RAF P-47D Thunderbolt – big and burly, just right for Burma!

For the British during the Second World War, the area of operations which covered Burma, Malaya and India (which covered part of the US CBI – China, Burma, India Theater of Operations) was a vital area in terms of British Imperial defence, yet sadly neglected. The loss of the fortress of Singapore, as well as Malaya and the sinking of the two capital ships, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, by Japanese airpower on the 10th of December, 1941, was just a foretaste of a savage assault by the Japanese Army in Burma, aiming to crush Imperial and Chinese Forces and invade India.

Because of the emphasis on the defeat of Germany by the Allies – both in North Africa, then in Europe – and the huge distances involved, with both German and Japanese naval and aviation assets threatening Allied merchant ships, the lack of good equipment was evident right from the start of the campaign. It was not for nothing that the British 14th Army in Burma – commanded by Lieutenant General William Slim – was known as ‘The Forgotten Army’.

The Royal Air Force had to make do with what it had at the start of the campaign, plus whatever could make it through the submarine screens of both the German and Japanese Navies, or over the long ‘air bridge’ from Europe or the United States. Consequently, the Brewster Buffalo, which had been rejected for European service, was sent to Malaya and Burma and slaughtered by the Oscars and Zeros. The Curtiss Hawk 75, which the RAF called the Mohawk, soldiered on in the role of fighter-bomber until 1944, and the Hawker Hurricane grew long in the tooth in this theater of operations. Spitfires (usually the Mk VIII or Mk XIV) were both rare, and without the long-range needed to cover the immense distances involved, to escort RAF Liberator strikes, for example. The South East Asia Command (SEAC) had been formed in August 1943, and its first Supreme Allied Commander was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the distinguished Royal Navy officer. Despite a difficult political framework, Allied forces began to put up a stout defence on the Indian frontier with Burma, then slowly pushed the Japanese southward.

Something had to be done about the fighter bomber situation, and the RAF started taking delivery of the heavy-hitting Republic P-47D. Powered by the 2,300 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800, and armed with 8 x .5″ M2 Browning machineguns and up to 2,000 lb of bombs it was just what the RAF needed. The P-47 had an immensely strong, two-spar, wing with Frise type ailerons and slotted flaps. The RAF Thunderbolts differed from standard with modified turbo-superchargers and engine vents and extra cooling gills either side of the cowling. A total of 826 Thunderbolts were taken on charge, comprising 239 ‘Razorbacks’ (which the RAF called the Mk 1) and 587 ‘bubble’ canopy versions (which the RAF called the Mk II). The first unit to convert was No 135 Squadron in September, 1944, and eventually 15 RAF squadrons were flying the big fighter; all of these units converted from the Hurricane Mk IIc. The RAF used what they affectionately called the ‘T-Bolt’ for escort duties for their B-24 Liberator strikes (No. 134 Squadron specialized in this) and long-range attacks on Japanese airfields and supply dumps. Their usual mode of operation was the ‘cab rank’ armed patrol, normally armed with three 500 lb bombs. They would be called in to attack a strong point or enemy guns by a forward tactical controller (usually a tour-expired RAF pilot) and keep the Japanese under constant pressure; No 42 Squadron were commended for attacks against enemy 105 mm guns during the advance on Rangoon, the Burmese capital.

Following VJ Day, many of the T-bolt squadrons were quickly disbanded, with only two, Nos 5 and 30 remaining in India to convert to the Hawker Tempest II. Two other units (60 and 81 Sqns.) ended up in Batavia, in what was then the Netherlands East Indies, attacking anti-Government forces during the rebellion there. The very last RAF unit to convert away from the T-bolt was No. 60 Squadron, who transitioned to Spitfires in Singapore, during December, 1946.

There were very few RAF P-47s seen outside of SEAC. The Thunderbolt Operational Training Unit (No. 73 OTU) was a long way away from the area – but it was at El Feyid, in Egypt! A single Mark I was assembled by Heston Aircraft in England and retained for trials by the RAF’s Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, but in general the RAF did not seem to like the idea of using the big American fighter in Europe.

Here we see a classic case of a museum collecting policy being fulfilled by a round about route. The aircraft you see, on display in the Main Hall of the RAF Museum, Hendon was never on charge with an RAF unit. Indeed, this P-47D-40-RA, built at Evansville, in June, 1945, was never issued to a U.S. frontline unit! It remained with various USAF storage units until May, 1952, when it was sent to Yugoslavia (at that time nominally neutral) under the Mutual Assistance Pact. No less than 10 squadrons of Thunderbolts were used by the Yugoslav Air Force as fighter-bombers, until Yugoslavia fell under Soviet influence and re-equipped with Warpac aircraft types. In 1985, Doug Arnold, who was a great aircraft ‘wheeler and dealer’, managed to get two stored Yugoslav P-47s out of Belgrade and brought them back to his nascent ‘Warbirds of Great Britain Collection’ in Leicestershire. He swapped one of them for a Spitfire LF XIVe which had been ‘on the gate’ at an RAF base, and the RAF Museum took charge of the Thunderbolt. Work was undertaken at the Restoration Centre at RAF Cosford, then a heavy rebuild to static exhibition standard was undertaken by The Fighter Company at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Eventually, it would appear in 2004 at Hendon in a Dark Earth, Dark Green camouflage scheme, typical of SEAC, with the white markings on the cowling, wings and tail to identify it as a P-47. The RAF roundels and fin flash show NO red component, as there had been well-document instances of ‘friendly fire’ in theater, due to confusion with Japanese markings.

It is shown as a Thunderbolt Mk II, ‘KL216’ of No 30 Squadron (Motto: ‘Ventre a terre’ – ‘All out’), coded ‘RS – L’, which flew the T-bolt from July, 1944 to June, 1946, when they were replaced by Tempest Mk II aircraft.

It is a real shame that the RAF did not use the P-47 in Europe – after all, they used the Mustang in quantity there – and it is one of the minor mysteries of the war as to why they did not do so.


12 comments on “RAF P-47D Thunderbolt – big and burly, just right for Burma!”

  1. Another very nice posting. I was unaware of the use of P-47s at all by the RAF, very nice to learn.


  2. It has always been a puzzle to me as to why the RAF confined its use of the P-47 to SEAC/CBI, given that the USAAF were making such good use of them in Europe (the spares support, and P-47 specialists on Thunderbolt bases such as Duxford were already available). There would certainly have been enough P-47s available from Republic! A most curious decision, in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Likely to economically protect Supermarine and Hawker as well as Britain’s aviation industry so it would exist after the war’s end? Or having homegrown aircraft duel with the Germans as a point of pride — especially for morale’s sake (also an important wartime consideration)? Or, some stodgy committee sitting somewhere with the power to decide with or without common sense?


  4. Why weren’t there more RAF Thunderbolts?

    1) Presumably the T-Bolt was selected for use in south-east Asia as a result of A) its strengths as a fighter-bomber, B) its long-range, high altitude (i.e. bomber escort) capabilities, and C) its supercharged radial, air-cooled engine. For some reason of which I am not aware, the Pratt and Whitneys and other radial engines typically gave better performance in the heat and humidity of south-east Asia than the Rolls-Royce Merlin and other in-line liquid-cooled engines which were known to lose power and/or fuel economy under those conditions (hence the P-47 would have been preferred to the P-51 Mustang, longer range Spitfires, i.e the Mark VIII, and the Tempest Mark V–you will note however that the Thunderbolt was replaced as a long-range escort in the SEAC theatre by the Tempest Mark II which had a Bristol Centaurus radial engine).

    2) Outside the CBI/SEAC theatre, the conditions favouring use of the Thunderbolt by the RAF or other commonwealth air forces did not exist and these groups were sufficiently pleased with the performance of their Spitfires, Typhoons, Tempest Mark. Vs and Mustangs (Marks I-IV) which were generally regarded to have superior handling, climbing and dogfighting characteristics to all varieties of the heavier P-47 (yes even those with the paddle prop). The RAF might have not used the P-47 at all, or to a lesser extent, if the tropicalized Tempest Mark IIs had been available earlier in sufficient numbers.

    3) By early 1944, the requirement for longer ranged day bomber escorts in the ETO and MTO was largely already fulfilled by the USAAF primarily with the P-51 Mustang (B-D models) and to a lesser degree with P-38s. England-based USAAF P-47s were commonly used not as long-range escorts but as medium-range escorts (with Spitfires and P-38s) because the fuel-heavy P-51s themselves had to be escorted to, or somewhat beyond the German border before they could afford to drop their external tanks and engage in aerial combat (assuming they wanted to complete their long-range escort mission). Escorted British daytime (tactical) bombing in the ETO and MTO was typically done with twin engine bombers over short to medium ranges within which Spitfires had sufficiently long legs to act as escorts. The need for British long-range day bombing was filled by Mosquitoes which could carry as much of a bomb load (in terms of weight) as the American B-17s commonly did on their missions, at speeds (in excess of 350 mph) that did not require, or allow for a fighter escort. Long-range escort of British strategic night bombers (or enemy night fighter interdiction) was the domain of twin engine, two seater Mosquito and Beaufighter night fighters and intruders.

    4) The Hawker Typhoon was at least as good a fighter-bomber and rocket launching platform as the P-47, and the more advanced Hawker Tempest also had similar ground attack capabilities.

    5) By late 1944, with the outcome of the war no longer in doubt, Britain did not want to incur any more Lend-Lease debt to the United States than it absolutely had to (believe it or not, they just finished paying off their war debts to the U.S. in 2006!). Hence, why would the British acquire more aircraft from the US than they really needed?

    6) No doubt the British Air Ministry did have some reservations about adopting non-British-designed aircraft for British or Commonwealth use in the various air forces or the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), but they did employ quite a few American types (see webpage below) to fill in gaps in British production or to take advantage of unique or desirable characteristics of U.S. planes (e.g. purpose-built carrier aircraft manufactured by Grumman). Sometimes their disdain for particular U.S. designs which they had tested was not unfounded.



  5. It is true that the units were generally happy with the Typhoon/Tempest V, but given the fact that all liquid-cooled engines suffered when used on ground attack missions (e.g. 4 of the top 5 USAF Mustang aces were shot down during strafing attacks, and ‘Bee Beaumont was likewise shot down in a Tempest), the legendary survivability of the P-47 might have saved quite a few losses. I have been consistantly puzzled as to the relatively minor European use by the Fleet Air Arm of the F4U Corsair. I know that it was confined to the Pacific Theatre, but here is a magnificent 400mph+ fighter with excellent range, armament fit, and an air-cooled engine, that could have been used by the RAF! (It was available for the asking via Lend-Lease)


    • Some thoughts on your response:

      1) True, the air-cooled radial engine of the Thunderbolt was theoretically better suited to ground attack wherein AA damage to the cooling system (of liquid-cooled engines) or the engine itself was a common cause of aircraft losses. The relatively low loss rate (apparently the lowest for any single engine fighter in WWII) of the P-47 would indeed suggest that it had greater survivability than other single engine allied fighters tasked with that role. The P-47, however, was not a flawless aircraft, and was known for a number of potential problems when taking off and landing owing to its large propeller and relatively short ground-propeller clearance (about 6 inches in level attitude), as well as engine failures on takeoff which were nearly always fatal for the aircraft and pilot. Additionally, quite a few USAAF Thunderbolts seem to have been damaged or destroyed in collisions with other aircraft or objects on the airfield when landing (no doubt due in large part to their great mass). Others were apparently the victims of the overconfidence of their pilots such as in the case of “Gabby“ Gabreski`s foolhardy final mission.

      Such characteristics and anecdotes may have given the British Air Ministry pause if they ever truly considered adopting the P-47 for RAF and Commonwealth use in Europe or the Mediterranean, especially when they already had other acceptable (though perhaps not as ideal) and worked-up British types to do the same job.

      2) Over 700 lbs of armour was fitted around the engine and radiator (as well as the cockpit) of Typhoons and Tempests to mitigate the threat from small calibre (20 mm or less) ground fire (not sure how effective this protection was), however it is questionable how different these planes would fare if critical hits were sustained to major structural members, control surfaces or systems, fuel tanks etc. which did not result in an immediate loss (in terms of fuselage and wing “ruggedness” the robust, heavily built Typhoon and P-47 were of similar durability). In the event of significant control damage affecting the flight characteristics and attitude of the aircraft, might not the lighter Typhoons and Tempests have a better chance of survival? Direct AA hits in the engine by heavier calibre (37 mm or larger) shells (not entirely unheard of) would likely be fatal regardless of engine type.

      I have to believe that if the losses of Typhoons or Tempests on ground attack missions were at any time unacceptably high due to engine damage/coolant loss, there would have been a great urgency to replace the Napier Sabre engine with a radial engine of British design (presumably the Bristol Centaurus due to its high horsepower and adaptability to the Typhoon/Tempest fuselage). The fact that no replacement was seriously contemplated and they took their time in perfecting the Centaurus (in production as early as 1942) suggests that was not the case.

      3) The Hawker Typhoon was a proven rocket-firing platform long before the P-47 was adapted for the same purpose, and by early 1944 rocketphoon squadrons had largely worked out their techniques and tactics. Front line P-47 squadrons, by contrast, didn`t have rocket projectiles (HVARs and triple-tube launched M8 RPs) until some time after D-Day and it presumably took them a while to get the hang of firing them with any degree of accuracy. At the time of the invasion, the British generally believed that their 60 lb rocket projectiles were the best aerial weapon available for use against German tanks and enemy strongpoints. From their viewpoint then, why would they invest in a foreign ground attack aircraft that up to that time had not demonstrated equal or superior weapons/payload abilities (to their domestic types) in the field? That the RAF valued rocket firing ability over other desirable aircraft characteristics in their fighter-bombers is generally illustrated by their prolonged and late (1943-1945) use of the Hurricane Mark IV in the ETO, MTO and SEAC theatre.

      Of course, the true effectiveness of fighter-bombers of any type (and rocket projectiles) in destroying German tanks has been the subject of some significant debate in recent years.

      4) Regarding your comments about the F4U Corsair, it was used extensively by the Fleet Air Arm (probably more so than any American-built carrier fighter), and flew operationally from British Illustrious Class carriers months before it was employed by the Americans in a similar capacity, thanks to some significant modifications and innovations the FAA took the liberty of introducing. It was indeed a tricky fighter to master, particularly on takeoff and landing due to poor visibility over the long nose, heavy engine torque (huge propeller) and (once again) low ground-propeller clearance. They didn`t call it the “Ensign Eliminator“ and the “Bent-winged Bastard from Baltimore“ for nothing you know!
      In addition to its role in British Eastern and Pacific fleet carrier strikes in the Indian Ocean and Pacific, the Corsair was also used on operations in the North Atlantic, most notably in escorting Fairey Barracuda dive bombers in their attacks on the German Battleship Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord (northern Norway) on operations Tungsten and Mascot (April and July 1944).

      5) As far as the Corsair being used by the RAF, I don`t think that would have ever happened, not for technical, so much as political reasons. The greatest opposition to its use as a land-based fighter in the ETO or MTO I think would have come from the USAAF and perhaps the US Army as a whole who regarded these theatres (as far as American involvement went) as their domain. The Corsair, being an American-made Naval and Marine fighter, would not have been welcome there for the same reasons U.S. Marines were not welcomed or used in those areas. The British, being aware of this situation and American inter-service rivalries, probably would never have put in a request to acquire F4Us for non-naval service in the first place.

      Interestingly, F4Us of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) were provided directly to the Kiwis by the Americans in recognition of their air fighting prowess in the Solomon Islands Campaign (a US Navy and Marine area) wherein they accumulated a pretty impressive score of downed Japanese aircraft while flying P-40 Kittyhawks (more than most American squadrons in the area as I recall).


  6. The RNZAF replaced their gas hog Corsairs with the more efficient Merlin Mustangs post-war.
    The USAAF turbo-charger boosted P-47 & P-38 fighters were optimised for high altitude, but simply
    could not match the Mustang in its primary long-range 8th AF escort role & were therefore relegated to
    9th AF tactical uses, despite not performing so well at low level.

    The legendary survivability advantage of air-cooled radials is however,largely a myth, as borne out by US Navy
    research which showed that significant engine damage was rarely survivable, (& they only used air-cooled radials).

    Combat pilots, especially fighter pilots who are solely responsible for combat flying & simultaneous management of engine systems ( unlike in big multi-engined planes where a dedicated flight engineer could do the fettling tasks) wanted the
    engine with the best performance & the least fussing about with myriad engine controls, & which in British liquid cooled fighter engines were much more user friendly/automated.

    Liquid cooled fighters also allowed significant advantages including superior power to fuel use ( air-cooled engines used extra fuel as coolant when running at high power settings) & were more compact too, providing better combat views.

    The Typhoon was adjudged by the RAF as the better ground attack plane vs the P-47 ( superior performance at A2G combat heights) & the Tempest & Griffon powered Spitfire were preferred like-wise to the Mustang for tactical A2A combat.
    The RAF were pleased to use their Mustangs in the ETO as tactical recon & on long range intruder & escort ops.

    The Soviets received a number ( ~200) of Thunderbolts via Lend-Lease, but they, like the RAF found them less suitable than their own aircraft for use against the Germans.

    Neither RAF or the Soviets wanted the expensive P-38, & nor did the USAAF 8th AF, tellingly.


  7. Thanks for a great discussion. I’m modelling a 1/48 RAF T-Bolt I in Canada and these posts are fascinating.


    • I have also tweeted quite a few P-47 images on my Twitter account, @GRossSharp ,including some from the UK and USA (New England, Tennessee, etc).


      • I’l try to check those out, though I’m not familiar with Twitter. I suppose I should get familiar. Would you happen to know if RAF P-47 squadrons used US bombs as well as British bombs? If I hung US 500 lbs bombs under the wings of my T-Bolt I of 135 sqn RAF, based at Chittagong, would it be accurate?


      • Yes, the ‘T-bolt’ used both US and 500lb GP bombs as often the latter were more easily available. Thank you for commenting!


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