Bell P-39L Airacobra

The P-39 tends not to get a lot of attention in histories of the Second World War.

But I think I’ve found the least documented unit with a long combat history! Let’s take a look.

Before anyone takes me too literally on finding what combat unit has the least ink spilled (!), I’ll admit my bias as an American fan boy with probably less awareness of North Africa than I ought to. So as I start, I’ll just say I was shocked at how little I could find on the 81st Fighter Group.

I had a couple of motivations on this subject; first, I’ve mentioned that the P-39 drew more acclaim as a close support type than as a fighter. So I wanted to build one that actually was used, primarily, for close support. Second, I thought it would be fun to use a less well known camouflage scheme, specifically one known as “Sand and Spinach”. This turned into quite an adventure of research and more than a little speculation.

The 81st Fighter Group was activated in January 1942 (actually as the 81st Pursuit Group until May 1942) during the explosive expansion of the US Army Air Force that started even before the US was drawn into the War. It was formed with and trained in the P-39. So they were Airacobra specialists. They began deploying at the end of that year; the ground echelon went ashore with the Torch landings in November while the aircrews were training in England in December.
It was already known, and no doubt English experience emphasized this, that the Airacobra was deficient as a true fighter and with its heavy firepower and good speed down very low, it would be best used for close support. In addition to American P-39s, the group also acquired some repossessed P-400s (British Airacobra Mk I, 18 of them) that were stranded in England after the convoys to Murmansk were cancelled at the end of 1942. The 81st was not alone through this period either, the 350th Fighter Group, also in P-39s was co-located with them in England.
In January 1943 both groups conducted the largest and longest overseas transfer for a single engine type when they were reassigned to the 12th Air Force in Algeria. They flew direct from England to Algeria non-stop. I don’t see hard numbers listed anywhere, but two groups at this date should be around 150 aircraft.

The markings here are all my best guess based on written descriptions of group markings. The “Q” indicates 93rd Fighter Squadron, “T” is the aircraft letter. This mix of old style insignia on the fuselage and mid-1943 insignia on the wings is consistent with those written descriptions. Photos from the MTO often show vast inconsistency on application.

There is one very interesting oddity associated with this transfer. Twelve aircraft (12!) from the 81st’s 93rd Fighter Squadron developed “engine troubles” en route and diverted to Lisbon. There were desertions among aircrew during the War, a number of 8th Air Force aircraft landed in Switzerland or Sweden due to “damage”, that were found to have little or no actual damage (many crews did make legitimate diversions too!). If that’s what this it was it backfired. Portugal impounded the planes but returned the crews to the US Embassy. They were flown to North Africa where they rejoined their unit. Their CO was not amused and the pilots were assigned high risk missions or tail end Charlie positions.
But its more strange than that. At the time, the US was in negotiations with Portugal to build an anti-submarine patrol base in Portugal’s Azores Islands. Within a few weeks of Portugal acquiring the P-39s Portuguese mechanics were getting training on the type at Bell’s Buffalo, New York plant. The US did get its patrol base. And no charges were ever made against the pilots with “engine trouble”. Such things are hard to prove anyway, but it seems at least plausible that this was some sort of OSS operation (that apparently the squadron CO was not in on!).

500 lb bomb on the center hard point.

Acclimating to North Africa was somewhat troublesome. For the next month the 81st Fighter Group was hard pressed to get more than a dozen planes up for missions (again, a full group should be around 75 planes… err minus 12…). The official stated reason was that their mechanics were not certified on Airacobras and were having to learn on the job. This seems a little strange; the 81st was always a P-39 unit and had *presumably* reunited with their own ground crews. My own speculation here is just that the Group’s original mechanics had probably been acquired by one of the P-38 or P-40 groups already in North Africa, and they were now breaking in new personnel. But I can’t actually find that in writing!

The (mostly British) Desert Air Force (as opposed to the American 12th Air Force) used Hurricane Mk IId for similar close support work. It had better anti-armor punch, but less utility against a broad range of targets. Notice how small the P-39 is by comparison!

In the final phase of the North African campaign the 81st Fighter Group became highly proficient at close support. The Group and their Airacobras developed a reputation for reliability and effectiveness. Air-to-air was never their thing, total Airacobra kills in North Africa were less than 20 (USAAF P-40 kills during the same period were 480) and the top Airacobra pilot had 2 kills (Hugh Dow, 350th Fighter Group), but the 81st Fighter Group could claim the lowest loss rate per mission.
With North Africa secure the Group spent a period flying fighter cover for shipping. They borrowed a number of P-38s from the 1st Fighter Group to provide their own top cover. Given the Airacobra’s well known limitations this was probably wise, but I don’t see any kills documented during this period.
Summer of 1943 meant the invasion of Sicily and a return to the work the 81st was best known for. In October, with Sicily secure and fighting moving up the Italian peninsula the Group moved to Sicily, then on to Italy. In February of 1944 (after supporting the Anzio invasion) they turned their Airacobras over to the 350th FG and were relocated to India for conversion to Thunderbolts (and ultimately service with the 14th Air Force).
They had an excellent reputation in all their close support work, and that extended to their airplane as well. The type was very fast down low, and a small target. The 37 mm cannon in the propeller hub provided significant anti-armor capability, while two .50s and four .30s (later 4 .50s) could shred soft targets.

Airacobra shows its firepower in a dramatic publicity shot [USAF photo]

Which all leads to this particular build. I have found very few photos of P-39s in the MTO, and precisely zero of the 81st FG. By far the best, and most interesting photo of a desert P-39 is of Hugh Dow’s “Evelyn”; especially interesting since the plane started with the 81st before moving to the 350th, but any firm conclusions about colors are impossible. I have seen two profiles of Group planes, one color and one black and white (the black and white profile is from the decal set I used for this plane). And both are highly suspect, mainly in that they don’t agree with what I’ve seen written about those planes. Its possible the profile artists had photos I don’t have (in fact its likely for “Pantie Bandit”, I don’t know how else one would do a decal for nose art completely unseen?) but I’m guessing they are no more clear than the few I’ve seen given how speculative some of their guesses seem to be! And that made building this kind of fun. Of course that means a lot of speculation, my best educated guesses.
Let’s start with the camo scheme. The vast majority of USAAF planes built at this time were in Olive Drab over Neutral Gray, possibly ALL USAAF Airacobras. Some manufacturers used Sand over Neutral Gray for planes they expected to send to the desert, but given how planes and their users move frequently its not uncommon to see planes in the “wrong” colors in any theater. Some witnesses mention 81st FG planes in standard British day fighter colors, but I’m going to guess that was just the P-400s they had when they first deployed. I’ve also seen mention of the British tropical scheme in use by US types; I’m only certain of that in British types with US operators (Spitfires), but mention of it pops up often enough to make me think some Airacobras likely were finished that way.
But USAAF ground crews and maintenance depots all had Sand paint made available to them in the desert. They also provided helpful diagrams of suggested disruptive patterns to add the color to Olive Drab aircraft. This was known as the “Sand and Spinach” scheme. Many of the photos I’ve seen on other types look like the provided diagrams were often not even consulted, so the fact I haven’t seen one for the P-39 causes me no concern at all.

The serial number does identify this plane as a P-39L. That is part of what’s called “mid-production”, the P-39 K, L, M and N models are similar except for trivial details. But it does mean the plane was built at the tail end of 1942, and was delivered to North Africa via ship early in 1943.
The assumption here is a P-39L delivered directly to North Africa in Olive Drab with field applied Sand.

P-400, P-39L and P-39Q. The P-400 is the Hasegawa kit, the others are Eduard.

The markings are also conjectural. The decal sheet, and one color profile I’ve seen call for red identification stripes on the wing and fuselage. But everything I’ve ever seen on every other aircraft type, including color photos, show only yellow identification bands used in the MTO. Some types of black and white film cause yellow to shift very dark, but that is honestly the only reason I can think of to guess at red. In July of 1943 American insignia were modified with white rectangles either side of the blue disc and a red outline. 81st and 350th Fighter Groups both objected and said they had no room to apply this without obscuring tactical and recognition markings. So Airacobras of both groups apparently had very inconsistent applications of the new insignia, if at all. I chose markings that seemed most appropriate to me, at odds with both profiles I had.

The P-39 is not great against other aircraft, but is a scourge of vehicles!

This is the Eduard kit. It is not a hard kit to build, and it provides parts options to build any Airacobra from P-39D through Q. However it is “thick” in some of its shapes, especially wing trailing edges. Hasegawa released a P-39 kit shortly after Eduard. The Hasegawa kit may be harder to find now, and you do have more limited options with each boxing of exactly which variant you can build. But I think overall its a slightly better kit, better fine detail and sharp lines. I think most of the modeling community disagrees with me on that! The decals were drawn from four different source! Most stencils are from the kit, “Pantie Bandit” specific markings are from a very old “Superscale” sheet, and the US insignia are from two different Aeromaster sheets. All performed well, but the Superscale set had very limited, and I believe erroneous markings information. Plus, no sources listed so I couldn’t even try to run photos of the subjects.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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6 Responses to Bell P-39L Airacobra

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Great research Dave!
    I like to learn things I did not know anything about.

    • atcDave says:

      It was fun, and I also knew very little of this.

      • Pierre Lagacé says:

        I had been researching the North African campaign when some readers shared stories about their fathers. One was Frank Sorensen, a Spitfire pilot. Another one was Gil Gillis a Hurricane pilot and later a Spitfire pilot. There is also 425 Alouette squadron who was stationed in Tunisia when the German evacuated North Africa. 425 would bomb Sicily and later Italy before going back to England. Reading your post added a greater knowledge of that period. Living conditions were especially hard. All these service men deserve our recognition. That’s the reason I write so much about them.

      • atcDave says:

        Yes absolutely they do! So many sacrificed so much. I can’t imagine anything similar now.

  2. RB says:

    I think it was a compliment to Bell when Kawasaki followed the same pattern of design for the Ki 88 to intercept B-29s. It did not reach the production stage, but it had the inline Ha-140 engine behind the pilot and a 37mm Ho-203 cannon, plus twin 20mm Ho-5 cannons in the nose. The 20s and high altitude were advantages it had over the P-39. What if it were mass produced like the Cobra was?
    The Ki 88 Bruce would be famous today. Bear in mind the long range 37mm Ho-204 would likely up-gun the Ki 88 at some point. It was a world-beater! No other WW2 37mm cannon could fire 400 r/m! In Japan, only the Ki 88 had room for enough ammo to last over10 seconds, without twin engines.

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah obviously the concept had some merit. I think the best testament to the Airacobra is how effectively the Soviets used it. As long as users could play to its strengths it was a very effective aircraft. Its unfortunate that so often it was forced into roles it was less well suited to.

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