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Republic P-47 Thunderbolt; King’s Cliffe and Horsham

The 56th FG’s Atlantic crossing proved to be both swift and uneventul, and the group disembarked at Gourock, in the Clyde estuary, on
12 January 1943 – just six days after leaving Camp Kilmer.

The men then completed their posting to the ETO with a slow train journey to
King’s Cliffe, in England’s east midlands. Here, Headquarters and the
61st and 62nd FSs were settled in on the nearby local airfield, while the
63rd was trucked the short distance to RAF Wittering.
The latter unit quickly settled into the creature comforts on offer at an
established RAF airfield, which boasted barrack blocks. However, for the
bulk of the 56th FG, cold winter weather soon exposed the inadequacies
of the hutted accommodation at Wittering’s satellite site at King’s Cliffe.

Notable visitors were often received by the group, including Herbert Lehman, Director of the US Office of Foreign Relief and former New York Governor. He came to Horsham St Faith in the spring of 1943 to see an operational P-47 group to which his son, then undergoing a theatre indoctrination course, was expected to be assigned. However, rather than joining the 56th FG, Flt Off Peter Lehman was assigned to the 4th FG’s 336th FS (in late August 1943) instead. He subsequently lost his life on 21 March 1944 when his P-51B Mustang flicked over and spun into the ground near Duxford during a low-level mock dogfighting sortie. Walking along the flightline with Herbert Lehman are, from left to right, Lt Conway Saux, who was killed in an air collision, Lt Mike Quirk, who amassed 12 air victories before becoming a PoW after flak crippled his aircraft in September 1944, and Lt Harry Coronios, killed on a training flight in November 1943. The party is walking towards Quirk’s aircraft, whose Donald Duck insignia is partially visible in the top right hand corner of the photograph
Adderall and flirting with bulimia in an attempt to whittle herself

Although the 56th was the first group to fly the P-47, and its pilots were highly proficient in handling the type, two weeks passed before the first example was received at King’s Cliffe. This led to some frustration within the group, for it was known that P-47Cs (the first combat model) had arrived in the UK shortly before the New Year. Despite the 56th’s experience, the first examples available were sent to the 4th FG, whose pilots were not impressed with the big fighter. Indeed, they openly stated that they would have preferred to have kept their more nimble Spitfires.
These early P-47Cs also suffered their fair share of technical problems too, the most troublesome of which was caused by the replacement of the factory-fitted medium frequency radios with the vitally necessary very high frequency models. Communication with the new equipment proved virtually impossible due to noise intrusion, and this was not cured until much work had been carried out on suppressing leaks from the engine’s electrical system. This delayed giving the Thunderbolt operational status until early April when, in preparation, the 56th moved all units to Horsham St Faith, in Norfolk, on the 5th of that month.

Press Day for the Thunderbolt, King’s Cliffe, 10 March 1942. Lt Robert Stultz of the 62nd FS poses for size contrast on the cowling of P-47C 41-6209. The Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp it housed was one of the most powerful, and hardy, radial engines ever built. This P-47, coded LM-V, was shot down on 30 July 1943, while Stultz fell victim to the Luftwaffe on 17 August that same year
Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

Like Wittering, Horsham St Faith was a so-called permanent RAF station with brick-built buildings and comfortable accommodation. In addition to the near 1000 men assigned to the 56th FG, there were some 750
in the service and support units which made up the complete complement
gathered at this station on the outskirts of the City of Norwich.

The airfield was grass-surfaced, and had been used by RAF light bomber squadrons for operations during the first three years of the war. The sod surface allowed flights of four P-47s to take off together, line abreast.
Although assigned to VIII Fighter Command, the American fighter force at first operated under RAF Fighter Command operational control.




Operational procedures employed were as developed and practised by the more experienced command, and it was vital that all Allied forces conformed to these. Operational initiation came on 8 April when Col Zemke, Maj David Schilling and Capts John McClure and Eugene O’Neill in aircraft of the 62nd FS joined a combined formation of 4th and 78th FG P47s for a high altitude sweep of the Pas de Calais area of the French coast.

This flight of 61st FS P-47Cs was photographed on a training sortie near Wakerley on 10 March 1943. At this time the group was in the process of applying white identity bands to its Thunderbolts and outlining the fuselage National Insignia in yellow – indeed, only the second aircraft in the formation exhibits both. The lead Thunderbolt, later named Doc (eight other aircraft in the squadron were named after Disney Snow White characters), was flown by Capt Don Renwick. P-47C 41-6267 was assigned to Lt Joe Powers, whilst 41-6261 – one of the first two Thunderbolts received by the group on 24 January 1943 – was later transferred to the 63rd FS. The last fighter in this loose line up is 41-6325, which was assigned to Lt Robert Johnson.

The experienced 4th FG, the successor of the RAF’s ‘Eagle’ Squadrons,
led what the term sweep suggests – a brief brush through hostile airspace.
The official code name for a sweep was ‘Rodeo’, and its object was to bring
up enemy fighters to battle, although the Luftwaffe usually only challenged these intrusions when in a position of advantage. Five days later Zemke took the same pilots in another four-fighter flight with a formation from the other groups on a second uneventful sweep over enemy territory.
Later the same day a four-aeroplane flight from each of the 61st and 63rd FSs joined Zemke with the 62nd flight for a combined sweep by the three groups.

This time some anti-aircraft artillery fire was observed below
but again no enemy aircraft were seen. Capt Roger Dyar experienced
engine failure during the course of the mission, and was fortunate in having enough altitude to keep control and regain the English coast, ‘bellying
in’ near Deal. Dyar’s P-47 had suffered a blown cylinder head, which was
suspected to have been caused by over-boosting. Similar failures were
experienced with other P-47s over the following weeks, and the problem
was eventually cured by the installation of an interconnected control
adjustment for both the throttle and turbo-supercharger.

On 15 April another sweep was flown, this time with the 24 aircraft put
up by the 56th operating by themselves, rather than as part of a larger formation with another group. Two more sweeps during the next few days
were also uneventful, apart from mechanical or equipment failures which caused aborts (the term for abandoning an operational flight through such
These sweeps continued to be unchallenged by the Luftwaffe until 29
April. Continuing the programme of gaining operational experience for
the P-47 pilots, over 100 aircraft were sent on high level sweeps on this
date, the 56th being tasked with overflying the Dutch and Belgian coastal
areas. Leading the group for the first time was the CO of the 62nd FS, Maj
Dave Schilling.
During the flight Schilling’s radio failed, but instead of handing over to
another pilot and returning home, he continued to lead. As the formation
started to withdraw, the 62nd was ‘bounced’ from above by Fw 190s. In
the brief action which followed, the P-47s of Schilling’s wingman, Lt
Winston Garth, and Capt John McClure were shot down. Both pilots
were, however, able to use their parachutes, bailing out into captivity.
Schilling’s P-47 and that of another 62nd pilot received battle damage.
On return to Horsham St Faith, Schilling was all for taking off again to
do battle with the enemy. Calmed by Zemke, he was later admonished by
the group CO for not handing over leadership of the formation when his
radio failed. It was evident that air discipline needed improvement, and
the exuberant ‘buddy-buddy’ atmosphere that existed amongst pilots
needed an injection of sobriety. Zemke realised that he had to become
more the disciplinarian at the risk of unpopularity. Always something of a
loner with ambitions for his command, the forceful Zemke never attained the popularity that Dave Schilling enjoyed. Personable and easy going, if
impulsive and sometimes given to be uncautioned, Schilling was the star
personality of the group. Loren McCollom and Phillip Tukey, the 61st
and 63rd FS commanders’, were by contrast less exuberant.
The code name for an escort or bomber support was ‘Ramrod’, and on
13 May the 56th was given its first, providing cover for B-17s attacking
the Luftwaffe airfields near St Omer. This was uneventful, but next day a
similar task met strong opposition determined to attack the bombers. A
number of diving interceptions brought claims of a probably destroyed
enemy and two damaged, although once again inexperience in ranging
was apparent and air discipline was still lacking with some pilots.
The group was despatched on another 13 missions during May 1943,
usually flying three squadron formations of 12 aircraft. However,
squadron strength was being raised to 25 aircraft, which allowed each
squadron to put up 16 aircraft apiece on 29 May. Thereafter, this would
be the desired norm for a mission, with three flights of four in trail and
stacked down below the leader’s four-aeroplane flight. In hostile airspace
each flight opened up for battle formation, with about 500 yards between
each aircraft. On the last day of May the group suffered another loss over
enemy-held territory when 1Lt Pat Williams’ Thunderbolt went into an
uncontrolled dive from which it never recovered. Failure of the oxygen
system was the suspected cause of this tragedy.
In compliance with an VIII Fighter Command directive, in early June
Col Zemke selected Loren McCollom to be his deputy and Flying Executive Officer. He had long considered McCollom the most able and practised of his squadron commanders. Capt Francis Gabreski, who had the
most operational experience in the 61st FS, replaced McCollom as its
commander. Gabreski, a Polish American, had been sent on detachment
from the group to fly Spitfires with one of the RAF’s Polish-manned squadrons, and the operational experience he gained during this brief time
away was most welcomed by the 56th FG upon his return in March 1943.
The Rodeo flown on 12 June resulted in the first credit for an enemy aircraft destroyed by the group. While over Belgium, and with the advantage
of being up sun, the 62nd FS found itself in the position to make diving
attacks on a Staffel of Fw 190s seen several thousand feet below. Maj
Schilling took his flight down but overshot. A second flight was more successful, and its leader, CaptWalter Cook, fired at 300 yards and saw pieces
fly from the wing of an Fw 190 before it went into an uncontrollable spin.
The next day would prove to be even more fruitful.
A formation of Fw 190s was seen some 10,000 ft below the Thunderbolts, and Zemke led two flights down to intercept. The enemy flight
selected for attack apparently did not see the P-47s approaching for the
group CO shot down two and 2Lt Robert Johnson was credited with
destroying another. However, Johnson’s success was tempered by his
breaking away from his flight without permission – the second such occasion he had done this during combat. Much as he admired Johnson’s
aggressiveness, Zemke could not condone this breach of air discipline, and
the errant pilot was duly admonished.
This pattern of operations continued through June, the group flying
mostly Rodeos and the occasional close escort for B-17s attacking targets
within the P-47’s radius of action. The average duration of these missions
was one-and-a-half hours, of which some 30 minutes was spent over
enemy-occupied territory. The climb to 30,000 ft, and the necessity for
high speed in hostile airspace, saw the P-47’s 305-US gallon fuel load consumed at a rate averaging 200 gallons an hour. Under full power in combat, this figure rose to near 300 gallons an hour – the R-2800 had a
prodigious appetite.

To extend its range when operating over France, the group often flew to
an RAF station on the south coast to replenish fuel tanks before setting out
on a mission. Such was the case on 26 June 1943 when Manston, in Kent,
was the forward base used.
Led by the 56th’s Flying Executive, Maj McCollom, 49 P-47s took off at 1812 hours tasked to provide withdrawal support for B-17s that had
bombed an air depot at Villecoublay, near Paris. Two 63rd FS pilots had
to abort due to mechanical trouble before the group made landfall over the
enemy coast at Dieppe at between 24,000 and 26,000 ft, 35 minutes after
take-off. The bombers were met six minutes latter in the vicinity of Forges
and seen to be under heavy attack by numerous Bf 109s and Fw 190s. The
P-47s did not have an altitude advantage, and were soon engaged by
enemy fighters concentrating attacks on the 61st FS, flying at 24,000 ft.
During the following 20 minutes of air fighting, squadron formations
became dispersed, and when returnees were counted, it was apparent that
the 56th had had the worst of the encounters. The 61st FS aircraft flown by 2Lts Justus Foster and Robert Johnson limped back to Hawkinge and
Manston respectively, both with extensive battle damage caused by 20
mm cannon shells. The P-47s of 2Lts Eaves (62nd FS) and Clamp (63rd
FS) also landed at Manston with 20 mm battle damage, the latter pilot still
with a metal fragment lodged in his left arm.
1Lt Ralph Johnson’s aircraft, also hit by 20 mm shells, had the hydraulic
system holed, causing one wheel to come down. The pilot made for his
home station, from where Col Zemke took off to fly alongside and offer
radioed advice on manoeuvres to try and shake down the other main
wheel leg, which refused to budge. A one-wheel landing would most likely
precipitate a fatal crash, and as this leg could not be retracted, Zemke
advised Johnson to fly to the coast and bail out over the water. Successfully
vacating the cockpit, Johnson’s parachute deposited him in the sea just
north of Great Yarmouth, where an RAF Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) launch
quickly rescued him. But four pilots never returned, three from the 61st
and one from the 63rd, all later notified as killed.
On the credit side, only two claims for enemy aircraft destroyed were
confirmed – Fw 190s for a third pilot by the name of Johnson, Capt Gerald W, whose gun camera film showed this pilot’s skill in aim and range
Interrogation revealed a confused situation with lack of co-ordination
between squadrons. Once again air discipline left much to be desired. As
combats had taken place near the same level as the bombers, many of the
group’s pilots had been forced into slow turning and climbing actions. It was clear the P-47 was no match for the Bf 109 or Fw 190 in such circumstances, and this led to Zemke complaining to his superiors that the
group’s combat effectiveness was hampered by having a fighter with such
a poor rate of climb.
The 56th’s record up to this time was the least creditable of VIII Fighter
Command’s three Thunderbolt groups, but the trouncing of 26 June produced a more determined atmosphere amongst the group’s personnel.
Some pilots harboured revenge, but any who had doubted the Luftwaffe’s
prowess now took a much more serious view of their task. Zemke’s leadership became more severe, which did not endear him to many of his
pilots. New formations and tactics were experimented with during the
operations of early July, but it was clear that altitude advantage was the key
to success with the Thunderbolt.
Slow to accelerate, the P-47 could gain on both the Bf 109 and Fw 190
in a long dive, and an accurately aimed short burst from its eight 0.50-cal
guns had a devastating effect on the enemy. The momentum of the dive
could be used to zoom-climb back to higher altitude. Slow turning fights
were a no go in a combat situation when high speed must be maintained


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