed everything. Suddenly, the Allies had a super-plane that had the range to accompany the bombers all the way into Germany, not to mention a fighter that could challenge the Luftwaffe to plane-to-plane dogfights and almost always win. Those skilled German aces who swept the skies free in 1940-41 suddenly looked all too mortal. It was the iron and unforgiving logic of 1944.

And this, I think, is the point. It's not just this or that weapon system. It's the combination that counts. The B-17? An interesting and perhaps failed experiment. The P-51? A serendipitous, even random, outcome of coalition warfare; a stroke of luck that no one could have predicted. But you put these two aircraft together, the "Nine o Nine" and the "Betty Jane," and what do you get?

You get victory.

Thanks, K. My students continue to teach me things. Like I say: I love my job.

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3 Responses to “Just Right: the B-17/P-51 Combination”


  1. 1
    Zraver says:

    I understand your article was meant in praise of students, but history deserves better from a history professor. Where you discussed WWII in your article it had the feeling of a sixth grade pep talk- GO US! With that in mind here is my rebuttal.

    Perhaps you would be so kind as to point me to a B-17 raid that did not get through. As far as I know the only major raid that risked complete destruction was the first raid on Polesti and even that raid got through. In that strictest sense the bomber always did get through. So to say the B-17 failed spectacularly is about as far from the mark as the average bomb dropped from a B-17 was from the aim point.

    Though the B-17 was far from a perfect bomber it did have a lot going for it. Massive defensive armament and the box formation made the Luftwaffe pay at least until the roller coaster tactics were developed. Even accounting for the massive claims by the gunners, VIII AF bombers took a heavy toll on the defending fighters.

    Making things even more difficult for the defenders was the bombers low wing single main spar design that gave the craft its incredible strength. Though this strength admittedly reduced both the bomb load and individual bomb size. The bomber was also able to fly above much of the German flak, leaving the lower flying and less robust B-24's to wade through the worst of it.

    In the Pacific the few B-17's were a nightmare for the defending Japanese whose lighter and slower fighters packed less punch and did whose pilots did not use organized tactics. Few Japanese fighters other than the Tony had much hope of facing a B-17 and winning- against the Rising Sun the B-17 really was a flying fortress.

    Nor did the Mustang magically appear as a long range escort fighter with the marriage of the airframe to the Merlin. The early Mustangs with the Merlin the B and [early] C models only had 189 gallons of internal fuel giving it a combat radius of less than 400 miles. Even with drop tanks the the radius was only 700 miles- not enough to get to Berlin.

    It was the drop tank and the redesign and addition of the larger fuselage fuel tank that gave the plane the range to escort the bombers. Internal fuel was increased to 260 gallons and the combat radius jumped to over 500 miles on internal fuel and over 900 with drop drop tanks.

    Also contributing to the Mustang's performance advantage over the Luftwaffe was the superb training given to pilots in direct contrast to the shrinking amounts of training their enemies were getting. Combine these things with other factors like fuel injection, high dive speeds and high octane fuel with the Mustangs admittedly excellent design and you get a much better picture of why the Mustang reigned in the Germans.

  2. 2
    Jacob DeWitt says:

    Ive always heard the P-51 was developed as quick as it was because there was really no experimentation in it's design. They just threw together proven concepts and threw it together. The P-47 had an equal number of teething troubles, and I don't think it was till they found that for it's size, it was remarkable agile at 25,000 feet(quite the opposite of most fighters, which performed best at around 12,000.

    Oh, an Zaver, man, I have serious doubts that, given a second chance, the US would have tried daylight bombing again. Yes they got through, but the Marines were statistically safer in 1943 than the Air Corps.
    If Galland had gotten his way in 1944, the Luftwaffe may have combined their strength to launch hammer blows on US fleets with the sole purpose of killing off crews to the point the U.S. would abandon the bombing. However, they wasted that strength on Bodenplatte, and the rest is history. Between that and Hitler's refusal to push the jet force through ealier, is probably why strategic bombing managed to stave off defeat. Also the inability to replace the 109 with something that could perform at that altititude. Okay, they had a lot going against them…

  3. 3
    bbear says:

    I'm no expert – but then the article is't written in expert language. So i'll take this up to save others the effort. My best attempt (too long by half):

    The article takes a specific instance and implies that given allied innate allied moral and material superiority and persistence: 'you get victory' or 'something will turn up' as a general rule you have 'learned'.

    Two errors there:

    To mis-quote a French TV pundit/diplomat discussing his nation's collapse in 1940 relative to the position in 1918 "When you win a war you believe your nation is strong and clever and right. A dangerous state of mind…"

    Then : Post hoc et procter hoc – i really hope i got that right, . A sequence of events is not the causation of the same – something like?

    Put those together as they appear in your article:

    B17, P51, air supremacy, victory- a sequence

    Military deserving: a pleasant belief of victors an unpleasant belief of losers.

    You seem to combine the sequence as a cause and the unfounded belief to conclude that earned destiny caused victory for the 'special' nation .. not even internally valid, and not, i believe, true.

    Conclusion. If all that were true and valid and relevant your article risks planting the wrong lessons from history and inadequate standards of argument in a young mind.

    But a loose opinionated rejoinder argument of this kind can't secure you any of those pre-conditions any more than serendipity can 'cause' a victory or a Churchillian speech can make a P51 appear by magic.

    History is not bunk, but it is difficult. Academic standards rool.

    Was this article "an exercise for the student"? Sorry if I shot your fox.
    .
    Best to you and K and the class.



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