The early expectation that the Flying Fortresses were sufficiently well armed to defend themselves had proven to be misplaced. Furthermore the Germans had been quick to re-organise their air defences to cope with attacks from the RAF at night and the USAAF by day.
The bombing war saw constantly evolving tactics on both sides. It was obvious from the heavy losses that they were suffering that the bombers needed fighter escorts, and now they began to make their appearance, although they still did not have the range to go all the way deep into Germany.
Heinz Knoke was already an accomplished Luftwaffe pilot by 1943, well on his way to his final tally of 52 aircraft. He and his flight had mastered the right approach to taking on the B-17s. Today, however, there was a surprise:
27th September, 1943.
Enemy concentrations in map reference sector Dora-Dora. Once again the time has come. . . . 1030 hours: stand by. 1045 hours : all set.
I have a new aircraft. Arndt has been polishing it until it shines like a new mirror: no doubt that will add another ten miles per hour to the speed.
1055 hours: the call to action blares as usual from the loudspeakers round the field: “ All Flights take off! All Flights take off! ”
The sky is completely overcast. We come out above the clouds at 10,000 feet, and at the same moment sight our Fortresses directly overhead. We climb on a parallel course, heading east up to 20,000 feet. That is as high as they are flying today.
The reserve tanks are still almost full when I order my Flight to jettison them. We swing quickly in to attack with our rockets. As we get into position, the Fortresses split up into separate groups of some thirty or forty aircraft each, and keep on constantly altering course. The moisture-trails above the cloudbank leave a zigzag pattern in the blue sky.
I order all our rockets to be discharged when we are in formation at a range of 2,000 feet. The next moment a simply fantastic scene unfolds before my eyes. My own two rockets both register a perfect bull’s-eye on a Fortress. Thereupon I am confronted with an enormous solid ball of fire. The bomber has blown up in mid-air with its entire load of bombs. The blazing, smoking fragments come fluttering down.
Wenneckers also scores a direct hit. His victim goes down in flames. My wingman, Sergeant Reinhard, has discharged his rockets to explode beside another Fortress.
The fuselage appears to be damaged, too, and it swerves away off to the left. I observe how Reinhard chases off merrily after it, blazing away with his guns. He fastens on to the tail of the American.
My attention just then is attracted by the rather peculiar appearance overhead of double moisture trails, apparently emanating from very fast aircraft.
Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs, as far as I know, have been sent into action from our side. The peculiar-looking planes keep circling above the bombers. If they are German why do they not attack? I climb up alone for a closer look at them. Lightnings! Twelve or fourteen aircraft: the Yank has brought a fighter escort. I radio the warning to my comrades. Since I cannot undertake operations against them by myself alone, I decide to swoop down once more upon the Fortresses.
Then suddenly four other peculiar-looking single-engine aircraft dive past. They have the white star and broad white stripes as wing markings. Blast! They are Thunderbolts. I have not seen them before.
I immediately dive down after them. They swing round in a steep spiral to the left, heading for a lone Flying Fortress whose two outside engines have stopped. There is a Messerschmitt on its tail: it is Reinhard. The bloody fool has eyes only for his fat bomber, and is unaware of the enemy fighters coming up behind. keeps on firing at his victim.
But now the leading Thunderbolt is a perfect target in my sights. A single burst of fire from my guns is all that is needed. It bursts into flames and goes down spinning like a dead leaf into the depths below. It is my second kill today.
Then there is a sudden hammering noise in my crate. I turn round. There is a Thunderbolt hard on my tail, and two others are coming down to join it. I push the stick right forward with both hands, diving for cover in the clouds.
Too late: my engine is on fire. I can feel the heat: it quickly becomes unbearable.
Knoke survived by parachuting out and was uninjured. Many of the fellow pilots in his Squadron were less fortunate. In one flight of twelve aircraft nine pilots were killed and the three other planes crashed or the pilot had to bale out. See Heinz Knoke: I flew for the Fuhrer: Story of a German Airman .