Rob Smith contributed the link for this article.
A fine new book from a husband and wife team salutes the finest American fighter plane of the second world war.
Sunday 1st January 2023
One of the secrets to writing a great book is to deliver more than you promise. Wings of War presents itself as the story of a single fighter plane, the P-51 Mustang, whose introduction in early 1944 turned the air war around for the Allies after months of horrific losses inflicted by the faster and nimbler planes of the Nazis’ Luftwaffe.
David and Margaret White, a husband and wife team, tell the story of this little plane beautifully, from its gestation in the mind of a German immigrant in California, to the wartime corruption and short sightedness that delayed the introduction of the Mustang after its successful test flights, to its final triumph in the skies over Europe in 1944 and 1945.
But this crisp and authoritative book does much more. It includes a mini-history of the birth of aviation, cameos from Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, whose company produced the engine that took the Mustang from good to great, a thorough account of the air war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, and even the essential highlights of the war on the ground.
It’s a book full of small, pleasant surprises. Did you know Gustave Eiffel invented the wind tunnel, and was the first to figure out that “lift is the result of air pressure above the wing”, not below it? Or that Royce and Rolls were an upstairs-downstairs team, Royce having grown up “dirt poor” with “only one year of formal education” while Rolls was an Etonian and the son of an aristocrat?
The book opens with a reminder of what a close call the European war was in 1943 – an account of Black Thursday, a disastrous raid on a ball bearing factory deep inside Germany by more than 200 B-17 Flying Fortresses, at a time when the Allies lacked fighters to protect the bombers all the way. Of the 229 planes that reached their target, “60 were shot down and 17 more were lost on the way home 642 men were lost out of a force of 2,900 or 22% killed in action”.
We learn that three years earlier, the young German immigrant Edgar Schmued was working at the fledgling North American Aviation Company when his boss asked him to meet Britain’s urgent need for a new fighter by designing “the fastest airplane you can”, around a 5ft 10 inch, 140lb man.
In July 1940, the Royal Air Force ordered 3,340 of the new planes. Fifteen months and 41,880 engineering man hours later, a test pilot fired up the Mustang’s 1,120hp engine and aced its first test flight. But when the British received their first deliveries, they discovered the plane could only perform well below 25,000ft.
The crucial breakthrough came in April 1942, when an RAF officer realized that if he replaced the Mustang’s American engine with a Merlin 61 built by Rolls-Royce, the plane could outperform the Germans’ newest and fastest plane, the Focke-Wulf 190.
By October, the newly dubbed Mustang Mk10 was ready for takeoff. It reached an astonishing 427mph at 21,000ft. Even more astonishing, as it flew higher it no longer lost speed. It gained it.
The engine design had been licensed in 1940, to the Packard Company in Detroit. Barely a month after the first British test of the new version of the plane, a reconfigured P51B took its first American test flight.
Even though every type of British-American collaboration was crucial, the authors report the remarkable fact that apart from radar, no other important weapon “had been developed by two nations in partnership during the war”.
It turned out this triumph of collaboration would have a serious downside. American Army Air Force officers were so chauvinistic, they resisted the introduction of the bi-national plane for most of 1943, when the Germans were dominating the air war, just because the plane was not 100% American.
Wings of War describes the crucial role of Lt Col Thomas Hitchcock, the husband of a Mellon heiress and a graduate of St Paul’s, Harvard and Oxford who was so close to F Scott Fitzgerald he became a model for two of the novelist’s most famous protagonists: Tom Buchanan in the Great Gatsby and Tommy Barban in Tender is the Night.
At 17, Hitchcock joined the French Lafayette air corps in the first world war. Shot down by the Germans, he escaped aged just 18. After Pearl Harbor he tried to enlist in the US army but was told he was too old because he was over 40. But his former housemaster at St Paul’s was Gil Winant, the new American ambassador to Great Britain. Winant decided to make Hitchcock his assistant air attache.
Hitchcock flew the Mustang. He quickly became its biggest advocate but it would take the better part of year to overcome anti-British prejudice, as well as an outdated belief that bombers did not need the protection of fighters, before the final recognition that this little plane could turn the air war around.
A chart at the end of the Whites’ book records Hitchcock’s success. In 1943 the US Army Air Force had accepted just 1,710 Mustangs. The next year the number jumped to 6,904, with another 5,435 in 1945.
Wings of War is in some ways a testimonial to the fathers of both authors, although only Margaret White’s is mentioned. Thomas Standback Jr – still alive at 103 – served with and told stories of the “pilots and crews of the 20th Fighter Group” which “were the genesis of this work”.
But the book’s successes are also a tribute to David White’s father, Theodore H White, because his Making of the President books of the 1960s and 70s were some of the most celebrated books of nonfiction of the last century.
Wings of War: The World War II Fighter Plane That Saved the Allies and the Believers Who Made It Fly is published in the US by Dutton Caliber.