By Hugo Thomas
On the 24th of March 1945, in the skies above Germany, P-51 Mustangs flown by United States pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group (known colloquially as the Tuskegee airmen) were escorting B-17 bombers en route to a tank factory in Berlin. Nicknamed the ‘Red Tails’ for the red paint covering their rudders and rear fuselage, it was the longest mission they had yet undertaken.
It is not however their nickname that makes them unique, it is the colour of their skin. The Tuskegee airmen were pilots of mainly African American origin, and their story is one of triumph over prejudice and adversity. Formed in 1941 in Tuskegee, Alabama, they faced widespread racial discrimination from their fellow pilots, ground crews and elsewhere within the military and political hierarchy and it took special legislation (the Appropriations Public Law 18) to ensure funding for the training of black American pilots. On the ground, African American troops faced similar abuse but towards the end of the war, their role became vital. The 761st Tank Battalion, nicknamed the 'Black Panthers', were put under the command of the legendary General Patton after their arrival in Normandy in late 1944. On their way into Germany the 'Black Panthers' were able to liberate 30 towns.
Nevertheless, it was not until 2 June 1944 that the Tuskegee airmen flew their first combat mission, against Italian and German units on the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea. Air superiority was paramount during the Second World War, and it was from this that Germany was able to dominate during the early stages of the war with tactics such as that of Blitzkrieg. The German Army and Air force was merciless. At this point the tides of war were very much turning in the Allies favour with successes on the Eastern front and in North Africa forcing Hitler and Nazi Germany to go on the defensive. With German aircraft production lines being halted through raids and sabotage the Allies were able to take control of the skies. Although the Germans put up a decent fight they were simply outnumbered and outgunned.
It was Colonel Benjamin O Davis who led the 43 Red Tails that day in March 1945, but it was Captain Roscoe Brown who first spotted the white trails in the sky above him, indicating the presence of enemy aircraft, and it was he who told the other pilots (including Second Lieutenant Charles Bradley and First lieutenant Earl Lane) to drop their tanks and follow him. Dropping their fuel tanks gave the Mustangs an important tactical edge, because it would make them more agile and faster in the combat that lay ahead. They would need all the help they could get because flying to meet them were 25 German fighters including Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jets, capable of speeds of up to 540 miles per hour (that is 120 mph faster than the Mustangs). These jets arrived too late in the war and in too small numbers to affect the outcome, but they were faster and better armed than any other fighters of the time and as the world’s first operational jet-powered aircraft these ‘Wundewaffe’ or wonder weapons threatened for a while to tilt the war in the air back in Germany’s favour.
Early in the fight, neither side had the upper hand. Although faster, the Me 262s were less manoeuvrable than the Mustangs, and ultimately it was Captain Brown who was able to outmanoeuvre and fire upon Luftwaffe ace Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Franz Kulp’s aircraft, causing it to catch fire and crash (Kulp managed to bailout, but he suffered severe injuries and by the time he had recovered, the war was over). It was not the first Me 262 to be brought down, but it was the first by the Tuskegee airmen. It was not however the last. Second Lieutenant Bradley had been circling above the fight as it played out below him, waiting patiently for an opening. Oberleutnant Ernst Wörner suddenly shot past, and Bradley had little time to react, because the Me 262 was so much quicker and he had extraordinarily little time before the distance would have been too great to make up. His aim, however, was exceptional, shooting down Wörner and becoming the second Tuskegee pilot of the day to shoot down a Me 262. First Lieutenant Lane joined that exclusive club shortly afterwards, when he noticed a single Me 262 away from the pack. Using his greater manoeuvrability and height, he made up some of the ground but was still at extreme range when he had to open fire, as the Me 262 began to pull away. Aiming well ahead of the jet to allow for the difference in speed and trajectory, he scored a bullseye as the Me 262 caught fire and broke up.
As a result of this action, in which the Red Tails shot down three enemy jet aircraft, Captain Brown was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the 332nd Fighter Group received the Distinguished Unit Citation. For their services during the war in 2007 the Tuskegee airmen were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. Of the 1.2 million African Americans serving by the end of the war honours like this were few and far between. It was not until later did President Bill Clinton in 1997 award seven Medal of Honours to African Americans. Of the seven recipients, only one was still alive.
Today, the descendants of Captain Brown and his fellow Tuskegee airmen face a different battle. A war of words, whispers and threats which endanger the very foundations of society. Less than a year ago, George Floyd was murdered, and the aftermath has vividly exposed the racial fault lines that still exist, both in the United States and further afield. Despite all the progress that has been made since the Second World War, events like this underline how much further we still must go, and hopefully by telling this thrilling story of how men of colour overcame so much prejudice with their patriotism, determination, and self-sacrifice, we can all reflect on how much better a society we can create, if we celebrate what unites us, rather than what sets us apart.