An Outstanding Fighter of World War Two
The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was an American fighter plane of the Second World War. More Thunderbolts were produced than any other American fighter of the era, and it was one of the most successful American fighters of the war.
The Thunderbolt had its first flight on the 6th of May 1941.
Super Heavy Fighter
With an empty weight of 9,950lb (4513kg), the Thunderbolt was the heaviest single-seat piston fighter in the world. This is true not just at the time it was designed but also in the decades since. When fully loaded up with fuel, ammunition, and pilot, it was heavier than some German bombers.
The Thunderbolt’s propeller had a diameter of 12 feet (3.6 meters), unusually long for a fighter plane. This forced the engineers to adapt other parts of the design, with very long retractable landing gear to ensure that the propeller would clear the ground.
The Thunderbolt carried eight half-inch machine-guns, giving it impressive firepower. Later models could also carry up to 2,500lb (762kg) of bombs or rockets, though this wasn’t part of its standard armament.
The Thunderbolt had a turbocharger for extra speed. Mounted in the rear of the plane’s body, this was fed with exhaust gas from the engine. The pipes and ducts that made it possible were among the reasons for the plane’s deep fuselage and great weight.
An Innovative Cockpit
The cockpit was fitted with a range of features that weren’t common in fighters at the time. These included electric fuel indicators, air-conditioning, and variable heating for the gun-bay.
As if its name wasn’t already dramatic enough, the Thunderbolt acquired another nickname – “the Juggernaut,” usually shortened to “the Jug.”
Despite the impression created by its size and weight, the Thunderbolt was an agile plane that became very popular among the pilots flying it.
The Thunderbolt went into mass production in 1942. In early 1943, deliveries started arriving in Britain, where they were used by British-based American pilots.
The Thunderbolt’s agility and high-altitude performance made it an ideal plane for escorting bombers on strategic bombing missions, the main work of the US Army Air Force in Europe at the time.
From April 1943, Thunderbolts escorted the B-17s and B-24s of the USAAF Eighth Air Force on their relentless bombing raids into Germany and occupied Europe. The Ninth (tactical) Air Force also used them to protect their Marauders and Havocs.
American strategic bombing raids were carried out in daylight to improve their accuracy. This made such missions extremely dangerous for the crews, who faced the full power of Germany’s air defenses. The Thunderbolt became crucial in defending these bombing runs, tackling German interceptors in high-altitude dogfights to keep them away from the vulnerable bombers.
Range was important for these bombing runs, which involved flying for hundreds of miles before even seeing the target. The introduction of the P-47C increased the Thunderbolt’s range with the addition of an auxiliary fuel tank that could be dropped once it was empty, lightening the plane’s load.
These tanks were carried on combat raids from March 1944, letting Thunderbolts escort bombers all the way to the German capital of Berlin. By the model P-47D, the Thunderbolt could carry up to three drop tanks, giving it a range of 1,900 miles (3,057 kilometers).
Taking Their Knocks
Another reason why the Thunderbolt was so effective was that it could survive substantial damage. Its sturdy construction and heavy body allowed it to absorb a lot of hits and keep flying.
This endurance made the Thunderbolt an ideal choice for ground attack work, as it could survive the fusillade of fire from ground troops that greeted low-flying planes.
It was regularly used in train-busting, knocking holes in the German transport network. This work was particularly vital in limiting counter-attacks in June 1944 and so ensuring the success of the D-Day campaign.
The Definitive Model D
The classic version of the Thunderbolt was the P-47D, introduced in 1943. The war had accelerated improvements in fighter design, and the model D benefited from this work. It had a better turbocharger, a more powerful engine, an emergency booster function for that engine, tires that could withstand the roughest airstrips, and improved armor to protect the pilot.
A bubble canopy introduced during production helped to get rid of a blind spot in the pilot’s rear view.
The model D was better equipped than its predecessors to carry external equipment. This allowed its extraordinary range using belly tanks and made it the first Thunderbolt that could carry a 1,000lb bomb under each of its wings, for extra punch in its ground attacks.
The Rocket-Killing Model M
A special adaptation of the model D, the P-47M was built for speed. It could fly at up to 470mph (756kmh), nearly 40mph (64kmh) faster than the D, and was brought in to intercept the V-1 rockets being launched against targets in Britain from the summer of 1944. It even had victories against early jet fighters fielded by the Germans.
Model N – the Ultimate in Range
Produced from December 1944, the P-47N was a substantial redesign of the previous models. Its long wings contained fuel tanks, giving it the best range yet. The wings were square-tipped to improve its roll.
British pilots also made some limited use of the Thunderbolt while fighting against the Japanese in Asia. There, the Royal Air Force used 16 squadrons of Thunderbolts for both escort and ground-attack missions.
Hundreds of Thousands of Missions
Over the course of World War Two, P-47s flew 546,000 missions. They shot down 3,752 enemy planes in Western Europe alone.
15,660 P-47s were produced before they left service in the mid-1950. The vast majority were model Ds.