Lockheed P-38F Lightning

Lockheed’s big Lightning first came to prominence late in the North Africa campaign.

Let’s look at a primary operator of the type.

Early in World War II the 1st Fighter Group was charged with air defense of the West Coast flying a mix of P-38 Lightnings and P-43 Lancers. The group was training and building up for an eventual combat deployment, while also providing cadre officers and pilots for the many other fighter groups building up at this time. Many pilots came and went through the group until a final roster was arrived at for an April 1942 deployment to England. This involved the famous long range ferry flights through Greenland and Iceland. One group of six P-38s were forced down on Greenland, one of these was recovered 50 years later and today flies at airshows as “Glacier Girl”. One squadron, the 24th, was left in Iceland through August to provide air defense. On August 14, 2nd Lt Elza Shahan scored the first USAAF victory over the Luftwaffe (A Fw 200) while serving on that Iceland detachment.

I chose this particular subject mainly for having the ugliest nose art I’ve ever seen! Is there something in that bat’s eye? Oh, its a machine gun…

In England they were assigned to the Eighth Air Force and participated in some of the earliest missions.

The first prolonged and grinding test for the US Army Air Force against the Luftwaffe was in North Africa and the Mediterranean from late 1942 through 1943. Appropriately the 1st Fighter Group was a participant in that campaign. They made the flight from England to Algeria and began operations there by November 13. This proved to be a brutally tough environment, starting with the extreme heat and sand that rapidly wore out engines. Then add in fighting the Luftwaffe.
At this point, in November, the new 12th Air Force had five Lightning Squadrons; the three of the 1st Fighter Group and two of the 14th (one squadron was permanently left in Iceland). They quickly scored kills against German transports and Stukas, but took heavy looses from the Bf 109s of JG 77. German fighter pilots quickly came to consider P-38s to be easy prey. The plane itself had some good qualities; high top speed, extremely fast climb, more maneuverable in most aspects (than a Bf 109) and heavy firepower. But inexperienced American pilots and poor tactics cost them heavily. The next two months put a heavy burden on the supply of P-38s, they were being destroyed faster than they were being built. Only the most optimistic of measures gave the P-38 anything better than a 1:1 kill ratio at this point.
Circumstances improved some in late December with the arrival of the 82nd Fighter Group. This was a more thoroughly trained new fighter group, and specifically trained in the P-38. Meanwhile, the 14th Fighter Group was withdrawn in January for an extended rest and refit. The 14th FG was so badly battered it was nearly disbanded entirely; but instead they received newer P-38Gs, many new pilots, and finally a third squadron.

American pilots never seemed to loose faith in the Lightning, even though to the end of the War German pilots considered it the Allied fighter they most wanted to face in combat. Over the last couple months of the North Africa campaign the 1st and 82nd Fighter Groups did finally start to show a positive kill ratio. This was greatly aided by the large scale effort by the Luftwaffe to keep Africa supplied by air. Many new aces were made against the Ju 52 and Me 323 Gigant. Supposedly the Germans started to call the P-38 “der Gabelschwanze Teufel” (the Fork Tailed Devil) in early 1943 as it exacted a toll against German transports and support types. My guess would be that this is nonsense, a product of allied propaganda. Certainly German fighter pilots never held the type in very high regard. Although it is possible it had a fearsome reputation among non-fighter pilots, it certainly deserved that.

Heavy firepower, 4 x .50 machine guns and a 20 mm cannon. The drop tanks here have had a camouflage green applied to their top surfaces. This was occasionally, with no particular rhyme or reason, done in the field.

The Summer of 1943 was a much slower period of operations. The 1st Fighter Group did fly some close support missions over Sicily from their base in Tunisia. In October they moved to Sardinia for a couple months and the pace of operations increased with the Italian Campaign. By the end of 1943 37 pilots had made Ace in the P-38. In December the 1st moved to Italy and was reassigned to the 15th Air Force (as were the 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups) as part of the new southern strategic bombing campaign. The 15th was about a third of the size of the 8th Air Force, but flew much the same sort of missions. The 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups remained in Italy flying P-38s to the end of the War.

This aircraft was one of the 1st Fighter Group’s early P-38Fs. It survived the North Africa Campaign and was still in use Summer of 1943 even as P-38Gs had become predominant. In fact, the markings seen here represent the 94th Fighter Squadron during the Group’s time on Sardinia. The yellow wings and wing tips identify the squadron. The 27th Fighter Squadron used white (switching to black in 1944 when natural metal planes started arriving) while the 71st Fighter Squadron used red. Seen here, the propeller spinners are also in squadron color; but after joining the 15th Air Force the whole group switched to red spinners. The red outlined insignia was only used briefly that summer of ’43.
“Bat out of Hell” was assigned to1st Lt James Hagenback at this time.

The only difference visible here between the P-38F and P-38G is in the turbo-chargers. The canopy also opens differently (!), but with this “F” all closed up that difference is not visible.

This is the Tamiya kit with Aeromaster decals. Every good thing I said about this kit when I built the “G” I would re-affirm with an exclamation point. (!) What an absolute pleasure to build every step of the way.

The P-38 was primarily considered a bomber escort in the MTO. That could mean A-20, B-25, B-17 or B-24. But the official tactic, until mid-’43, involved close escort that robbed the fighters of aggressive response and resulted in very heavy losses.
The P-40 and P-38 were the backbone of American fighter squadrons in North Africa. The P-40 was known to be better down low and drew more close support type missions, often covering P-39s. P-40 tactics called for more close in, low altitude dogfighting that played to the type’s own strengths, so P-40 squadrons faired better in the early fighting.
“Glacier Girl” was a 1st Fighter Group P-38F lost on the Greenland ice for 50 years. [photo via Tim Day on Pintrest]

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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15 Responses to Lockheed P-38F Lightning

  1. Jeff Groves says:

    That looks great, Dave! I hope some day Tamiya sees fit to scale their P-38 down to 1/72 scale!

  2. It’s a fabulous model you have there Dave, beautifully finished along with an excellent write up. I always thought the P-38 faired much better, maybe in the Far East, so it was interesting to read that it was perhaps not quite the master of the skies I first thought.

  3. jfwknifton says:

    I really enjoyed that. It was really informative, and the story of Glacier Girl was marvellous. I was also pleased to learn that at least one fighter pilot achieved a kill while stationed in Iceland, which appears initially to be a rather quiet place to be stationed.

    • atcDave says:

      Thank you!
      Iceland sure does seem out of the way. And I bet it mostly was. Probably a good place to send green pilots for their first taste of operational flying.

  4. Ernie Davis says:

    I seem to recall you mentioned once that the fuel supplied by the British for much of the European theater was lower grade than what we supplied in the Pacific theater and didn’t agree with the P-38.

    • atcDave says:

      Yes that was a particular problem in England. I didn’t see it mentioned in North Africa, presumably the US was supplying fuel.
      Ultimately the P-38 did well enough in the Mediterranean, even being quite effective in the last year of the War. But the start, largely about green crews learning how to fight a highly proficient foe, went very rough.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Experience was certainly a factor. By the time we entered the war the Luftwaffe had been at war for 3 years. Longer if you count the many that had experience in Spain. It was a steep learning curve in the Pacific too, but we had some excellent tacticians to help out there.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah the Germans were scary proficient. P-38 strengths were also different against them than the Japanese too, most significantly it didn’t have a very good dive speed (low “not to exceed speed” due to airfoil compressibility issues). The zoom climb and pure maneuverability were its biggest strengths.

  5. Ed says:

    My stepfather was Lt. James Hagenback, and his aircraft was this model, the Bat Out of Hell.
    He was a planner for the raids on the submarine pens of Pantoleria and the Foggia Aerodromes. Later he was a test pilot for the early jet designs, and later the F 86 Sabers. He flew the F 84 Thunderjets in Korea. He finished his career in the early seventies after serving as the Chief of Operations for NATO in Mons, Belgium. He flew in WWII with the 94th “Hat in the Ring” squadron of the First Fighter Group. Not many of that early group came back. Silver Star, Bronze Star, 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 18 Air Medals. Legion of Honor. Of all the planes he flew, the P38 was his favorite. He downed two FW 190s and one Macchi with it, and those were fine aircraft.

    • atcDave says:

      Wow, Ed thanks for adding all of that! It sounds like he had some good success in the aircraft and went on to a good career.
      You mention he planned some significant missions. Was that because of a specific role in the squadron? Or just career military? As a 1st Lt I would expect him to be a section leader, but not senior staff. Sounds like there’s another story there!
      His ranking of the P-38 is interesting too. It definitely had a lot of support from those who flew it. I suspect it’s difficult combat debut had more to do with fighting a highly proficient Luftwaffe than anything really wrong with the P-38.

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