Aviation History

P-47 Thunderbolt pilot explains why strafing German trains during World War II was a dangerous business

Trains were never safe from roaming P-47 Thunderbolts on armed reconnaissance missions. However, German tactics quickly made strafing them a more challenging and dangerous affair.

The cool plate by Jim Laurier in this post features 3.7cm tracer rounds from carriage-mounted FlaK 43 batteries whiz past P-47D-27-RE 42-27221 as Col Leo Moon, CO of the 404th FG, climbs away after bombing a German train bringing supplies and reinforcements to the Ardennes front in late December 1944. As explained by Jonathan Bernstein in his book P-47 Thunderbolt vs German Flak Defenses, while weather hampered low-level operations over the Ardennes for the first few days after the start of the German offensive on Dec. 16, by the 23 the clouds had cleared and the Ninth Air Force’s fighter-bombers began working from before sunup to well after sundown, striking any motor or rail transport headed toward the frontline.

Trains were never safe from roaming Thunderbolts on armed reconnaissance missions. However, German tactics quickly made strafing them a more challenging and dangerous affair. In order to protect rolling stock and get much needed supplies to the front, the Wehrmacht began mounting flak guns aboard wagons for point defense. Both 2cm and 3.7cm guns became a standard fit aboard German trains. They were usually among the first targets selected by attacking Thunderbolts after they had destroyed the locomotive. The remaining rail cars would then be strafed.

The mobile flak protection did catch Thunderbolt pilots off guard. On Mar. 12, 1945, for example, 404th FG CO Col Leo Moon got a rude awakening when he attempted to rocket and strafe two trains:

Strafing trains was a dangerous business, as 404th FG CO Col Leo Moon discovered for himself on Mar. 12, 1945. His Thunderbolt took several direct hits to its left wingtip from 2cm rounds, nearly severing the aircraft’s pitot tube (seen here in the right hand of the groundcrewman) and damaging the bomb pylon.

‘I first saw a train with a number of cars on it and fired my four rockets into it, damaging the locomotive and setting two tank cars on fire. Then I saw a plume of smoke some distance away and fired my guns at the base of it. As I got nearer, I saw that the smoke was coming out of a short tunnel, and a train was protruding from the other end. As I swung around to make an attack on it, I saw a little red ball flash past my wing, and I wondered what it was. I soon found out.

‘I saw some smoke coming up from the middle of the train, and thought that was a funny place for a train to be smoking. I suddenly realized it was gun-smoke from a flak car, banging away at me. I had already committed myself, however, and I banked around and sprayed the cars, and pulled up into the overcast. The flak sounded like hail on a tin roof as it hit my plane. My brake was shot out, and there was just a hole in my wing where my pitot tube had been.’

Moon was lucky, and his Thunderbolt only took a few 2cm hits in the left wing. A more experienced gun crew, without a P-47 bearing down on them, would more than likely have adjusted their fire and brought his aircraft down. 404th FG groundcrews repaired his damaged machine, and it was back in the air within a few days.

P-47 Thunderbolt vs German Flak Defenses is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Jim Laurier via Osprey

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. P-47D Thunderbolt “Dottie Mae” – 4229150 / K4-S, 405th FG, 511th FS – 1944
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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