The top scoring American fighter group during the war in Europe
The 56th was formed on 20th November 1940, but it was not activated until 14th January 1941 at Savannah Air Base Georgia. Three officers and 150 enlisted men were drawn from the 27th Bomb Group to man the three new squadrons: the 61st, 62nd and 63rd. At this time, there was not enough equipment within the expanding Air Corps, so in the summer of 1941 the group moved to Charlotte Air Base with three P-39 Airacobras, five P-40 Tomahawks, and a few trainers. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Habour, training was over and it was now for real. Several moves of base followed, until June 1942 they arrived at Farmingdale Airfield. This was the home of the Republic aviation factory - manufacturers of the P-47 "Thunderbolt" fighter. This began a long association with the Thunderbolt that was to last throughout the war.
Colonel Francis "Gabby" S. Gabreski - the top scoring American "Ace" in the European Theatre
Gabreski was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania of Polish stock. He was not a great academic at school, but it was decided he would follow his brother to university to study medicine. He never became a doctor but did develop an interest in aviation. He left the campus to join the Army Air Corps cadet program. When America entered the war, he was stationed at Pearl Harbour, but by the time he got into the air the Japanese had gone. A few weeks later he was ordered to England and initially flew with one of the Polish Squadrons. When he joined the 56th, he proved himself a good commander and began to run up his score. Gabreski became an "Ace" on 26th November 1943. On May 22 1944, he had a great day when he scored three kills and a probable. By D-DAY, he had scored 21 victories, and was making plans to go home to get married and to see his family. He flew his 166th mission on 20th July to Frankfurt, when he got a bit low and bounced his P-47 on a knoll and bent the propeller. After crash landing, he evaded capture for five days, but then spent the rest of the war in a Stalag. During the Korean War he was back on active duty where, after scoring two victories, he was given command of 51st Fighter Wing. Gabreski was finally credited with 34½ victories. He was a good leader and a great Fighter pilot.
On 16th September, Maj. Zemke took over as the Group commander of the 56th. He had just returned from liaison missions, where he had observed the air war at first hand. So began a rigorous training schedule. On 6th January 1943, the Group, 800 men strong, boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for England. They arrived at Kingscliffe, followed by a move to Horsham St. Faith, and then to Halesworth and to their first combat.
May 1944 - the move to Boxted
Zemke and his staff moved into Langham Lodge and used it as an H.Q. Their first mission was on 10th May 1944. Zemke tried a new tactic called "THE FAN", in which the fighters flew ahead of the bombers to break up groups of enemy fighters. The group fanned out into a semi circle, but promptly lost two aircraft. "B" group, lead by Gabreski, came to their aid as they were now in the middle of about seventy enemy fighters. The sky was now full of flying aircraft and bullets, and the Germans lost eighteen aircraft with Capt. Robert Rankin accounting for five of these. At this time, everyone was preparing for the long talked about second front. The action at this time was strafing enemy airfields on the Continent and destroying aircraft on the ground. The 56th also provided escort when the bombing missions were concentrated on Hitler’s oil supplies. After one horrendous mission, Zemke had to dodge German fighters on a number of occasions, diving at top speed then climbing into the sun. After over four hours in the air and virtually out of fuel, he arrived safely at Boxted and then drove to his favourite club in London to get blind drunk.
The 56th patrolled the beachhead from Boulogne to north of the Seine, but saw little of the enemy. In July 1944, Dave Schilling was offered command of the 479th, which he declined because they flew P-38’s and Schilling was a definite Thunderbolt fan. So Zemke took command of command of the 479th and Schilling commanded the 56th.