One man versus three machine guns

The destruction of these three machine gun posts singlehanded by Sergeant Eardley, carried out under fire so heavy that it daunted those who were with him, enabled his Platoon to achieve its objective, and in so doing, ensured the success of the whole attack. His outstanding initiative and magnificent bravery were the admiration of all who saw his gallant actions.

Churchill tanks and infantry advance during the attack by 3rd Division on an enemy pocket near Overloon, 14 October 1944.
Churchill tanks and infantry advance during the attack by 3rd Division on an enemy pocket near Overloon, 14 October 1944.
A 5.5-inch gun of 77th (Duke of Lancashire's Own Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery being manhandled into position to fire in support of 3rd Division advancing on Venray, 16 October 1944.
A 5.5-inch gun of 77th (Duke of Lancashire’s Own Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery being manhandled into position to fire in support of 3rd Division advancing on Venray, 16 October 1944.

Operation Market Garden had opened up a salient in the German lines in Holland. The Germans had fought hard to retrieve their position and had established a bridgehead on the west bank of the River Maas. Now the Allies attacked again in a bitter confrontation that saw heavy casualties.

The Battle of Overloon saw the US 7th Armoured Division beaten off, before the British 11th Armoured and 3rd Infantry Divisions took over and eventually succeeded. It was by far the largest tank battle fought on Dutch soil and at the time was compared to the struggle for Caen, fought in Normandy earlier. Today it is much less well remembered.

Private (acting Sergeant) George Eardley VC, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry
Private (acting Sergeant) George Eardley VC, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry

Many Victoria Cross citations are concerned with lone attacks on machine gun nests, all too often awarded posthumously. Private George Eardley must be regarded as very lucky, as well as incredibly brave, for his actions:

No. 6092111 Private (acting Sergeant) George Harold Eardley, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (Congleton, Cheshire).

In North-West Europe, on 16th October, 1944, during an attack on the wooded area East of Overloon, strong opposition was met from well sited defensive positions in orchards. The enemy were paratroops and well equipped with machine guns.

A Platoon of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry was ordered to clear these orchards and so restore the momentum of the advance, but was halted some 80 yards from its objective by automatic fire from enemy machine gun posts. This fire was so heavy that it appeared impossible for any man to expose himself and remain unscathed.

Notwithstanding this, Sergeant Eardley, who had spotted one machine gun post, moved forward, firing his Sten gun, and killed the occupants of the post with a grenade. A second machine gun post beyond the first immediately opened up, spraying the area with fire. Sergeant Eardley, who was in a most exposed position, at once charged over 30 yards of open ground and silenced both the enemy gunners.

The attack was continued by the Platoon but was again held up by a third machine gun post, and a section sent in to dispose of it, was beaten back, losing four casualties. Sergeant Eardley, ordering the section he was with to lie down, then crawled forward alone and silenced the occupants of the post with a grenade.

The destruction of these three machine gun posts singlehanded by Sergeant Eardley, carried out under fire so heavy that it daunted those who were with him, enabled his Platoon to achieve its objective, and in so doing, ensured the success of the whole attack.

His outstanding initiative and magnificent bravery were the admiration of all who saw his gallant actions.

Privates V Studd and J Rowlandson of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment eat apples in their slit trench during the fighting for the town of Venray, 16 October 1944.
Privates V Studd and J Rowlandson of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment eat apples in their slit trench during the fighting for the town of Venray, 16 October 1944.
Men of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry march back from the front line for a four day rest , Sint-Jozefparochien of Duerne, Holland, 26 October 1944.
Men of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry march back from the front line for a four day rest , Sint-Jozefparochien of Duerne, Holland, 26 October 1944.

Holland: Death in a minefield on the front line

Unfortunately, the changed route apparently had not been reconnoitred and the inevitable happened — the carrier was blown up on a mine. Driver Smith was killed instantly, his left leg torn off at the thigh. Patrick was injured, sustaining a severe head wound (he told me years later that he still has a piece of metal in his head).

American and British troops meet at a mobile bath and laundry unit, 15 October 1944.
American and British troops meet at a mobile bath and laundry unit, 15 October 1944.
A Sherman tank of 13/18th Hussars, 8th Armoured Brigade keeps watch over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 15 October 1944.
A Sherman tank of 13/18th Hussars, 8th Armoured Brigade keeps watch over the River Waal at Nijmegen, 15 October 1944.

The character of the war in north west Europe was now changing rapidly. The swift advances of the Allies had come to an end and both the British and the Americans found themselves engaged in bitter slogging matches against determined German defenders. The shorter, dark days and cold wet weather was to make for a miserable experience for all involved.

Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill describes life on the front line in Holland.

The weather was appalling, the drenching rain was intense and the days were permanently dark. It was bitterly cold. The locality was wooded and gloomy, the enemy were around us in some considerable numbers and the area was extensively mined. South of Oploo was not a comfortable position to be in, but there was no alternative.

On the night of 14th – 15th October Powdrill had to go forward with supplies for the Forward Observation tank, referred to as the RDon, which was concealed on the edge of woods, much closer to the enemy. He went forward in a carrier with Driver Smith:

… easing his way slowly in the dark night in first gear, through the wood along this narrow track, past a lone, empty cottage on the left that was probably the forester’s accommodation in normal times, and stopping just short of the edge of the wood where RDon was hidden in the trees and well camouflaged.

We managed a pleasant hour yarning about various incidents and drinking a mug of hot sweet tea, but still very conscious of the proximity of the enemy. We were a little apprehensive, too, as we had to manoeuvre our way back in the dark through the minefield.

We managed it by being extra careful, sometimes stopping for me to have a closer look by getting out and examining the ground in front (it was possible to walk over some German mines because the human body did not have sufficient weight to set them off — a tank or a Bren carrier was a different matter).

We eventually got back to the guns, safe and sound, thankful that it was not our job to spend the spooky night up there, although our gun position was not exactly a safe haven. I had only been back at the guns about an hour when an order came for the journey to be repeated, the reasons for which I forget. I was engaged in some task or other at the Command Post and a newcomer, Second Lieutenant Patrick Delaforce, a very young officer, was ordered to undertake the task.

He took my Bren carrier, with Driver Smith at the wheel, and I briefed Patrick on the route to go so as to avoid the mines. He had been given different orders, however, that required a change from the route I had taken. Naturally those orders took precedence over what I had to say and I was pleased that Driver Smith was going, as he was conversant with some of the risks.

Unfortunately, the changed route apparently had not been reconnoitred and the inevitable happened — the carrier was blown up on a mine. Driver Smith was killed instantly, his left leg torn off at the thigh. Patrick was injured, sustaining a severe head wound (he told me years later that he still has a piece of metal in his head).

RDon’s crew at the sharp end heard the explosion and, fearing the worst, conveyed this sad news to us over the wireless. Lance Bombardier Muscoe and I immediately ran about half a mile along the track, oblivious of the mines, to the scene of the tragedy. The carrier was laid on its side, with Driver Smith’s torn leg still on the clutch pedal, his body some yards away, having been pulled clear by RDon’s crew. He lay lifeless under a blanket.

We looked around in the dark night, out of sight of the Germans nearby, who must also have heard the explosion, amidst the proliferation of mines, for some suitable place to bury him. We were near to the forester’s empty cottage and the only place we could dig a shallow grave without undue disturbance from the enemy was, incongruously, by the front door of the cottage, just where a doormat might have been placed. We buried Driver Smith, said a few words over him and forlornly made our way back.

Patrick, I think, was attended to by RDon’s crew. Back at the guns, everyone anxiously wanted to know what had happened and there was great sorrow as Driver Smith was a popular member of the Troop. He was also one of the two oldest among us, having a wife and a young daughter at home.

Field Marshal Montgomery with King George VI after an investiture at 21 Army Group Headquarters, Holland, 15 October 1944.
Field Marshal Montgomery with King George VI after an investiture at 21 Army Group Headquarters, Holland, 15 October 1944.
A sniper demonstrates the superior 'Hawkins' prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.
A sniper demonstrates the superior ‘Hawkins’ prone firing position (right) next to another in the standard position, at the 21st Army Group sniping school near Eindhoven, 15 October 1944.
The flak ship Vp1605 MOSEL, escorting the Norwegian freighter INGER JOHANNE off Lillesand, engulfed in a torrent of fire from Beaufighters of No 404 Squadron, one of which can be seen passing overhead at mast height, 15 October 1944. The ships were attacked by 21 Beaufighters and 17 Mosquitos of the Banff and Dallachy Wings. The MOSEL eventually blew up and sank.
The flak ship Vp1605 MOSEL, escorting the Norwegian freighter INGER JOHANNE off Lillesand, engulfed in a torrent of fire from Beaufighters of No 404 Squadron, one of which can be seen passing overhead at mast height, 15 October 1944. The ships were attacked by 21 Beaufighters and 17 Mosquitos of the Banff and Dallachy Wings. The MOSEL eventually blew up and sank.

Rommel is invited to commit suicide

Rommel with his aides in the Libyan desert in the spring of 1942.
Rommel with his aides in the Libyan desert in the spring of 1942.
Hitler shaking hands with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after the latter's return from Africa.
Hitler shaking hands with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel after the latter’s return from Africa.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inspecting one of the U-Boat bunkers during his tour of the 'Atlantic Wall' in February 1944.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inspecting one of the U-Boat bunkers during his tour of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ in February 1944.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had achieved worldwide fame as the ‘Desert Fox’, after the Wehrmacht ‘Afrika Korps’ were sent to save the Italian forces on the brink of defeat in North Africa in 1941. He had then taken a leading role in building the Atlantic Wall across occupied France, and had played his part in the Normandy battle against the D-day landings, before being seriously wounded in an Allied air strike on 17th July 1944..

He had long been outspoken and Nazi spies were well aware that he could be critical of Hitler. The Wehrmacht members of the 20 July bomb plot against Hitler saw him as a potential German leader if they succeeded in overthrowing the Nazi regime. When they approached Rommel to support them he had been sympathetic, like many senior members of the Wehrmacht he could see the way the war was going. Nevertheless he had opposed the killing of Hitler, believing that this would lead to civil war.

The Gestapo interrogation and torture of the conspirators soon revealed Rommel’s involvement. However Hitler wanted to avoid putting someone of his stature on public trial. There were other ways that he could be dealt with.

His son Manfred Rommel saw his father on this fateful day:

..I arrived at Herrlingen at 7:00 a.m. My father was at breakfast. A cup was quickly brought for me and we breakfasted together, afterwards taking a stroll in the garden.

‘At twelve o’clock to-day two Generals are coming to discuss my future employment,’ my father started the conversation. ‘So today will decide what is planned for me; whether a People’s Court or a new command in the East.’

‘Would you accept such a command,’ I asked.

He took me by the arm, and replied: ‘My dear boy, our enemy in the East is so terrible that every other consideration has to give way before it. If he succeeds in overrunning Europe, even only temporarily, it will be the end of everything which has made life appear worth living. Of course I would go.’

Shortly before twelve o’clock, my father went to his room on the first floor and changed from the brown civilian jacket which he usually wore over riding-breeches, to his Africa tunic, which was his favorite uniform on account of its open collar.

At about twelve o’clock a dark-green car with a Berlin number stopped in front of our garden gate. The only men in the house apart from my father, were Captain Aldinger [ Rommel’s aide] , a badly wounded war-veteran corporal and myself. Two generals – Burgdorf, a powerful florid man, and Maisel, small and slender – alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and asked my father’s permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room. ‘So they are not going to arrest him,’ I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother’s room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. ‘Come outside with me,’ he said in a tight voice.

We went into my room. ‘I have just had to tell your mother,’ he began slowly, ‘that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.’ He was calm as he continued: ‘To die by the hand of one’s own people is hard. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason.’

‘ “In view of my services in Africa,” ‘ he quoted sarcastically, ‘I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family, that is against you. They will also leave my staff alone.’

‘Do you believe it?’ I interrupted. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.’

I tried again. ‘Can’t we defend ourselves…’ He cut me off short. ‘There’s no point,’ he said. ‘It’s better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we’ve practically no ammunition.’ We briefly took leave of each other. ‘Call Aldinger, please,’ he said.

Aldinger had meanwhile been engaged in conversation by the General’s escort to keep him away from my father. At my call, he came running upstairs. He, too, was struck cold when he heard what was happening. My father now spoke more quickly.

He again said how useless it was to attempt to defend ourselves. ‘It’s all been prepared to the last detail. I’m to be given a state funeral. I have asked that it should take place in Ulm. [a town near Rommel’s home] In a quarter of an hour, you, Aldinger, will receive a telephone call from the Wagnerschule reserve hospital in Ulm to say that I’ve had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I must go, they’ve only given me ten minutes.’ He quickly took leave of us again. Then we went downstairs together.

We helped my father into his leather coat. Suddenly he pulled out his wallet. ‘There’s still 150 marks in there,’ he said. ‘Shall I take the money with me?’

‘That doesn’t matter now, Herr Field Marshal,’ said Aldinger.

My father put his wallet carefully back in his pocket. As he went into the hall, his little dachshund which he had been given as a puppy a few months before in France, jumped up at him with a whine of joy. ‘Shut the dog in the study, Manfred,’ he said, and waited in the hall with Aldinger while I removed the excited dog and pushed it through the study door. Then we walked out of the house together. The two generals were standing at the garden gate. We walked slowly down the path, the crunch of the gravel sounding unusually loud.

As we approached the generals they raised their right hands in salute. ‘Herr Field Marshal,’ Burgdorf said shortly and stood aside for my father to pass through the gate. A knot of villagers stood outside the drive…

The car stood ready. The S.S. driver swung the door open and stood to attention. My father pushed his Marshal’s baton under his left arm, and with his face calm, gave Aldinger and me his hand once more before getting in the car.

The two generals climbed quickly into their seats and the doors were slammed. My father did not turn again as the car drove quickly off up the hill and disappeared round a bend in the road. When it had gone Aldinger and I turned and walked silently back into the house…

Twenty minutes later the telephone rang. Aldinger lifted the receiver and my father’s death was duly reported.

It was not then entirely clear, what had happened to him after he left us. Later we learned that the car had halted a few hundred yards up the hill from our house in an open space at the edge of the wood.

Gestapo men, who had appeared in force from Berlin that morning, were watching the area with instructions to shoot my father down and storm the house if he offered resistance.

Maisel and the driver got out of the car, leaving my father and Burgdorf inside. When the driver was permitted to return ten minutes or so later, he saw my father sunk forward with his cap off and the marshal’s baton fallen from his hand.”

See The Rommel Papers.

Field Marshal Rundstedt delivers the eulogy at Rommel's funeral in Ulm. At the time he was not aware of the true circumstances of his death, believing the Nazi version that he had died from his wounds.
Field Marshal Rundstedt delivers the eulogy at Rommel’s funeral in Ulm. At the time he was not aware of the true circumstances of his death, believing the Nazi version that he had died from his wounds.
Rommel had asked for a plain military funeral but the Nazis masterminded the occasion and the Swastika was prominent.
Rommel had asked for a plain military funeral but the Nazis masterminded the occasion and the Swastika was prominent.

Arrested by the Nazis for “undermining morale”

So much for the window. On the walls, the inevitable obscenities and calculations of time still to be served — in weeks, days, hours, and minutes, even. Then, a veritable flood of Soviet stars, which gave the idea that the entire Red Army had been imprisoned here. And lastly, scratched into the concrete with a key, perhaps, the words, so very applicable to me: ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ I read this, and darkness envelops me.

A Nazi meeting to publicise the establishment of the Volkssturm.
A Nazi meeting to publicise the establishment of the Volkssturm.
Reichsführer SS Himmler addresses a meeting of the newly formed Volkssturm in October 1944.
Reichsführer SS Himmler addresses a meeting of the newly formed Volkssturm in October 1944.

Conditions inside Nazi Germany were changing. The repercussions of the 20 July bomb plot against Hitler were still playing themselves out. Public trials of men suspected of being associated with the plot demonstrated how the regime would crack down. In an increasingly paranoid atmosphere there was now even less chance that any anti-Nazi remarks might be ignored, people had to be very circumspect about what they said.

The threat to Germany’s borders now seemed very real. In response the Nazis were establishing a “People’s Militia” – the Volkssturm. Conscription papers for all between 13 and 60 had already been sent out, an inaugural meeting would be held by Reichsführer SS Himmler on the 18th October – the new force would be under control of the Nazis rather than the Wehrmacht.

For Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a Bavarian aristocrat, former soldier and noted author, there was no longer any leeway for his outspoken comments about the Nazis. It had probably been only a matter of time before he was apprehended. However, when arrest came he suddenly realised how seriously his case was being treated :

And on the thirteenth, a beautiful, burning-hot day in October, I was myself arrested.

At six in the morning — that hour so beloved of all secret police officials — I heard the bell ringing rather loudly, and saw below our Seebruck gendarme, a good soul, who explained apologetically that he had come in performance of what was for him the unpleasant assignment of conveying me to the Army jail at Traunstein.

I confess that I was not greatly concerned. Four days before, I had ignored a so-called ‘call to arms’ for service with the Volkssturm, citing an attack of angina pectoris. Immediately thereafter, however, I had gone like any good citizen to regional headquarters to explain, and the opinion there had been that a man who had only just received word that his son was missing in Russia might well be believed regarding illness.

I made a mistake. Deception, the burning-hot autumn day with its gay colours; deception, the tact, bordering almost on shame, of the gendarme. We crossed the river on our way to the train, and the melancholy with which my womenfolk waved to me from the house made me thoughtful. A couple of hours later I knew that this was, indeed, more than a little warning.

The gate of the Army post closed heavily behind me. Between me and the bright autumn day there was a fence and a highly martial guard. I was standing in a guard post filled with the smell of leather, sweat, and lard, the chief personage of which was a young Swabian sergeant — a man with that peculiarly Germanic combination of choler, activity, and exactitude which never rings quite true, and which has caused so much evil in the world.

I telephoned the major who was officer-in-charge. A voice so frigidly vindictive that the quality of it emerged quite clearly out of the receiver told me that I was not there to ask questions, but to wait.

Then I happened to see a young officer I knew bicycling across the compound. I called to him, but when he came refrained from taking his hand because, as I explained, I had been arrested and so, in the jargon of the old Kaiser’s Army on the Eastern Front, I was ‘lousy’. He laughed, gave me his hand, and himself telephoned. As the crackle sounded from the receiver, he grew pale. He hung up, and then informed me, several degrees more formally now, that I was charged with ‘undermining the morale of the Armed Forces’. He bowed and left.

The penalty for ‘undermining the morale of the Armed Forces’ is the guillotine – the guillotine, on which the condemned man, as I heard recently, is granted the single act of grace of being blinded by a thousand-candlepower light just before the blade whistles downward, with the aftermath being one of the Lysol bottles of an anatomy class.

In the meantime, however, evening had come on. The guard post was now a dark box. I was locked up.

The cell is two paces wide and six feet long, a concrete coffin equipped with a wooden pallet, a dirty, evil-smelling spittoon, and a barred window high up on the wall. By climbing onto the pallet I can see a minuscule piece of the sky, the barracks compound, a section of the officer quarters, and behind, a pine forest: a pine forest of our lovely Bavarian plateau, which has nothing in common with this frenzy of Prussian militarism, this pestilence which has devastated Bavaria.

So much for the window. On the walls, the inevitable obscenities and calculations of time still to be served — in weeks, days, hours, and minutes, even. Then, a veritable flood of Soviet stars, which gave the idea that the entire Red Army had been imprisoned here. And lastly, scratched into the concrete with a key, perhaps, the words, so very applicable to me: ‘My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ I read this, and darkness envelops me. This was written by a man as close to death as I am.

It is true that not one word has been said to confirm this idea. And yet, I cannot help registering the fact of this venomous animosity, which is intent on finding something against me, and would make of an ignored draft notice a matter for the hangman.

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen: Diary of a Man in Despair: A Non-Fiction Masterpiece about the Comprehension of Evil.

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen had a lucky escape this time. Friends in high places secured his release. It was only a temporary reprieve however. He was arrested again in December 1944 and sent to Dachau concentration camp. He was shot in the back of the neck on February 16, 1945.

 The Volkssturm were composed of men who had previously been classified as too old or infirm to join the Wehrmacht.
The Volkssturm were composed of men who had previously been classified as too old or infirm to join the Wehrmacht.
Members of the Volkssturm training with experienced soldiers from the "Grofldeutschland" Division.
Members of the Volkssturm training with experienced soldiers from the “Grofldeutschland” Division.

Chuck Yeager downs five – becomes an “Ace in a Day”

I dropped my tanks and then closed up to the last Jerry and opened fire from 600 yards, using the K-14 sight. I observed strikes all over the ship, particularly heavy in the cockpit. He skidded off to the left. I was closing up on another Me. 109 so I did not follow him down. Lt. STERN, flying in Blue Flight reports this E/A on fire as it passed him and went into a spin.

Silhouettes of P-51s in flight over Europe.
Silhouettes of P-51s in flight over Europe.
Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109 in flight 1943-4.
Flugzeug Messerschmitt Me 109 in flight 1943-4.

Charles ‘Chuck” Yeager had already made a name for himself as a talented pilot. He had also had some remarkable adventures, surviving being shot down over France and escaping back to Britain via Spain. He had recently been promoted to Lieutenant with the 363d Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group, stationed at RAF Leiston (USAAF Station 373).

On the 12th October 1944 Yeager was leading the 363rd Squadron as part of the escort for a bombing raid on Bremen. Other Squadrons remained as close escorts with the bombers while the 363rd ranged 50-100 miles ahead looking for trouble.

First Lieutenant Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, Glamorous Glenn II, at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
First Lieutenant Charles E. (“Chuck”) Yeager, U.S. Army Air Corps, standing on the wing of his North American Aviation P-51D-5-NA Mustang, 44-13897, Glamorous Glenn II, at Air Station 373, 12 October 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

This was how Yeager described the action in his official report:

I. I was leading the Group with Cement Squadron and was roving out to the right of the first box of bombers. I was over STEINHUDER LAKE when 22 Me. 109s crossed in front of my Squadron from 11:00 O’Clock to 1:00 O’Clock. I was coming out of the sun and they were about 1½ miles away at the same level of 25,000 feet.

I fell in behind the enemy formation and followed them for about 3 minutes, climbing to 30,000 feet. I still had my wing tanks and had close up to around 1,000 yards, coming within firing range and positioning the Squadron behind the entire enemy formation.

Two of the Me. 109s were dodging over to the right. One slowed up and before I could start firing, rolled over and bailed out. The other Me. 109, flying his wing, bailed out immediately after as I was ready to line him in my sights. I was the closest to the tail-end of the enemy formation and no one, but myself was in shooting range and no one was firing.

I dropped my tanks and then closed up to the last Jerry and opened fire from 600 yards, using the K-14 sight. I observed strikes all over the ship, particularly heavy in the cockpit. He skidded off to the left. I was closing up on another Me. 109 so I did not follow him down. Lt. STERN, flying in Blue Flight reports this E/A on fire as it passed him and went into a spin.

I closed up on the next Me. 109 to 100 yards, skidded to the right and took a deflection shot of about 10°. I gave about a 2 second burst and the whole fuselage split open and blew up after we passed.

Another Me. 109 to the right had cut his throttle and was trying to get behind. I broke to the right and quickly rolled to the left on his tail. He started pulling it in and I was pulling 6″G”. I got a lead from around 300 yards and gave him a short burst. There were hits on wings and tail section He snapped to the right 3 times and bailed out when he quit snapping at around 18,000 feet.

I did not blackout during this engagement due to the efficiency of the “G” suit. Even though I was skidding I hit the second Me. 109 by keeping the bead and range on the E/A. To my estimation the K-14 sight is the biggest improvement to combat equipment for Fighters up to this date. The me.

109s appeared to have a type of bubble canopy and had purple noses and were a mousey brown all over.

I claim Five me 109s destroyed.

J. Ammunition Expended: 587 rounds .50 cal MG.

Charles E. Yeager, 1st Lt, AC.

Contemporary USAAF briefing film on the P-51, with combat footage, describing the improved characteristics of the P-51 B:

Chuck Yeager’s Mustang, Glamorous Glen III: North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA, serial number 44-14888, identification markings B6*Y, at USAAF Station 373 (RAF Leiston), Winter 1945. (U.S. Air Force)
Chuck Yeager’s Mustang, Glamorous Glen III: North American Aviation P-51D-15-NA, serial number 44-14888, identification markings B6*Y, at USAAF Station 373 (RAF Leiston), Winter 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

SS and Wehrmacht struggle over Polish prisoners

Inside the compound stood rows of long wooden huts which were filthy inside; there were no beds, only dirty straw on the floor. This was obviously a concentration camp, not one suitable for wounded soldiers. I was stunned, as were my comrades. So much for honorable surrender and treatment in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

Polish units preparing to leave Warsaw after the surrender of the Uprising.
Polish units preparing to leave Warsaw after the surrender of the Uprising.
Warsaw - The End of the Rebellion (original Nazi caption): "This is the end of an uprising, which was instigated by men who allowed themselves guided by false national pride and the deceptive promises of Soviet and British "friends": a gray misery army of ragged and mutilated prisoners. "
Warsaw – The End of the Rebellion (original Nazi caption):
“This is the end of an uprising, which was instigated by men who allowed themselves guided by false national pride and the deceptive promises of Soviet and British “friends”: a gray misery army of ragged and mutilated prisoners. “

Following the end of the Warsaw Uprising hundreds of thousands of Poles were at the mercy of the Germans. How they were treated depended very much upon which unit was responsible for guarding them. Civilians were being evicted from the city so that it could be destroyed block by block, on the orders of Hitler.

Former combatants were supposed to be treated as prisoners of war – but the significant factor was whether they fell into the hands of the SS or of the Wehrmacht. This was a portent of things to come for many other people in Europe, including German nationals, as the Nazi regime began to crumble.

Bill Biega had fought in the Uprising and had been married at the height of the fighting before being wounded and eventually taken prisoner. The 11th October found him on a train, after finally being sent out of Warsaw. The wounded had received treatment from a number Polish doctors who now were allowed to accompany them, together with the doctor’s families:

The following morning the train pulled into another siding parallel to a street with street car tracks. It turned out that we were in the outskirts of Lodz, Poland’s second largest city, only 100 miles from Warsaw.

Armed SS troopers in their ominous black uniforms surrounded the train. We were loaded into waiting street cars, which took us through city streets, then out along a cobble stone road in the outskirts. We were forced to alight and enter a field surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence.

Inside the compound stood rows of long wooden huts which were filthy inside; there were no beds, only dirty straw on the floor. This was obviously a concentration camp, not one suitable for wounded soldiers. I was stunned, as were my comrades. So much for honorable surrender and treatment in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

We had been naive to believe the Nazis. We sat outside in despair. Luckily, the weather was sunny and warm, otherwise the situation would have seemed even more tragic. After several hours we were told to get back into the street cars which took us along the same city streets, back to the train.

I learned later that there had been a major altercation between some Army officers and the SS. We never learned what exactly happened, but, fortunately for us the Army won.

Among the conditions for the surrender of Warsaw was the stipulation that: “ .. control, transportation, housing and guarding of the prisoners of war shall be solely under the jurisdiction of the Deutsche Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces).” (Paragraph H.(9) of the agreement)”

The news of our presence had spread quickly through the city. Lodz had been incorporated into the Third Reich shortly after the occupation of Poland and many Poles had been banished to the General Government. However a large part of the Polish population had been allowed to stay to work in the textile mills, so vital to the German war effort.

During the return trip from the camp, people ran along the streets throwing packages containing bread, fruit and vegetables through the open windows of the street cars with little interference by the police. At the train the SS guards had been replaced with Army soldiers in their familiar gray-green uniforms.

Beyond the cordon of sentries small groups of local people were standing, who had also brought food packages. Some of the more severely wounded had never been unloaded from the train as no suitable transportation had been made available. The train stood at the siding all night; finally, early in the morning it moved off westward.

We traveled slowly through the provinces of Silesia and Saxony, standing often for hours in sidings while other trains carrying troops and freight passed us. On the train we were well fed, that is we received the same rations that German soldiers would have received.

Our orderly heated the food for us and dished it out on enameled metal plates. Presumably, the same was happening in the other cars of the train. Several of the critically wounded died during this journey which lasted three days. Finally, we pulled into a siding next to a pine forest.

We had arrived at Stalag IVB, located near the small German village of Zeithain, a few miles east of the river Elbe, about halfway between Dresden and Leipzig.

Our welcoming party included the camp commander Stachel in the rank of Oberst Arzt, which translates as Colonel Doctor. He was a typical Prussian army officer, slim, erect, dressed in an impeccable uniform, shining riding boots and carrying what looked like a riding crop. When he saw the doctors’ families alighting from the train complete with children, cats and pet birds, he turned around and left in disgust. This was too much for a proper, German professional army officer.

See Bill C Biega: Thirteen is My Lucky Number: The Dramatic True Story of a Polish Resistance Fighter. His website Bill Biega has further extracts from the memoir, much more about his subsequent life in Britain and the USA and a section on the Polish Home Army.

Warsaw Uprising: Evacuation of people from Mokotów district
Warsaw Uprising: Evacuation of people from Mokotów district
The distribution of bread to starving civilians by the Polish Red Cross.
The distribution of bread to starving civilians by the Polish Red Cross.

Peleliu – the Marines are still mopping up snipers

He was just peeking around the turret when a single shot hit him in the side and knocked him down. He rolled off the tank into the road, and the call went out for a corpsman. While we watched, Hillbilly picked himself up, bleeding from the side, and pulled himself back onto the tank. Then he stood up. The next shot caught him in the chest and knocked him flat again. This time he didn’t move.

LET ‘EM HAVE IT – Crouched behind a coral wall, Marines of the First Division fire on Japanese snipers barricaded in this building on Peleliu Island in the Palau group.
LET ‘EM HAVE IT – Crouched behind a coral wall, Marines of the First Division fire on Japanese snipers barricaded in this building on Peleliu Island in the Palau group.

Almost a month after the invasion of Peleliu in what was supposed to be a four day operation, the island had still not been secured. The Japanese had changed their tactics. They were still determined to fight to the death but now they sought to make that process as costly as possible.

In previous campaigns they had engaged in ‘Banzai’ charges, suicidal mass attacks that were usually wiped out quite quickly, even if they caused some casualties. Now as individuals and in small groups, they dug themselves into caves all over Peleliu, hiding behind the US advance, only to emerge later to cause as many problems as possible. It was still a suicidal endeavour but it disrupted the US advance and long extended the period of their resistance.

R.V. Burgin with the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, First Marine Division. They had had a few days out of the line:

On October 10, K Company was pulled out of reserves and sent to clean out a nest of snipers who had been firing down on the west road. We were well behind the front lines, in territory that was supposed to be secure. But once again the Japs had hunkered down and waited.

A week before, at a spot along the road called Dead Man’s Curve, they had fired on an Army convoy and brought it to a stop. Everyone bailed out and ran for cover, ducking down behind trucks or diving behind rocks at the side of the road.

Colonel Joseph Hankins, commander of First Division’s Headquarters Company, had come along in his jeep to check on reports of snipers. When the convoy stopped, Colonel Hankins got out and walked forward to see what was holding things up. Just as everyone yelled at him to get down, he was hit in the chest. He died lying there in the roadway, the highest-ranking Marine killed on Peleliu.

We had a couple Army tanks along with us this time to provide cover. We were taking rifle and mortar fire from several places along a cliff, but we couldn’t see where it was coming from. Hillbilly Jones’s rifle squad was just up the road, and as the morning dragged on a couple of his men were hit, and one of them was killed.

Hillbilly decided to try to get a better view of the shooters from one of the tanks. I was about 150 feet away directing mortar fire and I didn’t see everything that happened. But after discussing the situation briefly with a staff officer from battalion headquarters, Hillbilly climbed onto the back of the tank and scrambled forward to slap the side of the turret to alert the gunner what he was up to.

He was just peeking around the turret when a single shot hit him in the side and knocked him down. He rolled off the tank into the road, and the call went out for a corpsman. While we watched, Hillbilly picked himself up, bleeding from the side, and pulled himself back onto the tank. Then he stood up. The next shot caught him in the chest and knocked him flat again. This time he didn’t move.

Word spread down the line – Hillbilly’s been hit. By the time I got to the tank, stretcher bearers had carried away the body.

All the memories came flooding back. Hillbilly carrying his guitar down to our tents on Pavuvu. Lazy days singing and cracking jokes on the deck of a troopship. Guard duty drinking grapefruit juice and alcohol, and afterward the hangover, on Banika.

For the rest of the day and into the next we blasted away with machine guns, mortars, and rifle fire at every crack or opening we could find along the west road. We took plenty of fire in return, until eventually it tapered off. Not once during that time did we see a single live Jap.

See R.V. Burgin: Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific

RUGGED TERRAIN – Picking their way through the rocky terrain on Peleliu, a column of Marines moves up to the front lines. This is the kind of territory on which Leathernecks are doggedly battling the remnants of the Japanese forces on the island.
RUGGED TERRAIN – Picking their way through the rocky terrain on Peleliu, a column of Marines moves up to the front lines. This is the kind of territory on which Leathernecks are doggedly battling the remnants of the Japanese forces on the island.

Churchill and Stalin meet at the Kremlin

We certainly do not wish to force on any Balkan State monarchic or republican institutions. We have however established certain relations of faithfulness with the Kings of Greece and Yugoslavia. They have sought our shelter from the Nazi foe, and we think that when normal tranquillity is re-established and the enemy has been driven out the peoples of these countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin share a joke in the Krelim, Moscow, in 1942.
The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin share a joke in the Kremlin, Moscow, in 1942.

The Allies now believed that the end of the war was in sight. Attention turned to the post war settlement. Churchill had just been in the United States to confer with Roosevelt. The international negotiations at Dunbarton Oaks, Washington had also been largely completed, where the future structure of the United Nations had been decided. He now travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin.

Aside from the mechanisms of the United Nations the real politik was about the relative sphere of influence amongst the Allies in Europe, particularly in those countries which were emerging from German occupation. Churchill was trying to get the Polish Government in Exile to enter talks with Stalin, but also to sort out which of the Allies were to take primary role in the other countries of eastern Europe. It proved to be relatively easy to deal with Stalin, at least it appeared so at the time.

At ten o’clock that night we held our first important meeting in the Kremlin. …

The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Roumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross—purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent. predominance in Roumania, for us to have ninety per cent. of the say in Greece, and go fifty—fifty about Yugoslavia?”

Churchill's copy of secret agreement (Percentages agreement) with Stalin made in Moscow, October, 1944.
Churchill’s copy of secret agreement (Percentages agreement) with Stalin made in Moscow, October, 1944.

While this was being translated I wrote out on a half—sheet of paper:

Roumania
Russia …90%
The others …10%

Greece
Great Britain …90% (in accord with U.S.A.)
Russia …10%

Yugoslavia …50—50%

Hungary …50-50%

Bulgaria
Russia …75%
The others …25%

I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.

Of course we had long and anxiously considered our point, and were only dealing with immediate war-time arrangements. All larger questions were reserved on both sides for what we then hoped would be a peace table when the war was won.

After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it,” said Stalin.

Churchill was certainly acutely aware that such an arrangement was open to misinterpretation. A day later he cabled the British cabinet to explain his thinking:

These percentages which I have put down are no more than a method by which in our thoughts we can see how near we are together, and then decide upon the necessary steps to bring us into full agreement.

As I said, they would be considered crude, and even callous, if they were exposed to the scrutiny of the Foreign Offices and diplomats all over the world. Therefore they could not be the basis of any public document, certainly not at the present time.

They might however be a good guide for the conduct of our affairs. If we manage these affairs well we shall perhaps prevent several civil wars and much bloodshed and strife in the small countries concerned. Our broad principle should be to let every country have the form of government which its people desire.

We certainly do not wish to force on any Balkan State monarchic or republican institutions. We have however established certain relations of faithfulness with the Kings of Greece and Yugoslavia. They have sought our shelter from the Nazi foe, and we think that when normal tranquillity is re-established and the enemy has been driven out the peoples of these countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing.

It might even be that Commissioners of the three Great Powers should be stationed there at the time of the elections so as to see that the people have a genuine free choice. There are good precedents for this.

In the light of subsequent events, when the Soviet Bloc took over eastern Europe the meeting was sometimes interpreted as the carving up of Europe on the back of an envelope. Hopes in the west that “countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing” their governments were very misplaced. The de facto occupation of countries in eastern Europe by Soviet troops meant that Stalin was the one who decided.

Contemporary newsreel footage of the Eastern Front in late 1944:

Italy – another hill top attack in mud and rain

Private Burton rushed forward and engaging the first Spandau position with his Tommy gun killed the crew of three. When the assault was again held up by murderous fire from two more machine guns Private Burton, again showing complete disregard for his own safety, dashed forward toward the first machine gun using his Tommy gun until his ammunition was exhausted. He then picked up a Bren gun and firing from the hip succeeded in killing or wounding the crews of the two machine guns.

A 25pdr of 83/85 Battery, 11th Field Regiment in a waterlogged position near Scorticate, 3-8 October 1944.
A 25pdr of 83/85 Battery, 11th Field Regiment in a waterlogged position near Scorticate, 3-8 October 1944.
Pantelleria and Lampedusa May - June 1943: Men of 1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment, advance past a burning fuel store on Pantelleria. Left to right: Lance Sergeant A Haywood, Private C Norman and Private H Maw.
Pantelleria and Lampedusa May – June 1943: Men of 1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, advance past a burning fuel store on Pantelleria. Left to right: Lance Sergeant A Haywood, Private C Norman and Private H Maw.

The weather was deteriorating in Italy and the Allies were struggling to break through the Gothic Line. Despite the withdrawal of troops to southern France the Germans did not notice that the Allied attacks were particularly weakened. In his memoirs the German commander Albert Kesselring played grudging tribute to the assault on his line at this time. Right through to the end of October he was to have some anxious moments as the Allies nearly found their breakthrough:

The fierceness of the battles and the large commitment of men and material revealed the importance of the Italian theatre to the Allies, which had not declined with the invasion of the south of France. While the forces expended on it were replaced by foreign divisions (Brazilian, Italian), the close-support activity of the air force after a temporary slackening had been very quickly stepped up again to its former intensity, though their naval forces lay curiously doggo. Meanwhile guerilla warfare grew sharper with the expansion of the Partisan organisation.

Allied strategy showed a remarkable improvement. True they had not been able to carry out their original far-flung plans, having conspicuously neglected to exploit the help of the navy and the air force to out-flank or overhaul our troops in the peninsula. Tanks were still regularly employed on a narrow front. But – operations were in themselves more compact, each army’s assignment was adjusted to its means, and attacks were delivered at points of main effort in noteworthy breadth and depth.

The old Mediterranean divisions had further perfected their fighting efficiency and tactics. The support of the infantry by artillery and tanks was now supplemented by air reconnaissance, air artillery spotting and close support from the air with a degree of co-ordination by now classical. Technical expedients had reached a high stage of development and were used with great skill.

On the other hand the initiative of smaller unit commanders showed no particular improvement, nor was this compensated by the excellent signals network allowing wireless communication through multifarious types of instruments – which was more of a hindrance than a help.

It was also to our advantage that the enemy continued to respect the customary right of units to be relieved after a certain period in the line, regardless of the local situation. Their troops were, indeed, badly in need of rest, as their replacements were of acclimatisation and training. On the other hand, it was increasingly important for them to curtail the rest periods of the German troops, to harass their recuperation and to prevent them accumulating any large stores of ammunition and fuel.

See The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Kesselring

On this day their was yet another outstanding example of what this meant on the ground:

Private Richard Henry Burton VC
Private Richard Henry Burton VC

In Italy on 8th October, 1944, two Companies of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment moved forward to take a strongly held feature 760 metres high. The capture of this feature was vital at this stage of the operation as it dominated all the ground on the main axis of advance.

The assaulting troops made good progress to within twenty yards of the crest when they came under withering fire from Spandaus on the crest. The leading platoon was held up and the Platoon Commander was wounded. The Company Commander took another platoon, of which Private Burton was runner, through to assault the crest from which four Spandaus at least were firing.

Private Burton rushed forward and engaging the first Spandau position with his Tommy gun killed the crew of three. When the assault was again held up by murderous fire from two more machine guns Private Burton, again showing complete disregard for his own safety, dashed forward toward the first machine gun using his Tommy gun until his ammunition was exhausted. He then picked up a Bren gun and firing from the hip succeeded in killing or wounding the crews of the two machine guns.

Thanks to his outstanding courage the Company was then able to consolidate on the forward slope of the feature. The enemy immediately counter-attacked fiercely but Private Burton, in spite of most of his comrades being either dead or wounded, once again dashed forward on his own initiative and directed such accurate fire with his Bren gun on the enemy that they retired leaving the feature firmly in our hands.

The enemy later counter-attacked again on the adjoining platoon position and Private Burton, who had placed himself on the flank, brought such accurate fire to bear that this counter-attack also failed to dislodge the Company from its position.

Private Burton’s magnificent gallantry and total disregard of his own safety during many hours of fierce fighting in mud and continuous rain were an inspiration to all his comrades.

After disembarking from landing craft, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment take cover on the beach at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942. Live machine-gun and mortar fire was used during this exercise.
After disembarking from landing craft, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment take cover on the beach at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942. Live machine-gun and mortar fire was used during this exercise.
As a charge explodes nearby, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment scramble up cliffs during a live-firing exercise at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942.
As a charge explodes nearby, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment scramble up cliffs during a live-firing exercise at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942.

“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.