While the Luftwaffe bombers attempted to hit London the combined forces of the RAF and the USAAF were making the reverse trip to Germany. In Operation Argument the USAAF made sustained attacks on the German aircraft factories during the day, at the same time luring the Luftwaffe fighters into combat with the long range escort fighters of the USAAF. At night the RAF hit the same or complementary targets.
The attacks began on the 20th February and became known as “Big Week’, and were largely successful, despite losses of around 7% to the Allies. Hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters were claimed as shot down, leading to intelligence claims that this single week had eliminated them from battle and had achieved air superiority for Operation Overlord, one of the objectives of the operation.
Later evaluations put the figure at 355 fighters shot down and 100 Luftwaffe pilots killed, around 17% of the total. The was a very significant dent in their capability, especially as Luftwaffe losses were largely irreplaceable, whereas the Allied bomber fleets continued to grow.
Col. Myron Keilman was flying deputy lead for the 392nd, on the raid that earned them the Distinguished Unit Citation. On the 24th they targeted the Messerschmitt airplane plant at Gotha:
Our briefing for the attack on Gotha was at 0630 hours. It was our group’s fortieth mission; so we took it all in stride. To most of us it meant another mission to be accomplished against a total of twenty-five – then back home to the safety of the ZI (Zone of Interior). Remember? The intelligence officer briefed on the importance of the big plant to German’s ability to carry on the air war; on the fact that it was heavily defended by big 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery like we faced over Bremen. Keil, and Wilhelmshaven, and we were certain to encounter heavy fighter attacks all across enemy territory – 400 miles in and 400 miles out.
After drawing our escape and evasion kits, donning our heated flying suits, gathering up our oxygen masks, flak helmets, maywests, and parachutes we climbed aboard 2 1/2 ton trucks for a cold ride to our airplanes dispersal pad. It was still very dark as we made our airplane inspection, checking all the engine cowling for loose Dzus fasteners; the turbines of the super-chargers; the propeller blades and pushed them through to release any piston hydraulic lock; the fuel cells for being “topped-off’ and their caps for security; the guns and turrets; ammunition quantity of 500 rounds for each of the ten 50 caliber machine guns; the Sperry bombsight; the twelve 500 pound bombs, their shackles, fuses and safety wires; the oxygen supply and regulators; signal flares; camera; and many other things. Remember?
At 0810 we started engines. At 0815 the lead ship taxied to take-off position. At 0830 the green flare from the control tower signaled “Take Off!” It was breaking dawn.
Lead crew pilot Jim McGregor “revved-up” his engines, checked the instruments, released the brakes and rolled. Thirty-one B-24Hs followed at thirty second intervals.
In the clear at 12,000 feet, the lead ship fired red-yellow identification flares. Flying deputy lead, I pulled into position on his left wing, and the group formed over radio beacon “21” into three squadrons. Then it flew the wing triangular assembly pattern to Kings Lynn.
Leading the 14th Combat Wing, we fell into number two position of the 2nd Air Divisions bomber stream over Great Yarmouth. Heading east over the Channel and climbing to 18,000 feet, our gunners test fired their guns. We penetrated enemy territory just north of Amsterdam. At 235 miles an hour true air speed over the Zider Zee, our streaming vapor trails signaled our presence and our intent. It was a thrilling moment. Onward over Dummer Lake, past our future Osnabruck target, southeast past Hanover’s bombed-out airfields our big formations hurried.
Parallelling our course to the right were the B-17 formations of the 1st Air Division heading for their tough old ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. Over the North Sea, the 3rd Air Division “Forts” were enroute to their Baltic coast targets. P-47 fighters covered us to the vicinity of Hanover, then P-38s and P-51s orbited over us to Gotha. Luftwaffe fighters made attempts to penetrate our formations but “our little friends” kept them at a distance and, when opportunity prevailed, dove in for a “kill”. Using our thick vapor trails as a screen, the Germans often struck from below and from behind to shoot up any lagging bomber.
Bending south eastward toward Gotha, the white, snowy earth looked cold and lifeless; only the large communities, rail lines, and an autobahn stood out in relief. Fighter attacks became more persistent. By the time we reached our initial point (IP) to start our bomb run, the sky about our three squadrons was full of busy P-38s and P-51s fending off the Germans. I remember how they dove past the lead ship in pursuit of Messerschmitts and Folke-Wulfe making head on attacks. Our gunners got in a lot of shooting, too. The staccato of the turrets’ twin fifties vibrated throughout the airplane. It was real scary.
The weather was “clear as a bell” as we turned to the target. Red flares from the lead ship signaled “Bombbay Doors Open”. The bombardier removed the heated cover blanket from the bombsight. (Bombsights had heated blankets before people did. Remember?) He checked his gyroscope’s stabilization, and all bombing switches ON. Our high and low squadrons fell in-trail and all seemed great. Then Piotage Navigator Kennedy in the nose turret observed the lead wing formations veering from the target heading. A fast and anxious cross-check with Lead Crew Navigator Swangren and with a recheck of compass heading and reference points, they assured Command Pilot Lorin Johnson that the target was “dead ahead”. Thirty years later, I don’t know where the 2nd Air Division leader wound up, and I’ve forgotten which group and wing it was, but at that moment the 392nd, leading the 14th Combat Wing, was “on course – on target”. Within minutes Lead Bombardier Good called over the interphone, “I’ve got the target!” Lead Pilot McGregor checked his flight instruments for precise 18,000 feet altitude and 160 miles per hour indicated air speed, and carefully levelled the airplane on auto-pilot. Then he called back: “On airspeed, on altitude. You’ve got the airplane.” Making a final level of his bombsight, Good took over control of steering the airplane with the bombsight.
The bombardier’s target folder didn’t contain a snowy, winter view of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Works. He had to use his keen judgment and trained skills in discerning the briefed aiming point. Only his one eye peering through the bombsight optics could determine where to place the cross-hair. He could and did give a commentary to the command pilot and crew of what he saw and what he was doing in steering the lead airplane and formation of bombers to the bomb release point, but only he – the lead bombardier – “knew for sure” what was viewed through that bombsight.
At 18,000 feet, it was forty (40) degrees below zero, but the bombardier never felt the cold as his fingers delicately operated the azmith and range controls. He cross-checked all the bomb and camera switches to the ON position, especially the radio bomb release (RBR) signal switch that would release all the bombs of the other airplanes in the formation simultaneously. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
When the flak started bursting near the formation, Lieutenant Good had already attained a synchronized bombing run with the wind drift “killed” and the cross-hair holding steady on the aiming point of the great manufacturing complex. The bombsight indicies crossed and “Bombs away!” Beautiful!
While the camera was recording the impact of the bombs, Lieutenant McGregor took over and swung the formation to the outbound heading and the rally point. In spite of the new accurate flak from the 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery, the second and third squadron bombardiers, Lt. Ziccarrilli and Lt. Jackson, steered their squadrons to the precise bomb delivery points, too. Of thirty-two B-24s that took off that morning, twenty-nine delivered 348 500-pound bomb’ precisely on the Gotha factory as briefed. Outstanding!
The bombs were smack “on target”, but the battle wasn’t over. No sooner had the wing left the target’s flak than we were accosted by German fighters again. Strung out in-trail and with some planes slowed down from flak damage, our three squadrons became vulnerable to vicious attacks. For the next hour and more, Messerschmitt, Folke Wulf and Junker fighters worked us over until our fighters could fend them off.
As deputy command pilot, I frequently changed off flying formation with the airplane commander to keep occupied and not have to watch the Jerries press their blazing gun attacks. The interphone was alive with excited calls of enemy action. Head on passes and tail attacks; in singles and in “gaggles”; rockets, 20mm cannon, and even some cables were thrown at us. Seven of our B-24s were shot down. Many of us were shot up, but it was not all one-sided. The gunners of the twenty-two airplanes that returned accounted for sixteen German fighters. At 1530, seven hours after take-off, the battle weary group landed back at Wendling. Eighth Air Force lost 50 bombers and 10 fighters; 155 German fighters were shot down.
Read the whole of this account on B24.Net, as well as details of the aircraft and losses on the mission. The Gotha raid is considered to be one of the longest single air battles of the war, with sustained attacks being made by the Luftwaffe fighters over a two and a half hour period.
The Presidential Unit Citation for the 392d Bombardment Group:
The 392d Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy on 24 February 1944.
The Group dispatched 32 B-24 type aircraft, the maximum number available, to bomb the most valuable single target in the enemy twin engine fighter complex, the aircraft and component parts factory at Gotha, Germany. Of these, one was forced to turn back shortly after take off. Flying as the lead group of the second Combat Wing in the Division formation, they were attacked by the enemy upon entering the Dutch Coast. In the bitter aerial battle that ensued, the Group was viciously attacked for over two and a half hours by approximately 150 enemy fighters, consisting of FW 190’s, ME 110’s, ME 210’s and JU 88’s, who raked them with cannon and rocket fire and even attempted air to air and cable bombing in a vain effort to disrupt the formation.
As the 392d Bombardment Group neared the Initial Point, the units of the lead Combat Wing were observed to be proceeding on divergent courses. The Group was faced with the decision to follow the lead units of the Air Division to a questionable target and maintain the integrity of the Division formation or to pursue a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous and which would expose the Group formation to even greater enemy attacks. The Group chose the latter, and maintaining perfect formation, valiantly fought its way through the flak defenses to bomb the target with pin-point accuracy, virtually destroying it.
Although seven of their aircraft were lost to the relentless enemy in the battle into and from the target, and an additional thirteen aircraft suffered battle damage, they accounted for the confirmed deatruction of sixteen enemy fighters, the probable destruction of one and the damage of five additional fighters.
The destruction of this high priority target was a serious blow to the GAF and was a contributing factor to its impotency in the invasion of Continental Europe.
The aggressive courage, determination to do their task at all costs, and combat efficiency of the air crews together with the professional skill and devotion to duty of the ground personnel of the 392d Bombardment Group (H) have reflected great credit on themselves and on the armed forces of the United States.