DCS: P-47D Thunderbolt in action.

10 October 2021

Zemke’s Wolfpack

The P-47 in Action


P-47Ds mixing it with Fw-190s

"The cockpit had more room than any fighter I had flown, and it gave me quite a sense of power to look out and see the big, four-bladed prop in front and the four .50-caliber machine gun barrels sticking out of the front of each wing." (Captain “Gabby” Gabreski, 61st Fighter Squadron (FS), 56th Fighter Group USAAF).

Cave Tonitrum

Beware the Thunderbolt’ – the motto and emblem of the 56th Fighter Group

Beware the Thunderbolt

On 22 February 1944, several flights of 56th Fighter Group, U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) took off on a ‘Ramrod’ (bomber escort) mission to intercept enemy fighters. The Americans were attacking B-17 Flying Fortresses returning from a raid on Paderborn in northern Germany. Known as ‘Zemke’s Wolfpack’, after their outstanding – and guileful – leader, Colonel Hubert ‘Hub’ Zemke, the 56th FG was already one of the most successful and famous WWII fighter groups in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). The 56th comprised the 61st, 62nd and 63rd squadrons, each with 18 P-47Ds on strength.

Colonel Hubert

Colonel Hubert "Hub" Zemke

Only 12 of the 63rd Fighter Squadron’s Thunderbolts managed to reach the second, and furthermost box of bombers. As they drew near, two of the four-ship flights spotted a swarm of Messerschmitt Bf 109s slicing through the bomber formation, sending streams of 20mm cannon and 13mm machine gun fire into the lumbering B-17s.

Bf 109 K-4 Kurfüst

B-17 formation under attack by Bf 109s

Armed with 13 x .50in. M2 Browning machine guns apiece, the Flying Fortresses were returning fire with interest. But they were about to find themselves in even worse trouble: a second wave of 15, heavier Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters was wheeling in from the nine o’clock position. Shaping to attack them from the rear. Some of these big ‘Zerstorer’ were armed with a massive, 37mm ( Bk 3,7 cm) cannon mounted in a belly tray, while others had twin 30mm Mk 108 cannon. Even a Flying Fortress would be lucky to survive hits from that weight of firepower.


In his personal combat report, Red Flight’s commander Captain Lyle A. Adrianse tells us what happened next: ‘They (the Me 110s) apparently saw us and started to scatter in steep, diving turns. I immediately attacked one that was turning to the right in a steep dive from 21,000 feet. Upon closing my range, his tail gunner opened fire and he broke sharply to the left. I gave him about three rings of lead, which put him out of sight under my cowling, and opened fire from about 500 yards, closing rapidly. I then ceased fire and rolled out of my turn to take another look at him - to find that he was smoking and going in a straight dive. I opened fire again from 300 yards, breaking off at 100 yards. I saw numerous strikes on the fuselage, left wing, engine and tail. Several large pieces fell off the left wing and I was obliged to fly through them, putting several large dents in my own cowling. I then broke up into the sun from about 4,000 feet. looking back, I saw the left engine flaming furiously and he entered the cloud at 3,000 feet going straight down…’


P-47 wingman gun camera - leader bags a Me 110

‘I climbed back up to 22,000ft, where I was bounced by a Me 109. After two turns I gained the advantage and he hit the deck. I could not follow as I was very low on fuel, and headed out. On the way back I picked up the three other men in my flight and landed at base, safely.’

A War of Attrition

A typical day at the office, then, for the pilots of Zemke’s Wolfpack in the early months of 1944. D-Day was fast approaching. While they might not yet have known it, the 56th FG’s task was to help wear the Luftwaffe’s strength down to the point where the planned Allied invasion could go in under friendlier skies. In little over a year since arriving in England to begin active service - after a faltering start – Zemke’s young pilots were doing a superb job.

P-47 strafing train

Unscheduled halt - Thunderbolt peppering an enemy train

The formidable 56th FG was the only group to fly P-47 Thunderbolts throughout the war. Turning down the P-51D Mustang replacements offered in January 1944, the 56th flew P-47C (blocks 2 and 5) from February 1943 to April 1943; P-47D (blocks 1 through 30) from June 1943 to March 1945; and P-47Ms from January 1945 to 10 October 1945.

Some Allied pilots questioned the P-47s relatively poor agility, slow rate of climb and unreliable radios. Yet Zemke knew he could exploit the Thunderbolt’s strengths – not just its extraordinary ability to soak up battle damage, but its excellent roll rate and dive speed – to the full. By August 1943, the ‘dive, fire, and recover’ tactics he devised had made the 56th the leading air superiority group of VIII Fighter Command.

The Scales Begin to Tip

In the third week of February 1944, the USAAF and the RAF launched a series of combined heavy bomber raids and fighter sweeps codenamed ‘Operation Argument.’ Better known as ‘Big Week’, the campaign was designed to force Luftwaffe fighters into dogfights with the bomber escorts – or watch their aircraft factories be bombed to rubble. The ploy succeeded: fitted with 150-gallon drop tanks that increased their endurance to more than three hours, the Fighting 56th rose to the occasion: in a four-day spree, they shot down 49 enemy aircraft, winning a Distinguished Unit Citation ‘for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy...’

P-47D diving on Fw-190 A-8

Who flies wins

A Bridge Too Far

Despite their top-level skills, won initially from intensive and persistent training, and then from near-continuous combat experience, there were times when even the pilots of the 56th FG suffered morale-testing setbacks. The ill-fated Operation Market Garden was one of these. The plan was to open up a new Allied invasion route into Northern Germany by means of a mass paratroop drop. A concurrent ground offensive would advance along the single road north to Arnhem. Air support was vital, but the weather in the Netherlands had other ideas.

On 18 September 1944, despite poor visibility, 39 Wolfpack Thunderbolts attacked German anti-aircraft positions near Oosterhout. If these defences could be suppressed, then a force of B-24 Liberators could go ahead with an urgent resupply drop in relative safety. The attack went badly: in the space of a few minutes, the German flak sites shot down five P-47s. Twelve more Thunderbolts crash-landed in France or England. Three pilots died outright, and another three were captured. By late 1944, German flak concentrations were deadly.


Caught in the flak

It was a serious reverse. But the 56th got straight back up off the canvas and went on slugging. Providing cover for the first bombing raids on Berlin on March 6, 1944, the Wolfpack destroyed 38 enemy fighters in a single day. Ten days later, the group recorded its 350th air victory. In just 12 missions, its pilots had shot down 140 enemy aircraft.


Bouncing Back

Carrying the Attack

In February 1945, as the Allies established near-total air superiority, the Wolfpack won permission to begin air-to-ground attacks. They took to this new task with their customary relish and efficiency. The P-47s eight .50 in machine guns, rockets and bombs carved trails of havoc through enemy lines. Multiplying force in support of Allied ground forces, they destroyed trains, trucks, barges, ships and other targets of opportunity. The Wolfpack also wrecked a great many enemy aircraft on the ground. In a remarkable attack on Eggebek airfield near the Danish border on 13 April 1945 – using experimental high-velocity, high-incendiary T48 ammunition – the group shot up 95 parked Luftwaffe aircraft and damaged 95 more.


Airfield Attack: the P47’s whacking force

A Pack Full of Aces

By the end of WWII, Zemke’s Wolfpack, remaining true to its big, robust and versatile Thunderbolts, had become the top-scoring Fighter Group in the USAAF. Its 39 air-to-air combat aces included Lt. Col Francis ‘Gabby Gabreski’ with 28 kills; Col. Zemke, with 17.75 (three in the P-38 Lightning); and neither last nor least, Captain Robert S. Johnson, whose 27 victories made him the first USAAF ace to break Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s WWI record of 26 enemy aircraft destroyed.

Captain Robert S. Johnson

Captain Robert S. Johnson, DSC, DFC, Silver Star, Air Medals, Purple Heart

The Eighth Air Force credited the 56th FG with destroying almost 1,000 enemy aircraft in the ETO: 677.5 destroyed in air-to-air combat and a further 311 on the ground. The Wolfpack’s ratio of victories to losses was an amazing 8 to 1 in its own favour. This ‘Wolfpack’ knew how to bite. And it went for the throat.

In case you missed it...

The Channel Map now has full winter textures and looks amazing.

All DCS Campaigns now have a “Skip Mission” function. For those of you who would like to refly campaigns but skip certain missions, like the intro mission or a mission with a very long transit or those of you in campaigns for the first time who, for whatever reason, you don’t want to fly again but do want to progress to the next mission, we have devised a Skip Mission option. This will be developed further in coming updates.

New missions and FWAF (Fly with a friend)

You can run your own server on your PC and invite a friend to fly via multiplayer. The missions that have recently been created are as follows:

Caucasus Mosquito FB VI FWAF - Caucasus - OPERATION SNAPSHOT
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Channel Spitfire IX FWAF - Channel - Bomber Intercept

For more information on load and fly FWAF missions, check out How to Fly With A Friend. Enjoy!

Thank you for your passion and support,

Yours sincerely,

Eagle Dynamics Team