19 March 1945: The ‘toughest, most successful air battle’
70 years ago this month, the 78th Fighter Group at Duxford were only a few weeks away from being able to join in the celebrations that marked Victory in Europe Day. As the monthly records compiled by the Group show, however, this did not mean they could relax or ‘wind down’. Indeed, as Captain Bowen Hosford reported, ‘the aerial battle of March 19 was the toughest and at the same time most successful the group has ever fought.’ The 78th were supporting the withdrawal of a bomber force attacking Plauen/Ruhland, and before the day was over would have lost five pilots: two killed, three Prisoners of War. Below are accounts written by the pilots shortly after the battle. They give a powerfully immediate impression of the fierceness of the fight.
[The battle] lasted for an hour, with waves of German fighters joining the battle until the group, numbering 46 Mustangs, was engaging a force almost three times its size. The fighting was so confused that when the three squadrons landed at Duxford they reported they had encountered the same group of Nazis, estimated at about 50. Later they compared notes and found the total number of enemy planes involved was around 125.
First intimation of the impending action came in the form of fake attacks by three jet planes at the German border. These made shallow dives on the group, apparently hoping to force the Mustangs to drop their tanks and to draw them away from the area where other fighters were forming up for attacks on American bombers. The Mustang pilots, however, refused to bite at the bait, and after turning into the jets to force them off continued on their courses.
In the Osnabruck area at 1230 hours the 82nd Fighter Squadron engaged four Me 109s. This was the beginning of the battle which engaged the entire group. There were roughly 45 Me 109s in four gaggles at altitudes from 14,000 feet to 7,000 feet, and in addition at the beginning of the flight there were about 25 FW 190s above a thin layer of cirrus which was at 14,000 feet. These came down and joined the battle some fifteen minutes after it started.
The enemy fighters apparently figured that here at long last was their chance to avenge the record of the past year when they have always been outnumbered whenever they met the Yanks. With a three-to-one numerical superiority, they showed plenty of aggressiveness and no tendency to run.
It is impossible to give a general picture of the action, which rapidly developed into individual dogfights. Lt. Col. Landers described it as an “elevator affair”, sweeping from 14,000 feet down to the deck and back up again. Some of our pilots who had shot down planes found themselves tangled with up to eight or ten Nazi fighters.’
Captain Winfield H. Brown of Riverside, Rhode Island, Operations Officer with the 82nd Fighter Squadron, reported:
‘The first group of Nazi planes that my flight caught had elliptical wings, like the British Spitfires, and we were afraid to shoot until we had already overshot them. On pulling up from my dive I caught a lone Me 109 trying to turn back to the field nearby so Nazi anti-aircraft gunners could protect him. I figured the gunners would have trouble hitting me without also hitting their own pilot so I kept after him. I hit the plane with one burst and it immediately winged over and crashed. Another of our pilots said the German aircraft hit a building, but I missed that because I had seen a jet-job above and to my left circling the airfield. The Nazi pilot was also using the field for protection, probably hoping to land when there was an opening due to his short fuel range.’
Alongside Lieutenant Huie Lamb, Brown tangled with a German jet, an Arado 234:
‘I hit the Arado 234 with an angle shot and the right power unit started burning. I passed on the right and another of our pilots came in firing from dead astern the jet plane. When I came back on the Nazi’s tail both nacelles were burning fiercely, and as I fired pieces broke off and flashed past my Mustang. I pulled over him and others saw the plane crash.
Below, two Me 109s were playing follow the leader, flying just off the ground and leap-frogging over the trees. My gun sight had gone out of order so when I followed I fishtailed from one to the other, aiming mostly by guess and spraying both planes. As I ran out of ammunition one of the enemy aircraft almost ran into some trees but managed to stagger up and then fall off again. I didn’t see either of them crash but am claiming them as probably destroyed until my combat film can be judged by experts.
Without ammunition, I joined another pilot who had trapped a couple of Me 109s. I was hoping to draw anybody away who attacked him. Just as he started his attack, eight FW 190s dived on us. Three of them jumped me and we spiralled up. Since I had the best plane, I got away. The other Mustang pilot shot down one of the remaining five, probably destroyed another and damaged two.’
Huie Lamb shared the Arado victory with Brown.
Hosford believed that the FW 190 pilots were ‘the most aggressive and probably the most experienced of the enemy fighters’, accounting for three of the 84th Fighter Squadron’s pilots that day. These included Major Harry L. Downing, 27, of Lincoln, Nebraska (left), commanding officer of the 84th. ‘I saw Maj. Downing shoot down one Me 109,’ reported Lt. Thomas V Thain Jr of Columbia, South Carolina. ‘…I then heard him say that he was hit and bailing out. His last words were, “So long gang.” I recognized this voice as his right away.’
One of the pilots who stated that he was lucky to get away unscathed was 1st Lieutenant William J. DeGain of Detroit, Michigan:
‘Above an airdrome northeast of Osnabruck was a flight of P-51s at 5,000 feet and above them at 11,000 feet were eight FW 190s flying our type formation. The enemy planes had belly tanks, which they dropped, then maneuvoured for a bounce. I was below them and was not seen, so was wide of the rest. He went into a clouds and I followed, firing when I reached 400 yards, and saw strikes.
I stopped firing to close a little more, and looked behind. My wingman was not in sight, and three FW 190’s were closing on me, firing from 600 yards. I glanced at the enemy aircraft ahead and saw he had jettisoned his canopy to bail out. I turned into the three enemy aircraft behind, and one spun out of the turn. Two more FW 190s joined the fight and while I turned with two or three the others took passes. I had difficulty turning inside them and when I’d ease up to shoot the ones behind would fire at me. I got one 90 degree shot at one enemy aircraft but saw no strikes. After about five or ten minutes one of the Nazi fighters shot out my right aileron control. They eased up on the fight then, so I ducked into a cloud and flew home.’
The 78th’s hard-won success was congratulated in a teletype message by Brigadier General Murray C Woodbury, commanding the 66th Fighter Wing, of which the Group was a part:
‘Once again you have proven to the hun that you can meet him on his terms and give him a stinging defeat. Your fighting ability and aggressiveness combined with a determination to bring the air war to a victorious conclusion will certainly bring total victory closer. Ground personnel are also to be commended for their efforts which help to make victories in the air possible.’
The two pilots who did not live to see this message were James A Bolen of Wilmington, Delaware and Ralph L Bush of Louisville, Kentucky. Sadly, they would not be the last of the ‘Duxford Eagles’ to fall before VE-Day.
For more information on the 78th Fighter Group, and the air war as fought by the USAAF from the UK, please also see our new website, www.americanairmuseum.com.
With thanks to Anne Hughes for her tireless archive research.