USAAF P-38 pilot recalls being out of ammunition and colliding with a Luftwaffe Me 109 trying to shoot down his buddy’s damaged Lightning

USAAF P-38 pilot recalls colliding with a Luftwaffe Me 109 to avoid his buddy’s damaged Lightning being shot down by the German fighter

By Dario Leone
Jun 8 2024
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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The P-38 Lightning

The P-38 was originally conceived as an advanced, high-performance twin-engine interceptor. On Feb. 11, 1939, Lt. Ben Kelsey set a coast to coast record of 7 hours, 48 minutes in the sleek prototype Lightning, but crashed while landing. Despite the accident, development continued and the first of 13 service test YP-38s flew on Sep. 16, 1940.

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The versatile Lightning performed many different missions during World War II, including dive bombing, level bombing, bombing through clouds, strafing, photo reconnaissance and long range escort. It first went into large-scale service during the North African campaign in November 1942, where the German pilots named it Der Gabelschwanz Teufel (“The Forked-Tail Devil”).

As told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in his book Turning The Tide, The USAAF in North Africa and Sicily, on Dec. 2 of that year US Army Air Forces (USAAF) P-38 pilots Newell Roberts and Jack Ilfrey were strafing Faid airdrome, Tunisia. After attacking Faid, they got involved with several Bf 109s over the Gabes airfield. One of them made a direct hit on the oil line in his right engine and it didn’t take but a few seconds for the engine to freeze up.

Lightning on one engine

Ilfrey turned away and hoped he could make it the 60 miles back to Youks-les-Bains base, Algeria. He recalled; “The P-38 on one engine is no match for a 109 for combat or speed. I could make a maximum 275 miles an hour and I was right down on the ground ducking in and out of the sand dunes.”

Two Bf-109s chased him, taking turns shooting at the P-38. Ilfrey called for help and Roberts said he saw him and was coming.

Roberts recalled:

“Jack flew out of the cloud of bursting flak and headed in the direction of Youks with only one engine running. He’d been hit in the right engine, and the propeller was feathered, but he had full power on the left engine. I went down to escort him home, flying approximately three feet off his right wingtip and matching his speed of about 275 miles per hour. We were just three to four feet off the ground, with the propellers not quite hitting the vegetation.

“To us, flying low was not a bad risk. In fact, it was the only maneuver in a case like this. Our being so low made it difficult for an enemy fighter to come down and shoot at us because the attacker would be in danger of running his own nose into the ground while he was trying to get his sights on one of us. Flying low for Jack Ilfrey and myself had never been a problem. We could strafe targets accurately with our props clicking over only a few feet off the ground. At that point in time, Jack Ilfrey was one of the Army Air Forces’s best combat pilots.

USAAF P-38 pilot recalls being out of ammunition and colliding with a Luftwaffe Me 109 trying to shoot down his buddy’s damaged Lightning

P-38 Vs Me 109

“I was keeping my eye on the Me 109 that I had spotted circling alone above the airdrome. As Jack and I began our race toward home, I glanced toward the German again, just in time to see him execute a half roll. He pulled his nose through, and, when he rolled out, he was right on Jack’s tail. I wanted to get a deflection shot at the Me 109, which was flying some ten to twenty feet to my left.

“From my position off Jack’s right wing, I eased off my throttle and turned slightly to my left. I ended up about twenty feet in back of the Me 109. I wanted to shoot the pilot. I had the Me-109’s nose in my sight, but when I pressed the firing solenoid nothing happened. I was out of ammunition! I was helpless. I could see the German’s bullets going into Jack’s airplane, peeling the metal up as they penetrated. I could also see the German sitting in his Me-109. He looked around at me and laughed! I was so close that I could see his eyes were blue, he had blondish hair, and he had a light complexion.

P-38 – Me 109 collision

“You do things in combat on the spur of the moment, without thinking and You act instinctively. You don’t wait, or concentrate, or try and make up your mind. It is instilled in a combat pilot to act automatically to save a comrade’s life. In combat, you have a devotion to comradeship that very few people ever achieve at any other time in their lives.

“What I did was start to ram the German airplane with my left propeller. When the German saw me coming, he immediately turned to the left. As he did, his tail hit my left wingtip. The collision demolished the Me 109’s tail assembly, the pilot lost control, and the Me 109 dived into the ground. I looked around, but there were no more Me 109s in the air. As Jack and I continued on to Youks-les-Bains, I flew close formation with him.”

Ilfrey recalled, “When I was able to lift myself out of the cockpit, I realized I was scared, shaking and weak.”

Ground crewmen counted 268 bullet holes in his P-38.

Turning The Tide, The USAAF in North Africa and Sicily, is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Olds P-38
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

Photo credit: Gareth Hector via Osprey, U.S. Army Air Forces and Clemens Vasters from Viersen, Germany, Germany via Wikipedia


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Dario Leone

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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