Saturday, May 6, 2017

Stauffenberg and the 20 July Bomb Plot

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler von Stauffenberg
Claus von Stauffenberg, far left, and his intended target - Adolf Hitler.

The famous July 1944 attempt to kill Adolf Hitler at his "Wolfsschanze" headquarters near Rastenburg (Ketrzyn) in East Prussia goes by various names: the 20 July Plot, the July 1944 Putsch, the Attentat, and Operation Valkyrie are terms often used to identify the event. "Valkyrie," used as the title of a 2008 Tom Cruise film about the event, actually refers to a standing operations plan issued to the Territorial Reserve Army of Germany to impose control following a general breakdown in civil order of the nation. Thus, it does not refer to the bomb plot itself, but rather to events contemplated for the aftermath.

As everyone familiar with the basic course of World War II knows, the 20 July Bomb Plot failed. However, it came within a whisker succeeding. Many now view the attempt to assassinate Hitler as one of the shining moments for Germany of the entire war, so it is well worth reviewing.

Let's take a look at the plot, its origination, and why it failed.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot General Ludwig Beck
Colonel General Ludwig Beck, the godfather of the plots to kill Hitler. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-C13564).

Origins of the Plot

Opposition to Hitler within the highest reaches of the Wehrmacht began well before the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. The Chief of the General Staff, Colonel General Ludwig Beck, deeply opposed Hitler's strategy of aggression and intimidation and engaged in various acts of defiance. For instance, he flatly refused to draw up plans for an invasion of Austria ("Fall Otto," or Case Otto), but later fell in line when he realized that Austria would not oppose the Anschluss. He also opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia, writing several memoranda arguing that Germany was not yet strong enough to embark on any military campaigns. He went so far as to write a memo dated 29 July 1938 in which he argued that the Wehrmacht needed to prepare "for an internal conflict which need only take place in Berlin." This led to a 10 August 1938 meeting at which the other generals supported Hitler, so Beck resigned on 18 August 1938. From that point forward, he was at the heart of a conspiracy to replace Hitler.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Carl Goerdeler
Carl Friedrich Goerdeler. Slated to be the new chancellor in a post-Hitler government, he instead was executed on 2 February 1945.

After Beck's resignation, the anti-Hitler faction retreated into the shadows. Several different opponents to the regime gradually coalesced into a shadowy organization over time. Reich Price Commissioner and former Oberbürgermeister (Mayor) of Leipzig Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who knew Beck, added a host of other important names to the evolving conspiracy. These included Ulrich von Hassell, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Johannes Popitz and Chief of Staff of Army Group Center Henning von Tresckow. As the war progressed, many illustrious names were added to the roster, including senior military leaders such as Field Marshals Günther von Kluge and Erwin Rommel. One problem was that everyone had their own quibbles and requirements for action. Rommel, for instance, would only participate if Beck became the new national leader. Von Kluge famously replied to a request to participate, "Ja – wenn das Schwein tot wäre!" ("Yes – if the pig were dead!). The conspirators wanted Hitler dead, but they were not so eager to do the deed themselves. Conspirators made several feeble attempts to assassinate Hitler that came to nothing, and it became clear that they needed a man of action to actually pull it off.

Von Stauffenberg and the 20 July Bomb Plot

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Claus von Stauffenberg
Claus von Stauffenberg.

Lieutenant Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was a man of action. He had been badly injured in Tunisia on 7 April 1943 during a strafing attack by US P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers and repatriated. The deteriorating course of the war convinced him that Hitler needed to be removed from power. Conspirator General Friedrich Olbricht brought von Stauffenberg into the plot, and things immediately began to happen. Several attempts to kill Hitler were launched, but they all failed for one reason or another. For instance, Henning von Tresckow arranged to plant a bomb on Hitler's personal Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor that was designed to detonate once the plane reached cruising altitude - it simply failed to go off. Another time, an assassin was waiting for Hitler during a uniforms display at Schloss Klessheim near Salzburg, but Hitler sped through the event before the attempt could be made. In all, fifteen known assassination attempts were made against Hitler, but none came close to succeeding. Nobody seemed capable of actually pulling the trigger in Hitler's presence.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler Goering Himmler Keitel
Claus von Stauffenberg originally intended to kill not only Adolf Hitler, but also Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. Here, Hitler is shown with Goering, Himmler, and chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel on Hitler's 20 April 1941 birthday.

Time was passing without results, and Germany's military position was deteriorating rapidly. Von Stauffenberg finally realized that, if you wanted a job done right, you had to do it yourself. He had regular access to Hitler due to his position on the staff of the Ersatzheer ("Replacement Army"), a key part of Operation Valkyrie (which Hitler endorsed). Originally, von Stauffenberg also wanted to kill second-in-command Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Hitler at the same time, but the timing never jelled. Von Stauffenberg himself made an attempt at Berchtesgaden on 11 July 1944, but aborted the attempt at the last minute because Himmler was absent.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Claus von Stauffenberg
Claus von Stauffenberg.

At last, von Stauffenberg decided to go through with the assassination attempt against Hitler regardless of whether Himmler and/or Goering also were present In the event, neither were. On 20 July 1944, von Stauffenberg attended a briefing at Hitler's East Prussian headquarters carrying two bombs hidden in his briefcase. Once again, something went awry - the briefing was moved at the last minute from the basement Führerbunker to Albert Speer's wooden barrack/hut because the Führerbunker had just been painted and it was a very hot day. This change would minimize the effect of the bombs' concussion, making the effect uncertain. Von Stauffenberg also was able to arm only one of the bombs, further weakening the effect. However, he was a man of action, and he decided once and for all to follow through.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot diagram 20 July 1944 bomb plot
A diagram of the position of the bomb and the conference participants. Those who perished were on the wrong side of the solid-oak table leg. It shielded the intended target, Hitler.

Von Stauffenberg entered the conference room as usual and placed the briefcase containing the armed bomb under the heavy wooden map table. He then left the room on the pretext of taking a phone call from Berlin. In his absence, one of the attendees, Colonel Heinz Brandt, moved the briefcase away from Hitler and behind one of the table supports. The bomb went off, killing four people and badly wounding several others - but Hitler miraculously survived with relatively light injuries.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hermann Goering
Hermann Goering rushed over to inspect the damage.

Out of communications while flying back to Berlin, von Stauffenberg did not realize that Hitler had survived the bomb blast. He quickly drove to the Bendlerstrasse where he had his headquarters to organize the follow-up to the assassination. A poorly conceived plan to take over the reins of power was placed in motion emanating from the Bendlerstrasse offices. A few half-hearted moves were made to seize power, notably in Paris by Military Governor of France General of the Infantry Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel. Hitler, however, quickly phoned Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who went on the radio and broadcast news of the assassination attempt - including the key fact that Hitler had survived. Co-conspirator General Friedrich Fromm, Commander-in-Chief of the Replacement Army and present in the Bendlerblock (Headquarters of the Army), then quickly changed sides. He had his men take the Stauffenberg and the rest into custody after a brief struggle.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot General Fromm Albert Speer Admiral Doenitz
From left to right: General Fromm, two navy NCOs, Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (suspected of being among the conspirators, but cleared), Hitler's successor Admiral Karl Doenitz, and captain Kehrl, head of Planning Dept, Ministry of Armaments.(Will Ruge, Federal Archive).

To cover up his own complicity, General Fromm had his soldiers summarily execute Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators in the building's courtyard that evening. Fromm's change of heart ultimately did not save him - he was exposed and executed - but after that, Hitler was more firmly in power than ever. He immediately instituted a purge that claimed the lives of Beck (who shot himself under duress), Rommel (took poison at home under duress), von Kluge (took poison while flying back to Berlin to face certain arrest), and many others.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Roland Freisler People's Court
One of the minor conspirators, farmer and agricultural contractor Carl Wentzel, appears before the "People's Court" headed by Roland Freisler (partially visible) during the aftermath of the 20 July Bomb Plot. Wentzel was executed on 20 December 1944 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 151-53-30A / CC-BY-SA 3.0).


Hitler sent his shredded clothes home to sweetheart Eva Braun at the Berghof. Why he did so is unclear, but US Army soldiers found them in her trunk there after the war.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler's uniform

The photos show a few things that might not be obvious without close inspection. For instance, there is blood on Hitler's jacket which is difficult to make out in the black-and-white photographs - it is the four little vertical stripes at the bottom. Whether it is Hitler's blood, or that of a person near him, is uncertain - but the US Army men who retrieved the items thought it was his.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler's uniform

It is apparent from the condition of Hitler's clothes that the bomb did indeed detonate as expected under the conference table. They show that Hitler's legs took the full force of the explosion, but his torso was spared.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler's uniform
A member of the US Army with Hitler's clothes and shoes that he was wearing during the 20 July Bomb Plot.

The intervening table support leg and the solid oak tabletop absorbed and deflected just enough of the blast to save Hitler's life.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler Mussolini
Acting as if the assassination attempt had been nothing but a nuisance, Hitler kept his appointment to greet Mussolini at the train station shortly afterwards.

How Hitler was able to stand immediately afterwards is a mystery, but he was on his feet literally within minutes as shown in newsreel footage. He must have been in great pain, but he did not show any of it and appeared positively cheerful.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler Mussolini
Hitler and Mussolini inspect the damage only hours later. Mussolini's interpreter Dr. Paul Schmidt stands behind the two leaders (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-097-76 / CC-BY-SA).

Hitler gave Mussolini a personal tour of the blast site.

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler Mussolini
Hitler and Mussolini view the wreckage.

As Mussolini sped away in his train afterward, he is said to have muttered to an aide, "Now we are not alone in betrayals."

20 July 1944 Bomb plot Hitler
Hitler visited some of the badly injured men from the bomb blast later at the hospital.

Speculation overseas was that Hitler might not have survived the blast at all, or was badly injured and succumbed soon after from his injuries. It is known that Hitler had doubles - a deceased double was left outside the Berlin Chancellery bunker in May 1945 for purposes unknown (there is a lot of speculation why the Germans would do that). However, the rapidity with which Hitler reappeared in public for the newsreels seems to refute the idea that Hitler perished in the explosion and was replaced as a figurehead by someone else. Many now view the 20 July Bomb Plot as salvaging some honor for both Germany and the military.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Horses in World War II

Horses in World War II
Horses were extremely important within the Wehrmacht.

There seems to be a misconception in some quarters that World War II was the first purely mechanized war, and that horses were entirely superfluous to the course of events.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Horses in fact were incredibly important to the course of world War II, from the first day almost to the last. Many have heard the tales about Polish cavalry charging against advancing panzers during the Battle of Poland in 1939, but the story of horses during World War II goes much deeper than that. Let's look at a few key uses of horses during World War II.

1939: Polish Charge of Krojanty

We've all heard the legends about how the Polish cavalry made futile charges against the panzers and got slaughtered. This has become a point of pride for the Polish, who deeply resent the idea that they were completely powerless against the advancing Wehrmacht.

Horses in World War II Der Pimpf
"Der Pimpf" - this is a Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) publication portraying the panzers sweeping across the hapless Poles and their cavalry.

Well, embarrassing as it may be for the Poles, it did happen. There's plenty of embarrassment to go around during the war years, so it's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the futile advance of the Polish cavalry is nothing to be ashamed about at all. In fact, it is kind of glorious in a romantic, lost-cause sort of way.

Horses in World War II Polish cavalry
Polish cavalry in September 1939. Exactly where and when is unclear. Some sources say this was taken during fighting in Sochaczew.

The incident known as the charge at Krojanty happened right at the outset of World War II, on 1 September 1939. The village of Krojanty is located near Lake Charzykowskie and the Tuchola forest. The charge at Krojanty is part of the larger Battle of Tuchola Forest. There is all sorts of myth and legend, truth and falsehood, about this incident. Let's just get the facts out quickly, without a lot of weaving around.

Horses in World War II German troops
Summer 1941 (Buschel, Federal Archive).

The German 76th Infantry Regement (Colonel Hans Gollnick) of 20th Motorised Division (Lt. Gen. Mauritz von Wiktorin), all part of the left (northern) flank of XIX Panzer Corps (Gen. Heinz Guderian), was advancing across the Danzig (Gdansk) Corridor in Pomerania. This was a stretch of Poland that the Germans deeply felt they deserved, having been taken from them pursuant to the treaties ending World War I. The Wehrmacht had men in Danzig in plainclothes just waiting for the invasion, and those men already had sprung into action. They needed to be relieved, or it would be a major embarrassment for the Third Reich. Thus, General Guderian had multiple reasons to get to Danzig, and fast.

Horses in World War II German troops
Wehrmacht soldiers leading their horses across the Vistula/Weichsel River bridge (Federal Archives).

The Poles had a defensive line of sorts at the river Brda (Brahe). The advancing Germans reached a railway line near the Tuchola Forest heath (grasslands) and took Chojnice (Konitz). During the late afternoon, the Germans apparently stopped to eat just beyond there - imagine the tension they had been under all night long, with the invasion looming, and then fighting against the Polish border forces - and the Poles saw an opportunity to attack.

Horses in World War II Scherer Panzerspahwagen
A typical Schwerer Panzerspähwagen (6 Rad Sd.Kfz. 231). See video below.

At about 17:00, the Poles charged. Eugeniusz Świeściak led about 250 men of his 1st Squadron of the 18th Pomeranian Uhlans against the resting German infantry. The Poles sent the bemused Germans running for the nearby woods. What the Poles didn't count on, however, was nearby German armor. The Wehrmacht vehicles swept across the heath and sent the Poles reeling under heavy .20 mm machine gun fire from Schwerer Panzerspähwagen (armored cars). Świeściak perished, as did his commander, Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz, who had ordered Świeściak and his men to make the charge. The Poles suffered huge casualties.

As is always the case in such situations, some make the argument that the attack "bought some time for other Polish units to withdraw." Well, the Germans weren't advancing at the time and probably would have bivouacked in the vicinity for the night anyway, so that is perhaps a bit of rationalization. General Guderian, who led from the front, soon heard about the incident and told his men to forget about Polish cavalry and get moving again toward Danzig. Axis war correspondents quickly seized on the incident, which did feature a lot of dead horses and Polish soldiers to support the notion that the Poles rode horses against tanks. The cavalry did wind up engaging German armor, so that part is true, but not (apparently) intentionally.

Horses in World War II Polish troop equipment
Polish helmets piled up after the charge at Krojanty.

There were other incidents during the Polish campaign of a somewhat similar nature, but the charge at Krojanty is the one that began the tales of Polish cavalry jousting with panzers.

Operation Barbarossa

My main source for this section is "Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East," Earl F. Ziemke and Magna Bauer (Military Heritage Press 1985).

Horses in World War II German troops
Feeding the horses was a daily ritual. Unfortunately for the horses, their food supply became almost exclusively hay as the Operation Barbarossa campaign progressed, and not enough of that, either.

The Germans opened Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, with 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses. That the number of horses was larger than the number of vehicles was no surprise, because the Wehrmacht had been rearming for less than a decade and had not had time to assemble a larger fleet of purpose-built vehicles. In fact, transportation issues were one of the the Wehrmacht's biggest issues throughout the conflict. Horses were particularly valuable because they don't need oil and gasoline, both in perpetually short supply within Germany (and one of the main reasons why they began the war in the first place, though there are various theories on that).

Horses in World War II German troops
A German soldier with a horse and Heer (army) wagon.

The campaign took a huge toll on horses. A 19 March 1942 OKW (German military high command) report found that 179,000 horses had perished by that point, with only 20,000 replacements. That brought the total number of horses well below half a million. The situation became so acute that the military had to requisition 250,000 horses from Occupied Europe. The situation was made worse because civilian motor vehicles built for paved roads and plentiful servicing were breaking down not just from use in Russia and the intense climate there, but from the trip to get there (only about a quarter of those sent east actually made it to where they were needed). In addition, horses bred for other purposes were not as powerful as those bred for military work.

Horses in World War II German troops
A German officer on 21 June 1942. The location is unknown, but a favored military expression was that you would fight until you see your horse drink from the enemy's home river (Ang, Federal Archive).

The main source of German supply throughout the conflict was by railroad. Horse-drawn vehicles were essential to deliver daily supplies to troops in the field. During the Soviet counteroffensive at Moscow, Hitler's use of stand-fast orders compelled men to sit in isolated positions without food supplies - except for their horses, which themselves were not being fed well. As the number of horses dwindled, the Wehrmacht was forced to fall back on its railheads. This made the railroads obvious targets for partisans. In fact, Soviet-led partisans also used horses for guerilla operations.

Horses in World War II German troops
German cavalry soldiers showing how to use their mounts as gun platforms.

There were only two active cavalry units in the Wehrmacht (aside from mountain troops which had units equipped with horses). One was the SS Cavalry Brigade (8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer). Its commander during Operation Barbarossa is well known to history, but for vastly different reasons than his command of a cavalry unit. He was Brigadefuehrer (Brigadier General) Otto Hermann Fegelein. Yes, the same Fegelein from the bunker in 1945. Fegelein was dating Hitler's mistress' (Eva Braun's) sister (they married in June 1944, just days before D-Day). The SS Cavalry Brigade, however, was just a showpiece - it was never intended for combat. But, it turns out, it was capable of fighting, or at least skirmishing.

Horses in World War II SS Cavalry
Men of the SS Cavalry Brigade (Federal Archive, Bundesarchiv Bild 101III-Adendorff-002-18A).

Fegelein loved horses, but wasn't much of a commander. However, he had to lead his troops in an attack to save Rhez, a vital German strongpoint at the end of a railway, in January 1945. Fegelein obligingly led his men into the whirlwind, and fought the Soviets so hard that his men ran out of ammunition and had to pull back. Their mission was a success: Germans held Rzhev, thought that likely was due more to a sudden blizzard than anything the cavalry did

Horses in World War II German mountain troops
The original caption of this photo was "Übermantel und pferd" (wintercoat and horse). Apparently, the soldier is in the German mountain troops ("Gebirgsjäger").

The SS Cavalry Brigade remained on the Eastern Front throughout the war, as experience showed that it could come in handy in a crisis. It helped with anti-partisan activities, reconnaissance, helping with retreats (such as Operation Buffalo in early 1943 and the retreat to the Dnepr (Dneiper) River). It ultimately was engulfed with the Wehrmacht units trapped in Budapest in 1945.

1945: Battle of Schoenfeld

The Battle of Schoenfeld is not exactly a famous battle. Nobody ever is going to confuse it with the Battle of Stalingrad or anything like that. However, it does have one claim to fame: it featured the last horse cavalry charge in modern warfare.

Horses in World War II Polish cavalry troops
Polish cavalry ca. 1945.

By 1945, of course, the German Wehrmacht was in full retreat on all fronts. The Soviets were blasting into Pomerania, and the Germans were trying to hold the coast. Why the Germans were trying to hold the coast is a long story, but basically the Kriegsmarine, i.e., Admiral Doenitz, had told Hitler that Germany needed to retain the coast - the whole coast - in order to continue its operations. In addition, due to Hitler's stand-fast/fortress strategy, there remained a large concentration of German forces in Stettin (never mind Courland) who would be cut off by a Soviet advance to the coast. So, the Germans were in the odd situation of trying to prevent the Soviet force from advancing from south to north when Berlin and the heart of German were to the southwest. It didn't make sense to a lot of Wehrmacht commanders at the time, but that's where we enter the story.

Horses in World War II Polish cavalry
The Polish 1st Cavalry Brigade around the time of the Battle of Schoenfeld in March 1945.

The Soviets made liberal use of Polish troops at this stage of the war. The First Army of the Polish People's Army was advancing on the village of Schoenfeld/Borujsko/Żeńsko (everything in this part of the world has at least three names) and the Germans were tasked to stop them. Stettin is only about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Schoenfeld, and every mile counted. The Germans had built, or at least conceptualized, three separate lines of fortifications in the area. Schoenfeld was on the last line.

Horses in World War II Hungarian troops
Hungarian soldiers near the village of Ivanovka Khokholsky in the Voronezh region, 1942 (Tamas Conoco Sr.).

The Germans in Schoenfeld did not know who was going to attack them, but they knew an attack was coming. On 1 March 1945, the 163rd Infantry Division under General Karl Rübel was dug in with anti-tank weapons on the outskirts of Schoenfeld waiting for the the usual assault infantry, perhaps supported by T-34s and larger Stalin tanks. The Polish 2nd Infantry Division under General Jan Rotkiewicz obliged and made the usual armor-plus-infantry advance on the village. The Germans repulsed this uncreative assault without too much trouble. However, next they got something that they weren't expecting: a cavalry charge by the 1st "Warsaw" Independent Cavalry Brigade under the command of Konstanty Gryżawski.

Horses in World War II German column
Marching somewhere in the Ukraine, probably retreating, 1942 ((Tamas Conoco Sr.).

General Gryżawski sent two squadrons of horse-mounted cavalry, supported by some horse-drawn artillery, through a ravine which the Germans rightly thought was impassable to vehicles and thus not much of a threat. However, the horses got through the ravine just fine. This enabled the Poles to achieve the element of surprise and roust the Germans from their forward antitank gun positions on the slope of a hill (Hill 157) in front of the town. Having taken this foothold, the Poles waited for the tanks and regular infantry to catch up, then charged into the town itself. By 17:00, the Germans were on the run to the north and the Poles had occupied the town. Total casualties were about 500 Germans, seven Polish mounted cavalry, 16 Polish tank soldiers, and 124 Polish infantry. The modern location is Żeńsko, Drawsko County, Poland. It was the final verified mounted cavalry charge of World War II (there may have been some by Polish cavalry during April, too, but little is known about that). It ended a glorious epoch of the horse as the queen of battle.

Horses in World War II US Coast Guard troops
The Allies used horses as well. Here are Coast Guard members patrolling a beach in New Jersey (Left to right: seamen first class C. R. Johnson, Jesse Willis, Joseph Washington, and Frank Garcia) (


Horses were used extensively during World War II. Not only were they effective at hauling large loads for long distances, they did not use up scarce commodities like oil and rubber. They were particularly useful during operations in Eastern Europe, where roads were bad and often non-existent and hay relatively plentiful. While the other combatants all used horses to one extent or another, they were a major component of the Wehrmacht, which could not have operated effectively without them.

Horses in World War II Soviet troops Caucasus
Soviet cavalry in the Caucasus. They could go where panzers could not.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

P-38 Lightning: Fork-Tailed Devil

Death in the Pacific


Lockheed P-38 Lightnings are one of the better-known US Army Air Force fighters from World War II. They are easily identifiable by their twin booms and central nacelle, which housed the pilot and guns (the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighter is another twin boom USAAF plane with a somewhat similar appearance, but it was not produced in large numbers). An article like this can only scratch the surface of a fabulous, war-winning plane like the P-38, but let's see what we can learn about them.

P-38 Genesis

P-38 cutaway drawing
P-38 cutaway drawing.

The idea for the P-38 arose in February 1937, when the US Army Air Corps published Circular Proposal X-608. First Lieutenants Benjamin S. Kelsey and Gordon P. Saville, who drew up the specs, asked for a twin-engine, high altitude interceptor capable of reaching 360 mph (580 km/h) and reaching 20,000 ft (6100 m) in six minutes. While in hindsight these requirements may seem fairly pedestrian by late-World War II standards, in the 1930s these were very tough to achieve. In fact, the P-38 in its final form never met all the requirements of the initial specifications, such as the climb rate (it took about 7 minutes to get to 20,000 feet). It came close enough, though.

P-38 color
The P-38 had one of the most distinctive appearances of the war (Flight Journal).

Lockheed had two legendary designers, Hall Hibbard and Clarence "Kelly" Johnson (there is a street named after Johnson near me), who submitted the twin-boom proposal that turned into the P-38. Lockheed spent $600,000 of its own funds producing the prototype, a lot of money in the 1930s. The first prototype was taken on a transcontinental speed dash by Kelsey, but as he approached his destination at Mitchell Field on Long Island, an engine cut out and the plane crashed.

Lieutenant Robert Petit’s P-38, Miss Virginia, which First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber borrowed for the Operation Vengeance mission to kill Admiral Yamamoto. Barber returned it to Henderson Field with over 100 bullet holes and had to make this wheels-up landing.

Kelsey survived, and the USAAC continued with the project, but it was an omen of many other problems lurking in the sleek plane. After a lot of experimenting, the design eventually incorporated four M2 Browning machine guns, and one Hispano 20 mm (.79 in) autocannon with 150 rounds. The plane had an unusual configuration, with all the weapons clustered in the nose. However, this had some advantages.

P-38 flying

P-38 guns fired straight ahead, with no "convergence" where the bullets are aimed to intersect at a certain point. This gave the plane's fire more "reach," putting aircraft farther away in danger. Firing straight ahead also means that if one bullet hits your plane, a whole lot more are on the way ("cone of fire").

P-38 cocooned
Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and North American Aviation P-51 Mustangs on a U.S. Navy Escort "Jeep" Carrier (CVE). They are headed to Europe from New York.

The P-38 introduced stainless-steel skin to American fighters. It also was the first US fighter to break 400 mph. Lockheed won the competition for the USAAF tender on 23 June 1937 and went to work building 13 prototype XP-38s. The first XP-38 flew on 27 January 1939, piloted by Ben Kelsey, one of the men who had authored the original specifications. The P-38's success got Kelsey promoted to captain.

The XP-38 Lightning prototype. It was a deathtrap until several issues were resolved, but after that, it was an important contributor to the Allied war effort.

The final YP-38 prototype did not reach the USAAC until June 1941. Tests on the prototypes resulted in in numerous modifications and enhancements. Since the war in Europe had been raging for almost two years at the time of the final prototype, there was a lot of information available from the British as to what worked and did not work in combat. Among other things, Lockheed made the plane lighter and reversed the propellers so that they spun outward rather than inward, to improve stability.

P-38 8th Air Force
A P-38 with the 8th Air Force (Flickr).

A few problems remained. For example, the controls tended to freeze in a dive - not something pilots look forward to experiencing. A YP-38 crashed on 4 November 1941 when the tail failed following a dive, killing pilot Ralph Virden. Lockheed solved the problem with a slight re-design of the wings and a few other fixes. Other problems such as buffering also were fixed. One nice feature of the plane from the point of view of the pilots was that the General Electric turbo-superchargers on the twin Allison V12s made it unusually quiet. The first production models, P-38Ds (there were no Bs or Cs, and only one A), began arriving at USAAF units by mid-1941.

P-38 Operational Use

P-38 Overlord markings
A P-38 photo-reconnaissance plane in Operation Overlord (D-Day) markings.

The British and French already were flying for their lives, so in March 1940 they ordered 667 P-38s through the Anglo-French Purchasing Committee for US$100M. The French planes were designated Model 322F and the British were Model 322B. The Allison engines were considered a plus due to their use in Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks the two countries already had on order. After the fall of France, Britain took over the entire order and bestowed upon them the "Lightning" sobriquet. When they got their hands on the planes, however, the RAF pilots reported the same issues with the tails and the British cancelled their order. Lockheed got upset at the cancellation, and only the Pearl Harbor attack in December restored civility when the USAAF seized the planes and resolved the dispute. The British ultimately rejected the P-38 completely and never used it.

P-38 guns
Servicing the guns. You can clearly see the 4 x .50 Browning machine guns around the 20mm cannon (Reddit).

The USAAF asked that some of the P-38s be produced as photo-reconnaissance planes, so Lockheed took out the guns and replaced them with cameras. These versions were designated F-4-1-LO. At the same time, on its own initiative, Lockheed modified the planes so that they could carry drop tanks. This came in very handy when USAAF commander General Henry "Hap" Arnold ordered the planes flown to Great Britain under Operation Bolero.

P-38 9th Fighter Squadron
The men of the USAAF 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group. As the caption says, they landed on Leyte, Philippines on 26 October 1944 (United States Army Air Forces).

The first unit to receive P-38s was the 1st Fighter Group in San Diego. The first P-38s to see active service were F-4s carrying four K-17 cameras, flying with the 8th Photographic Squadron out of Australia on 4 April 1942. On 29 May 1942, 25 P-38s became operational with the 343rd Fighter Group in the Aleutian Islands. They shot down two Japanese Kawanishi H6K "Mavis" flying boats on 9 August 1942, the P-38's first combat kills. The first Luftwaffe plane shot down by a P-38 (2Second Lieutenant Elza Shaha of the 27th Squadron operating out of Iceland) was a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor over the Atlantic. In fact, this was the first Luftwaffe plane shot down by the USAAF during World War II.

P-38 loading ammunition

The P-38 got off to a slow start in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). On 25 August 1943, 53 Bf 109s shot down 13 P-38s without loss to themselves. On 2 September 10 P-38s were shot down for only one German loss. The Luftwaffe did not think much of the fighters, with top ace Adolf Galland comparing them to the Luftwaffe's own twin-boom Bf 110 Zerstorers which had shown serious deficiencies as an air superiority fighter. However, their long range due to those drop tanks made the P-38s useful for escorting bombers over Germany.

P-38 in action
P-38s in action.

In Europe, the Lightnings were thought best suited to high altitude escort missions, but only by comparison with their difficulties at lower altitudes. They suffered when flown at low altitudes against more agile fighters such as the Focke-Wulf 190. Even at the higher altitudes where it performed best, the Lightnings had difficulties with the Bf 109s. British test pilot Captain Eric Brown compared the fighters to the top Luftwaffe fighters and found them to be slower and suitable only for photo-reconnaissance work. Many P-38s were replaced by P-51s - which sported Rolls Royce Merlin engines and with which the RAF had no issues at all.

P-38 skis
A specially equipped P-38 with skis. 

By September 1944, the P-38 was largely relegated to photo-reconnaissance missions in the ETO. American media popularized the idea that Luftwaffe pilots were terrified by the plane and called it the "Fork-tailed Devil." Maybe they did fear the P-38. However, the Luftwaffe apparently feared the P-51D Mustang a whole lot more. Does this mean that the P-38 was a failure or useless? Absolutely not! Many, many planes on both sides found a role during World War II despite not matching up well with adversaries in a Theater in a particular role - and the P-38 was a shining example.

P-38 Admiral Yamamoto crash site
Wreckage of Admiral Yamamoto's plane, still in the jungle.

In the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO), it was a different story entirely for the P-38 than in Europe and North Africa. Japanese pilots developed a healthy respect for the P-38, referring to it as "two planes, one pilot." The two top US aces of the war flew them in the PTO, and overall the P-38 was credited with shooting down more Japanese aircraft than any other fighter. The tropical climates in which most operations occurred in the Pacific were ideal for the P-38 (pilots often complained of lack of heat in the cockpits in the ETO), and it was faster than the A6M Zero and most other Japanese fighters. The Allison engines seemed to perform better in the Pacific for some reason. Japanese bombers and flying boats were easy prey for the P-38. Probably the one incident for which P-38s are best remembered during World War II was the 18 April 1943 Operation Vengeance that shot down and killed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in his Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber over Bougainville. This was only possible due to the P-38's long range.

First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber, now acknowledged as the pilot who downed Admiral Yamamoto's transport.

First Lieutenant Rex T. Barber is usually credited with the kill. While it served everywhere, one safely can say that, just like the B-29, the P-38 became famous due to its success in the PTO.

Famous P-38 Pilots

It is important to remember that these planes only meant something because of the men that flew them. Without dedicated, fearless pilots, P-38s were simply interesting pieces of scrap metal. It's impossible to list and recognize everyone, so let's look at a few pilots who flew the plane during the war.

P-38 David Toomey
David Toomey in front of his unarmed P-38 circa June 1944. Nola Ruth was his fiancée at the time, later his wife - naming your bird after your sweetheart back home was very common. Lieutenant Toomey was a member of the 3rd Photo-Reconnaissance Group, based at Tarquinia, 50 miles north of Rome. This photo gives a good look at the plane's Allison V-1710 turbo-supercharged engines (Courtesy David F. Toomey via Air & Space Magazine).

The top US air aces of World War II flew P-38s. Ask someone who the top US aces were, and, if you don't get a blank stare, you're likely to get excellent guesses such as Chuck Yeager and "Pappy" Boyington. Well, those two superb pilots were both aces, but they weren't the top US aces of the war. That honor goes to Majors Richard I. "Dick" Bong and Thomas B. "Tommy" McGuire of the USAAF. Both pilots received the Medal of Honor, McGuire posthumously (both perished during the war), Boyington at the hands of General MacArthur shortly before he was captured.

P-38 P-38L
The P-38L, considered the best Lightning, came along in 1944 (Courtesy of NASA).

Charles Lindbergh is perhaps the only non-USAAF pilot of World War II to shoot down an enemy plane in a P-38. On 28 July 1944, Lindbergh shot down a Mitsubishi Ki-51 "Sonia" after it attacked him near Hollandia. The Japanese plane appeared to be trying to ram his own plane, so he had no choice but to shoot or be killed. As Lindbergh was not in the service, he did not receive official credit for the kill - but his wingman, ace Joseph E. "Fishkiller" Miller, Jr., attested to it. Lindbergh helped work up P-38s in the PTO to improve their performance through improved throttle settings.

P-38 Night Lightning
The P-38 M “Night Lightning.” This version came along too late to see combat, being deployed very late in the war. You can see the radar pod up front and the radar operator.

French airman Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was flying a P-38 (F-5B) when he disappeared over the Mediterranean on 31 July 1944. The author of "The Little Prince" and other works, Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace. Throughout the remainder of the 20th Century, his fate was unknown and he was said to have simply disappeared. In 2000, a French scuba diver finally found the remnants of his Lightning off the coast of Marseille. Parts from his plane now are on exhibit at the Air and Space Museum of France in Le Bourget, Paris. It is still unclear what happened, but two former Luftwaffe pilots have claimed that they were the ones to shoot down Saint-Exupéry's unarmed photo-recon plane.

P-38 Glacier Girl
"Glacier Girl." A Lockheed P-38F-1-LO Lightning, this plane crash-landed on the Greenland ice field along with five others of the 94th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, on 15 July 1942 (Operation Bolero)). In 1992, the Greenland Expedition Society excavated Glacier Girl from under 268 (82 m) of snow, brought it to Middlesboro, Kentucky, and restored it to flying condition. 


P-38s are valuable and fairly rare despite the fact that 9,923 were built during World War II. For instance, currently there are only nine airworthy P-38s know to exist in the US (along with one airworthy P-38L in Austria). The USAAF decided to stick with the North American P-51 as its fighter and stopped using P-38s completely by 1948. Part of the problem likely was that P-38s were complicated aircraft and difficult to maintain. Some found their way to private companies that needed to do photo mapping, such as oil companies and the like, but the rest were scrapped (see "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) to see how quickly that began to happen).

A P-38 is a thing of beauty.

Elaborate expeditions have been launched or are contemplated to recover relatively intact models from ice caps or under the sea or jungles or wherever they wound up during the war. Several P-38s are "under restoration," which often means they are sitting in a warehouse somewhere waiting for someone to finally pony up the cash to get them flying again.

P-38 Major Richard Bong
Major Richard Bong in his P-38.

Specifications of the P38L

Crew: One

Wingspan: 52 ft.

Length: 37 ft. 10 in.

Height: 12 ft. 10 in.

Wing area: 328 sq. ft.

Engines: 2 x Allison V-1710-111, 1,600 hp. at 28,700ft., 3000 rpm

Max speed: 414 m.p.h. at 25,000 ft.

Cruising Speed: 275 mph (443 km/h)

Climb to: 10,000 ft., 4 min.; 20,000 ft., 7 minutes

Service ceiling: 44,000 ft.

Combat range: 450 miles at 290 m.p.h. at 10,000 ft.; 2,600 miles with max. external fuel

Empty weight: 14,100 lb.

Loaded weight: 21,600 lb.

Armament: 1-20mm cannon, 4-.50 cal MG, 3,200 lb. external stores.