Charles ‘Chuck” Yeager had already made a name for himself as a talented pilot. He had also had some remarkable adventures, surviving being shot down over France and escaping back to Britain via Spain. He had recently been promoted to Lieutenant with the 363d Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group, stationed at RAF Leiston (USAAF Station 373).
On the 12th October 1944 Yeager was leading the 363rd Squadron as part of the escort for a bombing raid on Bremen. Other Squadrons remained as close escorts with the bombers while the 363rd ranged 50-100 miles ahead looking for trouble.
This was how Yeager described the action in his official report:
I. I was leading the Group with Cement Squadron and was roving out to the right of the first box of bombers. I was over STEINHUDER LAKE when 22 Me. 109s crossed in front of my Squadron from 11:00 O’Clock to 1:00 O’Clock. I was coming out of the sun and they were about 1½ miles away at the same level of 25,000 feet.
I fell in behind the enemy formation and followed them for about 3 minutes, climbing to 30,000 feet. I still had my wing tanks and had close up to around 1,000 yards, coming within firing range and positioning the Squadron behind the entire enemy formation.
Two of the Me. 109s were dodging over to the right. One slowed up and before I could start firing, rolled over and bailed out. The other Me. 109, flying his wing, bailed out immediately after as I was ready to line him in my sights. I was the closest to the tail-end of the enemy formation and no one, but myself was in shooting range and no one was firing.
I dropped my tanks and then closed up to the last Jerry and opened fire from 600 yards, using the K-14 sight. I observed strikes all over the ship, particularly heavy in the cockpit. He skidded off to the left. I was closing up on another Me. 109 so I did not follow him down. Lt. STERN, flying in Blue Flight reports this E/A on fire as it passed him and went into a spin.
I closed up on the next Me. 109 to 100 yards, skidded to the right and took a deflection shot of about 10°. I gave about a 2 second burst and the whole fuselage split open and blew up after we passed.
Another Me. 109 to the right had cut his throttle and was trying to get behind. I broke to the right and quickly rolled to the left on his tail. He started pulling it in and I was pulling 6″G”. I got a lead from around 300 yards and gave him a short burst. There were hits on wings and tail section He snapped to the right 3 times and bailed out when he quit snapping at around 18,000 feet.
I did not blackout during this engagement due to the efficiency of the “G” suit. Even though I was skidding I hit the second Me. 109 by keeping the bead and range on the E/A. To my estimation the K-14 sight is the biggest improvement to combat equipment for Fighters up to this date. The me.
109s appeared to have a type of bubble canopy and had purple noses and were a mousey brown all over.
I claim Five me 109s destroyed.
J. Ammunition Expended: 587 rounds .50 cal MG.
Charles E. Yeager, 1st Lt, AC.
Contemporary USAAF briefing film on the P-51, with combat footage, describing the improved characteristics of the P-51 B:
As Rommel had predicted Allied air power had made the movement of German troops extremely difficult in France, ever since D-Day. As the Germans now found themselves in a concentrated mass, desperately trying to break out from encirclement, they now came under even more intense bombardment from the air.
Amongst those joining the attack was fighter ‘Ace’ Wing Commander J.E. ‘Johnie’ Johnson, who commanded No 144 (later 127) Wing RCAF, the first to be stationed in France. He had scored more victories whilst patrolling over France and was only days away from shooting down two more Fw 190s, bringing his score to 32, equalling the British record – held until then by ‘Sailor’ Malan. However the focus for the next couple of days was ground attacks rather than enemy aircraft:
A gleam of reflected sunshire on metal here, a swirl or eddy of dust there, or fresh tracks leading across the fields were sufficient evidence to bring down the fighter-bombers with their assorted armoury of weapons. When darkness fell and brought some relief to the battered Germans there was time to take stock of the situation and to add up the score.
My own pilots had amassed a total of slightly more than 200 destroyed or damaged vehicles, plus a few tanks attacked with doubtful results. For once the weather was in our favour, and the forecast for the morrow was fine and sunny. The pilots turned in immediately after dinner, for they would require all their energy for the new day. As they settled down to sleep, they heard the continuous drone of our light bombers making their flight across the beach-head to harry the enemy columns throughout the short night.
The Canadians were up well before the dawn, and the first pair of Spitfires retracted their wheels as the first hint of a lighter sky flushed the eastern horizon. The Germans were making strenuous efforts to salvage what equipment they could from the débacle and get it across the Seine. Such enemy action had been anticipated: some of the Typhoon effort was diverted to attacking barges and small craft as they ferried to and fro across the river.
Once more the Spitfire pilots turned their attention to the killing-ground and attacked all manner of enemy transports wherever they were to be found. They were located on the highways and lanes, in the woods and copses, in small villages and hamlets, beneath the long shadows of tall hedges, in farmyards and even camouflaged with newly mown grass to resemble haystacks.
During the previous night many of the enemy had decided to abandon a great proportion of their transports: they could be seen continuing the retreat on foot and in hastily commandeered farm-carts. Sometimes the despairing enemy waved white sheets at the Spitfires as they hurtled down to attack; but these signs were ignored; our own ground troops were still some distance away and there was no organisation available to round up large numbers of prisoners.
On this day, 19th August, my Canadians claimed a total of almost 500 enemy transports destroyed or damaged, of which many were left burning. Even so, this score was not outstanding since Dal Russel’s wing easily outstripped us with a score of more than 700. Afterwards our efforts in the Falaise gap gradually petered out, for the transports and personnel of the German Seventh Army had either been eliminated or had withdrawn across the Seine.
The Falaise gap ranks as one of the greatest killing-grounds of the war, and is a classic example of the devastating effects of tactical air power when applied in concentrated form against targets of this nature. During these few days, pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force flew more than 12,000 missions and practically wiped out no less than eight infantry divisions and two armoured Panzer divisions. The Second Tactical Air Force had in fact turned an enemy retreat into a complete rout.
After the fighting had ebbed away from Falaise, we decided to drive there and see the results of our attacks at first hand. We thought that we were prepared for the dreadful scenes, which Eisenhower later said could only be described by Dante.
On the last flights the stench from the decaying bodies below had even penetrated through the cockpit canopies of the Spitfires. Another, and perhaps the most important, object of our visit was to bring back a suitable German staff car, since it was obvious that we should soon be on the move across France, and a comfortable Mercedes would provide a welcome change from our hard-riding jeeps.
After we left Falaise behind, all the roads were so choked with burnt-out German equipment that it was quite impossible to continue the journey. The bloated corpses of unfortunate domestic animals also lay in our path, so we took to the fields and tried to make some progress across country. Each spinny and copse contained its dreadful quota of dead Germans lying beside their wrecked vehicles, and once we came across the body of what had been a beautiful woman lying sprawled across the back seat of a staff car.
We found our limousines, which consisted of Renaults, Citroéns, Mercedes and strangely enough a smooth Chevrolet. We had brought ropes, jacks and a few jerrycans of petrol, but it was impossible to extricate any of the cars. Soon we abandoned our search and left the fields and lanes, heavy with their rotting burden in the warm sunshine.
In Normandy the German counter offensive at Mortain had failed and Field Marshal von Kluge, the Supreme Field Commander West, was struggling to convince Hitler that it was time to order a general retreat to escape an encirclement that appeared to be developing near Falaise.
Now, more than ever, the Allied fighters and fighter bombers dominance over the battlefield was to play a critical role. They ranged far and wide over northern France attacking targets, mainly bridges, that would block the German retreat and then turning their attention to targets of opportunity, mainly strafing targets on the ground.
One P-38 Lightning pilot was looking for more than just ground targets. Twenty-two year old Robin Olds had not yet scored after arriving in England in May 1944 with the 479th Fighter Group. He describes in graphic detail how he decided to break away from his colleagues on 14th August 1944 because he disagreed with their navigation:
Bison Lead decided they would turn south to find the target. South? That seemed dead wrong. I had just corrected to the northeast a little to be on course.
If Bison was north of the rendezvous point, he would be at or near the target. If he didn’t see the target he had to be south of it. That assumed he and his people were reasonably close to course as they came in. The screwups just seemed to keep piling up.
Rechecking my armament switches, I pushed up full power and headed for Chalon-sur-Saone all by myself. Sure enough, there was the ribbon of the Saone River catching the first glow of dawn. It had to be the Saone. And there was the gray darkness of the town with the bridge clearly visible against the river’s silver sheen. I lined up so I’d cross the target at about a 45—degree angle and came out of the west.
My pass was shallow, more like a skip—bomb pass than a dive-bomb attack. The sight picture was good. Speed just right. There was time to remind myself: Don’t hit long, Robin, don’t hit the town. I wanted to hit the center span of the bridge, so when the gun sight pipper came up to the release point, I pressed the pickle button under my right thumb. There was a thump as the pair of 1,000-pound bombs left the pylons.
I broke hard left and stayed down low to make myself as difficult a target as possible. An orange flash in my canopy’s rearview mirror told me the bombs had detonated. No flak. Must have caught the gunners sleeping late this morning. Once I was clear of the target there was time to burn, and apparently I had the whole of this part of France to myself.
Truthfully, finding the rest of the group didn’t enter my mind. I stayed right down on the deck, as low as I dared, heading northwest. I throttled back, then tweaked the mixture and prop into auto-lean to save a bit of fuel. When the sun peeked over the horizon, I was paralleling a paved country road bordered by poplar trees and farmhouses set back behind hedges and stone walls. A ridge loomed ahead, running almost due north—south.
The valley from my position, and all the way up the ridge, was totally covered with vineyards. Years later I would recognize it for what it was, the Beaune region: good Burgundy country. But not now. I was looking for something to shoot at, anything military: a convoy, a train, troops, anything.
After several minutes of this, two dark shapes suddenly flew across the road left to right about a mile ahead of me. They were just a little higher than I was. I turned right to cut them off, got right down on the grass, pushed the mixtures into auto-rich, rammed the props to high, and shoved the throttles I) the wall.
My P-38 leaped ahead as though kicked by a mule. The cutoff angle was good and I could see I would be coming in behind the bogeys in short order. I still didn’t have a positive ID, but every instinct told me they had to be German. Instinct is no good when you’re coming up behind a target with a 20mm and four .50 caliber guns armed and ready to shoot.
It is particularly no good when your adrenaline is pumping. Patience, patience. I wanted those shadowy shapes to be Focke-Wulf 190s! My instincts told me they were Jerries, not a couple of Jugs out of 9th Air Force. Please, bogeys, please turn just a little. Give me an aspect where I can get a positive ID on you.
I’m closing fast. There isn’t much time left. I pressed rudder and slid the pipper onto the trailing aircraft’s left wing. Another second and suddenly I could see the Iron Cross on the side of the lead plane’s fuselage. No time left now. I squeezed the trigger. The wingman’s bird lit up with strikes, spewed heavy smoke, rolled inverted, and hit the ground with a huge explosion.
I had to get the other 190 before he gained an advantage on me. He made a violent left break the moment his wingman was hit. I followed, staying inside his turn, knowing my left wingtip was no more than 20 feet off the ground. The g-forces came on hard but I was scarcely aware of them. I flew the pipper slowly through his fuselage, pulling ahead, trying to get about a 100-mil lead.
I pressed the trigger in a short burst and watched as strikes moved down his fuselage. Perfect! Another burst, more strikes, and he suddenly pulled straight up. The canopy separated and the pilot came out as though he had a spring in his seat. His chute opened immediately and he swung under it. I had pulled up with him and rolled inverted in time to see his aircraft hit in the middle of a farmer’s field. I rolled into a hard left bank and watched through the top of my canopy as the Jerry landed close to his burning aircraft.
He started running as I came around my circle to point my nose at him. I dove at him and he flopped onto his belly. He thought I was going to strafe him. No such thing! I buzzed him there in the mud and pulled up to do two victory rolls. I hoped he saw them. Then I felt like an ass doing such a silly, damned-fool, kid thing like that. Obviously I’d read too much of Hogan’s C-8 and His Battle Aces and watched too much of Wings and The Dawn Patrol.
The flight home was uneventful, except for a mixed feeling of elation, disbelief, and nagging worry. I hoped my camera had worked. Confirmation couldn’t stand on my word alone. That was a grim thought.
Olds would soon convert to the P-51 Mustang and ended WWII with a score of 12 enemy planes. His combat days were far from over – he shot down four MiG-21s while flying a F-4C Phantom II over Vietnam in 1967.
Ace Pilots has a good summary of Robin Old’s career.
Another day, another daylight mission to Germany for the USAAF bombers based in England. This time the target was the Leuna oil refinery at Merseburg, Germany, part of the programme to strangle the fuel supplies of the Wehrmacht. Although escorting fighters had dramatically reduced the losses amongst the bombers by this time, it was rare that missions were completed without casualties.
A/C #007 was observed to have one engine smoking as it went over the target. It dropped back and took over the lead of the second element of the low squadron and gradually lagged further and further behind. Friendly fighters were all around and when last seen the A/C was under control and appeared to be in good condition.
This A/C later was seen over Wesermunde by a flight of P-38s from Station 337, 479th Fighter Group. A jet-propelled E/A was attacking and was driven off by the P-38’s. The B-17 was escorted until it reached the Frisian Islands where the P-38’s were forced to return to England because of a shortage of gasoline. When last seen all engines were operating and the A/C was headed for home at 10,000 feet.
The Nazis were losing the battle over Germany but they pinned their hopes on technical advances. The ‘vengeance’ weapons, which Hitler had boasted about, which so many Nazis continued to believe would miraculously transform the war, were starting to appear. As well as new Jet fighters was a unique aircraft.
The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to become operational, capable of up to 700 mph. Allied intelligence was aware that they had begun flying on the 28th July, and Allied fighters were on the lookout for them. Operationally the speed of the Me 163 proved not to be a great advantage in combat with conventional fighters.
The limping B-17 survived the encounter with the Me 163 but was still stricken. The full story comes from Lt Robert Fulkerson who was Navigator on B-17 Bomber ‘She-Hasta’, flying with the 351st Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group from England:
July 29, 1944, the 100th Bomb Group target for the day was the Leuna oil refinery at Merseburg, Germany. This mission was the second day in row that the 100th bombed Merseburg. As a navigator with the 351st Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, this was my fourth mission having recently been assigned to the 100th on July 17, 1944. Our Crew was flying the B-17 “She-Hasta”. Bill Greiner was flying as a replacement pilot on his “last” mission and Jim Coccia, our regular pilot, was flying as co-pilot.
Once in Germany and arriving at the IP, we flew to the target at the altitude of 26, 000 feet. As we approached the target, we encountered a very dense, black carpet of flak. The flak was so thick one would think that one could walk on it! We lost one engine as we dropped our bombs and encountered other damage forcing us to leave the formation. The entire low squadron of the 100th A-group failed to return home along with two of the B-group of which we were one, accounting for eight B-17’s lost.
Flak had knocked out the oxygen in the nose of the aircraft forcing the bombardier and me to retreat to the radio room. I had given the one walk around bottle of oxygen to the bombardier and told him to go on to the radio room and that I would follow him. Upon entering the entrance to the bomb bay my parachute harness caught on to something and became entangled. Still being at altitude and without oxygen, I soon passed out. Fortunately for me, John Vuchetich, our flight engineer, who was in the top turret saw me and plugged in my oxygen mask. Upon recovering, I noticed that the bomb bay doors had not completely closed and upon passing out I had dropped most of my navigational aids out the bomb bay doors.
With a map or two I proceeded to the radio room. By this time we had lost a lot of altitude and while limping along, encountered more flak at about 10, 000 feet. Another engine was lost and Bernie Baumgarten, one of our waist gunners, was severely wounded in his abdominal area and upper left leg. Shortly after this, near Weserbunds, Germany, a squadron of P-38’s appeared on the scene. Apparently they had spotted a Me 163 KOMET rocket fighter on our tail. The German pilot, on seeing the squadron leaders P-38, turned in his direction until he saw the squadron leaders wingman and decided to turn away. The P-38’s pursued the Me 163 and the squadron leader made direct hits and the Me 163 went down.
We continued on our way still losing altitude and soon spotted water and decided to ditch our aircraft. Hopefully it was the English Channel but it turned out we were farther north and the water was the North Sea. We ditched the B-17 around noon, July 29, 1944. After surviving the ditching, John Vuchetich our flight engineer and I were the last two of the crew to leave the aircraft. We had remained in the radio room in hopes of saving the wounded gunner. Since the nose hatch had been opened earlier and the ball turret repositioned for ditching water was rushing in fast and furiously.
I soon realized the situation was hopeless and told John to exit the top hatch. As I climbed out the top hatch, Bernie, half covered with water, called out my name. What a feeling! From the top hatch I could see that the B-17 was at about a forty-five degree angle to the sea and the wings were half covered with water. As I dove into the sea and started swimming towards the two dinghies, something touched my feet. Looking back I saw it had been the tip of the B-17’s rudder that had touched my feet and the aircraft disappeared from sight. Eight of us survived the ditching and Bernie went down with the B-17.
We spent four days at sea. On the second day, a sailing vessel appeared on the horizon and seemingly heading in our direction. As it became closer, we fired flares and pistols into the air in hopes of attraction their attention. The ship became close enough that we could see a flag painted on the hull and took it to be Danish. What seemed like eternity, the ship proceeded on its way, choosing to ignore us and left us floundering in our frustrations.
The two dinghies had been tied together to prevent our being separated. During the second night, I was awakened by the angry sea and found our dinghies starting to break apart. At about the same time, John, who was in the second dinghy, awakened. He and I sat the rest of the night with our arms interlocked together. Finally daylight arrived. We had won our battle. That night has to be one of the worst nights in my life.
During the four days at sea we could hear aircraft flying over but the overcast prevented us from seeing them and in turn preventing them from seeing us. Late afternoon on the fourth day at sea, land was sighted. Separating the two dinghies, we raced, paddling to shore, firing flares into the air only to be met by German soldiers who took us prisoners. We were told, “For you the war is over!” Actually it was only the beginning. We had landed on Ameland, one of the Frisian Islands north of Holland.
We had no food while at sea and when the Germans finally gave us some food the following day, it had been over five days since we had eaten! The Germans gave us cold potatoes and cold gravy served in two mess kits from which the eight of us took turns eating. After a few days in Holland, of all places in solitary confinement in a convent, nine months in Germany as POW’s, which included two forced marches, General Patton and his forces liberated us at Mooseburg, Germany, April 29, 1945.
The full account used to be available at – http://www.100thbg.com/mainpages/history/history5/fulkerson.htm – 100th Bomb Group. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.
Charles Lindberg had become a national hero in America after his pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis. Later his isolationist views prior to the war, when he led the ‘America First’ campaign, had not endeared him to the Roosevelt Administration. When war eventually broke out he was still determined to serve his country but found his route back into the military blocked by the White House.
Lindberg found a way round this by joining the United Aircraft company as a civilian consultant. By 1944 he was in the Pacific advising of how get the best fuel performance out of the Lightning fighter – and managed to fly 50 combat missions in this role, many involving strafing Japanese position. On the 28th July he went further and shot down a Japanese plane:
We jettison our drop tanks, switch on our guns, and nose down to the attack. One Jap plane banks sharply toward the airstrip and the protection of the antiaircraft guns. The second heads off into the haze and clouds. Colonel MacDonald gets a full deflection shot on the first, starts him smoking, and forces him to reverse his bank.
We are spaced 1,000 feet apart. Captain [Danforth] Miller gets in a short deflection burst with no noticeable effect. I start firing as the plane is completing its turn in my direction. I see the tracers and the 20’s [20mm. cannon] find their mark, a hail of shells directly on the target. But he straightens out and flies directly toward me.
I hold the trigger down and my sight on his engine as we approach head on. My tracers and my 20’s spatter on his plane. We are close – too close – hurtling at each other at more than 500 miles an hour. I pull back on the controls. His plane zooms suddenly upward with extraordinary sharpness.
I pull back with all the strength I have. Will we hit? His plane, before a slender toy in my sight, looms huge in size. A second passes – two three – I can see the finning on his engine cylinders. There is a rough jolt of air as he shoots past behind me.
By how much did we miss? Ten feet? Probably less than that. There is no time to consider or feel afraid. I am climbing steeply. I bank to the left. No, that will take me into the ack-ack fire above Amahai strip. I reverse to the right. It all has taken seconds.
My eyes sweep the sky for aircraft. Those are only P-38’s and the plane I have just shot down. He is starting down in a wing over – out of control. The nose goes down. The plane turns slightly as it picks up speed-down-down-down toward the sea. A fountain of spray-white foam on the water-waves circling outward as from a stone tossed in a pool-the waves merge into those of the sea-the foam disappears – the surface is as it was before.
My wingman is with me, but I have broken from my flight. There are six P-38’s circling the area where the enemy plane went down. But all six planes turn out to be from another squadron. I call ‘Possum 1,’ and get a reply which I think says they are above the cloud layer. It is thin, and I climb up through on instruments.
But there are no planes in sight, and I have lost my wingman. I dive back down but all planes below have disappeared, too. Radio reception is so poor that I can get no further contact. I climb back into the clouds and take up course for home, cutting through the tops and keeping a sharp lookout for enemy planes above. Finally make radio contact with ‘Possum’ flight and tell them I will join them over our original rendezvous point (the Pisang Islands).
The heavies are bombing as I sight the Boela strips; I turn in that direction to get a better view. They have started a large fire in the oil-well area of Boela – a great column of black smoke rising higher and higher in the air. The bombers are out of range, so the ack-ack concentrates on me – black puffs of smoke all around, but none nearby. I weave out of range and take up course for the Pisang Islands again. I arrive about five minutes ahead of my flight. We join and take up course for Biak Island. Landed at Mokmer strip at 1555.
(Lieutenant Miller, my wingman, reported seeing the tracers of the Jap plane shooting at me. I was so concentrated on my own firing that I did not see the flashes of his guns. Miller said the plane rolled over out of control right after he passed me. Apparently my bullets had either severed the controls or killed the pilot.)
In January 1944 Montgomery had insisted that the invasion front be broadened to include Omaha and Utah beaches. Part of his reasoning was the need for the Allies to seize the Cotentin peninsula and the port of Cherbourg early in the campaign. He had been unconvinced that the Mulberry harbours would be sufficient to supply the Allies with the munition build up that he believed they would need. Now with the engineers still struggling to bring the Mulberries back into operation after the storm, Cherbourg seemed more important than ever.
Hitler had ordered that the Cherbourg garrison fight to the death. But they were a disparate group of forces, poorly supplied and now cut off from the rest of German forces in Normandy.
Alan Moorehead was present as the US troops entered the town on the 24th:
It was an uplifting moment. We could see the buildings fringing the water’s edge, the warehouses along the docks, and beyond this, in the calm sea, the outer concrete breakwaters of the harbour. All the green land between us and the sea – about a mile – was swarming with Germans. They brought us to a sudden halt on the road by firing almost point-blank out of a stone farmhouse. On the right they kept up a running fight through the undergrowth with machine-guns.
And on the left, just as I was watching with my glasses, a thicket of trees suddenly opened up with great trailing balls of fire coming towards us. These were the German rockets. As their phosphorus burned away the air was filled with a breath-taking noise, a sort of whirling and tearing, and a second later the farmyard below us disappeared in walls of dust and smoke. About the same time half an acre of ground half a mile away appeared to rear itself slowly and lazily in the air until it formed an immense mushroom of smoke and the noise of the explosion came rushing across the field at us.
We were pinned down on a sunken road under almost continuous rifle and machine-gun fire. It kept hitting with vicious little whacks against the piled-up earth beneath the hedge. So long as we did not bob up above the level of embankment we were perfectly safe there in the strong June sunlight. The embankment was four feet thick and those shots that missed simply whizzed by harmlessly overhead.
Some of the infantry slept oblivious of the noise and the presence of the enemy in the next field. Some brewed coffee. Some edged up the hedge nearer and nearer to the Germans. The American general, who looks like a successful business man, was striding about, highly delighted with it all. “Come on”, he called to us, “if you want a good view, go up that hill”. All around us was the recent wreckage of battle: a group of dummy German guns made out of saplings, the still warm German dead lying at their foxholes, a burning cowshed, the dead beasts in the fields among the torn telephone lines, and the litter of mess-tins and empty meat cans scattered up the road.
A haze began to drift over Cherbourg towards the evening when the Americans advanced for their last run down to the sea. It had been as balanced and as decisive a break-through as any I have seen in this war – the power of the offensive machine against fixed positions. Coming up the the Regiment Command post one could feel the sense of expectancy and eagerness among the staff officers. The colonel said, “I think we are going to have better luck today”.
He selected a good observation point for us on his map, and added: “Right now there is a German ack-ack gun on it firing at our forward troops, but we will have it within an hour for you. Just wait till I get the artillery to dump something on it.” He picked up his telephone, and presently the dumping began. While we were waiting the colonel explained that little knots of Germans had been by-passed in our rear and had been holding out for three days. “But, hell”, he said, “you don’t go any place unless you by-pass”. All this took place under the low branches of an apple orchard in full leaf, and there were with us a couple of British Guards officers who had come up to see the fight.
Midday was zero hour, and as it struck, the colonel picked up his telephone and told his general: “We are all ready to go!”
Then it started. There was no great barrage, no cloud of aircraft, no great noise. The infantry simply vanished into the forest with the sound of the light, quick coughing of their machine-guns. Yet the next six hours were packed with more incident than I can put down here. At the start a French irregular came up to my jeep with a Russian in civilian clothes. He wanted the Russian shot as a spy. But we managed to dissuade him and pushed on.
Within an hour we had gone clean through the main German perimeter. On either side of the lane there were deep concrete dugouts with many abandoned enemy guns – places with running hot and cold water and electric lights. The hedges and trees were badly damaged by blast and the German dead lay spaced along the roadside ditches. About 4,000 yards from the city limits we came on the main German encampment, with some 20 or 30 camouflaged barracks sunk beneath the surface and linked with underground concrete passageways.
Some 400 Germans were holding on here, but they fled in panic as the Americans burst through the trees. A dozen shuddering and frightened horses stampeded about the sloping parade ground. In the officers’ quarters and the storehouses we found cases of brandy and tubs of butter, many radio sets, big stacks of office equipment, bottles of eau-de-Cologne and such an array of toilet things that you might think the German effeminate if you did not know him. And so we came through the outer defences of Cherbourg to the hills above the city – the infantry feeling their way along the hedges, the jeeps and the guns slowly trundling up the roads.
This account first appeared in the Daily Express and then in The War Illustrated on July 21, 1944.
The relief at capturing Cherbourg so quickly was short lived. By the time the port itself was captured on the 27th it was clear that the Germans had done terrible damage to the harbour facilities and it would be some time before it could usefully be used by the Allies.
Contemporary Newseeel footage of the battle in Normandy:
While RAF Bomber Command had finished their campaign against Berlin the 8th USAAF continued with daylight attacks. The RAF would maintain regular night time nuisance raids with Mosquitos, to keep the German capital awake until the end of the war.
The Luftwaffe fighters were doing their best to present a protective screen against the bombers. Since the beginning of the year they had had to contend with growing numbers of escort fighters, accompanying the bombers ‘all the way’. Despite the Allied attacks on the German aircraft industry, they were not short of fighter aircraft. It was the losses of German fighter pilots that was causing the difficulty. Even the most experienced pilots were finding the odds against them were increasing every day. For Luftwaffe ace Heinz Knoke the challenge were especially evident today:
29th April, 1944.
Three Bomber Divisions are launching an offensive from the Great Yarmouth area. Our formations in Holland report strong fighter escorts. My orders are to engage the escorting lighters in combat with my Squadron, draw them off and keep them occupied. Other Squadrons of Focke-Wulfs are thus to be enabled to deal with the bombers eiectively without interference.
1130 hours : off to the west and below I spot the first vapour-trails. They are Lightnings. In a few minutes they are directly below, followed by the heavy bombers. These are strung out in an immense chain as far as the eye can reach. Thunderbolts and Mustangs wheel and spiral overhead and alongside. Then our Focke-Wulfs sweep right into them. At once I peel off and dive into the Lightnings below. They spot us and swing round towards us to meet the attack. A pack of Thunderbolts, about thirty in all, also come wheeling in towards us from the south. This is exactly what I wanted.
The way is now clear for the Focke-Wulfs. The first of the Fortresses are already in flames. Major Moritz goes in to attack with his Squadron of in-fighters (Rammjaeger).
Then we are in a madly milling dog-fight. Our job is done; it is a case of every man for himself. I remain on the tail of a Lightning for several minutes. It flies like the devil himself, turning, diving, and climbing almost like a rocket. I am never able to fire more than a few pot-shots.
Then a flight of Mustangs dives past. Tracers whistle close by my head. I pull back the stick with both hands, and the plane climbs steeply out of the way. My wingman, Sergeant Druhe, remains close to my tail.
Once again I have a chance to fire at a Lightning. My salvoes register at last. Smoke billows out of the right engine. I have to break away, however. Glancing back, I see that I have eight Thunderbolts sitting on my tail. The enemy tracers again come whistling past my head.
Evidently my opponents are old hands at the game. I turn and dive and climb and roll and loop and spin. I use the methanol emergency booster, and try to get away in my favourite “corkscrew climb”. In only a few seconds the bastards are right back on my tail. They keep on firing all the time. I do not know how they just miss me, but they do.
My wingman sticks to me like glue, either behind or along- side. I call him to “Stay right there! ” whatever happens. “Victor, victor,” he calmly replies. In what I think could be a lucky break, I get a Yank in my sights. I open fire with all guns, steep climb. Then all his comrades are back again on my tail.
In spite of the freezing cold, sweat pours down my face. This kind of dog-fight is hell. One moment I am thrust down into the seat in a tight turn; the next I am upside down, hanging in the safety-harness with my head practically touching the canopy roof and the guts coming up into my mouth.
Every second seems like a lifetime.
The Focke-Wulfs have meanwhile done a good job. I have seen neatly thirty of the Fortresses go down in flames. But there are still several hundred more of the heavy bombers winging their way eastwards undaunted. Berlin is in for another hot day.
My fuel indicator needle registers zero. The red light starts to flicker its warning. Ten more minutes only, and my tank will be empty. I go down in a tight spiral dive. The Thunderbolts break away.
In a flash I glance round, and then instinctively duck my head. There is a Thunderbolt sitting right on my tail, followed by seven more. All eight open fire. Their salvoes slam into my plane. My right wing bursts into flames.
A contemporary documentary about the US fighter planes over Germany, with impressive gun camera footage of aerial combat (from 19 minutes) and (from about 29 minutes) of ground attacks by US fighters over occupied Europe, 1944.
At the beginning of 1944 the Allied air forces were directing much of their effort to the reduction of the Luftwaffe, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. Intelligence estimates of the numbers of German fighter pilots shot down while attacking the bomber fleets proved to be too optimistic, but they were having a substantial impact.
Elsewhere other elements of the RAF were looking to make a contribution. Group Captain J.R.D. Braham, an experienced pilot, had recently been posted as a Staff Officer. Amongst his responsibilities were the night fighters. He thought they should also be involved in daylight attacks on German airfields in France. The demanding nature of low level navigation from high speed aircraft like the Mosquito would be excellent practice for night time navigation. He also thought they would have good prospects of surprising the enemy.
Braham set out to prove the value of his scheme by demonstrating what might be achieved himself. In the first week of March he gained approval for a solo daylight raid on France:
It was exhilarating to skim just above the fields and trees of the French countryside but we had to be alert all the time, not only for signs of enemy aircraft but also to ensure that we didn’t fly into a power line or a tree. This sort of flying soon had us both perspiring freely. Periodically we altered course twenty or thirty degrees one way or the other to confuse any alert German look-outs as to the direction of our flight.
Sticks was navigating confidently. Soon we were across the Seine west of Rouen, but except for an occasional French farmer or a German soldier, who probably thought we were a Luftwaffe aircraft out on a spree, we saw nothing. The steeples of Chartres cathedral appeared in the distance. We were on course. I banked the aircraft to the right, my starboard wing nearly scraping the ground as we gave the city a wide berth.
It was probably full of German soldiers and defended by flak batteries. On we sped over the Loire with its beautiful chateaux, near Orléans, but still we saw no sign of aircraft. I was beginning to feel disappointment creeping up inside me. I told Sticks my doubts. Where was the elusive Luftwaffe? We continued south for another fifty miles and seeing no aircraft around Bourges airfield set course for home via Chateaudun.
I was just making up my mind that the trip was again going to be a waste of time when Sticks called ‘What’s that?’ In the distance off my starboard wing I could see the runway of an airfield.
A blob hardly discernible as an aircraft was throwing up a trail of dust from its propellers as it took off. It was the dust that attracted Sticks’ attention. For a second or so we watched, holding the ‘Mossie’ down on the deck. Perhaps the Germans were alert to us after all and an enemy fighter was taking off to intercept.
I opened the throttle wide so that we could rapidly shelter in the cloud if our suspicions were correct, for our ‘Mossie’ would be no match for numbers of single-seat Me 109s or FW 190s. We could now see that the black blob was only one aircraft and a very large one at that.
With a hoot of triumph which nearly deafened Sticks, I pulled our ‘Mossie’ around in a steep turn and headed at full bore for Chateaudun. A mile or so from the perimeter of the airfield we flew low over German flak positions and saw with amazement that the shirt-sleeved enemy gunners were waving to us thinking we were one of their aircraft. To keep them happy we waved back! Surprise was complete after all.
Now we were closing rapidly on what we recognized as one of the large He 177s. He was circling the airfield at 1,000 feet. We stayed on the deck until the last minute. We were approaching head on and a little to one side. When about a half a mile away I pulled up in a gentle climbing turn so that the massive fuselage of the bomber was ahead of us. A beam shot.
At the last minute the enemy realized we were hostile and attempted to turn away, but it was too late. I tightened the turn a little to set the dot of my electric gunsight ahead of the bomber to allow for the correct deflection, and pressed the button. A stream of 20-mm and 303 bullets poured from the nose of the Mossie as I tightened the turn a little more to keep my sights on the now rapidly-closing target. I had started firing at about 400 yards and now at 100 yards with the He177 looking as big as a house, a stream of flame and smoke appeared below the nose of the aircraft.
It reared up like a wounded animal, then winged over on its back and dived vertically into the ground. The explosion when it hit was like an oil tank blowing up, a huge ball of red flame and clouds of thick oily smoke.
‘My God’, was all I could say. It happened so fast that none of the wretched crew had time to bale out. There was no time for pity. We now had our work cut out to get away. Back down to the deck we dived at 300 mph, streaking triumphantly for home. A few miles from Chateaudun as we skimmed over the fields we saw a young man and girl run out of a house and wave wildly to us. They had probably seen the fight and could certainly see the funeral pall of smoke, so our victory had gladdened the hearts of two people of subjugated France.
On 5th March 1944 20 year old Flight Officer Yeager was fighter escort to bombers on a mission to hit a Luftwaffe airfield in southern France.
Three FW 190s came in from the rear and cut my elevator cables. I snap-rolled with the rudder and jumped at 18,000 feet. I took off my dinghy-pack, oxygen mask, and helmet in the air; and then, as I was whirling on my back and began to feel dizzy, I pulled the ripcord at 8,000 feet. An FW 190 dove at me, but when he was about 2,000 yards from me a P-51 came in on his tail and blew him to pieces.
I landed into a forest-clearing in which there was a solitary sapling about twenty feet tall. I grabbed the top of the sapling as I passed it and swung gently to the ground. My chute was hung up in the tree, however, I hid my mae west and started off to the south-east, for I thought that I was in the forbidden zone. Before I had gone 200 feet half a dozen Frenchmen ran up to me.
Some of them got my chute down, and one of the men took me by the arm and led me to a house some 200 yards away. There I was given food and civilian clothes. A gendarme was seen approaching the house at this moment, and so I was quickly hidden in the barn. When the gendarme left I was brought back into the house where one of the men who had left the group now returned and gave me a note in English telling me to trust the people in whose hands I was. I was then taken to another house about a kilometer away, and from there my journey was arranged.
The report continues
The next morning the same guide returned and took him by bicycle to a young couple of 35 years with a son, Jean, five years old who live in a farmhouse off RN133 near the lake at Font Guillem au Pujo between Pompogne and Houeilles. Here Yeager lived for seven days. Then a farmer from Houeilles took him to a house half a km. from Nerac.
This is the house of the regional maquis (French Resistance) chief, Gabriel; and here Dr. Henri -, the doctor of all the maquis in this part of the country, lives when he is in the vicinity. After Yeager had been here a few days, Dr. Henri arrived in the Franbel (the name of a local pencil company) lorry and went after Nahl and the six sergeants with him whom he then brought to the maquis near Nerac. He then went back to Castel Jaloux and from there brought Seidel to the maquis.
National Archives, Escape and Evasion Case File for Flight Officer Charles (Chuck) E. Yeager (338-EECASEFILES-EECASE660-YEAGER). You can read the original documents on Chuck Yeager.com and you can hear him describe the episode when interviewed on Radio Parallax.
In this interview he also describes the first daylight raid on Berlin on 4th March 1944 when he got an Me 109, his first kill, the day before he was shot down. While escaping over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain his companion, another evading pilot, Lt. Patterson, they were discovered in a remote mountain hut. They jumped out the back window but Patterson was shot in the knee. Yeager threw him down an ice slide (used to send trees down the mountain), and followed himself, to evade the Germans. After hauling Patterson out of the icy river at the bottom of the slide, Yeager had to amputate his leg, by cutting off the remaining tendon and muscle below the knee with a pocket knife and apply a tourniquet. He then carried his unconscious companion to safety and internment by the Spanish.
Yeager made it back to England only to be told that the rules forbade ex evaders from combat missions over enemy territory, in case they were captured by the Germans and revealed details about the French Resistance. Yeager “raised hell” about this and eventually ended up in a personal meeting with General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. He got himself back flying. His war was not yet over and his aviation adventures were just beginning.
The 8th Air Force crewmen were now being asked to complete 30 full missions before they could complete a tour of duty and get away from operational bombing. The chances of them surviving all 30 missions depended on many factors. There were so many hazards. Sometimes it was the weather, sometimes it was the flak, sometimes it was the Luftwaffe, sometimes it was an accident. Even when a mission was aborted half way and the planes turned back a simple error of navigation might cause disaster and end the lives of many young men in an instant.
Lt. Vern L. Moncur was a B-17 Pilot for the 303rd Bombardment Group (H), 359th Bombardment Squadron based at Molesworth, England:
The target was the “Big B.” The weather was so bad that we were forced to climb to 27,000 feet over the North Sea and were unable to get completely out of the clouds and poor visibility. This excessive altitude took a lot of extra gasoline since we had been briefed to go in at 20,000 feet. Therefore, because of the weather and shortage of gasoline, we were unable to get to the target.
We crossed over the Helgoland Islands and got moderately accurate flak. The combat leader decided to turn around and go back to England just after we had crossed over Helgoland. On our turn around in the haze, two Forts collided and exploded in mid-air. It was quite a spectacular sight. The bombs in these two planes went off like a Fourth of July fireworks display. None of the crew had a chance of getting out of either ship because it happened so quickly. Even had they gotten out, they would have been no better off because they were out over the water when the accident took place.
Upon our return to England, we found fairly decent weather for a change. This was a very welcome exception to the rule for English weather. This was the first mission that we had brought the old “Thunderbird” back without a few holes in it. None of the crew was injured. Our bombs, 12 five-hundred pounders, were dropped over the Helgoland Islands.
Luck was with them that day because waiting over Hamburg was Heinz Knoke and his Luftwaffe fighters. The Luftwaffe had suffered serious losses since the beginning of the year. Knoke’s group were down to less than half the usual number of aircraft, only three experienced pilots were left, all the others had joined them since the beginning of the year. The new USAAF long range fighter escorts, accompanying the bombers all the way, were making a huge difference. When they got the chance to hit back on favourable terms they would not miss it:
3rd March, 1944.
The Americans attack Hamburg. Specht cannot fly, and I am in temporary command of the Squadron. Our original forty aircraft have now been reduced to eighteen. These I take into the air.
Over Hamburg I prepare to attack a small formation of Fortresses. My eighteen crates are 5,000 feet above them.
just as I am about to dive, I observe, about 3,000 feet below and to the left, a pack of some sixty Mustangs. They cannot see us, for we happen to be directly between them and the dazzling sun.
This is a magnificent opportunity!
I throttle back to allow the enemy pack to get a little way ahead of us. Wenneckers draws alongside, waving and clasping his hands in delight. For once we are in a position to teach them a real lesson, but I must be careful not to dive too soon. They have not spotted us yet. After them!
In a practically vertical dive we hurtle into the midst of the Yanks, and almost simultaneously we open fire. We take them completely by surprise. In great spirals the Mustangs attempt to get away. Several of them are in flames before they can reach the clouds. One literally disintegrates under fire from my guns. Yells of triumph echo over our radio.
In the evening I receive the report from Division that the wreckage of no fewer than twelve crashed Mustangs had been found in map reference sectors Caesar-Anton-four and -seven.
There is only one drop of sorrow to tinge the general rejoicing. Methuselah has not returned. Several of the pilots saw a Messerschmitt 109 without wings going down. What has become of Methuselah?