P-51 B/C (Mustang III)

Enter the Merlin

The X-factor

Design changes

Production expansion: is it a B or a C?

Later modifications

Operational service

Onto the legend


Serial numbers

3-Way drawings



Operational service

The USAAF 8th Air Force had started daylight bombing raids into Germany in early 1943, but those mission, unescorted, lead to extremely heavy losses. The bombers could not adequately defend themselves against the Luftwaffe and the 8th desperately needed the new P-51s to be able to escort the bombers all the way to their targets and back.

The first operation unit to receive the brand new Mustangs in October 1943 was the 354th FG, based in England. This assignment was kind of a mistake however as the 354th was part of the 9th AF which was focused on ground attack. It seems like the word was still not out that the new Merlin P-51s were a new breed of fighter and no longer a ground-attack version. To correct this small “oversight” the 354th was immediately ordered to operate in support of the 8th AF's long-range bomber missions. The group remained under the 9th however.

The 354th flew their first mission (fighter sweeps) on December 1st, 1943, and were escorting bombers to Germany by the middle of the month. Lieutenant Glenn Eagleston drew first blood on a raid to Kiel , damaging a Me-110. The first Merlin P-51 kill came on December 16th, 1943, when Lieutenant Charles Gumm downed a Me-110 over Bremen.

That same month, the RAF formally received its first Mustang III, flying with RAF Number 65 Squadron in Kent , and would quickly equip other RAF squadrons with the new aircraft. RAF Mustang IIIs continued to be mainly used in the close air-support role although they participated in escort duties while the USAAF built up strength in the new fighter.

Other USAAF units started to receive Merlin Mustangs in December 1943 and January 1944 and by the early spring of 1944, the Merlin powered Mustangs became the most important fighters in the ETO. Utilizing the new third fuel tank in combination with external drop tanks, P-51Bs escorted 8th AF B-17s all the way to Berlin and back for the first time on March 6th, 1944.

Major James H. Howard of the 354th took off in his P-51B, named “Ding Hao”, for an escort mission over Germany on January 11th, 1944. He became separated from his flight when he saw a group of German fighters attacking a formation of B-17s. By now all alone, Howard regarded this as a "target-rich environment" rather than as a threat, and without hesitating dived into the fight. He quickly downed three German fighters and for the following half hour engaged in duels with the remaining Luftwaffe pilots. By the time the fight was over all his guns had jammed but one. With these kills, he became the first Mustang ace, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In the beginning of 1944, other USAAF fighter groups of the 8th and 9th Air Forces were receiving the P-51. An overview of all fighter groups:

4th Fighter Group
20th Fighter Group
335th Fighter Group
339th Fighter Group
352nd Fighter Group
357th Fighter Group
359th Fighter Group
361st Fighter Group
479th Fighter Group
354th Fighter Group
363rd Fighter Group
52nd Fighter Group
325th Fighter Group
31st Fighter Group
332nd Fighter Group

8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
8th Air Force
9th Air Force
9th Air Force
12th Air Force
15th Air Force
15th Air Force
15th Air Force

The 12th and 15th Air Forces were active in Italy while the 8th and 9th Air Forces mainly operated from the UK.

The 357th FG actually belonged to the 9th AF but was traded to the 8th AF in exchange of the 358th FG which flew Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. The 8th AF needed Mustangs for the long range escort duties and the 9th AF could do with the tough and rugged Thunderbolts for ground attacks.

The first fighter group of the 8th AF which received the Mustang was the elite 4th FG.. The 4th FG was the oldest and most experienced fighter group in the 8th AF since they were formed out of three RAF "Eagle" squadrons, composed of American pilots in British service.

Perhaps the best known P-51B Mustang is “Shangri-La” (P-51B-5-NA, serial 44-6913) flown by 4th FG ace Don S. Gentile. Gentile scored a total of 16 victories in March and April of 1944, earning him the Distinguished Service Cross on April 11th, 1944. Two days later Gentile crashed his Mustang while buzzing his home Base.

Don S. Gentile
Left: Don S. Gentile - Right: Shangri-La crash landed while buzzing the airfield

The P-51B/C Mustangs also entered service in the China-Burma-India theater (23rd and 51st FG of the 5th AF and 311th FG of the 10th AF) and with the Royal Australian, Chinese, Polish and French Air Forces.


Onto the legend

By spring 1944, NAA started production of the most legendary variant of the P-51 Mustang, the D-model. The P-51D would become the most heavily produced and best known type of all Mustangs. The Razorback Merlin Mustangs remained in service until the end of the war (in the last month of the war 1000 out of 2500 operational Mustangs were P-51B/Cs) and they were the first aircraft of the war that took the air battle over German soil.

A total of 3738 P-51B/C model Mustangs were built of which the RAF received 910 under the Lend-Lease agreement and of which 91 were converted to F-6 reconnaissance aircraft.

Today there are more then 150 Mustangs restored to airworthy conditions, but only a handful are P-51B/Cs.

P-51C-10NT Princess Elizabeth (photo by Christophe Haentjens)

P-51C-10NT Ina The Macon Belle (photo by Christophe Haentjens)

Photo courtesy of Curtis Fowles - www.mustangsmustangs.com

The sole airworthy TP-51C dual control version of the B/C model (Photo by Christophe Haentjens)

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Copyright © 2007 Christophe Haentjens - http://www.crazyhorseap.be