Belgium tragedy in USAAF daylight bombing raid

Bombs falling on the town of Mortsel on 5th April 1943, with the aiming point of the Erla factory marked.

Bombs falling on the town of Mortsel on 5th April 1943, with the aiming point of the Erla factory marked.

On 5th April 1943 the USAAF VIII Air Force mounted an attack on Mortsel in Belgium, very close to the city of Antwerp. The target was the Erla motor works which had been taken over by the Germans to maintain Luftwaffe planes.

EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS (Eighth Air Force) VIII Bomber Command Mission 50: 104 B-17’s of the 1st Bombardment Wing are dispatched against industrial targets in the Antwerp, Belgium area. The main force is directed at the Erla aircraft factory and Erla engine works. 82 B-17’s drop 245.5 tons of bombs at 1530 hours local. We claim 23-8-4 Luftwaffe aircraft; we lose 4 to strong Luftwaffe fighter opposition; 13 aircraft are damaged. Casualties are 3 WIA and 40 MIA.

Amongst the units taking part was the 303rd Bomber Group whose reports give a little more detail:

Seventeen aircraft bombed the primary target from 24,000 feet with 51 tons of 1,000-lb. H.E. M44 bombs. Slight, inaccurate, black flak was reported over Ostend, Ghent, Bruges, and Schouwen Island. Enemy air opposition was moderate with 30 to 50 aircraft reported. They attacked from the Belgian coast to mid-channel enroute back. FW-190s, ME-109s, ME-110s, and JU-88s were seen in twelve encounters. 303rd BG(H) gunners destroyed three with one probable. Sgt. P.E. Henderson and S/Sgt. R.R. Peck each shot down an FW-190, Sgt. R.K. Sink shot down an ME-110 and Lt. W.V. Chamberlain had a probable on a Ju-88. In at least five instances, fighters bombed the formation. The bombs were accurate as to altitude and bursts were four times the size of flak bursts.

This was a fairly typical raid for the 8th Airforce at the time, flying without close fighter support the Flying Fortresses were expected to defend themselves against enemy fighters, although on this occasion, as the target was just across the English Channel, there was RAF fighter support most of the way:

Good Spitfire fighter coverage was provided from the turning point to within twentyfive miles off Harwich. The pilot, Lt. Burch, remarked, “We were in formation until we hit the continent, when suddently a burst of flak knocked out our oxygen system. No sooner had this happened than an enemy fighter made a close attack and knocked out the No. 1 engine.

Knowing we couldn’t stay in formation, I pulled out to head for home. Another FW- 190 came in and hit our No. 3 engine, but it didn’t go out altogether. The No. 2 engine had its oil line shot out, but it kept running. Lt. Byron Butt, my bombardier, was just going to his bombsight when a 30 caliber came through the plexiglass near the sight and creased his forehead. Another inch and it would have gone through his head.

We were gradually losing altitude and we were prepared for anything. One Spitfire observed our plight and stayed with us until we were half-way over the channel and then left us believing we could make it back OK. When we finally had to land, we had one and one-half engines and a flat tire. We were damned worried for a while, but glad to be back. One of my gunners, S/Sgt. R.M. Arnold, had a close one, too. Flak caught him in the face, but luckily, it didn’t hurt him much.” Lt. Burch made a perfect landing, despite the extensive damage to his B-17.

See 303rd Bomber Group

The 8th Air Force Historical Society has a full report of the raid. This was the last combat mission of Brigadier General Frank A. Armstrong, whose role as a senior officer flying on bombing raids was to inspire one of the central figures in the fictional ‘Twelve O’Clock High’, regarded as one of the most realistic films about the air war in Europe. See “Consider yourself already dead”.

Poster for the 1949 film.

Poster for the 1949 film.

Only two bombs hit the factory but these started fires which destroyed most of the facilities – and also caused heavy casualties amongst the civilian workforce. It was the remainder of the 24 tons of bombs that were to cause widespread casualties in the town of Mortsel.

There was little warning of the raid and many people were on the streets. This partly accounted for the heavy casualties but there was devastation across a wide area of the residential area of the town. In just eight minutes 936 people were killed, including 209 children under the age of 15 when schools received direct hits. Over 1600 people were injured, 600 of these were classified as serious. It was Belgium’s worst loss of life in a single incident during the entire war.

The town square in Mortsel as the search for survivors gets underway.

The town square in Mortsel as the search for survivors gets underway.

The family site Praats.be has many images of the mass funerals that took place after the raid. The 70th anniversary of the raid will be specially remembered in Morsel with representatives of the United States and Germany attending the ceremony.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor April 5, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Sorry about that Maarten, not sure where I got the idea Antwerp is in Holland from! Have corrected the original.

Maarten Schenk April 5, 2013 at 8:26 am

Antwerp is not a Dutch city. It is very much in Belgium (and it was in Belgium during WWII as well…). Otherwise, great article!

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