Losses and Aviation Safety

Remembering Donald C. Spalinger, the P-47 pilot shot down by German flak while diving on the gun positions in the hope of distract them from targeting a B-25 bomber formation

The P-47s from the 66th Squadron, 57th Fighter Wing, escorted the B-25 bombers. When enemy fighters failed to appear, the P-47s switched their job to flak suppression.

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By late 1944, the Italian Campaign was secondary to the campaigns in France, and Allied forces were not strong enough to break the Germans’ mighty Gothic Line. These fortifications were supplied by rail through the Alps, with trains arriving hourly and delivering 600,000 tons of supplies a month, enough to keep the German Army going forever.

But in the bitter winter of 1944-45, the mighty Gothic Line would be defeated by American air power in one of the most pivotal but least-known air campaigns of World War II. It would not be a direct assault; instead Operation Bingo would ruthlessly cut the Germans’ supply lines and leave them starved. However, it would not be easy. The rail routes were defended by a formidable array of heavy flak, and every raid was expected. Conditions were freezing, and even in electric flying suits, men suffered both hypoxia and frostbite.

As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, in his book Gothic Line 1944–45, The USAAF starves out the German Army, on Feb. 13, 1945, 12 B-25s from the 486th Bomb Squadron headed for San Ambrogio in the Brenner Pass intending to bomb a rocky mountain outcrop that would precipitate a landslide, blocking the main road. It was cold, but other than a ground haze the weather was clear.

The P-47s from the 66th Squadron, 57th Fighter Wing, escorted the bombers. When enemy fighters failed to appear, the P-47s switched their job to flak suppression.

Second Lt Donald C. Spalinger led the flight of fighters, diving on the gun positions in the hope of silencing them, or at least distracting them from targeting the bomber formation. He dove right down the throat of the guns, released his bombs, and pulled out of the dive.

His wingman 2nd Lt George M. Blackburn, following him in, saw white smoke trailing from Spalinger’s “jug,” as depicted in the artwork in this post. He radioed to him, “Bail out! Bail out!” but received no reply. Now flames were streaming from the engine. The fighter continued to climb until it stalled out; dropping crazily off the left wing, it fell out of the sky.

The bombers plastered the mountain with bombs, but the mountain refused to budge so the main road through San Ambrogio remained clear. Two of the B-25s from the 486th Bomb Squadron failed to return to base. The mission was a complete failure.

Gothic Line 1944–45, The USAAF starves out the German Army is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Anastasios Polychronis

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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