Story by Will Silk
True enthusiasts will be the first to admit that, had it not been for the events of World War Two, the sports car scene in the States would most certainly look much different. Americans sent to serve in England were introduced to a scene that included MG, Riley, and a number of other sporting makes; but most will agree that the hottest machines operating in Europe in the early 1940s not only had wheels, but wings to take the fight to the enemy high above the skies of Europe. One of those brilliant aircraft was built by Republic Aviation in New York, affectionately dubbed “The Jug,” the aircraft was officially known as the P-47 Thunderbolt.
The P-47 wasn’t a clean sheet design as its more famous counterpart, the P-51 Mustang was, but was an evolution of sorts gaining its origins in a Seversky design which entered the US inventory in 1937 and was assigned the designation P-35. The P-35 ushered in a new era for the United States Army Air Corps when it entered service in 1937 at Selfridge, Michigan by being the first all metal single seat pursuit aircraft with an enclosed cockpit and fully retractable landing gear. Armament was light, as the P-35 carried just one .50 caliber machine gun and one .30 caliber machine gun, both located in the fuselage of the aircraft. The P-35 set the formula, so to speak, by being powered by a Pratt and Whitney R-1830 radial engine rated at 850HP and giving the P-35 a top speed of 280mph.
With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in late 1939, the U.S. began producing new aircraft, initially based on demands outlined by allied customers, and eventually put into service with our own Air Corps upon U.S. entry into the war in December of 1941. By the spring of 1941, U.S. industry was ramping up in order to fill requests for allied nations. The aviation industry enjoyed rapid growth in the U.S. at this time; and Seversky, now known as Republic, rolled out a new aircraft that was unlike any other competitor in the growing pursuit aircraft market.
The first test flight of a Republic XP-47B occurred on May 6, 1941 with the first production piece reaching the U.S. Army Air Force on March 18, 1942. On April 8, 1943 P-47Bs flew their first fighter sweep into Europe, setting the stage for the progression of one of the most famous fighters ever to take to the skies. Pilots were immediately in love with this massive fighter aircraft, as though it weighed in at 13,500 lbs, the Thunderbolt had near cat like agility operating at high altitudes. This was a great relief to American bomber crews of the Mighty Eighth Air Force who were tasked with flying long distance daylight raids into the heart of Germany, often with little or no fighter escort due to the lack of range of most fighter aircraft of the time. The P-47 was the first step to solving that problem as Jugs fitted with external fuel tanks were capable of flying with the bombers to most of the targets deep within Germany. The P-47C was introduced with a more powerful Pratt and Whitney radial and a provision for a droppable center line tank just to meet the escort role. With the extra fuel, Thunderbolts were able to make it all the way to Berlin with the bombers to hit the heart of the Axis movement.
In early 1943, Republic began producing the “D” model Thunderbolt. Early D models aircraft retained the “razorback” canopy treatment as breakthroughs were occurring daily in the aviation industry in the early 1940s and it wasn’t until mid production of the D model that the now famous bubble canopy appeared, eliminating the blind spot that all prior models had due to the razorback canopy design. D model Thunderbolts received many improvements over their earlier counterparts, with yet even more power being extracted by the thunderous Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp 18 cylinder engine, the R2800. Much of the power was to come from more efficient turbo-charging and the introduction of water injection to directly cool the mixture being burned in those massive cylinders. Now rated at over 2300+ horsepower, the Jug began to show that it had more up its sleeve than just escorting the “Heavies.”
With the exception of Alaska, the Thunderbolt flew in every theatre of the war. The Ninth Air Force flew Thunderbolts out of England and largely developed the aircraft for use in the ground attack role, taking out enemy ground targets and providing close air support to soldiers in need of a little help from above. One of the most successful units of the war was the 325th Fighter Group, who began flying P-47s out of Italy in January of 1944. The group flew Curtis P-40s while in North Africa and Sicily throughout 1943, transitioning to Jugs in late ’43 and flying their first missions from Italy in January of ’44. Wayne Lowery, a pilot with the 325th remarked “The Thunderbolt turned out to be a lovable beast, forgiving my many errors of omission as well as commission.” Lowery continues, “Performance wise, in a turn the Jug was nothing to shout about, but at high altitude it had the most amazing maneuverability of any airplane I have ever flown. She seemed to thrive on thin air. I can also say that I have never flown an aircraft before or since that could get rid of so much altitude in such a short time. It also had an inclination to reverse its controls in a high speed dive, especially in the thin air at higher altitudes.”
Bob Baseler was the commander of the 325th Fighter Group and flew P-40s, P-47s, and P-51s with the outfit. Baseler’s P-47D was known as “Big Stud” and had those words along with an Ace of Spades card painted on the engine nacelle. Baseler relates, “It was a fine weapon, could take lots of punishment and dish it out, too. It was dependable, no worrying about coolant leaks, easy to maintain, and just an all round good aircraft.”
The “D” model Thunderbolt may be the most popular Thunderbolt variant, however the “M” model was a true high performance hot rod special of this large and lethal bird of prey. The P-47M debuted in the UK in December of 1944 and was aimed at intercepting the V-1 flying bombs that Germany was launching against England at the time. While a “D” model Jug was no slouch with a max speed of 433mph, the limited edition “M” models screamed out to a bat out of hell top speed of 470mph. The P-47Ms were fitted with airbrakes in order to slow once it got with in range of its prey. “M” model Thunderbolts also enjoyed harassing Me262 and Ar234 jet aircraft that began to be seen more and more often in early 1945.
Republic began production of the P-47N in December of 1944. The “N” was more directed at the Pacific theatre of operations, where long flights over the Pacific Ocean heeded a demand for a dependable single engine fighter design that was able to operate in the tropical climates of the theatre. The “N” turned out to be an epic deviation from the Thunderbolts that preceded it in that it had a longer wing span with squared off wing tips to enhance the aircrafts ability to roll. The long wings also provided the “N” model with extra fuel storage, something that was greatly needed to assist in reducing drag from hanging fuel tanks under the aircraft.
While the P-47 Thunderbolt may have to yield the title of “World War Two’s Greatest Fighter” to the North American P-51 Mustang, it is without doubt that the Thunderbolts from Farmingdale, New York made a great and noble contribution to the effort by being fast, effective, rugged and dependable. Jugs were responsible for 3,752 kills in the European Theatre of Operations alone; flying a total of 546,000 missions, many of which saw pilots return to base alive, but in airframes that were damaged beyond repair. The Jug was also produced in greater numbers than any other American fighter, with some 15,660 units produced. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt will always be one of the most loved and cherished aircraft ever to grace the world’s skies.
[Source: Will Silk]