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