Aviation History

The story of Walter Beckham, the P-47 Thunderbolt pilot and Eighth Air Force’s Leading Ace shot down while pioneering Airfield Strafing Tactics against Luftwaffe Aircraft

Airfield strafing attacks

In his “New Year’s Message,” USAAF commanding general Henry “Hap” Arnold ordered Eighth AF to “Destroy the Enemy Air Force wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories.”

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As explained by Douglas C. Dildy in his book “Big Week” 1944, Operation Argument and the breaking of the Jagdwaffe, during “Big Week” [history’s first-ever successful offensive counter-air (OCA) campaign, codenamed Operation Argument] VIII Bomber Command was certainly doing its part by destroying German aircraft factories, and VIII Fighter Command was tallying impressive “kill” scores, shooting down Luftwaffe interceptors attempting to get at the bombers. In addition, the fighter groups – especially the P-47 Thunderbolt-equipped units – took the war to the enemy by “beating them up on the ground on the way home.”

To encourage airfield strafing attacks, Eighth AF soon announced that an aircraft destroyed on the ground would count equally with those downed in air-to-air combat. The command’s first successful airfield strafing mission was conducted by 356th FG on Jan. 21, 1944, with two enemy aircraft claimed destroyed and two more damaged.

Walter Beckham, P-47 Thunderbolt pilot and Eighth Air Force’s Leading Ace

But it was Colonel Glenn Duncan (CO 353rd FG) who pioneered Eighth AF’s airfield strafing tactics. On the third day of “Big Week,” after arriving over Bonn to cover the B-17s’ withdrawal, Duncan’s 353rd FG found no enemy interceptors present, but looking northeast, he saw an estimated 40 aircraft on the ground at Hangelar airfield (home of I./JG 300). Detailing Major Walter Beckham (CO 351st FS) – the Eighth AF’s leading ace with 18 victories to his credit – to provide high cover, Duncan dived down with eight P-47Ds to strafe a row of Ju 88s. Pulling up after his firing pass, he circled his two flights around the field to ward off any enemy fighters and called Beckham down to continue the attack.

Major Walter Beckham of the 351st Fighter Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group with his P-47D “Little Demon II” (42-75226), shortly after his 18th – and final – aerial victory.

Walter Beckham, P-47 Thunderbolt pilot and Eighth Air Force’s Leading Ace shot down

Accelerating to 425mph in his dive, Beckham led his flight of four across the airfield at very low level, lining up to strafe a row of six aircraft, while Captain Gordon Compton aimed his flight at three others. Compton later described, “As I closed I saw three Fw 190s parked close together. I strafed and saw hits on all three, and saw one burst into flames. ThenI pulled up off the target, turning about 90 degrees to the left and heard Major Beckham say that he’d been hit, was on fire and for everyone to get out. I was about 500 feet high at this time and saw tracers coming from every direction, also flak was bursting uncomfortably close, so I hit the deck.”

Beckham had indeed been hit (by lichte Flak-Abteilung 784’s single 8.8cm battery), an 88mm shell bursting beneath the nose of his P-47D-11 “Little Demon II” (42-75226 YJ-Y) and crippling its big radial engine, setting it ablaze. Immediately he called to his wingman, Lieutenant George Perpente, “Stay down, take the boys home, George. I can’t make it.” Beckham pulled up, rolled over and bailed out and was soon captured, remaining a POW for the rest of the war. It was a fate that would befall several notable Eighth AF aces in future airfield attacks as the American fighters soon roamed all across Germany.

Compton was credited with one Fw 190 destroyed and two damaged in this attack.

“Big Week” 1944, Operation Argument and the breaking of the Jagdwaffe is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Unknown

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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