P-61 Black Widow Units of World War Two
By Warren Thompson

1998 by Osprey Publishing Limited

ISBN 1-85532-725-2                           Retail currently : $22.95 US

Review by : Mick Burton (from an award “gifting”) 

 That glossy, dark evocative art dominating the box,  “Black Widow” prominently titled as only Aurora could, our first meet and I fall lost in love that night. So the Northrop P-61 ever since has bewitched me. 

Thanks to author Warren Thompson’s toned text and editor Tony Holmes’ potent packaging, I’m a goner. The writing of this slim volume never fails to bring home all the heroes and the magic, delightful surprises inside as well. It’s an excellent introduction if you’ve never had the pleasure of knowing this big aircraft or want to share the love. Powerful passions punctuate history of the P-61 and her crews, author in the first chapter “Prelude to Combat” swiftly illustrates how with stunning comparative data. In same December 1942 to August 1945 time frame, 35,000 day fighter pilots were trained versus only 485 night fighter crews. The crews survival and success were intimately tied to their ability to function as a team at all times, whereas the day fighters while expected and trained to fight in teams were under no such constraints. Not to mention having light to sight their targets as a given. The following four chapters outline the four major theaters (ETO, CBI, Med and of course Pacific) where “they fight by night” was the hard rule for the few lucky enough to crew the Widow.

It’s made abundantly clear early on, how misunderstood initially by the young line pilots what true strength and inherent performance available to do the “fighter’s job” lie within “the big airplane”. That nearly did the Widow in. One pilot years later wrote the Northrop Test Pilot John Myers of how powerfully his demonstration ride had removed all doubt of what a P-61 really was about. Especially the point when he dove down on a flight of Navy F4Fs, leveling out with one engine feathered as he passed them while doing a series of slow rolls!  Myers’ own recounting of his “little showoff flight procedure” he’d practiced really brings it home : “ …about three minutes. Very short take-off roll, back across the deck at red-line 420 mph, loop down to the deck again in an Immelman. Coming out of this maneuver,feather one engine on the way down to the deck, two slow rolls off the deck into the dead engine, approach, and land short…” This to imbue confidence to those kids about to take this 15 tons of twin engine aircraft into battle at night that the Black Widow WAS MANEUVERABLE, ENGINE OUT wasn’t a BAIL OUT. Or as he later put it to another :  “You chaps must remember this is a fighter! You have the safest, most modern airplane built to date. You also have the best engines in the world, Pratt & Whitney R-2800s. DO NOT BABY THEM. Use them to the utmost. They will not fail you…fly the hell out of this airplane, it won’t hurt you!”.   The missions recounted range from very exciting (aka damned dangerous) night time intercepts of V-1 Buzz Bombs in ETO to a PTO dawn intercept of a “tough target”, a Ki-84 Hayate (Frank) at the end of 2nd night mission. Our P-61 pilot, crew close the 6 miles and 5000 ft altitude for their reward on question of who’s the tougher, get a rare graphic demonstration when the 20mm batteries opened up 75 feet away from target. Yet  more shocked to later discover that far from being “low on ammo” when that Frank was disintegrated, they’d only expended 382 rounds for a four kill night and still had 200 aboard !  There are also plenty of examples how the Black Widows didn’t let the dwindling aerial opponents over time dismay any, turning in some quite terrific reports when employed for harassing train and truck material movers in nocturnal ground poundings. Probably my own favorite though was to learn how a PTO Black Widow on a night mission was credited with a full kill without firing a shot. No, not the confirmed mission kill where an evading JF flew itself into the water, I’d read of that P-61 tale before. No, this was “Skippy”, a P-61A defending Owl Island during a 10 plane raid. Her pilot while in midst of lining up on a “Betty” was alerted by his R/O man in back that they were taking tracer fire from another. So, he dove out of way as “#2 Betty” promptly downed “Number One” for him. See, the Black Widow indeed was/is “America’s Most Dangerous Spider” . Okay, that’s actually another book entirely and first time published before Northrop’s plane came to be. However I came to first know that title, it’s still true. Get this book, you too, will see.  – Mick  fini