In Normandy the German counter offensive at Mortain had failed and Field Marshal von Kluge, the Supreme Field Commander West, was struggling to convince Hitler that it was time to order a general retreat to escape an encirclement that appeared to be developing near Falaise.
Now, more than ever, the Allied fighters and fighter bombers dominance over the battlefield was to play a critical role. They ranged far and wide over northern France attacking targets, mainly bridges, that would block the German retreat and then turning their attention to targets of opportunity, mainly strafing targets on the ground.
One P-38 Lightning pilot was looking for more than just ground targets. Twenty-two year old Robin Olds had not yet scored after arriving in England in May 1944 with the 479th Fighter Group. He describes in graphic detail how he decided to break away from his colleagues on 14th August 1944 because he disagreed with their navigation:
Bison Lead decided they would turn south to find the target. South? That seemed dead wrong. I had just corrected to the northeast a little to be on course.
If Bison was north of the rendezvous point, he would be at or near the target. If he didn’t see the target he had to be south of it. That assumed he and his people were reasonably close to course as they came in. The screwups just seemed to keep piling up.
Rechecking my armament switches, I pushed up full power and headed for Chalon-sur-Saone all by myself. Sure enough, there was the ribbon of the Saone River catching the first glow of dawn. It had to be the Saone. And there was the gray darkness of the town with the bridge clearly visible against the river’s silver sheen. I lined up so I’d cross the target at about a 45—degree angle and came out of the west.
My pass was shallow, more like a skip—bomb pass than a dive-bomb attack. The sight picture was good. Speed just right. There was time to remind myself: Don’t hit long, Robin, don’t hit the town. I wanted to hit the center span of the bridge, so when the gun sight pipper came up to the release point, I pressed the pickle button under my right thumb. There was a thump as the pair of 1,000-pound bombs left the pylons.
I broke hard left and stayed down low to make myself as difficult a target as possible. An orange flash in my canopy’s rearview mirror told me the bombs had detonated. No flak. Must have caught the gunners sleeping late this morning. Once I was clear of the target there was time to burn, and apparently I had the whole of this part of France to myself.
Truthfully, finding the rest of the group didn’t enter my mind. I stayed right down on the deck, as low as I dared, heading northwest. I throttled back, then tweaked the mixture and prop into auto-lean to save a bit of fuel. When the sun peeked over the horizon, I was paralleling a paved country road bordered by poplar trees and farmhouses set back behind hedges and stone walls. A ridge loomed ahead, running almost due north—south.
The valley from my position, and all the way up the ridge, was totally covered with vineyards. Years later I would recognize it for what it was, the Beaune region: good Burgundy country. But not now. I was looking for something to shoot at, anything military: a convoy, a train, troops, anything.
After several minutes of this, two dark shapes suddenly flew across the road left to right about a mile ahead of me. They were just a little higher than I was. I turned right to cut them off, got right down on the grass, pushed the mixtures into auto-rich, rammed the props to high, and shoved the throttles I) the wall.
My P-38 leaped ahead as though kicked by a mule. The cutoff angle was good and I could see I would be coming in behind the bogeys in short order. I still didn’t have a positive ID, but every instinct told me they had to be German. Instinct is no good when you’re coming up behind a target with a 20mm and four .50 caliber guns armed and ready to shoot.
It is particularly no good when your adrenaline is pumping. Patience, patience. I wanted those shadowy shapes to be Focke-Wulf 190s! My instincts told me they were Jerries, not a couple of Jugs out of 9th Air Force. Please, bogeys, please turn just a little. Give me an aspect where I can get a positive ID on you.
I’m closing fast. There isn’t much time left. I pressed rudder and slid the pipper onto the trailing aircraft’s left wing. Another second and suddenly I could see the Iron Cross on the side of the lead plane’s fuselage. No time left now. I squeezed the trigger. The wingman’s bird lit up with strikes, spewed heavy smoke, rolled inverted, and hit the ground with a huge explosion.
I had to get the other 190 before he gained an advantage on me. He made a violent left break the moment his wingman was hit. I followed, staying inside his turn, knowing my left wingtip was no more than 20 feet off the ground. The g-forces came on hard but I was scarcely aware of them. I flew the pipper slowly through his fuselage, pulling ahead, trying to get about a 100-mil lead.
I pressed the trigger in a short burst and watched as strikes moved down his fuselage. Perfect! Another burst, more strikes, and he suddenly pulled straight up. The canopy separated and the pilot came out as though he had a spring in his seat. His chute opened immediately and he swung under it. I had pulled up with him and rolled inverted in time to see his aircraft hit in the middle of a farmer’s field. I rolled into a hard left bank and watched through the top of my canopy as the Jerry landed close to his burning aircraft.
He started running as I came around my circle to point my nose at him. I dove at him and he flopped onto his belly. He thought I was going to strafe him. No such thing! I buzzed him there in the mud and pulled up to do two victory rolls. I hoped he saw them. Then I felt like an ass doing such a silly, damned-fool, kid thing like that. Obviously I’d read too much of Hogan’s C-8 and His Battle Aces and watched too much of Wings and The Dawn Patrol.
The flight home was uneventful, except for a mixed feeling of elation, disbelief, and nagging worry. I hoped my camera had worked. Confirmation couldn’t stand on my word alone. That was a grim thought.
Olds would soon convert to the P-51 Mustang and ended WWII with a score of 12 enemy planes. His combat days were far from over – he shot down four MiG-21s while flying a F-4C Phantom II over Vietnam in 1967.
Ace Pilots has a good summary of Robin Old’s career.