Maximum Effort: USAAF send a 1000 B-17s to Berlin

The route taken by the B-17 crews to Berlin on 3rd February, out across Europe, back over the North Sea.
The route taken by the B-17 crews to Berlin on 3rd February, out across Europe, back over the North Sea.

When the RAF had launched their 1000 Bomber Raids in 1942 they had been epic endeavours that made history. Now the USAAF 8th Air Force was able to mount a 1000 bomber raid in broad daylight with its force of B-17s alone – at the same time 434 B-24s hit the Rothensee oil plant at Magdeburg and targets in the vicinity. On the night of 2nd/3rd RAF Bomber Command had sent 1,252 bombers to hit Germany and on the night of the 3rd/4th over 510 bombers would return.

A large attack on a city centre was unusual for the 8th Airforce – but this raid was undertaken in the belief that the Sixth Panzer Army was being transported by rail across the city, heading for the Eastern front. It was argued that the attack was necessary to support the Red Army.

This was the Mission Report of just one of the Bombardment Squadrons taking part, the 614th, part of the 401 Bombardment Group:

This was an attack on “Big B”, a visual attack for a change. Strikes by the 500 lb G.Ps were seen on the marshalling yards and its surrounding area not previously damaged. The 614th flew the High Element of each Box. There were no fighters but the flak was moderate to intense. Five of the nine 614th aircraft received battle damage. Aircraft 44-6508, piloted by Lt. King, was hit by flak and headed towards the Russian lines – later to turn up out of the blue in mid-March with an interesting story to tell.

This was a 1,000 B-17 attack on the German capital with a 500 escort of fighters – the biggest single raid by the 8th A.F. on a single target, the 401st furnishing a 36 aircraft Group flying as the 94th “B” Group. Captain J.R. Locher was the Air Commander of the Group. The specific target was the Tempelhof marshalling yards and the weather over the target was clear although the preceeding eight Groups left the target area completely covered with smoke.

The Group used the RF-Grid with outlying checkpoints and the Lead and Low Squadrons results were excellent. The High Squadron a little short but they were still in the immediate area of the MPI. There was no escaping the flak over the German capital and the Group found the flak moderate to intense and accurate. Twenty-two of the Group’s aircraft sustained battle damage with one aircraft MIA and two crew members wounded. The escort fighters made sure that the Luftwaffe stayed away from the bombers, shooting down 21 of them in combats. The 614th loading list was as follows: 42-97602 Stauffer, 43-38646 Thompson, 44-6508 King (MIA), 42-97395 Babcock, 42-97478 White, 43-38458 Hartsock, 43-38677 Moran, 42-39012 Richardson.

Details of any bombing missions can be found by searching at 8th Air Force Historical Society.

The first bombs fall on Berlin on 3rd February.
The first bombs fall on Berlin on 3rd February.

Leonard Streitfeld was a bombardier with the 398th Bomb Group, he describes how his own plane approached the target area:

Our group was to be ninth over the target and, as we approached the “IP”, all we could see was smoke and flak over the target area. The smoke had completely covered the city and the sky was peppered with flak bursts that we were going to fly through. As the flak increased in intensity, we were hit in the Tokyo Tanks (Auxiliary tanks for long missions) on the right wing, then the vertical stabilizer, followed by holes in the right waist and in the floor of the nose of the plane where Coy and I were sitting. The flak was stopped by armor plating in the floor. We could hear the pinging sound as the flak hit the plane and it’s a sound that you can never forget for all those who experienced it.

The fact that there were so many bomb groups on this mission one group blended in with the other and there seemed to be a continuous stream of planes close enough that we could see them dropping their bombs.

Due to the strong headwinds that day the true air speed on the bomb run was only 90 MPH. We were sitting ducks. We saw a few planes in the distance get direct hits and go down. One of them exploded leaving a large cloud of black smoke in it’s place.

Whenever a plane was going down we started to count the chutes. It was hoped that everyone would escape but many times the plane would blow up by the time we counted to four or five. It wasn’t pleasant to watch but there was nothing we could do about it except be thankful that it wasn’t our plane that was shot down.

I used to wonder what would happen to me if we were shot down and they saw the “H” on my dog tags. The dog tags had to be worn by everyone and identified their name, rank, serial number and religion. (C meant Catholic, P meant Protestant and H meant Hebrew.) If anyone did not have their tags on and were shot down and captured, that could have been reason to be shot as a spy.

I couldn’t wait until the lead ship dropped its bombs and it seemed like forever before they were released. All of the planes followed suit and unloaded their deadly cargo. The bomb bay doors on every plane began to slowly close as we headed away from the dangerously saturated flak area. The flak eventually thinned out and we were soon in the clear. Although there were enemy fighters in the air, we did not encounter any.

The mission lasted nine hours and most of us would have been glad to go back if we could inflict as much damage again. We would do anything to help bring this war to an end sooner.

See Leonard Streitfeld: Hell from Heaven

Smoke starts to cover the target as more bombers arrive.
Smoke starts to cover the target as more bombers arrive.

Robert A Hand was a bombardier on his 35th and last mission:

“Well goddamn it, Robert,” I thought to myself, “This is what you yearned for so badly, isn’t it? Life in the Army Air Force with all its thrills . . . . dusting off the clouds in a great airplane . . . . . flying combat as a crew member of a “Big Ass Bird” . . . . getting your jollies as a Bombardier with your very own $10,000 Norden “Bomb-Aimer-And- Dropper” and sitting up front with the most exciting, panoramic view in the airplane.

And how about those endless hours strapped up in heavy flying gear, under a flak suit, Mae West life preserver and chute harness, pulling your breath through five yards of hose, wondering where the next wall of flak will appear. Or enduring the endless throb of engine sound . . . . not daring to give in to fatigue . . . . or even hunger . . . . or the anticipation and dread of injury at altitude, hours away from medical attention . . . . or bailing out into that fifty-below-zero gale outside.

Or the horror of watching a formation buddy in a nearby B-17, throw smoke, drop from the squadron and only being able to count six chutes before he disintegrates into a giant smear of debris. Or the hair-raising episodes of close-formation flying when you’re on the bomb run, seconds before release and you look directly up into another B- 17’s open and loaded bomb bay doors and you know he is about to drop his bombs too.

Or how about the nightmare turned real of holding an injured crew member’s head in your hands while he froths at the mouth, babbling incoherently and bleeding profusely from a head wound. Or listening to the heavy breathing on the intercom of a shaken comrade as he asks his God for mercy. Or visions of torture and starvation in an enemy prison camp . . . .

But then you gaze downward at the frozen trenches of Holland five miles below and you thank your lucky stars that you’re up here relatively comfortable in a quartermillion- dollar airplane with nine other guys protecting your back side and with any luck you’ll be back at the base in four or five hours for a shower, something decent to drink and eat and maybe a couple of letters from home.

And you realize that a simple twist of fate . . . . being born a second earlier or later . . . . or to different parents, another country or world . . . . and you might have wound up a footsoldier, lying half-frozen in a lousy foxhole, waiting for an enemy shell to put you out of your misery . . . . or worse. Is this the war to end all wars?

See 303rd Bombardment Group for more about their involvement in this raid.

A post raid reconnaissance picture of Berlin.
A post raid reconnaissance picture of Berlin.

Casualties were relatively light, ‘only’ 36 planes were shot down. The bomb load had contained a high proportion of explosives to incendiaries – even so fires burned and spread for four days. 2,894 people were killed on the ground but 20,000 were injured and an estimated 120,000 made homeless. Diarist Ursula von Kardorff wondered why people did not go mad:

3 February 1945

Today the city centre had its heaviest raid yet. I would not have believed it possible for them to be worse. Luckily I was in the deep shelter, but even there people began to panic. Women started to scream when the lights finally went out for good.

Why does nobody go crazy? Why does nobody go out in the street and shout, ‘I’ve had enough!’ Why is there not a revolution?

‘Stick it out!’ What a stupid motto. So we shall stick it out until we are all dead.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

Part of the post raid bombing analysis fro 3rd February 1945.
Part of the post raid bombing analysis from 3rd February 1945.

2 thoughts on “Maximum Effort: USAAF send a 1000 B-17s to Berlin”

  1. How can “Jordan” say that he enjoyed reading these horrible reports of bombing. He should rather be deeply saddened by the dramas that took place at the same time on the ground.

  2. I’m a long time reader but have never commented before. I stumbled in here sometime around 2012 so missed the beginning but haven’t missed a day since. I’m a student applying to graduate schools in Germany and wanted to take just a second to say how much I have enjoyed reading this everyday, especially the personal stories, and how much I appreciate your work. It’s long overdue, but thank you!

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