85 - The P-47 that refused to die

The plane that refused to die

The incredible story of Robert S. Johnson and his P-47

Models and diorama by Bjørn Jacobsen

Johnson was a USAAF fighter pilot during World War II, assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, of the 56th Fighter Group.

The 61st FS used the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Renowned for its incredible durability.

The reputation for toughness was put to the ultimate test on June 26, 1943.


While escorting a formation of bombers returning from a

bombing mission, Johnson and his squadron were ambushed

by 16 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.

These fast, agile and heavily armed fighters took the

Thunderbolts completely by surprise, and before he could

react, Johnson’s P-47 was hammered by 20mm cannon


The glass canopy above his head shattered, the instrument-

panel was destroyed, and fire began to lick into the cockpit,

which quickly filled with black smoke.

The Thunderbolt went into a tailspin, plummeting

uncontrollably towards the ground.

Desperate to escape, Johnson attempted to open the canopy

to bail out. Unfortunately, it was jammed and opened only a

few inches. There was no way he could bail out.

If he wanted to live, he had to pilot the crippled Thunderbolt

to safety.

Suddenly, the fire miraculously flamed out.

But this gave Johnson little respite. One of the enemy shells

had ripped through the hydraulic lines, sending fluid spraying

into the cockpit.

His eyes began to burn, leaving him half blind.

Engine oil had sprayed onto the windscreen, making it hard

to see where he was going.

Through enormous physical effort, he managed to right the

spinning fighter, levelling off.

The extensive damage to the hydraulic systems made it hard

to manoeuvre the battered P-47.

All he could do was turn the nose in the direction of England,

and hope for the best.


Just when it seemed that the Thunderbolt

might be able to carry him to safety, he spotted

a lone aircraft behind him.

It was a Focke-Wulf Fw 190,

And it wasn’t just any German fighter. The Fw 190 was

piloted by Egon Mayer, a German fighter ace who at that

time was Gruppenkommandeur (Wing Commander) of III./JG 2.

Mayer drew close, to the Thunderbolt and at a 

range of just 45 metres (50 yards), the German

began pumping rounds into the helpless aircraft.

Bullets and cannon shells tore through the


After several seconds of continuous fire, Johnson

stomped on the rudder pedals, sending the P-47

swinging left and right.

With his prey’s sudden loss of airspeed, Mayer

overshot, and Johnson squeezed the trigger and

sprayed rounds in the general direction of the

German fighter, which casually peeled away.

Mayer then pulled up alongside the P-47, moving

within a few feet of the crippled but somehow still

flying Thunderbolt.

As Johnson watched, Mayer scanned the length

of the Thunderbolt before shaking his head in

astonishment that the thing was still in the air.

Making eye contact with Johnson, Mayer waved

his hand before peeling away.


Johnson’s relief lasted only a few seconds before

he realised the German was moving into position

behind him.

Johnson huddled behind the armour plate, and

Mayer resumed pouring rounds into the shredded



Incredibly, the Thunderbolt was still in the air and

showing no signs of going down.

As Mayer pulled up alongside for the second time,

Johnson realised they had just reached the

English Channel.

Safety was only a few miles away.

That is if the Mayer let him get that far.

Once again, Johnson watched as Mayer assessed the Thunderbolt, and for the third time, settled into the slot behind the American fighter.

This time the German went all in. Gently swinging the nose of his fighter, Mayer raked the stubborn Thunderbolt from wingtip to wingtip. Cannon shells and .30-calibre bullets punched through every part of the P-47. The entire airframe shuddered as it was pummelled with hot lead.

For the third time, Mayer swung alongside the American fighter. Shaking his head in wonder, the German observed the wreck of the P-47 that was, in defiance of all logic, still flying.

Seeing Johnson was watching him, the German rocked his wings in salute before peeling away.

To Johnson’s eternal relief, this time Mayer was gone for good, heading back towards German airspace – quite empty of ammunition!


With the help of Ground Control, Johnson guided his fighter to his home airfield at Manston. In a somewhat uncontrolled landing, given he had no flaps or brakes, he somehow managed to get the fighter down safely on the runway.

He would later describe what remained of his aircraft as “a sieve”, with virtually every square foot punctured with holes. Three 20mm cannon shells had hammered into the armour plate, barely an inch from Johnson’s head.

The metal behind the cockpit was twisted, jamming the

canopy and trapping Johnson inside.

Even the propeller had five holes in it.

Johnson initially tried to count the number of bullet holes

but gave up after the tally passed 200 – without even

moving around the plane.


The Thunderbolt was beyond repair but had done its job

better than anyone could have possibly expected,

carrying its pilot home against all the odds.


When the war ended, Robert S, Johnson

had accrued 27 aerial victories, making

him a flying ace five times over and the

second most successful American fighter

pilot in the European Theatre.

Egon Mayer, by the rank of Oberstleutnant

and Kommodore of JG2, died in his

Fw 190 in March 1944 (paradoxically shot

down by a P-47).

He was credited with 355 missions and

102 aerial victories (among them,

26 four-engines bombers, 51 Spitfires and

12 P-47 Thunderbolt).

Robert S. Johnson

Egon "Connie" Mayer

Building the aircraft


    P-47 Thunderbolt             Focke-Wulf Fw 190

The P-47 is 1/32 scale from Hasegawa

The Fw 190 is 1/32 scale from Trumpeter

It’s interesting to notice the differences between these two fighters: The huge P-47 and the smaller and sleeker Fw-190. The Thunderbolt looks ungainly and clumsily besides the German fighter.

When I placed the two opponents besides each other, the differences became very visible.


The aircraft was made with the wheels down because I wanted to photograph the plane on the ground before take-off.

The only thing I left out was the drop tanks because when the aircraft met in the air, they had long ago dumped the extra drag of the empty tanks.

The aircraft was photographed when they took off from the airfield and the wheels were therefore placed in a half-retracted position (see pictures to the right).

Later the wheels were fully retracted and crystal-clear PVC tubes were inserted in the aircraft.

These rods would keep the aircraft in place above the diorama base.

To make some of the pictures more authentic, the clear rods were removed by a photo editing program.

The wheels half-retracted

Clear PVC tubes inserted

Most of the bullet holes in the P-47 was from machinegun fire, but some were from powerful 20mm exploding shells.

A hit from a 20mm would do much more damages and required more building attention.

To the left is an example.

The 20mm hit right behind the cockpit, and only the armour steel plate behind the pilot prevented a catastrophe.

First, a hole was made in the plastic; then a thin metal sheet was glued to the opening.

The metal was bent to show the torn aircraft skin.

When painted, it would illustrate the impact of the 20mm shell


Exaggerated bullets holes

Most of the bullets which hit the P-47 was either 7.9mm or 13mm (probably 7.9mm).

These bullets would have made a dent in the thin fuselage skin and a hole of about 0.5mm in 1/32 scale.

To be correct, I should have used a sewing needle to punch the bullets hole in the 1/32 model.

These holes would, of course, not have given the dramatic result I was looking for.

The bullet holes tell the visual story of the drama, and all who sees the pictures of the plane is in no doubt that the aircraft is shot to pieces – and still flying!

You, therefore, have to excuse my artistic freedom.

The spinning propellers

The propeller shafts were lubricated with dry graphite and would spin effortlessly when blown upon, in this case, a hairdryer would do the trick.

The Diorama

Because the models were rather large (1/32), the diorama base was also a large one.

The base was an OPS plate, about 80 x 80 cm (32 x 32 in), painted as the ground from above and drilled with several holes to accommodate the clear rods between the base and the aircraft.

The holes were useful for moving the planes around for picture taking.

You will note that the clear PVC tubes do not show on most of the pictures.

This is because the rods are removed (by the help of a photo editing program) to make the picture more realistic.

The background is airbrushed cardboard.

The P-47 “Half Pint” is ready for take-off

The Fw 190 of Gruppenkommandeur III./JG 2 with the “Black Rooster” on the cowling is ready for take-off

Zooming in on the crippled Thunderbolt

I hope you enjoyed this website

Thank you for visiting!

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments


Bjørn Jacobsen

July 2019