55th Fighter Group History at Nuthampstead
by Frank Birtciel

(On arriving at Nuthampstead, Frank was a brand new 2nd Lt. having just graduated from flying school and bomb and gunnery school.  Frank had about 40 flying hours in the P-38 and just turned 20 years old. He flew a tour in the P-38 and another tour in the P-51 completing 121 missions, finishing April 17, 1945.)

'The 55th Fighter Group arrived at Gurock, Scotland aboard the good ship Orion September 15, 1943 and travelled by train to Nuthampstead arriving there at 10:30 the next morning. The Group was Commanded by Col. Frank B. James and his Executive Officer was LtCol. Jack S. Jenkins.

The base was built in and around Nuthampstead taking up former farm land and we were the first to be based there. The construction had been recently completed and with the rains, mud was in abundance so we promptly named it Mudhampstead. The airfield was designed in the typical bomber base design with three runways and a perimeter track all the way around with aircraft parking stubs along the perimeter track. Office and housing buildings were of the Nissen design, half circular corrugated steel heated by small pot bellied stoves. The Control Tower was typical two story construction. The base sat at 460 feet elevation and was close enough to London to observe some of the bombing raids on that city as well as the antiaircraft shells exploding.

The Group mission was to provide long range escort for the bombers of the 8th Air Force using the P-38 with two 165 gallon auxiliary fuel tanks. Our first aircraft a P-38H model arrived September 21, 1943 to the delight of our pilots. It would be some time before we had our full complement of aircraft.

October 14, 1943 was the second raid to Regensburg and Schweinfurt with the loss of 60 heavy bombers of the 8th AF leaving no doubt that escort was essential to cut losses. The following day, October 15, 1943, the 55th Fighter Group became operational even though all of our aircraft had not arrived. The 20th Fighter Group also assigned the P-38 and located at King's Cliffe had a few aircraft and joined us for several raids into France and the Low Countries.

The winter of 1943 / 1944 was some of the worst weather in over 50 years and the P-38 developed problems with turbo superchargers, engine oiling, and cockpit heating that had not occurred in the Pacific or the Mediterranean where they were flown at much lower altitudes. These problem caused numerous aborted flights and left our pilots freezing and out numbered in combat. With these problems the Group destroyed some 50enemy aircraft, probably destroyed 17, and damaged 31 others. We had 30 pilots killed in action, 17 prisoners of war, 2 killed in accidents, 2 ditched in the channel and were recovered, and 3 who were shot down but evaded capture.

The P-38 escorted deeper and deeper into Germany as the war progressed and added strafing, dive bombing, and medium altitude level bombing in April 1944 on transportation. airfield, and communication targets. The 55th pioneered the use of the "Droop Snoot". A P-38 with the guns removed and a bombing nose with a Norden Bomb Sight and provision for a bombardier. Loaded with bombs and flying formation on the Snoot we all dropped our bombs at the same time and then strafed.

March 3, 1944 the P-38s failed to get the recall message and flew on to Berlin and became the first allied fighter over that city.

April 16 and 17, 1944 the 55th Fighter Group was moved to Wormingford.'


Frank Birtciel

 


 

55th Fighter Group Statistical History
 

The 55th Fighter Group started life as the 55th Pursuit Group but was renamed as the 55th Fighter Group in May 1942, as the USAAF began to update the names of its units.

By August 1943 ,the personnel had finished with their stateside training and began the preparations for the transAtlantic deployment to England. Three operational squadrons made the move to England: the 38th, 338th, and the 343rd.

On 4 September, the group embarked on the HMS Orion. This ship could normally carry 1,500 persons across the ocean. For this trip, 300 officers and 3,200 enlisted men made the voyage. The Group arrived in England and were posted to Nuthampstead.

The 55th was assigned to the Eighth Air Force's 66th Fighter Wing and received its P-38 fighters on 21 September 1943. Although it was the second P-38 group to arrive in England (the 20th Fighter Group arrived first), the 55th was the first to go operational when, on 15 October, the 55th flew a fighter sweep over Holland.

Shortly after midnight on 19th February 1944, Station 131 was attacked by bombers of the Luftwaffe.  The air base was a target of opportunity.  One 25 kg. bomb, (550 pounds), exploded on a corner of the field, leaving a large crater.  Several small incendiary bombs were dropped too, all without casualties or damage.

In early 1944, the Allies had established long-range fighter escort capability. The 55th Group provided protection for the heavy bombers during the famous maximum effort, known as "Big Week" 20-25 February 1944.

Soon thereafter, on 3 March 1944; the Eighth Air Force planners scheduled a large-scale daylight raid on Berlin. Unfortunately, the weather was very poor and most of the planes were recalled. The 55th Fighter Group did not receive a recall order and arrived over Berlin to rendezvous with the bombers which did not materialize. Lieutenant Colonel Jack S. Jerkins was leading the 55th that day and the Group made history by becoming the first American fighter unit to penetrate the Berlin skies during the war.

The 55th introduced a new form of P-38 on 10 April 1944. A specially modified Lightning, with a plexiglass nose and room for a bombardier in lieu of the fighter's normal nose armament, became known as the "droop snoot". The target for this first mission was to be the airfield 'at St. Dizier, France; but, as the planes approached, it became obvious that the airfield was obscured by a ground haze, Again leading the Group on a historic mission, Colonel Jenkins opted for a secondary target at Coulomiers. After the bombs were released, Colonel Jenkins led the fighters "down on the deck" to strafe the field. On his second pass, Jenkin's P-38 was hit several times by enemy gunners forcing him to crash land and be taken prisoner.

Six days later (16 April 1944), the remainder of the Group moved to Wormingford, near Colchester, in Essex, England.