Some ten feet above the runways and hardstands of Germany's airfields American fighter pilots- in the last four months have perfected the third arm of a tri-pronged weapon designed to annihilate Nazi air power.
It is strafing, aerial attack at as close to zero altitude as an airplane can get and still fly. It was invented 30 years ago by the Germans, who gave the technique its name from the Germanic verb "strafe," to punish.
It is the most dangerous maneuver in fighter pilots' repertoire and probably has claimed more of the top aces of Eighth and Ninth Fighter Commands than any other form of attack. But it is one of the most valuable weapons in the allied aerial arsenal because it destroys the last refuge of the Luftwaffe.
Mustang, Thunderbolt and Lightning pilots have come back: from strafing targets on the Continent with the tips of their propellers folded back from chewing into the ground or into the paved runways of Luftwaffe airdromes. Day in and day out ground crews find chunks of high-tension wire in air scoops or around wing bomb racks, and the commentary is sufficient that it means the pilot wasn’t flying low enough. One P-51 ace came back to base with a turnip in his air scoop.
Strafing began with the Nieuports and Sopwiths, the Fokkers and Junkers of World War I. It was used against ground troops in trenches. The Allies took over the German verb to describe it, and “strafe" (shtrahf) it became. When Rickenbacker and Prince, Lufberry and Hall started flying for Gen. Billy Mitchell's fledgling air force of 1917-18, the practice remained the same, the verb became "strayf."
In World War II, what strafing there was early in the war was eclipsed by the technique of dive-bombing, and the Stuka became the symbol of aerial assault on tactical ground targets. The Luftwaffe strafed, when it was necessary, and so did the RAF. As cannon came into use in twin-engined fighters, such as the Beaufighter and the early Mosquito, low-level gun attacks were carried out against enemy shipping.
When, last autumn, the RAF and the USAAF began the first real phase of their offensive to smash the Luftwaffe - necessary prelude to invasion by ground - they had two weapons with which to work the trick: Bombing and aerial combat. They would bomb the factories and the material sources which turned out German airplanes. And when the Nazis flew up to try and prevent them, they would destroy what they could of the German air force in the air.
It worked with no drawbacks, for a time. From every source came repeated indications that German aircraft production strength was being blasted to pieces. The strain began to show in Luftwaffe reserves although not in first-line combat craft. Then Reichsairmarshall Goering and his staff put into effect a strategy which completely nullified one of the Allies' two weapons. They chose to keep their defending fighters grounded, except under the most favorable circumstances.
In the waning months of 1943, and the first days of 1944, pilots here and there throughout fighter units had been turning in occasional reports of “beating up” enemy airfields after they had been forced to hit the deck by engine trouble and come home at zero altitude. Now and then they would fly over a Luftwaffe drome, stray it in passing and go on.
Gradually the technique evolved. Pilots learned to hug the ground, hiding their planes with the contours as they approached the target. They learned how to avoid flak so far as is possible. They learned a lot more navigation than they'd ever known.
In January it became obvious that Goering was going to keep his fighters on the ground unless the dividends for sending them up were obvious. The proper counter-move was ready: Strafing. It was obvious, however, that with the withdrawal of Nazi fighter Luftflotten to the Reich itself, short range fighters would do little good strafing empty airdromes in France or Belgium.
On Feb. 8 the heavy bombers went to Frankfurt, and the Mustangs made the target leg of the run with them, left the flak of Frankfurt behind and handed over the escort job to other fighters. Over the RT came the voice of Jim Howard, the major from the old Flying Tigers: Those who had gas to spare could hit the deck and look for targets.
Two squadrons of P51s went down to German soil. They dived beneath the undercast of clouds, scoured the terrain for targets and found them. They shot up an airdrome, destroyed a Do217 and hit other planes. 1/Lt. John Mattie, of Beaverdale, Pa., got three locomotives in a station. 1/Lt. Charles Gumm Jr., of Spokane. Wash., who was the first P51B pilot to destroy an enemy aircraft - in the Dec. 16 raid on Bremen - claimed the first strafing victim for the 51s, a locomotive. 1/Lt. Clayton Gross, also of Spokane, got two locomotives, a truck, a power station and flew his P51 Live Bait through a telephone line and brought back a 40-strand cable in his air scoop.
It wasn't all a piece of cake, however. Pilots came in to base to report: "Flak was hell. We hit an airfield at 450 miles an hour after a dive from 6,000 feet and the barrage was too thick to see through."
The group lost the first long-range Mustangs to enemy action that day, the first in 24 missions. Both of them were hit as they strafed, one by flak and one bounced by four FWs as he hit the deck.
But it was a tactical surprise of the first magnitude, the Air Force decided.
Last month, the swarms of Eighth Air Force fighter planes which swept almost daily across Europe at high, medium and low levels confirmed those first indications. Eighth fighter pilots alone destroyed 478 enemy aircraft on the ground during the month of April, and the Ninth, whose strafing parties were considerably smaller in numbers, added 58 more, which meant that more than one-third of all enemy aircraft losses in Europe by the RAF and the USAAF were achieved by strafing.
After four months or so of war on the deck, most pilots-including the P51 men - figure that the best strafing airplane ever built is the Republic Thunderbolt P47. Heavy, eight-gunned, armored and fast, it squirts out twice as much lead as a Mustang, can absorb a good deal more punishment and its radial engine will frequently keep cooking with one or two cylinders shot right out.
Attack formations for strafing vary, but the basic is to go in fairly close to the ground , cover the field and dispersal areas with a stream of fire and get home. 1/Lt. Lowell Brueland, of Callendar, Iowa, describes a typical strafe.
"You spot your target field as far off as possible. Then you get the direction and get down flat on the deck, five to ten feet. Revving up, you hug the terrain on the way in."
"As you reach the field, you start firing."
"What most of the boys like best is to catch some Jerry coming in for a landing just as you start to strafe and beat the hell out of him."
Capt. Richard E. Turner, of Shawnee, Okla., who has flown Short Fuse Sallee to nine and one-half victories in air combats, brings up the point of "personal warfare."
"When we get down there and get a shot at Jerry flak positions, that's personal. It's the only chance to get back at the flak gunners. But best is to destroy enemy planes. "That's the job we're there for, but it's no picnic. They lay down heavy and Light flak on the field and we have to fly through it."
All the pilots prefer high-altitude fighting. "They feel that up there it's more a business of the better pilot," say Brueland, "but on the deck, strafing, it becomes a problem of mathematics as to how many planes are going to run into how much of that flak."
"Shooting down enemy plane in the air is sort of impersonal", Turner cuts in. "You're fighting machines. But down on the deck , maybe, you catch flak gunners running to their positions, as happened to me at an airfield south of Chartres, in France. You think twice about mowing them down, but if you don't they'll be firing at you in a few seconds."
Equally personal, but one of the things that keeps the fighter pilots going back again and again to the dirty job of hitting the Luftwaffe when it won't fly is the reaction of the people of the occupied countries.
Invariably as they cruise the tree-top levels of France and Belgium and Holland, the pilots see farmers and their children, who wave and point and laugh until the pilots have gone on to find a German field.