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.
“The intersection was clouded over with dust and smoke as Red Two and Red Three dropped their bombs very close to mine. As the wind cleared the scene, I could see that one of the tanks was down in a ditch on the opposite side of the north/south road with its 88mm gun turned down and to the side. The second tank was pulling around the corner heading east on the main street.
“‘Get him with your guns!’ I yelled. ‘Make a steep angle of attack and aim for the ventilator grates. Set his engine on fire! He’s on hard surface,’ I continued, ‘ricochet them up into his belly – front and rear!'”
A Tiger I’s hull armor was impervious to nearly all American tank fire, and even the 25mm armor on the turret top and rear decking would defeat a .50-caliber round. On paper, .50-caliber machine gun fire would do nothing but rattle the Tiger crew’s eardrums. But there were cooling fan gratings and air intakes on the rear deck, and thin armor on the underside, that might allow a P-47’s sheer volume of fire with its eight Browning M2 guns to score a lucky hit and disable a Tiger’s engine.
“A glance back to the intersection showed the third tank backing to the north about a hundred yards into an orchard. He could wait his turn, I thought.
“The second tank pulled off the main street into a dirt lot between some buildings. When we kept hitting his ventilator grates with our bullets he pulled out and to the east. He then parked between two buildings on the north side of the street. We continued to work on his grates until he pulled out and turned back to the west on the main street. That was one harassed Tiger!
“As the Tiger continued west past the intersection we continued to ricochet .50 caliber bullets into its belly and pounded its grates as before. Finally the tank stopped in the middle of the street and remained there despite our attacks. It was now time to worry the third tank. We made one high-angle attack on the grates of the third Tiger. This forced it to move out of the orchard on to the secondary road from whence it had come.
“By this time, one or more of us was either out of ammunition or extremely low, so we advised FORMROOM of the tank’s status and took off for home.
“Next morning we received a wire from the tank force commander expressing appreciation for the attack. His forces took the town without further casualties. They found one Tiger destroyed, the second was incapacitated and it was captured, while the third had gotten away. From this we learned that our guns could cripple a Tiger tank despite its supposed impenetrable armor.”
The character of the war in March was similar to the previous summer’s campaign in Normandy: the Allies were gathering strength for a winning breakout. To assist the Rhine crossing, the P-47s would work to keep reinforcements from reaching the front.
“There was a lot of activity reported in the area between Siegburg and Cologne, so our group was given the task of patrolling that corridor,” wrote Lopez. “To go on and mention the various marshalling yards and trains we strafed, many of them blowing up and indicating that they were loaded with munitions, would be repetitive. Suffice to say that we were kept busy wrecking the German army.”
Robert F. Dorr is an Air Force veteran, a retired U.S. diplomat, and an author. Thomas D. Jones is an Air Force Academy graduate, a former NASA astronaut, and a planetary scientist. Hell Hawks: The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht, has been called the best book ever written about the P-47 Thunderbolt and the war on the European continent. The book is available from co-author Dorr at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Mary McWhorter Albright
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Chuck Oldham (Editor)
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Donald J. Farinacci
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Harry Strahlendorf, Jr.
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John C. Lord
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Robert F. Dorr
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Chuck Oldham (Editor)
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6:13 AM March 24, 2010
Simply put, this book is a must read for anyone who enjoys avaition, brave men and great planes! Bob & Thomas capture the action as if the reader is there, experiencing what it was like going up against the best Germany had to offer. Many of us knew of the P-51 Mustang & P-38 Lighting, but I doubt if any of the pilots that flew combat missions with the P-47 would trade for any of the more famous fighter/bombers of the day. Thanks again Bob and Thomas. William Grubbs, Rowland Heights, CA
5:08 AM March 28, 2010
A historically factual book and one in which the reader feels they are at the controls with pilots during a dogfight, bellying in after being shot down or on the ground with the crew putting the planes back together. Wonderful tribute to those who have been largely forgotten, but that contributed so much to winning the war.
7:06 PM March 28, 2010
Hell Hawks is further reminder of the critical importance of DO IT NOW! We are losing WW II veterans at more than 2,000 per day, and many of the remaining individuals suffer poor health and/or fading memories. (The teenaged soldiers/sailors of 1945 are now 82-83, well past their life expectancy.) If just a handful of authors or just plain interested people would tackle a subject as Dorr and Jones have done, our posterity will benefit.
10:43 AM March 29, 2010
You’re absolutely right. I’ve been meaning to interview a neighbor who was a B-17 ball turret gunner and I worry about letting it slide for too long.
A few years ago my neighbor from across the street died, and it was only recently that I learned from his wife he was with the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment during Normandy and after. What stories he could have told. Lost because I didn’t think to ask.
8:53 PM March 29, 2010
This book was excellent and moved me to create profiles of the 365th’s Thunderbolts. I have been doing extensive research and need help from the group and families of the veterans. If you have information and/or pictures to share please contact me at email@example.com or join the Hell Hawks Facebook page to see the progress.
11:25 PM April 6, 2010
Thoroughly researched and expertly written, Dorr and Jones are masters of their craft. From start to finish, the action is absolutely riveting. I couldn’t put the book down. Hell Hawks is destined to become the definitive volume on World War Two’s tactical air war. Definitely a must-read for every aviation enthusiast.
7:29 PM May 6, 2010
Marvellous reading. Anybody with any interest in World War II air support operations and USAAF history will enjoy this superb read. I could not put it down.
7:54 PM May 6, 2010
This is a great book about a band of fighter pilots who could move mud and fight plane to plane. This was the the air war up close and personal. A great read, and a welcomed addition to my library!
8:16 PM May 6, 2010
I must say after reading this small excerpt, I am really looking forward to reading Hell Hawks!!
11:07 PM May 6, 2010
This book is worthy of the author’s high reputation as a military historian and author. In. “Hell Hawks” the author skillfully weaves the actual words of the aviators with bridging text, producing a readable and compelling text that has been carefully, nay lovingly, researched. If you have an interest in military aviation or WW II in general, this work should be on your book shelf.
6:37 AM May 7, 2010
A MUST READ!!! Hell Hawks documents the very overlooked Ninth Air Force’s own 365th FG. Their war was waged down in the thick air, where they could see the enemy’s facesl. Thank God the mighty P-47 was on our side! Also, these incredibly brave and resilient crews are to be applauded for their magnificent and pioneering work!! The valor I read about in this book will stick with me forever!! READ THIS BOOK!!!
11:26 AM May 7, 2010
More people ought to know about the important role the Thunderbolt played in WWII. Bob Dorr and Tom Jones have done a great job presenting the story of the P-47 and the men who piloted them. Buy this book and treasure it.
10:55 AM May 11, 2010
I am a history buff and have read many books about World War II. Hell Hawks! is definitely one of the best. Congratulations to Bob Dorr and Tom Jones and thanks from a fan (who is also a fan of the many great stories Robert F. Dorr wrote for men’s adventure magazines back in the 1960s and early 1970s).
12:36 PM May 14, 2010
Its refreshing to read about someone other than Patton’s Third Army performing heroics in the drive to cross the Rhine and take the battle to the German homeland. The pilots and crewmen who fought the air war and cleared the way for the Allied infantry are vividly portrayed in “Hell Hawks.”
7:22 AM June 24, 2010
As the son of one of our “Greatest Generation” heroes of WWII who gave his life in the skies of Normandy, I wholeheartedly recommend anyone interested in aviation and WWII to get this book. It is a must-have for any enthusiast’s bookshelf! I have two copies! Today, 66 years ago, my dad, 1Lt Harry Strahlendorf, died while attacking German guns at Ft du Roule at Cherbourg, Normandy, France. The tail of his P-47 Thunderbolt was blown completely off by 88mm fire from those very guns. He crashed into nearby Octeville, where today stands a monument on “Square Strahlendorf.”
8:06 AM June 24, 2010
Great excerpt. Thunderbolt was a truly under reported fighter/bomber. Tough and packed quite a punch, and the pilots who took them in close to get the job done. My old boss had a chance to fly one once. Called it a big powerful brute, of course him being a P-40 then P-51 pilot, the Thunderbolt was a much heavier machine. Congrats on an excellent book.
8:08 AM June 24, 2010
This is a must-read book for anyone interested in the role US fighter-bombers performed in Europe during World War II, and anyone who admires can-do effort anywhere, anytime.
8:18 AM June 24, 2010
What an interesting story-teller and what heroes these pilots were to the men on the ground. I can relate personally from a tour in Vietnam to how grateful we grunts were when seeing support coming in from the sky. Thank you.
9:05 AM June 24, 2010
Hell Hawks is a long-overdue, highly factual story of the fighter-bomber action in the Western Front that between covers, taught me as much about the low-level T-bolt ops as I have learned from many fine books recalling air-to-air combat. The research, extensive interviews with those who participated, and post-war stories about the “players” exceeds that I’ve encountered in what I’ve read by other authors. Kudos to Dorr and Jones and thanks to all who paved the path to victory with courage, determination and valor.
9:12 AM June 24, 2010
A real page turner – I could not put this one down. So many books have been written about both dogfighting and strategic bombing in the ETO, but I am not aware of a work that is both as scholarly and as personal as Hell Hawks.
9:30 AM June 24, 2010
This book is written by two talented authors and is well worth the read! It will pull you in to the lives and the stories of the Hell Hawks and their journey in WWII. A must read!
1:12 PM June 24, 2010
Awesome job Bob, keep up turning out outstanding works such as this!
3:08 PM June 24, 2010
This incredible account is so very good. I thought I knew everything Thunderbolt………….I was wrong!!!!! To tell you how good a job the authors have done recounting these incredible warrior’s story, I am reading the book now for the second time!!! Enough can’t be said of the pioneering work that is told in this awesome book!! 5 stars!!!!
8:57 PM June 24, 2010
I consider myself more than just a history buff as I been a student of WW II aviation for 38 years. Hells Hawks stands out as one of the more outstanding reads I have ever had on this topic. Incredibly detailed and descriptive, the book is a rare gem in a small collection of books that have successfully put the reader in the into the experience.
If you enjoy reading about WW II aviation, then this book REALLY IS A MUST READ! Beautifully written and thoroughly researched I, without hesitation, give if FIVE STARS, and TWO THUMBS UP!
9:06 PM June 24, 2010
Since all of the above comments were made, “Hell Hawks!” has been published in a trade paperback edition, so it is now available in an econiomical format.
1:01 AM June 25, 2010
To those who have not read this book is missing the once in a lifetime book. I have read a lot of Bob Dorr,s books. This man has the essence of what a writer must do in a book of this nature. He wrote as if he were actually there in the bush or in an aircraft chasing Germans.
Another of his books that I could not put down is CHOPPER. It is a history of the cronological order of the development of helicopters. Exxcell job, Keep on writting.
11:42 AM June 29, 2010
I really enoyed reading the book after buying me a copy and having it signed by Bob at the Hazer Udvar museum in DC, sept 2008. Living in the Netherlands myself, even after 65 years after WW.2 there are so much things left to tell as new facts still show up every day. Most of the people think that the USAAF mainly operated from clean airfields in the UK but the Hell Hawks lived in the field and looked the enemy in the eye operating at low altitude.
11:07 PM July 3, 2010
About the time I think there were no more really informative books about WW II, I come across Bob Dorr hawking (no pun intended) his book at the Air and Space Museum Hangar near Dulles Airport. Bob talked me into giving the book a try and am I glad he caught me that day. My library has most of the notable WW II books and many of the more obscure. Hells Hawks will take its place among the library and shows there are still great stories to be told. I found it hard to set the book down as Bob and Thomas have written a compelling story giving many personal insights from P-47 pilots and ground crew while proviving a clear picture of how P-47s played a vital role in winning the war. Trained as a combat signalman myself, I would have been glad to have these planes and their fearless pilots on my side. I had heard the P-47 was special in its effectiveness but this book make it clear just how so. Tahnsk again to Bob and Thomas.
8:30 PM September 8, 2010
I agree that it’s the personal details and day-to-day stories that make the book. For me, they make any book. Too often today historians insert themselves and their theories between the reader and the real stories, but Bob and co-author Tom Jones just tell the stories of those who were there.
10:45 AM September 9, 2010
I met Bob at the Air & Space Museum, where he introduced me to this book and to his authoring methods. The book is fabulous, with so many personal details and day-to-day stories of the brave pilots and their formidable flying machines. So much research! Who knows if I’d even be around today without these warplanes protecting the troops – my dad was a paratrooper and made it through the Bulge and Varsity.
6:01 AM August 23, 2012
Allied fighter bombers were ineffective in the field. Check: Airpower at the Battlefront – http://www.amazon.com/Air-Power-Battlefront-Support-1943-45/dp/0714646806