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There was an organisation in the U.S.A. which played a huge role in keeping Great Britain in the war in the early years. Its work was vital, and German agents would have paid dearly to know about its inner workings, yet few people just understand how important it was - the British Purchasing Commission.

Based in New York, it was founded before the start of WW2 when it became obvious that the Royal Air Force would be unable to produce enough modern aircraft to complete their expansion scheme before hostilities with Germany broke out. Realizing that this was a matter of survival, the BPC began using Britain's gold reserves to purchase vital American aircraft. Working closely with their French allies, Britain made some good purchases, some decent ones and some outright bad ones, too. The P-39 only equipped one RAF unit, No 601 Squadron, and was quickly rejected, but the Liberator was not only named by the British, but ordered by them before the USAAF!

One would hardly call the Brewster Buffalo front-line material in the European air war - although the Finns modified it and did well against the Russians -  but Britain bought it (and relegated it to the Far East, where it was slaughtered by Zeros). The BPC meanwhile was desperate for more and more fighters. The RAF had requested hundreds more P-40s which were proving to be very useful in North Africa, so Sir Henry Self, the head of the BPC, asked North American Aviation if they were willing to build the Curtiss P-40 under licence. Despite the fact that North American had never built a fighter aircraft before, "Dutch" Kindelberger offered to build a superior 'plane to the P-40, in as much time as it would take to install the production lines for the Curtiss machine - 120 days! The BPC countered this proposal by insisting that North American buy 'valuable wind tunnel data' on the next fighter that they wanted - the XP-46 - from Curtiss. Kindelberger agreed, paid $56,000 for the data, and promptly filed it. The company had been working on their own experimental fighter, the NA-73X, before the BPC approach so the 'crazy' deadline didn't seem too impossible for the North American design team, which was headed by the Austrian-born Ed Schmued.  

Amazingly, the prototype of what was to become the P-51, complete with an advanced laminar-flow wing, was rolled out in just 117 days! Admittedly the Allison engine was missing (as 'Government furnished equipment' all were needed for the P-40) and the aircraft was running on a pair of 'borrowed' N.A. T-6 trainer wheels, but she eventually took to the air on 26th October, 1940. Sadly, an engine failure on the fifth flight was followed by a bad forced landing in a ploughed field, but the P-51's promise had been obvious to all. The Allison V-1710-81 put out 1,200 hp, which gave the Mustang 1 (named by the British) a top speed of 390 mph, faster than any version of the Spitfire which had yet flown. British orders flooded in, and two test examples were supplied to Wright-Patterson, where the American authorities undertook their own thorough test program. The result? Orders for the P-51 and a ground attack version called the A-36.  

The Mustang 1 had a problem - the Allison engine. Designed to give maximum performance at low altitudes, by 17,000 feet it had 'run out of steam', yet fighter combats in Europe were regularly taking place at 25,000 feet and higher. The RAF used the early Mustangs on low-level tactical reconnaissance missions (usually in pairs) over coastal Europe and beyond, undertaken by squadrons of Army Co-operation Command. Help was on the way, however. Four Mustangs were delivered to the Rolls-Royce test airfield at Hucknall, Nottinghamshire (about 12 miles away from my 'home' village). Inside six weeks, all four had been fitted with either two-stage, two-speed supercharged Merlin 61 or Merlin 65 engines and four-bladed propellors to absorb the 1,600 hp of the uprated Rolls-Royce powerplants. The result was incredible - 441 mph at 29,800 ft and a rocket-like 5.9 minutes to 20,000ft (rather than the 9.1 minutes of the P-51A)! These test aircraft, called the Mustang X, were quickly followed by genuine XP-51B, converted by North American to take the licence-built Packard Merlin V-1650-3.

Within weeks orders for over 2,000 P-51Bs flooded the factories of North American. The B-17s and B-24s of the 8th Air Force from East Anglia and the 15th Air Force from Italy, could now penetrate - escorted - all the way to Berlin and back. The first combat mission of the new fighter took place in December, 1943, and during the run-up to D-Day in Europe the Mustangs attacked the Luftwaffe in the air, and increasingly on their own airfields on the way back from escort missions. The problem of the blind-spot caused by the Mustang's high rear fuselage, which the RAF had improved by adding an elegant bulged canopy called the 'Malcolm hood', was permanently fixed in the P-51D (as you can see above), with a beautiful bubble canopy and cut-down rear fuselage. To make up for the reduced 'keel area', a small fin fillet was added. It is said that when Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, first saw Mustangs in flight over Berlin, he realized that the war was lost. The Mustang saw action in the China-Burma-India theater of operations, too, and across the wide expanse of the Pacific, but its biggest impact came in Europe.

One of the most famous units to fly the Mustang was the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskeegee Airmen. This all-black group, then known as 'The Red Tails', proved itself in combat over North Africa and then from Italian bases, escorting the 15th Air Force B-17s and B-24s over targets in Northern Italy, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany, even striking as far as Berlin itself. '44-72035' was shipped to Europe in early 1945, and for the last three months of the European conflict flew escort and ground attack missions. During this period '-035' suffered battle damage on both sides of the fuselage behind the cockpit, and also on the tail fin. These small repairs are still visible.

At the end of the war, just like the 332nd, '-035' was de-activated back in the United States, and entered a period of service with various Air National Guard units. Eventually sold on the civilian market, it began a tortuous path through many countries before ending up with the 'Hangar 11' collection of Peter Teichman at the famous Battle of Britain airfield of North Weald. It is at this point that I must, respectfully, disagree with Peter. He freely acknowledges that he owns a very rare aircraft, possibly the ONLY P-51D that is still flying which saw combat with the 332nd.

It is currently painted as "Jumpin Jacques", a P-51D which was flown by Lt Jacque E Young of the 3rd Fighter Squadron, 3rd Air Commando Group, a unit that was based in the Philippines, and bears the Pacific version of the black and white identity stripes. Why not put it into the much more famous 'Red Tail' finish, that it fought in? It would honour the surviving members of the 332nd, and would be welcomed by enthusiasts everywhere, I'm sure.

14,819 Mustangs of all marks were built (plus 200 by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Australia) and they were probably the single most successful fighter type of the Second World War. Whether it was dogfighting over Berlin, or pounding round the pylons at Reno, this Mustang is a real thoroughbred.

Oh, and just one last thing. Be grateful that the engine installation which was at one time favoured by Rolls-Royce, and got as far as a full-scale mock-up, did not come to pass. Yes, the people at Hucknall had designed a Merlin which would fit BEHIND the pilot, just like the P-39 !  

6:16 PM PT: Oh, and many, many thanks to both my American and my British reader for sticking with me through 300 diaries. It has been great fun!

Originally posted to shortfinals on Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 05:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force, Aviation & Pilots, History for Kossacks, and World War Two Aircraft.

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