Another of Hitler’s wonder weapons, the Me 262 jet fighter, had failed to transform the air war over Germany. Not only were there not enough of them but loitering Allied fighters were having success picking them off as they either took off or landed. They were too fast to engage in a dogfight.
The remains of the Luftwaffe in the west, which had been decimated trying to support the Battle of the Bulge, was fighting a losing battle with its conventional aircraft. Too many of its experienced pilots had been lost. The young pilots now being thrown into the battle to defend had to contend with some talented opponents.
Robin Olds had been credited with eight kills while flying the P-38 Lightning out of England between May and September 1944. After converting to the P-51 Mustang he made a further six kills before returning to the U.S. for a two month break in November. Back in England, again with the 434th Fighter Squadron and its parent, the 479th Fighter Group, Olds resumed flying on 15th January. It did not take him long before he he was celebrating more victories.
February 9 turned into quite a fine day. First thing in the morning, I pinned on shiny new oak-leaf clusters and officially became a major. Better yet, we ran into a flock of Me-109s and enjoyed reasonable success.
By this period in the air war the group had settled into a daily routine of bomber escort. One squadron flew the close-escort effort as prescribed in the ops order, which meant staying close to the stream so the bomber crews knew someone cared about them. The bomber crews liked to see some friendly fighters around them. The second squadron flew area sweeps; their job was to rove within 15 or 20 miles of the bomber stream, hopefully putting themselves between the force and any attacking fighters.
The third squadron flew what we called “outlaw.” That was the preferred mission. Take off any time you wanted, and catch the Luftwaffe force either forming up for their attack or trying to return to their bases afterward. This took experience, planning, and a bit of luck for those of us pulling this duty.
On this particular day, the 434th pulled close-escort duty and I was leading the flight. We took off as scheduled with a minimum package of twelve Mustangs and ground our way along with the big boys toward Stuttgart at 27,000 feet. The weather wasn’t all that good. Broken clouds ranged in various decks right down to the ground, and off to the southeast a formidable front, like a gray wall, stretched away to the southwest.
I had just turned the 434th around the backside of our box of bombers and was heading parallel to their course on the right side of the stream, when I spotted a gaggle of shadowy contrails sneaking along the top of that cirrus bank and headed in the direction of our bombers. I was about to turn to intercept them when the 435th flight sailed past just to my right.
I wondered what in hell they were doing so close to the bombers. By all rights those enemy fighters (and that’s all they could have been) were their responsibility. I held my turn and watched the 435th go scurrying along out of sight. My God, a whole squadron, and it was obvious not one of them had spotted the enemy.
As soon as the 435th cleared, I dropped my externals, turned, and headed my bunch to intercept the rapidly closing bandits. Soon, the German leader saw us coming and, knowing the jig was up, broke off his attack. His formation turned into a gaggle of individual aircraft as we piled into them.
All this time my outfit had uttered not a single word. We prided ourselves on rfio discipline, and We fought that whole fight in silence. It was a weird one. We ended up with the battle swirling along and then into the huge squall line. It was like flying into the proverbial milk bottle.
I had managed to knock one Me-109 down quickly and went after another just as he entered the cloud. I concentrated on my adversary and hoped he was a good instrument pilot. Without a horizon, there was no up, no down, no left or right. There was also no “seat of the pants” to believe in. I closed on the 1O9, trying to get my gun sight on him, when everything went to hell at once.
I could feel my bird staggering and shuddering, but wanted to get off at least one burst before I lost everything. To my amazement, the 109 snapped, and then spun straight up! Hell no, that wasn’t up, it had to be down… and both of us must have been nearly inverted when we stalled.
To hell with the German, Robin! Get your head in the cockpit. Get those gyrating instruments sorted out, and recover from this spin. I knew I had plenty of altitude, so I didn’t rush things. Horror stories of pilots pulling the wings off in their haste to recover from similar situations flashed through my mind. I stayed cool as I sorted the situation, then recovered from the spin and pulled back to level flight.
So then why did I start shaking almost uncontrollably when I got the beast flying straight and level, headed more or less to the west? The whole incident had happened so quickly, was so intense and disorienting, that I’d had no time to be afraid. Adrenaline was pumping, and my reaction after the sudden return to the normalcy of the steady, soothing hum of the Mustang engine in the relative security of my snug cockpit made everything let go at once.
I remember being glad to be alone in my plane, without a witness to my aftershock.
Ace Pilots has a good summary of Robin Old’s career.