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Saving Private Ryan - P-51 "Tank Busters???" P-51 Ds used for bomber escort not ground attack
I have watched saving Private Ryan several times. Every time I hear the characters at the end say "P-51 TANK Busters" it makes me laugh.
The P-51C and P-51D was intended as an air superiority fighter for use against enemy aircraft. They used the same Rolls Royce engine (RR-Merlin) as the Spitfire MkIX but built under contract by Packard (Packard-Merlin). The P-51D was built for speed at altitude against advanced German fighters.
Many P-51 flew on D-Day- mostly at altitude to keep the Luftwaffe from being able to launch ground attack missions over the beach head. This was successful as only two German fighters (BF-109s) flew over the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
(The early underpowered non-supercharged P-51s "Mustangs bought by the RAF were used for ground attack in 1940 and 1941. The USAAF briefly used the Allison Powered P-51A/B in this role.)
Also the USAAF generally did not employ single engine attack aircraft in close air support of ground forces. German ground units were equipped with too many 20mm, 37mm and 88mm cannon to make this a feasable tactic.
The Army Air Corps generally used the P-47 for ground attack role against convoys and trains with 5 inch rockets well behind German lines. The P-47 was a very much LARGER more robust plane (a P-51 looked like a toy beside one) with a very tough air cooled Pratt and Wittney WASP radial engine. The P-47 also carried eight .50 caliber machineguns (vs. P-51s six) and when these were equipped with armor piercing bullets these were very effective against convoys -including tanks moving to the front- and locomotives. Each P-47 could also carry about twice the bombs or rockets of a P-51. The P-47 could carry a 1000lb bomb AND eight rockets on the same mission (the P-51 could carry two 250s OR six rockets but not both at the same time.) The P-47 was generally not used for close air support of us forces. The US Army doctrine of the time greatly favoring massed artillery fire or medium bombers instead.
THE USMC did develop and perfect close air support in the Pacific Theater of Operations but that's another story.
Late model P-51s such as the P-51Ds in the movie were generally restricted to altitudes above 5000 ft over enemy territory. They were generally used for escort and air superiority missions (fighter sweeps etc).
I believe most of the ground attack squadrons used over the Normandy beach area were actually RAF Typhoons or Tempests. Some of these may have executed missions over the American beaches- I don't know. i do believe there were scheduled breaks in the naval shelling on d-day when allied aircraft reconnoitered and bombed over the lodgment area.) The P-47 was generally used for "deeper" attacks against German ground units in rear areas.
It is my understanding that the USAAF mostly used medium bombers over Normandy. These flew parallel to the coast and bombed targets from medium altitudes so as not to conflict with naval gunnery or shore based artillery.
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Contributed By: Anonymous on 06-03-2008 and Reviewed By: Pete, MaryK
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nomad762 writes:
While the term "tank buster" was probably not a commonly used phrase at the time, and therefore MIGHT be considered a slip up, your claim that P-51s were not used in a ground support role is incorrect. Yes, the P-47 was preferred for a variety of reasons (greater armament, less vulnerable engine cooling, better low-altitude maneuverability, etc.) the Mustangs were still used at times to support ground troops and to take out armored and light-armored targets. While it would have been a better choice for the film makers to use P-47s, it's not a slip-up since it IS PLAUSIBLE and POSSIBLE that P-51s could have been used in that situation.
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mdbigdee writes:
A variation of the P-51A was the A-36A dive bomber(Attack),sometimes called the Apache or Invader,but mostly called Mustang.The A-36A could carry two 500 pound GP bombs and had slotted dive brakes similar to those on the SDB Dauntless dive bomber. The A-36A went into action with the 27TH Fighter-bomber group in April 1943 flying in the Med.By November 1943 300 A-36As were in action.A-36As were also used in the CBI(China-Burma-India)theater of the war, According to the Mustangs,Mustangs website the P-51B,C,D,H and K could carry two 1000 pound bombs or eight 5 inch air-to-ground rockets.
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5046girls writes:
Yes of course its PLAUSIBLE but highly unlikely. Even so, the P 51s would have had either rocket launchers (bazooka style) slung under their wings or small bomb racks (one under each wing to hold the 250 or 500 Ib bomb). In the movie, neither are present - just the standard fighter configuration
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karDcarrionPHool writes:
While it is true that the A-36 Apache was an early-war ground-attack version of the airframe that would ultimately be known as the P-51 Mustang, the planes involved in the so-called "Tank Busting" mission near the end of Saving Private Ryan were not the A-36 variants, but were indeed the late-war "D" model of the P-51. The planes are on-screen long enough for the careful observer to note the characteristic "Bubble-top" canopy (the Apache's canopy was of the traditional, flat-frame panel construction), and the aerodynamically sleek, and more narrow rear fuselage (the A-36 was a "fastback" airframe that stood "tall" behind the pilot's head just like the earlier versions of the P-47 up through the "D-20 RE" variants). In and of itself, the term "Tank Buster" is not all that bothersome. I can think of several British (Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest, Beaufighter)and American (P-47, P-38) single-and twin-engined aircraft that could all be deserving of that moniker given the correct ordinance. P-51Ds were in fact outfitted with ground attack weapons on occasion, but the far-more robust P-47 with its air-cooled Pratt & Whitney radial engine was better suited to the ground attack role than was the Mustang with its liquid-cooled Merlin or license-built Packard. In any event, Spielberg is probably one of the most aircraft-savvy directors on the planet and an error like this makes him appear lazy or disengaged because he could have avoided all the second guessing if he has just tacked on a couple of "prop" bomb shackles or bazooka tubes to the otherwise "clean" wings of the P-51Ds he used in the final battle scene. If the line was important enough for Pvt. Ryan to say it to Capt. Miller while Capt. Miller was drawing his final breaths, then Spielberg should have "paid it off" better for the viewing audience with either some clever props or some post-production sleight of hand.
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