The 8th Air Force crewmen were now being asked to complete 30 full missions before they could complete a tour of duty and get away from operational bombing. The chances of them surviving all 30 missions depended on many factors. There were so many hazards. Sometimes it was the weather, sometimes it was the flak, sometimes it was the Luftwaffe, sometimes it was an accident. Even when a mission was aborted half way and the planes turned back a simple error of navigation might cause disaster and end the lives of many young men in an instant.
Lt. Vern L. Moncur was a B-17 Pilot for the 303rd Bombardment Group (H), 359th Bombardment Squadron based at Molesworth, England:
The target was the “Big B.” The weather was so bad that we were forced to climb to 27,000 feet over the North Sea and were unable to get completely out of the clouds and poor visibility. This excessive altitude took a lot of extra gasoline since we had been briefed to go in at 20,000 feet. Therefore, because of the weather and shortage of gasoline, we were unable to get to the target.
We crossed over the Helgoland Islands and got moderately accurate flak. The combat leader decided to turn around and go back to England just after we had crossed over Helgoland. On our turn around in the haze, two Forts collided and exploded in mid-air. It was quite a spectacular sight. The bombs in these two planes went off like a Fourth of July fireworks display. None of the crew had a chance of getting out of either ship because it happened so quickly. Even had they gotten out, they would have been no better off because they were out over the water when the accident took place.
Upon our return to England, we found fairly decent weather for a change. This was a very welcome exception to the rule for English weather. This was the first mission that we had brought the old “Thunderbird” back without a few holes in it. None of the crew was injured. Our bombs, 12 five-hundred pounders, were dropped over the Helgoland Islands.
Luck was with them that day because waiting over Hamburg was Heinz Knoke and his Luftwaffe fighters. They had suffered serious losses since the beginning of the year and were down to less than half the usual number of aircraft, only three experienced pilots were left, all the others had joined them since the beginning of the year. The new USAAF long range fighter escorts, accompanying the bombers all the way, were making a huge difference. When they got the chance to hit back on favourable terms they would not miss it:
3rd March, 1944.
The Americans attack Hamburg. Specht cannot fly, and I am in temporary command of the Squadron. Our original forty aircraft have now been reduced to eighteen. These I take into the air.
Over Hamburg I prepare to attack a small formation of Fortresses. My eighteen crates are 5,000 feet above them.
just as I am about to dive, I observe, about 3,000 feet below and to the left, a pack of some sixty Mustangs. They cannot see us, for we happen to be directly between them and the dazzling sun.
This is a magnificent opportunity!
I throttle back to allow the enemy pack to get a little way ahead of us. Wenneckers draws alongside, waving and clasping his hands in delight. For once we are in a position to teach them a real lesson, but I must be careful not to dive too soon. They have not spotted us yet. After them!
In a practically vertical dive we hurtle into the midst of the Yanks, and almost simultaneously we open fire. We take them completely by surprise. In great spirals the Mustangs attempt to get away. Several of them are in flames before they can reach the clouds. One literally disintegrates under fire from my guns. Yells of triumph echo over our radio.
In the evening I receive the report from Division that the wreckage of no fewer than twelve crashed Mustangs had been found in map reference sectors Caesar-Anton-four and -seven.
There is only one drop of sorrow to tinge the general rejoicing. Methuselah has not returned. Several of the pilots saw a Messerschmitt 109 without wings going down. What has become of Methuselah?