Early production Mustangs often generate a lot of confusion and mis-information.
Let’s take a look at one and it’s role.
I’m sure most readers know the story of how the Mustang was developed for the RAF in record time. I previously told the story of how the A-36 came to be, an improvisation of the Mustang as a dive bomber that led to 500 aircraft being ordered when the future of the whole program was in question.
But that doesn’t quite mean there was no interest in the Mustang from higher officials. A few oddities turn up when we look at dates. In May 1940, just as the Battle of France was getting underway, the British ordered 320 Mustang Mk I from North American. They were very pleased with the prototype and another 300 were added to the order before deliveries had even begun. One requirement from the US for doing business with an American company during wartime, was that two of the first examples were to be handed over to the USAAF for testing. These became the XP-51 prototypes and were delivered to Wright Field (Dayton, Oh) in August 1941.
But curiously, the month before, USAAF had ordered 150 aircraft as P-51 (no suffix) Mustangs. It had already been decided that the mixed battery of .50 and .30 machine guns used by the British was not wanted so the P-51 would be delivered with four 20 mm cannon. Otherwise it was mostly identical to the Mustang Mk I. The A-36 was also derived from the Mustang Mk I (specifically XP-51). My sources do specify the P-51A was derived from an A-36 airframe, but I think the miscellaneous changes between these models were all pretty trivial so that may be splitting hairs.
But here’s what I found fascinating. We all know the story about how the USAAF did not acknowledge the need for high altitude, long-range bomber escorts and played little attention to the early Mustang’s potential. Yet two aircraft, from that July 1941 order for 150 P-51 Mustangs, were ordered to be held back for conversion work to the new Packard Merlin engine. That looks to me like someone was planning ahead. Even if Spaatz and Eaker didn’t think they needed escorts for the bombers, someone high up in USAAF (and I have seen it said that Hap Arnold himself was in on this) was looking for a War winning weapon for the skies of Europe.
What happened with the actual production run of P-51 (no suffix) Mustangs is a little hard to follow. All 150 were built. Apparently 93 of them were then lend-leased to Britain. Because they only differed from the Mk I in armament they were labeled as
Mk Ia. Minus the two held back for testing, that means USAAF took delivery of 55.
My sources suggest all 55 had cameras installed for tactical recon work. Summer of 1942 they were re-designated F-6A. But I have seen photos identified as P-51 (no suffix) Mustangs in the War zone. So maybe all 55 were not converted? Or maybe some users just didn’t go for the new designation?
The 68th Tactical Reconnaissance Group came to be the first USAAF users of the Mustang in combat, April 1943. The component squadrons of the group were all equipped with different types for different types of photography, each squadron of the group had its own mix of types. The 154 TRS flew that first Mustang mission, but by summer of ’43 it had been decided to concentrate the Mustangs in the 111th TRS. Usually looking to “shoot” in two senses of the word. They would go out in pairs or fours looking at deployments, depots and transportation. Every version of the Mustang was long ranged, so they could do such patrols deep into enemy territory. Since the 111th and 154th TRS were in North Africa that often meant patrolling over Sicily or Italy. They were officially “discouraged” from mixing with enemy fighters which limited their air-to-air opportunities. Some TacRecon pilots would make Ace, but I believe that occurred after conversion to later Merlin engined Mustangs.
I’ve also noticed much inconsistency on how these planes are recorded apart from just F-6A/P-51. At least one book in my possession claims the F-6A was converted from the P-51A; apart from noting a certain tidy symmetry to that, I’m quite sure the P-51A conversion was actually an F-6B (and I should eventually build one of those too!). P-51B and P-51C models both became F-6C.
This is the Accurate Miniatures kit, still the only Allison Mustang available in this scale. It is really a beautiful kit and compares well to the contemporary Tamiya Merlin Mustangs. Of course Tamiya fit is slightly superior, but its not a huge difference.