The RAF had been visiting the ‘Big City’, Berlin, since November. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of Bomber Command, was convinced that Germany could be forced into submission with bombs alone. He regarded this as a higher priority than hitting targets directly supporting the forthcoming invasion of France.
In part the attacks on the heart of Germany had provoked Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, to order Operation Steinbock – the bombing of London that had begun again seriously in January. Apart from the casualties in London the main effect of Operation Steinbock was the decimation of Germany’s bomber force in the west. 329 Luftwaffe bombers would be shot down during the early part of 1944 as they faced much improved air defences over Britain, including radar equipped night fighters. There would be few bombers left to attack the Allied forces in Normandy.
Round the clock bombing of Berlin was considered to have even more prospect of rocking the Nazi regime. Now the USAAF joined in with a huge daylight raid. The largest number of bombers they had yet put together was sent to the most dangerous target in Europe.
Ed Miller of the 303rd Bomber Group:
Since the 3rd of March 1944 we have been trying to reach Berlin – to let Hitler know that the 8th Air Force does exist. Today we made it – but we paid a huge price in human lives and aircraft.
We put up 812 heavy bombers (504 B-17s and 226 B-24s) and 474 B-17s and 198 B-24s made it to their targets, but the bombing results were not too good. Photos indicate that no bombs hit their assigned targets. And the losses were staggering – at least 80 aircraft (53 B-17s, 16 B-24s and 11 fighters), a new 8th Air Force record for any one mission – even greater than Schweinfurt.
This may have been due to the fact that we were at a much lower altitude than our usual bombing. But it was necessary as the trip in and out took almost nine hours. Three B-17s and five B-24s were lost to AA fire, 41 B-17s due to enemy aircraft and 4 B-17s and 2 B-24s due to both AA fire and enemy aircraft.
This was my second “close encounter” with enemy fighters. 1Lt Earl N. Thomas, my pilot was in the number six position in the low squadron of the 379th/384th Bomb Group Composite Group. We were hit about 15 minutes before reaching the target area. (The first two wings of the 1st Air Division – the 1st CBW and the 94th CBW – which were over the target first, reported seeing over 100 enemy aircraft.)
The Division lost 18 aircraft. We probably saw more fighters today than on any other mission that I flew during the war. Crews from the 303rd reported seeing about 40 to 50 enemy aircraft. And our Composite Group was hit twice by Me-109s and FW-190s.
Lt Vern L. Moncur, 359th BS Pilot:
This was our third briefing for “Big B” in three days – and we made the most of it this time! We went over at a very low altitude for Berlin and all of its flak guns.
Our fighter support was splendid, and even though the Krauts kept ripping through other wings, our combat wing was rather lucky in not getting too many direct fighter attacks that seriously threatened us. We had a few passes made at us, but no one in our group was hurt much.
Over the target it looked like the Fourth of July – flak bursting in red flashes and billowing out black smoke all around us. The flak over Berlin was the most accurate and most heavy flak we ever got into. It seemed almost thick enough to drop your wheels and taxi around on it. The Krauts were practically able to name the engine they were shooting at.
We received hits in the No. 1 engine, the No. 2 engine and the No. 4 engine. Our left Tokyo tanks were shot out. (We had transferred the gasoline out of them before this hit.) The plexiglass surrounding the left cheek-gun was shattered by a chunk of flak. The horizontal stabilizer had a big hole shot through it, and the vertical stabilizer received a jagged hole in the top of it.
We also picked up another hole in the right side of the fuselage, near the tail wheel. The hit in the No. 1 engine went through the cowling and clipped the four cable conduits carrying the wires to the front spark plugs in two cylinders. It also knocked off a few fins on both cylinders. The hit in the No. 2 engine knocked out one cylinder, though the engine still gave us partial power and continued to operate on our return flight to England.
On our way back from the target, we had a few passes made at our group, but the P-51 fighter escort very quickly took care of these Me-109s. Our fighter escort was really swell on this mission. The whole day’s operation cost the 8th Air Force sixty-eight bombers. This was the heaviest loss ever received.
Our group established a record on this mission. We put up twenty-seven ships, and every one of them went across the target, and every one of them came back. Our ship, the Thunderbird, received the heaviest damage of any of the planes in our squadron.
We were lucky on this mission and got along fine. Our plane was shot up the worst this time of all the missions we flew, but still we received no injury to any member crew – though I had a close call. A piece of flak came through the cockpit and cut the left sleeve of my leather flying jacket, but didn’t touch me. Our bomb load was 10 five-hundred pound high explosive bombs.
Contemporary colour footage of a B-17 mission. Direct link: http://youtu.be/ZcL9M9PQlIQ
Contemporary German newsreel from March 1944: