Jack Ogilvie’s experiences as a fighter pilot in World War II are truly fascinating and enjoyable to listen to. At 93 years, Jack’s mind is sharp and his memory vivid as he shares his stories of a life characterized by uncanny miracles amidst the dangers of combat. There were many of them and each time he emerged unscathed. He repeatedly questions why God allowed all these to happen to him and why he was rescued from being seriously injured or worse.
The fighter plane that Jack flew was the P-39. This was the fighter the British test pilots rejected and deemed “not ready for combat.” When Britain’s Sir Arthur Tedder was chosen as Air Marshall, it is said that he agreed to the position, as long as no P39’s were under his command. He had been one of those British test pilots that were under-impressed with the aircraft.
These planes were given to the U.S. Navy and Jack’s unit was attached to the Navy. So this is the plane he would fly at the first of the war. Jack says, “It was a strange airplane…the engine is behind the pilot, with a crankshaft that goes between your knees, all the way up to a gear box and a 37 mm cannon which fires out the nose of the propeller… These were highly suspect airplanes.” As the air war began in Africa, it was realized that the German Messerschmitts could reach an altitude of 36,000 feet, but the P-39’s maximum altitude was 26,000 feet. This, of course, was not an acceptable element to a life and death dog fight for the P-39 pilots.
But Jack says, “We found that this plane was the best at low level flying, especially if you are less than 50 feet…I had already demonstrated that I could get less than 50 feet. I flew at less than 50 feet more than I did above it. I learned to be an expert at 50 feet. That’s what I did. I flew low.”
An expert, he certainly was. And this would be a great asset to him and his crew as they recorded many victories. And the ability to fly low would get Jack into more hot water. Let me explain.
Jack’s squadron was attached to the U. S. Navy and was stationed on the French island of Corsica. This island, as well as the island of Sardinia, was liberated from the Germans by the Italians and the Free French Resistance forces and assisted, on a limited basis, by Jack’s P-39 squadron. They were hundreds of miles away from the main front and had no information from there. The other allied forces had no knowledge of this P-39 squadron on Corsica.
The Navy wanted to return these Free French soldiers to Southern France by night by way of submarines. The normal way for orders to come down was from the Navy to the Air Corps, then back to the Navy. This would take four days and by then everyone would know of the operation. But this mission was a highly secret and classified operation and the regular communication routes were avoided.
The Germans were in their initial stages of using radar and they had radar stations all along the coast of Southern France. These installations would need to be knocked out ahead of the submarine deliveries. It was the job of the twelve P-39 pilots in the squadron to take each radar station out at the location where that particular day’s operation was to be.
No one knew this P-39 squadron was based at Corsica and great care was taken to keep them unknown and to keep that knowledge from the Germans. They were stationed at a very small airstrip on Corsica and Headquarters was some eighty miles away. The Navy would bring supplies each day and with the supplies came the orders directing them as to which radar station was to be destroyed for the next submarine run.
The submarine runs had to be made at night and the squadron must insure the radar was eliminated before those runs. Jack says they would know approximately where the radar was and they were mounted on promontories along the French coast. 2-4 planes would be assigned to each location and the search and destroy mission would take place at dawn. It was an absolute must that the radar be taken out of commission.
The planes would begin their 125-mile trip to Southern France in the dark of the early morning. Jack says, “We would have to fly so low that we were picking up water. We had to be really low to stay under the radar.” They had to get to the target as the sun was just right and reflected off the mirror-like disk of the German radar. This would locate the radar for the pilots and be a surprise factor against the Germans. “The Germans were very watchful and you had to come as a surprise. When you came at the certain angle you were hard to see. You had to come right out of the sun.” The P-39’s would come out of the blinding, morning sun and be on top of the radar target with complete surprise.
After these runs, the rest of the day was just sitting with nothing to do. “Someone would say, ‘Let’s go fly!’ and we would have a ball!” They began to choose their own missions, locating German troop trains and railroads and planes sitting on runways and taking them out. Jack personally eliminated over 100 targets. They never lost a plane during these runs either. They would fly in low, wreak havoc, and high tail it out of there.
There was a radar station at the main port of Rome that they had knocked out 2 or 3 times. Orders came to knock it out again because it had been rebuilt. On an early evening run Jack & crew flew to where the radar had always been, but it wasn’t there. They could see that the Germans had moved it high up on a cliff. Now the Germans were above them and opened up on them.
Jack’s P-39’s flew down into a railroad track and followed it to safety. Once back at their base, he made plans to attack it the next morning because they now knew its exact location. So the mission began before sunrise and they made their way back toward the doomed radar.
Jack remembers, “Just as the sun began to come up, we looked up and there’s bright, bright lights up in the air! We were headed to a little town further north, but I decided we were going to see what those lights were. And all of a sudden we look up in the sky and there is a big flight of P-51’s and Spitfires and about a thousand ships in the harbor! And we were flying right into them!”
Little did Jack and his uninformed squadron know that this was the beginning of the famous Battle of Anzio. Jack said, “Nobody told us there was to be an invasion!… They could see us! They knew the Allies weren’t supposed to have any planes flying in so the ships opened up on us! Then the Spitfires and P-51’s came down and the ships began shooting at everybody!”
(The picture is an artist’s rendering of Jack and one of his crew over the beach at Anzio.)
Again, Jack and his squadron found a railroad track that ran down the coast and escaped, flying low. “So we got out of there and back to our base,” Jack said. “I didn’t know what in the world was happening. I could tell it was an invasion, but I didn’t know what.” When they returned to their base, they got breakfast and took a nap. (Now, that’s one way to forget about spoiling an invasion!)
The sound of the engines of a landing plane woke Jack up. There was no plane scheduled to land, so Jack “wandered out and this General jumps out of that plane, comes marching up to me and says, ‘Who’s in charge here!?’” Jack was the squadron leader and he says, “I am… and boy, was he mad!” The General continued, “What do you think you’re doing!? You just about ruined the invasion!”
He put Jack in a plane and flew him to Headquarters at Sardinia, about 60 miles away. “He gives me a fit all the way there, screaming about ruining the invasion,” Jack remembers. They had no information about Jack’s squadron. The Navy had kept it a total secret from everyone. On the other hand, the P-39 squadron had no knowledge of the invasion either.
Jack and the Intelligence Officer at Headquarters were close friends and it all eventually smoothed over. From this, Jack ended up in military intelligence. (Some would suggest these are mutually exclusive terms!)
It is a pleasure knowing Jack Ogilvie, and I also am thankful that God protected him through the dreadful conflict of World War II and allowed us to be a part of his adventures.