P-51 Mustang: Development of the Long-Range Escort Fighter

by Paul A. Ludwig

Published by Classic Publications


A book review by Steve Jantscher



I've always considered the Mustang to be the "plain Jane" of Allied fighters. It didn't fight the desperate battles of the Spitfires and Hurricanes during the early years. From a modeler's point of view, the paint schemes were rather limited, and the specific role and contribution the Mustang played in the later two years of the war seem to be buried in a sense of inevitability. The Mustang arrived in the many theaters of war among a tidal wave of Allied (mostly American) aircraft and pilots.

However a good argument can be made that to the extent that the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive contributed to the ultimate victory over Nazi Germany, the role the Mustang played in that victory is undisputed. The need for long-range fighter escort became painfully evident first by the early war RAF daylight raids, and later again by the costly deep bomber raids in '43 by the 8th Air Force. The one and only satisfactory aircraft to be developed by the Allies to fulfill that role was the P-51 Mustang, in all it's Merlin engine equipped guises.

This is an excellent book that covers just what the subtitle of the book says, the development of the long-range fighter. As the author points out in his forward to the book, he was confused as to the true nature of the Air Corp's acceptance of the Mustang from conflicting recent histories, and he was determined to uncover the facts. In many ways, this large format hard cover book is very similar in approach and detail to the recent books by Warren Bodie on the P-38 Lightning and the P-47 Thunderbolt. What is especially interesting for those who have read these earlier books, is that many of the same Army officers who are heroes in Bodie's book, are "bums" in this book. But I get ahead of myself.

We all know that the Mustang came about as a result of a British commission who came to America to purchase some aircraft. The British were sent by the cognizant authorities in the Army Air Corps (AAC) to North American Aviation with the expectation that NAA would contract from Curtis the additional P-40 production that it was expected the British would want to purchase. Instead, NAA countered with a proposal for a new design, and 125 days later the progenitor of the eventual Mustang was born. The legend goes on to recount how the British decided to marry the Rolls Royce Merlin engine with the Mustang airframe, and the thoroughbred was born.

That's the nutshell history we all know from when we picked up our first Mustang book (mine was William Hess's Fighting Mustang : The Chronicle of the P-51). This book takes that "canned" history and as Paul Harvey might say, tells "the rest of the story" in over 200 pages.

As modern business majors are wont to know, large organizations have a dynamic all their own, and the story that Mr. Ludwig tells starts with the turmoil of the NAA decision to offer a new (un-approved by the AAC) aircraft to the British. Not only does this step on organizational toes, and create bureaucratic enemies who scheme over the next couple of years to kill the Mustang, but once the true value of the long range of the aircraft is known, the "bomber mafia" fights it as not in keeping with their theory of strategic bombing (that the bombers will always get through [without fighter escort]). Even for those bomber advocates who believed in the possible need for escorts, the then common idea of a bomber escort was a two engine "large" multi-crew fighter such as the Me-110 or the still born American XP-58 or the Bell XFM-1 Airacuda.

One of the heroes of the Bodie P-38 book, then Lt. Ben Kelsey, deeply involved and committed to the P-38 and twin engine escort multi-role fighters seemed to take every official opportunity during the early testing phases of the Mustang development to "nay say" the plane. He worked for a General Echols, who as commander of Materials Command, forever held a grudge and tried repeatedly to kill the Mustang project as a result of it's "foreign influenced birth" (the "not invented here" [USAAC requirement] syndrome). There is also documented the conflicts between the combat test facilities at Eglin field who were enthusiastic over the Mustangs' early potential and Material Command's fortress of restraint at Wright field in Ohio. And so it goes. Needless to say, this will be an eye opener for most World War Two aviation enthusiasts.

This thread of resistance to the adoption of the Mustang is perhaps the most relevant new bit of information I found in this book. While the author presents all the facts concerning this new information, the book continues the history of the development and eventual use of the Mustang as a long range fighter escort. Also included in this history are accounts of contemporary escort aircraft designs. An interesting chapter devoted to the role the Packard Motor Car Company and its contribution to the Mustang (and other aircraft, US and British). The author also addresses the methods tried and those found able to extend the range of the Mustang in combat.

The final thirty or forty pages are devoted in one way or another to the "in the field" experience that further refined the capabilities of the P-51 as a bomber escort, and true multi-role fighter. There are right up to the end of the book, consideration of how to use the plane to its best ability.

This is not like most Mustang books that have gone before. Even Mustang Designer: Edgar Schmued and the Development of the P-51 by Ray Wagner does not address the great part of the story presented here. In hindsight the near loss of the Mustang to a small early British order is almost too hard to believe. That some of the resistance was venal and petty only makes the story that much harder to read, but more believable. The book has hundreds of black and white photographs, a handful of contemporary color photographs and over twenty full color profiles by Arthur Bentley and Thomas Tullis. This is not a combat history of the Mustang. The major strength of this book is to put the fighter into the context as it became the excellent and critically necessary fighter in the hands of Allied pilots. This is a tremendous addition to the aviation historian's library.

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I'm sorry, but since the review has been published that product appears to have gone out of production.