The P-47 Thunderbolt is one of the most recognisable US fighter planes from the Second World War. After the United States joined the war, pilots from the US Army Air Force were sent to Britain to aid in the war effort, along with their trusty Thunderbolts. Used in every major theatre of the war, the Thunderbolt was loved by its pilots - and feared by its enemies - for its deadly combination of high firepower and bomb-carrying capabilities. Nicknamed the 'Jug', the P-47 would destroy over 7,000 enemy aircraft during the war.
In this video, our expert Graham Rodgers walks us through the history and technical aspects of this iconic aircraft.
Why did US pilots love the Thunderbolt so much?
Graham Rodgers: "In 1942, when our American friends came to help with the war effort, around 90 bases all over East Anglia were turned to house our American friends. Duxford became Station 357 home of the 78th Fighter Group. From 1943 to 45. And initially their weapon of choice was the P-47 Thunderbolt."
Video footage: "This was the best armed aircraft from World War Two."
Graham Rodgers: "The Thunderbolt was designed by Alexander Kartveli, built by Republic in America, entered service in 1942 and first saw action in the European Theatre of Operation in April 43. The P-47 wasn't without its flaws. It was quite slow in a climb and had pretty slow and sluggish acceleration, but was fantastically fast in a dive and could absorb an incredible amount of punishment from enemy airplanes and still keep flying. Superb in ground attack roles and probably one of the best fighters that America had at the time for ground support. The nickname given to the Thunderbolt was Jug, and it was either short for Juggernaut or Milk Jug, depending on what source you actually believe. By the end of the Second World War, the Thunderbolt was responsible for the destruction of over 7000 enemy airplanes. The Thunderbolt served in all theatres of the Second World War.
Mike Titre: "Of the 15,000 Thunderbolts made, about 13,000 were ‘D’ models. The ‘B’ and ‘C’ model they only made a couple of hundred. And of the ‘D’ models (of which about 13,000 were made) about half of them had the old ‘Razorback’ - is what we called it - canopy, and about half of them had the ‘bubble’ canopy."
Graham Rodgers: "So we're here in Hangar three now at Imperial War Museum Duxford, one of our original 1917 hangars where the 78th fighter group Thunderbolts would have been stored at some point in this very hangar.The Thunderbolt, as you can see, is quite substantial. To put things in perspective, here's one of our little Spitfires. And over here, the Thunderbolt. So with a fuselage wrapped around a huge air cooled radial, Pratt and Whitney, R 2800 engine, a huge 12 and a half foot propeller, the thunderbolt was a sizable piece of kit. Because of the Thunderbolt’s strength and its power, it was also a very successful fighter bomber, capable of carrying bombs under its centreline and its wings, well over two and a half hundred kilos. So basically, like three Japanese thousand CC superbikes, dangling under each aircraft. It was also ferociously well-armed with eight 50 calibre machine guns, four in each wing."
Mike Titre: "No other Air Force had an airplane equivalent to the P-47 with eight 50 calibre, which is the best firepower that any fighter had. And the bomb carrying capability. We never fired anything but two guns in training. So the first time I fired the guns on a combat mission, there was a kick to it. We were told that straight level, if all eight guns are fired, it would slow the airplane 35 miles an hour."
Graham Rodgers: "So with an all up weight of around eight tons capable of carrying 2,500 pounds thereabouts of bombs, a top speed of well over 400 miles an hour, a service ceiling of around 40,000 feet. The Thunderbolt could take the battle to just about anything the Germans had with a propeller at the front. The Pratt & Whitney, R 2800, air-cooled Radial that the Thunderbolt has, hugely powerful - 2000 horsepower. One good thing about the air cooled engine, of course, doesn't have a radiator for water cooling. So in the event that the Achilles heel may have been for the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the hitting the coolant, the glycol, the radiator, of course, you're going to have a very serious problem. There are stories of Thunderbolts coming back to their air bases, crash landing or indeed landing perfectly well with literally half cylinder heads missing.
By the time of Christmas, 1944, the lot of the wings were being replaced with the P-51 Mustang. But because the pilots were so in love with their Thunderbolts, they wanted to keep them. The 56th Fighter group being the only fighter group at the end of the war in Europe, still equipped with the P-47. The safety of the P-47 was in its strength.
One old tale was one way to avoid an enemy contact was when the bullets were hitting your airplane because there's so much room in the cockpit, unstrap your harness and run around inside the cockpit, therefore avoiding the bullets. Because the Thunderbolt was such a big, powerful and quite thirsty airplane, putting drop tanks on it gave it extended range for the escort duty of the B-17 and B-24s,based around East Anglia."
Video footage: "Here's one of these tanks going into action filled with petrol and leaving the plane when empty. Fighter range was once restricted to this, now it's doubled."
Graham Rodgers: "So due to the Thunderbolt’s size, of course, we've got a huge, powerful airplane. Slow rate of climb, sluggish acceleration, sometimes struggling in a dogfight. If, for instance, a Focke-Wulf pilot who was well known for dogfighting with Thunderbolts, if he knew he’d got a Thunderbolt on his tail, he would open up the throttle, pull back on the stick, put it into a massive climb, knowing the Thunderbolt couldn't follow.
But going back to its strengths, working out on its superb rate of dive, very fast, very strong, ludicrously well armed, pilots could exploit its strengths.
Gerald Johnson: "The airplane was underpowered and they couldn't seem to get the proper match between the 2800 horsepower engine and the propeller. And so to get an airplane that would take off and perform at low altitude, it wasn’t worth a damn at high altitude. So they eventually, but this was not until after we’d been in combat for about six months, they’d add what was called ‘paddle blade propeller’, plus water injection to the engine. And water injection to the engine, when you shot the water to the engine, that increased your horsepower by about a third."
Graham Rodgers: "During D-Day, there was some fierce fighting obviously involved. Allied troops getting pinned down in difficult positions, close air support was going to be a massive morale boost with the sight of the RAF Typhoon or the P-47 Thunderbolt taking out your target right in front of you.
The P-47 Thunderbolt obviously still well thought of within the United States government and armed forces. So much so that their A-10 Thunderbolt II airplane is along similar lines, albeit considerably more updated, of course, to the modern age. Very heavy, not specifically fast, quite manoeuvrable, but enable to take an incredible amount of punishment. By the end of hostilities in 1945, over 15,000 of the old ‘Jugs’ were produced more than any other American fighter. So as well as being favoured for its ground attack role as a fighter bomber and as a fighter, destroying over 7000 enemy airplanes, kind of goes to show that this really was one heck of an airplane."