P-47 Thunderbolt suspended in the American Air Museum ©IWM
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The P-47 Thunderbolt, durable and deadly

The P-47 Thunderbolt was one of the leading American fighter aircraft of the Second World War. Larger and heavier than any other single-seat fighters of the era, it saw widespread use by the US Army Air Forces in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) in escort and ground attack roles.   


The P-47 Thunderbolt was designed, developed, produced, and used all within the period of the Second World War.  It came from the drawing board of Georgian engineer Alexander Kartveli of the Republic Aviation Company in the Spring of 1940. The design was based around the turbocharged Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine, which was powerful enough to support the heavy armour, ammunition and fuel the aircraft needed, but resulted in a final product that dwarfed its counterparts in Allied or enemy service.  


It will be a dinosaur, but it will be a dinosaur with good proportions

Alexander Kartveli, lead designer Republic Aviation

Ironically, the aircraft was designed in response to demands from the US Army Air Corps for a lightweight fighter aircraft. Though America had not yet declared war against Nazi Germany, US observations of air combat in Europe indicated the USAAC lacked an aircraft which could hold its own against Luftwaffe fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109. The first order of Thunderbolts was placed in the Spring of 1942, and entered combat service in Europe in the spring of 1943. 

Supporting the Allied strategic bomber offensive

The P-47 was the best escort fighter available to the Eighth Air Force when they began the strategic bombing offensive against Nazi Germany. From the spring of 1943, P-47 Thunderbolts protected bomber fleets, and inflicted heavy losses against the Luftwaffe. The aircraft’s range was however limited by its high fuel consumption, and though drop tanks were fitted as a stop gap,  the P-47 Thunderbolt was ultimately phased out of escort duties after the P-51 Mustang became available in 1944.


P-47 Thunderbolts of the 56th Fighter Group escort a B-24 Liberator. IWM (FRE 2503)
P-47 Thunderbolts of the 56th Fighter Group provide escort to a B-24 Liberator (FRE 2503)

The Thunderbolt's great weight and size were also found to be disadvantages in combat against the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf 190. But the aircraft was very fast and, when flown to make best use of its strengths, often out-fought German fighters.

The Wolfpack

The 56th Fighter Group became renowned for their prowess flying the P-47 Thunderbolt. Over the course of the Second World War, pilots claimed almost 1,000 enemy aircraft destroyed, more than any other fighter unit in the 8th Air Force.

Colonel Hubert Zemke, Commanding Officer of 56th Fighter Group, in the cockpit of his P-47 Thunderbolt at Manston, May 1944 IWM (FRE 2521)

Commanding Officer, Hubert Zemke was less than impressed with the Thunderbolt when he assumed command of the 56th Fighter Group in September 1942. Fresh out of training, many of the group’s pilots struggled to adapt to the more cumbersome Thunderbolt while preparing for combat, and ultimately 18 pilots died, and 41 aircraft were lost.  

Zemke, having served as a combat observer with the Royal Air Force in 1940 was familiar with the challenges of air combat against the Luftwaffe and set about developing tactics which took advantage of the Thunderbolt’s dive speed and durability. These tactics had an immense impact after the group began flying combat missions from Britain in the spring of 1943.

< Hubert Zemke, commanding officer of the 56th Fighter Group in the cockpit of a P-47 Thunderbolt c.1944 (FRE 2521)

Tactical ground support

The Thunderbolt’s rugged construction and air-cooled engine meant that it could survive enemy fire in low-level ground attacks far better than the Mustang. Its firepower was also heavier, and P-47s of the Ninth Air Force, in close support of the American armies advancing through Europe in 1944-45, devastated German armour, troops, transport and airfields as well as any of the Luftwaffe that ventured into the sky.

Lieutenant Edwin "Lucky" Wright with the flak damaged engine of his P-47 Thunderbolt, November 1944 IWM (FRE 9553)

Though the P-47 excelled at providing ground support, it was not impervious to risks. 

By the time this picture was taken in October 1944 Lieutenant Edwin Wright of the 404th Fighter Group had completed 39 missions supporting the Allied advance into north west Europe, and survived being hit by flak six times.  The hole in his propeller measured 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter, if the damage had been an inch and a half over on either side, the blade would have severed and Wright would have been brought down.

Edwin was dubbed Lucky by his fellow pilots. He ultimately completed 88 missions in P-47 Thunderbolts during the Second World War. 

< Edwin B Wright of the 404th Fighter Group demonstrating the flak hole in the engine of his P-47 Thunderbolt, October 1944 (FRE 9553) 


The P-47 was also the backbone of the tactical force in the Mediterranean. The exploits of its pilots were detailed in the William Wyler film Thunderbolt, which was ultimately released in 1947. Thunderbolts were also widely used in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, including by the the RAF who used them on tactical ground support operations against Imperial Japan in South East Asia.

P-47 Thunderbolt from IWM collection on display ©IWM

On display

The P-47 Thunderbolt in the American Air Museum is a composite. The majority comes from an aircraft, 45-49192, that was one of last built by the Republic Aviation Corporation’s Indiana plant in 1945 and used in Peruvian military service from 1953 to 1967. It was flown by civilian enthusiasts from 1977 to 1980, when it was written off after a crash caused by engine failure. The wreck was acquired by IWM in 1985 and was restored to static display condition in 1997 after an extensive restoration project using components sourced from other airframes.

The aircraft is painted to represent P-47D Thunderbolt 42-26413 Oregon’s Britannia which was assigned to Colonel Hubert Zemke of the 56th Fighter Group, and destroyed in a crash in December 1944.  The aircraft was supposedly the first in Britain to sport a bubble canopy. The name references that the original P-47 was purchased from War Bonds raised in the state of Oregon. It was later re-assigned to Major Harold Comstock who added the nickname Happy Warrior.

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