During World War II in Europe, the German Tiger tank was a respected and feared fighting machine, but it was not always a match for the robust Republic P-47D Thunderbolt or the men who flew it. This account from just after the Battle of the Bulge is an excerpt from the book Hell Hawks!: The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht by Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones.
After helping taking Cologne, the 3rd Armored Division took a well-deserved break from combat. 1st Lt. Edward Lopez, a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot who’d served with the tankers as a forward air controller, returned to the 387th Fighter Squadron, but not before procuring a few souvenirs – a fine shotgun, Nazi ceremonial dagger, and a huge swastika banner – taken from abandoned houses in the bombed city. Lopez reflected on his brief stint with the front line troops:
“On my arrival I was the envy of the rest of the pilots, for not only had I experienced what our ground troops go through, but also had the opportunity to see the damage we had done to the German war effort, the burned out gun emplacements, destroyed Tiger tanks, gutted buildings, etc…and how grateful the GIs were that we were there to help them.”
While Lopez was forward with the 3rd Armored, the Hell Hawks – that was the name of the 365th Fighter Group, which included the 386th, 387th and 388th Fighter Squadrons – worked closely with other controllers accompanying U.S. tank columns. The group’s P-47 Thunderbolt pilots attacked designated targets and warned the G.I.s of opposition ahead.
In mid-afternoon of March 2, Major Arlo C. Henry was leading another pair of Thunderbolts, each lugging a pair of 500-pound bombs. The 3rd Armored Division controller, FORMROOM, directed Henry to a suspected tank concentration near the small Cologne suburb of Stommeln.
His information was accurate: Henry picked out three panzers traveling at 500-yard intervals into town.
Henry wrote later: “We were asked to seek out a tank or a mobile 88mm gun in or around the town of Stommeln that was holding up the column. From the air we could see the complete problem. Most of the column was behind the northwest/southeast railroad embankment which ran about one-half mile south of the town. About four or five [American] tanks had ventured through the underpass to head north towards town. They were either stalled or burning after being hit by enemy fire.
“We circled the town two or three times at low altitude without spotting a gun or a tank of any size. Further, we received no ground fire. Suddenly, one of my flight members called out, ‘Three tanks coming south towards town!!’ I immediately called FORMROOM to confirm that no friendly troops were north or northwest of the town.
“‘Negative. Identify and destroy!'”
“We made a fast in-trail pass to look at the tanks and saw the muzzle-brakes and crosses on the turrets. ‘Tigers! They’re closing up – let’s try to get them before they split up!’
“By this time I was coming around for a low pass with bombs. The tanks had pulled up and stopped bumper-to-bumper at the east-west street. We had to get those bombs in broadside before they split up! I punched the button to release the bombs and pulled up sharply to miss the power lines strung across the street. I then made a low tight turn to the left to see how we had done.