The case for the P-47 Thunderbolt being the greatest fighter of the Second World War

If you want to fuck up a railway network faster than even privatisation, then you need a Thunderbolt. If you value your life over glamour, then forget all other fighter aircraft. If you wanted to survive the bloody skies of World War Two, you needed to be in the cockpit of the gargantuan Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.

As aerospace engineer Joe Wilding noted, The top-10 Thunderbolt aces all survived the war. This is a statistic, not shared by any other aircraft in World War 2”. That alone should be enough to give it bragging rights as the king, but there are myriad other reasons to choose the ‘Jug’. More were built than any other American fighter, and it proved itself again and again in every conceivable fighter-bomber role. It was far tougher and longer-ranged than the Spitfire. It had more firepower than the Mustang and carried 65% more ammunition. Whereas most fighter aircraft wheezed and flailed around at higher altitudes, the P-47 could take on the best the enemy had at 30,000 feet with a decisive advantage.

If Streetfighter II is a useful cultural reference for you, the P-47 was a perfect all-rounder like Ryu. Other fighters, like the Spitfire were more specialised – with greater Achilles’ heels – much like Menat.

In terms of American writers, it was the thuggish shotgun-wielding Ernest Hemingway, as opposed to the elegant but rather more fragile Mustang (which was clearly analogous to Truman Capote). Both Hemingway and the P-47’s primogenitor, the Seversky SEV-3, were present in the Spanish Civil War.

As an aside, in Spain Hemingway drank with Frank Glasgow Tinker, the first pilot to shoot down a Bf 109 (Tinker was not in a SEV-3 for this fight though, but a Polikarpov I-16).

You might prefer Capote as a dinner party guest, but you’d want Hemingway in your corner in a bar brawl. From the Battle of the Bulge to every other rough fight, the Jug was there and winning.

Notably the P-47 was the mount for the remarkable 1oGAVCA, the First Fighter Squadron of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. This was the elite unit of the XXII Tactical Air Command in Italy. Although it flew a mere 5% of the total of missions carried out by all squadrons under its control it achieved the following percentages of targets destroyed: 85% of ammunition depots, 36% of fuel depots, 28% of bridges (19% damaged), 15% of motor vehicles (13% damaged). Oh, and 10% of horse-drawn vehicles*.

(info source:  Ibidem Maximiano, Bonalume, Ricardo N. & Bujeiro, 2011)

The standard Luftwaffe tactic of diving away from attacks from above was suicide against the king of the divers, the P-47. Ideally for an escort fighter, the P-47 was in its element at height. Thanks to its game-changing turbo supercharger, it was more than a match for German fighter aircraft above 30,000 feet. Other than climb and acceleration, it was far superior to the Bf 109G and Fw 190A in every metric at altitudes between 25,000 and 30,000 feet. The P-47’s manoeuvrability and roll rate were far less hampered at high speed and high altitude than other fighters. If you were high you stayed well away from the P-47.

From 1942-1945, the Eighth & Ninth Air Forces alone destroyed 6284 enemy aircraft (in the air and on the ground) with the P-47, a massive blow to Axis air power. The P-47 was categorically a war-changing weapon. Its biggest asset was its survivability, which meant the most important weapon the air force had, experienced pilots, were kept alive.

In the Close Air Support role, the P-47’s fought in co-ordination with light spotter aircraft and airman embedded with ground forces. The results were spectacular. Other fighters only paid lip-service to an air-to-ground weapons, the P-47s bristled with eight .50 cals, rockets and bombs.

The Jug’s marginal range disadvantage against the famously long-legged Mustang enjoyed was rectified in the phenomenal P-47N, which was also faster than the P-51D. As noted on this site,“As an an all-round fighting machine, the P-47N has a pretty good claim to being the best Allied fighter of WWII to see production and actual operational service”. Mustang fans would do well to remember that the last air-to-air kill of the Thunderbolt (in  Nicaraguan service) was a Mustang.

The P-47N was the most potent Allied fighter of the War, and if further evidence of Republic’s supremacy is needed that Republic was at the cutting edge of piston-engined technology, then let us bring in Exhibit B, the astonishing XF-12 Rainbow. The Rainbow was the most sophisticated and capable piston-engined warplane ever built.

The P-47 was also the best exemplar of the US approach to engineering – and was there at the birth of US mass production dominance. As a machine, the P-51 was too small and too British to typify the American approach, the P-40 too primitive, and the P-38 too weird. Only the P-47 highlights the real American approach of creating things that are absurdly big, powerful and milking the hell out of one world-beating technology (in this case the turbosupercharger) – and then making thousands of them! This is the skyscraper, the Cadillac, or the .50 cal of aeronautical engineering. This is the US fighter aircraft of World War II.

For those of us more versed in modern fighters it is unavoidable to look for a modern day equivalent. The A-10, the final Republic aircraft, shares its sturdy construction but is fair too slow and vulnerable to fast fighters to be seriously deserving of the name Thunderbolt II. As a versatile single-engined aircraft built in huge numbers it would be tempting to compare it to the F-16, but that is a modern P-51. As a heavyweight all-rounder you could it see it as the F-15E of its time. But as a massive single-engined fighter-bomber, the F-35 Lightning II, may well become a more appropriate analogue. Time will tell. Like the F-35, it would be easy to knock the Thunderbolt for its unit cost, but this needs to be weighed against a combat aircraft’s chance of making it home; when this is factored in the P-47’s ‘greater’ cost doesn’t look so bad at all.

The Thunderbolt was there when it was needed and could do anything you asked it to do, and what more can you ask? And just listen to the thing dive…talk about fine Georgian whine.  

  • Joe Coles

  • Only one days to go and only on 82%! This is a real nail-biter
  • Pre-order your copy fast as a P-47N here

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