Aviation History

The day Luftwaffe Bf 109s attacked USAAF P-38s escorting 72 B-25s and failed to shoot down a single bomber thanks to the determined defense mounted by the Lightning pilots

Luftwaffe Bf 109s Vs USAAF P-38s

USAAF fighter pilots experienced a baptism of fire when flying the technically advanced P-38 Lightning over North Africa in the wake of 1942’s Operation Torch. Their opponents were battle-hardened jagdflieger of the Jadgwaffe, flying the tried and tested Bf 109 in its very latest Gustav iteration.


Responsible primarily for escorting USAAF bombers attacking Afrika Korps installations in Tunisia, the P-38 units in North Africa had to develop effective tactics to defend the bombers against Luftwaffe fighter attacks.

After defeating the Axis in Tunisia, the Allied air forces turned their attention to disrupting the lines of communication in Sicily and southern Italy and to neutralizing Axis air power prior to the invasion of Sicily. Escorting the Twelfth Air Force bombers became the principal mission of the three P-38 fighter groups (1st, 14th and 82nd FGs) assigned to the Twelfth. Conversely, the defense of these vital targets from Allied air attacks fell primarily to the Luftwaffe, and specifically the Jagdgruppen (Fighter Groups) of Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 2 equipped with the Bf 109.

Luftwaffe Bf 109s attack USAAF P-38s

As told by Edward M. Young in his book P-38 Lightning vs Bf 109 North Africa, Sicily and Italy 1942–43, on Sep 2, 1943 the 82nd FG (95th, 96th and 97th FSs) suffered its heaviest losses of the war in an intense combat with Bf 109s from IV./JG 3, II. and III./JG 53 and I./JG 77.

That day, the 82nd was escorting 72 B-25s targeting the marshaling yards at Cancello, north of Naples. For some reason, Axis fighters did not intercept the formation until after the bombers had hit their target and turned for the coast. The 96th FS turned in to the attacking fighters and was soon engaged in an intense dogfight. The 95th FS turned back to help, and also became heavily involved as the combat dropped down to 4,000ft over the Bay of Naples. A short time later, the 97th FS left the bomber formation, now racing to safety, to help its fellow squadrons. The fighting went on until 75 miles from the Italian coast.

By the time the German fighters broke off their attacks, ten 82nd FG pilots were missing in action, with the 96th FS losing seven P-38s. The three squadrons claimed 23 enemy fighters shot down, including 15 Bf 109s, with 2Lt Fred Selle claiming three destroyed and two damaged. The Bf 109 Gruppen lost six aircraft in combat with the P-38s, three of them from JG 53. Amongst those killed was Franz Schiess, who had been awarded a Knight’s Cross in June and recently promoted to hauptmann. Schiess was last seen pursuing the P-38s well out to sea.

Axis fighters failed to shoot down a single bomber

The Axis fighters failed to shoot down a single bomber thanks to the determined defense mounted by the P-38 pilots. Like the 1st FG on August 30, the 82nd FG received a DUC for its pilots’ exceptional determination in defending the bombers at a high cost to themselves.

This mission proved to be the last significant combat between P-38s and Bf 109s until organizational changes brought the Lightning groups to a new battlefield.

P-38 Lightning vs Bf 109 North Africa, Sicily and Italy 1942–43 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Gareth Hector via Osprey

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. P-38J Lightning “SCAT III” – 43-28341, 479th FG, 434rd 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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