During the first half of the strategic bombing campaign, the USAAF lacked fighters that could escort its heavy bombers on strikes against targets in Germany. As a result, heavy bomber crews took devastating losses that threatened the continuation of the campaign.
By early 1944, improvements to the P-47 and P-38, and the introduction of droppable fuel tanks and the P-51, solved the fighter range problem. Heavy bomber losses decreased while enemy fighter pilot casualties rose dramatically. These Luftwaffe losses broke its fighter force, leaving it unable to counter the D-Day invasion in June 1944.
Escort fighters weave a protective umbrella above a bomber formation.
P-47 Thunderbolt accompanies a B-24 bomber. The rugged Thunderbolt entered service in Europe in mid-1943. At that time, the P-47 could not escort bombers past the German border, but later improvements extended its range.
20th Fighter Group P-38 pilot Lt Arthur Heiden with his ground crew. The top hat markings represent bomber escort missions.
Introduced in Europe at the end of 1943, the fast, long-range P-51 Mustang became the USAAF’s ultimate escort fighter.
Map used by Col Don Blakeslee, commander of the famous 4th Fighter Group, on an escort mission to Berlin. The black line represented the course of the bombers, and the red line was the path of the escort fighters. The 4th FG claimed 26 enemy planes destroyed on this mission.
Spitfire clock and propeller blade autographed by 4th Fighter Group pilots (many were volunteers who had served in the famed RAF Eagle Squadrons). The blade was broken when Lt Steve Pisanos belly-landed after retracting his landing gear too soon after takeoff in March 1943.
USAAF fighters carried cameras that operated when the guns fired, thereby recording aerial victories and strafing attacks on the ground.
This gun camera film magazine was installed in a P-38 Lightning on an escort mission over Germany—it was hit by a 7.92mm bullet from a Bf 110’s rear gunner.
Gun camera footage of P-47 pilot Lt Richard Stearns shooting down a twin-engine Messerschmitt fighter in November 1943. In April 1944, Stearns was downed and became a POW.
Knife made by a metalsmith in England and carried on missions by P-38 pilot Lt Royal Frey. On February 10, 1944, Frey was shot down near Munster, Germany, and became a prisoner of war. Frey later became the Senior Curator of the US Air Force Museum, and the Museum’s P-38 is painted in Lt Frey’s markings.
Lt Royal Frey
Related Fact Sheets
The Memphis Belle: American Icon and 25th Mission
Memphis Belle Crew
The “Memphis Belle” and Nose Art
26th Mission: War Bond Tour
“Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”
Heavy Bomber “Firsts”
Combat Aircraft to Museum Artifact
Crippling the Nazi War Machine: USAAF Strategic Bombing in Europe
Early Operations (1942 to mid-1943) - Eighth Air Force in England
Ninth/Twelfth Air Forces in the Mediterranean
Combat Box/Communication and Life at 25K
Keeping them Flying: Mechanics and Armorers
Combined Bomber Offensive: Summer 1943 to Victory
Bigger Raids, Bigger Losses, and Crisis
Deadly Skies over Europe (Luftwaffe defense)
Bomber Crew Protection
Operation Tidalwave (Ploesti, 1 Aug 43)
Regensburg/Schweinfurt (17 Aug 43)
Black Thursday/Schweinfurt (14 Oct 43)
Fifteenth Air Force (created Sep 43)
Women’s Army Corps
Fighter Escort: Little Friends
Big Week (20-25 Feb 44)
Operation Frantic: Shuttle Raids to the Soviet Union
Strategic Bombing Victorious
Return to the B-17F Memphis Belle Fact Sheet
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