“Flak so thick you could walk on it,” and here it was

Indeed they had. In the next instant we felt the accuracy of the Leuna gunners, taking one direct hit and another close-by explosion. John Stockham was hit in the knee by a piece of flak; no one else was wounded, but when I felt a thump on my thigh, I looked down to find a still warm piece of shrapnel on my lap, which I still retain as a Merseburg souvenir. John’s wound was to heal well over the following weeks and it earned him a well-deserved Purple Heart.

B-17 Flying Fortress in flight
B-17 Flying Fortress in flight

The bomber war continued. No longer distracted by the need to support the campaign in France RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force commanders turned their attention almost exclusively to Germany. Many still believed that bombing alone would knock Germany out of the war and the progressive destruction of most of Germany’s cities was resumed. The primary targets were the diminishing number of German synthetic oil installations, an attempt to cut off the fuel that kept the Wehrmacht running.

The German air defences had long ago recognised the importance of guarding oil installation – and the best organised and equipped anti aircraft guns were inevitably found around these targets. For crews that had not yet visited these targets the difference in intensity of “flak” was tangible.

Alan Cook, co-pilot of the ‘Umbriago’ of the 711th Squadron, recalls his worst mission out of his tour of thirty:

Prior to October 7, 1944 our previous eleven missions had been a relative “piece of cake.” We had picked up a few flack holes, had yet to see a Luftwaffe fighter, and had encountered no serious problems for a still-green crew.

It wasn’t until long after, on our return to Rattlesden, that we learned that German fighters had been tailing the Group just as we turned at the IP onto the bomb run, now spread out and completely helpless in our commitment to the target that Lt. Harwood’s 711th ship, “TNT Kate,” had been picked off.

As we made a sweeping turn at the IP onto the Comb run we were stunned by the sight ahead of us – a solid black cloud of flack bursts, the number and precision of which we had never before encountered. … This flak exactly bracketed the course we were about to fly.

We could only look at each other in stunned silence. We had heard the expression, “flak so thick you could walk on it,” and here it was, only more so ! When I describe the flak over Leuna as a cloud, I don’t mean just a wall of smoke; it was a box, the length, width and depth of our route to the “bomb; away” point. The Leuna gunners were economical: they didn’t waste any ammo above or below or outside the pattern through which our Third Air Division had to fly.

B-17s in "Flak so thick you could almost taxi around on it."
B-17s in “Flak so thick you could almost taxi around on it.”

We just sat there, eyes aghast, silent in our despair, rosary beads twirling in some cases, everyone praying; in his own fashion, even Gordon as he blotted out the scene ahead of us by hunching over his bomb sight in readiness in the event our lead Bombardier was to be knocked out of action. It was a futile effort as clouds and burning smoke pots olow obliterated the target. John Stockham also played out his back-up role,
carefully noting position and time and double checking our course home.

The bomb run actually was only a few minutes duration but it seemed more like an hour to us as we flew silently into the dark cloud of flak bursts ahead of us. Rohde turned to me as a barrage of red explosions burst directly in front of us and said “They’ve got our range!”

Indeed they had. In the next instant we felt the accuracy of the Leuna gunners, taking one direct hit and another close-by explosion. John Stockham was hit in the knee by a piece of flak; no one else was wounded, but when I felt a thump on my thigh, I looked down to find a still warm piece of shrapnel on my lap, which I still retain as a Merseburg souvenir. John’s wound was to heal well over the following weeks and it earned him a well-deserved Purple Heart.

We had taken critical blasts in both numbers two and four engines. At least, if we had to lose two engines, they were not on one side of the ship. #4 was hit directly in the planetary gear system leaving it impossible to feather. Its drag was thus a serious detriment to efficient flying and the resulting vibration from the wind-milling prop as a cause of concern. #2 engine suffered strikes in its gas lines, its main oil tank and its accessories section.

Fortunately we were able to feather it due to Bob’s quick action before the limited oil supply for that purpose drained away. When Gordon tried to close the bomb bay doors, after first jettisoning our load and giving first aid to John, he discovered the door motor controls had been shot out. Thus it was up to our aerial engineer, Walter Hemhauser of Avenel, N.J. to climb down from his top-turret perch to laboriously hand-crank the doors shut.

Walt was away from his gun position for almost an hour, for after getting Sergeant Frank L. Wisnieuski of West Orange, N.J. up and out his ball-turret slot, we learned that Umbriago was not carrying the necessary tools to unfasten and release the ball turret. (From that time forward, at least four of us, Bob, myself, Walt and Frank, always checked every aircraft assigned to us to ensure all tools were on board.) Walt and his cohorts improvised somehow and eventually managed to unfasten the turret bolts, and we dropped it somewhere north of Kassel.

These problems of a wind-milling prop, bomb bay doors that took forever to close, and a ball turret we were slow to abandon all created drag that meant we steadily lost altitude-as we heeded alone and lonely for friendly territory, despondent, nervous and frightened.

Even though we threw every last item of non-essential equipment over-board (including my carefully stocked escape bag!), we dropped like a lead weight from our bomb-run height of 24,000 feet to around 10,000 feet altitude, where, flying at near stalling speed of 120 mph, we were able to hold our height over mother earth.

Bob and I were able to light-up at this altitude! We had run our two surviving engines at their maximum power settings for way beyond their specified maximum of ten minutes, and we were finally able to ease up a bit on them as we mushed along, a badly wounded duck. As we straggled along we were fortunate to pick up a friendly escort of six to eight P-47 Thunderbolt USAAF fighters who stuck with us until we reached friendly territory.

This was a great relief for we had been a easy target for any Luftwaffe ship which had risen to check us out, All our guns except nose and tail were unmanned as the Sergeant gunners struggled to overcome our bomb bay door and ball turret problems.

At 10,000 feet we were an easy target – any flak battery, and although both Gordon and John struggled to get our exact position, in order to avoid flak, due to low clouds this was near impossible. As a result we did run over several more flak guns, but fortunately their aim lacked the precision: of what we had experience at Leuna. Each time we saw those ugly black bursts rise in front of us either Bob or I would radio to Gordon, “Which way to turn?” Gordon now having recovered his normal composure would yell back, “I don’t know; you pick”

We missed the largest flak concentrations as we slipped north of the Ruhr into Holland. We had drawn near maximum power on engines # 1 & 3 for almost an hour and a half vis-à-vis that maximum of ten minutes after which they were supposed to blow up. Even though the engine temperatures remained below the danger level, we had no intention of risking the long flight over the North Sea back to base.

Just beyond the enemy line Gordon led us to the recently captured forward RAF airstrip at Eindhoven. I don’t remember if we bothered to ask for permission to land, but Bob sat Umbriago down on the grass runway with a perfect three-point landing. Despite what seemed like little or no braking power we were also able to taxi her to a corner of the field out of the way of the of the heavy traffic at the field.

As we all descended to the ground, each in his own way kissed the ground or expressed our happiness at being safely back on planet earth: There must have been 250 flak holes in that forlorn carcass of a B-17. Everyone came up to Rohde to express their thanks for the great flying job. John was still in some pain but we got him patched up by the RAF medics.

For all of this story see 447 Bomb Group Association.

The precision formation of a group of 36 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers.
The precision formation of a group of 36 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers.

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