P-38 in European Theatre

Last revised June 13, 1999

The story of the P-38 continues with an account of its service in the European theatre.

Having conducted service testing of the YP-38 in the late spring of 1941, the 1st Pursuit Group at Selfridge Field, Michigan was selected to become the first unit to receive P-38s and P-38Ds. The first Lightnings they received did not have their cannons fitted. The 1st Pursuit Group participated with some success in the Louisiana maneuvers of September 1941. Two days after Pearl Harbor, the Unit moved to NAS San Diego and joined the March Field-based 14th Pursuit Group, then transitioning to P-38D/P-38E. Although these fighters were not yet combat ready, these outfits had the only truly modern fighters then available to the USAAF, and provided West Coast defense at a time that Japanese attacks on the US mainland were believed to be imminent

Even though the defense of the US west coast initially took priority, plans were made in the spring of 1942 to deploy Lightning squadrons to Britain. This deployment caused logistical problems, since the U-boat menace made shipping across the Atlantic quite risky. However, development by Lockheed of reliable drop tanks for the P-38F-1-LO increased the ferry range from 1300 to 2200 miles. Test pilot Milo Burcham actually demonstrated a maximum range of over 3100 miles. This made it possible to ferry the Lightnings from Maine to the UK via Goose Bay, Labrador to Bluie West One (Greenland) to Reykjavik, Iceland and finally to Prestwick, Scotland. Following the victory at Midway, the USAAF felt sufficiently confident that the Japanese fleet was not about to show up off Santa Barbara that they decided to redeploy the 1st and 14th Fighter (renamed from Pursuit in May 1942) Groups to Britain. By August 1942, 81 P-38Fs of four of the six squadrons of the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups had arrived in Great Britain to complete the first transatlantic crossing by single-seat fighters. Two other Lightning squadrons (the 27th and the 50th) were held over in Iceland to assist the Curtiss P-40Cs of the 33rd Fighter Squadron in the flying of defensive patrols over the Atlantic. On August 14, 1942, a P-38F flown by 2nd Lieut Elza Shaham shared with a P-40C in the destruction of a Focke- Wulf FW-200C-3 to obtain the first victory over a Luftwaffe aircraft.

The P-38F-equipped 82nd Fighter Group arrived in Northern Ireland in November 1942.

After flying 347 practice and sweep sorties during which there was no contact with the Luftwaffe, the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups were transferred to the 12th Air Force in North Africa. While in transit from Britain to Algeria, pilots of the 82nd Fighter Group were credited with the destruction of two Ju-88 bombers over the Bay of Biscay. The Lightnings were soon in regular combat in the North African theatre. The first of these took place on November 19, 1942 when the P-38Fs of the 1st Fighter Group escorted B-17s on a bombing raid on the El Aouina airfield at Tunis. The three P-38 groups contributed a great deal toward the establishment of local air superiority in the area. On April 5, 1943, 26 P-38Fs of the 82nd Fighter Group claimed the destruction of 31 enemy aircraft as against the loss of six Lightnings. In these air battles, mixed success was obtained Because of the tactics of the enemy, the Lightnings were forced to fight at lower altitudes of 15,000 feet, and in battles against fighters it was not entirely successful. The twin engines restricted maneuverability to some extent and the Lightning had a wheel control instead of the conventional stick, which may also have restricted maneuverability. Nevertheless, the Lightning was effective against bombers and had a sensational zoom climb that could rarely be matched. It wreaked great havoc among Rommel's air transport well out to sea, earning for itself the German nickname "der Gabelschwanz Teufel"--the Fork-Tailed Devil.

All Axis forces in the area surrendered on May 13, 1943, due in no small part to the contribution of the Lightning in cutting off Rommel's air supply route.

Already prior to the Axis defeat in Tunisia, the Northwest African Air Forces (of which the Twelfth Air Force was a component) had begun preparations for the invasion of Sicily. Attacks on Sicily, on Pantelleria and on Lampedusa were stepped up in preparation for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. Lightnings were in the midst of the fray until Sicily fell on August 17. The three P-38 Fighter Groups then concentrated their efforts against the Italian mainland. On November 1, 1943, they were transferred to the 15th Air Force. By that time, 37 Twelfth Air Force Lightning pilots had made ace, the top scorer being Lieut W. J. Sloan of the 82nd Fighter Group with 12 kills. Lieut H. T. Hanna of the 14th Fighter Group made ace in one day by destroying five Ju 87 dive bombers on October 9, 1943.

Following their transfer, the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups concentrated on escorting the B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force in their raids on targets in Austria, the Balkans, France, Greece, and Italy. However, on occasion, they escorted the medium bombers of the Twelfth Air Force.

The first Lightning-escorted raids on Germany began in February 1944 with raids on aircraft factories in the southern part of that country. In April 1944 the Lightnings escorted bombers in raids on the oil refineries at Ploesti in Rumania. Bomb-carrying Lightnings also visited Ploesti on June 10, 1944 when 46 aircraft of the 82nd Fighter Group each carrying 1000-pound bombs paid a visit to the Romano Americana Oil Refinery under the protective escort of 48 P-38s of the 1st Fighter Group. On that raid, good bombing and strafing results were obtained, but in fighter actions against the Luftwaffe twenty-two P-38s were lost against 23 enemy aircraft claimed destroyed.

Six weeks later, Lightnings flew their first shuttle mission to Russia and returned to their Italian base after spending three days at a Soviet base in the Ukraine. Along with their P-51 escorts, they shot down thirty German planes and destroyed twelve on the ground. The last Lightning shuttle mission was flown on August 4/6 and was marked by the daring rescue of a downed pilot by Lieut R. J. Andrews who landed his Lightning in an open field to pick up Capt R. E. Willsie.

The three Lightning Groups also took part in the August 1944 Allied landings in southern France. After that, they returned to providing fighter escort for bombers operating against strategic targets. By the end of the war, 28 of these Lightning pilots had made ace.

The departure of the 1st and 14th Fighter Groups for North Africa in November 1942 left the Eighth Air Force without Lightnings until September 1943, when the 55th Fighter Group arrived in England with its P-38Hs. It began combat operations on October 15, 1943, making its first kill on November 2. The next month, the outfit converted to P-38Js. On March 3, 1944, the 55th flew to Berlin for the first time, a round trip of 1300 miles. The 20th, 364th and 479th Fighter Groups soon became operational in England with P-38s.

However, in air combat over Germany, the Lightning was generally outclassed by the more maneuverable Fw 190 and the later marks of the Bf 109, especially at medium and low altitudes. However, the Lightning had a much faster top speed, a higher rate of climb and operational ceiling and was much better armed. Once pilots had perfected fighting tactics which suited the Lightning's unique characteristics, they had better success. The usual tactics was for the P-38 to climb to a high altitude and then dive down on the enemy, attacking him with a burst of firepower and then zoom back up out of harm's way. The later versions of the P-38 were equipped with maneuvering flaps, and when their pilots learned how to use these flaps properly, the P-38 could hold its own when maneuvering against German fighters, often being able to turn inside their Fw 190 and Bf 109 opponents.

The large size of the P-38 was both an advantage and a disadvantage in combat. The P-38 was quite large for a fighter, and Luftwaffe pilots could usually spot the Lockheed fighter at much larger distances than they could Allied single-engined fighters which were appreciably smaller. In addition, the twin-boomed configuration of the P-38 made it instantly recognizable to the enemy. However, this ease of recognition was not always a disadvantage--P-38s would often feel free to pursue Luftwaffe fighters right through Allied bomber formations with little fear of receiving friendly fire from the gunners.

The Allison engines of the Lightnings proved to be somewhat temperamental, with engine failures actually causing more problems than enemy action. It is estimated that every Lightning in England changed its engines at least once. Nevertheless, the ability of the Lightning to return home on one engine was exceptional and saved the life of the pilot of many a wounded Lightning. Experienced pilots could handle the Lightning satisfactorily at high altitude, but too many of the Eighth Air Force pilots did not have the training or experience to equip them for flying this temperamentally-powered aircraft in combat.

The powerplant problems were not entirely the Allison engine's fault. Many of the reliability problems were actually due to the inadequate cooling system, in particular the cumbersome plumbing of the turbosupercharger intercooler ducting which directed air all way from the supercharger out to the wingtips and back. In addition, the lack of cowl flaps were a problem. In the European theatre of operation, temperatures at altitude were often less than 40 degrees below zero and the Lightning's engines would never get warmed up enough for the oil to be able to flow adequately. Octane and lead would separate out of the fuel at these low temperatures, causing the Allisons to eat valves with regularity, to backfire through the intercooler ducts, and to throw rods, sometimes causing the engine to catch fire.

These problems bedeviled the Lightnings until the advent of the J version with its simplified intercooler ducting and the relocation of the oil cooler to a chin position underneath the propeller spinner. When the P-38J reached the field, the Allison engine was finally able to attain its full rated power at altitude, and the engine failure rate began to go down.

Earlier Lightnings had problems with high-speed dives. When the airspeed reached a sufficiently high value, the controls would suddenly lock up and the Lightning would tuck its nose down, making recovery from the dive difficult. In the worst case, the wings of the Lightning could be ripped off if the speed got too high. This problem caused the Lightning often to be unable to follow its Luftwaffe opponents in a dive, causing many of the enemy to be able to escape unscathed. The problem was eventually traced to the formation of a shock wave over the wing as the Lightning reached transonic speeds, this shock wave causing the elevator to lose much of its effectiveness. The problem was not cured until the advent of the P-38J-25-LO, which introduced a set of compressibility flaps under the wing which changed the pattern of the shock wave over the wing when they were extended, restoring the function of the elevator.

The P-38J version of the Lightning cured many of the ills that had been suffered by the earlier versions of the Lockheed fighter, producing a truly world-class fighter which could mix it up with virtually any other fighter in the world.

In April 1944, the Lightnings of the 20th Fighter Group began low level fighter sweeps over the Continent. That same month, the 55th Fighter Group used the "Droop Snoot" P-38J for the first time as a leader for other Lightnings in a bombing raid on the Coulommiers airfield. Both types of operations proved successful, and these techniques were later used extensively by P-38s of the Ninth Air Force.

The P-38s of the Eighth Air Force were rapidly phased out of service in favor of P-51 Mustangs--The 20th, 55th, and 364th Fighter Groups converted to P-51s during July 1944, and in September the 479th Fighter Group traded in its P-38Js for P-51Ds.

The Ninth Air Force was assigned a tactical role (in contrast to the strategic role of the Eighth Air Force), and retained its P-38J/L fighters a bit longer. Its first Lightning group was the 474th, which flew its first combat mission on April 15, 1944. It was soon joined by the 367th and 370th Fighter Groups. However, in March of 1945 these two latter groups converted to P-47Ds and P-51Ds respectively. By V-E day the 474th was the only Fighter Group still operating P-38s.

More than one in eight Lightnings were either completed by Lockheed as photographic-reconnaissance aircraft or were so modified after delivery. Over 1400 F-5 and F-5 aircraft were delivered to the USAAF. Photographic Lightnings saw widespread service throughout the war. F-4s were first flown in combat beginning in November 1942. They were operated initially by the 5th and 12th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadrons. Later, these units and two other squadrons of the 3rd Photographic Reconnaissance Group operated various versions of the F-5. In the North African theatre, the 154th Reconnaissance Squadron obtained its photographic Lightnings when its maintenance personnel modified a number of P-38Fs in the field. The F-5-equipped 5th Photographic Reconnaissance Group was initially assigned to the Twelfth Air Force and became operational in September 1943. However it was transferred to the Fifteenth Air Force thirteen months later. In the European theatre, where the 3rd PRG had briefly been based before transfer to North Africa, the first operational sorties by photographic Lightnings was flown by F-4As of the 7th PRG on March 28, 1943. This group successively operated F-4As, F-5As, F-5Bs, F-5Cs, and finally, during the last year of the war, F-5Es. Operating initially from bases in England but later moving to the Continent, the Ninth Air Force had for Photographic Reconnaissance squadrons (the 30th, 32st, 33rd, and 34th), which flew various versions of the F-5 from the spring of 1944 until the end of the war.

The F-4/F-5s usually flew alone without fighter escort and in spite of heavy losses, especially when facing radar-controlled Luftwaffe fighters, they proved to be of unequalled value.

The Forces Aeriennes Francaises Libres also received photographic Lightnings. They operated as an attached squadron with the 3rd PRG of the Twelfth Air Force. One of their pilots was the well-known author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who was lost off southern France on July 31, 1944 while on a combat sortie.


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