17 April 1944: The bombing of Semlin JudenlagerBesides 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
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.
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.
11 April 44: Easter – a ‘macabre idyll’ in a ‘grotesque’ BerlinChildren 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.
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.
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.
5 April 1944: USAAF return to bomb the oil refinery at PloestiOne 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.
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.
22 March 1944: Relieving the Gurkhas in front of the MonasteryAs 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 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.
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…
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.
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.
23 February 1944: Londoners adjust to a nightly ‘Blitz’The clouds light up with gun-flashes, flares, and path-finding cascades of light- globules nicknamed candelabras. Sometimes a green or dusky red ball comes floating through the clouds. Fires are started on the horizon while behind it the clouds glow a dusky red. A plane zooms overhead. Shrapnel cracks on the rooftops. And gradually the noise dies down and the lights go out.
The mini-Blitz now established itself as a regular nightly event in London. People had to re-accustom themselves to the business of air raid shelters, both indoors and outdoors. The Morrison shelter had been introduced in 1941, and despite its discomforts had proven itself as a life saver. Considered rather more secure but less comfortable were the public shelters, in some places available on every street.
George Beardmore’s diaries are particularly useful to historians of the period because he worked as a re-settlement officer for Harrow London Borough. He gives quite detailed descriptions of the process of helping those who were bombed out. Nevertheless he and his family were just as much at risk as anyone else:
The siren goes about 2 a.m. or at almost any time. It always wakes me. I rouse Jean, we leap into our outdoor things, and while Jean grabs a bagful of valuables and papers, I come down with Victoria in my arms, as often as not fast asleep, and we hurry out to the reinforced Shelter so conveniently placed near the front gate.
This has already been opened by the Fire Guard — normally it’s kept locked against lovers, and small boys taken short — our paraffin stove is lighted, and we settle down with our neighbours in the three-tier bunks. Other Fire Guards drift in — one night while somnolent we were all roused by the most appalling crash which turned out to have been a visiting Fire Guard’s steel helmet dropping onto the concrete floor — while outside the night becomes noisy with bangs, crackles, and rumbles rolling round the heavens.
The clouds light up with gun-flashes, flares, and path-finding cascades of light- globules nicknamed candelabras. Sometimes a green or dusky red ball comes floating through the clouds. Fires are started on the horizon while behind it the clouds glow a dusky red. A plane zooms overhead. Shrapnel cracks on the rooftops. And gradually the noise dies down and the lights go out. Meanwhile I have been praying that the bombs will fall outside the Urban District because we have our hands full. It makes one think of inner suburbs such as St John’s Wood, Islington, or Dalston. How are those local authorities coping?
Last night a spectacular local fire was started on Harrow Hill and — God, what an outrage! — the school tuck-shop was gutted. The noise was tremendous. We woke to learn that a high explosive had destroyed a bungalow in Rayners Lane, while two UXBs (unexploded bombs) have put 106 people out of their homes into the Corbin’s Lane Rest Centre.
The counter this morning is crowded with applicants for Morrison shelters. These are iron-plated cages with lattice sides, about nine feet by five by four, that one erects inside one’s home, preferably in the recess provided by the chimney-breast. But sometimes I see them outside, clear of buildings, why I don’t know, because they are intended to be furnished with mattress and pillows and slept in.
Also the wretched blitzed from the London inner boroughs come to implore us for help in finding a roof for them. We can’t because we have only a small and dwindling stock of requisitioned houses for the use of our own bombed. A fine balance has to be made between immediate requirements and what houses we have to keep in reserve for the future.
Naturally the situation lends itself to abuse and complaint, which our two women welfare workers bear as best they can. Actually, I deceived one of them by telling one customer, who convinced me that she had three children, a husband in the services, and had walked from the Elephant, to come back next day and say she had originally lived in Northolt, part of which comes under our care. Naughty of me. The rule is that one must never allow oneself to become personally involved.
This is written in the Fire Guards’ Room at Harrow Weald Lodge, knowing that tonight the circus will start up again and that I shan’t be at home to lend a hand. (And it did. All the Luftwaffe seemed to be overhead.)
20 February 1944: London faces up to the ‘Mini-Blitz’Finally we decided to go up on the roof. Very cold as we climbed by the fire escape. Firewatchers were like ants below. White frost on all the roofs, and in the direction of Portobello Road there was the sound of a crackling fire. We knew it was near. Other fires round about. We well deserved pneumonia, but could not resist such an amazing sight from the roof.
The Luftwaffe had been making efforts to bomb London in strength since late 1943. Although they never returned to the levels seen in 1940-1941, in February, March and early April they achieved a sustained programme that became known as the ‘mini-Blitz’. Hundreds would be killed, mainly in London. They helped the Nazis claim they were fighting back as city after city in Germany was hit. Yet, apart from widespread damage and casualties, the raids achieved very little and did not disrupt the preparations for D-Day.
Vere Hodgson was, as usual, recording the effect of the Blitz on central London in her diary, as she had since 1940:
Had a busy week. Awakened by the guns on Friday night. Had not heard the Warning. Stuck it for a bit, but as it was so noisy I hopped out of bed and into dressing gown. The whole sky was light as day, festooned with three magnicent red star flares which threw amazing colours all over Campden Hill. Shots going for the flares — occasionally little bits of them fell off and dropped like falling stars.
Old Dears all assembled on the landing below. Racket increased. My British Israelite, who is a thoroughly nice person, invited me to her window. A great red glow filled the sky as from a fire.
For an hour we hopped to and fro. Once a roar filled the air, and she called: ‘Come away — that’s a bomb.’ I did not seem to be frightened, and I can honestly say I saw it flash down — it seemed to be on N. Hill Gate. Heard some glass go, and thought it was my skylight — but still I did not worry.
Finally we decided to go up on the roof. Very cold as we climbed by the fire escape. Firewatchers were like ants below. White frost on all the roofs, and in the direction of Portobello Road there was the sound of a crackling fire. We knew it was near. Other fires round about. We well deserved pneumonia, but could not resist such an amazing sight from the roof.
We then had a cup of tea, refilled our hot water bottles and returned to bed, but it was long before I slept. Heard the re-engines clanging through the streets. Finally dropped off, thinking — Well, saved again. All felt second-rate next day.
News came of a bomb on the College at Campden Hill, where the Gibraltar refugees live. Also of a bad business in Portobello Road.
Told Miss M. that I had better go and see how was the Morris family, whom we have helped a lot. Donned my snow boots. The stalls were just going up for the Portobello Saturday Market. Morris house was intact, but poor Mrs Morris was sitting on the stairs more dead than alive. She and Ann and the other children had dragged themselves round to the Shelter. Her husband and Jimmy had stayed to watch the house. Asked her if they were cold in the Shelter. ‘Well, really Miss, I was so bad I did not know if I was hot or cold…’
For them all it had been an awful night. Great fires in a timber yard next door to a garage. Petrol had to be drawn off before they could pour water on the fire — for two hours firemen had to watch the place burn before they dare do anything. At 3 a.m. a great cheer went up as the hose began to play.
Further down an H.E. had fallen and many were killed. I penetrated further. Firemen were looking tired and grimy. Hoses lying around and fires smouldering. It was Tavistock Crescent. Saw dozens of children bombarding a burnt-out shop. It was the local Sweet shop and the youngsters were trying to salvage what they could from the mess!
Their school was burnt out. A bonny little girl spoke sadly of the shop. An invalid woman had kept it for years. Now she had lost her home and business at one swoop. Certainly it had been Portobello’s bad night.
Ealing, Acton and Chiswick all had damage. The Old Dears of my flats had been out exploring. Part of Kensington High St cordoned off — a bomb either side of Barkers or Pontings. Auntie Nell tells me that someone on her roof saw a parachutist bale out.
Midday went to St Albans; but made a mistake and took train from King’s Cross instead of St Pancras. Travelled with a weary-looking fireman. Had been working all night in Wimbledon, where a Convent had received a direct hit — and rescue men were still digging out the nuns. Such a nice man — had been in the 1940 blitz on the Dock Fires. On one night 300 firemen were killed.
He was just going to see his little boy, who was evacuated.
Also on this day, Leslie Fox, a rescue worker earned the George Cross:
The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to:— Leslie Owen Fox, Deputy Party Leader, London County Council Heavy Rescue Service.
High explosive and incendiary bombs demolished houses and set fire to the wreckage. The walls were liable to collapse at any moment and the entire framework was well alight. Cries were heard from under the debris and Fox, without thought for himself, immediately began to tunnel his way through the blazing ruins.
Debris passed back by Fox was often too hot to handle and his men continually sprayed him with water in an endeavour to keep down the almost intolerable heat from the flames. At great danger to himself Fox shored the entrance to the tunnel, adjoining which was a very dangerous party wall.
After about two hours of very strenuous work and under the most difficult and dangerous conditions Fox located the casualty. Although in a distressed condition he would not allow a relief to take his place and continued rescue operations.
Shortly afterwards the dangerous wall collapsed, blocking the entrance and causing the tunnel to subside. Fox, however recommenced tunnelling, straining every muscle to expedite the work. After a further two hours’ work he had tunnelled 15 feet and was able to clear debris away from the head of the casualty and cover him with some sort of protection.
A Medical Officer was then enabled to enter and administer restoratives to the injured man, who was eventually brought to safety.
Fox performed his duty in a most gallant and determined manner and, by his courage and tenacity, saved a man from what appeared to be almost certain death.
18 February 1944: Operation Jericho: RAF breach Amiens prison wallsIntention: To break the outer wall in at least two places.
Method: Leading three aircraft to attack eastern wall using main road as lead in. Second section of three aircraft when ten miles from target will break away to the right at sufficient height to allow them to watch leading three aircraft and then attack northern wall on a North-South run, immediately following the explosion of the bombs of the leading section.
FEBRUARY 18th, 1944
EMERGENCY FORM “B” (Copy)
HNO T 140 A/F
UGI T 11 GROUP
V GPB GPB 5/18 ‘O’ FORM ‘B’
FROM 2 GROUP 180940A
TO 140 WING/AIRFIELD
INFO 11 GROUP, HQ T A F MAIN, HQ A D G B, HQ A E A F
SECRET QQX BT
AO,241 18th Feb.
Information: Mosquitos of 140 Airfield are to attack the prison at AMIENS in an attempt to assist 120 prisoners to escape. These prisoners are French patriots condemned to death for assisting the Allies. This air attack is only part of the plan as other assistance will be at hand at the time.
Date and Time: 18th February, 1944.
Zero 1200 hours.
Route: Base – LITTLEHAMPTON – Via appropriate lattice to TOCQUEVILLE – SENARPONT – BOURDON – One mile South DOULLENS – BOUZINCOURT – 2 miles west south west ALBERT – Target – Turn right – ST. SAVEUR – SENARPONT – TOCQUEVILLE – HASTINGS – Base.
Bomb Load: 2 x 500lb M C Mk.IV fused T.D. 11 secs.
2 x 500lb S A P fused T.D. 11 secs.
Method of Attack: All aircraft to attack at low level.
1st Attack: Six Mosquitos as detailed by O.C. 140 Airfield.
Intention: To break the outer wall in at least two places.
Method: Leading three aircraft to attack eastern wall using main road as lead in. Second section of three aircraft when ten miles from target will break away to the right at sufficient height to allow them to watch leading three aircraft and then attack northern wall on a North-South run, immediately following the explosion of the bombs of the leading section.
Timing: Attacks to be made at Zero hours.
2nd Attack: Six Mosquitos as detailed by O.C. 140 Airfield.
Intention: To bomb the main prison buildings.
Method: Leading three aircraft to attack south eastern end of main building and second section of three aircraft to attack the north western end of building. Attacks to be carried out in a similar manner to first attack above.
Timing: Attack to be made at Zero plus 3 mins.
3rd Attack: Six Mosquitos as detailed by O.C. 140 Airfield.
Intention: This force is a reserve, and will approach the target as in the previous two attacks, one section from east and one from north, but will only bomb if it is seen that one of the previous attacks has failed.
Method: As in 1st attack. Target will be decided by leader on approach.
Timing: Attack to be made at Zero plus 13 mins.
Fighter Support: Each formation of six Mosquitos will have one squadron of Typhoons as close escort. Fighters will rendezvous with Mosquitos as follows:-
1st Attack: 1 mile east of LITTLEHAMPTON at Zero minus 45 mins.
2nd Attack: 1 mile west of LITTLEHAMPTON at Zero minus 42 mins.
3rd Attack: LITTLEHAMPTON at Zero minus 32 mins.
1st Attack: Bomber call sign: D Y P E G.
Ground control call sign: A I L S O M E on 2 Group guard 1.
Bomber leader may call escort direct in emergency on 11 Group guard 1.
2nd Attack: Bomber call sign: C A N O N.
Ground control call sign: B E L L F I E L D on 2 Group guard 1.
Bomber leader may call escort direct in emergency on 11 Group guard 1.
3rd Attack: Bomber call sign: B U C K S H O T.
Ground control call sign: G R E E N S H I P on 2 Group guard 1.
Bomber leader may call escort direct in emergency on 11 Group guard 1.
Fighter call sign: D U N L O P.
General: Emergency homing to FRISTON on 2 Group guard.
A.S.R. on 2 Group guard.
Special V.H.F. codeword: RENOVATE.
Notes: (1) Following each attack sections of three aircraft of each formation are to endeavour to regain close company as soon as possible.
BARON AS FOR K WITH R +
On the 18th February the RAF conducted one of their most successful low level raids, freeing large numbers of the French Resistance with their raid on Amiens Prison.
Contemporary newsreel explaining the raid:
This was the last flight of a man who had become very well known during the war years. Wing Commander Percy ‘Pick’ Pickard, who had come to public notice after featuring in the 1941 documentary film ‘Target for Tonight’. His record stretched back to the early years of the war, when he had fought in Norway and over France. He had earned a DSO for his role in the Bruneval Raid in 1942. Unfortunately his luck ran out on this most notable, and successful, raid. As he was leading the raid Pickard spent more time over the target than any other aircraft. After the bombing he waited for the smoke to clear before he could see prisoners escaping from the prison. His last words were to announce the code words for success “Red Daddy, Red Daddy” – he was then attacked by two FW190 fighters, evading them for a while before his tail was blown off and the plane crashed, killing Pickard and his operator. His old school Framlingham has an extended tribute to him with more details of his service.