Home » Why USAAF P-51 Mustang pilots were able to shoot down a flight of Mistel combinations over Germany

Why USAAF P-51 Mustang pilots were able to shoot down a flight of Mistel combinations over Germany

by Till Daisd
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P 51 Mistel 1170x585 1

“I turned into the second combo with my wingman Lt Moore behind me. I fired a short burst from 90° at about 350 yards, observing a few strikes on the 190. As I fired on this, the 190 on the third unit was released,” 1st Lieutenant Bernard H Howes, P-51 Mustang pilot.

On February 3, 1945, the USAAF launched a full-scale attack on Berlin’s Tempelhof rail marshaling yards because it was thought that the German Sixth Panzer Army was traveling through them on its way to the Eastern Front.

An escort of 575 North American P-51 Mustangs was dispatched with a total of 937 B-17s to destroy the target. The bombers accomplished their job successfully, arriving in waves throughout the late morning and early afternoon, destroying a significant area and starting a fire that lasted four days.

As described by Dan Sharp in his book Spitfires Over Berlin, squadrons of the 55th Fighter Group, the “Double Nickel,” led by the unit’s flamboyant executive officer Lieutenant Colonel Elwyn C. Righetti, were among the P-51s that escorted the B-17s.

Righetti felt his men could undertake a ground sweep on the way home to Station 159, the 55th’s base at Wormingford in Essex because they still had fuel in their tanks and the bombers were well defended by others. His specialty was strafing, therefore before going in search of targets, he planned two flights.

His men were all members of the 343rd Fighter Squadron: 1st Lieutenant Bernard H Howes, 22, from Brockton, Massachusetts, was flying P-51K CY-C 44-63745 ‘My Li’l Honey’, 2nd Lt Patrick L Moore from Griffin, Indiana, flew P-51D CY-Y 44-14235 `Lil Jan’ and 2nd Lt Richard G Gibbs, from Nantucket, also in Massachusetts, flew P-51D CY-Q 44-14175 ‘Cherry’. `

Eager El’ Righetti himself, from San Luis Obispo, California, flew P-51D CL-M 44-72227 ‘Katydid’.

Near Boizenburg, Germany, at around 12.30 p.m., the Americans spotted two locomotives and descended through a thin cloud layer to strike. The Mustangs competed against one another for a new set of targets that suddenly became accessible in what followed.

Piggybacks! USAAF P-51 Mustang pilots explain how they were able to shoot down a flight of Mistel combinations over Germany
Mistel Fw 190 Ju 88

Under the clouds, a formation of Mistel combinations appeared, each with a fighter mounted on a Junkers Ju 88.

Howes reported: “I was flying White 3 on the mission of February 3. At about 1230 we dropped to the deck to strafe. On pulling up from the first pass on a locomotive I sighted a formation of three pick-a-backs, Fw 190s on Ju 88s, in string formation at about 400ft.

“I turned into the second combo with my wingman Lt Moore behind me. I fired a short burst from 90° at about 350 yards, observing a few strikes on the 190. As I fired on this, the 190 on the third unit was released.

“The prop was windmilling, and on release the 190 seemed to nose up for a minute, and then, apparently out of control, the nose went down and it headed for the ground. I claim this FW 190 as destroyed. As soon as the 190 was released, the 88 turned sharply left. I followed, firing a short burst but observed no strikes. I fell outside the turn and lost sight of the 88 momentarily.

“My wingman behind me was in position and shot the 88 down. When I looked back I saw it crash into the ground. On pulling up I saw the first unit I had fired at about 300 yards in front of me. There were flames coming out of the 190, so I went after it again. I started firing and the combo turned into me, dropping to the deck.

“As I fired, another large burst of flame came from the 190. On making a second pass, the right engine of the 88 burst into flames, and I saw them both crash into the ground. From this entire encounter, I claim two Fw 190s and one Ju 88 were destroyed. Ammunition expended: 1440 rounds.”

Howes’ gun camera footage made it easy to see the aircraft he attacked.

Righetti reported: “Near Boizenburg on the Elbe River I located a small hole in the unbroken overcast. Through the hole, I could see two locomotives and called them in and started down.

“Visibility was about two miles and scattered fuzz on the overcast ran down in some places to 500 to 600ft. I rolled out of my turn and started my final approach to the locos about four miles off. I had already assigned the locos and parts of the train to the flight. We were echeloned to the right with my position on the extreme left.

“At a distance of two miles from the train, I spotted three piggyback aircraft at 10.30 to me, at our same altitude of about 600ft, heading almost directly at us, and half a mile off. I mistakenly identified them as buzz bomb-equipped He 111s and broke off rapidly, left and up, in a 200° chandelle, positioning myself on the tail of the middle one.

“I started firing two short bursts at 600 yards and missed. I swung into the trail and closed to point blank range, firing a long burst, I saw many excellent strikes on the fuselage and empennage of the large aircraft and scattered strikes and a small fire on the fighter.

“Both aircraft, still fastened together, went into a steep dive straight ahead. I was about to overrun them and did not see them crash, but a few seconds later I saw a large explosion and spotted considerable burning wreckage.

“I still did not know what we were attacking; I turned slightly to port for another look. As I closed, and before I could open fire, I discovered that the buzz bomb was actually a Focke-Wulf 190 fastened atop the heavy twin-engined aircraft. As I was closing to fire, the heavy aircraft seemed to be jettisoned, went into a shallow diving turn to the left, and crashed and burned in a small hamlet.

“Apparently it carried no bombs, for the gasoline thrown from its tanks burned for some time, and I did not observe any unusually large explosion. The Fw 190, relieved of its load, snapped to the right and then began a wild evasive action, I drove up to 200 yards directly in the trail, firing intermittently, and secured excellent strikes along the fuselage, wing roots, canopy, and induced good fire.

“Jerry went out of control and crashed straight ahead. At this time I noticed a few tracers too close and coming behind. I broke sharply left and up into a low cloud. I don’t know who or what was firing at me, but it might have been the third Fw 190, having jettisoned its bomber.”

Piggybacks! USAAF P-51 Mustang pilots explain how they were able to shoot down a flight of Mistel combinations over Germany

Gibbs was also attacking the Mistel combinations. He reported: “I was flying Tudor White 2 on the mission of February 3, 1945. We were on the deck and about to strafe a loco in the vicinity of Boizenburg, when Tudor Leader Lt Col Righetti called in a gaggle of three Fw 190-bomber combos, flying a sloppy `V’ formation at about 600ft. We attacked from a level turn port stern.

“Lt Col Righetti took the middle combo of the three, and I took the third and last one of this gaggle. I started firing on the Ju 88 at about 45° from about 800 yards, closing to about 300 yards with a two-second burst. I observed many strikes on the left wing root of the Ju 88, where, it began to burn.

“After a short dive, the Fw 190 was released. The 190 appeared rather unstable in the air but managed to conduct violent evasive action during the ensuing combat. I fired a short burst from astern, beginning at about 200 yards and closing to zero yards. I saw strikes all over the aircraft and observed parts of the cowling and canopy fly off.

“There was also a fire in or around the cockpit. I then overran the enemy aircraft and skidded out to the right. As I looked back I saw where the 190 had crashed into the ground.”

Howes reported that Moore also claimed a Ju 88.

The four US pilots claimed one Ju 88 each and a total of five Fw 190s, with two Fw 190s going to Howes, two to Righetti, and one to Gibbs. There had been three Ju 88s and three fighters. It was difficult to determine who had destroyed what in the chaos of combat.

In fact, German records show that at least two of the combinations were Mistel 1s, with Messerschmitt Bf 109s mounted atop Ju 88s rather than Fw 190s. Feldwebel Willi Kollhoff, Oberfahnrich Franz Pietschmann, and Feldwebel Fritz Lorbach of 6./ KG 200, headquartered at Kolberg but traveling to Tirstrup in Denmark, were the Ju 88 pilots.

Even though the left engine of his Ju 88 was on fire, Lorbach was able to land it safely in the woods. Pietschmann was killed when his Ju 88 slammed into the ground, while Kollhoff was injured when a P-51 strafed him after he forced a landing. His gunner, who also made it through the landing, died suddenly. The three fighter pilots were all dead after being shot down.

The three aircraft combinations that were shot down on February 3 were en route to take part in Unternehmen Drachenhohle, also known as Operation Dragon’s Lair, a strategy conceived by Hermann Goring with the intention of attacking the Royal Navy’s home fleet at Scapa Flow and dealing a significant Pearl Harbor-style blow to the British.

However, the idea for the Mistel originated in Germany three years earlier, in 1942, when the research was being done to find a way to launch a glider into the air while carrying a smaller powered aircraft on its back. The powered aircraft could be given an extended range employing fuel pulled from the glider below, much like mistletoe draws sap from its host tree, which is how this combination came to be known as the Mistel (mistletoe). A Bf 109E fighter was intended for the top half and a DFS 230 glider for the bottom. They were both piloted.

The decision to employ this technology for the dropping of a “grossbombe,” or large bomb, against a ground target, was made in June 1943. The lowest section would be a “war weary” unmanned Junkers Ju 88A-4 loaded with 3.5 tons of explosives, while the upper portion would still be a Bf 109, now a 109F.

The Bf 109 pilot would control the entire Mistel until it passed over the target, at which point the Ju 88 would be targeted and its internal autopilot unit would be turned on. By using explosive bolts to detach from the Ju 88, the Bf 109 would later rip off as the bomb descended toward its intended target.

The high-explosive warhead of the Ju 88 was a massive hollow charge with a plunder detonator at its tip that was mounted in place of the cockpit of the aircraft. High-value targets including capital ships, power plants, and bridges were to be attacked with them.

The crew compartment of a Ju 88 was taken out at the aft bulkhead when it was modified for Mistel service. The compartment could then be reattached for use during training or while transporting the combination by means of four quick-release bolts that were later installed. For safety, the warheads were transported separately by road or rail.

The crew compartment could be quickly removed using the quick-release bolts once the aircraft and the warhead had arrived at the operational airfield. The warhead could then be installed. Therefore, rather than having warheads, the Mistels being flown on February 3, 1945, had their crew compartments ready to go along with working controls.

Spitfires Over Berlin

Spitfires Over Berlin is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here along with many other beautiful aviation books.

Photo by U.S. Air Force and GoodFon.com

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