While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front, the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.
In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.
Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.
The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.
What little information available about Soviet P-47s suggests that VVS pilots were unimpressed with the Thunderbolt’s maneuverability at low-altitudes. The P-39 became so tremendously popular among Soviet pilots due to its ability to maneuver in horizontal, and especially vertical, positions. The P-47 was a fast, powerful, and heavily armed aircraft, but it could not maneuver nearly as well as a P-39.
In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.
While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.