Mustangs with roundels
The P-51 Mustang owes its origins to a British requirement and served the RAF well in several theatres, as Andrew Thomas describes
In early 1940, North American put forward a proposal to the British Purchasing Commission (BPC) – it was a plan that would result in the creation of a legendary fighter.
In the hands of Vance Breese, the first prototype flew on October 26, 1940. The BPC was impressed and gave the go-ahead for production. The RAF would later adopt the name ‘Mustang’ for the type. Powered by an Allison V1710-39 engine, the first Mustang Mk.I was delivered in October 1941 and in trials proved faster than the Spitfire Mk.V at 15,000ft (4,572m).
At Duxford the new fighter was also flown by Rolls-Royce chief test pilot Ronald Harker who suggested that “with a powerful and good engine like the Merlin 61, its performance could be outstanding”.
It was therefore recommended that an aircraft be fitted with a Merlin engine for testing in Britain, and that a Packard-built variant of the Merlin be trialled in a P-51 in the US. Their first flights took place on October 13 and November 30, 1942 respectively.
So promising was the ‘Merlin-Mustang’ that the USAAF quickly placed an order for 2,000, and the P-51B entered service with both the US Ninth Air Force and RAF in late 1943. A star had been born.
The earlier Mustang Mk.I’s excellent range and low-level performance led to it being fitted with an oblique camera for use in the army co-operation role. It entered operational service on January 5, 1942 when Gatwick-based 26 Squadron received AG367.
More squadrons received them through the spring, including two RCAF units. No.26 Squadron flew the Mustang’s first operational sortie on May 10 when Fg Off Dawson strafed the airfield at Berck-sur-Mer on the French coast, south of Boulogne.
Baptism over Dieppe
The Mustang’s first major engagement came on August 19, 1942 during Operation Jubilee, the ill-fated raid on the French port of Dieppe.
On his second mission of the day, Plt Off Hollis ‘Holly’ Hills of 414 Squadron RCAF was flying AG470/RU-M alongside Flt Lt Freddie Clarke on a recce from Abbeville to Dieppe looking for German armour. Under a cloudless sky his flight was bounced by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.
Describing the encounter, Hills said: “As we approached the French coast, the sky was full of fighters in one massive dogfight. A couple of miles short of landfall I spotted four Fw 190s off to our right at about 1,500ft.
“Their course and speed was going to put them directly overhead when we crossed the beach. I called a ‘tally ho!’. When Freddie turned right to intercept our recce road at Abbeville, we were put in an ideal position for the FWs to attack. I swung very wide, dusting the Abbeville chimney tops. That kept me beneath them.
“The lead Fw 190 hit Freddie’s Mustang with the first burst. I got a long-range shot at the leader but had to break right when his number two had a go at me and made a big mistake of sliding to my left side ahead of me. It was an easy shot and I hit him hard.
“His engine caught fire, and soon after it started smoking and the canopy came off. I hit him again and he was a goner, falling off to the right into the trees.”
Flt Lt Clarke ditched and was rescued while Hills’ first victory – the first-ever for a Mustang – secured him a niche in air combat history…
The rest of this article is in the current issue of FlyPast, cover dated February 2019. It’s available in UK shops now or can be purchased via the website – www.flypast.com. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from www.pocketmags.com – simply search ‘FlyPast’.