with Horse and Hound

Tommy Hitchcock, Jr: Sportsman, War Hero

tommy hitchcock.polo2May 8, 2015 will mark the seventieth anniversary of V-E Day, Victory in Europe, the end of the Nazi menace. It’s a propitious time to remember a foxhunting sportsman named Tommy Hitchcock, Jr.

Most Foxhunting Life readers are familiar with his name. Born in Aiken, South Carolina, Hitchcock was an all-around sportsman, a foxhunter, and perhaps the greatest American polo player of all time. A ten-goal player by age twenty-two, Hitchcock led the U.S. team to their first victory in the 1921 International Polo Cup. He followed that feat by leading four teams to U.S. National Open Championships. In 1939, after the death of his mother, Louise Eustis Hitchcock, MFH of the Aiken Hounds, Tommy and his sister Helen founded what is know today as the Hitchcock Woods Foundation in Aiken—a magnificent gift to subsequent generations of horsemen and women from all across North America.

Perhaps less known, however, is the singular role that Hitchcock played in the winning of World War II. If not for Hitchcock, the date June 6, 1944 would most likely not be known to history as D-Day. The invasion of the European mainland would have necessarily been postponed. And if it hadn’t, thousands more Allied soldiers would have been slaughtered on the beaches by the German Air Force.

The Allies, in fact, originally wanted to invade the European mainland in 1943. That proved impossible because the Allied strategic bombing offensive during the winter of 1942/43 had not been able to cripple Germany’s wartime industry or neutralize their air force.

Allied bombers were forced to fly unprotected during the most dangerous phases of their missions because their fighter escorts, with limited fuel capacity, had to peel away and return to their bases well before the bombers reached their targets.

When the unprotected bombers reached those targets in Germany’s industrial heartland, German fighter planes swarmed them, taking a terrible toll. After the surviving bombers limped back to their bases in England, most of the German fighter aircraft were able to return safely to their own bases to fight another day.

During those early stages of the war, U.S. Bomber crews were expected to fly twenty-five missions. A crew’s chances of the completing that tour of duty was one in four. In the first ten months of operations, before even coming up to full strength in terms of aircraft and manpower, the Eighth Air Force lost 188 bombers and about nineteen hundred crewmen. Over the next year and a half, those numbers skyrocketed.

Notwithstanding the frightful evidence—indeed hiding the full magnitude of the slaughter—Air Force Chief Hap Arnold and his staff believed implicitly in the invincibility of the heavy bombers. With the precision Norden bombsight and the onboard defensive weaponry, the Air Force higher-ups had closed their minds to the need for long range fighter escorts for their bombers. To make matters worse, Roosevelt and Churchill, still hopeful of an Allied landing on occupied Europe in 1943 and the concomitant need for supremacy in the skies, placed still more pressure on the Eighth Air Force for larger and deeper penetration missions into Germany in order to clear the skies of German aircraft and destroy aircraft production facilities    

tommy hitchcock.aafTommy Hitchcock was forty-one years old when the U.S. entered World War II. At age seventeen, before the U.S. even entered the First World War, Hitchcock, on the strength of his athletic reputation and Teddy Roosevelt’s recommendation, joined the Lafayette Escadrille, becoming the youngest American to fly combat in World War I. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, escaped from German captivity after being shot down and wounded, and hiked nearly a hundred miles to neutral Switzerland and freedom. However, his application to fly fighter aircraft in World War II was denied. He could have had just about any desk job he wanted in Washington, DC, but the Air Force decided he was too old to fly combat again.

With his fame and family fortune, however, Hitchcock knew just about everyone there was to know in government circles. U.S. Ambassador to England John Winant invited Hitchock to come to London as assistant U.S. Military Attaché. Hitchcock, realizing that at least he’d be closer to the action with that job, accepted, and once there he saw the fatal flaw in the U.S. offensive air strategy.

Working out of the embassy, rather than Eighth Air Force headquarters, Hitchcock approached Air Force problems differently. Where the newly-arrived American Air Force leaders rejected any British ideas out-of-hand, Hitchcock believed that, with the vast experience gained by the British in their two years of battle before the American even arrived on the scene, anything that was still functional must have merit. And being an ex-fighter pilot himself, Hichcock became intrigued by a new fighter-bomber being produced in America strictly for Britain’s Royal Air Force—the P-51 Mustang.

The Brits—still testing the plane—loved it, but decided they could improve it by replacing its underpowered American engine with a high-performance Rolls-Royce engine made in Britain. The results stunned every observer, including Hitchcock, who, in a memo to Washington, urged that the plane, if adopted by the Eighth Air Force with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, would be the best fighter plane in Europe. And it had the range to stay with the heavy bombers all the way to their targets and back.

Hichcock’s recommendations were ignored, probably in part due to the fact that the Brits liked it. Hitchcock countered with statistical evidence of the Mustang’s performance as the flight tests continued. He threw dinner parties at his well-appointed London flat to lobby Air Force officials and Washington dignitaries, all to little avail. To the dismay of his fighter pilot nephew, Hitchcock even climbed aboard and took the P-51 Mustang for a flight test himself.

With Ambassador Winant—also a former World War I pilot—as his partner, the pair lobbied every top administration official, including President Roosevelt, of the plane’s potential as a long-range bomber escort. Hitchcock went back to Washington to pressure Hap Arnold personally. When those efforts failed, he turned to one of Arnold’s bosses, an old friend of Hitchcock’s, Undersecretary of War Robert Lovett.

Finally, under pressure from Lovett and other officials to make use of the Mustang, Arnold gave in and placed an order for the production of 2,200 planes. But with Arnold’s focus on the production of B-17 bombers, P-51 production lagged. Once again Hitchcock intervened, this time as a self-appointed expediter. In early 1943, he made repeated visits to the production plants to review and push production schedules.

Although a few new fighters trickled into England by late 1943, the first substantial deliveries of P-51s didn’t arrive until January, 1944. Too late for a hoped-for D-Day in 1943, and too late for thousands of American bomber crewmen who had flown unprotected, deep into Germany, to their deaths or capture, throughout that terrible year.

Early Air Force estimates had predicted that no more than 300 bombers would be lost during the entire course of the war. In just one week in early 1944, before P-51s were operational as a potent force, 226 American bombers with more than 2,000 men on board were shot down over Germany. At the same time, however, there was a hint of a turning point in the air battle. On one bombing mission, as a pack of German fighter planes pounced on a formation of B-17s headed for the Focke-Wulf aircraft factory near Berlin, a single P-51 Mustang streaked out of nowhere, leaving two Focke-Wulf fighters tumbling to the ground. One can imagine the surprise of the German pilots. Never before had they seen an Allied fighter plane so deep into Germany.

Through the remainder of the winter of 1944, the newly operational force of P-51 Mustang fighters escorted the heavy bombers over Germany. The bombers were bait, luring the German fighters into the air, so the P-51s could shoot them down. As the air battle raged, the bombers were able to go about their grim business. They destroyed Germany’s industrial infrastructure. They demolished Germany’s railroad transportation system, so that when D-Day did occur, the German’s were unable to transport reinforcements.

One group of fighter pilots, in their first month flying Mustangs, shot down 160 enemy aircraft, compared to 120 kills in the previous eleven months. A few months later, many of those few German planes still able to fly were unable to leave the ground for lack of fuel and pilots.

At the same time, however, things were not totally rosy with the P-51. Inexplicably, there were occasions when a Mustang would dive straight into the ground. The cause was a mystery and of great concern. With his personal stake in the plane, and his new mission as deputy chief of staff of the 9th Tactical Air Command, it was Tommy Hitchcock’s job to discover what was wrong. Although he had test pilots under his command, he insisted on flying tests himself as well. One April morning, on a test flight, Hitchcock put his plane into a dive from fifteen thousand feet. The plane hurtled faster and faster, and smashed straight into the ground.

Ambassodor Winants, notifying Hitchcock’s family, wrote, “Without [Tommy’s contribution] we would not be winning the air war over Germany today.”

Less than two months later, thanks in great measure to Tommy Hitchcock’s tactical perception, his access to top-level officials by virtue of his athletic reputation and his wealth, and his dogged persistence in the face of apathy and opposition at the highest levels, there was scarcely a German plane in the sky to challenge the Allied ground invasion on June 6, 1944.

Posted April 20, 2015

Reference: Citizens of London, Lynne Olson, Random House, 2010