(with thanks to Erich Brown for P-61 ETO operations log reports)
The 425th NFS flew the P-61 night fighter in the ETO during 1944-45. Generally assessed as no better than 'competent' depending on the theatre, probably most successful in the PTO. There is still some controversy today about its acceptance and usage in Europe due to the fact that the later marks of Mosquito NF were already in service and at the disposal of US forces if needed. Overall the Mosquito was a much better aircraft than the Widow except for night ground attack where the Widow excelled over all other Allied night ground attack types. The principal feature of the 'Black Widow' the size and bulk of the type. It was not a nimble aircraft at all. It was broad and heavy, perfect for an immense array of arms, bombs, rockets and napalm, the first US fighter to use an upper power turret of 4-.50 cal mgs standard on the Widows in the PTO, and most frequently removed from the squadrons in the ETO. The lower four 20mm were sufficient to carve anything up when needed, while the upper turret was a weight expense. P-61 crews also emphasise when used th upper turret machine guns would throw off the aerodynamics of the a/c.
In addition the air intercept radar carried by the Widow was not particularly reliable, although its supporters believe that the SCR 720 was far better than na SN 2, Neptun or, other German AI radar. Reasons for this include: SCR 720 operated at 10 cm wavelength versus the roughly 50 cm to 75 cm wavelengths of German sets. This gives it far better range and bearing accuracy all other things being equal (which they are not). The German use of simple dipole antennas gives no side and back lobe supression. This means the German radars are far more susceptable to jamming. The SCR 720 could be trained in both azmuth and elevation to allow tracking a single target and to allow scanning a larger section of the sky ahead of the aircraft. An oddity of German radar was that in the Ju 88 and He 219 at least the radar operator sat backwards to the pilot. This meant his display showed things in reverse to their true position. That is, right was left on the display. This adds an unnecessary potential problem to directing the pilot onto a target. That SN 2 was adopted at all had more to do with Allied jamming and attempts to get around it than with it being a good AI set.
One interesting point on the P-61 was that it was equipped with large and effective air brakes. These were installed so the aircraft could rapidly decelerate after closing on a target at high speed. One problem WW 2 night fighters often had was that their closing rate on a target was very high. That is the fighter was going fast and the target was moving slow. Because optical spotting was still needed for the actual attack, this could result in the nightfighter not spotting the target until it was on top of it and then it would overshoot rather than get a firing pass. The speed brakes allowed the P-61 to quickly decelerate in such a situation and then match the target's speed for a firing run.
The first P-61 sorties in the ETO were carried out by the 422 NFS on 4 July 1944 under Lt. Col. O.B. Johnson. Five Widows each had two missions apeice seeking out Luftwaffe aircraft operating by night over Cherbourg/LeHavre. Four more missions were completed with no results before the first Anti-Diver (V1 doodlebug) patrols were launched on 14 July 1944 again with five Widows flying again two missions each. The 422nd NFS claimed a total of 5 V-1's for the month of July 1944 before operating defensive patrols as of August 3/4, 1944 when it committed a total of 9 Widows with the CO flying # 58 which found one contact then lost it. None of the other P-61's made contact with LW A/C. This evening was the first official operation actually Operation # 1 in their history while the Anti-Diver patrols took on their own separate patrol operations which was # 1 - 15.
Operating initially from bases in the UK the P-61s would catch the V-1's in flight if possible and destroy them over land or ocean eg Operation # 6: pilot T. Spelis flying # 40 dove down on a V-1 from 1000 feet above at 340mph. shot down V-1 with 420 rounds of 20mm and received damage to the left and right ailerons as he flew through the wreckage. Four P-61's on Anti-Diver patrols on 20 July 1944.
The 422nd NFS moved to A-15: Maupertus, France on 25 July 1944 and on 26 July performed an Anti-Diver patrol for operation # 12. The 425th NFS claimed a total of 4 V-1's from 31 July 1944 to 9 August in 10 operations. From August 12-26th 1944 the NF unit moves to Vannes Airfield which was a total wreck and had to be reconstructed for the Widows. At this stage of the war US intruder operations were still only in their infancy in the ETO. Elsewhere US squadrons in the MTO were using the Beaufighter and Mosquito for most of their term in the war, only very late did 1-2 receive the Widow.
On the late evening of 14 August 1944 a P61 A "Black Widow" of 422nd NFS followed a He 177-A5 "Greif" (F8+AN, Werknummer 550077) of I./KG 40. The bombers had taken off from Schwäbisch Hall in order to attack Allied targets in France. Over Barfleur on the Cherbourg peninsula the He 177 tailgunner (Uffz Fabinger) saw the approaching P-61 (he thought it was a P-38) and opened fire with his 20 mm-canon at 00:48 local time. He reported that hits and the right engine of the 'P-38' was on fire. The crew of the P-61 "Impatient Widow" was 2nd Ltd Lewis A. Gordon (pilot) and 2nd Ltd Creel H. Morrison.
The right engine was on fire and the hydraulic system was hit. Gordon went into a steep dive and succeded in distinguishing the fire. They were able to make it back to their base at Maupertus/France. Due to the hydraulic damage the nose-wheel didn' t deploy and they made a crash-landing. Both men unhurt. The "Impatient widow" was severely damaged and became a Hangar-Queen.
A superb shot of one of the unit's P-61s fitted with the ground attack rockets so often used in late fall of 44 into 45 by the unit.
On 28 and 29 August 1944 the 422nd NFS moved to A-39 : Chateaudun, France. The 425th NFS was in the process of moving to Vannes which needed total reconstruction.
On 27 August 44 the 425th NFS had dispatched 13 Black Widows to strafe German installations, only the pilots flew this sortie, the R/O were left at base. This was a daylight mission that the CO Lewis was very excited about. The P-61s hit 9 gun emplacements and shot up supporting tents/houses with 20mm cannon fire. Flew west of Hemnebout/Bolz Bridge, circled around towards St. Helen Kergoal and made a raid on guns west of Merlerenez with 300 guns reported and had light Flak available as protection. Major Lewis led this raid with
# 76 Ornsby
# 85 Montmeat
# 80 Heflin
# 37 Buck
# 46 Stacey
Three of the Widows caught light Flak damage during the mission and the raiding party of Widows expended some 4,452 rounds of 20mm. Although a successful mission, tragedy struck Lt. Nelson Willis who clipped a telephone pole and smashing into a bridge, he was killed.
The 425th moved to A-58/Coulommiers on Sept 11-13, 44 with few events to record due to poor weather - more ground fog and visibility down to 0 at times. a few chases, German AA giving problems with Widows returning to base damaged. The pilots are getting frustrated as they are involved in some chases but lost them all. Average up on each night 8 -14 Black Widows. 23 September 1944 ;
Lewis up from 2308 to 0107 hrs in # 85 Follwed a B-17 which may according to his after action report was a He 177 which fired with it's rear 2cm cannon and tore the Widow to pieces luckily Lewis was able to land at base and the wings had to be replaced. A note that the fuselage was full of 13mm holes ( should of read 20mm).
The 422 NFS moved to A-78/Florennes, Belgium on September 17-20, 1944 with the unit stood down for another 2 days. On hand are 28 P-61's. the patrols are cut short for another 3 days due to shortage of fuel on the 23rd of September this being operation # 38. September 24, 1944 though an operation no-one made contacts. No operations the following evening on the 25th of September.
During October tactics changed - operation # 45, 3rd October 1944 8 A/C airborne. Rhubarb-intruder mission with the following results reported;
# 80 Sartanowicz 1 Loco, 1 Train
# 83 Heflin 1 Loco and strafed a railroad station and yard
# 76 Bierer 1 Loco which exploded and 1 Train
# 82 Thompson 1 Loco which exploded, 1 Train then to another yard and did the same plus a signal tower. This was in the area of Saarbrucken. Numerous freight and railroad cars shot up.
1,348 rounds of 20mm used.
7 A/C airborne on night intercept patrols in the area of Metz and Nancy. 0 contacts except for J. Slayton which caught up on 3 "Friendlies" in # 70 P-61 at 10,000ft directed by GCI between 1931/2212 hrs.