US bombers prepare the ground for Operation Cobra


24 July 1944: US heavy bombers prepare the ground for Operation Cobra

It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.

RAF Molesworth (USAAF Station 107), Cambridgeshire, was the home of the 303rd BG from late 1942 until after VE Day in May 1945.
RAF Molesworth (USAAF Station 107), Cambridgeshire, was the home of the 303rd BG from late 1942 until after VE Day in May 1945.
B-17 Flying fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.
B-17 Flying fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.

After many delays, mainly caused by inclement weather which restricted flying, the Allies were now poised for a breakout in Normandy. The British in the east continued to engage the bulk of the Panzers, while the Germans were making every effort to transfer some across to face the Americans, where they anticipated new problems.

Now Omar Bradley decided that he needed the extra support of the heavy bombers to blast apart the German lines facing his sector. He flew to England to confer with the Allied Air commanders over their direct intervention on the battlefield. A plan was developed for 1,500 heavy bombers and 350 medium bombers, supported by 350 fighter bombers to pulverise 5 square miles of countryside.

However the weather continued to conspire against the Allies, when the attack was launched prematurely on the 24th.

This is the account of German medical sergeant Walter Klein:

On the morning of 24 July 1944, I just came back from the dressing station to the position when we were attacked by artillery. Our anti-aircraft platoon had two dead, three severely wounded.

My own company, the heavy company of Kampfgruppe Heintz, lost only one man. With the help of two stretcher-bearers and the medical unit of the neighbouring company, we went back to the dressing station, to bring the wounded there. We arrived there at about 0900 hours.

At 0915 hours there was such strong air activity over the combat line that we had to take the St Lo — Vire road to get back from the dressing station to the position. We had the prescribed insignia, and knew that the American aviators would not fire on us.

Over the sector held by my company were approximately 18 to 25 Lightnings, which were firing systematically on every hedge. Our position was situated in a wooded sector. We left the road to reach the position and took a sunken road. It was 1100 hours. According to orders I had to report back to the company command post, but on the sunken road I found five wounded parachute gunners of the 5th Para Division, injured by a splinter bomb.

What happened during the following hours was terrific. By our calculation, 1,000 to 1,200 bombers took part in the attack The effect was devastating; all our anti-aircraft guns and artillery were destroyed. Tanks that tried to get away were destroyed by pursuit planes.

When a wave of planes had passed, one could hear the crying of the wounded and shouting for help of medical personnel. I had just the time to carry one of my comrades, who had been wounded badly in the thigh, into the dugout when a second wave started bombing.

It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.

At 1930 I brought the last wounded to the dressing station. The unit had moved to another position. The general opinion of my comrades and even the officers was that, if the enemy made another attack, it would be our end. Only one heavy weapon was left and it only had six rounds of ammunition. Of our heavy trench mortars only two were left.

The St Lo front had suffered very much from this attack. Worse than the loss of weapons was the effect that the attack had made on our morale.

On 25 July, the Americans started to make the breakthrough. At daybreak, as on the day before, innumerable pursuit planes and artillery-spotting planes were over the battleeld. Almost every rifle pit was shelled. At 1400 hours, when I accompanied some wounded to the dressing station, I found that American tanks were already driving along the St Lo — Vire road.

B-17 bombers encounter heavy flak over the target area during a mission to Germany.
B-17 bombers encounter heavy flak over the target area during a mission to Germany.

This account appears in Nigel Cawthorne: Reaping the Whirlwind

However if things were bad for the Germans they were also bad for the American 30th Division, who were on the receiving end of a good proportion of bombs that fell short. John Adams was one of the men in the trenches who narrowly escaped:

the attack was scheduled for July 24, 1944. However that morning dawned with overcast skies so the attack was postponed until July 25, 1944. Several squadrons of heavy bombers which had already left their bases in England did not get the word. We were expecting our planes to come in on a parallel course to the road and we had marked our front with reflective panel. Every allied vehicle had been repainted with a large white star which should be visible even at a high altitude. We were told the bombers would not bomb within 250 yards of the road. That’s not the way it happened!

I remember it as clear as things I did yesterday. I heard the sounds of the planes coming and was out of my hole cheering them on. Two things were wrong – one, they were not the fighter bombers we were told would come first; second, they were coming in on a perpendicular course which meant they would fly right over us. Some one called for us to get in our holes that bombs were being released. 300 heavy bombers dropped seven hundred tons of explosives with one salvo falling in the area I was in. Its hard to describe the noise and how we felt. The first blast pitched me around in my hole. I blacked out with the next blast.

When I came to it was all over, a medic was wiping blood off my face. he said it was hard to tell whether the blood was just from my nose or a trickle from my eyes or ears. he was marking me for transportation to the Hospital but I told him the attack was called off and I needed to account for my men and I could go later. The was, as it ended up I was still there to take what was left of the 3rd platoon into the attack the next day.

The 120th Infantry – my regiment had had 25 men killed, 131 wounded and thousands of men shaken up. I was one of those badly shook up but still going. I can’t remember anything until the morning of July 25. My guess is that I was exhausted and went to sleep.

See DonChesnut for John Adams’ full account, written in a letter to his grandson.

The devastating bomb load is released.
The devastating bomb load is released.

Attacks on French airfields are stepped up


7 May 1944: Attacks on French airfields are stepped up

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

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.

Bombing – Berliners ‘prepared to see it through’


1 May 1944: Bombing – Berliners ‘prepared to see it through’

Special rations and fear help things along, there’s grumbling here and there, but on the whole people carry on with self-confident Berlin wit and cockiness. No one is expecting imminent defeat; some say the war will last another two years, others, that the decisive German “retribution” is at hand. (For months there was official talk of “retribution,” then the public scoffed at it, then nothing more was heard of it. And now it pops up again in this account.)

B17 over Berlin
B-17 Flying Fortresses of the U.S. Eighth Air Force pass through a flak-filled sky on a raid over Berlin, 6 March 1944.
A Berlin rescue squad plans the excavation of eighteen people believed trapped in a cellar following an air raid, May 1944.
A Berlin rescue squad plans the excavation of eighteen people believed trapped in a cellar following an air raid, May 1944.

Berlin had been under bombing attack for six months now. First with the RAF taking advantage of the long winter nights, then with the US 8th Air Force taking up the assault. At first the German Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, had been shaken by the scale of the destruction. He kept his thoughts to himself and masterminded a propaganda campaign that sought to bolster morale and presented a confident face to the world.

It now looked like he had succeeded. Even if Germans resented the Nazi regime they would have been unwise even to share their thoughts with others, much less actively seek to oppose it. Those amongst the Allies who believed that striking at the very ‘heart of the Reich’ would undermine morale and eventually lead to revolt had been proved wrong.

In Dresden, so far to east it had not yet been bombed, former linguistics professor Victor Klemperer studied the language of the totalitarian regime. As a Jew married to an Aryan he had so far managed to avoid the worst of the persecutions. The list of his friends and neighbours lost in concentration camps was growing ever longer. He was therefore surprised to learn of the actual conditions in Berlin:

May 1, Monday, half past one

This morning, while I was tutoring Bernhard Stuhler, Steinitz appeared and introduced his (half-Aryan) niece, who had come from Berlin for the weekend. A young, robust, somewhat proletarian, very blond and German—looking, lipstick-wearing girl; her lively character rather likeable. What she reported from Berlin shook me, because it confirmed what Goebbels repeatedly emphasizes.

The Berliners are quite used to the raids – on Saturday, while we were sitting in the cellar at Mobius, they had another heavy one. Serious destruction on every street, loss of life everywhere, but in general the people’s mood is good, humorous, prepared to see it through.

Special rations and fear help things along, there’s grumbling here and there, but on the whole people carry on with self-confident Berlin wit and cockiness. No one is expecting imminent defeat; some say the war will last another two years, others, that the decisive German “retribution” is at hand. (For months there was official talk of “retribution,” then the public scoffed at it, then nothing more was heard of it. And now it pops up again in this account.)

The girl works in some Berlin factory, so hears this and that. Therefore the regime has no need to fear internal collapse or revolt. And on this point Goebbels is undoubtedly correct: As a means of bringing pressure to bear on morale the air offensive is a failure.

The Stuhlers say: It is impossible to judge morale today. All have had enough, and everyone trembles and dissimulates. This time nothing will come from inside Germany.

The Steinitz niece also related something very like what Eisenmann said on his return from the hospital. In Berlin there are no Jewish stars to be seen. The Gestapo acquiesces, or at least closes both eyes. The star is not worn or is covered. (As Eisenmann traveled through Berlin on the tram, his briefcase pressed to his chest.)

If the Gestapo is forced to take action because of a denunciation, then the person denounced gets a warning the first time, after that a fine… Here, on the other hand, concealing the star inevitably leads to death by way of concentration camp.

See To The Bitter End: The Diaries of Victor Klemperer 1942-45.

A target indicator (left centre) descends over the Schoneberg district of Berlin, during a night raid by 27 De Havilland Mosquitos of the Late Night Striking Force.
A target indicator (left centre) descends over the Schoneberg district of Berlin, during a night raid by 27 De Havilland Mosquitos of the Late Night Striking Force.
Armourers prepare to load 500-lb MC bombs into De Havilland Mosquito
Armourers prepare to load 500-lb MC bombs into De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV, DZ483 ‘GB-R’, of No. 105 Squadron RAF at Marham, Norfolk, in preparation for a night raid on Berlin, Germany by aircraft of No. 2 Group. Two weeks later, DZ483 crashed at Marham while attempting to land on one engine, on returning from the low-level raid on Jena. Its crew, Flying Officer A J Rae and Flying Officer K S Bush, were both killed.

Heavy civilian casualties as the Allies bomb Paris


21 April 1944: Heavy civilian casualties as the Allies bomb Paris

Thus, I woke up at 5am and boarded the first Métro carriage which stopped at Jules Joffrin station. From there I reached, running more or less, the warehouse. Everything was burning. The Porte de La Chapelle was particularly knocked down. All the houses have collapsed on the ground. A bomb exploded over the Métro which is in shambles. From the Porte de La Chapelle to our warehouse [ca. 1 km], everything was flames and devastation. The bombing was very dense.

From a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 8th AAF Bomber Command on 31 December when they attacked the vital CAM ball- bearing plant and the nearby Hispano Suiza aircraft engine repair depot in Paris, France, 1943.
From a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 8th AAF Bomber Command on 31 December when they attacked the vital CAM ball- bearing plant and the nearby Hispano Suiza aircraft engine repair depot in Paris, France, 1943.
Damage to La Chapelle area, Paris, April 1944.
Damage to La Chapelle area, Paris, April 1944.

As Operation Overlord approached there was intense debate within the senior Allied commanders about one aspect of the plan. Churchill’s scientific adviser Solly Zuckerman had devised the ‘Transportation Plan’ – the planned disruption of all rail traffic leading into northern France. The planned called for the diversion of the heavy bomber fleets of the RAF and the USAAF away from targets in Germany to hit railway targets in France.

The head of RAF Bomber Command Arthur Harris, and the head of the new US Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Carl Spaatz opposed the plan. They did not want to be diverted from their bombing of Germany, nor did they think the heavy bombers were suitable for hitting railway targets and would cause too many civilian casualties. The argument went round Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and went up to Churchill. Eventually the plan went ahead with careful monitoring of French casualties. Some of the earlier raids in March had been very accurate. Arguably, it was only a matter of time before a raid on a railway centre in a densely populated area would cause heavy ‘collateral damage’.

On the 21st April the La Chapelle marshalling yards in Paris were hit. 641 people were killed and 377 wounded, as bad a casualty rate as any during they London Blitz and worse than the number killed during the 1940 Coventry bombing.

Here are some details about the catastrophy. First, a night of utmost uproar. During 2 hours and 15 minutes, a mind-boggling racket. Everything was shaking in the apartment [located in the 7th arrondissement in the very heart of Paris]. At last I went down the stairs and tried to cheer up this excellent Mrs Dantin [the famously bad-tempered doorkeeper, an awful drunkard old lady] who was stricken with panic. The night sky was lighted with flares and fires, and you could see as in broad daylight. I called our warehouse right away, but there was no dial tone. I immediately thought of the worst.

Thus, I woke up at 5am and boarded the first Métro carriage which stopped at Jules Joffrin station. From there I reached, running more or less, the warehouse. Everything was burning. The Porte de La Chapelle was particularly knocked down. All the houses have collapsed on the ground. A bomb exploded over the Métro which is in shambles. From the Porte de La Chapelle to our warehouse [ca. 1 km], everything was flames and devastation. The bombing was very dense. Our warehouse offered a pitiful outlook. I immediately went to the basement where I knew several of our workers had sought refuge. It was intact, which immediately reassured me (…)

And voila. Here, air raid sirens after sirens, bombings after bombings. It’s non-stop! Again this morning, you could see the flying fortresses quite distinctly in the sky. I’m glad that you are over there in the peace and quiet of the province. Life here is becoming really difficult. Lots of people are leaving Paris. Several districts (the 14th arrondissement, the 18th arrondissement, the Plaine St Denis, etc.) were evacuated. In the Plaine St Denis, there were this morning 416 coffins. Several corpses still remain under the rubbles. An entire family, not far from our warehouse, met their end: father, mother, 6 children! Time bombs are still exploding. Fires are thanks God over. (…)

This account was quoted on this forum. There is an analysis of the raid at FranceCrashes.

Contemporary French film of damage caused by the raid.

Through various channels the French protested to London. The argument about the use of heavy bombers, and whether it was necessary to support Overlord continued. In May Roosevelt intervened to support the necessity of SHAEF’s objectives and the planned bombing programme went ahead under Eisenhower’s authority. Eventually the Allies dropped more bombs on France than the Luftwaffe dropped on Britain. See Richard Overy: The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. Some argued that the French resistance was better placed to attack railway targets accurately – yet that route did not avoid terrible retribution against the local population.

The Métro repair shops in St Ouen were also destroyed during the same Allied bombing raid:
The Métro repair shops in St Ouen were also destroyed during the same Allied bombing raid:

The bombing of Semlin Judenlager


17 April 1944: The bombing of Semlin Judenlager

Besides the dead, there were several hundred wounded, so the surviving pavilions were turned into hospitals. There were no beds, and certainly no bandages or surgical equipment, although we did have several doctors and surgeons among the interns

Semlin camp was based in Pavilions used for a pre war Trade Fair and was a short distance from central Belgrade.
Semlin camp was based in Pavilions used for a pre war Trade Fair and was a short distance from central Belgrade.
The post raid evaluation of bomb strikes with the target area marked in white and the area of Semlin subsequently make in red.
The post raid evaluation of bomb strikes with the target area marked in white and the area of Semlin subsequently marked in red.

After the war there were many arguments that the Allies could have done more to bomb the Nazi death camps. It was argued that it should have been possible to breach the perimeter wires and enable inmates to escape, or to blow up the crematoria, putting a halt to the killings. Although the Allies had a lot of evidence of the Nazi programme to kill Jews, and others, by 1944, there was no strategic plan to save people, either by bombing or other means. It was argued that the best course of action to help the Jews was to seek to bring the war to a close as soon as possible.

There would have been many difficulties in accurately bombing the camps. Although many claims were made for the “precision bombing” at the time all the evidence shows that this was very difficult to achieve, and impossible to achieve consistently.

There is one example of what could have happened had the Allies chosen to to bomb the concentration camps. Semlin (Sajmište in Serbian) Judenlager was established by the Germans in Serbia in 1941 and first used for the killing women and children using gas vans in the spring of 1942. Thereafter it was used to detain political prisoners and anyone else caught up in the Nazi persecution in Serbia, where it was the largest camp.

The USAAF bombed Belgrade on 17th April 1944, Semlin was not part of the area targeted but it was hit. Bombs hit the camp and the perimeter fence, enabling some inmates to attempt to escape. The outcome was not what the inmates would have sought. This is the account of Dr Dragomir Stevanović:

On the second day of Easter, we found ourselves in what felt like the middle of Mount Etna, or a scorching geyser. Above and below us everything shuddered, flared, and burned, while we suffocated in clouds of dust and smoke. I lived through the [German] bombing of April 1941, but it was never like this. The square [in the middle of the camp] was covered with corpses and torn bodies, and the sand was saturated with fresh and coagulated blood: a real carnage! We lost around 190 people.

Besides the dead, there were several hundred wounded, so the surviving pavilions were turned into hospitals. There were no beds, and certainly no bandages or surgical equipment, although we did have several doctors and surgeons among the interns …

[…] During the bombing, the fence was damaged and a number of concrete poles that were holding it in place were dislodged. Several groups of interns tried to escape. However, because of the bareness of the terrain leading towards the River Sava and to Zemun, they were all mowed down by gunfire. Their bodies were brought back to the camp. We never found out how many died.

Read more about Semlin Judenlager

One of the Pavilions that was hit by the bombing and subsequently demolished.
One of the Pavilions that was hit by the bombing and subsequently demolished.

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


13 April 1944: A day in the life of a 8th Air Force radio operator

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.

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.

Easter – a ‘macabre idyll’ in a ‘grotesque’ Berlin


11 April 44: Easter – a ‘macabre idyll’ in a ‘grotesque’ Berlin

Children play on the lake, although they are forbidden to do so, and have made themselves rafts out of charred planks. A child was almost drowned the other day and was only saved at the last minute by an attaché from the Swiss legation. Flowers grow in the rubble, rank and yellow, but the air is clean and the weeds are green and fish have already settled down in the lake. It is a kind of macabre idyll.

A bomb crater in front of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, January 1944.
A bomb crater in front of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, January 1944.
Listening devices are used to try discover buried victims of bombing, Berlin 1944.
Listening devices are used to try discover buried victims of bombing, Berlin 1944.

In Berlin there were plenty of people who could see which way the war was going. Yet sharing those thoughts with anyone who could not be completely trusted was very dangerous. The suspicious and vengeful Nazi machine would grow ever more paranoid in the last year of the war.

RAF Bomber Command had finished the sustained campaign of heavy bombing of Berlin that had lasted most of the winter, although few in the city could yet guess that the heavy bombing was over. For the remainder of the war the threat of bombing remained – there were constant reminders as the RAF regularly sent Mosquito bombers on minor raids to set off the alarms and maintain the tension.

Ursula von Kardorff, a young journalist working in the city, was particularly well informed about the war situation. Yet she just needed to look around her to reflect on the reality of the war:

Easter in this grotesque city! I sat in brilliant sunshine in the most extraordinary place imaginable, just behind the Reichstag. Before the war they cleared a great open space on which they were going to build Party offices of one kind and another.

Then with the bombing a lake, many feet deep, appeared in a landscape which looks like something from Hieronymus Bosch, flanked by the ruins of the former War Office, whose cellars are now occupied by the police, and by the wrecked houses of the diplomatic quarter, of which only the Swiss Consulate is still standing.

Children play on the lake, although they are forbidden to do so, and have made themselves rafts out of charred planks. A child was almost drowned the other day and was only saved at the last minute by an attaché from the Swiss legation. Flowers grow in the rubble, rank and yellow, but the air is clean and the weeds are green and fish have already settled down in the lake. It is a kind of macabre idyll.

The space in front of the gutted Reichstag is littered with the burned-out wrecks of cars. Practical jokers have propped up the heads of the smashed statues on piles of stones. What with the ruins of the Kroll Opera and the rusty skeletons of the cars, Salvador Dali could sit here and draw from life.

I have been spending the last few evenings with actors and actresses, almost all of them bombed out, who have moved into hotels near the theatre district. As we sat in the Adlon and waited for the warning we passed the time by playing a game called ‘Hollywood’ – a sort of charades. A few people from the Foreign Office joined in. Aribert Wéischer was marvellous as a sphinx, Paul Hartmann was Venus, in furs, and Wilfried Seyffert played an Ancestress. The two Ambessers were quite tireless. There was an unpleasant moment when Minister Clodius pretended to be the Virgin Mary, which everybody guessed at once. I was not the only one to be shocked.

The raids have let up, for the moment, but a wave of new arrests has set in. All the guests at a tea-party given by Fraulein von Thadden were denounced by an informer, including Lagi Solf, her mother and many more.

12th April

I almost wept yesterdaywhen I read that fifty of our best photographers have been commissioned to take pictures of the works of art and buildings, the churches and castles which still survive in Germany. One day those photographs will be the only evidence that these lost treasures ever existed.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

Charred corpses are removed from the cellars of bombed out buildings in Berlin. 8th April 1944
Charred corpses are removed from the cellars of bombed out buildings in Berlin. 8th April 1944
After the radio again reports approaching aircraft people make for the air raid shelters. April, 1944.
After the radio again reports approaching aircraft people make for the air raid shelters. April, 1944.

USAAF return to bomb the oil refinery at Ploesti


5 April 1944: USAAF return to bomb the oil refinery at Ploesti

One hour and ten minutes before target time 2 FW 190’s were seen flying in from the south and they stayed with our formation until the first attack was made acting as observers and, without doubt, radioing information as to strength and heading to attacking units. The first attack come 25 minutes from the target by 10/12 ME 109’s who, using cloud cover, made a surprise attack from 12 o’clock high.

Consolidated B-24s on the Ploesti oil refinery bombing mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Consolidated B-24s on the Ploesti oil refinery bombing mission. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A main strategic aim of the Allied Airforces was to cut the German fuel supplies. The oil refineries at Ploesti in Rumania supplied around a third of German needs at this time and were an obvious target. They had been hit in August 1943, when the attacking force encountered strong antiaircraft defences, with many bombers shot down. That trip was a long haul from North Africa.

Now that the Allies were in Italy a sustained ‘Ploesti campaign’ was launched, this would continue with intermittent raids through till August. It was entirely predictable that the defences would have been strengthened even further by now and the Germans moved quickly to counteract the new interest in the target. Their most effective tactic was concealment – soon smoke pots were brought in that could quickly cover the oil refineries and associated marshalling yards with dense smoke. In turn the USAAF were to deploy ground radar from their bombers for the first time.

This was regarded as such a hazardous trip that it counted as a ‘double mission’ for those taking part:

On 5 April 1944, the target was the M/Y and Oil Refineries at Ploesti, Roumania, The main purpose of this raid was to knock out the transportation system so badly needed fuel could not reach the German line to the east; and they did just that. They had a nice bomb run and the bomb pattern covered the adjacent oil refinery doing great damage and starting huge fires.

One hour and ten minutes before target time 2 FW 190’s were seen flying in from the south and they stayed with our formation until the first attack was made acting as observers and, without doubt, radioing information as to strength and heading to attacking units. The first attack come 25 minutes from the target by 10/12 ME 109’s who, using cloud cover, made a surprise attack from 12 o’clock high. These A/C dived through the first attack unit and came up under the second attack unit. Three of the group A/C were shot out of formation with the first pass. Lt. Lael, pilot from our squadron, was on of the three.

The attack was coordinated and the fighters came through in two’s, three’s and four’s. They would rally to the rear, make a side pass, gain altitude and then use the same tactics again. Nearer to the target, enemy resistance increased and 50/60 ME 109’s and FW 190’s, 10 ME 110’s and 10/15 JU 88’s were seen. Attacks were made from all angles singly and by pairs closing to within 50 yards before either pulling up or diving under.

Coordinated attacks came from 6 o’clock low in formation of six flying two abreast, closing to 50/100 yards and breaking away on either side in a diving turn followed by a split S and then raking the under side of the attacked A/C. No break off in intensity was noted over the target and enemy fighters flew through to harass our formation. JU 88’s stood off at 600/800 yards and fired rockets apparently directing the fire at the lead ships in each attack unit.

All attacks were broken off 15 minutes past the target. Our squadron lost one aircraft and were credited with ten enemy aircraft destroyed.

See 2nd Bomb Group.

Smoke rises from the Astra Romana refinery in Ploesti Romania following low level bombing attack by B-24 Liberators, Aug 1 1943.
Smoke rises from the Astra Romana refinery in Ploesti Romania following low level bombing attack by B-24 Liberators, Aug 1 1943.

Relieving the Gurkhas in front of the Monastery


22 March 1944: Relieving the Gurkhas in front of the Monastery

As we worked our way up the terraced, shell-torn slope towards the ruin of a building that looked like the headquarters we were seeking, the smell of death – the old familiar smell – became increasingly powerful. The most immediate cause turned out to be a mule, in an advanced stage of decomposition, and black with feasting flies. (Wags later used the mule as a signpost for visitors. They used to say ‘bear hard right when the mule begins to smell really strongly’.)

The combined air and artillery barrage on Cassino which began a further Allied assault on 15 March 1944.
The combined air and artillery barrage on Cassino which began a further Allied assault on 15 March 1944.
The town of Cassino shrouded in black smoke during the Allied barrage on 15 March 1944. Over 1,250 tons of bombs were dropped on this occasion
The town of Cassino shrouded in black smoke during the Allied barrage on 15 March 1944. Over 1,250 tons of bombs were dropped on this occasion

The impasse in Italy continued, both at Anzio and at Cassino. After much deliberation the Allies finally decided that the Monastery that dominated not only the town but the whole area would have to be bombed. It was a controversial decision as the Germans were claiming that they were not using it, out of respect for it’s religious importance. General Freyberg, leader the New Zealanders, insisted on it before he sent his men in for the next attack. Most of the rest of the Allies had already concluded that it would need to be bombed sooner or later anyway. An artillery barrage accompanied it, as a prelude to the infantry assault.

Between 0830 and 1200, 15 March, 72 B-25’s, 101 B-26’s, 262 B-17’s and B-24’s – a total of 435 aircraft – bombed the Cassino area. The planes dropped more than 2,000 bombs, a total weight of almost 1,000 tons, in an unprecedented bombardment of awesome proportions. There was little flak at Cassino, and no German planes appeared to oppose the bombing. The Allied aircraft suffered no losses.

The artillery firing went as planned. A total of 746 guns and howitzers delivered 2,500 tons of high explosive immediately ahead of the assault troops and an additional 1,500 tons on hostile batteries and other preselected targets. Between 1220 and 2000 that day, artillery pieces in the Cassino area fired almost 200,000 rounds.

See U.S. Military History

A New Zealand 6-pdr anti-tank gun in action against enemy positions at Cassino, 15 March 1944.
A New Zealand 6-pdr anti-tank gun in action against enemy positions at Cassino, 15 March 1944.

Shortly after the bombing of the Monastery Fred Majdalany went into the line. His regiment took over from a Gurkha unit that had sustained many casualties on the bleak mountainside. It was a long hard trek up the mountain, at night in difficult conditions, carrying a heavy load, including ammunition. Majdalany arrived safely after this trek, unlike Ray Ward and his mule. They might have expected that Spring weather would soon be arriving on the mountain, it was not to be:

I awoke shortly after first light, wet and frozen, with a large sharp stone in the small of my back, and a black hate towards all Germans.

Heavings to my right denoted that Jimmie was also coming to life. I ‘It must have rained hard,’ I said. ‘I’m soaking.’ ‘Rain be damned,’ Jimmie said. ‘It’s snow.’

I wriggled out of the blanket. It was indeed a bowl, where we were. A natural amphitheatre between three hillsides, with a flat space at the bottom big enough for a hockey pitch. The area was covered by a thin carpet of snow. So, I noted for the first time, were our blankets. It is odd to be snowed on in one’s sleep and not wake up.

Jimmie, who seemed to take the snow as a personal affront, just lay there puffing at a cigarette, darkly muttering: ‘Bloody snow! Bloody snow!’.

Then there was a scream and a whistle and eight shells landed in a neat line across the other side of the Bowl, about a hundred yards away. The rest of our party awakened with considerable abruptness.

Coarse and falsely cheerful greetings echoed up and down the slope. Blasphemy gave the morning air its only warmth, and men became busy with little tins and fires. No power on earth can stop the English breakfast.

After breakfast John and I went forward to find the headquarters of the battalion we were relieving. As we climbed the spur on the far side of the Bowl, we saw what appeared to be rows of little boots. Then we saw that it was a cemetery. At the head of each grave was a steel helmet: at the foot a pair of tiny boots. We couldn’t understand the tiny boots at first.

Then we saw a file of men approaching carrying stretchers. They were Gurkhas, the little fighting men of Nepal, from the battalion we were relieving. They were bringing more dead to that desolate little cemetery. In an hour there would be another row of little boots.

I couldn’t help wondering what they thought about it all, these small brown men from Nepal with the flat Mongol features. I wondered if it made any sense at all to a Gurkha, to find himself brought all the way to Italy to help Englishmen to kill Germans.

This musing was cut short abruptly, for at that moment we cleared the crest of the spur, and there, staring us in the face, was the Monastery. Two rough, evil-looking prongs of masonry sprouting from an untidy chaos of rubble – all that remained of the southernmost tip of the building — like jagged fangs. This first close-up view was unexpected and slightly startling, and we edged over to the right so as to get out of sight of it.

As we worked our way up the terraced, shell-torn slope towards the ruin of a building that looked like the headquarters we were seeking, the smell of death – the old familiar smell – became increasingly powerful. The most immediate cause turned out to be a mule, in an advanced stage of decomposition, and black with feasting flies. (Wags later used the mule as a signpost for visitors. They used to say ‘bear hard right when the mule begins to smell really strongly’.)

When you smell that smell, then you know you’ve arrived. You are once again in the world of the Infantry. It is universal and haunting. It is the same, whether it is caused by dead Englishmen, dead Americans, or dead mules. This place was worse than any we had ever known…

Fred Majdalany: The Monastery. An account of the assault of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1944

A reconstruction (staged for the photographer during the lull in the fighting in April 1944) showing the unsuccessful New Zealand assault on Cassino town during 15 - 22 March. Infantry are shown engaging enemy positions in the ruins of Casino.
A reconstruction (staged for the photographer during the lull in the fighting in April 1944) showing the unsuccessful New Zealand assault on Cassino town during 15 – 22 March. Infantry are shown engaging enemy positions in the ruins of Casino.
German prisoners captured by New Zealand troops are held at gunpoint on a road beside a Sherman tank. After repeated unsuccessful assaults, the Allied offensive was again called off on 22 March.
German prisoners captured by New Zealand troops are held at gunpoint on a road beside a Sherman tank. After repeated unsuccessful assaults, the Allied offensive was again called off on 22 March.

Friedrichshafen – disaster for the 392nd Group


18 March 1944: Friedrichshafen – Disaster for USAAF 392nd Bombardment Group

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!

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.