After the Battle of Midway, the USAAF began redeploying fighter groups to Britain as part of Operation Bolero, and Lightnings of the 1st Fighter Group were flown across the Atlantic via Iceland. On 14 August 1942, Second Lieutenant Elza Shahan of the 27th Fighter Squadron, and Second Lieutenant Joseph Shaffer of the 33rd Squadron operating out of Iceland shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor over the Atlantic. Shahan in his P-38F downed the Condor; Shaffer, flying either a P-40C or a P-39, had already set an engine on fire. This was the first Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed by the USAAF.
After 347 sorties with no enemy contact, the 1st, 14th and 82nd Fighter Groups were transferred to the 12th Air Force in North Africa as part of the force being built up for Operation Torch. On 19 November 1942, Lightnings escorted a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers on a raid over Tunis. On 5 April 1943, 26 P-38Fs of the 82nd claimed 31 enemy aircraft destroyed, helping to establish air superiority in the area, and earning it the German nickname "der Gabelschwanz Teufel" – the Fork-Tailed Devil. The P-38 remained active in the Mediterranean for the rest of the war. It was in this theatre that the P-38 suffered its heaviest losses in the air. On 25 August 1943, 13 P-38s were shot down in a single sortie by Jagdgeschwader 53 Bf 109s without achieving a single kill. On 2 September 10 P-38s were shot down, in return for a single kill, the 67-victory ace Franz Schiess (who was also the leading "Lightning" killer in the Luftwaffe with 17 destroyed). Kurt Bühligen, third highest scoring German pilot on Western front with 112 victories, recalled later: “The P-38 fighter (and the B-24) were easy to burn. Once in Africa we were six and met eight P-38s and shot down seven. One sees a great distance in Africa and our observers and flak people called in sightings and we could get altitude first and they were low and slow.” General der Jagdflieger Adolf Galland was unimpressed with the P-38, declaring, "it had similar shortcomings in combat to our Bf 110, our fighters were clearly superior to it." Experiences over Germany had shown a need for long-range escort fighters to protect the Eighth Air Force's heavy bomber operations. The P-38Hs of the 55th Fighter Group were transferred to the Eighth in England in September 1943, and were joined by the 20th, 364th and 479th Fighter Groups soon after. P-38s soon joined Spitfires in escorting the early Fortress raids over Europe.
Because its distinctive shape was less prone to cases of mistaken identity and friendly fire, Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, Commander 8th Air Force, chose to pilot a P-38 during the Invasion of Normandy so that he could personally assess the progress of the air offensive over France. At one point in the mission, Doolittle flick-rolled through a hole in the cloud cover but his wingman, Earle E. Partridge (later General), was looking elsewhere and failed to notice Doolittle's quick maneuver, leaving Doolittle to continue alone on his survey of the crucial battle. Of the P-38, Doolittle said that it was "the sweetest-flying plane in the sky".
A little-known role of the P-38 in the European theater was that of fighter-bomber during the invasion of Normandy and the Allied advance across France into Germany. Assigned to the IX Tactical Air Command, the 370th Fighter Group and its P-38s initially flew missions from England, dive-bombing radar installations, enemy armor, troop concentrations, and flak towers. The 370th's group commander Howard F. Nichols and a squadron of his P-38 Lightnings attacked Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's headquarters in July 1944; Nichols himself skipped a 500 lb (227 kg) bomb through the front door. The 370th later operated from Cardonville France, flying ground attack missions against gun emplacements, troops, supply dumps and tanks near Saint-Lô in July and in the Falaise-Argentan area in August 1944. The 370th participated in ground attack missions across Europe until February 1945 when the unit changed over to the P-51 Mustang.
Italian pilots in the Mediterranean theatre started to face P-38s from late 1942 and considered it a formidable foe compared to other fighters, including the Supermarine Spitfire. A small number of P-38s fell into the hands of German and Italian units and were subsequently tested and used in combat.
On 12 June 1943, a P-38G, while flying a special mission between Gibraltar and Malta, landed on the airfield of Capoterra (Cagliari), in Sardinia, from navigation error due to a compass failure. Regia Aeronautica chief test pilot colonnello Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Tondi flew the aircraft to Guidonia airfield where the P-38G was evaluated. On 11 August 1943, Tondi took off to intercept a formation of about 50 B-24s, returning from the bombing of Terni (Umbria). Tondi attacked a bomber that fell off the shore of Torvaianica, near Rome, while six airmen were parachuting. That was the first and last war mission for the plane, as the Italian petrol was too corrosive for the Lockheed tanks. Other Lightnings were eventually acquired by Italy for postwar service.
If faced by more agile fighters at low altitudes in a constricted valley, Lightnings could suffer heavy losses. On the morning of 10 June 1944, 96 P-38Js of the 1st and 82nd Fighter Groups took off from Italy for Ploiești, the third-most heavily defended target in Europe, after Berlin and Vienna. Instead of bombing from high altitude as had been tried by the Fifteenth Air Force, USAAF planning had determined that a dive-bombing surprise attack, beginning at about 7,000 feet (2,100 m) with bomb release at or below 3,000 feet (900 m), performed by 46 82nd Fighter Group P-38s, each carrying one 1,000-pound (500 kg) bomb, would yield more accurate results. All of 1st Fighter Group and a few aircraft in 82nd Fighter Group were to fly cover, and all fighters were to strafe targets of opportunity on the return trip; a distance of some 1,255 miles (2,020 km), including a circuitous outward route made in an attempt to achieve surprise.
Some 85–86 fighters arrived in Romania to find enemy airfields alerted, with a wide assortment of aircraft scrambling for safety. P-38s shot down several enemy including heavy fighters, transports and observation aircraft. At Ploiești, defense forces were fully alert, the target was concealed by smoke screen, and anti-aircraft fire was very heavy—seven Lightnings were lost to it at the target, and two more during strafing attacks on the return flight. German Bf 109 fighters from I./JG 53 and 2./JG 77 fought the Americans. One flight of 16, the 71st Fighter Squadron, was challenged by a large formation of Romanian single-seater IAR.81C fighters. The fight took place at and below 300 feet (100 m) in a narrow valley. Herbert Hatch saw two IAR 81Cs that he misidentified as Focke-Wulf Fw 190s hit the ground after taking fire from his guns, and his fellow pilots confirmed three more of his kills. However, the outnumbered 71st Fighter Squadron took more damage than it dished out, losing nine aircraft. In all, the USAAF lost 22 aircraft on the mission. The Americans claimed 23 aerial victories, though Romanian and German fighter units admitted losing only one aircraft each. Eleven enemy locomotives were strafed and left burning, and flak emplacements were destroyed, along with fuel trucks and other targets. Results of the bombing were not observed by the USAAF pilots because of the smoke. The dive-bombing mission profile was not repeated, though the 82nd Fighter Group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their part.
After some disastrous raids in 1944 with B-17s escorted by P-38s and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, Jimmy Doolittle, then head of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, went to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Farnborough, asking for an evaluation of the various American fighters. Fleet Air Arm Captain and test pilot Eric Brown recalled:
"We had found out that the Bf 109 and the Fw 190 could fight up to a Mach of 0.75, three-quarters the speed of sound. We checked the Lightning and it couldn't fly in combat faster than 0.68. So it was useless. We told Doolittle that all it was good for was photo-reconnaissance and had to be withdrawn from escort duties. And the funny thing is that the Americans had great difficulty understanding this because the Lightning had the two top aces in the Far East."
After evaluation tests at Farnborough, the P-38 was kept in fighting service in Europe for a while longer. However, even if many of the aircraft's problems were fixed with the introduction of the P-38J, by September 1944, all but one of the Lightning groups in the Eighth Air Force had converted to the P-51 Mustang. The Eighth Air Force continued to conduct reconnaissance missions using the F-5 variant.
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