As the Autumn of 1944 turned to winter, the USAAF Eighth Air Force bombers were penetrating ever deeper into enemy territory, attacking distant targets in central and south-east Germany. Large formations of seven or eight hundred bombers, escorted by as many fighters, darkened the skies over the Reich.
Central to the massive daylight raids was the long-range capabilities of the P-51 Mustang, the most versatile fighter of the war. Despite incessant pounding from the air, the Luftwaffe were putting up determined resistance, particularly in the south, often sending up several hundred fighters to meet the challenge. Huge aerial battles were fought between the opposing groups of fighters, and though the Allied pilots usually gained the upper hand in these encounters, the air fighting was prolonged and furious.
Typical of those encounters, on a single mission in November the Allied estimate of Luftwaffe sorties flown against them exceeded 750, but often the German fighters were handicapped by poor direction from the ground, hampering their effectiveness – on the 27th, several Gruppen were vectored directly towards the P-51s of the 357th and 353rd Groups believing them to be in-coming bombers. They paid the price, the Leiston based pilots of the 357th bagging 30 enemy fighters before they knew what hit them.
Successful as they were, the long-range escort missions flown by the P-51s were both hazardous and grueling. The weather, particularly in winter, was often appalling, and even an experienced pilot could become disorientated after hectic combat, and lost in the far reaches of the Reich. The return to base in England after combat over distant enemy territory was always exhilarating, and the pilots often hedgehopped gleefully over towns and villages on their way home after crossing the English coast.
Nicolas Trudgian’s painting depicts such a scene, with P-51 Mustangs of the 357th Fighter Group racing over a typical English village as they head for Leiston and home. As the evening light fades, the peace and tranquility of the snowy village, broken momentarily by the roar of Merlin engines, seems to bid the returning fighter boys a warm winter’s welcome.
Each print in Nicolas Trudgian’s limited edition print has been individually signed by FOUR highly distinguished P-51 Mustang pilots who flew with the 357th Fighter Group in combat during World War II.
Colonel C.E. BUD ANDERSON
First Lieutenant RAYMOND T. CONLIN
First Lieutenant JOHN SKARA
Captain ROBERT P. WINKS