“More than 15,600 Thunderbolts were manufactured between 1941 and 1945 and they served in every theatre of the war.”
WITH ITS SLEEK LINES, nimble handling and lightning-fast speed, the North American P-51 quickly became a symbol of American air power in World War Two. But while the Mustang certainly helped win control of the skies over Europe and the Pacific, it was the less glamorous Republic P-47 Thunderbolt that was the real workhorse of the Allied victory. Nicknamed the “Jug” (short for “Juggernaut”) by adoring pilots, the P-47 was a heavyweight warbird — and one that packed a devastating punch. More than 15,600 Thunderbolts were manufactured between 1941 and 1945 and they served in every theatre of the war performing a variety of missions from bomber escort to close air support. Here are some amazing facts about this remarkable aircraft:
The P-47 was supposed to be a ‘light’ fighter
Conceived by Georgian-born aircraft designer Alexander Kartveli, the plane that would eventually become the P-47 was originally intended to be a featherweight interceptor. Based on the small P-43 Lancer, which saw limited service in the U.S. Army Air Corps before 1941, Republic was hoping to develop an improved version of the fighter. But as the war in Europe demonstrated the need for much more robust warplanes, the company was forced to rethink its plans. Designers soon came up with bigger, more rugged machine: The P-47. A prototype Thunderbolt first took to the skies on May 6, 1941.
The Thunderbolt was a flying tank
The P-47 was a big plane. It was three feet wider than the P-51 and four feet longer. And at more than 10,000 pounds empty, it was about 50 percent heavier than the Mustang and nearly twice the weight of of the British Spitfire. In fact, along with the three-seat Grumman Avenger, the P-47 was among the heaviest single-engine aircraft of World War Two.
… but it could move fast
Despite its considerable mass, the P-47’s 18-cylinder, 2,600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine (the same power plant used by the Vought Corsair and Grumman Hellcat) enabled the unwieldy Jug to keep pace with the Mustang. Both had a top speed of around 440 mph (700 km/h). And while the P-47 could reach altitudes in excess of 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), its range of just over 800 miles (1,300 km) gave it half the legs of the P-51.
It packed a killer punch
With four .50 caliber machine guns mounted in each wing, the Thunderbolt could shred both enemy warplanes and ground targets alike with equal ferocity. Its internal stores were capable of holding 3,400 rounds (the Mustang’s six guns could pack only 1,800 bullets), which enabled the P-47 to unleash a torrent of lead for 30 seconds straight. While the Jug did poorly in fast turning dogfights against smaller planes, it was at its best when diving on (or “bouncing”) enemy fighters with all guns blazing. It was even more effective as a ground attack aircraft; it was capable of carrying as much as 3,000 pounds of external ordnance. In fact, when fully armed, a P-47 Thunderbolt could deliver about half the payload of a B-17 Flying Fortress. When equipped with 4.5-inch M8 rockets, the Jug had the firepower equal to a battery of 105 mm howitzers.
… and was very hard to kill.
The P-47 was a popular plane with pilots. Not only was it capable of absorbing staggering amounts of punishment, the cockpit was roomy and comfortable. Some fliers likened the aircraft’s seat to a lounge chair. Plus, the bubble canopy, which was added to D-model variants, afforded aviators enhanced visibility. The plane’s safety record was nothing short of astounding – only about 0.7 percent of Thunderbolts were lost in action. 
P-47s weren’t cheap
Republic Aviation factories in Long Island, New York and in Evansville, Indiana, along with a Curtis plant in Buffalo, assembled 15,600 Thunderbolts between 1942 and 1945 — that’s an average of 360 a month for three and a half years. Each plane cost $85,000 (about $1.1 million in 2015). All told, the War Department spent $1.2 billion on P-47 Thunderbolts before VJ Day. That’s roughly equal to $15.5 billion today.
… but they were worth the investment
The P-47 made its combat debut in April 1943, when a Thunderbolt with the U.S. Army’s 4th Fighter Group brought down a Focke Wulfe FW-190 over France. Over the next two years, the planes would fly more than half a million sorties in Europe and the Pacific and would claim nearly 4,000 enemy aircraft, 9,000 trains, 86,000 trucks and 6,000 armoured vehicles.
Many aces preferred the Thunderbolt
A number of American aces achieved impressive records while at the controls of P-47s. Thunderbolt top guns included Francis “Gabby” Gabreski (28 kills), Robert S. Johnson (27 kills) and David C. Schilling (22.5 kills).
Improved P-47s broke speed records
Numerous attempts were made to improve the performance of the mighty Jug. One experimental model set a speed record of 505 mph (810 km/h). No piston engine aircraft would top that until 1989. In 1942, Republic reported that its plots had broken the then-elusive ‘sound barrier’ during P-47 dive tests although that record has been disputed.  However, two years later, the company produced a limited number of M model Thunderbolts with supercharged engines that could reach emergency speeds of 473 mph (760 km/h). These were sent to the United Kingdom to intercept V1 rockets and were later used against German jets.
More than 20 nations used the P-47
While the United States was the P-47’s principle operator, Thunderbolts served in a number of other countries’ air forces as well. More than 800 went to Britain and Commonwealth powers during the war. Free France operated nearly 500 of the aircraft too. As many as 400 Jugs were also transferred to the Soviet Union under Lend Lease, where they largely served in interceptor roles.
Thunderbolts became Cold Warriors
Although P-47 production ceased just weeks after Japan’s surrender, Thunderbolts (re-designated as the F-47) continued to serve for years (and in some cases decades) after World War Two. America pulled the plane from front line service in 1949, but NATO allies like Turkey, Portugal and Italy maintained squadrons of Thunderbolts into the 1950s, as did Iran. Taiwanese F-47s routinely engaged communist fighters off the coast of China. Surplus models were also liberally distributed throughout Latin America during the same period. Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic all maintained fleets for years. Peru didn’t retire its Jugs until 1966. When designing its formidable A-10 tank buster in the early 1970s, engineers at Fairchild Republic tore a page from history and dubbed their new twin-engine attack jet the Thunderbolt II in honour of the P-47. Today, at least 15 original wartime Jugs are still airworthy and can be seen on the North American air show circuit each summer.