13 April 1944: A day in the life of a 8th Air Force radio operatorBritish 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.
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:
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?
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.
8 April 1944: Seconds to get out of a burning B-24I 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.
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.
31 March 2014: Heavy losses as RAF Bomber Command targets Nuremberg 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.
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:
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.
25 March 1944: A burning plane 18,000′ over Germany and no parachuteI 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.
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.
18 March 1944: Friedrichshafen – Disaster for USAAF 392nd Bombardment GroupThe 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!
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.
3 March 1944: USAAF raid all the way to Berlin – escort ambushedIn a practically vertical dive we hurtle into the midst of the Yanks, and almost simultaneously we open fire. We take them completely by surprise. In great spirals the Mustangs attempt to get away. Several of them are in flames before they can reach the clouds. One literally disintegrates under fire from my guns. Yells of triumph echo over our radio.
The 8th Air Force crewmen were now being asked to complete 30 full missions before they could complete a tour of duty and get away from operational bombing. The chances of them surviving all 30 missions depended on many factors. There were so many hazards. Sometimes it was the weather, sometimes it was the flak, sometimes it was the Luftwaffe, sometimes it was an accident. Even when a mission was aborted half way and the planes turned back a simple error of navigation might cause disaster and end the lives of many young men in an instant.
Lt. Vern L. Moncur was a B-17 Pilot for the 303rd Bombardment Group (H), 359th Bombardment Squadron based at Molesworth, England:
The target was the “Big B.” The weather was so bad that we were forced to climb to 27,000 feet over the North Sea and were unable to get completely out of the clouds and poor visibility. This excessive altitude took a lot of extra gasoline since we had been briefed to go in at 20,000 feet. Therefore, because of the weather and shortage of gasoline, we were unable to get to the target.
We crossed over the Helgoland Islands and got moderately accurate flak. The combat leader decided to turn around and go back to England just after we had crossed over Helgoland. On our turn around in the haze, two Forts collided and exploded in mid-air. It was quite a spectacular sight. The bombs in these two planes went off like a Fourth of July fireworks display. None of the crew had a chance of getting out of either ship because it happened so quickly. Even had they gotten out, they would have been no better off because they were out over the water when the accident took place.
Upon our return to England, we found fairly decent weather for a change. This was a very welcome exception to the rule for English weather. This was the first mission that we had brought the old “Thunderbird” back without a few holes in it. None of the crew was injured. Our bombs, 12 five-hundred pounders, were dropped over the Helgoland Islands.
Luck was with them that day because waiting over Hamburg was Heinz Knoke and his Luftwaffe fighters. The Luftwaffe had suffered serious losses since the beginning of the year. Knoke’s group were down to less than half the usual number of aircraft, only three experienced pilots were left, all the others had joined them since the beginning of the year. The new USAAF long range fighter escorts, accompanying the bombers all the way, were making a huge difference. When they got the chance to hit back on favourable terms they would not miss it:
3rd March, 1944.
The Americans attack Hamburg. Specht cannot fly, and I am in temporary command of the Squadron. Our original forty aircraft have now been reduced to eighteen. These I take into the air.
Over Hamburg I prepare to attack a small formation of Fortresses. My eighteen crates are 5,000 feet above them.
just as I am about to dive, I observe, about 3,000 feet below and to the left, a pack of some sixty Mustangs. They cannot see us, for we happen to be directly between them and the dazzling sun.
This is a magnificent opportunity!
I throttle back to allow the enemy pack to get a little way ahead of us. Wenneckers draws alongside, waving and clasping his hands in delight. For once we are in a position to teach them a real lesson, but I must be careful not to dive too soon. They have not spotted us yet. After them!
In a practically vertical dive we hurtle into the midst of the Yanks, and almost simultaneously we open fire. We take them completely by surprise. In great spirals the Mustangs attempt to get away. Several of them are in flames before they can reach the clouds. One literally disintegrates under fire from my guns. Yells of triumph echo over our radio.
In the evening I receive the report from Division that the wreckage of no fewer than twelve crashed Mustangs had been found in map reference sectors Caesar-Anton-four and -seven.
There is only one drop of sorrow to tinge the general rejoicing. Methuselah has not returned. Several of the pilots saw a Messerschmitt 109 without wings going down. What has become of Methuselah?
24 February 1944: “Big week” – daily USAAF raids on German factoriesThe Group was faced with the decision to follow the lead units of the Air Division to a questionable target and maintain the integrity of the Division formation or to pursue a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous and which would expose the Group formation to even greater enemy attacks. The Group chose the latter, and maintaining perfect formation, valiantly fought its way through the flak defenses to bomb the target with pin-point accuracy, virtually destroying it.
While the Luftwaffe bombers attempted to hit London the combined forces of the RAF and the USAAF were making the reverse trip to Germany. In Operation Argument the USAAF made sustained attacks on the German aircraft factories during the day, at the same time luring the Luftwaffe fighters into combat with the long range escort fighters of the USAAF. At night the RAF hit the same or complementary targets.
The attacks began on the 20th February and became known as “Big Week’, and were largely successful, despite losses of around 7% to the Allies. Hundreds of Luftwaffe fighters were claimed as shot down, leading to intelligence claims that this single week had eliminated them from battle and had achieved air superiority for Operation Overlord, one of the objectives of the operation.
Later evaluations put the figure at 355 fighters shot down and 100 Luftwaffe pilots killed, around 17% of the total. The was a very significant dent in their capability, especially as Luftwaffe losses were largely irreplaceable, whereas the Allied bomber fleets continued to grow.
Col. Myron Keilman was flying deputy lead for the 392nd, on the raid that earned them the Distinguished Unit Citation. On the 24th they targeted the Messerschmitt airplane plant at Gotha:
Our briefing for the attack on Gotha was at 0630 hours. It was our group’s fortieth mission; so we took it all in stride. To most of us it meant another mission to be accomplished against a total of twenty-five – then back home to the safety of the ZI (Zone of Interior). Remember? The intelligence officer briefed on the importance of the big plant to German’s ability to carry on the air war; on the fact that it was heavily defended by big 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery like we faced over Bremen. Keil, and Wilhelmshaven, and we were certain to encounter heavy fighter attacks all across enemy territory – 400 miles in and 400 miles out.
After drawing our escape and evasion kits, donning our heated flying suits, gathering up our oxygen masks, flak helmets, maywests, and parachutes we climbed aboard 2 1/2 ton trucks for a cold ride to our airplanes dispersal pad. It was still very dark as we made our airplane inspection, checking all the engine cowling for loose Dzus fasteners; the turbines of the super-chargers; the propeller blades and pushed them through to release any piston hydraulic lock; the fuel cells for being “topped-off’ and their caps for security; the guns and turrets; ammunition quantity of 500 rounds for each of the ten 50 caliber machine guns; the Sperry bombsight; the twelve 500 pound bombs, their shackles, fuses and safety wires; the oxygen supply and regulators; signal flares; camera; and many other things. Remember?
At 0810 we started engines. At 0815 the lead ship taxied to take-off position. At 0830 the green flare from the control tower signaled “Take Off!” It was breaking dawn.
Lead crew pilot Jim McGregor “revved-up” his engines, checked the instruments, released the brakes and rolled. Thirty-one B-24Hs followed at thirty second intervals.
In the clear at 12,000 feet, the lead ship fired red-yellow identification flares. Flying deputy lead, I pulled into position on his left wing, and the group formed over radio beacon “21” into three squadrons. Then it flew the wing triangular assembly pattern to Kings Lynn.
Leading the 14th Combat Wing, we fell into number two position of the 2nd Air Divisions bomber stream over Great Yarmouth. Heading east over the Channel and climbing to 18,000 feet, our gunners test fired their guns. We penetrated enemy territory just north of Amsterdam. At 235 miles an hour true air speed over the Zider Zee, our streaming vapor trails signaled our presence and our intent. It was a thrilling moment. Onward over Dummer Lake, past our future Osnabruck target, southeast past Hanover’s bombed-out airfields our big formations hurried.
Parallelling our course to the right were the B-17 formations of the 1st Air Division heading for their tough old ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. Over the North Sea, the 3rd Air Division “Forts” were enroute to their Baltic coast targets. P-47 fighters covered us to the vicinity of Hanover, then P-38s and P-51s orbited over us to Gotha. Luftwaffe fighters made attempts to penetrate our formations but “our little friends” kept them at a distance and, when opportunity prevailed, dove in for a “kill”. Using our thick vapor trails as a screen, the Germans often struck from below and from behind to shoot up any lagging bomber.
Bending south eastward toward Gotha, the white, snowy earth looked cold and lifeless; only the large communities, rail lines, and an autobahn stood out in relief. Fighter attacks became more persistent. By the time we reached our initial point (IP) to start our bomb run, the sky about our three squadrons was full of busy P-38s and P-51s fending off the Germans. I remember how they dove past the lead ship in pursuit of Messerschmitts and Folke-Wulfe making head on attacks. Our gunners got in a lot of shooting, too. The staccato of the turrets’ twin fifties vibrated throughout the airplane. It was real scary.
The weather was “clear as a bell” as we turned to the target. Red flares from the lead ship signaled “Bombbay Doors Open”. The bombardier removed the heated cover blanket from the bombsight. (Bombsights had heated blankets before people did. Remember?) He checked his gyroscope’s stabilization, and all bombing switches ON. Our high and low squadrons fell in-trail and all seemed great. Then Piotage Navigator Kennedy in the nose turret observed the lead wing formations veering from the target heading. A fast and anxious cross-check with Lead Crew Navigator Swangren and with a recheck of compass heading and reference points, they assured Command Pilot Lorin Johnson that the target was “dead ahead”. Thirty years later, I don’t know where the 2nd Air Division leader wound up, and I’ve forgotten which group and wing it was, but at that moment the 392nd, leading the 14th Combat Wing, was “on course – on target”. Within minutes Lead Bombardier Good called over the interphone, “I’ve got the target!” Lead Pilot McGregor checked his flight instruments for precise 18,000 feet altitude and 160 miles per hour indicated air speed, and carefully levelled the airplane on auto-pilot. Then he called back: “On airspeed, on altitude. You’ve got the airplane.” Making a final level of his bombsight, Good took over control of steering the airplane with the bombsight.
The bombardier’s target folder didn’t contain a snowy, winter view of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Works. He had to use his keen judgment and trained skills in discerning the briefed aiming point. Only his one eye peering through the bombsight optics could determine where to place the cross-hair. He could and did give a commentary to the command pilot and crew of what he saw and what he was doing in steering the lead airplane and formation of bombers to the bomb release point, but only he – the lead bombardier – “knew for sure” what was viewed through that bombsight.
At 18,000 feet, it was forty (40) degrees below zero, but the bombardier never felt the cold as his fingers delicately operated the azimuth and range controls. He cross-checked all the bomb and camera switches to the ON position, especially the radio bomb release (RBR) signal switch that would release all the bombs of the other airplanes in the formation simultaneously. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
When the flak started bursting near the formation, Lieutenant Good had already attained a synchronized bombing run with the wind drift “killed” and the cross-hair holding steady on the aiming point of the great manufacturing complex. The bombsight indicies crossed and “Bombs away!” Beautiful!
While the camera was recording the impact of the bombs, Lieutenant McGregor took over and swung the formation to the outbound heading and the rally point. In spite of the new accurate flak from the 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery, the second and third squadron bombardiers, Lt. Ziccarrilli and Lt. Jackson, steered their squadrons to the precise bomb delivery points, too. Of thirty-two B-24s that took off that morning, twenty-nine delivered 348 500-pound bomb’ precisely on the Gotha factory as briefed. Outstanding!
The bombs were smack “on target”, but the battle wasn’t over. No sooner had the wing left the target’s flak than we were accosted by German fighters again. Strung out in-trail and with some planes slowed down from flak damage, our three squadrons became vulnerable to vicious attacks. For the next hour and more, Messerschmitt, Folke Wulf and Junker fighters worked us over until our fighters could fend them off.
As deputy command pilot, I frequently changed off flying formation with the airplane commander to keep occupied and not have to watch the Jerries press their blazing gun attacks. The interphone was alive with excited calls of enemy action. Head on passes and tail attacks; in singles and in “gaggles”; rockets, 20mm cannon, and even some cables were thrown at us. Seven of our B-24s were shot down. Many of us were shot up, but it was not all one-sided. The gunners of the twenty-two airplanes that returned accounted for sixteen German fighters. At 1530, seven hours after take-off, the battle weary group landed back at Wendling. Eighth Air Force lost 50 bombers and 10 fighters; 155 German fighters were shot down.
Read the whole of this account on B24.Net, as well as details of the aircraft and losses on the mission. The Gotha raid is considered to be one of the longest single air battles of the war, with sustained attacks being made by the Luftwaffe fighters over a two and a half hour period.
The Presidential Unit Citation for the 392d Bombardment Group:
The 392d Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy on 24 February 1944.
The Group dispatched 32 B-24 type aircraft, the maximum number available, to bomb the most valuable single target in the enemy twin engine fighter complex, the aircraft and component parts factory at Gotha, Germany. Of these, one was forced to turn back shortly after take off. Flying as the lead group of the second Combat Wing in the Division formation, they were attacked by the enemy upon entering the Dutch Coast. In the bitter aerial battle that ensued, the Group was viciously attacked for over two and a half hours by approximately 150 enemy fighters, consisting of FW 190’s, ME 110’s, ME 210’s and JU 88’s, who raked them with cannon and rocket fire and even attempted air to air and cable bombing in a vain effort to disrupt the formation.
As the 392d Bombardment Group neared the Initial Point, the units of the lead Combat Wing were observed to be proceeding on divergent courses. The Group was faced with the decision to follow the lead units of the Air Division to a questionable target and maintain the integrity of the Division formation or to pursue a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous and which would expose the Group formation to even greater enemy attacks. The Group chose the latter, and maintaining perfect formation, valiantly fought its way through the flak defenses to bomb the target with pin-point accuracy, virtually destroying it.
Although seven of their aircraft were lost to the relentless enemy in the battle into and from the target, and an additional thirteen aircraft suffered battle damage, they accounted for the confirmed deatruction of sixteen enemy fighters, the probable destruction of one and the damage of five additional fighters.
The destruction of this high priority target was a serious blow to the GAF and was a contributing factor to its impotency in the invasion of Continental Europe.
The aggressive courage, determination to do their task at all costs, and combat efficiency of the air crews together with the professional skill and devotion to duty of the ground personnel of the 392d Bombardment Group (H) have reflected great credit on themselves and on the armed forces of the United States.
28th December 1943: Disaster on Vicenza ‘milk run’ for a B-24 Liberator crew As Jefferies pulled the red handle to salvo the bombs, I banked the plane to the right and left the formation, at the same time giving the order on interphone to the crew to bail out, and ringing the alarm bell. There was another fire under the co-pilot and one in the nose wheel cornpartnent and the cock pit was fast filling with smoke. The number three engine was smashed and there was another fire in the rear of the ship forward of the ball turret
The 376th Bombardment Group was based at Enfidaville, Tunisia. Their bombing targets were now mostly in Italy and some targets were known to be much less heavily defended than others. So it was for the Vicenza rail yards. It was a ‘milk run’ with relatively little risk compared to other targets, yet contributed to the overall score of combat missions that they needed to complete.
This is the dramatic account of Cliff Wendell who was piloting #65 ‘RED WING’. Their group of 17 bombers was late getting to the rendezvous point and so they didn’t join up with the main force to make the attack. As there was strength in numbers, and mutual support from other aircraft, standing orders were that they should abort the mission and return to base in these circumstances. But they decided to press on, it was a decision that led to a terrifying experience for all and a fatal mistake for some:
The decision was up to Capt. Thompson and Col. Graff in the lead ship, and they decided to attempt to complete the mission unescorted. It is easy enough now to second guess their judgment in this case, but I believe they were influenced by the fact that this was Capt. Thompson’s last mission, and he was naturally anxious to finish up so he could so home, if we had turned back then, we would not have been credited with a mission so he would have had to fly another one some other day, · Also the fact that Vicenza had been an easy target before probably affected the decision. At any rate, we turned north and started flying up the Adriatic.
At this point, a number of the pilots in the formation chose to break the rule of radio silence and started a conversation with the lead ship questioning the wisdom of continuing and suggesting that: we ought to turn back. Of course, this was pure folly, because if the Germans were listening, the fact was being advertised that we were unescorted. The mission continued uneventfully, and we crossed the coast line south of Venice at about 11:30. We were then at about 21,000 feet and slowly climbing to our bombing altitude of 22,500.
We flew inland for about 40 miles and then turned North toward our target, the railroad roundhouse and engine repair shops at Vicenza less than 50 miles away. It was then that fighters were first reported, and we saw a whole swarm of them, like little dots in the sky, climbing up to meet us. It was later reported that there were over one hundred of them against our little handful of 17 bombers. They were all FW 190’s and Mg 109’s, single-engined German air craft armed with 20 mm cannon.
The attack started almost immediately and our ship became the primary target because of our vulnerable position. The group was flying in very close formation for maximum protection, and it was comforting to see all the 50 cal. machineguns on the neighboring ships which would help drive off the attack. I was especially thankful for the nose turret on our squadron’s lead ship, the first time we had had such protection as all our other ships were B-24 D’s which didn’t have nose turrets. Four fighters attacked from the rear and the tail gunner “Red” Sansone was just triumphantly announcing the destruction of the first one when six others turned toward us from the front and attacked at one o’clock in a string formation.
As they went flashing by a hail of bullets passed diagonally across in front of me, and I was afraid for the welfare of the boys in the nose. Charlie Borger, our bombardier, was firing the machine gun in the nose, but it wouldn’t work properly and only discharged one bullet at a time and would not fire continuously.
As the fighters went by they raked us from stem to stern and the noise of the bullets striking the ship was the most fearful sound I had heard in combat. Everything was happening very quickly now. The radioman, Arex Mikaitis, in the upper turret and Jack O’Hara at the right waist gun teamed up to shoot down two of the attackers and “Red” Sansone got another one at the tail for a score of four shot down. But the damage had already been done.
I was intent on flying as close to the lead ship as possible and hoping we had weathered the attack with no casualties, when Don Jefferies, the engineer, clapped me on the shoulder. My first thought was that he had been hit, but as I turned to look I saw him pointing toward the bomb bay. His microphone had become disconnected in the excitement so he could not talk to me but the look in his eye told me what had happened. Through the small window in the bomb bay door I saw a blazing inferno. All our gasoline and oxygen was burning around 8000 lbs. of bombs we had there.
As Jefferies pulled the red handle to salvo the bombs, I banked the plane to the right and left the formation, at the same time giving the order on interphone to the crew to bail out, and ringing the alarm bell. There was another fire under the co-pilot and one in the nose wheel cornpartnent and the cock pit was fast filling with smoke. The number three engine was smashed and there was another fire in the rear of the ship forward of the ball turret.
During the attack Jack O’Hara had been hit and knocked down by shell fragments in the arm, but he had gotten back to his gun in time to help shoot down the fourth plane and then had been sprayed by burning hot oil when #3 engine was hit. Barely able to see, he was assisted to the escape hatch by Angleton and Young, the other two gunners who also had been burned about the face and neck. “Red” Sansone stuck by his guns in the tail turret until he had shot down his second ship, and then looking around he saw the others had bailed out so he grabbed his parachute and quickly left the ship.
Bill Lovaas, the navigator, and Charlie Borger, the bombardier up in the nose had survived the attack unscathed. Upon hearing the order to bail out, Bill pulled the two handles to open the nose wheel doors, but nothing happened. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism, probably having been hit by a shell. Bill went back to get his oxygen mask on again and Charlie came out to the nose wheel compartment. When Bill returned he found that Charlie had succeeded in opening one of the doors and had apparently slipped into the opening and was stuck there, effectively locking the other door shut.
He was hanging with his head, arms, and feet out in the slip stream and struggling to free himself. Bill tried to pull him back in, and tried to push him on through, but was unable to budge him. Charlie soon ceased his struggling as he became unconscious through lack of oxygen and Bill followed suit shortly after when the oxygen in his walk around bottle gave out. Later they were both thrown free as the ship broke up. Bill woke up hanging in his parachute, which had miraculously opened, and found himself about 2000 feet above the ground. Charlie never regained consciousness and fell to the ground.
… Cliff Wendell found himself trying to keep the aircraft under control to let the other men escape, then when he went to leave the aircraft himself, was pinned to the windshield as the aircraft went into a spin…
All of a sudden the ship must have broken apart because I was thrown away from the window and was standing between the pilot’s and co-pilot’s seats, I was completely disoriented and didn’t know whether I was standing on the ceiling or the floor. There was so much smoke I couldn’t get located and was unable to find the escape hatch which evidently slammed shut when the plane went into the spin.
However, I spotted a small patch of daylight which seemed to revolve in front of me, As soon as it seemed below me I took a dive for it. This hole must have been back of the bomb bay somewhere and seemed about 20 feet away. The force of my dive carried me through all the broken and twisted wires until my arms and head were through the hole when the wires caught on my flying suit and held my legs inside the ship. Once again I thought I must be too close to the ground to escape now and I thought the force of the spin would tear me apart in the middle but after about one revolution my clothes ripped and I was thrown clear.
26th December 1943: The Scharnhorst is sunk at Battle of North CapeWe were thus able to watch as Duke of York came up, reducing speed and at 1901 fired a broadside at an easy target. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At five miles, the trajectory was comparatively flat and the 14 inch ‘tracer’ shells leaped across the sea and all of them appeared to smash into her in a colossal explosion. Some of them may have gone over and hit the sea some miles further on, but they were not visible.
Hitler had become disillusioned by his navy. Before the war the Kriegsmarine had had ambitious plans for a surface fleet with impressive capital ships. The building programme had produced the Bismarck, the Tirpitz and a number of smaller ‘pocket’ battleships. The Germans had a powerful ships – yet not so overwhelming a force that they could not be contained by the Royal Navy.
And the only real use Hitler had for his warships was as surface raiders that could sink merchant shipping. The demise of the Bismarck had demonstrated how hopeless they were in this role – the German ships were so big and such a threat that they were closely monitored by the Royal Navy, who would put to sea in force to sink them whenever they ventured out.
And so it happened again. Goaded by Hitlers latest rage about the uselessness of his navy the ‘pocket’ battleship the Scharnhorst had been sent out to do her worst. On Christmas Day 1943, the Scharnhorst and several destroyers sailed out from Norway to attack Russia bound Arctic convoys.
By this time the British were easily reading German radio traffic so no such attack could be a surprise. In fact the Royal Navy were actively awaiting it and had two strong forces ready to attack, one sailing from Murmansk and the other from Scapa Flow in Scotland, including the battleship HMS Duke of York – ‘the Duke’. Ever since the sinking of HMS Glorious in 1940 they had a score to settle. There had also been the embarrassing debacle of the ‘Channel Dash’ in 1942.
It was going to need the combined firepower of several ships to sink the Scharnhorst, a battle that was fought amidst snow storms in the freezing seas north of Norway, played out in the twilight world of a Boxing Day afternoon.
Ernest Reeds was on board the heavy cruiser HMS Belfast:
14:00 a message was received from the Duke which read “We are closing in on the Scharnhorst and our combined speed is 53 knots and are expecting to open fire in an hours time”.
14:27 We sighted “Scharnhorst” on the horizon and opened up with Starshell followed by 6” tracer. We fired 203 rounds of 6” and salvos from Scharnhorst fell just astern. Again she altered course and this time she almost got away. She would have done had not the Destroyers gone in and attacked with torpedo’s – 3 of which scored direct hits. In the attack the Destroyers were travelling at 38 knots. That slowed the Scharnhorst down to 24 knots and gave the “Duke” and “Jamaica” a chance to close in on her.
18:15 “Scharnhorst” is now 15 miles ahead and the “Duke” and “Jamaica” are to our Starboard.
18:50 We opened fire again with Starshell and 6” firing to the port side. Our speed is over 32 knots and waves are breaking over continuous still making it hell but no-one takes much notice of it.
19:00 “Scharnhorst” is in sight and the Duke and her have started firing main armament.
19:05 “Scharnhorst” on our starboard beam and we fire again at a very long range.
19:10 Speed is now 34 knots.
19:14 “Scharnhorst” fires at us and her shells fall just ahead. We cant fire back as the range is too great for us.
19:16 “Duke of York” and “Scharnhorst” start firing at each other and Starshell lights them both up in the distance.
19:35 We are steering S.E. with the “Scharnhorst” on our Port bow and the “Duke” 10 miles ahead. The three cruisers are in line ahead astern of the battleships.
19:50 Course 140°. The “Duke” is between the “Scharnhorst” and her base and we are covering her from the North. She hasn’t much hopes. Our speed has been reduced to 31 knots and the “Sheffield” has dropped back owing to trouble with her propeller shaft.
20:00 “Scharnhorst” has decreased speed to 21 knots.
20:05 “Scharnhorst” is going ahead of the “Duke” at a distance of 13 miles and they are still exchanging salvos with occasional Starshell for illumination.
20:25 We have gained the speed of 34 knots on a course 060°.
20:45 Position still the same and the 2 battleships are still firing but it is probably blind as it is now total darkness. “Scharnhorst” has altered course to the East.
20:50 “Scharnhorst” is firing close range as the Destroyers have gone in again to attack. One of the destroyers got hit and received damage and 20 men killed.
20:59 “Duke of York” ceases fire because the Destroyers are in – “Scharnhorst” is on our Starboard beam.
21:05 Our speed has dropped to 31 knots.
21:06 “Duke of York” firing again and gives orders to “Jamaica” to go in and attack with torpedoes
21:10 Duke of York ceases fire.
21:15 “Scharnhorst” is on fire and is almost at a standstill. “Jamaica” fired 3 torpedo’s at her but were all misses.
21:20 The Admiral has volunteered to go in and torpedo the Scharnhorst and the C in C says alright. She is well on fire but still firing hard. Our own speed is 28.5.
21:30 Fired 3 torpedo’s out of Starboard tubes and scored hits with two of them. They are still fighting but they have dropped back to her 6” and 4”.
21:40 Scharnhorst ceases firing and is going down by the stern.
21:43 Scharnhorst at a standstill.
21:48 The C in C signals to say that it was the “Belfast” that fired the fatal torpedo that sent her to the bottom. On the news they said it was the “Norfolk” that did.
21:50 “Scharnhorst” has just gone down. Strong smell of burning oil and a great cloud of smoke.
21:52 We fire Starshell to see if there is any wreckage that wants sinking. We turn our searchlights on so the Destroyers can pick up survivors. There are only 50 survivors out of 1600 crew. The Captain was climbing up a scrambling net and fell back into the sea and drowned. He was injured in the face. The “Scharnhorst” put up a wonderful fight.
Lieutenant A.G.F. Ditcham was on one the destroyers, HMS Scorpion, that disabled Scharnhorst. His memoir reconstructs the whole battle and describes how the Scharnhorst was caught between two intersecting sets of torpedoes fired by the Destroyers. They were then able to watch the end of the battle:
We described a circle and followed Scharnhorst at about 3 miles, going much slower now. We were thus able to watch as Duke of York came up, reducing speed and at 1901 fired a broadside at an easy target. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At five miles, the trajectory was comparatively flat and the 14 inch ‘tracer’ shells leaped across the sea and all of them appeared to smash into her in a colossal explosion. Some of them may have gone over and hit the sea some miles further on, but they were not visible.
She continued to dish out this punishment in a series of broadsides and Scharnhorst became a burning shambles.
One of the 36 survivors (out of 1980) was the messenger to the Gunnery Officer at the top of the superstructure. He told me that when the shells hit, the order was broadcast:
‘Damage control parties to such & such position’.
The men would dutifully appear, more shells would arrive and ‘bits of them’ would go up past him in the gunnery tower.
20th December 1943: Damaged B-17 spared by German Me-109 pilotThe German pilot nodded but Pinky and I were in a state of shock and did not return the greeting. Although the German pilot appeared relaxed, I was most uncomfortable and felt that at any time he would unleash some type of new German weapon to destroy us and our aircraft. Somehow, all of the briefings and combat training sessions had omitted to inform us as to the proper protocol or reaction when a German ghter pilot wanted to fly close formation with us.
On the 20th December the USAAF went back to Bremen to hit another Focke Wulfe plant. The campaign against German aircraft factories was gaining ground. It had to be successful if the Allies were to achieve air superiority prior to the opening of the Second Front – Overlord was now only months away.
The air battles that developed as the bombers travelled to and from the target were equally part of the campaign – not only was the attack aimed at destroying fighter planes – it was also aimed at the German fighter pilots. During the next few months their ranks would be decimated as the 8th Air Force took the fight to them with aggressive new tactics from their escorting fighters.
The fighter pilots and the bomber crews were mortal enemies. So one incident that took place on the 20th has been singled out for special attention, an extraordinary exception to the cruelties of combat.
B-17F ‘Ye Olde Pub’ from 379th Bomber group was damaged by flak going into the target and then drew the attention of the Luftwaffe fighters as a weakened aircraft. There were as many as fifteen fighters trying to get into position with it at one stage. This is part of the account given by Charles A. Brown, the pilot:
At some point during our continuous twisting, turning, climbing and diving manoeuvres, the attacks finally ended and the fighter escort of P-47s reappeared. We had not seen friendly fighters since just prior to bomb release. During a few minutes of normal flight, I attempted to ascertain the casualties and full damage to the aircraft.
Somewhat later, as I looked out the right window, there, flying very close formation with his wingtip only about three feet from our wingtip, was an Me 109. For a moment I thought that I had lost my mind and if I briefly closed my eyes it would disappear. I tried – he was still there. I later pointed him out to Pinky who had returned from the rear.
The German pilot nodded but Pinky and I were in a state of shock and did not return the greeting. Although the German pilot appeared relaxed, I was most uncomfortable and felt that at any time he would unleash some type of new German weapon to destroy us and our aircraft. Somehow, all of the briefings and combat training sessions had omitted to inform us as to the proper protocol or reaction when a German fighter pilot wanted to fly close formation with us.
I finally surmised that he was probably out of ammunition, but I was amazed at his curiosity and daring in flying that close to even a badly crippled enemy bomber.
At that point, only a single gun in the top turret was functioning out of the original eleven guns on the B-17F, with the other weapons in the ‘guns down’ or inoperable condition. I was also able to get Frenchy to return to the cockpit and join Pinky and myself in observing the audacious German pilot.
Now we had three wide-eyed American airmen in the cockpit plus Blackie in the ball turret going eyeball to eyeball with one German pilot.
(Blackie adds: ‘He was closing in at a very slow rate from the low rear. Finally, he came up on our wing, so close that his wing actually overlapped ours. I kept my dead guns trained on him. We looked directly at each other. He was also looking inside the plane. The pilot motioned with his right hand as if to say, “I salute you. I gave you my best and you survived.”
With that he went into a dive down to his right and disappeared. There was something different about this fighter. First of all it was quite dark in colour. There was also quite a large round bulge just to the left and in front of the cockpit area, (which about a month later intelligence personnel at the 379th identied as a new supercharger installation).’
After a few more seconds, my nerves could stand it no longer and I asked Frenchy to get back to his turret and point his guns at the German pilot. When the fighter pilot saw the engineer’s head appear in the top turret, he saluted, rolled over, and was gone. An abrupt end to one of the briefest, but most unusual encounters in the short history of the heavy bombardment as a major weapon of war.
An assessment of casualties indicated that Eckenrode was dead, Yelesanko was in a critical condition with a major leg wound (which later required amputation), Blackie was unable to walk because of frozen feet, and Pechout could not use his hands. The decision had to be made as to the possibility of trying to limp back to England or bale out.
A crash-landing was never seriously considered since we were under strict instructions that if a crash-landing became necessary as a last resort, we were to destroy the aircraft and activate the explosive charge in the SECRET Norden bombsight. Since it appeared that in addition to Eckenrode, three more of the crew would not survive a parachute jump into northern Germany in the winter, and possibly all of us would perish in a crash-landing, I decided I would fly back over land to let any of the crew bale out who wished to do so, and I would then try and fly the aircraft back to England.
The whole of Charles A. Brown’s account of the mission and how they got back to England can be found in Martin W. Bowman (ed) Raiders Of The Reich .
The incident has subsequently attracted considerable attention. It was not until 2001 that the two pilots finally met and a little more was learnt about what happened. The full story was finally told in the bestseller A Higher Call: