HISTORY

The 352nd Fighter Group – was popularly known during WW2 as “The Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney” were one of the most famous and successful 8th Air Force Fighter Groups based in East Anglia. Three operational Fighter Squadrons (FS) made up the 352nd Fighter Group (FG) – the 328th FS, 486th FS and 487th FS all of which have become very famous through their hugely successful combat records in WW2 and the very famous blue nose colour schemes carried on their Mustangs.

Amongst the 352nd fighter pilots there were so many famous names including George Preddy, John Meyer, Ray Littge, Edwin Heller, John Thornell, Bill Whisner, Glen Moran, Don Bryan, Bill Halton just to name a few. As a consequence of this fame many P51 owners today particularly in the USA have restored their aircraft to wear a variety of very colourful 352nd Fighter Group schemes.

What is less well known is that there is currently known to be only a single genuine survivor of nearly 500 P47, and P51 fighters that the 352nd operated during WW2. This particular P51D Mustang G-BIXL 44-472216 “Miss Helen” is still airworthy, is owned by Robert Tyrell and regularly flown at airshows in the UK. All the other blue nose Mustangs that are airworthy around the world are not genuine 352nd machines (however accurate and authentic their restorations have been) and are only representative of the 352nd FG.

We can therefore take a closer look at “Miss Helen” as this aircraft is therefore arguably one of the most historically significant Mustangs in existence today.

Trends within the historic aircraft movement in recent years have highlighted increasing emphasis on the need for total authenticity in restoration standards plus also the huge importance of documented provenance in the history of airframes. It is significant to note that with the exception of “Miss Helen” all of the aircraft operated by the 352nd during WW2 were either lost in combat, scrapped after the war or sold to foreign air forces after hostilities ceased being subsequently either written off or scrapped. Sadly, none of the 352nd aces famous aircraft were ever earmarked for preservation even after the war was won – none at all were set aside for museum use –  this was reflective no doubt of the demands of and priorities of war and the lack of any perceived priority to preserve particular aircraft once the war was over.

With respect to “Miss Helen” one of the early pioneers of the Uk historic aircraft movement Robs Lamplough discovered this aircraft in an Israeli Kibbutz in 1978. At the time of discovery no one either realised the historical significance of this particular airframe and no one had made any specific effort to preserve it, so it really survived by luck. “Miss Helen” 44-72216 was delivered brand new to the 487th Fighter Sqn of the 352nd FG at Bodney in January 1945 and as soon as it arrived became the personal aircraft of Capt. Ray H Littge coded HO-M and is recorded as having been flown on a number of combat missions by Littge which included destroying 6 confirmed ground kills on April 17th 1945.

 Ray Littge became known as the “unknown ace” because he hadn’t courted the same level of publicity as some of the other 352nd FG aces however it is important to note that in total air and ground victories he was the 352nd third highest scoring ace with a total 23.5 victories. Only John Meyer and George Preddy were higher scorers in the 352nd FG. The Mustang’s nose art was painted at Bodney by Sam Perry (who had painted most of the nose art on all the 487th Mustangs) and Perry always made a point of starting the aircraft names just under the first exhaust stack. Littge named this Mustang after his fiancé Helen Fischer (see attached photo) who he married on 25th November 1945 and with whom he had two sons George Preddy Littge (named after the famous ace) and Ray H Littge 2nd.

In early 1945 the 352nd were deployed to Belgium where they operated from both AAF Station Y-29 at Asch and later at AAF Station A-84 at Chievres so for a portion of “Miss Helens” operational career with Littge the Mustang was based in Belgium but the 352nd returned to Bodney in early April 1945 and it is known that Littge was flying “Miss Helen” out of Bodney during very successful ground attack operations on 16th-17th April 1945.

Ray Littge left the air force in December 1946 but then re-joined in March 1947 but was then tragically killed in the crash of an F-84 Thunderjet in May 1949.It is thought that a faulty oxygen supply caused the accident and it is also very tragic to note also that his son Ray Littge 2nd was killed in 1979 in a mid-air collision at the age of 30yrs whilst flying an F-4 Phantom in air combat manoeuvres over the Nellis Air Force base training range in Nevada.

When Ray Littge left Bodney to be assigned to special duties in the USA in May 1945 “Miss Helen” was assigned to Capt. Russell H Ross who renamed the Mustang “Miss Nita” after his girlfriend and who then flew this Mustang until the end of the war. Prior to being allocated 44-472216 Ray Littge had also flown a P51B (42-103320) on many missions which was named named “Silver Dollar” and he also flew another P51D (44-11330) named “E Pluribus Unum”. It is thought that 44-472216 might also have been painted as “Silver Dollar” for a short period before being renamed by Littge in 1945 as “Miss Helen” but so far there is no photographic record of this known to exist.

After the end of WW2, many surplus 8th AF Mustangs were flown to Furth Nurnberg in Germany for storage and “Miss Helen” was one of these and with its US codes painted out it was purchased by the Swedish Government in February 1948. It was then ferried to Sweden and joined the Swedish Air Force as FvNr 26116 and then served with the Swedish Air Force at Ostersund and at Uppsala. By 1953 the Swedish Mustangs had reached the end of their service life and had become obsolete and this Mustang was then put up for disposal and ended up with the Israeli Air Force being allocated the IAF number 43. No records exist of its combat operations in the IAF however when it was discovered by Robs Lamplough in 1978 it still had rocket rails fitted and it is highly likely that it saw service in the 1956 Sinai Campaign flying against Egyptian targets. After it was retired from IAF service it was towed to a kibbutz at Ein Gedi and was installed in a children’s playground from where it was discovered by Robs Lamplough.

Robs had been able to buy IDF43 plus three other derelict Mustangs, several spitfires and a Yak during 1978 and he arranged for them all to be dismantled, crated and shipped to Duxford. At this time no one had any idea of the significance of IDF 43s history with the 352nd FG and it was not positively identified as a genuine combat veteran blue noser until the restoration process had commenced. IDF 43 was considered by Robs to be in the best overall condition for a restoration to airworthiness project and work on it started at Duxford in November 1978. Whilst most of the original cockpit instruments and fittings had been stripped out in other areas the aircraft was still remarkably intact – for example in the gun bays the wartime bore sight information panel was intact. Robs also had a number of other projects underway at this time including a Hispano 109 Buchon and initially progress was slow however in 1982 he appointed a full-time engineer Norman Chapman to lead the restoration project and substantial progress began to be made. The aircraft was registered G-BIXL and attached is a photograph of it during its restoration in Shed 79 at Duxford in 1984.

During the restoration Robs incorporated the mainplane of 44-72770 which came from a Dutch Technical school and which was in far better condition than the mainplane of IDF43.

One of the key members of the restoration team was John Hart (Robs Lamplough’s Chief Engineer) and he said:

When Robs brought back to the UK the group of Spitfires and Mustangs that he had obtained in Israel he wanted to restore a single Mustang for his own use and when Norman Chapman inspected the whole job lot in some detail it was very clear that IDF 43 was in the best condition. The fuselage in particular was free from any significant corrosion and also there was very little damage to it. IDF 43 was therefore selected to be restored to airworthiness and when that decision was taken no one had any idea of its historical significance. We certainly had it US identity from the cockpit data plates but at that time we were focussed on what work needed to be done and the scale of the project as opposed to the history of that particular airframe. When work was underway Robs registered the aircraft G-BIXL and it was because of the registration process that it’s historical significant became known. After the aircraft had been registered we received a phone call from the 352nd FG Association who had seen the registration of the aircraft in the UK and after they had checked its original US identity they told us that we not only had a genuine 352nd machine on our hands but that it had also been flown by a famous ace – Ray Littge – We were all amazed!”

One very interesting piece of the historical jig saw that comprises “Miss Helens” history is centred on a combat report submitted by Ray Littge with respect to one very successful operational sortie that he flew in “Miss Helen” on 17th April 1945 attacking Gonecker airfield. During that operation Littge achieved six confirmed ground kills in this Mustang and he describes in the combat report how he received flak damage to a number of places on the Mustang including the Oil tank but despite losing oil he still managed to get back to Bodney. John Hart told me that during the strip out and restoration of Miss Helen in the 1980s there was still very clear evidence on the airframe of the repairs that had been carried out after this combat and in particular in evidence were repairs made to the Oil Tank support structure after combat damage.

 In his combat report Littge who was leading Red Flight in “Miss Helen” wrote the following:

“Red flight made several passes at flak positions first effectively silencing them. During these attacks my oil tank was hit, and I lost most of my oil, one of my guns was shot out, and two electrical lines and the manifold pressure line was hit. We then went into strafe. I made seven passes. My first two passes were at a Me262 on the north east corner of the field, which blew up after my second pass. I then attacked and set fire to a Me109 on the north side. On each of my next three passes I set afire Me109s in revetments on the south side of the field and on my last pass I blew up another Me262 at the North East corner of the field.”

From Ray Littges personal flight records the entries show that in the one month of April 1945 he flew “Miss Helen” on at least 10 operational sorties with a total flight time for that month in “Miss Helen” of over 24hrs. It is also well known that Littge opted to have his victory swastikas painted onto the canopy rail and not the fuselage so that in the event that he had to bail out or force land in hostile territory then the total number of his victories would remain unknown to his captors assuming that the canopy had been ejected and well separated from the rest of the aircraft in any forced landing.

It is also very interesting to note that when Ray Littge left Bodney in May 1945 to return to the USA he was assigned to Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio where he joined a team evaluating captured German aircraft. During this time, he test flew a captured Me262 and wrote an evaluation report for it and then he moved to Perrin field in Texas to join the jet training programme.

In 1985 Robs moved his aircraft collection to North Weald where the restoration of G-BIXL was finished by Norman Chapman and his team. The first engine runs were carried out in April 1987 and the aircraft was first flown on May 5th, 1987 by the late Mark Hanna. Robs Lamplough was checked out in the Mustang shortly afterwards and he then regularly flew this Mustang for the next 26 years.

Initially G-BIXL was finished in an all over silver scheme but it also was flown in the Memphis Belle film by Pete John in the summer of 1989 when it was painted in an all over green and white scheme coded AJ-L with the nose art of “Miss L”.

After the filming was over Robs kept it in the film scheme for a while but then in the winter of 2000 the decision was taken to repaint the aircraft into its totally authentic 352nd colours as “Miss Helen” and it has retained these colours ever since. In 2004 after attending the RIAT Airshow Robs had an off-airport wheels up landing in the Mustang due to a fuel supply problem however John Hart and his team carried out repairs and the aircraft flew again in 2007. A further mishap occurred in July 2008 when the aircraft suffered a heavy landing at Duxford at the end of the Flying Legends Airshow when the engine began to run rough and lose power. On that occasion due to the skill of its pilot Pete John a major incident was avoided but the aircraft still had damage to its landing gear, engine and prop but once again John Hart and his team successfully completed the necessary repairs and today this very historic Mustang is fully airworthy.

In 2014 Robs Lamplough decided to retire from UK display flying and Miss Helen was sold to its new owner Robert Tyrrell from Steventon near Abingdon. The aircraft is maintained by the Duxford based Aircraft Restoration Co. and can be seen regularly flying from there or from the owner’s airstrip at Steventon.

Richard Paver March 2018.