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Colonel Carroll W McColpin

Commanding Officer 404th Fighter Bomber Group


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Colonel McColpin , May 1944, Winkton

(photo courtesy of Andrew F Wilson)

 

Born in Buffalo, New York State on the 15th of November 1914, Carroll McColpin was raised and educated in Los Angeles, California. While still a teenager the sandy haired outgoing young man designed and built his own airplane and taught himself the basics of stick flying and aerial acrobatics. He had been a civilian pilot for 3 years before, despite official US disapproval, going via Canada to England where he joined the Royal Air Force in February 1941. Many of the U.S. pilots, on arrival in the UK, were sent to Number 3 Personnel Reception Centre in Bournemouth before going to No 56 Operational Training Unit at Sutton Bridge in Norfolk. McColpin trained at Sutton Bridge and may therefore have gone to Bournemouth first. Did McColpin actual return to an area he already knew when he was posted to Winkton with the 404th ?

McColpin considered himself a careful and professional pilot. He wanted to fly and he wanted to fight but he also wanted to live. McColpin’s policy was careful planning and following certain personal rules. He didn’t live it up, maintained a peak physical condition in which he prided himself, and had first rate eyesight, good hearing, physical strength and endurance. Four hundred fighter missions without once being hit and never losing a pilot when leading his flight proved the wisdom of his philosophy.

After serving initially with the RAF's 607 Squadron he was one of the many U.S. pilots whom the RAF appointed to their Eagle Squadrons, British squadrons equipped with British equipment but whose pilots were U.S. airmen who had come to Britain to join in the fight against Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Germany. In May 1941 McColpin joined the second Eagle Squadron, No 121 as a pilot and then went to No 71 Squadron, the 1st Eagle Squadron. In November 1941 he was awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross. The award was made personally by King George VI th. In January 1942 he was posted as a flight commander to the 3rd Eagle Squadron No 133. One of the hottest of the Eagle pilots, McColpin went back to the United States in June 1942 to participate for 10 weeks in a War Bond tour followed by 4 weeks home leave. On his return, being an American, an ace and having served in combat with all three Eagle Squadron, McColpin was appointed to command 133 Squadron.

On America's entry into the war, and the arrival of the United States' 8th Army Air Force in Britain the US Eagle Squadron personnel and equipment transferred to the US forces and McColpin was given the rank of Major and the command of the 336th Squadron in the 4th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force. At the end of November 1942 he returned to the United States to serve with III Fighter Command, with eleven victories to his credit in 280 combat missions in 36 months of combat duty.

  McColpin then worked for the Army Air Force in Washington helping to train and form new fighter groups. Later he commanded the 407th Fighter Bomber Group at Galveston in Texas before taking command of the 404th Group prior to its move to Europe. Colonel McColpin remained with the 404th when it moved to France and throughout most of 1944. In November 1944 he was promoted and posted to XXIX Tactical Air Command as Director of Operations. Major Leo Moon, C.O of the 508th. Squadron replaced him as the Group's commander. McColpin was the first Eagle to achieve Brigadier General and Major General rank in the USAAF. As a Major General he would command the 4th Air Force. He would wear both the American and the British Distinguished Flying Cross and would receive 21 decorations from four different countries.

Major General Carroll W. McColpin (USAF Ret.) passed away peacefully Friday, November 28, 2003.

Accounts vary as to the number of victories gained and decorations granted. The varying methods used by the Royal Air Force, 8th Airforce and 9th Airforce to award "kills" varied considerably so the totals vary in different sources between eight and twelve. The most likely total is eleven, eight "conventional" kills whilst with the RAF and three whilst with the 404th in 1944 when he flew 3 Focke Wulf 190s into the ground without firing a shot. )

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The photo shows the aircraft usually flown by Colonel McColpin from the middle of June 1944 and was been taken at Winkton. The aircraft Y8-A, named "Short Squirt" was assigned for servicing to the 507th squadron and has red and white chequer board markings on the cowling. The photo at the top of the page shows the Colonel in a P47 Razorback, obviously his by the victory markings, and the photo is believed to have been taken in May 1944. This aircraft is in full invasion stripe markings and appears to be a brand new and freshly painted P47D -25, the first model with a bubble canopy. This was  one of only two D25s  at Winkton, the other was assigned to major Hal Shook, C.O. of the 506th squadron. (photo courtesy of Andrew F Wilson).

Anecdotes

Because Carroll McColpin was such a significant figure in the history of the Eagle Squadrons he features prominently in the histories of those units. Listed below are some of the anecdotes about him which at times reveal something of the man who commanded the 404th at Winkton.

McColpin joined the RAF because…

"For myself I reasoned that as I has flown most of my life and knew there was going to be a global war, why not start flying for England, a country that needed help and believed in our precepts of democracy, and one that would be our ally soon enough in any case. I knew America was on the verge of war. When the Battle of Britain started I decided that I couldn't standby by and do nothing."

Whilst with 607 Squadron RAF McColpin was one of two pilots who intercepted and attempted unsuccessfully to shoot down a German aircraft which it later transpired was carrying Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s private secretary. Hess parachuted into Scotland in an attempt to negotiate an Anglo German peace agreement.

In 1941 shortly after joining 71 Eagle Squadron in September, McColpin shot down 5 German aircraft within five weeks - a record. In October 1941 71 squadron reached the top of the combat ratings, with 9 officially recognised kills - 4 were McColpin’s. Some of the victories occurred when McColpin misheard a return to base instruction and lead his flight on a low level fighter sweep. Some other pilots thought McColpin followed Nelson’s example and perhaps turned a blind eye to the order to return to base, and risked official wrath if it had not turned out so well. If he did, it seems counter to his normal behaviour of a disciplined approach to flying and for meticulous preparation and planning of missions.

Whilst in the Royal Air Force, McColpin flew both Spitfires and Hurricanes and was an avowed proponent of the historically under appreciated but much more robust Hurricane which outnumbered the Spitfire in both numbers and victories during the Battle of Britain.

In January 1942 McColpin was posted as a flight commander with 133 Eagle squadron at Kirton in Lindsey, with orders to straighten out B flight and make a fighter team out of them. McColpin’s experience with the other two Eagle Squadrons had well prepared him to handle the situation. Much of the pilots' frustration was due to their war weary Spitfires IIs, previously used in Northern Ireland, with canopies that were both old and almost opaque. McColpin understood very well the concern that "in combat, (even just) a spot on the canopy looks just like an enemy aircraft at high altitude." Immediately on arrival, McColpin demanded the best aircraft in the flight, flew it round the circuit and landed. He inspected the other aircraft and promptly grounded the lot. He immediately started an intensive maintenance programme that involved airmen and pilots alike and confined a chief sergeant who refused to co-operate. Within three days A Flight wanted aircraft as good as those of B Flight. McColpin even became good friends with the sergeant.

McColpin raised eyebrows whilst back in the United States in 1943 to train and form new fighter groups. He told General "Hap" Arnold that he considered the P38 Lightning fighter to be the best bomber the air force had, because it could carry a 2000lb bomb load, has only two engines not four and a single crew member instead of ten. It was less wasteful if lost in combat and the fighter pilot would hit the target , the bomber probably would not.

His men admired him and respected his leadership qualities - "Well I’ll go with McColpin any place he’ll go" - "Amen" was the response of the other pilots in the room.

There was some dissent in 133 Squadron when McColpin’s pilots realised that other units got promotion faster. McColpin pointed out that he would transfer them if they wished but that the other units were taking the casualties (whilst 133 were at least as active and successful in combat as the other two Eagle Squadrons). Did they want to be live pilot officers or dead flight lieutenants ?

"……many of the Eagles considered him the best pilot in the squadrons with the possible exception of Red McColpin".

McColpin didn’t want to leave his RAF unit to go and have his interview prior to transfer into the USAAF because the squadron was due to take part in a dangerous and difficult mission to Morlaix. In the end he was ordered to go by General Hunter and refused as he was still in the RAF. He was then ordered to go by Sholto Douglas, his RAF Air Vice Marshall - he went. At the interview he was asked what rank he should be granted in the USAAF. He requested Brigadier General, but got Major. (Sadly McColpin’s reservations about the Morlaix mission were well founded. Lacking his discipline and planning and compounded by errors by both British and Americans, his squadron flew the B17 escort mission in his absence and was decimated by ground fire when the squadron, unaware of a gross wind forecast error, descended through cloud in tight formation and appeared at low level over Brest instead of over the English coast.)

McColpin's orders to the 404th on D Day were explicit and precise:-

. . The red-haired, red moustached colonel shifted slowly back and forth, his hands in his pockets, a cigar-stub in his mouth. He took it out of his mouth to talk, as he thought between words it moved erratically up and down. When he looked up, his small blue eyes seemed to look directly into yours, calmly, impressively.

. .. ."The infantry will have trouble enough landing and getting inland," he said, "without being bothered by enemy aircraft. Sixteen pilots and planes, or thirty two, or forty eight, would be a cheap price to pay, to keep the beaches free . . If your plane develops mechanical trouble, come home. If a fight develops you will stay there till the last enemy plane is driven away, even if you run out of gas and have to come down in the sea. If you run out of ammunition, ram 'em . . ." extract from "Leap Off" the official history of the 404th.

He could be pretty caustic with less effective formations than his own as detailed in the 404th's unit histories - "........the B26s flew all round Chartres which was plainly visible to us, and then bombed somewhere else. The Colonel leading our group finally asked the bombers in exasperation 'do you have the slightest idea of where you are and why' ?"

When the 404th moved their planes to France after D-Day, they slept in tents. The first morning he woke up and saw daylight through holes in his tent from schrapnel that had fallen in the night. Later that afternoon his men were scrounging wood to build a bar and returned to camp with some coffins. McCoplin had them drop off a coffin which he dragged to his tent. He drilled air holes in it and proceeded to sleep in it until they moved as protection from the schrapnel. (sent to me by Glenn R. McColpin, who was told the story by his uncle, Carroll McColpin).

His long experience in Britain in the RAF made him a good ambassador for the 9th Air Force. He had a reputation for using local services for work and provisioning and for prompt and fair payment. During his time at Winkton he is reported to have lived in a caravan (Brockhouse trailer ?) in a local farm yard.


HEADQUARTERS
404TH Fighter Group
APO 595
US Army
28 August 1944
A. Type of action  :    Combat
B. Date            :    27 August 1944
C. Unit            :    404th Fighter Group, 506th Fighter Squadron (??)
D. Time of Attack  :    14:30
E. Place           :    Coulommiers
F. Weather         :    7/10 at 8000 hazy
G. Type of target  :    E/A (enemy aircraft) FW 190s
H. Claim           :    3 FW 190s destroyed

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___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

1.    At approximately 1450 just east of Coulommiers, I was flying on a course of 270 degrees heading home, altitude 50 feet, when I noticed 4 FW190s starting an attack on me from my right beam. I did not notice them due to the haze until they were within about 2000 yards. I turned right into their first attack. They split up into pairs, the second pair passing over me then attacking from my left forcing me to reverse my initial turn back to the left. They kept up these attacks from alternate sides for approximately 5 passes, firing on each pass. By this time my speed was well down due the tight turns, and they were forced into a lufberry with my aircraft leading. As this all occurred at tree top height, I used the trees as cover as much as possible during the turns. On about the 2nd circle I passed between two rows of trees, just making the entrance; the No 1. man behind me didn't make it, crashing into the trees. I then started to reduce speed down to approximately 120 m.p.h. using 1/3rd flaps and tightened my turn a bit more. After about 10 more circles, I was beginning to get onto the last man's tail. Just as I was getting deflection on him the E/A in front of him did a half snap roll, stalling out of his turn and hit the ground. Immediately afterwards the E/A in front of me also snapped onto his back and crashed, probably due to the incident in front of him or his hitting prop wash. Some time during this incident I lost track of the 4th E/A. I weaved all over looking for him but with no success. I continued on at tree top height using lots of power, heading for home as numerous other enemy aircraft were still in the area and my gas was a bit low by then. I noticed that after I used flaps and reduced speed below 130-140 mph the E/A started having trouble in their turns, enabling em to out turn them.

I claim 3 FW 190s destroyed.

                                                                        Carroll W. McColpin
                                                                        Colonel, Air Corps.

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(Pilots who saw him on the way to his debrief had no doubt about his achievement, the Colonel's flying gear was absolutely soaked through with sweat following the challenging flying experience he had been through and he looked absolutely exhausted.)