Lancaster gunner’s heroic attempt to save friend

Still from a film shot from an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, showing smoke rising from exploding bombs during a night raid on a road junction at Argentan, France. 1,065 aircraft of Bomber Command were active on the night of 6/7 June 1944, bombing railway and road centres on the lines of communication behind the Normandy battle area.
Still from a film shot from an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, showing smoke rising from exploding bombs during a night raid on a road junction at Argentan, France. 1,065 aircraft of Bomber Command were active on the night of 6/7 June 1944, bombing railway and road centres on the lines of communication behind the Normandy battle area.
Avro Lancaster B Mark II, LL725 'EQ-C', of No. 408 Squadron RCAF, on the ground at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. Armourers are backing a tractor and trolley loaded with a 4,000 lb HE bomb ('Cookie') and incendiaries under the open bomb-bay. LL725 was lost over Hamburg on 28/29 July 1944.
Avro Lancaster B Mark II, LL725 ‘EQ-C’, of No. 408 Squadron RCAF, on the ground at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. Armourers are backing a tractor and trolley loaded with a 4,000 lb HE bomb (‘Cookie’) and incendiaries under the open bomb-bay. LL725 was lost over Hamburg on 28/29 July 1944.

The USAAF and RAF bombers were now hitting a wide range of targets in France in support of the Overlord landings. In addition to the transportation targets which sought to cut off the German supplies and reinforcements to the battlefield area, they were hitting troops concentrations and communications centres. Such were the RAF targets for 671 planes despatched on the night of the 12/13th.

Among the 23 planes lost was one exceptional story, which gained recognition with the award of the Victoria Cross. For such an award there had to be an eyewitness account of the actions of the recipient. Pilot Officer Mynarski’s actions were witnessed by the man he was trying to save – the rear gunner of the Lancaster who was trapped in his turret, destined to crash with the burning aircraft. It was only because Pilot Officer Pat Brophy miraculously survived the crash – the rear turret was detached from the aircraft when it hit the ground and he was thrown clear – that he was able to provide the account that led to the award of the VC:

Andrew Mynarski VC
Andrew Mynarski VC

Pilot Officer Andrew Charles MYNARSKI (Can./J.87544) (deceased), Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 419 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron.

Pilot Officer Mynarski was the mid-upper gunner of a Lancaster aircraft, detailed to attack a target at Cambrai in France, on the night of 12th June, 1944. The aircraft was attacked from below and astern by an enemy fighter and ultimately came down in flames. As an immediate result of the attack, both port engines failed. Fire broke out between the mid-upper turret and the rear turret, as well as in the port wing. The flames soon became fierce and the captain ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft.

Pilot Officer Mynarski left his turret and went towards the escape hatch. He then saw that the rear gunner was still in his turret and apparently unable to leave it. The turret was, in fact, immovable, since the hydraulic gear had been put out of action when the port engines failed, and the manual gear had been broken by the gunner in his attempts to escape.

Without hesitation, Pilot Officer Mynarski made his way through the flames in an endeavour to reach the rear turret and release the gunner. Whilst so doing, his parachute and his clothing, up to the waist, were set on fire. All his efforts to move the turret and free the gunner were in vain. Eventually the rear gunner clearly indicated to him that there was nothing more he could do and that he should try to save his own life.

Pilot Officer Mynarski reluctantly went back through the flames to the escape hatch. There, as a last gesture to the trapped gunner, he turned towards him, stood to attention in his flaming clothing and saluted, before he jumped out of the aircraft.

Pilot Officer Mynarski’s descent was seen by French people on the ground. Both his parachute and clothing were on fire. He was found eventually by the French, but was so severely burnt that he died from his injuries.

The rear gunner had a miraculous escape when the aircraft crashed. He subsequently testified that, had Pilot Officer Mynarski not attempted to save his comrade’s life, he could have left the aircraft in safety and would, doubtless, have escaped death.

Pilot Officer Mynarski must have been fully aware that in trying to free the rear gunner he was almost certain to lose his own life. Despite this, with outstanding courage and complete disregard for his own safety, he went to the rescue. Willingly accepting the danger, Pilot Officer Mynarski lost his life by a most conspicuous act of heroism which called for valour of the highest order.

Low oblique aerial view of the Transport Command Delivery Park on the Northeast Apron at Prestwick airport, Ayrshire, showing aircraft marshalled after being flown across the Atlantic. Among the aircraft shown are Consolidated Liberators, Douglas Dakotas, North American Mitchells, and Canadian-built Avro Lancaster B Mark Xs.
Low oblique aerial view of the Transport Command Delivery Park on the Northeast Apron at Prestwick airport, Ayrshire, showing aircraft marshalled after being flown across the Atlantic. Among the aircraft shown are Consolidated Liberators, Douglas Dakotas, North American Mitchells, and Canadian-built Avro Lancaster B Mark Xs.
The first Canadian-built Avro Lancaster B Mark X, KB700 "The Ruhr Express", taxying after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, following a delivery flight across the Atlantic. KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario, and flew operationally with Nos. 405 and 419 Squadrons RCAF.
The first Canadian-built Avro Lancaster B Mark X, KB700 “The Ruhr Express”, taxying after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, following a delivery flight across the Atlantic. KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario, and flew operationally with Nos. 405 and 419 Squadrons RCAF.

Attacks on French airfields are stepped up

A B-24 over Orly airfield on the 14th May
A B-24 over Orly airfield on the 14th May
Low-level oblique aerial photograph taken by one of two De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 21 Squadron RAF during a daylight attack on Gael airfield near St Malo, France, showing the second aircraft flying away with bomb doors still open as its 500-lb bombs explode on the hangars
Low-level oblique aerial photograph taken by one of two De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 21 Squadron RAF during a daylight attack on Gael airfield near St Malo, France, showing the second aircraft flying away with bomb doors still open as its 500-lb bombs explode on the hangars

As the invasion approached both the RAF and the USAAF stepped up their attacks on France. In addition to the Transportation Plan, which aimed to cut the rail links in northern France, there were a wide range of military targets. Considerable progress had been made in weakening the Luftwaffe and this was now re-enforced with a sustained programme of bombing airfields. The same airfields received repeat visits to ensure that damage could not be easily repaired.

A raid on France was typically shorter and less dangerous than the attacks on German targets. Yet no target over occupied Europe was without risk and the Germans were concentrating their anti aircraft guns along the coast.

Flight Sergeant Roland A. Hammersley was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on a No 57 Squadron Lancaster:

On 7/8 May operations were again shown as ‘on’ for the night, and were to provide my third visit to the airfield at Tours. We had real problems after a fairly uneventful flight out into France; when running up to the target at 8,000 feet we were ordered by the controller to orbit it as we had arrived a little before the TIs had been dropped. Next the controller said that the TIs were ‘bang on’, and we were given the order to bomb.

We went through the bombing run, and Ken at the bombsight called ‘Bombs away!’. Just before this Ken had warned of horizontal tracer on our starboard side, and Bill of a fighter attacking someone on the port quarter. While Bill kept an eye on this action from the rear turret, Tom was searching above and to the rear from his mid-upper turret.

Then things happened quickly. Tom called, ‘Fighter! Fighter! Corkscrew port! Go!’ Ron needed no second telling, and we went down to port in the first move of the corkscrew. The remaining bombs sprayed out from the bomb bay in all directions. I could hear Tom and Bill’s guns firing and the crash of cannon shells and bullets from the fighter hitting our aircraft. Pulling out of this initial dive, I heard Bill call, ‘Are you all right up front?’ Ron hastened to assure him.

In the meantime Tom had seen a fighter about 400 yards astern and just above us, identified as a Ju 88; he opened fire simultaneously with the Ju 88. Bill quickly joined in. We were doing some 250mph on the first dive, yet the Ju 88 passed us in a vertical dive — we hoped that his dive terminated on the ground and not before. Ron completed two cycles of the corkscrew, and although Ken yelled to keep weaving, Ron decided to turn on to a course 323 degrees true.

Already deep into France there was no desire to go any deeper. On turning on to our course and clearing the defences, Bill was heard to call, ‘Skipper, I’ve had it.’ I immediately left my wireless set and went back to the rear turret, letting Bill know that I was with him on arrival.

He was in a sad state, with his face, arms and legs simply streaming with blood. I helped him out of the turret, and with some difficulty managed to get him along the fuselage to the rest bed. Up front Ken had clipped on his parachute in case we had to abandon the aircraft. On hearing the news of Bill he came back to help me for a few minutes, then checked the rear turret, only to find it was too badly damaged to be used. We were without any defence for the rear end!

Mack told us that we were about 50 miles from the French coast. This also reminded us of the briefing before the operation when we were told of the heavy coastal defences, in particular the light anti-aircraft batteries. After injecting pain—killing drugs into Bill’s arms, I acted as another pair of eyes from the astrodome. By now Ron had decided to take the aircraft down as close to the ground as possible, and we literally hedge-hopped across France with the three engines giving us some l80mph. Ron’s skill as a pilot now came to the fore.

It was agreed that we should get up to l0,000 feet to cross the French coast so as to avoid the light flak guns. We were nearly too late — as we commenced the climb one battery opened fire at us. Ron immediately put the Lancaster into a dive straight at the guns. I watched in amazement from the astrodome as the coloured tracer fire came flashing by my head and to each side of the aircraft. Later I discovered that we had been hit along the length of the bomb bay doors in that incident.

We pulled up out of the dive and were away into the darkness as the gun-fire stopped. We crossed the coast at 10,000 feet as intended, avoiding the Channel Islands.

After clearing the Channel Islands, Tom said that there was another aircraft approaching, which he identified as a fighter. Ron was asked to turn a little to starboard and Tom opened fire with the four guns in his turret. It was a long burst. Ron then put the aircraft into a corkscrew. The night fighter appeared not to appreciate our gun-fire and dived away to port and was not seen again.

We passed over St Alban’s Head and sent out a Mayday distress call; Hurn answered faintly but did not light up. However, ahead there was another aerodrome, Tarrant Rushton, which did light up, so we went in there, other aircraft preparing to land being instructed to wait until we were down. Ron made a good landing on three engines and called for an ambulance, which pulled alongside us as we came to a stop near the control tower.

Ron Walker was recommended for an immediate award of the DFC following the events of the night of 7/8 May and the award was confirmed on 9 June. I had now completed 14 operations, had flown 14,795 miles in a flying time of 90 hours 30 minutes, and had carried a total of 161,948lb of bombs over Germany and Occupied Europe to their designated targets.

See Bowman (Ed.) RAF Bomber Stories: Dramatic First-hand Accounts of British and Commonwealth Airmen in World War 2 for the whole story

A USAAF A-20 Havoc over an unidentified airfield, 1944
A USAAF A-20 Havoc over an unidentified airfield, 1944
Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.
Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

Fire fighting on a Lancaster bomber’s wing

463 Squadron at Waddington,
The veteran Avro Lancaster bomber ‘S for Sugar’, of No 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, is prepared for its 97th operational sortie at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.
463 Squadron at Waddington,
An Avro Lancaster B Mark I or III of No. 514 Squadron RAF based at Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, releases its bombs through cloud, during a daylight attack on a flying-bomb launch site at Les Catelliers in northern France, (“Noball” Operation), as another aircraft behind it prepares to bomb.

On the night of the 26th/27th RAF Bomber command went to Essen and Schweinfurt, with very different experiences. The larger raid to Essen, a familiar industrial target, was accurate and suffered only 1.4 % casualties.

The raid on Schweinfurt, where the 8th USAAF had attempted to knock out the ball bearing factory in 1943, was almost a complete disaster. The target marking, by a new Pathfinder Squadron, was poor and few bombs hit the target area. High winds dispersed the 206 Lancasters on this raid and 21 aircraft were lost – an unsustainable rate.

The raid is chiefly remembered for one remarkable act of heroism:

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery :-

Norman Jackson VC
Norman Jackson VC

905192 Sergeant (Now Warrant Officer) Norman Cyril Jackson R.A.F.V.R., 106 Squadron.

This airman was the flight engineer in a Lancaster detailed to attack Schweinfurt on the night of 26th April, 1944. Bombs were dropped successfully and the aircraft was climbing out of the target area. Suddenly it was attacked by a fighter at about 20,000 feet. The captain took evading action at once, but the enemy secured many hits. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing, between the fuselage and the inner engine.

Sergeant Jackson was thrown to the floor during the engagement. Wounds which he received from shell splinters in the right leg and shoulder were probably sustained at that time. Recovering himself, he remarked that he could deal with the fire on the wing and obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames.

Pushing a hand fire-extinguisher into the top of his life-saving jacket and clipping on his parachute pack, Sergeant Jackson jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot’s head. He then started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing. Before he could leave the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the whole canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit.

Undeterred, Sergeant Jackson continued. The pilot (Tony Mifflin), bomb aimer (Maurice Toft) and navigator (Frank Higgins) gathered the parachute together and held on to the rigging lines, paying them out as the airman crawled aft. Eventually he slipped and, falling from the fuselage to the starboard wing, grasped an air intake on the leading edge of the wing. He succeeded in clinging on but lost the extinguisher, which was blown away.

By this time, the fire had spread rapidly and Sergeant Jackson was involved. His face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing, dragging his parachute behind. When last seen it was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places.

Realising that the fire could not be controlled, the captain gave the order to abandon aircraft. Four of the remaining members of the crew landed safely. The captain and rear gunner have not been accounted for.

Sergeant Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He sustained a broken ankle, his right eye was closed through burns and his hands were useless. These injuries, together with the wounds received earlier, reduced him to a pitiable state. At daybreak he crawled to the nearest village, where he was taken prisoner. He bore the intense pain and discomfort of the journey to Dulag Luft with magnificent fortitude. After ten months in hospital he made a good recovery, though his hands require further treatment and are only of limited use.

This airman’s attempt to extinguish the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.

The London Gazette, 26 October 1945

463 Squadron at Waddington,
Sergeant W Sinclair, RAF, and Flying Officer E H Giersch, RAAF, of No 463 Squadron at Waddington, test their oxygen masks in the crew room before an operational sortie, April 1944.
Avro Lancaster of No 300 Polish Bomber Squadron
Ground crew servicing an Avro Lancaster of No 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF at Faldingworth, Lincolnshire.

Slow motion nightmare in a Lancaster over Dusseldorf

A tractor-drawn train of 4,000-lb Mark I HC bombs
A tractor-drawn train of 4,000-lb Mark I HC bombs (‘cookies’) pauses on its journey from the bomb-dump at Mildenhall, Suffolk, while groundcrew chalk appropriate messages on them. In the background an Avro Lancaster Mark I, L7540 ‘OL-U’, of No. 83 Squadron RAF’s Lancaster Conversion Flight, normally based at Scampton, Lincolnshire, undergoes repairs: the unit code-letters of its previous operators, No. 44 Squadron RAF, are still visible under those of 83 Squadron.
Here a B-17 Flying Fortress crew of the 96th Bomb Group, US Eighth Air Force, mingle with Lancaster crews of No 622 Squadron
The ’round the clock’ bombing by RAF and USAAF necessitated closer liaison between the two bomber forces, and even at squadron level goodwill visits between neighbouring units helped foster the spirit of co-operation. Here a B-17 Flying Fortress crew of the 96th Bomb Group, US Eighth Air Force, mingle with Lancaster crews of No 622 Squadron at Mildenhall in the spring of 1944.

The night of 22nd / 23rd April saw three large RAF raids, one to railway marshalling yards in Laon, France, the others to German industrial targets in Brunswick and Dusseldorf. Huge destruction was recorded in Dusseldorf where, a day later, 883 people were known to have died – and few of the 409 people then listed as missing were expected to be found alive. Out of the 596 aircraft on the raid 29 were shot down. These figure were fairly typical of RAF raids on German targets at the time – immense destruction was now almost assured at a cost that was, if not acceptable, then at least sustainable.

Flight Engineer Sergeant C.H. ‘Chick’ Chandler was on one of the Lancaster’s that was not shot down that night. His experience was about as bad as it could get without becoming a casualty. In his memory the traumatic events remained to be replayed in slow motion:

It was 0110 HOURS on the morning of 23 April 1944. We were a XV Squadron Lancaster III crew from Mildenhall on our 17th op and we were hit simultaneously by heavy flak and cannon fire from an Me 109 at the precise moment that our bombs were released on Dusseldorf. Being the flight engineer, I was standing on the right-hand side of the cockpit, as was usual during our bombing run, with my head in the blister to watch for any fighter attack that might occur from the starboard side.

The bombs were actually dropping from the aircraft when there was a tremendous explosion. For a brief period of time everything seemed to happen in ultra-slow motion. The explosion knocked me on my back; I was aware of falling on to the floor of the aircraft, but it seemed an age before I actually made contact. I distinctly remember ‘bouncing’. Probably lots of flying clothing and Mae Wests broke my fall, but under normal circumstances one would not have been aware of ‘bouncing’.

As I fell I ‘saw’, in my mind’s eye, very clearly indeed, a telegram boy cycling to my mother’s back door. He was whistling very cheerfully and handed her the telegram that informed her of my death. She was very calm and thanked the boy for delivering the message.

As I laid there I saw a stream of sparks pass a few feet above the cockpit, from back to front and going up at a slight angle. This caused me some confusion. If the sparks were from a burning engine they were going the wrong way. It was some little time before I realised that the ‘sparks’ were in fact tracer shells from a fighter that I did not know was attacking us.

The illusion that the tracer shells were going upwards was no doubt caused by the fact that our Lancaster was going into an uncontrolled, screaming dive, but because of the slow-motion effect that I was experiencing, I did not appreciate this fact. This whole episode had taken 2 or 3 seconds at most, then the slow-motion effect began to wear off, and I became aware of the screams of the bomb-aimer.

[after the aircraft went through violent evasive dives they threw off the fighter … the order to prepare to ‘bale out’ was withdrawn after they discovered that most of the parachutes had been destroyed]

My task now was to check the aircraft for damage and casualties. My checks started at the front of the aircraft, in the bomb-aimer’s compartment. I am afraid to say that my sheltered life had not prepared me for the terrible sight that met my eyes. It was obvious that this area had caught the full blast of the flak, and Alan Gerrard had suffered the most appalling injuries. At least he would have died almost instantaneously.

Suffice to say that I was sick. At this stage I risked using my torch to shine along the bomb bay to make sure that all our bombs were gone. My report simply was that the bomb-aimer had been killed and that all bombs had left the aircraft.

Next stop was the cockpit. The pilot had really worked wonders in controlling the aircraft and successfully feathering the engine that had been on fire. Then on to the navigator’s department; on peering round the blackout screen I saw that Ken Pincott was busy working over his charts, but that Flight Lieutenant John Fabian DFC, the H2S operator (the Squadron navigation leader), appeared to be in shock. However, once I established that there appeared to be no serious damage, I moved on. The wireless operator’s position was empty because his task during the bombing run was to go to the rear of the aircraft and ensure that the photo flash left at the same time as the bombs. Next, down to the mid-upper turret, where Ron Wilson had re-occupied his position, albeit only temporarily. (Unknown to me, he had suffered a wound to his ear that, although not too serious, would keep him off flying for a few weeks.)

On reaching the next checkpoint I was again totally unprepared for the dreadful sight that confronted me. Our wireless operator, Flight Sergeant L. Barnes, had sustained, in my opinion, fatal chest injuries and had mercifully lost consciousness. It was found later that he had further very serious injuries to his lower body and legs. He died of his wounds before we reached England.

From the rear turret I got a ‘thumbs up’ sign from ‘Whacker’ Mair, so I rightly concluded that he was OK. As well as having to report the death of our bomb-aimer, and the fatal injuries to the wireless operator, I had to report the complete failure of the hydraulic system. The pilot was already aware of the fact that we had lost our port inner engine through fire, and that our starboard outer was giving only partial power. The bomb doors were stuck in the open position, and the gun turrets had been rendered inoperative because of the hydraulic failure.

They had just enough fuel to make it back to England, gradually losing height all the way, only to discover that their undercarriage was stuck as they came in to land. The remaining crew survived the emergency landing. All the survivors remained on flying duties, only the slightly wounded mid upper gunner had a brief respite. See Bowman (Ed.) RAF Bomber Stories: Dramatic First-hand Accounts of British and Commonwealth Airmen in World War 2 for the whole story.

Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Elizabeth standing with a group of RAF personnel, including the Station Commander (standing on the Queen’s right), during a visit to Mildenhall, Suffolk.
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ME590 'SR-C', of No. 101 Squadron RAF
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ME590 ‘SR-C’, of No. 101 Squadron RAF, lies on the FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) pipework at Ludford Magna, Lincolnshire, after a successful crash-landing on returning from a raid to Augsburg on the night of 25/26 February 1944. The aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, which disabled the hydraulic system and holed the starboard fuel tank, and was also attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighter which set it on fire and wrecked the elevators. In spite of the damage the pilot, Sergeant R Dixon, brought ME590 back to Ludford Magna for a belly landing, during which some incendiary bombs which had been hung up in the bomb bay, fell out and caught fire on the runway. The censor has eliminated the large aerial masts above the fuselage which indicated that the aircraft was carrying ‘Airborne Cigar’ (ABC), a jamming device which disrupted enemy radio telephone channels.

‘Black Sunday’ as tropical storm hits US 5th Air Force

A USAAF photo reconnaissance image of the target of the 17th April mission, with Japanese planes damaged  on earlier raids visible.
A USAAF photo reconnaissance image of the target of the 17th April mission, with Japanese planes damaged on earlier raids circled.
Barely visible beneath the wings of a Lockhead P-38 Lighting are the deadly bombs
Barely visible beneath the wings of a Lockhead P-38 Lighting are the deadly bombs with which this multi-purpose plane can blast enemy troops, ships and gun emplacements. As shown in recent demonstartions at the AAF Tactical Center, Orlando, Fla., the Lockhead P-38, now being used as a fighter-bomber, is capable of carrying bomb pay loads up to 2,000 pounds, thus affording the Allies another potent weapon for use against Germany and Japan in coming offensive.

The 5th Air Force were engaged in missions against the Japanese in New Guinea and New Britain. On the 17th April they flew against Japanese bases and airfield at Hollandia, New Guinea, now Jayapura, Indonesia. The mission was intended to destroy the Japanese planes in the area, prior to a landing by the Army and Marines.

There was a warning that there was a weather front moving in during the mission – but the orders were to go ahead anyway. Probably no one could have anticipated just how severe that tropical storm could possibly be. In the end it proved to be the cause of the worst operational loss suffered by the 5th Air Force in a single day, including combat losses. It is believed to be the biggest single weather-related loss in aviation history.

1st Lt. Calvin Wire was flying a P-38, escorting the bombers. It was only on the return trip they experienced problems:

We flew at about 12,000 to 13,000 feet altitude, between a solid overcast and lower broken clouds. We had no problems until we were south of Wewak, approaching the edge of the Owen Stanley Mountain Range. At this time, we were looking into a solid wall of clouds from the ground to as high as we could see. I had flown a number of missions in this general area before and knew that some of the mountains were 13,000 to 14,000 feet high, so we climbed 20,000 feet looking for any opening – no luck.

We then headed North and went down to 12,000 feet again. We flew East and West along the wall of clouds, searching for any opening. Nothing doing! As we were headed back east, I saw a plane on our left and so we headed for it. There was a nice big B-24 heading home. I called Morton said: “We hit it lucky, this guy has a co-pilot, navigator and radioman let’s latch on and follow him home”. We snuggled in close on his right wing. He rocked his right wing to let us know we were welcome and then headed into that awful wall of clouds, we kept tucked in for about 10 to 15 minutes, when all of a sudden the B-24 went into a sharp left turn. I told Mort to hang on and climb. We made a 180 Degree turn and headed out.

It took us about 10 minutes settled down, and about this time along comes a full squadron of B-25’s. Again we tucked in on the right wing of the rear B-25. After about 5 Minutes or so, the whole squadron of B-25’s went every which way.

And again we went straight up an into a 180 degree turn and back out. After we were out of the worst of it, I called Mort and told him that usually along the coast, when the weather came in from the east, the clouds would rise a bit as they approached land and leave a space we could fly in and still see what was ahead.

He said: “Okay, let’s give it a try.” So then we proceeded east to the coast and headed south. My guess was correct to some degree as we had about 40 Feet between the clouds and the water and they kept working up and down. As it was raining hard, our vision through the windshield was nil, so we flew by looking out of the right side windows at the line of surf. I tried to maintain a minimum of 20 feet in altitude and about 50 feet east of the surf line.

Wire eventually had to ditch his plane. Read the whole account at 475th Fighter Group.

The experience of crews who did find an airfield was no better. Alfred B. Colwell,jr., was the Navigator/Bombardier on a B-25 in the 38th Bomb Group based at Nadzab, New Guinea:

April 16
Mission #48 – Hollandia.

The whole area was full of planes-B-24s, B-25s, A-20s and P-38s. We got down to 50 feet above the coast and followed it towards Saidor. I directed Polecat (Pilot Ed P. Poltrack) to the right and left along the coast. He and Jack were both flying, dodging planes. Once our airspeed went down to 120 – looked like we would have to ditch any minute. Now and then we would lose sight of the coast and weave back and forth along our course to pick it up again.

After 30 minutes of this we suddenly saw a strip ahead of us. Jack dropped the wheels and flaps and Poletrack nosed her down for a landing – we didn’t have any idea how long the strip was or what was at the other end – couldn’t see that far – but there wasn’t much choice. Polecat never made a better landing and we didn’t slide at all when he applied the brakes. We taxied over to one side. It was raining so beat Hell but we piled out in the middle of it.

Sitting at the end of the runway were three banged up 71st ships. Two landed okay and stopped; then the third came in and ploughed right through them – no one hurt.

As we walked over the strip, one of our planes broke through the rain about halfway down the strip(it turned out to be Harvey). He couldn’t see a thing either as he set her down, began to brake and started skidding to beat the devil. He was doing okay until he ran off of the end of the strip and hit the mud-then the plane started skidding sideways and suddenly the landing gear gave way and she went on a wing and and the belly. She was one hell of a wrecked ship but the whole crew came crawling out without a scratch.

About this time we saw a B-25 and a P-38 coming in for landings from opposite directions. Neither one probably never saw the other-they crashedd head on in the middle of the strip and exploded. Somehow one man got out of the B-25 okay; another was dragged out badly burned (died later); the others were cremated.

The situation was worse than ever now. The strip was blocked and the poor boys still in the air were about to go wild. All were running out of gas. The A-20s began coming in anyhow, the first one almost missing the burning wreckage but clipped off a wing; the second blew a tire, his nose wheel collasped and he skidded through the burning planes – both fellows got out okay.

The boys with the winches walked right into the burning, exploding mess hooked on to it and dragged it from the strip. Part of a burned body body slipped from the B-25.

Hamilton, another one of ours, came in next. He blew a tire – skidded off the strip but his plane was not damaged too badly. Next 2 A-20s and a P-39 came in almost at once, all gliding in out of gas. The P-39 hit the strip on its belly and the A-20s were right behind. Both pulled up their wheels and hit on their bellies. Not one of the three was hurt.

Read the whole account at 38th Bomb Group Association. There is a full list of the 46 planes lost and casualties at Pacific Wrecks .

Bombs exploding across Hollandia airfield during one of the 5th Air Force raids.
Bombs exploding across Hollandia airfield during one of the 5th Air Force raids.
B-25 Mitchells from the 42d Bombardment fly over Bougainville from their base at Stirling Airfield, Stirling Island, Solomon Islands, 1944
B-25 Mitchells from the 42d Bombardment fly over Bougainville from their base at Stirling Airfield, Stirling Island, Solomon Islands, 1944

A day in the life of a 8th Air Force radio operator

A B-17 Flying Fortress at a base 'somewhere in England'.
A B-17 Flying Fortress crew at a base ‘somewhere in England’.
Bombing up a B-17 prior to another mission.
Bombing up a B-17 prior to another mission.

The US Eighth Air Force could now put up a force of over 1000 heavy bombers when called upon. Tens of thousands of young men in the air crews were now living a surprisingly regular existence on their bases in England. For a raid on Germany they would be off after 7 in the morning and back around 5 in the afternoon. Death was never far away, there would be few missions when they did not see some of their comrades lost.

The diary of Harley Tuck, a radio operator/gunner on a B-17 tells a story that would be familiar to many at the time:

April 13

The C.Q. came in at 5:45 AM for a mission. Briefing at 7, T.O. at 7:55 for Augsburg Germany. English coast out 12:12 at 20000 ft. A few flak bursts by Brussels Belgium, no more until target. The target was a Mess. factory and airport. We were carrying 42 inc, 20 dropped at IP because Wiggie pulled a boner.

We were within sight of Switzerland on the other side of Lake Constance a few minutes before IP. The Alps were covered with snow, very rugged + beautiful. At the target the flak was very heavy + accurate; holes in both wings + vertical stabilizer. We flew lead, of low sq. in a composite group. The 94th lead, 385 high. Very good navigation, missed most flak areas. No flak to speak of on the way back. IP at 1355 – bombs away – 1408, enemy coast out 1632.

The group lost 5 ships, 4 went to Switz, 1 crash landed in S. England, killing 4 crew members. Landed 1720 B 1025

Harley Tucks’ letters home give a little more understanding of the life they led. There was little in the way of entertainment outside the camps. England was a pretty grim place after 5 years of war and rationing:

April 13 1944

Dear Mom and Dad

Your letter mailed Mar. 22 got here yesterday. I’m glad to hear everything’s O.K. and of the new addition to the family I guess I’m an uncle two times now huh? I’d sure like to see all the little tykes around home now, there must be a flock of them when a few neighbor kids come around.

In your next letter please include the name of those folks that live across the road and their telephone number. In the far future I might drop into town and might want to get in touch with you by phone.

My crew had a pass a few days ago; we went into London and spent 2 days there. We had a grand time, slept in a swanky hotel and all that but were we glad to get back to camp and get a few decent meals to eat. Tea and rolls don’t fill me up enough for breakfast. There isn’t jam or very much butter even.

We got back in time to get in on the next mission which was over Germany yesterday. So we got to sleep in today, I didn’t get up until noon. After a mission it sure is hard to get out of bed. But after 12 hours of sleep and the rest of the guys threatening to roll me out, I got up gracefully + of my own accord. There are some awful early birds in this hut, tho, or else they have to have their breakfast. Me, I can miss a meal almost anytime without anything serious happening. But to here some of these guys talk it would kill them to miss a meal, maybe it would.

How is my mail getting to you? Some of your letters get here in 2 weeks, once in a while a heck of a lot longer. The “V” mail is no faster than any of the other methods and you can write a lot more in an airmail letter.

This afternoon when the coke truck came we decided to have a fire, almost a novelty around this hut lately as we are keep too busy to keep one. We put some black powder and stuff from flares we’d picked up around here in the bottom, kindling, then coke and on top poured a lot (1/2 cup) of lighter fluid. The results – we’ve never had such a good fire in such a short time with so much smoke in our lives. But it was exciting to watch too. And we’ve never had so much fun around here for ages.

British and American pursuit ships are always buzzing our field, sometimes within 15 feet of the runways, I guess it’s to help us along in our aircraft recognition. Today my pilot took some us and returned the compliment. He did a good job too. I wish you could have seen us. The Limey’s seldom see such a big ship out buzzing them and they were all eyes, we could see them from where we were.

If you get some beef cattle for me to raise, and if there is some land to raise vegetables on we’d be sitting on the top in case of a big depression after the war. Fruit for desert, but the darned beef would get tiresome. Please keep a good start for various other animals if a depression starts.

Rabbit is the only unrationed meat over here besides fish. On the way to London the other day I saw 50-60 rabbits in a field. That’s usually what we eat in town on passes. They are that plentiful.

I guess I’ll shut up as it’s getting kind of late. Write soon. Have you got that request for a 5 lb package of candy yet?

Love Harley

It was to be some time before Harley Tuck got the chance to ‘drop into town’ and phone his parents’ neighbours to let them know he had arrived. Just a week later, on the 22nd April, his crew were in 42-31724 “Dear M.O.M.”, piloted by 2d Lt. Thomas W. Gilleran. Three flak shells hit the plane, setting it on fire. ‘T.W.G.’ was to hold the plane steady while the crew parachuted and then jumped himself. All ten crew survived and were made prisoners for the remainder of the war.

You can read the whole of Harley Tuck’s diary at 447th Bomb Group.

B-17s en route to another target in Germany.
B-17s en route to another target in Germany.
A B-17 'buzzes the base' at Bassingbourne England after completing 25 missions.
A B-17 ‘buzzes the base’ at Bassingbourne England after completing 25 missions.

Seconds to get out of a burning B-24

Waist gunners on a B-24 Liberator wearing protective 'flak vests'.
Waist gunners on a B-24 Liberator wearing protective ‘flak vests’.

On the 8th April the 8th Airforce went to attack targets in Bremen. Both Bremen and a secondary target were obscured by smoke so the whole force switched attention to Langenhagen Airdrome. As they approached the new target they were attacked by German fighters which swept through the formation.

2nd Lt. Robert A. Mayes’ plane was badly hit and on fire and out of control when he gave the order to bail out over the intercom at about 1410. There remained a precious few minutes for the crew to get out if they could. It was no easy matter.

Sgt. Archie M. Thomas survived to give this dramatic account of the last few minutes of the bomber as it plunged to earth:

“That Fateful Easter Eve, April 8, 1944”: Our take off time was delayed from 07:00 a.m. to 09:00 a.m., due to a very heavy fog. While waiting for take off the officers were gathered at the front end of the B-24 whereas the six enlisted men were gathered at the tail end of the aircraft.

During this wait, one of the enlisted men stated that, ‘If it is my time to die, I am ready to die for my country.’ One by one, four of the remaining crew made the same statement. I, alone, had not spoken, and at this time I stated, ‘I am not ready to die for my country, but rather I am ready to LIVE for my country.’

After loading on the aircraft my intercom was out and as a result, I missed out on some of the conversation. The radio operator took care of this problem before we got over enemy territory. After breaking through the fog, we had a beautiful spring day. We test fired our guns and the assistant engineer transferred fuel. At one point, we had to take evasive action to avoid colliding with another aircraft. We could see a little anti-aircraft flak in the distance near the Zuider Zee.

Our preliminary checks were all made over the Channel. We were now entering enemy territory. As we proceeded over enemy territory, we kept a close lookout for enemy aircraft and gunfire. We were joined by one Allied Fighter Escort who stayed with us for some time. After they turned around and prior to our second Escort group joining us at approximately 13:00 o’clock, we spotted German fighters at a 3:00 o’clock position.

They proceeded to move ahead of our formation and they attacked from directly in front of us, coming through our formation firing their guns. I am quite sure these were Me 109s.

Our aircraft was hit on this first pass, caught fire and went into a spin. I was at the right-hand waist gunner position with Don Logan flying left waist gunner, Roger Newton, ball turret, and Burk in tail gunner position. We received word on the intercom stating, “We are hit. Get out!” This order was given by the pilot. I pulled the cord to my flak suit and it fell off. By this time, due to the spin, the weight of our bodies had increased several times, and everything was fairly well held to the floor.

I grabbed my parachute and was the first to get to the escape hatch, which was also known as the camera hatch or main entrance hatch on the B-24. I made an attempt to open the hatch alone and had planned to jump holding my chute as I figured the plane would probably blow up in a few seconds. It would be better to try to hold onto the chute and put it on as I was on the way down, rather than face certain death in an exploding aircraft. This attempt failed and I managed to put the parachute on.

By this time, two other crewmembers, Logan and Newton, had managed to get to the escape hatch, one at each end and I at the center of the door where it opened. We managed to get the door opened approximately eighteen inches and could open it no further due to the [centrifugal force of the] spin.

I looked at Burk in the tail, unable to get out of his turret. Beads of perspiration were on his face and a look of fear, even death was on his face. I looked at Logan and Newton, neither in a position to jump. I thought if I try to exchange places with either of these men, no one will get out of this plane alive.

I layed down and tried to get under the low opening of the door. Finally, after what seemed a long while, I felt my body hurled from the force of the spinning aircraft. I reached for the ripcord and thought I had missed it somehow. At this time I said, ‘Oh, Lord, I’m gone.’ As I uttered these words, the tumbling stopped. I glanced up and there was my chute. I glanced down and the pine treetops were just below my feet. The ripcord had caught on the door as I squeezed under it. Thanks to God and my crewmates, I was able to eject from the aircraft seconds before it dashed into the ground.

I figure that had my stay in the aircraft been extended as much as one-tenth of a second, or even less, I probably wouldn’t be here today. One has to wonder about the remarks of the other enlisted crewmembers who all perished at this time, as well as the officers on the plane.

The aircraft crashed about 100 yards from where I landed, and exploded seconds later. Just prior to the explosion, I disconnected my chute which was hanging in a tree and attempted to get out of the area. Of the crewmembers left in the aircraft, the Germans were able to identify all the bodies with the exception of the co-pilot who, I believe, was probably hit by the exploding shell that brought our ship down.

I was not captured until approximately one hour later. Two German enlisted men had gone out to inspect the wreckage of our aircraft. On their return to the village near by, they found me in the woods, where I was attempting to keep hidden to avoid capture. One said to me, ‘For you the war is over.’ This was spoken in English.

The whole account and much more can be found at 44th Bomb Group Roll of Honour

In skies thick with flak a stricken B-24 struggles to maintain flight.
In skies thick with flak a stricken B-24 struggles to maintain flight.

Heavy losses as RAF Bomber Command targets Nuremberg

Squadron Leader Peter Hill, briefs crews of No. 51 Squadron RAF
Squadron Leader Peter Hill, briefs crews of No. 51 Squadron RAF on the forthcoming raid to Nuremberg, Germany in the Operations Room at Snaith, Yorkshire. The Station Commander, Group Captain N H Fresson, sits third from the left in the front row. No. 51 Squadron lost six Handley Page Halifaxes that night (30/31 March 1944), suffering 35 men killed (including Sqn Ldr Hill) and seven made prisoners-of-war.
Three Lancaster B Mark IIIs of No. 619 Squadron RAF,
Three Lancaster B Mark IIIs of No. 619 Squadron RAF, airborne from Coningsby, Lincolnshire. The aircraft in the foreground, LM418 ‘PG-S’, was destroyed in a crash-landing at Woodbridge Emergency Landing Ground after returning from the ill-fated Nuremberg raid of 30/31 March 1944 on two engines. Its crew survived the crash, but were all killed in action later.

Bomber Command did not normally bomb during the full moon (but see comments below)- but the weather forecast for 30th/31st March suggested cloud cover over Germany to conceal the bombers. Unfortunately a late meteorological reconnaissance flight by a Mosquito which suggested otherwise was ignored.

A total of 795 aircraft were sent all the way to Nuremberg, and the bright moonlight without cloud cover proved ideal for the night fighters, which began their attacks almost as soon as the bomber stream crossed the coast over Belgium. Navigation was again badly affected by high winds and to make matters worse the target itself was covered with cloud. Little damage was caused to Nuremberg and some aircraft attacked Schweinfurt, 50 miles away when it was mistakenly target marked by two Mosquitos. Here, as at Nuremberg, most of they bombs fell outside the town.

A total of 95 aircraft were lost – at 11.9% the highest rate for Bomber Command for the whole war. Despite the obvious risks they had pressed on regardless. One man was to exemplify this attitude above all others during this night, and he paid the ultimate price:

Pilot Officer Cyril Barton VC
Pilot Officer Cyril Barton VC

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery :-

Pilot Officer Cyril Joe Barton (168669), RAFVR, 578 Squadron (Deceased)

On the night of 30th March, 1944, Pilot Officer Barton was captain and pilot of a Halifax aircraft detailed to attack Nurenberg. Whem some 70 miles short of the target, the aircraft was attacked by a Junkers 88. The burst of fire from the enemy made the intercommunication system useless. One engine was damaged when a Messerschmit 210 joined in the fight. The bombers machine guns were out of action and the gunners were unable to return the fire.

Fighters continued to attack the aircraft as it approached the target area and, in the confusion caused by the failure of the communications system at the height of the battle, a signal was misinterpreted and the navigator, air bomber and wireless operator left the aircraft by parachute.

Pilot Officer Barton faced a situation of dire peril. His aircraft was damaged, his navigational team had gone and he could not communicate with the remainder of the crew. If he continued his mission, he would be at the mercy of hostile fighters when silhouetted against the fires in the target area, and if he survived he would have to make a 4 1/2 hours journey home on three engines across heavily-defended territory. Determined to press home his attack at all costs, he flew on and, reaching the target, released the bombs himself.

As Pilot Officer Barton turned for home the propeller of the damaged engine, which was vibrating badly, flew off. It was also discovered that two of the petrol tanks had suffered damage and were leaking. Pilot Officer Barton held to his course and, without navigational aids and in spite of strong head winds, successfully avoided the most dangerous defence areas on his route. Eventually he crossed the English coast only 90 miles north of his base.

By this time the petrol supply was nearly exhausted. Before a suitable landing place could be found, the port engine stopped. The aircraft was now too low to be abandoned successfully. Pilot Officer Barton therefore ordered the three remaining members of his crew to take up their crash stations. Then, with only one engine working, he made a gallant attempt to land clear of the houses over which he was flying. The aircraft finally crashed and Pilot Officer Barton lost his life, but his three comrades survived.

Pilot Officer Barton had previously taken part in four attacks on Berlin and 14 other operational missions. On one of these two members of his crew were wounded during a determined effort to locate the target despite the appalling weather conditions.

In gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds, this officer displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty.

Halifax B Mark III, LV857, in flight shortly after completion by the Handley Page Ltd works at Radlett, Hertfordshire. In its brief service life, this aircraft served with Nos. 35, 10 and 51 Squadrons RAF before crashing at Schwarzbad while returning from a raid on Nuremberg on 31 May 1944.
Halifax B Mark III, LV857, in flight shortly after completion by the Handley Page Ltd works at Radlett, Hertfordshire. In its brief service life, this aircraft served with Nos. 35, 10 and 51 Squadrons RAF before crashing at Schwarzbad while returning from a raid on Nuremberg on 31 May 1944.
Fire-damaged De Havilland
Fire-damaged De Havilland Mosquito NF Mark XVII, ‘O’, of No. 85 Squadron RAF, back at its base at West Malling, Kent, following the destruction of an enemy bomber on the night of 24/25 March 1944. Flying Officer E R Hedgecoe (pilot), and Flight Lieutenant N L Bamford (radar operator), flying ‘O for Orange’ intercepted the Junkers Ju 188 off Hastings, closing to 100 yards to deliver a burst of cannon fire upon which the enemy aircraft suddenly exploded, enveloping the Mosquito in burning oil and debris. The fabric covering of the aircraft caught fire and it was enveloped in flames. Hedgecoe ordered Bamford to bale out, but had second thoughts when the fire went out and he found the Mosquito to be stable in flight, despite the loss of rudder control due to the fabric being burned off. After wiping a clear patch in the soot-blackened cockpit canopy, Hedgecoe flew back to a safe landing at West Malling. Hedgecoe and Bamford were an experienced night-fighting crew, Hedgecoe having shot down eight enemy aircraft and Bamford taking part in the destruction of ten, before both were killed in a flying accident on 1 January 1945.

A burning plane 18,000′ over Germany and no parachute

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, DV397 'QR-W', of No. 61 Squadron RAF taxying past the windsock at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. DV398 was lost during a raid on Berlin, Germany on 24/25 March 1944.
Avro Lancaster B Mark I, DV397 ‘QR-W’, of No. 61 Squadron RAF taxying past the windsock at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. DV398 was lost during a raid on Berlin, Germany on 24/25 March 1944.
Veteran air gunner Flt Lt J A Howard DFC in the rear turret of a No 619 Squadron Lancaster, 14 February 1944.
Veteran air gunner Flt Lt J A Howard DFC in the rear turret of a No 619 Squadron Lancaster, 14 February 1944.
Back at their base, East Wretham, Norfolk, two members of the crew of Avro Lancaster B Mark II, DS669 'KO-L', of No. 115 Squadron RAF, examine the rear of their aircraft, where the rear turret, with its unfortunate gunner, was sheared off by bombs dropped from an aircraft flying above, during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28/29 June 1943.
Back at their base, East Wretham, Norfolk, two members of the crew of Avro Lancaster B Mark II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron RAF, examine the rear of their aircraft, where the rear turret, with its unfortunate gunner, was sheared off by bombs dropped from an aircraft flying above, during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28/29 June 1943.

On the night of 24th/25th March 1944 the heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command went back to Berlin for the last time. The stream of 811 Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitos taking part was severely disrupted by heavy winds coming from the north, scattering the aircraft and making navigation difficult. Target marking over Berlin was disrupted by the wind, pushing the bombing over the south west of the city, with many bombs falling further away. Returning bombers, struggling with their navigation, found themselves flying over Flak sites which they should have avoided – losses were heavy, 8.9% of the total force.

On one of the scattered Lancasters caught by night fighters was rear gunner Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade. Early in the morning of the 25th his aircraft was suddenly engulfed in a blazing fire. There was only one option for a rear gunner in such circumstances, to bale out. For Sergeant Alkemade there was one significant obstacle to this course of action:

I found myself in a ring of fire that was singeing my face and melting the rubber of my oxygen mask.

I leaned back, pushed open the turret doors, and reached into the fuselage to grab my parachute from its rack. The whole length of the fuselage was blazing. The flames reached right down to the door of my turret. And there, in a fierce little fire of its own, my parachute was blazing, too.

For a brief moment I stared while it dissolved before my eyes. It was not so much a feeling of fear, or dismay, or horror, as a sensation, a sort of twisting in the stomach.

As I turned back I noticed that my leather trousers and jacket had caught fire. The turret was like an inferno, and getting worse all the time. My face was tingling, and I could almost feel my flesh shrivelling in that unbearable heat.

Desperately, seeking to escape from the heat, I rotated the turret to port, elbowed the sliding doors open, and back-flipped out into space, 18,000 feet deep. As I left the Lancaster I half sensed, half saw, a great explosion from her, then I was falling through the cold night air.

I found myself dropping to attention, as though it were a formal occasion, and beyond my feet I had an impression of stars shining. I felt quite calm as the air swept past me, faster and faster, until it became difficult to breathe.

‘Funny,’ I thought, ‘but if this is dying, it’s not at all strange.’ Then the rushing air, the stars, the ground, the sky, all merged and were forgotten as unconsciousness crept over me…

I opened my eyes to see the stars shining through a dark lattice of pine branches. It was peaceful, and rather lovely. I don’t remember feeling surprised about the fact that I was alive; it was not until ages later that realisation came to me and I began to sweat.

I looked at my watch and found it read 3.25, I had jumped shortly after midnight, so I must have been unconscious for more than three hours. I wriggled my toes. They worked. Then I moved my arms, legs and neck. Everything seemed to work, though my right knee was a little stiff.

Then I rolled over, and noticed for the first time that I was lying in a small drift of snow, about eighteen inches deep. Later, I realised that I owed my life to the pine branches and the snow, both of which had helped to break my fall. I was very sore and the cold was beginning to creep through my limbs.

As I couldn’t walk and would only freeze or starve where I lay, I pulled up the whistle hanging from my jacket and blew a series af blasts. After that I lay still, alternately blowing my whistle and smoking a cigarette, until a German search party found me,

This account appears in Baling Out: Amazing Dramas of Military Flying. Sergeant Alkemade was made POW and recovered from relatively minor injuries, mainly caused by his burns. The Germans finally accepted his story when they searched his crashed aircraft and found the charred remains of a parachute inside, near the rear gunners’ turret.

The wrecked rear turret of Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ED413 'DX-M' "Minnie the Moocher", of No. 57 Squadron RAF at Scampton, Lincolnshire,
The wrecked rear turret of Avro Lancaster B Mark I, ED413 ‘DX-M’ “Minnie the Moocher”, of No. 57 Squadron RAF at Scampton, Lincolnshire, after returning from a night raid to Oberhausen, Germany, on the night of 14/15 June 1943, during which it was attacked by German night fighters. A cannon shell exploded in the rear turret, killing the gunner, Sergeant R F Haynes of Nuneaton Cheshire, while further strikes smashed the radio and navigational equipment, and riddled the fuselage of the aircraft with holes. The pilot, Sergeant A H Moores of Bromley, Kent, who was on his fifth operation over Germany, carried on nevertheless and bombed the target before making a succesful return to Scampton.
Flight -Sergeant J Morgan, the rear gunner of an Avro Lancaster of No. 630 Squadron RAF at East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, checks his guns in the Nash & Thompson FN20 tail turret before taking off on a night raid on the marshalling yards at Juvisy-sur-Orge, France.
Flight -Sergeant J Morgan, the rear gunner of an Avro Lancaster of No. 630 Squadron RAF at East Kirkby, Lincolnshire, checks his guns in the Nash & Thompson FN20 tail turret before taking off on a night raid on the marshalling yards at Juvisy-sur-Orge, France.

Friedrichshafen – disaster for the 392nd Group

Consolidated B-24 'Liberators' in the close formation that was intended to give them mutual protection from the Luftwaffe.
Consolidated B-24 ‘Liberators’ in the close formation that was intended to give them mutual protection from the Luftwaffe.

On the 18th March 1944 the USAAF were out again for another daylight raid on Germany. Every effort was being made to knock out as much of Germany’s aircraft industry as possible in the run up to D-Day. ‘Big Week’ – when the 8th Air Force had put on maximum effort together with RAF Bomber Command – had come and gone. The USAAF 392nd Bomber Group had won a Unit Citation then. For most of the crews it made little difference, they had more missions to complete.

This time they flew out passing the snows of the Alps in bright sunshine and then swung round to begin their bomb run from a position over Lake Constance, which was a deep blue marker 20,000 feet below them.

The target was Friedrichshafen and they fully expected to be able to bomb the Manzell Air Armaments factory accurately in these conditions. Then as they approached the target the 392nd Bomb Group was hit by some very accurate flak which damaged several planes and disrupted their bombing. More trouble was to come as they turned for home.

Vernon Baumgart, now a retired colonel, remembers:

I remember that we had hardly taken stock of our situation when the waist gunner called: Fighters at 3 o’clock!” There they were, a whole “gaggle” of them; ten to twelve in close formation, paralleling our course about a half mile on our right -and climbing. I got on the radio and began calling for friendly fighters.

Just like the “book” said, they climbed up to a one o’clock high position into the sun about two miles out, made a wing-over turn in unison and dived at us with guns blazing. It was a fearful sight but was over in a few seconds as they dived through our formation. Of course, all of our nose and top turrets responded with long bursts from their twin 50-caliber guns.

It is hard to say how much damage we did to them as at the moment we were taking stock of their damage to us. One of their 20 millimeter shells exploded in the navigator’s panel and steel fragments struck our navigator in the face and left eye. The waist gunners reported three airplanes falling out of formation. You can be assured I was on the radio emphatically calling for help.

I can still see the navigator looking back at me through the astrodome and wiping blood from his face. Then Stupski (our pilotage navigator and nose gunner) yelled that the whole nose was full of blood. Next he yelled that the bombardier was trying to throw the navigator out. As it transpired, the “blood” turned out to be red hydraulic fluid from severed hydraulic lines.

The navigator, being dazed from the exploded 20mm shell and his wounds, which cost him his eye, wanted to bail out. The bombardier was struggling to restrain him, and Stupski misinterpreted the action. The navigator soon quieted down and was given a shot of morphine to ease his pain.”

Time “whizzed” by and there they were again at three o’clock and climbing. Their sleek-nosed silhouettes identified them as Messerschmitt 109s or Folke-Wulf 190s. All we could do was to sit there and wait. Then – here they came again! Thirty-two years hasn’t dimmed my view of those bright flashes of cannon fire aimed directly at me, my airplane, and my formation.

No sooner had they dived below us when a waist gunner called excitedly that gasoline was blowing in on them and they were being drenched. The top turret gunner/flight engineer then reported he could see holes in the left wing and gasoline was spewing out, which in turn was sucked into the open waist gunner’s window. I called the engineer to leave his turret and regulate the fuel valves so as to transfer as much fuel from the damaged cells as possible. This he did, and – there the Jerries were back at 3 o’clock and climbing. Believe me, it is sure scary to be at 20,000 feet in that “wild blue yonder” eyeing a persistent enemy you know is doing his best to shoot you down.

With the gaggle perched at one o’clock high, I made my last call for friendly fighters and switched back to interphone and – here they came. If I thought “this is it,” I can’t remember, because just as swift as lightning, two P-38 Lightnings dived from “nowhere” right into the gaggle. The German fighters literally scattered like frightened sparrows – and we were saved.

I had hardly heaved a sigh of relief when over the interphone came: “Pull up, pull up!” Captain Baumgart instantaneously snapped the airplane off automatic pilot and hauled back on the steering column. We pitched up and our B-24 sat “high, wide, and handsome” as the now meagre formation passed on below. Of course, the question was, “What happened?” I didn’t wait for answers. It was one of the few times – as command pilot – I ever took over the airplane. We were sitting all alone at 130 miles per hour while the formation hurried on at 150 and I didn’t want to be a “tail-end Charlie.” “Pouring on the coal” with full power and putting the airplane in a shallow dive, I quickly gained air speed. I held the dive until I caught up with the formation, but some 2,000 feet below it.

Using the full power and excessive speed, I gradually climbed back up to the formation and “tacked” on to the high element. Thank goodness! Baumgart’s instantaneous reaction probably saved us from a mid-air collision, and as he says: “A mid-air collision can spoil your whole day.” Back in formation, the answer to the question of “What happened?” revealed that an airplane to the rear and below us suddenly pulled up toward us, and it appeared that he would ram us – thus the call to pull up. Our crew witnessed fire in their cockpit and the airplane “went down” out of control.

The Alps were still in sight, and we hadn’t reached Strasbourg yet. How much fuel do we have remaining? I still had to make the decision of destination. Could we make it back to England or should we divert to and be interned in Switzerland?

The full account by Col. Myron Keilman and Col Vernon Baumgart can be found at B24.Net. Initial losses to the 392nd seemed very bad. 14 out of 28 crews briefed for the mission were lost and 9 more damaged. However 8 crews from the ‘lost’ planes had been able to put down in, or parachute into, neutral Switzerland. The crews were interned for the duration of hostilities by the Swiss authorities.

Liberatore flying high above the clouds over occupied Europe.
Liberatore flying high above the clouds over occupied Europe.