Skip to comments.The FReeper Foxhole Studies USAAF Night Fighters at War ~ Part 3 of 3 - Jan. 18th, 2004
Posted on 01/18/2004 4:13:20 AM PST by snippy_about_it
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D-Day and Beyond
Over the Normandy beaches and hedgerows, U.S. squadrons, joined by six RAF night fighter squadrons, provided night protection for Allied armies in their drive into France. Moving to the continent in July, the 422d NFS was assigned to the IX Tactical Air Command (First Army), 27 the 425th NFS to the XIX Tactical Air Command (Third Army), and the 415th NFS to the Seventh Army. Because the 425th helped protect the flank of Pattons Third Army on its end run blitz across France, it flew primarily intruder missions. In September and October, for example, it claimed no aerial victories.
The 422d, meanwhile, racked up an enviable record, starting its record of night kills on August 7, 1944, when Pilot 1st Lt. Raymond A. Anderson and R/O 2d Lt. John U. Morris, Jr., collected the first night credit of the European Theater of Operations. Proving how deadly the Black Widow could be, from October to December 1944 the 422d claimed to have shot down twenty-four of the fifty-one bogeys it identified as enemy aircraft. In December alone, primarily during the Battle of the Bulge, Johnsons crews claimed sixteen kills on thirty-eight visual contacts. The 425th joined in with eight aerial victories.
On the continent, U.S. night fighter squadrons worked with the most advanced ground control radar system available. The AN/CPS-1 microwave early warning radar had a range limited only by the horizon. Operating at 10-centimeters, it provided accurate range and azimuth information to the fighter controller who directed P-61s to their targets.
Aerial victories were nonetheless hard to come by. The 422d NFS experienced the best hunting. From September to November 1944, its crews undertook 461 ground control radar chases, resulting in 282 airborne radar contacts and 174 visual sightings. But of these sightings, only 20 were identified as enemy aircraft and 7 were shot down. Seven out of 20 in three months combat was a prodigious nighttime accomplishment, but it did not represent a major contribution to the war effort.
With few interceptions, U.S. night fighters in northern Europe, like their counterparts in Italy, turned to night intruder missions. In the last three months of 1944, the 422d strafed 8 locomotives and 318 railroad cars. Pattons Third Army was making a breakthrough at Metz in mid-November, forcing the Germans into retreat and jamming the roads behind enemy lines. Accurate accounts of the destruction were impossible, but the 425ths Black Widows created havoc and intensified the rout.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the night fighters of the 422d and 425th Squadrons were the only U.S. aircraft able to fly at night and in bad weather in support of the beleaguered 101st Airborne Division defending Bastogne-thus demonstrating the potential of all-weather aircraft. The 422d and 425th claimed 115 trucks, 3 locomotives, and 16 railroad cars. Night fighter pilots did not need moonlight to strike, only a cloud ceiling of at least 1,500 feet. A 422d ace, 2nd Lt. Robert F. Graham, remembered that they had little trouble in going most any place at any time because of their instruments and the quality of their instrument training. Only a shortage of aircraft and parts for the radar equipment prevented the night fighters from adding to their successes in the Ardennes.
Aerial hunting also improved for the 422d NFS during Decembers Battle of the Bulge, when crews found forty-one enemy aircraft and downed sixteen. The pilot-R/O team of 1st Lt. Robert G. Bolinder and 2d Lt. Robert F. Graham shot down three planes-an FW 190, Me 110, and He 111-during one mission on December 16-enemy aircraft Graham remembered as staying up past their bedtime. 1st Lts. Paul A. Smith and Robert E. Tierney became the first U.S. night aces the day after Christmas, shooting down two Ju 188s. That night also saw other squadron members shoot down three more German aircraft
. In January and February 1945, the hunting again turned sour, as the 422d claimed one of only four enemy aircraft identified. Then, during the Battle of the Ruhr Pocket in March and April, the Luftwaffe attempted to airlift supplies to the surrounded troops at night, and Allied night fighters were called on again to clear the skies of enemy aircraft. With the U.S. microwave ground control radar covering the entire area, the P-61s scored fourteen kills, mostly Ju 52 transports. Pilot 1st Lt. Eugene D. Axtell got his fourth and fifth victories on April 11, becoming an ace during this campaign. Axtells credits were just two of the seven the 422d racked up that night-the best night for U.S. night fighters of the war.
A favorite tactic for night intrusion beginning in 1945 was to drop fuel tanks filled with napalm. The liquid bombs did not have to hit the target directly, and the resulting blaze illuminated the area for follow-up strafing. The P-61s also carried high-velocity aircraft rockets (HVARs), high-explosive bombs, and incendiary bombs. Such varied armament was necessary because the few night fighters involved in night interdiction had to magnify their capabilities.
Many pilots, to be sure, avoided night flying because of the inherent danger associated with minimum visibility. Surprisingly, however, the intruder missions by night fighter squadrons proved remarkably safer than day fighter-bomber attacks. The 425th NFS flew 1,162 intruder missions from October 1944 to May 1945, losing six aircraft-a loss rate of only 0.5 percent. The protection darkness provided more than compensated for the dangers of night flying. Nevertheless, as 422d NFS Commander Oris B. Johnson said, intruding was a real adventure. One of his R/Os, Robert F. Graham, judged such missions hairy because of the many immovable objects such as radio antenna masts lurking in the dark.
Altogether, the 422d NFS flew 1,576 sorties in France and Germany, with official credit for 48 German aircraft destroyed (including 5 V-1s), 5 probably destroyed, and 5 damaged. Its crews also claimed to have damaged or destroyed 448 trucks, 50 locomotives, and 476 railroad cars. Six of the nine American night aces of the war came from the 422d: Pilots Paul A. Smith, Herman E. Ernst, and Eugene D. Axtell and R/Os Robert E. Tierney, Edward H. Kopsel, and Robert F. Graham, each with five kills. A distinguished unit citation testified to the squadrons success.
The 425th NFS tallied 14 more kills (including 4 V-1s), with 1 probable and 2 damaged. These 62 claimed kills pale in comparison before the more than 20,000 aerial victories Americans claimed in the daylight against Germany, but the two night fighter squadrons claimed that 55 percent of their airborne radar contacts resulted in visual contacts and 68 percent of these were shot down. The Black Widows were not always successful, but they could be as deadly as their namesakes.
A serious constraint on night fighter action in the European war was the shortage of replacement aircraft and parts. Ground or airborne radars required frequent repair and were only as good as the supplies of replacement parts allowed. More successful units, according to the 422d NFS historian, learned to make deals for their spare parts outside any supply procurement channels.
Scroungers were worth their weight in gold. The 422d received only one replacement P-61 in five months of combat operations, leaving only four of its sixteen aircraft operational during the Battle of the Bulge, when weather prohibited all but night fighters from flying. The 422ds commander felt fortunate to have a supply sergeant with a penchant for stumbling on caches of spare parts, especially radar tubes, and a maintenance chief with a degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University.
Crews were plentiful, but they had to share and fly the same aircraft up to four separate missions each night. As they contributed to victory in northwest Europe, U.S. night fighters fought the enemy, Allied antiaircraft artillery, and even their own supply organizations.
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