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Home » The Lightning pilots’ defense prevented the Luftwaffe Bf 109s from shooting down a single bomber despite their assault on USAAF P-38s escorting 72 B-25s

The Lightning pilots’ defense prevented the Luftwaffe Bf 109s from shooting down a single bomber despite their assault on USAAF P-38s escorting 72 B-25s

by Till Daisd
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P-38-Vs-Bf-109

Luftwaffe Bf 109s Vs USAAF P-38s

Following Operation Torch in 1942, USAAF fighter pilots encountered a baptism of fire while flying the highly sophisticated P-38 Lightning over North Africa. Their adversaries were battle-hardened jagdflieger from the Jadgwaffe, operating the reliable Bf 109 in its most recent Gustav version.

The P-38 squadrons in North Africa had to develop efficient strategies to protect the bombers from attacks by Luftwaffe fighters, as their primary duty was to escort USAAF bombers while they targeted Afrika Korps installations in Tunisia.

After defeating the Axis in Tunisia, the Allied air forces turned their attention to disrupting the lines of communication in Sicily and southern Italy and to neutralizing Axis air power before the invasion of Sicily. The primary objective of the three P-38 fighter groups (1st, 14th, and 82nd FGs) assigned to the Twelfth Air Force bombers was to escort the bombers. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe, and more especially the Bf 109-equipped Jagdgruppen (Fighter Groups) of Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 2, was mostly responsible for defending these crucial sites against Allied air strikes.

Luftwaffe Bf 109s attack USAAF P-38s

In a fierce conflict with Bf 109s from IV./JG 3, II. and III./JG 53 and I./JG 77 on September 2, 1943, the 82nd FG (95th, 96th and 97th FSs) suffered its greatest casualties of the war, according to a story written by Edward M. Young in his book P-38 Lightning vs. Bf 109 North Africa, Sicily and Italy 1942–1943.

That day, the 82nd was escorting 72 B-25s targeting the marshaling yards at Cancello, north of Naples. For some reason, the formation was not intercepted by Axis fighters until after the bombers had reached their target and turned towards the coast. The 96th FS turned in to the attacking fighters and was soon engaged in an intense dogfight. The 95th FS turned back to help and also became heavily involved as the combat dropped down to 4,000ft over the Bay of Naples. Not too long afterward, the 97th FS broke from the bomber formation and began racing for safety in order to support its fellow squadrons. The conflict continued up to 75 miles off the coast of Italy.

By the time the German fighters broke off their attacks, ten 82nd FG pilots were missing in action, with the 96th FS losing seven P-38s. Twenty-three enemy fighters were shot down by the three squadrons, including fifteen Bf 109s; 2Lt Fred Selle reported three destroyed and two damaged. The Bf 109 Gruppen lost six aircraft in combat with the P-38s, three of them from JG 53. Amongst those killed was Franz Schiess, who had been awarded a Knight’s Cross in June and recently promoted to hauptmann. Schiess was last seen pursuing the P-38s well out to sea.

Axis fighters failed to shoot down a single bomber

The P-38 pilots mounted a resolute defense that prevented the Axis fighters from downing a single bomber. Similar to what happened to the 1st FG on August 30, the 82nd FG pilots received a DUC for their extraordinary commitment to protecting the bombers, even at a high cost to themselves.

This operation turned out to be the final major engagement between P-38s and Bf 109s before the Lightning groups were transferred to a new battlefield due to organizational changes.

P-38 Lightning vs Bf 109 North Africa, Sicily and Italy 1942–43 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo by Gareth Hector via Osprey

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