Navigating a first combat mission in a B-17 over France

B-17 bombers en route to a target in occupied Europe.

B-17 bombers en route to a target in occupied Europe.

The USAAF in Britain was now growing from strength to strength, each day saw several different daylight missions to bomb occupied Europe. Increasingly these were co-ordinated with the night-time missions of the RAF, in order to stretch German defences.

It remained a perilous time, with heavy casualties, as the original U.S. plan that Flying Fortresses were sufficiently well armed to be able to defend themselves had proved too optimistic. Fighters capable of escorting them all the way were not yet available.

A cluster of new airfields in the east of England were now filling up with thousands of newcomers, some of whom had very little time to settle in before they were sent off on ops. Marshall Stelzriede was one of them:

On September 16, 1943, three days after arriving at Snetterton Heath, Nevin Beam, the bombardier, and I were awakened at 9:15 in the morning by an orderly, who told us we were needed at Operations to fly with a different crew, of the 413th squadron, on a raid that day. We had been sleeping very late that morning after having attended a late party the night before. We scarcely had time to dress when a truck arrived at our barracks to take us to Operations, where we arrived about 10:00.

The 413th operations officer was in a panic. The briefing had just ended, and it was his responsibility to provide complete crews for the raid. We were his replacements for a navigator and a bombardier who had been injured on a mission a few days before. When I told him I had not yet been issued any cold-weather clothing or other equipment, he and another person gave me some of theirs, and the rest of the clothing and equipment were located somewhere. Because we had not had time for breakfast, he scrounged up some K-rations for us.

He also handed me a stack of maps and charts, and told me only one thing about the mission: The target was Bordeaux, in southern France, for a late afternoon bombing, with the primary target being an air field and the secondary target being an aircraft assembly plant. So here I was, a green navigator in the European Theater of Operations, on his first raid, and knowing almost nothing about the mission except what was in the battle order.

When I told the crew’s pilot, Lt. Tanner, at planeside of my total inexperience as a combat navigator, he told me not to worry, because we would be flying in formation all the way there and back. I thought to myself, “Yes, but what if we are damaged and have to leave the formation?” It was his crew’s 21st mission, so they had a lot of combat experience. His regular bombardier, whom Beam was replacing, had been shot down off Heligoland (an island in the North Sea northwest of Germany) while flying as a substitute on another crew, and after floating for a considerable time was picked up by the British Air Sea Rescue team, and returned to England.

We took off around 12:00 in the second element of the low squadron (at “suicide corner”). Assembly was over the field, and the formation flew at very low level to Land’s End at the southwest tip of England, to keep German radar from detecting the formation. Beyond that point, the course took us far enough out to sea to miss the Brest peninsula of France by a wide margin. Much of the flight, straight southward until even with Bordeaux, was spent by me in arranging maps and charts to make it easy to navigate by dead reckoning in order to cross-check the flight plan positions over water. This was difficult, because ammunition boxes piled on the navigator’s table made it necessary for me to do my navigation on my lap.

At a point off Bordeaux, we made our turn toward the target and started a climb to a bombing altitude of 20,000 feet. I got my first view of enemy aircraft as we approached the French coast. Four ME-110s (Messerschmitt fighters) appeared at one o’clock just out of range. I also saw my first flak; it was fascinating to me because it looked like black pop-corn, and it sounded like pop-corn when it exploded close to us. At first the German fighters attacked only other groups in the 45th Combat Wing. We could see a B-17, in flames, go into a spin and dive toward the ground. Six parachutes came out of the airplane, and while they looked like white blossoms floating down, it was a real shocker to realize that those were living men going down into enemy-occupied territory. A layer of clouds formed underneath us before we reached Bordeaux, so a decision was made not to bomb either the primary or the first-alternate target. The policy established by the Eighth Air Force was that German-occupied friendly territory would not be bombed through an overcast, because a miss could result in tragedy among friendly civilians near the targets.

So the wing lead altered course toward a different alternate target, the submarine pens at La Pallice, where there was no overcast. On the way there, about ten more enemy fighters joined the two that were already there, and they came from every direction. Two more Forts were damaged and could not stay with the formation, and the Messerschmitts directed most attention to them. They both finally exploded, with no parachutes leaving either plane.

Between Bordeaux and La Pallice, I got my first taste of real aerial gunnery. The .50-caliber machine guns had been installed by the ground crew while I was preparing for takeoff. I had a problem keeping my oxygen hose connected, so I had to hold the hose with one hand and fire the gun with the other. Nevin Beam helped me look for enemy planes. One of them made a run on our group, hit a plane in our high squadron, and more parachutes appeared.

One thing happened that was extremely embarrassing to me. As I jumped up once to man the gun, the hand release of my parachute caught on something, and all of the silk of the chute spilled out onto the floor of the nose compartment. I gathered it into as tight a ball as I could, and placed it on the floor behind me, in case it became necessary to bail out. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had had to jump out into the 150 mile-an-hour wind with an armload of silk.

I saw a B-17 spinning at ten o’clock, pulling out of the spin into a dive, with a Jerry fighter on his tail. I got the fighter in my gun-sight, with the proper lead, as a veteran gunner would, and fired many rounds at the “bandit”. The pilot congratulated me over the interphone, but added that the fighter was probably out of range when I fired at it. Ultimately, the Fort was knocked down by the fighter, with no parachutes in sight.

Finally, the target was reached, bomb-bay doors were opened, the lead bombardier released his bombs, and the other planes toggled their bombs on that signal. The formation headed out to sea, reducing altitude again, so as to fly back to England out of view of German radar on the French coast. The fighters deserted the formation, and headed back to their home bases. I navigated primarily by flight plan, calculating occasional dead-reckoning fixes for practice, and was pleased to find that these fixes agreed closely with the flight plan.

About 20 miles from the English coast, darkness was setting in, and we hit a bank of “soup”. The formation had to split up, and each plane was on its own to return to its home base. We took a heading that would be certain to hit the coast of England, and not the Brest Peninsula. At one time in the past, the Eighth Air Force had lost a returning squadron by flak and fighters over the Brest Peninsula. I was now at the point I dreaded, being unfamiliar with navigating over England, particularly at night. In addition, it would have been helpful if I had had practice using the Gee box on board. However, at one point searchlights over a vast area on the ground lit up, and waved back and forth in the direction of the airbases of each group. With the help of the pilot, I found a pundit that was located on our home base, we landed, and that was the end of my first combat flight.

The whole journal of Marshall Stelzriede’s combat history with the Eighth Airforce in England can be read on line, together many photos and newspaper articles.

Marshall Stelzriede relaxing at USAAF base in Snetterton Heath.

Marshall Stelzriede relaxing at USAAF base in Snetterton Heath.

16th September 1943

ETO: Eighth Air Force

[second mission of the day]

93 of 148 B-17’s hit La Pallice harbor installations at 1755-1758 hours, Larochelle/Laleau Airfield at 1755-1758 and Cognac/Chateaubernard Airfield at 1731 hours; they claim 22-3-8 Luftwaffe aircraft; 4 B-17’s are lost, 5 damaged beyond repair and 17 damaged; casualties are 44 KIA, 9 WIA and 30 MIA.

Jack McKillop’s Combat Chronology of World War II provides a complete history of USAAF missions.

B-17s in formation whilst on their bomb run.

B-17s in formation whilst on their bomb run.

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