Author Topic: Zemke's First Fan  (Read 1591 times)

Offline Sancho

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Zemke's First Fan
« on: April 17, 2001, 02:29:00 AM »
Zemke's First Fan, by David Pentland
On 12 May 1944, Col. Hubert Zemke tried his new "fan" tactic, designed to engage Luftwaffe fighters. Unfortunately on this occasion his aircraft was bounced by German ace Major Gunther Rall in his ME109 G-6(AS), and escaped only by sending his P-47D Thunderbolt into a gut wrenching dive.

Here's what Hub Zemke had to say about the encounter in Roger Freeman's Zemke's Wolfpack:
The day dawned fine and at 0946 hours I was on my way leading the eight P-47s of the 63rd Squadron which made up the first section.  Lieutenant Willard Johnson flew as my wingman in Daily White flight with Lieutenant Colonel Preston Piper leading the second element and Lieutenant John McDonnell as his wingman.  Piper, the bomber leader sent to me by LeMay, had previously flown six trips with us and was shaping up well.  As we climber out towards the Continent to make landfall over the prominent coastal estuary near Knocke, my attention was drawn to McDonnell's aircraft.  He was experiencing some sort of mechanical trouble and with a waggle of his wingtips peeled off and turned back.  Piper would now have to operate as a second wingman to me.  We continued our cruise climb to conserve fuel, making 22,000 feet by the time the bend in the Rhine appeared below, the point at which the 61st Squadron flights turned north towards Marburg, the 62nd's south for Mannhiem, while I took the 63rd ahead in the direction of Giessen, White Flight fanning out to the north and Red to the sout.

After some 40 miles I turned to begin a north-south patrol.  All three of us scanned the hazy horizons of the blue void, periodically dropping a wing to get a better view below where we hoped to spot enemy aircraft forming up.  No moving specks observed, I flipped the radio switch to the Bomber-Fighter channel for word of action elsewhere.  Nothing.  Flipping the swithc back I just caught the electifying alarm: "Fairbank, Break Left."  The instinctive reaction was a violent movement of stick and rudder pedals. As the Thunderbolt skidded round I was conscious of the all-too familiar white puffs--time-fused cannon shells exploding.  In the next fraction of a second I glimpsed the shape of an Me 109 and then others above.  Throttle to the firewall; cut in water injection. "Fairbank to Daily White Flight. Turn in trail, make a Lufbery."

Obviously outnumbered, until I had time to size up the situation the protective turning circle with each of us covering the man ahead's rear was my reaction.  It was a mistake; we were picking up speed too slowly and I could now see there were seven Me109s about 5,000 feet above waiting to pick us off.  They had advantages in altitude and speed and periodically launched an element of two to come down, shoot at us and then recover; the same tactics as we so often pulled on some unsuspecting Luftwaffe outfit.  As we turned I made repeated calls for assistance hoping another of our flights was near.  Suddenly a single Me 109 cut across our circle and took a deflection shot at Johnson's plane.  Flames enveloped the fuselage and the Thunderbolt turned over and disappeared from view.  Where was help?  I called again.  Piper and I tightened our circle.

Desperation rather than fear gripped me as I looked for an opening to escape.  If we attempted to dive our initial acceleration would be sluggish and they could nail us before we built up sufficient speed.  Then the lone Me 109 repeated its previous act: diving down across our circle he opened up with a deflection shot on Piper.  Again, out of the corner of my eye, I saw smoke and flame erupt.  Two down, one to go. Fear took hold, in that racing jumble of thought the prospect of death spun by. Is this the exit for Mrs. Zemke's little "Hoo-bart?"

Perhaps my dread would have been all the greater had I known that the pilot I had just seen despatch Johnson and Piper was the third ranking ace of the Lufwaffe, Major Gunther Rall, commanding II/JG11, with more than 200 victories to his credit.  The fact is, there is no time for such conjecture when one instictively knows terminiation of life is possibly but seconds away.  And it was only a matter of time before an enemy slipped in behind my violently turning Thunderbolt to claim the final scalp.  With a shouted oath to spur myself into action, I took the only possible course to escape. With violent movement of the controls, I rolled UN-Z over with a fast aileron flip and headed vertically for the ground, barrel rolling as I went to make a difficult target for my pursuers.  Down, full power, into the realms of compressibility.  By the time the alitimeter had unwound a couple of times and the airspeed indicator had his the peg, the Thunderbolt was rumbling and vibrating so much I expected it to fly apart. It was time to start recovery; cutting power, centralizing the stick to stop the barrel roll, and starting a long and gentle pull back to bottom out at around 5,000 feet.  A quick glance over each shoulder and a buck to clear my tail.  To my relief no frontal view of a Messerschmitt in hot pursuit or blinking cannon.  Perhaps they couldn't catch me; perhaps they thought I was out of control.

Shaken and damp with sweat, I turned the faithful UN-Z westward, putting on altitude again as rapidly as I could and oscillating my head as it had never turned before.  I was now conscious that the R/T was filled with the staccato calls of combat; the rest of the group must also be seeing plenty of action. Near Wiesbaden, just as I had passed 12,000 feet, the adrenalin surged.  I caught sight of four Me 109s coming in on my tail.  Again, vicious action with the stick and the P-47 skidded round to meet them in good time.  The '109s flashed past. Full throttle, water injection and into a barrel roll, heading for the ground in a steep dive.  Once more this tactic appeared to work for, when pulling out a few thousand feet above the fields there was no sign of my assailants.  This was quite enough activity for one day and a 290 degree magnetic course was set for England, climbing to gain altitude as fast as possible and twisting my neck as never before.  I had just topped 20,000 feet when a quick glance down as I crossed the Rhine south of Coblenz, pikced up four '109s circling about 5,000 feet below me.  The aggressive mood was quick to assert itself: the plan was a quick bounce from my superior altitude and a fast dive away for home.

I started to circle to make the attack when another glance revealed several more aircraft assembling on the original four.  Caution reigned as I continued to circle and watched more fighters join the formation down below.  I had wound up directly above a Luftwaffe assembly point, just what we had been seeking to do in developing the Zemke Fan--but instead of a sizable bunch of Wolfpack eager beavers poised for the kill there was ironically, only the lone originator of the scheme.  My throttle hand depressed the radio microphone switch: "Fairbank Leader to all Fairbank and Subway ships.  I need help fast.  Angels 20. South Coblenz."  I continued to call for help as the force below me grew to an estimated thirty in number, a whole fighter Gruppe.  With each orbit they gained altitude and as they went up so did I, to maintain my advantage.  For more than fifteen minutes I continued to circle, climbing  and calling for assistance.  Eventually I topped 29,000 feet and contrails began to stream back from the Thunderbolt.  They should have given me away to the Jerry formation but the contrails did enable two 61st Squadron pilots, Lieutenants Rankin and Thornton, to spot me and radio their presence.

As soon as the two red-nosed P-47s appeared below and around a half mile away, I told them to give me top cover while making my bounce.  So wing over and down into a fairly steep dive, picking out a lonesome Me 109 on the outer portion of the enemy formation.  By the time I was behind in firing position it presented a sixty to ninety degree deflection shot and over two rings of lead were laid off in the sight before squeezing the trigger.  From the tracers my aim was seen to be too far ahead of my target so I continued firing, letting the '109 fly right through my bullet pattern.  Strikes were seen along the fuselage before superior speed necessitated an abrupt pull back on the stick to avoid ramming my victim.  Zooming up in a climbing turn, a quick peep over the shoulder revealed the '109 in flames and a the pilot bailing out.  Foolishly I let elation momentarily take charge: "I got him," I yelled into the radio, only to hear an abrupt "Fairbank, Break Left."

The senses reeled from elation to fear as once more instantaneous movement of the controls brought me round to find four Me 109s coming straight towards me.  Turning a half roll to the west with full power and a dive, I was ready to outrun them if they pursued.  A squint back revealed I was again alone.  Looking at the fuel gauge, it revealed 125 gallons of gasoline for the 340 miles to the safety of England.  An hour and a quarter trip; it would be close.  Boost and throttle settings were adjusted for optimum economy; while there could be no relaxation of neck muscles across Belgium although a further encounter with the enemy was unlikely.  It was past two o'clock in the afternoon when the wheels of my P-47 touched the runway at "Dogday," some four hours and twenty minutes since leaving.  It was a tired, shaken group commander who gave his interrogation report.  Afterwards, probably for the first time in mylife, I took refuge in really drinking alcohol; I went to London, took a room at the Dorchester and got stupid drunk.

The Zemke Fan had certainly brought the action we sought...

Offline Seeker

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Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #1 on: April 17, 2001, 07:19:00 AM »

Offline RGJ

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Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #2 on: April 18, 2001, 01:59:00 AM »
Thanks for the extract Sancho it was a good read, been trying to get hold of a copy of the book here in the UK but so far no luck.


Offline Sancho

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Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #3 on: April 18, 2001, 05:44:00 AM »

Offline clairepiper

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Re: Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #4 on: January 28, 2023, 03:00:49 PM »
This was fantastic to read, thank you!  My father was Preston Piper, part of this story.  Hub Zemke's report says he was doubtful Col. Piper could have survived, having seen his P-47 blown up and on fire.  He did survive, with a badly broken back and horrific burns. Spent the remainder of the war as a POW in Stalag Luft III.  He also survived the January 1945 "death march" to Moosburg.  I was born in 1947. 

Offline potsNpans

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Re: Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #5 on: January 31, 2023, 06:21:24 PM »
My father was Preston Piper, part of this story.  Hub Zemke's report says he was doubtful Col. Piper could have survived, having seen his P-47 blown up and on fire.  He did survive, with a badly broken back and horrific burns. Spent the remainder of the war as a POW in Stalag Luft III.  He also survived the January 1945 "death march" to Moosburg.  I was born in 1947.
This was fantastic to read also, thank you!

Offline Hajo

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Re: Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #6 on: February 10, 2023, 02:36:50 PM »
I have the Book.  It is well worth the read.
- The Flying Circus -

Offline drgondog

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Re: Zemke's First Fan
« Reply #7 on: February 12, 2023, 09:51:42 AM »
Great account of Zemke's ordeal on May 12. That said he was not shot down by Rall. The two claims (credits for Preston and Piper - both POW) over and south of Frankfurt were due to Walter Krupinski and Otto Jahn, I.JG 5. Rall was north in Koblenz area.
Nicholas Boileau "Honor is like an island, rugged and without shores; once we have left it, we can never return"