Steve Snyder has done a magnificent job of producing a tribute to the B-17 crews of the Eighth Air Force generally, and the people of the Resistance in Occupied Europe. The story he has to tell is based on the recollections and contemporary letters of his father Howard Snyder. His wartime career was in itself remarkable, for he began flying during some of the most dangerous days of bombing in 1943, before the long range fighters arrived, but then successfully ‘baled out’ of his burning aircraft and ended up joining the Resistance.
But “Shot Down” goes much further than recount one man’s adventures. Steve Snyder paints a fully rounded picture of all the events during this period, from what it was like to train as a pilot and then join a Bomb Group, through to what it was like to live in wartime Britain, and then later find oneself on the run in occupied Europe. He follows the fortunes of the other members of the crew who were shot down at the same time – and in doing so tells us about the fate of men who were not as fortunate to find sanctuary as his father was.
Presenting the full context makes this book readily accessible to anyone not familiar with the bomber war in Europe – but there will also be much to interest those whose real passion is wartime aviation:
For example this is part of the portrait of what flying a B-17 was all about:
The inside of a B-17 was like a cigar tube, held in place by thousands of rivets. The aluminum “skin” was very thin and easily penetrated. The plane smelled of sweat, grease, cordite (basically smokeless gunpowder from the .50 caliber shells the machine guns fired), cigarette smoke (airmen who had never smoked before found relief in tobacco) and often urine and dried blood. The ten-man crew was enclosed in a space tighter than a submarine. This was especially true for the tail gunner and ball turret gunner who were enclosed in extremely cramped locations—so much so that they could not wear their parachutes.
The bombardier, navigator, pilot, co-pilot, and engineer/top turret gunner were separated from radio operator, ball turret gunner, two waist gunners, and tail gunner by the bomb bay. The bombs, typical ten 500 pound, general purpose (GP) bombs, were stacked in racks from floor to ceiling on both sides of the plane, five to a side. In between was a catwalk only eight inches wide, and when the bomb bay doors were open, the view was five miles straight down to the earth below.
To defend themselves, B-17s were equipped with .50 caliber Browning machine guns. Once in formation and over the English Channel, the gunners cleared their guns shaking the entire plane with ear-splitting noise and filling the plane with the smell of cordite. Then everything became quiet with the only sound being the monotonous drone of the engines as the planes made their way to the target.
The B-17’s dedicated gunners were the ball turret underneath the plane with twin .50 caliber guns having about 500-650 rounds of ammunition; the tail gunner with twin .50 caliber guns in the tail; the top turret gunner (flight engineer) with twin .50 caliber guns, and two waist gunners each with a single .50 caliber gun on either side of the plane. There was also the chin turret with twin .50 caliber guns that the bombardier could fire and the two cheek guns for the navigator.
A combat Wing of 108 B-17G aircraft, each carrying about 5,000 rounds of ammunition, could in combat bring to bear over 1,000 machine guns firing 14 rounds a second with an effective range of 600 yards. However, the amount of ammunition was limited and the guns would get too hot for the gunners to just hold the trigger down and fire relentlessly when engaging enemy fighters. To be most effective, the gunners shot in bursts of four or five rounds at a time.
Once above 10,000 feet, the crew donned oxygen masks as the planes continued to climb to their operational level that could be as high as 30,000 feet. At that altitude, one minute without oxygen and a man would lose consciousness, after 20 minutes he would die. The strain on the men and the plane would mount as they climbed higher and higher at 300 feet per minute. To say the least, it was very strenuous on the pilots to keep a 30 ton Flying Fortress in tight formation on missions that lasted eight to ten hours, but it was necessary; the formation was the bombers’ best defense against enemy fighters.
There are also plenty of direct observations from Howard Snyder, including the experience of having to leave his burning plane:
The fire was getting so hot I could hardly stand it. My neck was burning and I pulled my scarf over the exposed skin. My nose, cheeks, eyebrows, eyelids and lower forehead must have been burned when I was using the extinguisher. I don’t recall any pain from my face until I was on the ground.
It was impossible to go back through the fire to see they had jumped from the rear of the ship, and as I couldn’t get any response from anyone, I left the cockpit. As I crawled down to the escape hatch, I was surprised to see Benny and Dan still in the nose. As I made my way toward them, Benny looked down and saw me. I motionedfor him to come. He hit Dan on the arm and they both dived toward their chutes. We went out through the nose hatch.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I believe the interphone and auto pilot were shot out. The crew in back must have jumped earlier because of the smoke and fire, and they possibly could have seen Holbert or Eike jump. Because the ship crashed one or two kilometers from where I landed (at the ferme de la Distillerie or Distillery Farm in Macquenoise, just north of the French border), the auto pilot could not have held level flight for very long. Of course, the ship could have exploded soon after we jumped. With the fire so fierce, it would not have been unlikely.
When I jumped, our bomb bay doors were still open. As I crawled through the escape hatch, I recalled the discussion we had about clearing them when jumping and I wondered if I would. I did! I had been a good while without oxygen and was feeling the eflects as I fell. We were at 20,000 feet. I was determined to make a delayed jump and as I extended my arms to stop somersaulting, I caught a glimpse of what I thought were eight billowing chutes.