The 381st was part of the 1st Combat Wing along with the 91st BG, the 351st BG (detached Dec 1943), and the 398th BG (gained April 1944). The Wing history makes facinating reading. It covers all of our missions and mentions key 381st details.
1943: History, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec
1944: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec
1945: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May
STATISTICS AND HISTORY OF THE
1ST COMBAT BOMBARDMENT WING (H),
From date of activation
until the termination date.
Compiled by the
Editor's note: Written by Major Haberman, and typed up by his clerk - Darrell Gillett. This copy was saved by Mr. Gillett. In 2001, Gordon "Gordy" Alton (91st BG Association member, son of tail gunner S/Sgt Donald Merle Alton) recieved this copy from Mr. Gillett along with some photos. It was promptly transcribed, with special thanks to Linda Cline, and minor errors were corrected.
Many thanks to Gordy for allowing it to be posted here with the 381st BG war diaries and to Derrell Gillett for preserving this important piece of history.
1ST COMBAT BOMBARDMENT WING (H)
W I N G H I S T O R Y
We started as the 101st Provisional Combat Wing (H). We were a part of the old 1st Bombardment Wing, which later became the 1st Bombardment Division. Our first chief was Brigadier General Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., the man who commanded and led the old 97th Bomb Group when it made the first attacks by American heavy bombers on Hitler’s Europe. The General stayed with us only a short time; then on 14 June 1943 he left us to assume command of the Division, then to go home and organize a new fighting unit equipped with something newer, more powerful than our own tried and true ship, the Boeing Fortress. Our permanent Commander, Colonel William M. Gross, took over.
This history deals with our organization and the things that happened to it. Although it may appear impersonal, concerned with things and events, it is really the story of Bill Gross and his Wing and his Groups and Group Commanders and his boys. For it was the Boss who gave this Wing its character and its tone and its know-how. It was the Boss who dreamed up things like having specialist teams to lead our Groups, who taught the boys the importance of radio communication, who above all through his tact and good-natured perseverance and genuine diplomatic skill somehow put over the idea that we were one organization fighting for the unit as a whole, and not ragtag assortment of individual Groups each proud of itself and resentfully resistant to the idea of peeling its individuality in a larger unit.
WHY COMBAT WING? This Combat Wing idea was the child of the European theater – the “Big League”, as we liked to call it. When operations began here, the old contemptibles, the 97th, 301st, 306th, 305th, 91st, and 303rd, the first Groups to thumb a nose at the Hun, went at it by threes and sixes and eights, and even ones and twos. They found out about fighting this war the hard way. They tried everything. High, medium and low altitudes. New guns, tricks and gadgets. Little formations, medium formations and no formations. They would have tried big formations, but they didn’t have enough ships. They paid heavily for their lessons.
Finally, the idea gained acceptance that even the old Group formation, as previously conceived, was too small for the Big League. What if the Bible, FM 1-10, said that the Group was the largest unit that could be flown? We were facing a condition, not a theory. Every time Goering’s yellow-nosed kids knocked down a Fort, they punched another hole in the field manual. Experimentation showed that you could fly three Groups in a vertical formation. And when we showed this massive wall of 50-caliber guns to the Hun, his respect for our firepower was the proof that we had something.
You could put sixty airplanes together in the air. But you couldn’t fly that many off a single airdrome. Limited ground facilities, the length of time needed to taxi and take0off and land, the number of ships you could get into a single traffic pattern: these and other factors imposed an absolute limit on what you could do with a single field. What you had to have was a single combat unit operating from several bases widely separated on the ground. This could not be achieved without a new framework of Air Command, a command concerned only with tactics, transcending channels of administrative detail. The Combat Wing was the new command.
Primitive Beginnings In the dark days of the winter of 1942-43, a jackleg Combat Wing organization was born. They had four Groups then. General Armstrong had the 306th and Colonel Curtis E. LeHay had the 305th. All they did was throw the 91st in with the 306th under the General and the 303rd with the 305th under Colonel LeHay. That was all there was to it. Yet, even in this primitive form, it worked. General Armstrong’s Wing was the start of our organization. Proposals were submitted to the powers in Washington to legalize the Combat Wing and give a T/O and some tools to work with. If Washington was impressed, we saw nothing over here to show it. We waited until August 1943 before we were made legal.
The trouble was that the war couldn’t wait. Jerry didn’t care if we were legal or not. We had to have Combat Wings, so we improvised them, matching personnel wherever we could, stealing men from the Groups, sponging on the Groups for maps and supplies and quarters and offices. We had Lieutenants over Majors, Captains doing the work of Colonels. At the same time, we had officers doing enlisted chores, for we had no enlisted men. We had only de facto command – a mixture of cajoling and wheedling, and our only big stick was that we could tell the General if we didn’t get what we wanted. Fortunately, due to the good sense and good nature of our Group Commanders, we were never forced to use the big stick.
We Make A Start Our Wing made its appearance on 17 May 1943, when the General and Colonel Gross arrived at Bassingbourn. We had a General and a Colonel, but what was home without an Adjutant? And, to coin a phrase, what was home without a mother? They brought with them the other two charter members of the Wing: Lt. Jules L. Moreau and Miss Prentice. Moreau was a young man whose devotions to scholarly pursuits and to the Army and deprived the legal profession of a shining light. Miss Ella, the least of whose talents was that she could take shorthand and type, had been the Boss’s Secretary at Widewing, the 8th Air Force Headquarters.
Bassingbourn was a nice place. It is located at the southern tip of Cambridgeshire, a mile and a half from Royston, fourteen miles from Cambridge. London was an hour and a half by train from Royston, and there were movies, pubs, and females in Cambridge. Some of the later arrivals from stations in the Bedford area, notably Thurleigh, continued to work Bedford for a while, but the distance was too great and this finally petered out, more or less. The important thing was that Bassingbourn was a station that had been built in peacetime. True, Hitler’s breath was hot on England’s neck when they built it, but there was still time to put up good substantial buildings. The other American stations all had nissen huts, which are the children of Diogenes’ barrel aired out of wedlock by the American Can Company. And the other stations had mud, cozy, slimy, animated mud, that liked nothing better than to crawl over the tops of your galoshes and worm its way between your toes. We, at least, had clean feet.
Our host was the 91st Group, one of the old, original four that fought the war during the bad winter of ’42-’43. Just about the time we started, Colonel Wray, original commander of the 91st, departed and the Group was turned over to Colonel Lawrence, then to Colonel Clemens (“Uncle Clem”) Wurzbach, still later to the redoubtable Colonel Claude E. Putman, who went from Squadron C.O. in the Group to Group C.O. via Thurleigh and 1st Division.
The 91st was our nucleus. We also began with the 351st. This was Colonel William A. (“Uncle Willie”) Hatcher’s outfit. It opened for business about the same time we did, hanging out its shingle at Polebrook, 35 miles away in the wilds of Northamptonshire. Later, we acquired the 381st, skipper Colonel Joe Nazzaro, which moved in at Ridgeway, 40 miles the other way in Essex. He stayed with us for a while, but finally in January of ’44 we lost him to higher headquarters and his executive officer, Lt. Col. Leber, took over. What happened was that they took all the stations that were close together and made Combat Wings out of them, and the ones that didn’t fit they gave to us. Thurleigh, Chelveston, and Podington, all within 5 miles of each other, were put into the 102nd, which later became the 40th and Molesworth, Kimbolton, and Grafton Underwood, all close together, were made into the 103rd, later the 41st. What we saved traveling around Bassingbourn, the only station that was not scattered over two or three miles of countryside to make them bad targets, we more than lost trying to visit our stations.
Colonel Gross The Boss was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, class of 1934. Other schooling included the Air Corps Primary Flying School, Advanced Flying School – Attack course, and Air Corps Technical School. His ratings were those as Technical Observer and Senior Pilot, and he was credited with over 2,000 flying hours when he came to us.
In peacetime he had served in Heavy Bombardment Groups at various times as Engineering, Armament and Assistant Operations Officer. In 1940 he was Operations Officer at Bolling Field, and was in full charge of air traffic at that important station. During the movement of the 8th Air Force to the Theater of Operations, he acted as A-4 and was responsible for equipment and putting the entire force through the staging area at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, immediately prior to their movement to England. After arrival over here, he became Assistant Chief of Staff A-3, Air Service Command, and was Assistant Senior Controller during the movement of the original Air Units, which left England to take part in the invasion of North Africa in November 1942.
Tied to the desk throughout his first year in the Theater, the Boss wanted operational missions under his belt as fast as possible. By the end of September, he had eleven missions, or half his maximum permitted under the rules. Besides, they have a habit of grounding valuable men, and if he was going to be valuable, he had to get his missions in fast. After he had persuaded the Group that radio conversations in the air was possible and had demonstrated in practice missions that he could control our large and unwieldy formations over the VHF transmitters, we got away from silent and uncontrolled missions and began having Air Commanders, both for Combat Wings and for the Division as a whole. The Boss was Division Air Commander on a number of notable missions, including the long costly drag to Schweinfurt, Germany, on 17 August 1943. He flew to Meaulte on 13 May, Kiel on 19 May, St. Nazaire on 29 May, Wilhelmshaven on 11 June, Bremen on 13 June, Villacoublay near Paris on 26 June, Flushing, Holland on 15 August, Schweinfurt on 17 August, Amiens/Glisy airdrome on 31 August, Romilly-sur-Seine on 15 September, Emden on 27 September, and Wesel, Germany on 7 November.
The Charter Members To help the General and the Colonel get the Wing organized Lt. Col. Harry J. Holt and Captain Roy M. Ahalt came up from VIII Bomber Command on DS. Colonel Holt was the former C.O. of the 367th Bomb Squadron of the 306th Group, the “Clay Pigeon Squadron” of Saturday Evening Post fame, and was the first of a series of officers from that Group who came to join our Wing at various times. These two were quickly joined by two Cum Laude graduates of the 305th, Captain Robert Woodrow Smith and Captain Frank Dickinson Yaussi, both Sunkist lads from California. Smitty, alias “The Mole”, was rock-ribbed and a solid citizen; a veteran of 25 missions with the 306th during the rough winter when doing your 25 without getting shot down meant that you knew your formation flying and could make a B-17 talk. “Youse-Mouse” was the first American invader of Germany in World War II; the lead bombardier on the first raid to any German target by U.S. Bombers. These two came to us on 23 May. Like all the rest, they remained assigned to their Group and came here as attached personnel, since our provisional or de facto set-up made this necessary.
On 27 May, the A-3 staff consisting of Smitty and Yaussi was joined by an A02 organization. This consisted at first of Lt. Harold J. Hanes of the 91st Group. Hal was an old globetrotter and backgammon expert from Michigan, who had been commissioned out of civilian life because of his special knowledge of the Near East and two or three modern Semitic languages. This, of course, made it inevitable that he would ultimately wind up here in England, where he received special training under Major Errol RT. Holms, the British Flak Liaison Officer. In addition to general A-2 work, Hal specialized as Oberflakmeister, or Anti-aircraft Gunfire Officer, in our Wing.
Captain Ahalt and Colonel Holt left us on 30 May to return to Bomber Command. On 2 June we acquired our Wing Combat Intelligence Officer, Lt. P.W. Haberman, Jr., a former New York ambulance chaser and legal windbag. Phil also came to us from the 306th Group, although he had to serve a term of four months at 1st Bomb Wing before he was admitted to our “Country Club” at Bassingbourn. Immediately thereafter Phil began to blossom. He soon became our unofficial nom-de-plume, the official spot being reserved for the more technical mind of our Adjutant, Jules Moreau. Phil also assumed first place as our post, inventor, historian, and idea man. In fact, as one reflects, it is hard to remember many things that have happened in our Wing that “The Judge” hasn’t been in on in one way or another.
Meanwhile, we had found it impossible to carry on our business in our hats, as we had done at first. An office was needed. We cast an eagle eye on the second floor of Station Headquarters, where the Great White Father, Major John J. McNaboe, a former State Senator in New York, presided after the fashion of a local District Leader. Fortunately, we had a General in our Wing, so the Senator was relieved of one large and two small rooms with little difficulty and only a small amount of wailing. We set up the big room as our Operations Room, complete with a blackboard and telephones, and our A-2’s started covering the Celotex with their asexual pinups. Soon we had a situation map, 1:500,000, covered with red blobs for flak areas, little airplanes to show where the Jerry fighters were supposed to be based, radar lines, and plenty of colored twine and bright-headed pushpins to lay out our devious plans against the enemy. This map was to become the altar before which we practiced many strange rites in the small hours of the morning as our Wing carried the war to Mr. Hitler.
WING PROBLEMS: Our responsibility was defined in a letter signed by Brig. Gen. Raywood S. Hansel, Jr., 1st Bomb Wing Commander, dated 28 May 1942, as the tactical efficiency of the Groups of their Combat Wings on operational missions and “the integration of those Groups into a single, cohesive fighting machine, capable of operating as a single unit”.
This was no small job. Our Groups were good, but it was our business to make them better in their work by any and every possible means. Also, we had to fly and fight them as a unit. The Boss knew what he was up against. First, he knew that everything in the tradition of the Army and the Air Corps was designed to promote morale by having every outfit believe that it was the only really good outfit in the whole show. He knew that this organizational pride made our Groups a bit too quick to find fault with the other fellow, a little prone to feel that if anything went wrong it was because the other outfit was not on the ball. Before you could get a unified fighting organization you had to overcome that feeling. You had to throw the fellows from the various Groups together. You had to wheedle them, criticize them and plague them just the right amount, teach them to air their mutual grievances face to face, to learn to understand the other fellow’s problems and respect him for what he was doing, to think of the Combat Wing formation as a whole and not of what was best for the individual Groups. It took a lot of starting, but its motive power soon became self-generative. Combat Wing critiques were the best medium for this job. It was hard to get three Uncles, Uncle Willie Hatcher and Uncle Joe Nazzaro and Uncle Clem Wurzbach, to help with this problem: they were old-timers in this racket. At the critiques, we made the youngsters state their grievances, argue out their disagreements, sympathize with the other fellow, and laugh a little at themselves. After a while, not too long, they got the idea. From then on there was no trouble with Group rivalry.
There were other problems, too. One of them was getting the Groups to fly better formations and weld them into a good, tight Combat Wing formation. This was a matter of training, but not one you could handle by sitting in the office. We made it a habit to go out in the air and watch the formation, both on practice missions and when they were getting together to go fight the war. Sometimes we went out in our trusty “Oxfighters”, Airspeed Oxfords “B”-BAKER and “C”-CHARLIE. Later on, we traded “C-Charlie” in for an A-20, and about the same time they gave us an L-4B, known to all but the Army as a Piper Cub or Maytag Messerschmitt. Sometimes we borrowed a B-17 from the 91st Group to go along and observe. A “famous first” was the occasion when the Boss, exasperated by the skepticism of the combat crews concerning the feasibility of good radio communication in the air, took a formation of 36 B-17’s over Cambridge and Ely and Thetfor and drove it around like a taxicab by giving orders from an observing aircraft outside the formation. After that, they believed.
From the very start, our Wing pioneered in the field of communications. After our Groups had been sold on the use of VHF, on 30 August 1943 the Boss made the first improvised and controlled attack on any target in which VHF was used to direct the accomplishment of a mission. That day we were sent over to attack the airdrome and storage facilities of the GAF at Romilly-sur-Seine, about a hundred miles east of Paris. The Boss was leading the Combat Wing, which was the first to penetrate and make an attack. When he got to the target, he found it socked in, so he warned off the other Combat Wings over the VHF and saved them needless miles over hostile territory. On the way in, he had observed that Amiens/Glisy airdrome, a juicy target, was wide open, so on the way back he announced that we would attack it. He announced the IP and directed the deployment of forces for the attack and the re-assembly after bombs away. The attack was a complete success. This was a monumental development, for the first time we had made an un-briefed attack on an un-briefed target, with the same ease and precision as though the details of the attack had been planned on the ground.
General Williams at Division was quick to perceive the implications of this one. At a subsequent critique, he announced that previously our formations had been merely led. After takeoff there was no control over the attack than in the case of a projectile once fired from a gun. Now we would have command, as distinguished from mere leadership. A truly revolutionary development in our work.
We played our part in carrying forward the implications of this change. The next time the Boss went on a mission, he was designated Air Commander of the Division forces. To meet his new responsibilities, we worked out a new form of briefing the Air Commander, preparing for him a special four-leaf glassine folder containing all the information he might need in the course of the mission. It was truly a brief of the entire mission, in the course of the mission. It contained all the details of the missions from the assembly through the attack and back to the bases. A highly detailed map of the route was included, showing the location of the assigned targets and other places which might be available as targets of opportunity, maps and photographs of all targets, locations of flak areas, fighter rendezvous points with timings, check points to be made good, VHF call signs, etc., etc. In preparing this, we followed a principle the Boss had discovered: it had always been the practice to select secondary and last resort targets along the return leg of the route. This seemed logical and no one had ever questioned it: after all, if you couldn’t hit the primary, then you would want something to hit on the way back. What the Boss realized was that the important thing was to get a look at your second-string target on the way in so that you could make the attack under conditions you would know about before you got there. The Amiens/Glisy raid had proved the soundness of the principle and it soon was officially adopted.
The mission brief and the pre-selection of targets of opportunity also secured universal acceptance. When we pre-selected such targets, we called the other Combat Wings and told them about it. Presently, the others were doing the same thing, and by tacit understanding it was agreed that the Combat Wing leading the Division would always select such targets and pass them on to the others. It was never necessary to publish any directive on this subject: the idea was a natural and came to be accepted simply as a custom of our trade. The mission brief paid off, too. On the Schweinfurt raid of 17 August 1943, the Combat Wing kept out of every flak area on the route both going and coming. We were not even fired at except at the target. When the outfit got back to base, the lead Navigator all but kissed us.
Then we carried the VHF business one step further. All Combat Wings were still having assembly trouble. Up there in the air, you couldn’t tell one Group from another. Wrong outfits were always forming up on each other and right outfits would snub each other in the air due to lack of recognition. Even when two outfits wanted to join up, neither knew exactly what the other was going to do. They weren’t allowed to call each other up and get things straightened out: radio security was a sacred cow we had inherited from the early days of the RAF, when any R/T chatter was an engraved announcement to Jerry that we were coming over. Sacred cows or not, in this case, we wondered whether radio silence was worth the price we paid in confusion and abortions to attain it. It was taken up with General Williams and immediately the ban was lifted. This was enormous help. Assembly was simplified a thousand-fold, climbs were adjusted to the climbing ability of the tail-end Charlies, superchargers were saved and abortions reduced.
However, this brought a new kind of trouble. The boys started abusing their new freedom of speech. It didn’t do any harm to talk once you reached a modest altitude: Jerry’s radar would tell him you were there whether you talked or not. But it was another thing to tell Jerry that you were coming over on business, how far you were going, and when and where you were taking off. And the boys were innocently doing these things all the time, once the ban was lifted. So we put some new security measures into effect. We ordered radio silence to be maintained until the radar screen had been entered. Then all messages would be kept to a minimum and the R/T used only in cases of absolute necessity. All discussion of places and altitudes had to be in cryptic terms: we used the “Angel-Devil” system of the fighter boys for altitudes and our assembly line would be from Point A to Point B instead of from Cambridge to Ely.
We never told Division about this. We knew that Division was in the habit of monitoring all R/T channels. One day the Boss came back from Division with a grin on his face. Here the other Combat Wings were blathering away all over the sky, giving away their courses and altitudes and constantly jabbering about nothing at all. But the 1st Combat Wing channel was dignified as a judge; practically unbroken silence, with every now and then a remark about “Devils three approaching Point ‘A’. Presently, there was a directive from Division. Our system was to be adopted by all Combat Wings. This time, we all grinned.
LEAD TEAMS: We had some other “famous firsts”, too. We were the first to dream up and use the idea of lead teams, screened to lead operations and never fly on the wing. The trouble was that your leaders never get a chance to practice their bombing. Whenever the weather was good enough to fly, Bomber Command threw a mission at us. If you had three or four first-class bombing teams in a Group, they had to fly the mission unless they happened to be on a pass. And on our missions, nobody used a bombsight except the lead ship of each Group. The rest were toggleers, as we called them, just sitting there on the bomb run with their eyes glued on the lead ship. When they saw the bombs come out, the bombardier whacked the toggle switch. You couldn’t develop leaders that way. The Boss got General Williams, who had taken over at 1st Division, to approve the idea of setting aside four teams in each Group that would not fly missions unless they led the Group. Thus, when there was a mission day, one team would fly the mission and the rest would go and bomb Scares Rock or Breast Sands or do Camera bombing. This was an idea that really worked. It improved our bombing and was soon made official throughout the Division.
TO GERMANY VIA PHILADELPHIA: Another one was the form that started as “Philadelphia” and went through many editions, “Baltimore”, “Chicago”, “Seattle”, “Yorker”, “X-ray”, or whatever name Smitty happened to think up for his latest creation. This came about because they seldom left us enough time to get our Combat Wing supplements to field orders over the Teletype. Generally, we would get an alert about six o’clock in the evening and sit around the station and sweat out the field order until midnight, more or less. When we got the field order hot from the Teletype we would discover that the Groups would have to take off at six or seven in the morning. That meant that they would brief at 2 or 3 A.M. They needed at least a couple of hours to make their arrangements and get set for the briefing. That left us about two hours or less to tell them what our assembly route would be and give our other instructions and you had to give poor old Kurtzie, our harassed navigator, a little time to monkey with his Mercater, his Weems plotter, and his E-6B confusser. And with the Teletype taking from two to three hours to get our annex through to Polebrook and Ridgewell, we were really behind the 8-Ball. Dutifully, we learned the mystic symbolism of the signals crowd, “PLX VIA BMP VIA RIG VIA BMP BAS BIA BMP BMP V BAS”. Carefully we heeded our missive’s “URGENT SECRET SENT IN CLEAR AUTH COL GROSS”, BUT STILL Menees of Polebrook and Delano of Ridgeway would call in agonized tones, “Hey, for Chrissakes, gimme a route”. Finally, in desperation, we invented our form. This was a canned annex with blanks, all numbered. When we had everything doped out, all you had to do was call up Ridgewell and say, “Hey, you got a Philadelphia?” When the other end was ready, you just called a lot of gibberish over the phone and the guy at the other end filled out the blanks. It worked. Best of all, it satisfied the customers.
THE FIGLEAF KIDS: Some of our ideas were on the higher side. The Boss thought that we ought to have some way of encouraging Groups to cut down on their abortives by giving an award to those with the best records. We got up a plaque to be awarded for having two missions in a row with no abortive aircraft. It was a symbolic gadget: a B-17 aircraft doing the immemorial job of Doctor Stork, carrying two squalling brats slung in a diaper. No abortions, twice. Uncle Willie’s Group copped the award right away to go with the plaque, so we made up a little gadget to hang underneath, which we called a “Figleaf Cluster”. Later, when we acquired a VHF ground station we needed a call sign. What could have been more appropriate than the same old term? We became “Figleaf”. Still later, when we worked a weather ship into our missions it became “Flying Figleaf”.
PROF. HABERMAN’S PATENT CONFUSER: Some of our ideas were stillborn. After all, you couldn’t expect everything to click. Haberman, the legal eagle, got the idea that you could help bombing by having a jigger on the bombardier’s map that would show him how his crosshairs ought to sit on the ground after he had his bombsight set up. It consisted of a transparent plastic disc with the crosshairs on it and a compass rose. You cantered the thing on the aiming point on the map and adjusted it to fit the heading with the compass rose. The Boss took one look at it and said that it would be a big help if you could fix it up so that you could not only use it for lining up on the target, but also to sight on a point outside of the target area. What you needed was a system to sight on one point and then drop late so you could hit what you were really after. If you could do that, you would have a means of beating the Jerry smoke screens, which were bothering us a lot. Sure, the Norden Bombsight could drop a bomb in a pickle barrel, or at least that was what the publicity said, but suppose you couldn’t see the pickle barrel? This might be the answer.
So the professor went down to Bomber Command to see the Big Brains. He found a solution ready-made. Major Jerry Goerlings, he of the perspective maps and the landfall strips and other bombing-made-easy-in-three-easy-lessons gadgets, had been fussing with the same problems. So we put a grid on the disc and we worked out a series of delays for different distances and ground speeds. The Kurtzie and Yaussi tried it out on a camera-bombing mission over Cambridge. We took a map of Cambridge and out of the center of the town to simulate the smoke screen. Instead of knowing what to hit and then not being able to see it, they could see all right, but they didn’t know what they were aiming at. The target, unknown to them, was the railway yard. It was a good thing they didn’t have bombs in the ships, because they hit it on the button.
General Williams was most enthusiastic when he saw what we had produced. Orders went out directing intensive training in all Groups in the use of the jigger. Then before it was used on a real show, along came our pathfinder force, with its trick gadgets that made it possible to bomb and do contact navigation over a solid 10/10ths undercuts. We thought the jigger was washed out. Later, we heard otherwise. It seemed that the boys were using it, but it was just another gadget to them and they made no special point of reporting on it. Did it help hit targets? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. You couldn’t be sure of anything in this game.
MORE PROBLEMS: Biggest of all the problems was assembly. The Boss saw that one coming long before it kicked us in the face. Everybody was pretty well agreed that it was unhealthy to go fight the war with less than 40 airplanes on hand; the Combat Wing Leaders would be authorized to abandon any mission and go home. The Boss knew that no matter how good the Groups were it all went for nothing if you couldn’t put them together in the air. And we were going to have trouble, more trouble all the time as the strength of our forces increased and the weather settled down to its usual winter routine of one cloud later sitting on top of another like a nice, gooey birthday cake. The Boss and Smitty and, later on, Terry the Tiger put more sweat into this one than anything else. It paid off, too. Each of the other Combat Wings had a couple of abandoned missions chalked up before the good old First and Worst ever muffed one. And when we did finally foul up, the weather was so bad that the others did too so we didn’t feel too bad about it.
The Boss used to worry about statistics, too. No comfort to repeat the old refrain, “Lies, damn lies and statistics”. Somehow, we seemed to get the short end on the statistical reports when we didn’t deserve it. For example, one time our Combat Wing was the only one in the Division that got together and went off to fight the war. The others failed to assemble and went home. Then when we got over France, our boys ran into weather they couldn’t penetrate, without attacking a target. As a result, when the poop came out with the percentages on it, we had the highest percentage of sorties NOT attacking a target in the Division. We were like a saxophone player; we blew in sweet and it came out sour. We tried to do things about things like that. We usually got sympathy, but that was about all.
Still, we didn’t do too badly. We had a lot of firsts among Groups and Combat Wings of the Division. We managed to keep up a pretty steady record of being first in things like keeping aircraft in commission. We flew darn good formations, thanks to the Boss’s constant insistence on that subject, and as a result our losses were lower than the others, as a rule. Our bombing didn’t shine at first, but then when we started we had two brand new Groups and the third, 91st, was just going into the period when all of its old and seasoned crews were graduating and they had to start over. But we progressed, we got better, and when we were six months old, we had the lowest circular error in the Division. We were pretty proud of that, you may be sure.
CEILING AND VISIBILITY UNSPEAKABLE: There wasn’t any doubt about one thing: the big enemy was old man weather. We always had a feeling that if we could have brought over not only our ships, but also the weather to fly them in, we could have had things pretty much our own way after a while. We thought that there were plenty of times when we tore enough Jerry Fighters on a couple of good missions to send his down to the count of ten. But then, just as we had him on the ropes, old man weather would ring the bell and we would have to go back and stew in our corners for two or three weeks, while Jerry’s seconds gave him a good rubdown and brought him back in to fight some more.
They had a saying, “If you don’t like the weather here in England just wait fifteen minutes”. That was just about right. What we were up against was a seemingly endless succession of weak fronts. Sometimes four or five of them would go by in a single day between sunup and sundown. You could take off in perfect visibility, fly to another airdrome only a few miles away and not be able to land when you got there. The G-2 department aged ten years one day when the Boss and Smitty flew the Oxford over to Debden, you could see straight down. P-47’s that lived at Debden were being diverted to other airdromes in the middle of just shooting landings. Well, the Boss navigated us in, taking samples off of all the haystacks that we passed.
There were cases of B-17’s taking off under good conditions and then getting torn up by line squalls that nobody expected. One time, the 91st was in the middle of taking off for a mission. Ten ships were off when Bang! Suddenly there was a ground fog on the airdrome so think that a ship that started to take off with plenty of visibility was on instruments before it got to the end of the runway. Winds were crazy, too, and some navigators had to learn about them the hard way. One new crew went to assemble over a splasher beacon above the overcast. Nobody showed up, so they circled for a while. Finally, they got tired and letdown. When they broke through they saw an airdrome, so they started to sit down. Flak! They climbed again cursing the stupid ground defense boys. Tried again. More flak. This time they decided to try somewhere else. Headed West. Next letdown they were over water. The navigator admitted that he was lost, so they decided to fly west and see what they could find. Presently they saw land and came in at low altitude. More flak. They headed north, flew a while, decided to go back. More flak. This time they were convinced and came home, guided by five Mosquitoes dispatched by the ever-watchful British. What happened was that 100 MPH winds had blown them over France while they were, as they had thought, circling and they had tried to land at St. Omer. The next place they called was Cherbourg. Things like that lost us a lot of additional hair.
The first winter of the VIII Bomber Command, you had to be pretty persnickety about weather. It had to be good for take-off, CAVU at the target or nearly so, and good for return to bases. You can’t do an awful lot of bombing in this Theater if you have to wait for conditions like that. It had changed pretty radically by the time our Combat Wing really got under way. All you needed was reasonably good visibility for take-off and return to base. We could take off before dawn, assemble above an overcast, fly to the target and bomb through 10/10ths ceiling and visibility and then we returned. But this increased versatility brought new problems. That’s one thing about war and flying. Every problem solved brings two new ones to take its place. We found that you get new kinds of trouble. When there was heavy cloud, there was bound to be a lot of moisture in the air, and moisture meant contrails. Back home, fellows earned a living doing skywriting. Here you couldn’t help it. Flying an airplane at high altitude through saturated air caused the moisture to condense and you did skywriting even though you didn’t want to. That did a lot of things. It made you shining targets for flak. It obscured the view of the tail gunners and made things too easy for Jerry. It sometimes made it impossible for the guys in the back to see the leader, and busted up the formations. Then, as often as not, the high clouds would build up to the point where we could not fly a formation through a cloudbank: you wouldn’t have any formation at all when they came out the other side. Things like that made it pretty tough.
THE HUN BITES BACK: The worst thing, however was the way we educated Jerry. Until the summer of 1943, we had no fighter escort to speak of. Sometimes, especially at first, we had Spits as far as they could go, which was 30 to 40 miles inside the French or Belgian or Dutch coast. But the Spit was too much of a thoroughbred for this kind of work. It had lots of flash and punch, but it was no workhorse for the long drag. However, we had proved that the Fort in Combat Wing Formation, was more than a match for any ordinary fighter armed with machine guns or 20mm cannon. By the time they got close enough to shoot, our concentrated crossfire from a hundred or more 50’s had torn them to bits. It was obvious to Jerry as well as ourselves that we could do what we had failed miserably at during the Battle of Britain. Sure, he knocked down Forts. Any guy that got out of formation and straggled was a gone turkey. But not once had he ever broken up an Eighth Air Force formation or kept us from penetrating to the target and bombing it. We are pretty darn proud of that.
Then in the summer of 1943, he started experimenting with new ideas. First he tried air-to-air bombing. Dive-bombers, Ju 87 Stukas, throwing things at formation from screaming dives. Level bombing from above. Fighter-bombers, medium and heavies. He tried to throw bombs at us from our own level. There were occasional successes at this business, but they were freaks. It didn’t work, not in any real sense. Then he tried airborne flak. Twin-engine jobs would sit out of range of our 50’s and throw stuff at us out of 37mm cannons or bigger. That didn’t work either. Finally they got something. It was one of our own ideas, adopted the way the Jerries copied everything we had. We had made a success of the bazooka, or rocket projectile, against tanks. We had shown that the rocket has the enormous advantage of a heavy missile without any recoil. Two GI’s could carry a bazooka on their shoulders and then blow a tank with it. So Jerry mounted rocket projectors on airplanes. It worked, worse luck. It wasn’t only that the rockets could knock down airplanes. They could also bust up formations. General Williams and the Boss found that out on the first Schweinfurt mission, 17 August 1943, when we lost 27 airplanes out of the Combat Wing. We were very happy to get the rest of the boys back.
By the time we had our second mission to Schweinfurt, on 14 October, Jerry had the combination. Our Combat Wing, although it led the show for the second time against this toughest of all targets, got off light with a loss of only three aircraft. The other outfits paid plenty. The 305th Group never joined up with its own Combat Wing, but flew low position on us. They caught it: left England with 17 ships and came back home with 2. Losses for the day totaled 60 heavies. This was bad business. We pasted the target, the most important we had ever attacked. In the abstract, destruction of 50% to the Hus’s all-important ball-bearing production was worth almost any price. On the other hand, we certainly couldn’t afford sixty bombers on a single mission. The public back home hit the ceiling. The big shots were quick to rush into print with explanations. General Arnold said that there was a tip-off: Jerry had five hours advance notice of the mission. Maybe so, but you certainly didn’t need to assume any cloak-and-dagger stuff to know what had happened. The play was pretty obvious. The weather map would have told Jerry pretty much what we would probably do: it was always more or less that way. Then, it was possible that our own boys chattering over VHF during assembly had given the show away. Jerry never knew what the target was; that was a cinch, because he had every smoke screen going in the neighborhood except the one at Schweinfurt. But the boys had told him when and where we were going to leave the coast and a lot of other stuff too, by not using their heads and their mikes at the same time. However badly we kept radio silence, the thing probably would have been the same. Fighters move twice as fast as bombers, and when you spend three hours going in to your target, it’s not surprising that Jerry managed to marshal stuff from all over the map. We have had tough and voluminous opposition every time we have gone deep into Germany, and you can bank on it that we meet the same fighters, more or less, wherever we go. We know of cases where Jerry has moved nearly four hundred miles and made interceptions when we were on relatively short penetrations.
OUR SMALL FRIENDS: No, it looked as though Jerry had finally stumbled on at least a partial answer to the unescorted bomber. Massed defensive fire was no good against a weapon that out-ranged you and was effective at the same time. Only one counter-answer was immediately apparent: fighter escort. It was pretty lucky that we had our P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightenings and, a little later, our P-51 Mustangs, coming into action different critters from the RAF fighters, which had been designed for short-range interception over England. You don’t need endurance to defend this country; the distances are too short. You can cover most of industrial England in a fast job in 30 minutes. What you need is a flashy job that can get to altitude in nothing flat, fight the hell out of anything that fires for 20 minutes and then scrambles back to base for more gas and shells, i.e. the good Spits and Hurricanes. American fighters, on the other hand, were designed with our more impressive distances in mind. The P-47’s could help us out over Bremen or the Ruhr, from English bases, which was an eye-opener to the British as well as to us when we were shown. The P-38’s and 51’s we were told, had more endurance. They could go as far as we could, at least on paper, and we had hopes that it would work out that way. And they were at least a match for the Jerries even under the handicap of working as far from their bases. They could knock down the Jerry twin-engine jobs as well as the singles that were hampered by rockets, like so many ducks. Best of all was the attitude of the fighter boys, who took the view that they [escorted] “big Friends” to the target and bringing them home. What’s more they were eager about it, always trying to add a few miles to their range and staying with us at times long after the fuel indicator said, “Go west, young man”. Our boys were plenty grateful, you may be sure.
Another thing about the fighter boys was their constant watchfulness over the guys that got knocked out of our formations. Before the fighters came, any ship that lost formation “had it”, as the RAF boys used to say. But after we got the fighters a green-green flare was the signal for “I’m in trouble: fighters please”. In a jiffy there would be four or five P-47’s hovering around the cripple warding off attacks and mothering him back to the coast. At one fighter critique we went to, one P-47 Group reported some suspicious single-engine jobs wandering up and down the enemy coast looking for trouble. “We had to meet the bombers”, said the pilots regretfully, “so we couldn’t stop and play”. Another piped up, “Good thing you didn’t. That was us, patrolling for stragglers”. We appreciated that too.
Anyway, after the Schweinfurt business, the powers that be decided that for the time being we would stay inside fighter range and fly only missions where full escort to the target and back could be provided. The boys liked that fine. Sooner or later, however, we would have to go back to the long, tough drags, beyond fighter range, in order to get at the vital targets that Jerry had constructed, as he thought, safely out of range. What was to happen, we didn’t know. This history will have to give the answer to that one in a later page.
WE GROW SOME MORE: As time progressed, our staff had an irresistible tendency to expand. On 5 June 1943, Lt. Raymond Y. Kurtz came to us from the 91st Group. Kurtzie (pronounced “Koitzie” in our best Brooklynese) was a veteran of 25 rough, tough missions with his Group, one of the original guys who came over with the Group. Before he became a Navigator, he used to play with figures in a large New York Bank. His discipline in adding pennies made him pretty good at adding miles, and he had an eagle eye for checkpoints and a memory that never forgot anything. We used to say that he was a chronic sufferer from “total recall”. When the Combat Wing celebrated, which it invariably did when there was a birthday or a promotion or sometimes, nothing beyond the fact that it seemed like a good idea at the time, Kurtzie would sometimes get would up and regale us with always earthy and sometimes profound observations on life in general and the life of a Navigator in particular. His stories rambled considerably; to him one fact was as important as another and he found it impossible to follow the straight path of his narrative when there were so many enticing alleys and sidetracks full of lurid detail of scientific and psychological interest.
On 8 June, Captain Percy C. Young came from 1st Wing. He was an old revenuer from the Income Tax Bureau in Washington, had been an assistant S-2 in the 303rd Group. His stay with us was short: after a few weeks he left us for the 381st Group.
11 June brought us Capt. Ashcraft, a graduate pilot from the 305th Group at Chelveston. We were shorthanded in the Operations section by this time, and Hugh was loaned to us temporarily pending more permanent arrangements. Soon he, too, left us to become Assistant Controller at 1st Bomb Wing, where he soon was given a Majority.
On 13 June, we became a real outfit. We acquired our first enlisted man, 12 of them, together with 2nd Lt. Chester L. Otstot. All of them were waifs of the soon-to-be abolished 40th Bomb Wing. That was a deal we over here never understand. We were growing, there was no doubt of that, and our need for senior officers was beyond debate. We had the material: the flying officers who had graduated from operations and ground guys who had helped them pioneer the first winter of our sorrows. These were seasoned, experienced guys with know-how; there wasn’t a 2nd Lieutenant among them who didn’t know plenty of things that nobody back home could possibly be expected to know. We needed two things: a T/O so that fellows like these could be given rank commensurate with their training and responsibilities, and a lot of nice, bright, shiny new 2nd Lieutenants to start learning the business from the ground up the way the others had done. The last thing on earth the Division needed, or at least as we thought, was a lot of rank fresh from the States that would have to learn their jobs from fellows two or three grades below them. Also, the next to last thing we wanted was a complete headquarters outfit, green from home and designed to manage outfits with plenty of savvy. To our chagrin, what we got was three Bomb Wing Hqtrs’ outfits, the 40th, 41st, and 45th, complete with commanding Officers, Colonels, Majors, Hqtrs. Squadrons and all. There was nothing to do with them. They sent them in turn to 1st Division and then to 1st Wing where the poor fellows had to live in tents and sit around with nothing to do. There was nothing to do with these outfits but break them up and distribute their men where they would fit in. Lieutenants were easily disposed of, Captains difficult, field officers impossible. After all, it was the same story in every Group: guys who had been over here and were the beginning, the eager early worms that had worked hard and shown stuff and were still lieutenants. If there was a T/O vacancy, you couldn’t move in a Captain fresh from come and shut off their hopes of promotion by filling the vacancy with a guy who was far less valuable and deserving than the old-timers. Six months later, as we write this, nearly all of them have been placed and have proven themselves worthy so I reckon we were wrong, but you gotta gripe about something.
TRANSIENTS AND PERMANENTS: Our Combat Wing got some pretty good guys by the deal. Otstot, a salty Pennsylvania Dutchman, took over as our A-4 and Transportation Officer. In his spare time he acted as Assistant Adjutant. We acquired T/Sgt. Herbert Williams, who had turned down a chance to get into bigger if not better things in order to insure that he would get into Combat Intelligence, Sgt. William D. Brown, who promptly became our top kick and Moreau’s private stooge, Cpl. Maurice Brunault, destined to become the work-horse for the A-3 gang. Others included Pvt. Murphy, known as the bicycle merchant due to his strange habit of buying bicycles for L-9 and selling them for L-6, and, last but not least, the inevitable Geremina celebrated his arrival by going AWOL within the first 24 hours. His praiseworthy rubber-saving career came to an end several months later as a result of an unfortunate experiment with the center of gravity of a quarter-ton command car. After that, Geremina painted ceilings for a living.
Like other Combat Wings, we had a procession of distinguished visitors ranking officers who came to us en route to assume commands in order to pick up some of our alleged wisdom. Among these were Lt. Col. J.J. Preston, formerly of the 305th Group, who came to us pending assignment elsewhere.
Another was Colonel J.K. Lacey, who later became C.O. of the 41st and subsequently the 94th Combat Wings. Still another was Colonel Howard Moore, who spent time with us and with our Groups before taking his command of the 482nd Pathfinder Group at Alconbury.
The shortest career of any in our Wing was that of Lt. Col. James F. Wilson. Jimmy had been C.O. of the 423rd Squadron, 306th Group, and then Group Air Executive. When General Armstrong left us and the Boss resigned as Chief of Staff to take over the show, we needed a new Executive. They gave us Jimmy, and all of us but especially the former 306-ers, were happy to have him. He was like Solomon Grundy: attached on Monday, arrived on Tuesday, went to the hospital on Wednesday, relieved from attachment on Thursday. What happened was that Captain Raymond J. Check, the last remaining original pilot of Jimmy’s old squadron, was on this 25th and last mission. Nothing would hold Jimmy back: he had to go along. It was an easy one. Triequeville, just inside the French coast, a mere romp. During the few minutes of combat, a 20mm shell entered the cockpit, killed Check and started a fire, which burned Jimmy badly about the face and hands. Jimmy brought the ship back none-the-less. For this, he received the DSC and as a result of his injuries he was assigned to the Zone of the Interior. We hated to see him go.
To take his place, they gave us Lt. Col. Woodrow W. Dunlop, whose middle name was not Wilson. He came to us from being Assistant A-3 at 1st Wing on 29 June and stayed until 19 August, when he became Air Executive at the 381st at Ridgewell.
Our next accession, on 1st July, was 1st Lt. Roger A. Prior. He came from the 303rd Group S-2 section, where he had made an enviable reputation as a teacher of Intelligence subject to combat crews. He joined our A-2 section and also took on the duties of Wing Statistical, or Numbers Racket, Officer. Inevitably, he was known to us as Roger the Lodger.
WHO DOES THE DUTY OF THE DUTY OFFICER? The same day gave us our second legal eagle: 2nd Lt. Francis B. Clark, of Boston and Harvard. Clarkie became our invaluable, indispensable chief duty officer. We liked him fine, in spite of his dry, deadpan, incisive humor, the cause of much occasional and often deserved squirming.
It was good to have a regular duty officer. War business is different from peace business in many ways, one of the chief being that the war has no legal holidays, time off or excuses for not being on the job all the time. It didn’t matter if everything was as quiet as a mouse. You never could tell: the phone might ring or the Teletype grind at 3 o’clock in the morning, long after Bomber Command had told everybody to sign off for the night. We insisted on our Groups having a duty officer on hand at all hours, not just a guy to take messages, but a fellow who knew what to do or who to get a hold of it he didn’t. Obviously, we had to have one ourselves. Until we got a complement of at least three duty officers, the rest of us had to take turns doing the watch trick, sleeping if at all, on a cot with three biscuit-mattresses in our Operations Room.
Then on the 21st of July, we were given another duty officer, 1st Lt. Wilson A. Hermann, and he was joined a week later by Lt. William C. Hutchings. This was a real break. With three duty officers, you had continuity in the very important work of the duty desk: keeping track of the numbers of crews and aircraft available for operations, seeing that all operational matters were duly and properly coordinated with the Groups, taking care of the assignments of practice bombing ranges and the thousand and one other things that are the daily grist of the Operational Mill.
“TIGER, TIGER, BURNING BRIGHT” 19 August was a bid day in our Wing: on it, we were joined by Terry the Tiger, Lt. Colonel Henry W. Terry, our new Chief of Staff. This was a big event for the ex-Thurleigh boys. Tiger was another 306-er, a very special one. He had been a marked guy from the day he joined the 306th while it was forming out at Wendover, Utah. Haberman, the S-2-er had never forgotten that it was the Tiger who first took him for a ride in a B-17 when he was so green in the Air Corps that he wondered if ground guys were ever allowed inside them. The Tiger came to the 306th as a Lieutenant, but nobody was surprised that it took him less than a year to trade his one-bar in for silver oak leaves. He wasn’t even a flight commander when he started with the old 367th, but it wasn’t long before he was a Squadron Commander in his own right. He had the 306th when it earned the name of the “Fightin’, bitin’, Squadron”, with the almost unbelievable record of flying 41 consecutive missions under his command without losing a single airplane. They know that things like that don’t happen by accident; when they happen, then you know you have got a guy in charge who can run an outfit. And not only that, but anybody who knows Tiger will tell you that he has a mind like a razor, gets the point before you have finished telling him, and no horse feathers on him, not a one. He has recently been promoted to a full Chicken Colonel and we all heartily endorsed it.
24 August, Major Elbert G. Sandoz, of the 91st, came to us as Wing Communications Officer, to be succeeded after a few months by Captain Warren Dewlen of the 381st. Sandy was one of the lucky ones to be sent back to the States. Signals Officers were always lucky that way. Not that we wanted to quit; in fact, we all had a sneaking feeling that we were probably better off over here, but there wasn’t a guy who didn’t have a chronic case of homesickness that he spent half of his time keeping in the background. It would be a pretty good deal, we thought, to be sent home because you were needed there.
THE GHOST WALKS All this time, we were still sweating out that T/O. The Boss finally got tired of waiting, so he got the Groups we were assigned to do something. 29 August was a red-letter day, a banner day. Smitty and Yaussi became Majors, Kurtzie and Moreau Captains, and the Boss had a birthday. These were AUS-AC promotions, and approved by Eighth Air Force Headquarters. A few days later, Haberman made Captain, and then Hanes. These two took a little longer to come down, because they were AUS and had to go to Theater Headquarters ETOUSA for orders. There was celebrating in the ranks.
Then – Ah miracle! – came the T/O. September the 17th the 1st Combat Bombardment Wing (H) was activated and all personnel were assigned. No longer provisional, we were legal at least and here for keeps. Our morning report had figures in the assigned and present for duty column: 15 officers and 20 EM. Moreau’s frustration ceased: he could cut orders!
19 September, another real acquisition: a graduate of 25 missions as pilot in the 91st, our new assistant Operations Officer: Captain (“The Chink”) Chima, III. As long and handsome as his name, a fearful slayer of and for female alike, you never thought of Chinkie as a Headquarters Joe. But he managed it.
On 22 September, joy came to the enlisted section. With our new T/O, full of stripes and rockers, it became possible to reward the diligent. Sgt. Brown became Staff Sergeant, Pfc. Gillett and Pvts. Hugh and Hoffman became Corporals, Pvt. Jacques, a faithful purveyor to the comfort of the lads in House 78, a Private First Class on a par with the immortal Greengroin.
THE RABBITS’ WEST: Parenthetically, House 78 deserves more than passing mention. Yes, we lived in style. The Boss and Tiger and Smitty and Moreau and Hanes lived, as befitted their dignity, in Officers’ Mess No. 1, an elegant if slightly institutional ménage where one could eat, sleep and yes, even bathe under a single roof. The rest of the crowd lived across the campus in a nice house originally designed for light housekeeping by a Squadron Leader, his wife, servant, Austin car, seven children and three dogs. It had a parlor, dining room, kitchen, woodshed, garage, servant’s room, master bedroom, second bedroom, third bedroom, and fourth bedroom. Naturally, every room was used as a bedroom, even the kitchen, where Cpl. Eddie Barauskas, the Boss’s driver, slept warm next to the water boiler. The master bedroom was occupied by Yaussi and Kurtzie, the next by Haberman and Otstot, the next by Chima and the last and smallest by Clarkie. The living room and dining rooms were inhabited by Prior and the duty officers; Jacques lived in the servant’s bedroom. We all had bicycles; these shared the garage with our winter firewood, kindly sent to us by Uncle Joe Nazzaro from Ridgewell.
The house was distinguished by its almost constant preoccupation with food. What with our nightly stint of Work usually lasting until 2 or 3 a.m., the inmates were constantly missing breakfast. This led to the constant use of “K” rations, with their coffee and bouillon and pork and veal loaf and pork and egg yolks. Sure they were good eaten raw out of the cans, but with a houseful of frustrated cooks, it was only a short time before we were making fearful and unheard of concoctions. Then came popcorn. An electric hot plate was obtained, butter and salt and sugar and cooking oil and lard and bread and fresh eggs (yes, eggs). Yaussi was head chef; for us the rule of Communisa applied: from each according to his ability; to each according to his appetite. Those who couldn’t cook washed dishes. Ah, happy days!
On 30 September another duty officer arrived, Lt. Donald J. Davis. Dave stayed with us only a short while then, he was transferred to the 305th Group at Chelveston.
The Great God Snafu lashed his tail at us in a big way on 25 October. Bear in mind, gentle reader, that we were strictly a headquarters outfit. As such, we had a total of four cars in moccission [on occasion], and never more. The Boss had a Studebaker sedan and we also had a couple of Wolsely “saloons”, as the British say, and a Command car. We had no heavy transport and had no need of any. Nevertheless on 25 October we received an assignment of 14 enlisted men from the 16th Replacement Control Depot, and twelve of them were truck drivers. Four Sergeants, four Corporals, five Pfc’s and one Private. Didn’t ask for them, need them or want them. But we got them just the same. The thing was soon straightened out and most of our truck drivers reassigned to Groups on 6 November.
The middle of November, two new Duty Officers were assigned to take the places of Herrmann and Davis. These were Lieutenants Paul Dreiling and Ralph (Rabbit) Villanova, both ex-combat guys, both welcome to our staff. We thought, until these two came, that we knew a thing or two about youthful exuberance, but we were wrong – and how! During the same period, S/Sgt. Livoti, who came to us from the 91st as Operations Clerk, was advanced to Tech., and the Boss’s room orderly, the faithful Pancho Valenzuela, was advanced from Buck Private to a prideful Pfc.
At this point, the members of the Wing had that nice, comfortable feeling of having jelled. Of course, in life, nothing is permanent and in the Army even less so. In our time, still less. However, we felt that this was the family. We belonged to the Combat Wing and we had the feeling that the Wing belonged to us. A look at our roster will show how we stood at this point in our career:
Colonel William M. Gross, alias “Topdog” and “The Boss”
Lt. Col. Henry W. Terry, III, alias “The Tiger”
Major Robert W. (Smitty) Smith, alias “The Mole”
Capt. Cornelius (“The Chink”) Chima, III
Capt. William C. Melton
1st Lt. Francis B. Clark, alias “Clarkie”
1st Lt. William G. (Hutch) Hutchings
2nd Lt. Paul B. Dreiling
2nd Lt. Ralph A. Villanova, (“Rabbit”)
Ass't. A-2 & Flak Officer
Capt. Harold (Hal) J. Hanes
Major Frank D. Yaussi, alias “Youse-Mouse”
Ass't. Statistical Officer
1st Lt. Roger A. Prior, alias “Roger the Lodger”
Capt. Jules L. Moreau, known otherwise as “Julie”
Capt. Warren E. Dewlen
A-4 Transportation, Ass't. Adjutant, Supply Officer & general Utilities man and fall guy
2nd Lt. Chester L. Otstot, alias “Cheddar” and “Hotshot”
Herbert A. Williams, A-2 Section Chief
Frank A. Livoti, A-3 Section Chief
William D. Brown, top kick
Knox E. Bibb
Maurice R. (“Moe”) Brunault
William H. Kirby
Robert C. Opp
Joe L. Schuetta
Edward W. Barauskas
George E. Biggs
Harry E. Chew
Darrell W. Gillett
Jesse D. Hays
Robert L. Ibberson
William A. Kerns
John P. Ruth
Edwin C. Schultz
James R. Waldrop
William I. White, Jr.
George A. Hakeem
William H. Hurst
Robert H. Jacques
William P. Valenzuela
Calvin A. Sommer
John E. Armstrong
John F. Bellina
Alexander D. Bettencourt
Jack S. Bond
Ralph P. Germina, Jr.
Thomas I. Murphy
Miss Ella Prentice
However, we knew it couldn’t last. Worthy personnel has a habit of gravitating upward, sooner or later, and we did have guys who had finished a tour of missions and would be entitled to go home sooner or later. We knew that General Armstrong, who was reputedly forming a new Group back in the States, was angling for ex-306ers, he having run that outfit during part of its career. We knew that we were to lose Yaussi when 1st Division cut orders assigning to us Major Hugh J. Toland, Group Bombardier of the 306th. Then shortly after that, they gave us 1st Lt. Martin T. Honke, Jr. of the 381st and that meant we were to lose our Navigator, old Kurtzie. Still, if we had to lose them, we couldn’t ask for better than Hugh and “Honky-Tonk”. And lose them we did, Yaussi at Christmas and Kurtzie right after the New Year.
Operations: It has already been shown that it would be extremely hard to pick a particular date as the one on which Combat Wing became a functioning entity. However, there is no trouble in fixing the date of the beginning of our operational history: that date is fixed for us by the issuance of our first Combat Wing annex to an operational field order, which was in connection with a mission to St. Nazaire, 29 May 1943.
Perhaps we should explain this business of a Combat Wing Annex and how we prepared one. We had nothing to do with the selection of primary targets and not much to do with the planning of the route over enemy territory. In a typical case, Bomber Command would select tomorrow’s target shortly after the 4 o’clock weather conference. Sometimes, when the mission was uncomplicated, the major part of the planning would be left to 1st Division: in other cases, when the attacks of two or three Divisions had to be coordinated and fighter support fitted in, the Bomber Command field order would contain substantially all the data on the mission except the axis of attack and withdrawal and matters, which were of interest only to the individual divisions. In either case, the Division field order would come down to our Groups and to us by Teletype complete in substantially all the details of the planned attack, starting with the To: e. ½; ace and altitude of departure from the English Coast. What happened before and after was our concern. Division would tell us the size of the force our Combat Wing was required to supply; it was up to us to determine how many ships were to be put up by each Group and where each Group would fly: in the responsible lead position, the coveted high position or the dangerous low position. In paraphrase, Division would say to us, “Dear Combat Wing: Tomorrow we are going to attack Adolfshafen according to the enclosed plan. Please deliver to us at zero hour at 10,000 feet over Cromer sixty B-17 airplanes loaded with ten-500 lb. general-purpose bombs each and with the crews all briefed to carry out our plan. We agree to return to you any airplanes that don’t get shot down at Orfordness and zero plus 235. How you get them to Cromer and how you put them on the ground from Orfordness is your business. Your loving friend, 1st Division.”
Of course, if we didn’t like the plan of attack, it was our prerogative to squawk. We couldn’t object to the target, but sometimes we would kick about the route. We made it a point never to let an up-sun bombing run pass without complaining: we knew the boys wouldn’t be able, nine times out of ten, to see the target. But usually we had no squawk and it was only rarely that a squawk resulted in a change.
To make sure, however, that we approved or disliked the plan, we always laid the route out on our situation map and studied the target maps and photographs. We had some latitude in the matter of targets: if the field order didn’t specify aiming points, we would select them. This was often the case with the secondary and last resort target. In either case, we would do the selecting if it seemed appropriate. More usually, we would give the Groups two or three targets along the route that would make the trip profitable if the weather was bad at the assigned targets.
Assembly was the important thing. This was a constant struggle, although things certainly changed for the better as we went along. At first, the trouble was navigation and lack of good communication. To insure against failure to assemble, we gave our boys three bites at the apple. First, we made a pie-shaped initial assembly, with Groups coming in from three places and converging on a given point at a given time. Then, just in case they failed to make it there, we put a big dogleg in the route to the coast. This enabled any Group that was late to cut the corner and overtake the others. Then, for final insurance, we provided that if the Wing wasn’t assembled at the coast, the leader would circle until the others came up. This procedure kept our boys from aborting, while the others occasionally failed to assemble and hence couldn’t fight the war.
As we proceeded, however, our early troubles disappeared. Improved radio aids to navigation, our new VHF communications system and seasoning of personnel took care of them. But as we got into winter of 1943/44, old man weather took their place and then some. You couldn’t even fly a Combat Wing formation through a cloud; much less put one together if the planes couldn’t see each other. And assembly plan couldn’t be improvised in the air. So, when the field order came in, the first order of business was to get hold of Major Larry Atwell, the Station weatherman, and find out where the clouds would be. As a general rule, we made it a practice to assemble high: as far as the clouds were concerned, the old rule was right, “The higher, the fewer”. But we took all possible precautions, even to the extent of sending up a weather ship an hour or so before take-off, to report where the clouds actually were and help the formations to find a good spot.
May 1943 can hardly be considered a part of our operational history, even though the mission of the 29th to St. Nazaire is carried on our books as Combat Wing mission No. 1. Our annex on that mission was simplicity itself. The 381st Group had arrived at Ridgewell, but it hadn’t gone operational. All we did was tell the 91st and 351st to get together on a line from Cambridge to St. Albans and then follow a prescribed route to Hertford, the point specified in the field order. General Armstrong signed the annex while the Boss ran out and jumped into an airplane.
We didn’t know too much to do with it, but it was a successful operation. The Bomber Command narrative said that we “successfully bombed the submarine installations in the Bassin de St. Nazaire and the Bassin de Penhoust”. Our Wing lost 1 airplane of the 351st Group. Of a total of 44 aircraft dispatched, 7 returned early. That word “abortive” had raised its ugly head!
June was a good month of solid achievement. We ran eight missions: Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Le Mans, Huls, a target of opportunity identified as Norden, Germany, Paris/Villacoublay airdrome, St. Nazaire and Triequeville. The 381st went operational with the Huls-Antwerp missions on the 22nd, when 64 aircraft were assigned and only 5 aborted. We dropped 119 tons of bombs on that one.
The Huls-Antwerp mission was the outstanding job of the month. It was the first mission in which the 381st took part. Our main target was an important synthetic rubber factory in the Ruhr, near Recklinghausen. The attack was made under difficulties; it had to be delivered through broken cloud after a long flight under heavy fighter attack. Although our Wing had only a fleeting glimpse of the target, reconnaissance photographs later showed that the plant had been practically obliterated. Strike photographs showed bombs from our Wing just beginning to walk across the target, so it was a certainty that we had played our part in the excellent results achieved.
Six months later, during the great Russian advance in the East, there were persistent reports of German equipment being equipped with inadequate tires. After the war, we will learn whether this was due in part to the Huls raid. For the present, we like to think that we had something to do with it.
Other missions flown during the month were of routine interest only. The missions of the 25th and 26th were defeated by weather; on the latter, all the aircraft turned back at the IP because of the solid undercast, and the formation dispatched to attack the Klockner Aero Works at Hamburg, was also frustrated by cloud, with our aircraft cruising around over Germany looking for a break. They finally bombed a target of opportunity through a chance hole in the clouds. There was little interest in the results, as the target was not of enough importance to justify the effort expended.
The final record for June was a total of 517 aircraft dispatched by the Combat Wing on operational missions. Of these, 76 returned early and 16 failed to return.
Previous months had seen the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force work up gradually from very modest beginnings. The earliest raids were touch-and-go affairs just over the Channel: Rouen, Albert/Mesulte, Abbeville/Drucat and such places. Then we divided our attention between Lille and the sub bases on the west coast of France. January and succeeding months had seen the first tentative blows at the Reich, but attacks were limited to ports such as Emden, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven. In June, we had penetrated inland as far as the Ruhr, on the inland fringe of Western Germany. Was in July, we struck boldly at the center of the Reich, striking twice at Kassel and twice at Hamburg, with one attack at Keil.
July was a big month in other respects. It witnessed a first attack by our forces on German targets in Norway, where we delivered a devastating attack on the vital aluminum works at Heroya. And in the memorable week of 24-30 July, we delivered six major attacks in seven days – a record which was still un-approached as we wrote this, seven months later. In addition, there were attacks on Le Mans, France, on 4 July. Caen airdrome on the 10th and Amiens/Glisy airdrome on the 14th.
Many of the attacks were entirely successful. This was the season of good visibility, and when the weather was good, there was no great difficulty in finding and destroying our targets. Even on the smoothest of the missions, however, there were minor troubles due to the extreme complexity of our operations. These troubles we aired at our Combat Wing critiques, which we held as soon after the missions as possible in order to straighten things out while they were still fresh.
The mission to Le Mans is a good example. Our target was an important engine works in central France, working for the Germans and servicing German machines. We attacked under conditions of perfect visibility, the target was plastered, and we never had to go back. But here were some of the difficulties reported at the critiques:
One Group got off two minutes late and one Group had trouble during the climb. There was some typical confusion during assembly due to the difficulties of telling which Group was which. A cloud bank at mid-channel endangered the formation, but negotiated by snaking. Everything was rosy until the IP, but as we approached the target, there was a sudden burst of flak and simultaneous fighter attacks on the nose that shook us a little. Throughout the mission there was some position trouble: apparently the altimeter settings of the several Groups didn’t entirely agree with each other. For a part of the trip, the high squadron of the low Group and the low squadron of the high Group got too close and got mixed up. At the IP, the high Group didn’t allow enough room and started on a collision course with the low Group on the bomb run. In consequence, it had to turn off at the last moment and its bombs were wide of the mark. One Group couldn’t make AFCE work. There was trouble with the VHF radio. It must be emphasized that there were minor troubles. On the whole, this mission was the kind the boys call a “milk run”. The target was well and truly hit by a good percentage of our bombs. Still, there was one airplane lost in the target area. Nobody knew why.
There was a persistent rumor that Bomber Command weather officers came over from the States in good health and went home a month or so later in straight-jackets. It was probably false, but we believed it passionately. The mission of 17 July shows why. It was a maximum effort. By borrowing some airplanes for the 103rd Combat Wing and scheduled 78 of our own, we managed to put up two complete Combat Wing formations. The size of the effort was stupendous compared with what we could do only a few months before; our Wing alone put up more planes than the whole Eighth Air Force had at its disposal during the previous winter. Our assigned target was the important Continental Gasworks at Hanover, which was a logical move after what we had done to German rubber production at Huls.
Alas, however, for the well-laid plans: weather caused the greatest possible difficulty in take-off and assembly, and then the Germans failed to coordinate their weather with the forecast on which the operation was based. Our formations made a deep penetration over Germany, but found nothing but a solid undercast and had to abandon the mission. A few airplanes bombed a town through a random hole in the clouds. The navigators guessed that the town was Rheine, just over the Dutch frontier, and that was the name we filed our papers under, but we were candid enough always to mark it thus: “Rheine (?)”. In spite of the weather, plenty of enemy fighters came up to make it tough for us. We were lucky: only one ship was lost, and the crew of that one was picked up by Air/Sea Rescue. Another ship had its controls shot out over Germany, but the pilot was flying in on AFCE, brought the ship back and landed it after the pilot had bailed his crew out safely over England.
Then came our big week. The mission to Heroya, Norway on 24 July was the start. Until then, the 400-mile circle on our situation map was virgin. Bremen had been our longest drag and that was only 380 miles from home base as the crow flies. (Of course, no same crew would fly that way in wartime.) Then, without previous warning, we were called on to go for a pinpoint target beyond the 600-mile circle. At first we thought someone had gone slightly nuts.
But they hadn’t. Our boys negotiated the trip with ease and precision. For two years, the Hun had been patiently building a monumental works to keep up his dwindling stores of magnesium and aluminum. In a few minutes, those two years went down the drain. Results were assessed by British experts as follows:
“The attack developed from the northwest and resulted in a very heavy concentration of bomb bursts within the target area. Although a great many are seen in each of the four subdivisions of the target the concentration on the magnesium and aluminum plants is especially heavy.”
This, it will be remembered, was the week in which the RAF and the AAF made a verb out of what had been a noun: “Hamburg” – to inflict final and irretrievable destruction by air attack. We went there on two successive days, the 25th and 26th, adding to the havoc and bringing to fruition the oft-repeated promise of round-the-clock bombing. While the magnificent heavies of the British rained fire and devastation by night, our boys put the bee on the industrial waterfront by day. It was a complete job.
Then the boys had a day off. It was the first time in the history of our force that they stood us down for an earned rest. Then on the 28th, another three day round began: first to Kassel, the next day to Kiel, and a final mission to Kassel on the 30th.
To summarize: for July, we were credited with 674 aircraft scheduled and 576 making operational sorties. A total of 17 aircraft failed to return from operations. As against this figure, we received credit for 104 enemy aircraft destroyed, with 23 damaged and 56 probables. 97 aircraft returned early and 412 attacked targets. It wasn’t a bad month!
The month of August was notable for two outstanding missions: the first attack on Schweinfurt and the final polishing off of the extensive airdrome facilities at Le Bourget. Our Combat Wing led both of these attacks. The Boss got the Silver Star for leading the Schweinfurt mission. Uncle Joe Nazzaro got one for leading the Le Bourget job.
Otherwise, the month was one purely routine interest. The weather sat on us the first eleven days. Then on the 12th, our boys braved the Hun’s worst flak by flying straight across “Happy Valley”, otherwise known as the Ruhr, in an effort to attack on important synthetic oil works at Gelsenkirchen. Unfortunately, the smoke of a million chimneys created a veritable Pittsburgh-haze over which pinpoint navigation was impossible, and a thousand belching smoke pots made confusion thrice confounded. Nobody found the target. It was a credit to our hawk-eyed leaders that they found a target that looked important and bombed it, and when our strike pictures had been plotted, it was learned that the chance victim was the priority one-plus steel plant of the Vereinigte Stahlworks at Boxhum, which was well worth the effort.
But Schweinfurt was the big deal. This was the target of targets: a town devoted 100% to the manufacture of a vital component of every weapon that flies, floats, moves or shoots: ball-bearings. A chance hit on a ball-bearing works during the Battle of Britain had come within inches of giving Hitler a final victory. But the British had taken no chances of tipping Jerry off by attacking Schweinfurt until it could be completely shattered. There was no sense in sending Jerry an engraved invitation to disperse his facilities. It was better to let him keep his eggs in one basket and then smash that basket.
The attack was planned for months. Commanders and lead teams were sworn to secrecy and then briefed over and over again. The plan was never referred to by name: always as “Operations ‘A’”. And it was a good plan. 1st Division was to attack Schweinfurt, 3rd Division was to go after a Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg. The tricky part was to be this: 3rd Division would go in first and blast its way through the German fighter belt. We were to follow at a short interval when, according to the dope, the Jerry would be on the ground refueling, thus giving us an easy time on the way in. Then, instead of coming home, 3rd Division would fly and land in North Africa, leaving us to fight our way back.
It was a great plan. We stayed up all night preparing the Boss a mission brief. At 5 a.m., General Williams arrived to fly in the second element as Division Commander. We made him one, too.
But alas; when take-off time came a thick creamy and uninvited bog rolled over our 1st Division airdromes. For three mortal hours our boys sat on the ground waiting for the pea soup to lift. Then we got off. Meanwhile, the 3rd Division area was clear, and their ships had gone on time. To our sorrow, the Germans hadn’t been told that the other guys were going south, so they rushed their entire force of fighters to south-western Germany to catch them on the way back, and this entire force caught us on the way in. We took a deadly punishment. It was impossible to state how many enemy fighters came up to meet us: the official estimate was 300. All the boys know was that it was the worst fight that had ever taken place in the air. Total losses for the day were 60 heavy bombers. Of these, 1st Division lost 36. Hardest hit of all was our own Combat Wing, which lost 23 out of the 60 aircraft that went over. The 91st and 381st, which led the Task Force, paid the penalty of being out in front, with 10 and 11 lost respectively. Uncle Clem and the Boss brought their lead ship back with the left wingtip ballooned out by a cannon shell that exploded inside the structure. We were duly grateful.
General Williams permanently endeared himself to all the crews. As the story goes, Major (then Captain) Dick Weitsenfeld, who was flying the General’s plane in the deputy position, reported that the General was the best damn gunner he had ever seen and swore he had knocked down a couple of Huns. But the General never claimed any.
Results at Schweinfurt were officially classed as “very good”. Considering what the boys had to go through to get there at all, it was a remarkable job. The vital ball-bearing plants were not demolished, but they were severely damaged by direct hits. A heavy concentration of bombs had devastated all rail facilities, including the main station and railway marshalling yard, and a mass of incendiaries was laid in the town area. It was enough to put the target on the inactive list until the following month, when we went back and polished it off.
Le Bourget, by contrast, was a top-notch bombing job against comparatively light opposition. The airdrome was blanketed by an extremely heavy concentration, and hardly any installations escaped serious damage or total destruction. Other targets for the month included Flushing and Gilze-Rijen airdromes in Holland, Villacoublay airdrome near Paris, a mysterious construction site at Watten Wood near Calais, and a final blow at Amiens/Glisy airdrome in northern France.
This second attack on Amiens/Glisy, made 30 August, was notable for several reasons. First, it was the clincher on Colonel Gross’s campaign to sell combat crews on the use of VHF. Having gone to Villacoublay, the assigned target, and found it socked in he warned off the following Combat Wings and saved them of needless exposure over enemy territory. Then, having observed going in, that Amiens/Glisy was open, he announced that attack, directed the maneuver at the IP, uncovered the Wing for bombing, and then re-assembled it afterwards, all through the medium of VHF voice communication. This was the first time in the history of the Eighth Air Force that an attack on a target was commanded rather than merely led. The success of the attack was due also in part to the system, originated by the Boss, of pre-selection of opportunity targets, which could be observed going in. We made that S.O.P. and it was soon adopted by all the other Combat Wings.
There was one other point of interest. We had made a highly successful attack on the same field on 14 July, at which time we plastered the installations on one side of the field and incidentally put a few craters in the main runway. When Jerry fixed the runway he evidently thought it a good occasion to change the camouflage, and in doing so obligingly shifted the center of visual interest to the opposite and less bombed area. On the 30th of August, we polished off the other area. It is an amusing speculation whether the change in the pattern had anything to do with our good area selection. Certainly, it didn’t hurt.
With our strength temporarily reduced by our Schweinfurt losses, our record of sorties for August fell off to 392, while our losses for the month rose to 35. There were only eight missions as against ten for July. A total of 217 aircraft of the Combat Wing were credited with attacking targets.
This was not a distinguished month, as months went. Of course, no month was routine or distinguished if viewed alone; to put it otherwise, this month was merely less outstanding than the others. But even such a month had highlights and September’s highlight was that it witnessed the first application of the sensational new Pathfinder technique, by which specially equipped ships of the 482nd Pathfinder Group led our formations over 10/10ths clouds to make successful attacks on unseen targets in invisible countries. The first such mission was the one to Emden on 30 September, in which Colonel Gross was Division Air Commander, riding in the Pathfinder Ship.
September produced nine missions: Romilly-sur-Seine, Stuttgart, Brussels/Evere Airdrome, Lille/Nord Airdromes, a second and final trip to Romilly, two raids on Nantes, an attack on Meulan-les-Mureaux near Paris, and the Emden mission.
Several of these may be dismissed with a few words. Brussels on the 7th, Lille on the 9th, Meulan on the 26th: these came under the heading of routine slogging at enemy airdromes and aircraft repair facilities in the West. The results in each case were adequate, opposition meager and losses slight. Any of these missions would have been considered a long, tough ride during the previous winter. Now the boys thought them easy. There were two reasons for the change in attitude. First, they actually were easy contrasted with the long, tough rides into central Germany. Second, Jerry had regrouped his fighters to defend the Waterland. The bulk and the cream of his Jagergeschweder were no longer Grouped to give battle in defense of French targets. Also, we had fighter escort on all short and medium penetrations, and Jerry found it most unprofitable to join battle within our fighter radius.
The two attacks on Romilly, 9 and 15 September, were an end to a longish chapter. It was always a juicy target: a great air depot for the whole of the occupied area, with replacement parts and aircraft in profusion. It had received a series of attacks commencing in December of 1942 and suffered damage, but was never a knock out. Now, in September, it was polished off. The first attack destroyed the installations on the east side of the field, but left the important hangers and ships on the west side practically untouched. The next time, these were the aiming point. Through broken clouds, our boys deposited a carpet of bombs whose exact center was on the aiming point. That was the end of Romilly. We felt good about it because the Boss was the Air Commander.
It must not be supposed that all missions were good ones. The mission to Stuttgart on the 6th was unfortunate from every angle. The idea was to carry on the good work started at Schweinfurt by bombing a ball-bearing works of major importance and also to knock out the vital Besch magneto works. Bomber Command dispatched a total of 407 heavy bombers. 45 of these were lost, with our Combat Wing contributing 5 to the latter matter. It was reasonably certain that most of our losses were not the result of enemy action. It seemed that there was a higher wind than the forecast had indicated and as a result many of our ships used up their gasoline before returning to friendly territory. This conclusion on the available evidence was rather strengthened by the fact that for once the German radio claimed fewer bombers than we knew we had lost. Jerry was never one to minimize any losses that we knew about, always excepting his own.
At any rate, even the ships that returned to England failed, in many instances, to reach their home bases and a number coughed out over the Channel. Air/Sea Rescue did a thriving business. The worst part of it was that we were unable to attack the assigned targets. Bad cloud formations starting in the Strasbourg area developing into long rolls over the target, which made pinpoint selection impossible. Only 45 airplanes succeeded in bombing Stuttgart, and even these were unable to drop on the specific targets, which had been assigned. Our Combat Wing, under the leadership of Uncle Willie Hatcher, made a fruitless trip to Karlarahe, which was assigned secondary, and wound up by dropping its bombs with excellent results on the large marshalling yard at Offenburg, just over the Rhine from Strasbourg. Just after middle of the month, Bomber Command had an urgent request from the Admiralty to put the bee on the port area at Nantes. Always a place of importance, Nantes had advanced steadily as a base for enemy naval operations since St. Nazaire and Lorient had been reduced to piles of rubble by our operations of the preceding winter. Now there was a large concentration of enemy shipping there, but especially there was an armed merchant vessel, the Kertosono, which was supposed to constitute a new threat in the submarine war. Time was of the essence: she was in dry dock and might reasonable be expected to stay put from one day’s reconnaissance to the next day’s attack.
The mission was laid on several times, flown twice. One attempt was abortive because of weather. Two attacks were made. One of these was the graduating mission, of our own Chima. The bombing of the 91st was especially effective. On the second mission, a string of its bombs burst across the spot where the Kertosono was berthed, although no direct hits were observed. She had been moved out of dry dock between the two attacks. Reconnaissance following the attack brought commendatory messages from the Admiralty. The Kertosono was still upright and unsunk, but 68,000 tons of other shipping had been sunk or destroyed in addition to very heavy damage inflicted to port installations. Then, a few weeks later, came welcome news from ground sources. The Kertosono was still upright and displaying that would appear in a reconnaissance photograph. But she was sunk all right, sitting securely on the river bottom. She would service no U-boats for many months to come.
Emden on the 27th ended our month of operations while it opened a new chapter; that of Pathfinder work, bombing objectives through 10/10ths cloud. This was accomplished through fearful and wonderful new devices, secret from the uninitiated, and known to the trade as H2S or “Stinky”, H2X or “Mickey”, and “Oboe”. We were uninitiated and preferred to remain so. All we knew was that the night before a Pathfinder mission, one of these mysterious ships would arrive from the 482nd Group at Alconbury, which was our Pathfinder Group, operating directly under 1st Division and not in any Combat Wing. Generally, one of our own Navigators would ride in the Pathfinder ship to do any contact, D/R or orthodox radio navigation that might be required to cooperate with the trick navigator that belonged to the ship. The Air Commander would ride along, too, to make sure that the lead ship behaved correctly during assembly and performed no subsequent antics the Combat Wing would be unable to follow. Also, of course, it was the responsibility of the Air Commander to see to it that the mission was flown as briefed or, in case of need, to decide upon any departures from the briefed plan. These and similar responsibilities could be exercised only from the land position.
Naturally, Pathfinder operations were essential if we were to get full value out of our force during the difficult months, when Hitler’s Europe reposed under comfortable rolls of cloud for weeks on end. But in many ways they were unsatisfactory, at least to the boys in the Groups. Air attacks was a pretty impersonal thing at best, with the countryside from 25,000 feet looking far less like the real thing than did the General Motors Futurama at the World’s Fair. On Pathfinder missions, you didn’t even know it was there. The boys had to take it on faith that they were not risking their necks to drop bombs in open fields or in the sea. The British used the technique on their night missions, but they had the satisfaction of seeing the glow of fires reflected in the clouds, which told them that they had at least hit something that would burn. Even our strike attack photographs on these missions showed nothing but downy masses of clouds, with perhaps an occasional streak of black or show where the flares of the Pathfinder ship had gone down to show the others where to drop. Also, the deal was a further frustration to our practicing bombardiers. The ETO was bad enough for them at its best: after months of indoctrination back home on the importance of bombsight procedure, they became lead-ship artists, their whole duty in life was to slap a toggle-switch when they saw the bombs come out of the lead airplane. With Pathfinder work going on, even the leaders were demoted to togglers. And then not to see the bombs hit! Even that, however, was not the worst. Often it would be impossible for reconnaissance photos to be flown until weeks later, when the visible effects of bombing had been erased by the industrious Jerry or the RAF had come along meanwhile and smothered the area in a fresh attack. In such cases only the end of the war would tell whether we had hit the target or even flown over the target area.
Fortunately, the Emden raid could be assessed. Strike photos were negative but a PRU ship got cover a few days later and discovered new and substantial areas of damage in the target area. It was made clear that Pathfinder operations were here to stay.
Summing up for September, the 1st Combat Wing had 434 accredited sorties. 357 aircraft bombed targets, 262 on primary targets and 95 on targets of opportunity. Our aircraft destroyed 41 enemy aircraft probably destroyed 2 and damaged 19 for the loss of 10 of our Forts. Our proportion of aircraft attacking to sorties was abnormally low; this was because on one scheduled mission to Nantes our Wing assembled when the others flubbed the dub on account of weather. Trouble was that the same weather prevented us from attacking even though we did assemble and went off to fight the war.
People in other rackets, one may be sure, will never understand the amount of coordinated expenditure of effort that went into even a relatively modest mission. Still less will they ever understand that even with the most careful planning in the world, missions could and did go wrong for causes that were trivial in scale even if enormous in results. Weather not quite as briefed, a flub-up by a single inconspicuous individual, a misfortune in a lead ship could wipe out the efforts of a force that was an army in itself, and no small army, at that.
For this reason, the borderline between a good month and a bad one was narrow indeed. A month that was otherwise undistinguished could become a howling success merely through one or two good missions: not so surprising when it is considered that after knocking off about sixty percent for weather, we only managed to swing eight or nine raids a month.
October was a good month because it included two outstanding jobs: Anklam on the 9th, and Schweinfurt No. 2 on the 14th. Six raids were flown in the first two weeks, and the rest of the month was a dead loss, except for a minor job on the small town of Duren flown on the 20th, obviously flown more for the good of the force than to hurt the Hun. Other jobs were Emden on the 2nd, Frankfurt on the 4th, Bremen on the 8th and Munster on the 10th.
To cover the minor jobs first: the most noteworthy fact was that any mission to Germany could be considered minor. Emden was another experiment with Pathfinders. Our attempt to make good on the extravagant ads appearing in the home press was pretty much a flop! Full-page art jobs in TIME and LIFE proclaimed that the Fortress, in addition to its other virtues, was now equipped to carry ten tons of bombs. What an airplane: it could fly at 40,000 feet, carry ten tons, do 300 miles an hour, fly 3,000 miles. Poor Public. They were never told that it could do any one of three things, but it couldn’t do any two of them at the same time. Sure it was a fine airplane – the finest in the world, as we darn well know, but we also know its limitations, one of which was that it couldn’t get away with more than three tons in high altitude formation combat work, let alone ten. This was one of the raids on which we tried to carry 6,000 pounds internally and 2,000 more under the wings. The machines would get off the ground and even make altitude that way, but you couldn’t pull the necessary extra power without losing superchargers. It was like our ill-starred YB 40’s, those over-armed and underpowered flying battle cruisers, which had come with high expectations and gone without regret.
Like all missions this one had good features as well as bad. We discovered in our VHF radio a potent weapon of cooperation with our fighter escort. Twin-engine rocket ships were knocked off like ducks when attending P-47’s were advised of their presence and whereabouts. We lost no aircraft of the Combat Wing on this mission. From the bombing standpoint, we never knew. It was a straight pathfinder job and we were having trouble due to the difficulty of seeing flares dropped by the lead ship. On this mission, our Combat Wing never saw the flares and dropped on the enemy’s flak. If we hit Emden, as we probably did, it served him right.
The Frankfurt mission on the 4th was an unhappy affair. Losses in the Combat Wing were light for such a deep penetration: only three aircraft. Enemy rocket ships were much in evidence, but we had good fighter support most of the way and hence too much opposition. Bombing, unfortunately, was poor. Our Combat Wing had its own target in the town, but clouds and a smoke screen ganged up with a mistake made by the navigator of a preceding task force to crowd us off the briefed axis of attack and we had to select an improvised IP and make a run under bad conditions. Our bombs landed in a cemetery. Two Groups of other Combat Wings did good business on an airplane propeller factory, which was what they were really after, so the thing wasn’t a dead loss.
Bremen on the 8th was notably chiefly for the fact that our fighters, constantly extended their range, went with us right to the target. We had never believed the stories you heard about the range of our American fighters: we had heard similar stories about how far our Fortresses could go and we put all such stories on the shelf with Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. This day we had our eyes opened and by P-47 Thunderbolts at that. Lightenings and Mustangs were supposed to be the long-range jobs. If P-47’s could go to Bremen, where could the others go? That came later, we were happy to discover. Unfortunately, the discovery was not ripe on the 9th, when our Combat Wing and the 41st attacked Anklam. Even the fables about the range of the B-17 nearly came true that day. For some time, all airplanes newly arrived in the Theater were B-17G’s, which were equipped with long-range tanks in the wings, called “Tokyo Tanks”. To secure uniformity of equipment ours was the last to be equipped with them, and at this date, were the short-range boys.
The tactical plan for the days work was ambitious. The long-range boys were to fly to the Polish corridor and beyond, attacking the former Polish port of Gdynia and the most important aircraft words at Marienburg in East Prussia, whence they had been removed from Bremen to escape our attentions after the persuasive job done on the Focke Wulf works there in April. All these targets were far beyond even the newly-demonstrated capabilities of the P-47’s: this was to be a no-escort job, just like in the old, dirty days before the fighter lads came over the drink. Somebody had to be the fall guy on a deal like that and our boys were elected. First to travel the long route over the North Sea and southern Denmark they were to draw the enemy fighters, exhaust them in combat, and then blaze a path for the long-range boys. And that was just the way it turned out. We had it. Our Combat Wing lost 13 out of 49 ships that several hundred Jerries that made the boys doubt if they would ever see England again. But it worked. The other task forces had little or no enemy opposition of any kind: they went through and produced bombing results at Marienburg that were classics in the air war. The amazing thing was that our decoys destroyed their own target as well, in spite of the battle they received and the losses they sustained. It was a tremendous day’s work, equaled only by what happened five days later.
Meanwhile, however, there was a short one to Munster, just north of the Ruhr. Still licking our wounds after Anklam, we could muster only 33 ships out of our three Groups and only 19 of these good job was turned in and the lads brought back some fine pictures of their bombing.
The big, bad wolf came on the 14th. We had to go back to Schweinfurt. Our Combat Wing had led the first attack in August; this time we were to ride comfortably in the rear with our reduced force, still not up to strength. But as luck had it, there was bad weather over England on the takeoff and when the time came to leave the coast, our boys were out in front with Lt. Col. Ross Milton, Air Executive of the 91st, leading the whole show. Fortunately for us, the 305th Group, which was unable to find its own gang, came along with us and flew low box on our incomplete Wing formation. This they did at their own expense: of seventeen ships that joined us at the outset, only two came back to England. But our boys were spared: we lost only three, which was as nothing on a day that cost the Eighth Air Force a total of 60 heavy bombers.
We had fighter escort almost to the Rhine. Jerry knew the exact limit of range of our P-47’s. As soon as they left, enemy fighters came up in clouds. It was a fantastic, fiendish battle, with the Hun throwing at us everything he could scrape up. In spite of the loss of bombers, it was a victory for us, for our not inconsiderable forces ploughed through to their target and bombed it in clear weather with results that left nothing to be desired. The irreplaceable ball-bearing works, severely damaged by the earlier attack, were a complete write-off after this one. There was uproar back in the States and we were grieved over the many boys who had gone down, but it was worth the price. We had to believe that, and we did, because the evidence was conclusive. We shuddered to think of the reaction had we lost 60 bombers and then missed the target.
But there was no denying that the month had cost us dear. Our Combat Wing had suffered badly on two missions: Bremen and Anklam. Others had sustained losses on Anklam and Schweinfurt. True, Jerry could ill afford the loss of Schweinfurt, but we could ill afford 60 bombers at a clip. It was all summed up by the following statement attributed sardonically to the German propaganda ministry:
“Yesterday the Americans made an attack on Southern Germany. We ‘shot down 159 heavy bombers and 37 fighters for the loss of two German machines. One of our cities is missing’”.
Due to the factor referred to, our number of accredited sorties for the month fell to 271. Our losses were 28 B-17’s. Yet it was a good month more than justified by results achieved. An index to what the boys went through is that we were credited with destroying 120 enemy aircraft, probably destroying 26 and damaging 92. We had taken the worst the Hun could offer and carried through. Our Group morale stood up under the impact. Our boys had not abandoned any attack. The future was certainly not black, even though our forces were temporarily reduced. As long as the folks at home stood behind us, we knew our boys would carry on.
November was a month in which it could hardly be claimed that we had carried a great deal of weight. The weather was bad almost throughout. The entire work for the month comprised only five missions and four of those were Pathfinder jobs. Similar conditions during the previous winter, before we had our Pathfinders equipment, would have made it a one-mission month.
Missions flown were Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd, Gelsenkirchen on the 5th, Wessel on the 7th, Knaben in Norway on the 16th and Bremen on the 26th.
Wilhelmshaven was the most expensive raid of the five. We lost four aircraft: two due to a collision in mid-air and two to heavy fighter attacks between the IP and the target. We had become dependent, perhaps excessively so, upon our fighter escort. In this case, the Group of P-47’s who were supposed to give us escort during that period were bounced on the way to the meeting place and never arrived. Losses were kept from mounting by the timely arrival of P-38’s, which responded promptly and effectively to VHF call after bombs were away. Bombing results were indifferent. By this time, there were enough Pathfinder ships to put one in the lead of each Combat Wing. We had one, but the equipment failed as we approached the target and we were obliged to bomb on the flares of the lead Combat Wing. As usual in Pathfinder cases, there were hits in the target area disclosed by later reconnaissance, but it was impossible to tell whose they were.
Gelsenkirchen was distinguished only by the conduct from Uncle Joe Nazarro, whose lead Pathfinder ship lost an engine and a half due to flak over the target, but who managed to lead the Division home nonetheless. The target was open and could have been bombed visually, but higher headquarters had determined to get strike photographs of Pathfinder results to obtain such needed data on accuracy and patterns. Data obtained must have been disappointing. Our bombs went all over a lot, hitting mainly in open fields and small localities of no importance.
Wesel was more of the same, except that this time it was decided to economize on the force employed by sending only one Combat Wing from each B-17 Division. We were “it” for the 1st Division and the Boss acted as Air Commander. It was a milk run: no flak or enemy fighters and good friendly escort all the way. Unfortunately, the Pathfinder equipment failed completely and the bombs missed the target. No hits, no runs, one error.
Knaben was the only really good show of the month. The target was molybdenum mine buried in the hills of southern Norway: the enemy’s sole source of that important ingredient of specialized high-grade steel. Finding the target was the trick: the ground was snow covered, the area sparsely settled, and the whole panorama distorted and confused by the shadows of mountains on the snow, changing the appearance of every landmark. But the boys found it and bombed it to pieces. It not only hurt the enemy; it was a big builder-upper for morale. After all, you couldn’t expect the boys to subsist indefinitely on unseen targets and unseen bombing on the bombs of strange aircraft that came down from Alconbury. This time there was no doubt: they saw their bombs hit and they brought back photographs that proved the results.
Bremen was another Pathfinder job, but better than the others. It was the biggest show put on by the Eighth Air Force to date. We dropped over 1,600 tons of bombs on the primary. Even the heavy haulers of the RAF consider 1,600 tons a big affair. What’s more, we hit the city. There was enough haze, cloud and smoke to prevent accurate identification, but enough was disclosed by the strike pictures to show that the target had been hit and a good amount of damage inflicted. For our Combat Wing, the mission was marred by the high percentage of early returns: 13 out of 16 abortives in the whole Division. This had been our bugbear almost from the start and was the one consistent blemish on an otherwise good record. Fortunately, this was the end as well as the irreducible minimum in this department and the best in the Division.
For three missions – one at the end of November and two at the beginning of December – our Combat Wing forces were augmented by the acquisition of the 401st Group, newly arrived at Denethorpe, a new station not far from Polebrook. This, however, was merely the transition stage preliminary to the loss of Polebrook from our Wing and the establishment of the 94th Wing, with its headquarters at Polebrook and our former guest, Colonel Julius Lacey, in command. Even though the arrangement was temporary, we took our duties seriously as shepherds to the new outfit, sending a contingent to Denethorpe the night of their first briefing to help them out and be on hand in case of unforeseen difficulties.
Then, after the first two missions in December had been run, we passed into our second and intermediate phase; a two-Group operation. We started with Bassingbourn, Polebrook and Ridgewell. Now we lost Polebrook. In the future, we were assured, we would have a third Group, to be stationed at Nuthampstead, which is not far from our headquarters at Bassingbourn. Meanwhile, however, the newly arrived P-38’s had been stationed at Nuthampstead pending the completion of their permanent facilities at nearby Fowlmere. When Nuthampstead would be ready for B-17’s we didn’t know.
Our change reflected a basic revision in the scale of our daylight offensive. We taught our British hosts something about the intensive use of airdrome facilities. When B-17’s first came to the Theater, we copied the British system of putting two squadrons of a Group on one airdrome and the other two on a neighboring satellite. Polebrook, for example, in the summer of 1942 was the parent for two squadrons of the 97th and Grafton Underwood the satellite for the other two. Then, during the winter, we had to do without satellites: the rule was one Group per station, with a Group at its initial strength of 36 airplanes. Each Group was expected to supply one Combat Box of from 18 to 21 airplanes per mission. When the Combat Wing phase of operations appeared, it was assumed that a Combat Wing consisted of three Groups, each supplying one combat box per mission.
Now, however, we advanced to another concept. Group initial strength was upped to 72 airplanes and each station could be called on for two combat boxes per mission. This meant that a Combat Wing with three stations would be required to put up two full combat wing formations per mission. In our own case, during this two-station phase we would be required to put up at least one combat wing formation on every mission. On maximum efforts, we would be called on for one or two extra combat boxes to form a composite Combat Wing with airplanes from one of the other Wings.
What a change from the first winter! During the much-publicized attacks on the U-Boat bases from January to March of 1943, we never approached a strength of 100 airplanes. Now it was to be possible for our force to put up fifteen separate Combat Wing formations, of sixty heavy bombers each, with full fighter escort to the target and return. This was a force that could really throw some weight around. We began to demonstrate that our daylight bombers program had some points that the heavy Sunday Sluggers of the RAF could not approach. Not only was the weight of bombs we could drop rapidly approaching that of the RAF, but we didn’t have to worry about the phase of the moon. The RAF never could use the whole month. At the beginning of the war when every ship sighted individually on the target, the boys in the Wellingtons and the Whitleys waited for the moon so they could see their targets. Later on, when they perfected their Pathfinder operations, they waited for the dark of the moon to save trouble from the Jerry night fighters. This was the sort of problem that bothered us not at all. One day of the month was like another to us. Also, we were more versatile in another respect: when the weather was closed in over Germany, we could strike Pathfinder out in front and go after industrial area targets, the way the RAF did all the time. If it was clear, then we would attack five or more precision targets simultaneously, putting a combat wing or two on each with a pretty fair chance that all of them would be destroyed or damaged if the weather held up. Still better, we would send a Pathfinder ship along just in case the weather didn’t pan out. If that happened, then instead of attacking our briefed targets of looking for random potshots or bringing the bombs home, the Pathfinder ship would skip out in front and lead us over an assigned area targets. This was pretty good business, we thought.
With all these factors to help, December was a pretty good month. There were ten missions: as many as we had ever had in a single month. Six of the ten were Pathfinder jobs: Leverkusen on the 1st, three attacks on Bremen on the 13th, 16th, and 20th, Canebrake on the 22nd and Ludwigshaven on the 30th. As usual on PFF missions, the boys came back from most of these feeling empty-handed, not knowing whether they had hit their targets or not. When the British went out on blind bombing parties at night, at least they could see the glow of fires they started shining up through the clouds, but in daylight you didn’t have even that satisfaction. From ground sources, and also from expert squealing in the German press, it seemed clear that at least some of these attacks were successful. One at least, we know, had flubbed the dub: Bremen on the 20th. On that one, the lead PFF equipment went out and the deputy leader took over. This citizen evidently had his head up and locked, as the boys would say, because he bombed Delmenhorst, a suburb of Bremen, when there was enough visibility for others to know it wasn’t the target. Then he executed a sudden turn as though he didn’t have a formation to worry about and threw the entire Wing into confusion. The low Group was left out in the cold by this maneuver and went on to bomb the primary visually with good observed results. The Wing never reassembled.
The month’s visual jobs left a somewhat checkered trail. On the 5th, we were assigned to attack two important pinpoint targets in Paris, but weather miscarried, the boys never saw the ground and all hands brought their bombs back. The attack on Emden was beaten by a smoke screen. 91st Group used the obscured target jigger, but just before bombs were away the high Group crowded them off their run and spoiled what promised to be a good show. The smoke and the sudden evasive maneuver forced on this Group, prevented observation of where the bombs went.
On the 24th, we had our first of a series of attacks on what the papers called “military objectives in northern France”. These were a series of “constructional works” concentrated in the Pas de Calais area, with a few on the Cherbourg peninsula. These targets were enough to make strong men weep. Each consisted of a handful of tiny buildings, well camouflaged and artfully concealed in woods and shrubbery. The buildings could not be seen at all from bombing altitude: the boys had to practically feel their way from one clump of trees to another and select their targets by recognizing the pattern of the fields. And the target areas were much smaller than anything we had ever tried to hit before. It could be done, but only under conditions of ideal visibility and without distracting cloud shadows or other disturbance. Compensating factors were that in most of the areas there was no flak and we could go in at medium altitude. Also, every time one of these operations was scheduled, a complete fighter umbrella was thrown around the area, so that there were no air combats. Jerry simply couldn’t get in.
But the first of these deals was no cinch; in fact, it was impossible. Our Wing was given the northernmost of these targets located just behind the heavy flak emplacements at Cape Cris-Nez. And we were ordered to attack right through the flak, instead of coming up through a narrow corridor to the south that would have been flak free. Then, to cap the climax, there were cloud-shadows on the ground looking just like wood patches, and a haze that reduced visibility materially. Our boys tried hard; they made two and three runs, but it was too much. They couldn’t see their targets and the flak was rough. One Group had nearly 100% flak damage. We did a lot better on latter jobs of this kind, but this one was no good. At least all the ships came back, even if full of holes. There was sufficient gratitude for that to take care of Christmas Eve.
The last of the year’s operations was the attack on Cognac/Chateau Bernard airdrome, near Bordeaux. Bordeaux was the primary, but was socked in by cloud. A beautiful job of visual bombing was done on the secondary, which was an important base for German maritime air operations. But it was a sad day for us: Uncle Willie Hatcher and several of his top boys went down. True, his Group was no longer in our Combat Wing, but he had been our friend and a good right arm to the Boss while he was with us. As we write this, his fate and that of the others still known.
So ended December and 1943. In ten missions, we received credit for 527 sorties and of this number 468, or 82.5%, were credited with attacking targets. This was the best percentage for the Division. The abortion bugbear had apparently been slain. We lost 17 aircraft, against 10 enemy aircraft destroyed, 2 probables and 8 damaged.
As far as the year went, we had been in business as a Combat Wing for just over seven months. In that time, we had covered a range of targets from the Atlantic Coast of France to the marches of eastern Germany and from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the ice-locked mountains of Norway. Our boys had covered themselves with distinction and not a little glory. We had made Hitler say “Ouch”. But the best part of it all was our firm belief that given a fair break and the support we had a right to expect, in 1944 we would make him say “Uncle”.
The New Year, the second calendar year of our existence, opened well enough. Our Groups were up in strength and nature in seasonings. It was getting to be pretty difficult for the Combat Wing staff to contribute to their efficiency. By this time, the pattern was well established: Combat units had fairly regular waves of efficiency. A unit would arrive in the Theater green, sometimes cocky and riding for a fall. It would be a mass of rough edges, difficult to handle. Its operations wouldn’t quite come off. Then, as combat experience was acquired, the rough edges would become smooth. Abortions would drop. You could count on the outfit to turn in a good job of bombing almost any time the weather gave them a chance. Things would stay in the groove for a while, perhaps three or four months. Then something would happen: key personnel transferred or graduated or lost on ops. A particularly bad mission with unduly high losses might temporarily send morale into a slump, and then you couldn’t look for high efficiency until it came back—usually as a result of a good mission or two.
January was the beginning of one of those good periods when the Wing Headquarters could afford to relax. Between Ridgewell and Bassingbourn, we averaged nearly a hundred airplanes in commission. This meant that on the ordinary mission, we would not have to fly more than about two-thirds of our available crews, and this, in turn, had a beneficial influence on the Groups and their work. We had the lowest abortive rate in the Division and that meant that we had the highest percentage of sorties and the highest percentage of aircraft attacking. People said nice things to us when we went up to Division Headquarters. We could afford to smile pleasantly and acknowledge with becoming modesty that our outfit was in the pink.
There were a few personnel changes. On the 20th, our Lt. Col. Henry W. Terry, III, became a full Colonel. The promotion came as a complete surprise to everyone except the Boss and Moreau, and was the cause of wholly unprecedented rejoicing and celebrations that were fully adequate to the occasion. On the 5th Clark, our invaluable chief Duty Officer, was made 1st Lieutenant. Captain Ray Kurtz, our charter Navigator, left us to return to the States on the 4th. Captain William C. Melton, erstwhile training officer, was assigned to 1st Bomb Division.
The Wing gave birth to one tactical development of note during the month. While the boys were off to Oschersleben on the 11th, weather over England became critical and landing conditions began to look very touchy. Under such circumstances, it was the habit of 1st Division to broadcast weather messages and landing instructions by dot dash. Messages were also sent by VHF, but that ultra-short wave medium was horizontal-limited. Our Combat Wing had very nearly had serious trouble on one mission when the lead ship received the W/T message, but couldn’t repeat it to the other ships because the VHF transmitter had been shot out. All this was the subject of worried conversation at the luncheon table, when the idea was born of extending the VHF horizon by sending a relay ship up to circle over the English Coast. By that method, voice messages could be projected far beyond the enemy coast and all returning pilots could be warned well in advance of their return.
The idea was acted on at once. A B-17 was set up and set at the end of the runway for several hours waiting for an emergency, which fortunately, failed to develop. But the idea was promptly reported to General Williams. Like every other Good idea, it was adopted at once. It became S.O.P. to set up a relay ship on all missions where doubtful weather was anticipated on the return, and special relay ships were developed shortly, equipped with extra-powerful transmitters and reserved for the one purpose of carrying the idea to its fullest realization.
Operations flown during the month comprised missions to Kiel on the 4th, Tours on the 5th, Ludwigshaven on the 7th, Oschersleben on the 11th, “Crossbow” operations against the mysterious “military installations in northern France” on the 14th and 21st, Frankfurt on the 29th, and Brunswick on the 30th.
Earlier in this history we reported how we had suffered losses when we ventured beyond fighter range, how we had been restricted to operations within fighter radius, how we wondered what would happen when again our boys were called on to make the long drags into central Germany. In January we had our answer: one we had hardly dared hope for. The P-51 Mustangs could go all the way. We had been told that they were really long-range jobs, but we were from Missouri on things like that. But the Oschersleben job settled all doubts. The target was nearly 500 miles from the base in a straight line, or a mere 90 miles short of Berlin. It was almost un-creditable that a single-engine one-man pursuit job could make the trip, fight for thirty or forty minutes at the extreme end of the journey, and then get back to base. But when the boys got to the target area, the Mustangs were there! True, there were only a handful of them because only a handful had gone operational, but still, at extreme range they were there. What’s more, they functioned. They looked better at extreme range than Jerry’s best looked over his home base. Best of all was the promise that this held for the future. It was obvious to all that a Mustang, even at short range, was as good as two Thunderbolts, because it could stay with us twice as long. We heard via the grapevine that Mustangs were to replace our Thunderbolts, eventually, we hoped.
Oschersleben was quite a yarn in itself. It came to be known as Milton’s Kampf. Lt. Col. Ross Milton, formerly of Polebrook and now of the 91st, was allergic to tough rides. It seemed that every time he led the Wing, he would inevitably wind up in the front position, whether the mission was so laid out or not, and the mission would meet violent opposition. Oschersleben was no exception. Leading the fighter escort almost throughout the trip. Over an hour before reaching the target, the Wing was jumped by a large number of Jerry fighters. The lead aircraft was badly hit. An engine was lost, several cannon shells exploded in the cockpit and Colonel Milton and Captain Everett, his pilot, were both painfully wounded. The Wing nevertheless plowed through and bombed the target, although thirteen aircraft were lost in the attack. The 91st Group’s bombs went astray due to structural damage to the lead ship that affected the mounting of the bombsight, but the 381st’s bombs fell true and straight on the MPI and these bombs, with those Wings that followed, did a complete demolition job on the important aircraft factory, which was the assigned target. Special credit went to Lt. Col. Gillespie of the 91st who was leading our composite high Group. The lead ship of the Wing was hit a second time on the bombing run, causing it to lose speed and altitude. In the seconds that followed he made necessary readjustments in course, enough to meet the emergency, and made it possible for an effective attack to be made, notwithstanding the sudden difficulties that had emerged.
The other missions for the month were of purely routine interest, as far as the Wing was concerned. Tours was an excellent visual job under the hand of more airdrome slogging. Kiel was a first class Pathfinder job; although bombing was done by special equipment, a break in the clouds just over the target showed the bombs well dropped in the target area. And good jobs were done on several Crossbow targets.
Our results for the month were very good. We scheduled a total of 466 aircraft on operational missions. Of these, only 31, or 6.7%, returned early, giving us the lowest abortive rate in the Division. We were credited with 390, or 83.7%, attacking, which was the highest percentage for the Division. Losses were 20 machines, or 4.3% of aircraft scheduled, against which we were credited with 108 enemy aircraft destroyed, 6 probably destroyed and 34 damaged.
This was a month to be remembered. In it our Wing participated in the Battle of German Airplane production. Nobody fooled himself to the extent of thinking that Jerry had met his Waterloo. But if the air strategists are right, then perhaps the historian of a future day will say that the air battles of the six days from the 20th to the 25th were Trafalgar of this war. For, as Trafalgar had foreshadowed Napolean’s and by denying him the sea, this possibly fateful week might ultimately mean that Jerry was to lose the sky over his own country. If that should happen, the parallel could hardly fail to materialize.
For this was important business. Till now our major contribution to the war was, perhaps, that we had thrown Jerry on the defensive in the air. By our daylight attacks, we had forced him to specialize in fighter production. Then, by the increasing power of our force and the extension of our range until we covered practically the entire Reich, we forced him ever and again to regroup his fighters in defense of his home industrial centers, even though in so doing he was obliged to strip the Russian and Italian fronts and even his installations in the occupied countries of the west. That he felt obliged to do so was pretty good proof that he agreed with us on the importance of the struggle for the skies over Germany.
Our past experience had shown us that Jerry had planned his fighter production to meet the needs of the situation. He was building fighters fast enough to provide for the defense of the Reich. The intelligence reports said that we had him down to the point where his reserves were practically at the vanishing point, but still he managed to keep one jump ahead of the sheriff in operational first-line aircraft, and that was enough for him minimum requirements. Yes, we were penetrating his fighter defense. But as long as he had a first class fighter defense system in being, we made our penetrations as a price both in aircraft and in the reduced efficiency of our force attributed to necessary protective tactics. The fact that we were obliged to fly Combat Wing formations was a tribute to the strength of Jerry’s fighter defense. A Combat Wing formation was not the best formation for attack: similar units were more flexible and less vulnerable to flak. But as long as Jerry had large numbers of fighters against us, we would have to go on using them. Also, the existence of the defensive fighter force imposed on us a high degree of complexity in order to achieve saturation and at the same time coordinate our fighter escort to the best advantage.
Between the 20th and the 26th our old enemy, the weather, decided to play on our side for a while. There were funny conditions over the European land mass. A nice, big high-pressure area arrived over central Germany and decided to stay a while. It was a weather set-up that came once in seven years, they told us. And it meant visual bombing conditions over the plants where Jerry turned out his ME-109’s and FW K-90’s, ME-210’s and 410’s, and JU-88’s, Leipzig, Regensburg, Aschersleben, Czchorslahan, Gotha, Bernburg, and the rest.
The 20th was a maximum effort. Eighth Air Force dispatched over 1,000 heavy bombers. Our Wing ran two separate missions, putting up a total of 94 aircraft. Our targets were the airplane factories at Leipzig/Sockau and Aschersleben. For the Leipzig missions we put up 58 of our own aircraft and two Pathfinders, making a Combat Wing formation of 60. For Aschersleben, we put up two Group formations and borrowed, from our old friends the 351st, one Group.
Leipzig was a complete success. The weather had been called to a T. We had complete undercast most of the way and let the Pathfinder do the navigating. Then, it cleared before the target. The bombing was done visually, with results that were literally perfect. There were two factories: one on the north side of the airdrome and one on the south. We plastered both.
Our “B” Combat Wing fared less well, but paid its way nonetheless. The Pathfinder ship, which led our boys past the overcast, took them to Oscherleben instead of Aschersleben, and there we bombed the ADO airplane works, which we had hit on January 11th. It was a worthwhile target, but due to the hasty improvised bombing run, only part of our bombs hit the factory. Still, it was a good day’s work.
The remarkable thing was that both missions were accomplished for the loss of only two aircraft out of nearly a hundred. This was attributed to the coordinated planning of the attack with attacks on other targets, for which credit goes to higher headquarters, to the excellence of our long-range fighter escort, and to the first-class execution of the mission by our combat crews.
The following day the Boss took one. It was his thirteenth, which we spoke of as 12A. The powers decided to follow up the attack on fighters in production with an attack on fighters in operation. We were briefed to hit the fighter airdrome at Gutersleh, northeast of the Ruhr. We made the Boss a mission brief, but in vain because when he got to the target area it was socked in. Applying his own maxim, he had the crew keep their eye peeled on the way in for opportunity targets. Captain Fullick, the 381st Group bombardier, saw a juicy one; the airdrome at Brausche/Acheer, and when they went back to attack it, the blow was well and truly delivered. It was a good piece of picking although the target was un-briefed, it was the assigned target for units of the 2nd Division. The main building of the drome, on which the weight of the attack fell, turned out to be a large repair and maintenance hangar. That, we thought, was hitting the Jerry in a pretty good spot. As long as we weren’t hitting production that day, lower echelon maintenance was a good place for a wallop.
The next day was a bad deal. Even the best weather was fickle and on the 22nd, in spite of Washington’s Birthday, it failed to open. Our boys went deep over central Germany looking for more fighter factories, but no soap. And there was trouble, too. Flying above overcast the lead Wings wandered off course. Our Wing leader thought they were wrong and when he saw the Ruhr erupting flak ahead he knew it. He decided to stay on the briefed course, but this detached us from the rest of the force. Fighter escort was spotty because of weather and navigation trouble and as a result we caught it. Eleven airplanes out of the Wing alone, practically all from fighter attacks. And the best we could do was bomb a target of opportunity and insignificant plane, called Bunde. This one was a setback.
But we didn’t stay that way. We had a day off on the 23rd. Then on the 24th the big, bad wolf came up again. Jerry had repaired the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. We had to go back. But this time the wolf’s teeth had been drawn. We had perfect weather, perfect fighter support and everything we could ask for. We sent a Combat Wing back to Schweinfurt on which we alone expended thirty aircraft and every ship came back. That was news.
Bombing was good. The smoke of previous attacks obscured our aiming points when we arrived. Our bombardiers selected other aiming points and the goods were delivered where they would do the most good. Then that night the RAF followed up the attack, lighted the target by the fires we had in the afternoon. Within twenty-four hours this smallish city of only sixty-odd thousand inhabitants was plastered with nearly four thousand tons of bombs, or 153 pounds of incendiaries and high explosives per capita. Every bearing that sped a torpedo or a fighter plane or a tank against the Allies was being paid for, with interest.
The month closed with another day of major attacks on aircraft plants. Our target was a part of the Messerschmidt complex at Augsburg. This was a long pull. Far beyond Nuremburg. Our IP was almost in the defense of Munich. A year earlier, more or less, we had gasped when Lancasters of the RAF went there in daylight to bomb the important M.A.M. diesel works. That attack was a desperate counter-submarine measure. It had been a low-level job and it cost six of the 12 Lancasters that attempted the trip. Now, our Wing attacked with 30 aircraft for a loss of one. The attack was effective and would have been perfect had not a chance hit of flak set off a smoke bomb in the bomb bay of the 381st Group lead aircraft, forcing him to salvo early. About half the Group bombed on this misfortune. But the rest of the ships hit the target and inflicted heavy damage even though they failed to obliterate it. Then, that night, the RAF repeated the tactics of the night before. They plastered Augsburg with a major and concentrated attack.
Two of Hitler’s arsenal cities had been rubbed out in 48 hours. Was this a pattern of the future? Succeeding months must bring the answer.
We had executed six missions in six days, eclipsing the record of last July. But all this way, we hoped and believed, just a curtain raiser. Sometimes, when we lost airplanes, it was hard for us to remember the big game. To us, at the lower echelon, it was our boys against Messerschmidts and Folke-Wulfs. True, those were the primary stakes, but the ultimate stakes far surpassed them. For while we had our boys and our planes and our theories at hazard, Jerry was betting his air force, his war production, his civilian population, his morale and his towns and cities. Even his ability to continue to defend himself was on the table. Was he playing a losing game? That was the big question and we were betting he couldn’t win.
There were other missions. In fact, with eleven missions, February was the biggest month so far. And many other months saved face only because missions had been flown on the 30th and 31st, which February didn’t have at all.
The other missions were Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd, Frankfurt on the 4th and again on the 11th, Avord, France on the 5th, and Nancy, France on the 6th. Avord was more slogging at airdromes. Nancy was intended to be the same, but cloud interfered. Both these missions cost no airplanes and the same was true at Wilhelmshaven, which was a routine Pathfinder job with moderately good results. The two Frankfurt missions were Pathfinders. Between them, they cost three airplanes. On the first, we lost Lt. Col. Alford, Operations Officer of the 91st. His ship was hit by flak and was seen going down under control.
The second Frankfurt mission cost one airplane. The Pathfinder took us to the wrong target: we bombed Ludwigshaven with good results, but still, it was the wrong target. We lost one.
Our sorrow at losing Col. Alford was mitigated somewhat when we learned that Uncle Willie Hatcher of the 351st, lost on the last day of December had gotten safely out of the airplane and was Hitler’s guest. We hoped that Alford would fare that well, too.
One other thing deserves mention. In December we found out how to make lifelike target models in a hurry. The technique, developed by the S-2 of a B-26 Group, involved the use of colored sawdust and shellac to make it stick. You made a legless table with a linoleum top and projected the target photograph on to it with the epidiscope, sketching in the outlines in chalk. Then you applied fields with dyed sawdust on a shellac base, buildings of wood bits and plasticein, reeds, rivers, lakes and such in colored chalk, and when you were through you had something that looked pretty good. In February our two Groups got organized to turn models out between receipt of the Field Order and briefing time. The bombardiers liked it fine.
There were some personnel changes during the month. On the 11th, 1st. Lt. Vernon P. Smith joined from 1st Bomb Division and was assigned as Assistant Adjutant. On the 15th, Lt. Roger Prior was promoted to Captain. On the 5th, in a big trade with the 91st Group, Geremina – he of the save rubber campaign – were transferred to the Group in exchange for Pfc. Hanson and Pvts. Spivey and Sroka.
Net results for the month were very satisfactory. We had a total of 566 sorties, with 482 attacking target. We led the Division in percentage of aircraft maintained ready for action. 21 aircraft, or 313% of those scheduled, failed to return from missions, as against 20 enemy fighters destroyed, 2 probably destroyed and 23 damaged. Considering the nature of the missions flown and results achieved, our losses were moderate in the extreme.
Caesar had his Ides of March. Goering, that latter-day would-be Caesar of the air, had many days of reckoning during March of 1944. For in that month, the U.S. Eighth Air Force outstripped not only every previous measure of accomplishment, but surpassed even the fondest hopes of those who were responsible for its growth. Never in the past had we exceeded the number of ten missions flown in a single month. Yet in this month of fulfillment, our forces dispatched over twenty heavy bombardment missions and our Combat Wing took part in sixteen of these.
Explanation is not to be found in the quality of the missions. Only one of the sixteen would have been considered anything, but a long, hard penetration just a few months earlier. Never before had we attacked Berlin, long spoken of reverently and timorously as “The Big E”. Yet in this month, we attacked Berlin on three successive days and then returned again later in the month for good measure. We attacked Frankfurt on the 2nd 24th, Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd, Dusseldorf on the 4th, Augsburg on the 16th, Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich on the 18th, Mannheim on the 20th, Ahlen near Hamm on the 23rd, Brunswick on the 29th,and Berlin on the 6th, 8th, 9th, and 22nd. In occupied France, we attacked the airdrome at St. Jean d’Angely, just north of Bordeaux, on the 27th, Rheims/Champagne airdrome on the 28th and the cryptic “military installations in the Pas de Calais area” on the 26th.
The explanation of all this activity is multiple. Part of it was, of course, that the weather was better than average. But the weather alone was not the cause: even with perfect weather we could not have flown so many missions a month or so earlier.
No, the real reason was that our force was getting bigger, better, more seasoned, while at the same time Jerry was finding it harder and harder to make both ends meet. We thought that we could see the pattern of the ultimate in the month’s tale. We would never obliterate the Luftwaffe, because Jerry would never expose his last airplane to loss. Jerry would keep an air force in being whether he could afford to fight with it or not. But we were getting to the point where Jerry had already made up his mind that he could not afford to oppose us every time we came over. He couldn’t afford a chocolate sundae every day in the week, but he could still buy himself a banana split on Saturday. But we had him on short rations, no doubt about that. We could afford to take advantage of his shortcomings. And in March we did.
Relative size of forces means everything in war, and the air war is no exception. Way back at the beginning, when Jerry was big and we were small, it didn’t matter where we went; we had opposition. We had it on our short and perilous trips over occupied lands, Northern France, Belgium, and Holland. Then when we started hitting Germany, we found opposition everywhere. Then as we grew, and the power of our attacks became greater and the increasing size of our task forces started to dilute the fighter opposition, Jerry was forced to husband his resources, leaving some areas undefended save for flak and marshalling his fighters force in defense of his homeland. Then he was forced to leave the nearer portions of Germany without a roof.
Finally, the volume of our blows in March reduced him to a point where his geographical economy was at the irreducible minimum. No opposition whatever over occupied lands. The entire force, practically speaking, was grouped in north central Germany in an effort to deny us the direct route to Berlin and the industrial hinterland. Yet even that economy did not suffice. It became evident that Jerry would not come up, as a rule, except on days when our attack could be made visually. There would be no opposition, as a rule, on days when Jerry knew that cloud covered the important and most sensitive areas of the Reich. Not that he didn’t fear our Pathfinder attacks, which could lay waste large areas of his biggest cities even when they were cloud-covered. But he couldn’t afford to oppose all attacks anymore and preferred to let his sprawling population centers quiver helplessly under our attacks in order to save his fighters for days when he knew we would be able to make our deadly visual attacks on his most important factories. Area attacks meant blows against his morale and disorganization of his civil economy. But precision attacks threatened his ability to continue defending himself. It was Hobson’s choice, but he had to make it.
There were things we couldn’t say publicly, but that we knew many were thinking. One of these was the upsetting of the dope on day versus night bombing. Time was not long since we had thought of ourselves as the left jab, and the RAF heavyweights as the Sunday punch. In those days, our boys could deliver a couple of hundred tons on a factory, when visible, but we goggled at the ability of the RAF heavies to clonk down two thousand tons on an industrial center in a matter of forty minutes. We remembered that when we first came over the old hands of the RAF had doubted our ability to fly over Europe in daylight at all.
Now the shoe was on the other foot. Our carrying capacity had grown until it equaled that of the RAF. We had our own 2,000-ton missions. But that was the least. We could play RAF Game of area attack when we had to. But when the weather opened we could play a game they couldn’t even attempt. We could hit a dozen targets at once and get most if not all of them. We didn’t need area saturation, obtainable only through putting the entire force on a single target, whereas the RAF, flying only at night, couldn’t get results in any other way. We could effectively destroy isolated targets located outside of urban areas, targets that were entirely immune from night attack because too small in extent, too easily camouflaged, too hard to find in the dark. Most important of all, we didn’t care what time of the month it was. If there was flying weather over Germany, we went to Germany; not so the RAF. Big, slow-flying bombers, not flying formation, incapable of being escorted at night, are dead meat when the night fighters can see them. And they can be seen when there is a moon. The RAF heavies didn’t dare visit Germany in the moonlight. That meant that there were only about ten days out of each month when they could hit Germany. If the weather was unsuitable during the dark of the moon, they were out for the month. March being a bad month for them, though not for us, they did attempt one attack by moonlight. They went to Stuttgart, in an area where Jerry no longer gave our boys any real opposition. They lost 94 bombers, more than either force had ever lost on any single operation. This was because the RAF not only paid for their tactics of evading combat in direct losses, but because their tactics imposed no serious attrition on the German night fighter force. Jerry had no reason to economize on night fighters, which merely grow in experience and effectiveness. Consequently, the RAF loss ratio over Germany showed a slow but steady increase, while ours continued to drop. We had reached the point where we invited combat, as part of the long-range program ultimately to eliminate the German day fighter force as a serious element in the air war. A respectable school of military thought held that the Infantry had yielded its traditional title of “Queen of Battles” to the single-engine fighter airplane, and that every major land battle in the current war had been won by the side enjoying fighter superiority over the battlefield. If this view was right, then we were not only slowly sapping the enemy’s fountain of strength, but we were winning the future battles of Western Europe by denying the Hun the fighters he would need when the big show opened.
Our Combat Wing carried things off rather well during this biggest of all months to date. We flew a total of 880 accredited sorties on operational missions. Considering the length and frequency of missions flown, we had an incredibly low abortive rate: only 3.9% of accredited scheduled, compared with 9.0%, 7.5%, and 6.1% for the other Combat Wings of the Division. The 381st Group had the proud distinction of being the first unit cited by the Division for outstanding performance in the matter of abortive aircraft. The citation, awarded by General Williams, read in part as follows: “During the period 6 March 1944, this unit was ordered to fly thirteen (13) combat operations, four (4) of which were to objectives in the Berlin area. In carrying out these attacks, eight (8) missions were flown with no aircraft returning early. This includes twice flying three (3) successive operations with no abortive aircraft. The record achieved by the 381st Bombardment Group (H) for this period indicates that 98.4% of the aircraft dispatched attacked targets in enemy territory. The exemplary conduct of the crewmen teamed with the untiring application to the task at hand by the administrative and maintenance personnel of this Group has made possible the carrying out of these successful missions.”
There was no doubt about the United States getting its money’s worth out of the 1st Combat Wing in March. When your abortive rate went down, your percentage of aircraft attacking targets necessarily went up. Ours was 90.1%, comparing not unfavorably with the other Combat Wings of the Division, which had 75.5%, 82.3%, and 76.5% respectively.
Our loss ratio was the highest in the Division. That was just the breaks of the game, but still it was lower than we had ever known. Division losses for the month were only 86 aircraft, fewer than British Bomber Command lost on its single raid on Stuttgart. On a total of 4,276 sorties, this was a mere 1.9%. Our Wing lost 24 aircraft, or 2.6% of sorties. That was a vast improvement over some of our earlier months, when we had lost as many as 8 and 10% of our sorties in a single month.
There were so many major missions during the month that none is really outstanding in retrospect. The last mission to Frankfurt was perhaps the most successful Pathfinder mission to date. Crews were briefed to attack Schweinfurt if it could be seen, otherwise to make a blind attack on Frankfurt. Schweinfurt was socked in, so three Combat Wings of the Division, let by our boys, went on to Frankfurt. One Group brought back pictures showing the center of the town, and reconnaissance cover obtained a day or two later showed that the entire center of the town had been obliterated.
St. Jean d’Angely on the 27th was the best bombing ever. Our lead Group deposited a pattern of bombs that was a bomber’s ideal: a perfect circle completely blanketed with bombs, not a single stray outside the perimeter of the circle, and the center of the circle sank on the assigned aiming point. It couldn’t have been better. Then the other Groups came in and laid their bombs exactly where they were supposed to go. It was a complete job, as was the next day’s attack on Rheims/Champagne airfield.
The month also saw the elimination of Augsburg as a city – a result of consecutive attacks by our force and the RAF. The attack on Erkner, in the suburbs of Berlin, on the 8th, polished off Jerry’s last surviving ball-bearing works.
Personnel changes for the month included the acquisition from the 381st of Captain William J. McDaniel, known variously as McEnglish, McCorkle, McIsaac, or anything beginning with a “Mc”. He joined the Operations staff. We were also joined by our first Wing Engineering Officer, Major Arren A. (“Ace”) Akins, who until then was keeping ‘em flying at Polebrook. And the Boss traded in his chauffeur, Cpl. Eddie Barauskas, for Pfc. Garland J. Bullard, famed as the guitar-playing Singing Sam of the 91st Group.
After all these things had duly happened, we carried on into April.
Remember, gentle reader, that since December of 1943 we have been conducting a two Group operation. Where other Wings of our Division had three Groups and three stations to call on, we had but two. Nonetheless, we pulled our weight for April of 1944. The statistical record for the month contained little to suggest that our Wing had to fly one patched-up Group on every mission. In spite of the extra drain on our operational and maintenance personnel, we still managed to lead the Division in percentage of sorties accomplished and in keeping down the number of aircraft returning early. We did some good bombing, too, with our Wing placing second out of the thirty operational Groups that were giving Mr. Hitler the once-over-lightly. And our loss ratio was lowest in the Division.
What is more, it was another big month. Not the biggest ever, but tied for top, with sixteen operational missions equaling the record we had thought incredible in March. Best of all, however, in April we rounded out our Wing when the 398th Bomb Group under Col. Frank Hunter took a lease for the duration at the neighboring village of Nuthampstead and moved into our Wing, lock, stock, and barrel.
The 398th didn’t go operational during the month. A small advance guard, consisting of the Deputy Group Commander, the S-2, the Communications Officer and an assistant S-4 came to Bassingbourn the early part of the month. Then, on the 18th, a detachment headed by Col. Terry, our Executive, departed the creature comforts of Bassingbourn for the rugged Nissen huts of Nuthampstead to make ready for the newcomers and take over the management of the station until the new outfit arrived and got squared off. The detachment consisted of Colonel Terry commanding, Major Akins for engineering, Major Toland for bombing department, Captain Chima for operations, Capt. Dewlen for communications, Capt. Haberman for the intelligence department, and Cpl. Hays to drive Terry’s car and press his pants. Special mention must be made of Lt. Paul Dreiling, alias “The Fox”, one of our trusty duty officers, who came along just in case and remained to earn the title of “Dean Dreiling” by his excellent work as manager of the ground school for the new crews. Our two old Groups also came through with some key personnel: Maj. Marvin D. Lord of Ridgewell and Capt. Bill Martin of the 91st came through handsomely as tactical instructors and we had call, when needed, on such people as Lt. Col. Robert P. Hare and Major Otto Cahill of the 91st to help with ground problems. And yeoman work had already been done for months by S/Ldr. Quayle of the RAF and his staff of sergeants by way of setting up the target files and supervising the preparation of the physical layout of Briefing. Also, we and the new Group were lucky enough to procure the service of Lt. Johnny Battle, formerly S-2 section chief at Thurleigh, who had later organized the S-2 section at Glatton after he graduated from OCS.
We liked the looks of the new Group when it arrived. For some reason, they had never flown the Combat Box formation exactly as it is flown in this Theater, but they knew the principles of formation flying and readily adapted themselves to the system in use here. On the ground, they were a good-looking bunch of youngsters; eager to get into combat, eager to learn what they could from the course of sprouts we put them through. And we laid it on fairly thick. We knew that Division wanted to send them into combat as quickly as possible, so we gave them a concentrated dose of ground school, starting at 8 in the morning and lasting until 9 at night, with short intervals for meals. We gave them just the bare essentials; security, escape and evasion, tactics, flak, air discipline, communications and so forth. Then we flew them in practice, first by themselves, then in combat Wing formation, which they had never flown with one of the other Groups in the lead and the 398th putting up the high and low boxes. This they could easily do, as they arrived in the Theater with strength up to the new Table of Organization calling for seventy-two airplanes per Group, something the older Groups had seen some of the new un-camouflaged airplanes, but this was the first outfit to be entirely equipped with them.
As we ended the month, the 398th was about to go to war. The time and manner of its going will be reported in our next installment.
Operationally, April started with a dull thud. March, we recalled, had been a whale of a month. For the first seven days of April, nothing happened except that the weather was strictly no good. This was especially tough on the Boss, who was due to lead the next job and to sweat out one scrub job after another. Every night he would work himself up to the point of going to Berlin or some place we couldn’t even pronounce, such as Oberpfaffenhofen, and then before takeoff would come the old scrub. Finally, on the 8th, April got started and the Boss got it off his chest with a trip to Oldenburg, near Bremen, where the local GAF airdrome was attacked with good results and credit for all.
On the 9th, we started for Gdynia, ‘way down east in Poland, but ol’ man weather interfered. Our boys broke up in a cloud bank and had to abandon ops. It was just one of those things and the powers didn’t count it against us. Three of the ships tagged on to other outfits and bombed targets in Poland and East Prussia. The Groups had a long sweat waiting for these lads to check in.
Brussels on the 10th kept the pot boiling. We found bad weather at the target and the lead Group went on to bomb secondary, which was Woensdrecht airfield in Holland. Communications were unaccountably poor, with the results that the high and low boxes waited until they found a hole through which to bomb the primary. Results were good and although the Groups came home without rejoining, there were no losses.
On the 11th they threw the boys another long ride. Targets were the presumably out of range airplane factories at Cottbus and Sorau, both southeast of Berlin, the latter almost on the Polish border, and both outside the 600 mile circle on our situation map. How wrong Jerry was: our Tokyo tank ships were not only able to make the trip, but even to return by going around Robin’s barn, going due north to pick up a secondary near Stettin and then coming home via the Baltic, Denmark and North Sea. The round trip was nearly 1,900 miles, which is no small stakes in any language. We put up a total of 73 ships from our two stations, flying a combat wing of our own and contributing one Group to a composite wing. In our own Wing, only the lead box was able to see the primary, which it bombed with good results. The other two Groups were unable to see either the primary or the assigned secondary and bombed the naval dockyard and stores at Stettin as a target of opportunity, also with good results. The lead Group waited on the edge of the flak while the other two went in for their attack. Then they joined up again and came home. Meanwhile the fourth Group found and bombed its primary at Sorau, also with good results. We lost two aircraft, which was modest enough by the standard we had learned to accept for far shorter rides. But times were different and we hoped things would stay that way.
On the 13th we took another crack at Schweinfurt. There had been repairs and the great Kugelfischer works was still standing as though it bore a charmed life. This time, the charm broke. Smoke from pots and the bombing of preceding Wings gave our bombardiers their troubles, but a good job was done nonetheless. It was nearly impossible to tell what outfit did it. Our losses were only one ship and we remembered the day when our little Wing alone had paid 27 ships as its share of the admission price to this classic of targets.
Of the remaining missions for the month, the outstanding fact is that we flew eleven in thirteen days. The boys made a successful attack on the Heinkel airplane works at Oranienburg, a suburb of Berlin, on the 18th. The next day we lost five ships on a routine job on the airdrome at Eschwege, near Erfurt. This was just bad breaks. One of our Groups took a second pass at the target and while they were off freelancing, 25 single-engine Jerries made one pass and knocked down the five ships. They came out of the sun and it was just bad luck that they were positioned for the attack at the moment of our vulnerability. Significance must be attached, however, to the fact that this was Jerry’s worst in the month of unusually high activity, at least as far as our Wing was concerned.
On the 20th we had the first of the two “Crossbow” missions that robbed us of the distinction of again leading the Division in percentage of airplanes attacking targets. Crossbow target, the first “military objectives in Northern France”, were fiendishly difficult for the bombardiers to find in good weather. When they were obscured or socked in the bombs had to be brought back, for random bombing in the occupied countries was forbidden. And this was just what happened to us on the 20th and again on the 27th.
Other jobs were more or less routine. Good bombing and few losses was our happy lot. On the 22nd the whole Eighth Air Force dumped on Ham marshalling yards, probably the most bombed target in Europe. On the 24th the boys did a magnificent job on Erding airdrome, near Munich, where two Groups deposited their demolition bombs right on the MPI and the third Group laid its incendiaries right in the middle. Then followed a good job on Metz/Freseaty airdrome, in Alsace, on the 25th, a Pathfinder job on Brunswick on the 26th, another good attack on Avord airfield in central France on the 28th and of all things, a routine Pathfinder job on Berlin on the 29th! How quickly came the day when Berlin had become a milk run! Only two months before we quaked at the very idea.
Finally, on the 30th, we obliged with a single composite Group for an attack on Lyon airfield in southern France. We were permitted to withhold two Groups to fly a practice mission with the 398th. The attack was brilliantly executed, considering that our leader lost an engine at the IP and couldn’t feather it. The deputy took over without a second to spare and put the bombs smack on the button. And all, including the crippled leader, came safely home, ending what must be considered a whacking good month for the good old First and Worst.
Statistically, we shaped up something as follows: we flew 822 sorties and delivered 1,787 tons of bombs on targets. We had only 23 abortives for the entire month, for an average of 2.7% as against a Division average of 4.2% and 4.0% for our nearest rivals. We lost 15 aircraft in all, or less than one per mission. Our loss ratio was 1.7% against a Division of 2.3%. But for that one unlucky pass at Eschwege, ---! In May, by George, we would do even better, said we.
This installment tells how in May of this fateful year all previous operational records were broken as the air war rose to a new pitch of intensity, how the 398th Group started its part in the war with gorgeous flubdub and then redeemed itself by a brilliant performance that earned commendation from General Doolittle, how the Boss perpetrated a wizard prank on the Judge’s pet target and copped a bug for his Silver Star in recognition of the same, and of some important changes in personnel and other events of great interest and importance by which ye merrie month was duly enlivened.
First, let us tell the homely record of changes in our family, which were many. On the 5th, we were joined by 1st Lt. William L. Major, who came to us as an assistant Operations Officer after completing a tour as pilot in the 91st Group. Also the ghost walked again in the enlisted section, which Cpl. Hoffman adding a third stripe, Pfcs Hakeem and Hurst becoming Corporals, and Pvt. Joe Sroka getting his Pfc. stripe in recognition of the watchful eye he kept on our staff table in the station mess hall. The next day, our Navigator, Lt. Martin T. Honke, ended a long and dolorous sweat when his Captaincy came through. On the 11th, and 12th, having seen the 398th safely through its teething period, the Nuthampstead rangers came back to their warm bunks at Bassingbourn: Terry, Toland, Akins, Chima, Dewlen, Haberman, Dreiling and the invaluable Hays. At mid-month our old S-4 and general factotum, Lt. Otstot, departed these parts for the 92nd Group at Podington.
On the 17th fearful and powerful portents took their effect. Smitty (“The Mole”), our redoubtable Operations Officer, finally cashed in on the long-deferred promise of a 30-day furlough at home, and took his leave in company of Colonel Putman of the 91st, who got in on the same go-home deal. This cost us two key guys at one full swoop, for Terry the Tiger was immediately put on Temporary Duty as acting C.O. of the 91st Group. To fill the gaps, Chima was appointed acting Wing Executive Officer and McDaniel acting Operations Officer. Both were fully competent to meet the demands of office, although there were occasions when their rank was barely equal to the task of coping with other Combat Wings that proposed to plow through our area while our boys were in business of assembling to go to war. Still, the Chink and McTavish were equal to the task, and the war got fought in spite of this handicap.
Then, as the month rolled along, Dreiling the Fox and Villanova the Rabbit, trusty watch officers both, were authorized to turn in their gold bars for silver, thereby occasioning celebrations in due and proper form. To meet our stringent personnel situation, we were joined by two good helpers from the 381st: 1st Lt. David McCarthy, a graduate navigator, and Major Marvin D. Lord, veteran pilot, who had been one of the Nuthampstead reception committee.
Tactically, the month brought as always a number of minor innovations, but there were three major ones that are worthy of recording. One was that on some of our missions, the size of the Combat Wing formation was reduced from sixty to thirty-six aircraft. Another involved the correction of the center of gravity of our Forts by omitting one gunner from the crew and reducing the defensive armament of the ship. A third was a new and simplified method of assembling. The first of these changes was evolved by General Williams after many conferences with his Wing Commanders, but the other two were originally with our outfit. All seemed to contribute to our tactical efficiency.
The first two changes reflected some rather basic changes in the strategic air situation. If we may accept one or two rough generalizations, they symptomized Germany’s decline from a first-rate to a second-rate air power. Jerry was still standing at the entrance to the ballpark, waiting to collect his price of admission, but over the long pull the number of times we got in for nothing or at cut rates was showing a steady and encouraging increase. In the old days Jerry could attack all of the people all of the time. Now he could attack some of the people some of the time, but he couldn’t attack all of the people some of the time, nor some of the people all of the time. Only on rare occasions would he venture to tangle with our fighter escort, and as a rule the bombers would only be attacked when something happened and the fighter protection failed to materialize in the expected quantity.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that the statistics didn’t even begin to tell the story. The statisticians loved to prattle about the percentage of aircraft lost out of total sorties against operational targets. But we who were in the racket knew that the percentages didn’t tell any part of the truth. The question was, how many rough, tough missions could your force afford to fly during a given month. Naturally, the rule that forced Jerry to keep out of our way during these days of our ascendancy applied to us as well, except that now it was working for us instead of against us. That rule is that the first commandment for an air commander is to keep his force in being. An air force that doesn’t want to fight is still a military asset, but no air force at all is a cipher.
Now, in this month of May, our own little Combat Wing went to Berlin four times, had six other missions to various targets in central Germany and flew on hegira all the way to Poland. Our Wing, by this time, represented only one-twentieth part of the heavy bombers striking force of the Eighth Air Force. Eight others were flown to targets in the occupied countries. Our loss ratio was 1.6%, against a loss ratio of 10.4% for October of 1943. Even the bald ratio shows a substantial improvement, but if the figures are weighted for number and quality of the missions flown, the contrast is startling. First, there were only seven missions flown in October, as against nineteen in May. Three of October’s seven were hit and run affairs, or at least would be so considered today. Only four could be considered as deep or even moderately deep penetrations: Frankfurt, Bremen, Anklam and Schweinfurt, and of these only Anklam was a long mission by current standards. These four missions alone cost our Wing 27 aircraft, or roughly one-third of our force. It is obvious that had we attempted in October the eleven deep penetrations we flew in May, our force would have been wiped out before it reached the end of the month. Consequently, if our percentages are duly weighted for number and quality of missions, our loss ratio actually dropped from 100% or more to 1.6% in eight months.
Roughly speaking, a defensive air force can do about four things. It can deny the home air to the enemy. It can restrict the enemy’s operations by exacting a toll he can’t afford. It can exact losses without seriously impeding operations. Or it can, in effect, abandon the fight in order to conserve its forces. The outcome of pure air war is reflected to a large extent by the capabilities of the defending force measured in the above terms.
Speaking solely of the daylight battle of Germany, the Eighth Air Force has driven the Luftwaffe from each of these defensive standards in turn. At the outset, we could not afford to attack Germany at all: The GAF was supreme in its own air. Then we attacked German targets, but on a very modest scale. Then we became bolder, but for the first few months paid a heavy price for our ventures, and still we had not achieved anything like freedom of action. Now, in May, we had clearly entered the third phase: the high command never had to withhold an attack on any German target, for economic reasons. Whatever price Jerry could exact we could afford; he could not succeed in limiting our operations either in frequency or in depth. And even that price showed a steady if somewhat fluctuating decrease. If the trend continued, phase four, the virtual abandonment of defense, would inevitably come, although its appearance would be so gradual that it would probably become visible only in retrospect.
Parenthetically, it should be recorded that as the German fighter dwindled in effectiveness we began to pay more attention to flak. It may be doubted whether our flak losses showed an absolute increase, but the relative increase as against fighter losses was reflected in the attitude of the combat crews, who were far more flak-conscious than in the early days. A good analogy would be the increase in the percentage of deaths from cancer and heart disease as the medicos conquered other fatal diseases one by one. Even so, flak did not bulk large in the strategic picture. It gave us some tactical headaches, and we did lose crews to it, but it never succeeded in hampering our operations in any significant sense.
Against the foregoing background, our tactical changes during May will be better understood. First, we started to reconsider the loading of our aircraft. We knew in a general way that the B-17 was in the habit of going to war with too much weight in the tail. But in the early days and, in fact, until we entered the current phase of the strategic picture, proper weight distribution was a luxury we couldn’t afford. It was a truism that any airplane that survived more than a few months of combat rapidly became a ragtag assortment of flying afterthoughts. A good basic design was merely a foundation on which to superimpose modifications as the exigencies of combat required, and the B-17 was no exception. It had never flown with nine. The tail gun was a feature of the later models and the same was true of the ball turret and many other features. Then, with the emergency of the long-running battle with the enemy fighters, the ships had to be loaded with enough ammunition to last out the battle whether they flew properly or not.
But conditions had basically changed. The 398th Group in its entire first month of operations fired fewer rounds of ammo than a single ship formerly fired on a single mission. So we made some studies on the center of gravity of the bombardment airplanes, model B-17G. We found that we had the C.G. a whole foot aft of where the good book said it should be. That meant a lot of trouble: mushing at high altitudes and with heavy loads, increased engine and crew strain, higher abortions, increased gas consumption, formation trouble, etc., etc. So we took steps, now that we could afford them. We dumped ammunition from the rear end of the ship. The C.G. moved up to within five inches of the right place, which was about all we could do without moving the wings. It was a big improvement and one that cost no aircraft, although it would have upped our losses only a few months before.
Then came the 36-ship Wing, composed of 12 ship Groups. This had many advantages, provided we could dispense with the massed fire power of the larger formation. It was easier to fly, more maneuverable, less vulnerable to flak. Tightening of the formation tended to compensate for the reduction in bombing power by securing a more concentrated pattern. The loss in bombing power was apparent, not real, for in practice we flew more Wings. On occasion we were able to put up four complete 36-ers. Naturally, we tried this out gingerly at first, but as it showed good results and didn’t increase the losses, we pushed it. As we go to press, our Group Commanders have indicated their willingness to go to Berlin with 36-ers. Which is how things usually developed in this amazingly democratic air force of ours.
Then, there was the assembly the Boss invented. Perhaps the strategic implications weren’t world-shaking, but it meant a lot to us just the same, and it did succeed in stretching our range of bettering our margin of safety, depending on how you looked at it. At the beginning, we put our formations together the way it was written in the book. You assembled flights, then Squadrons, then Groups, and finally you put the Groups together into Wings. Each process, however, took time. One by one, these things had dropped out until we came to the point where Groups were assembling by individual aircraft, with the leader circling the home base with his wheels down and the others just scrambling in and forming on him as best they could. It looked confusing to the outsider, but the boys managed to crawl into the right slots and the saving in time was no sneezing matter. The new idea was merely a logical extension of what had gone before, as every new idea must be. We kept the old Group assemblies as they were, but had the Group leaders position on one another before the pack came barreling in. Each Group leader took station circling over a single buncher beacon, with the Wing leader at a prescribed altitude and the other leaders 1,000 feet above and below respectively. Then the three rat races took place, one above the other, and when the rat race was resolved, Bingo! The Wing was formed. As simple as that. Would they ever apply this idea to the Division Assembly? It didn’t sound very probable, but one lesson you learn in this business is not to be any easy victim for surprise.
Operationally, the month was a new record. March had astounded us with 16 missions, while April had convinced us by tying March. In May we reached the seemingly incredible figure of nineteen, of which seventeen were flown after an opening week of comparative inaction that witnessed only two. In reality, our volume of business enjoyed a two-fold increase, for with the 398th Group fully operational, we were able to fly two full combat Wing formations on a number of the more important targets. To be exact, ten of the nineteen were double missions so that our Wing actually flew twenty-nine missions in a 31-day month. That was the “coming of age” of the air war, in a big way.
The month opened on the first with a mission to Troyes, in Eastern France. Then on the 6th, they threw a Crossbow mission – the old “military objectives in northern France” – and that gave us a fine opportunity to blood the 398th, which by that time was chomping at the bit after three weeks of intensive training by Terry & Co. It was a priceless illustration of the complexity of our operations, of how every little thing had to dovetail in order to get the ships off the ground, properly briefed, properly loaded with bombs, with the crews properly fed and equipped. With our old, well-seasoned stations both functioning like greased clockwork, we were something inclined to forget. What happened at Nuthampstead was a very little thing: the duty officer in the operations room forgot to alert the kitchen. Briefing time arrived in the wee hours of the morning and the crews hadn’t been fed. From that point forward, the miscarriages mounted like a snowball. Briefing was late and hurried. There was a traffic jam in the equipment room. The bombs didn’t all get loaded. The crews didn’t have time to coordinate their signals and all the other information needed before going to their ships. Then the truck transportation to the dispersal areas broke down, with crew members wandering around the airdrome like lost souls in the blackout looking in vain for their ships. But what the routine had muffed, the spirit of the outfit nearly made good. Somehow, the ships got off; some only partly loaded, some with makeshift crews, some late – too late for proper assembly. In spite of everything, the 398th Group went to war. Some of the ships assembled on each other. Some tagged on to any outfit they could find. By ones and twos and sevens and eights, they went to fight the war, and they all came back.
We were gratified by the reaction. After the uproar and the confusion had died down, Colonel Hunter, the Group C.O., assembled his air and ground staffs. He patiently tracked down the cause of every miscarriage and set it right. Promptly, the new Group settled down, its organizational mistakes all made and done with. And it was a mercy that the bugs had been worked out on a short one, for the very next day came another mission to Berlin, when a little thing like not waking the cooks would have cost ships and lives. Everything went like a breeze. Breakfast was on time and well prepared. Somehow, that symbolized a Group that had found itself. Briefing was punctual and good. There were no snarls in the Equipment room or on the field. The ships were bombed and serviced. Takeoff and assembly were as the doctor ordered. The 398th flew the mission without losses.
This was a portent of good things. Terry and Co. had slightly red faces at the month’s end, though in a good cause. For fairly obvious reasons, we had tried to prepare the boys of the 398th for the losses our experience had taught us to expect. As we delivered our indoctrination lectures, we adverted in passing every now and then to some of the unfortunate experiences of the past. At times we told the boys with some bluntness that this was the big league, where they played for keeps and where Jerry was always standing at the entrance to the ballpark making sure that every customer paid the price of admission in ships and crews. But when the end of the month rolled around, the 398th had flown a total of 450 sorties on eighteen missions for a loss of only four aircraft, or less than one percent. These missions included four to Berlin, six others deep into Germany and one all the way to Poland. It was an amazing record: there wasn’t another Group in the Theater that could begin to touch it.
The four Berlin missions were good jobs. They came on the 7th, the 8th, the 9th, and the 24th. The strategy of the high command was pretty plain to us. When the weather over Germany was CAVU, we went for precision targets. When the weather was overcast, but good enough for flying and assembly, then we would hit the big “B:, using our Pathfinder technique, which was getting pretty good. The improvement was due in part to better equipment, seasoning of the operators, and partly due to the fact that we now had a full time Pathfinder squadron in the 91st Group under Lt. Col. Dick Weitzenfeld. There was a big difference between bringing in strangers to lead the blind missions, as had formerly been the practice, and having guys who really belonged to our outfit and lived on the station where the Wing and the Group Commanders could directly supervise their work. Jerry didn’t know the reasons, but he could see the results and he didn’t like them. Old Doc Goebbels had a habit of playing on the tragic sentimentality that seemed to overcome the Hun in his sniveling mood. He honored our attacks during May by turning on the Lohengren music and announcing that Berlin had been “sentenced to death”. Such music must have been sweet in the ears of the inhabitants of Warsaw and Rotterdam!
When so many missions are flown, you don’t remember individual jobs as a rule. To those of us that have been here from the start, the missions of October and November of 1942 are still more vivid than the ones flown last week. But the missions to Dessau on the 30th are one that stands out. This was a juicy target that had been crying for our attentions for months: the parent factory and experimental shops of the Junkers monster, the nest that spawned the Stuka and the Ju-88 and the workhorse known as the Ju-52 and the high altitude Ju-86 and many other airplanes too numerous to mention. There it stood, a monument to the basic lack of understanding of Germany’s foremost air exponents, for they evidently never dreamed that this source of airpower could itself be attacked by air power. Buildings and workshops crammed and packed together in a compact site, with never a thought of dispersal. Our G-2’s had spotted this prize months before, lovingly marked it on their situation map, and suggested it as a target of opportunity whenever the briefed route passed that way. But the opportunity had never presented itself.
Now Dessau had worked its way to the top of the priority list. It was assigned to us on the 28th, but cloud over the target prevented an attack and our boys divided their attentions between the town proper, an airfield at Leipzig, and the Frankfurt marshalling yard on the way home. On the 30th it came up again. This time, the Boss’s turn to lead came up and we were leading the Division, so he took over, flying with Captain Sandman of the 381st. We made him a mission folder, which he studied carefully with a flashlight in the car going to Ridgewell. Just before takeoff, he took his folder and spread it out on the bonnet of his car, and then and there he personally briefed his lead crew to a fare-thee-well, pointing out exactly what he was going to do at each stage of the trip and the landmarks he expected them to pick up at the IP and on the bombing run. They stayed briefed. As our two Wings went over the target, bursts of smoke and flame showed that for once Jerry’s pickle barrels were in the right place. Group after Group dumped right on their assigned MPI’S. Final results were assessed by the RAF Interpretation Unit in these words: “Further photographs show considerable additional heavy damage caused by the U.S.A.A.F. attack on 30 May. In the Junkers aero engine factory, of many buildings which were on fire at the time of the earlier photographs, it can now be been that eight of the ten main buildings have been damaged in varying degree, the two large workshops being almost completely destroyed.
The Junkers’ gas heating apparatus works adjoining the aero engine factory has also been severely affected and the two main buildings half destroyed.
In the Junker’s airframe factory to the east of the airfield, nine of our 12 main buildings, comprising of workshops, assembly shops, machine shops, stores buildings and hangars have received varying degrees of damage, most of it severe.
The railway line from Kothen to Dessau, which passes between the airframe factory and the aero engine works has been out in at least fifteen places and there are some fresh craters on the airfield where one twin-engine aircraft has been damaged.”
It was really a wizard prang, as the RAF say. Colonel Gross received an oak leaf cluster to his Silver Star within a matter of hours, and the boys who were on his team also received awards, as did Lt. Col. Ross Milton of the 91st who led the “B” Combat Wing to the target in spite of the fact that his Wing never attained adequate strength for the trip. His Wing was to consist of two of our own Groups plus a Group from the 40th Combat Wing. The latter, however, never took off due to fog over its base. However, some skillful jockeying by both Colonel Milton and Col. Gross enabled the under-sized Wing to obtain position support, thus enabling the “B” Wing to complete the mission. This was doubly fortunate, because the job was no piece of cake. Somehow, the area fighter support, which was to take care of our ships in the target zone never managed to give our boys cover, with the result that our ships were jumped on the bombing run, with a loss of five aircraft of both Wings. The fact that these attacks did not impair the accuracy of our bombing in the slightest was duly noted in the citations that were awarded.
Other missions for the month included a highly effective attack on St. Dizier/Robinson airfield on the 9th, railway targets in the Luxemburg area on the 11th, a synthetic oil plant at Lutskendorf near Leipzig, on the 12th, Stralsund and Stettin on the Baltic Sea on the 13th, our old friend the Villacoublay airdrome near Paris on the 20th, Kiel on the 22nd, targets in the Sear Valley on the 23rd, Nancy/Essey airfield in Alsace on the 25th, Mannheim/Ludwigshaven on the 27th, a long drag to Posen in Poland on the 29th, and targets along the France/Belgian frontier on the 31st.
How did we stack up? In bombing we didn’t quite show the way, but we were right up with the leaders, trailing the two leading Combat Wings by a small fraction. Again, we led the Division in keeping our abortives down, with only 2.6% of our aircraft returning early against a Division average of 4.8%. Our loss rate was only 1.6%, against a Division average of 2.1%. The increase in our sorties reflected our additional Group as well as the increase in the number of missions: we flew 1,440 individual sorties, as against 822 for the preceding month. We had 90.2% of our aircraft attacking targets, against a Division average of 89.4%
When we got our new Groups, we prepared to apologize for the figures during the succeeding months or two. The apologies happily never became necessary. This was due to the fact that we had two seasoned Groups that knew how to show the way and a new Group that consisted of good boys who had been well trained and learned fast. As we headed unknowingly into the month of June that was to bring the invasion of France, we were pretty proud of the lot of them. We didn’t know what was coming or when, but we were ready to play our part, if and when.
This month, the month of the long-awaited invasion of the Continent, was fully shared by personnel of the Wing. The invasion was largely anti-climatic for us here in the strategic bombing business. We were excited, but when the first realization of the moment had worn off we looked out the window and saw no visible change in our surroundings. The missions we planned and which our boys flew were less complicated and less eventful than the proper function of a strategic force, which was to bomb the sources of the enemy’s strength in Germany; not his tactical dispositions and communications in and behind the Normandy bridgehead. Also, there was no novelty in these tactical targets. We had been bombing them for a long time and with no increasing frequency as D-Day approached.
The Boss knew about D-Day several days in advance. On the afternoon of the 5th, he summoned his Group Commanders to a briefing on the invasion mission itself. It differed from missions of other days principally in the fact that the British sky was to be incredibly filled with airplanes on the morning of the assault. There would be 11,000 planes over this little bit of earth: probably more than had ever taken the air at once since the very beginning of aviation. We were given the narrowest of corridors in which to assemble, fly to the target, bomb, and come home. Our targets were to be the defenses of the landing beaches on which our ground troops would go ashore in a matter of minutes after we had bombed. After bombing, our ships would turn right, cross the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula and round the Channel Islands before turning for England.
As we worked through the night, we heard the roar of engines before the first light of dawn. We scrambled out on the roof next to our Operations room to see the fighter lads from nearby bases wheeling through the dark, their navigation lights flowing, as they prepared to clear the area of operations of any Jerries that might interfere with the execution of our delicate task. Then, at the first suggestion of the dawn, our own boys were off. They had been told of the invasion at their briefing, in a scene whose most dramatic aspect was its utter lack of drama. Just our old pal Terry, now permanent Commander of the 91st, repeating the well-worn formula: “Well, fellow, this is it.”
Never had the boys wanted so keenly to fulfill their appointed task. And this was well, for the weather that morning was not the weather we would have chosen for our part of the job. An unbroken undercast covered the invasion coast, and our boys had to bomb without seeing either the objective or, for that matter, the negative objective which we must avoid bombing at all costs: our own fellows in their landing craft and barges teaming in the unseen Channel below. But the care and skill of the crews did the trick: the landing forces were untouched and when they reached the beach they found that all the shore defenses had been neutralized as called for by the plan, thus contributing in no small measure to the success of the landings.
On D-Day the Boss flew an observation mission over the invasion area with Lord, Hanes, Dewlen, and Villanova, and several fellows of the 91st. They flew the length of the beachhead, but all they saw was clouds, a lot of other airplanes, and a little flak. Through a hole they had a fleeting glimpse of some ships. But at least, in later years, they could say, “I not only helped plan it, but I was there when it happened.”
Personnel-wise the month was notable for the Boss’s promotion to Brigadier General. The news came through unofficially on D plus one and put the invasion two degrees in the shade as far as we were concerned. Officially the event was confirmed by War Department orders of the 21st of June, making the promotion effective as of May 29th.
Among the lesser fry, Haberman was promoted to Major effective the 15th. We lost Honke and Lt. Major, who left for that mythical paradise, the United States of America, on the 22nd. To take Honke’s place in the Navigation berth, we acquired 1st Lt. David A. McCarthy, a Ridgewell graduate. And on the 29th, Major Lord, with us on TD during the Mole’s absence on furlough, went to the 91st to take over the 401st Squadron in place of Major McPartlin, another of the lucky souls to go home.
Operationally, the month broke all records, which was to be expected during the period of the invasion. On a visit to our station some weeks before, General Eisenhower had promised the boys that when the time came, they would be worked as never before. We ran 27 missions during June. Only three missions were against strategic targets: Hamburg on the 18th and 20th, and Berlin on the 21st. On all the other missions, we were giving either direct or indirect support to the ground forces in France, even when we hit targets in the extreme south of France, such as the airdrome at Toulouse and in the Bordeaux region where Jerries had based their long-range He-177 bombers equipped with the radio-controlled glider bomb. These, it was anticipated, might have been effectively used against shipping in the Channel.
The amazing thing about all these tactical missions was the complete absence of fighter opposition. The first few days we thought the Luftwaffe had been caught napping, but as the days wore on without the expected opposition materializing, we came to the realization that one phase of our mission had been accomplished better than we knew: the job of so wearing down and reducing the fighter strength of the GAF that when the invasion came the skies would belong to us. Quite apparently we had won the battle that began in February, when we made our series of attacks on the German fighter factories. If we never contributed another thing to the final outcome, we had paid our freight in this one affair.
But even while all this was going on, we had a little time for another matter, which it was hoped might contribute in another way to the result. Our attack on Hamburg on the 20th was perhaps the most successful single mission ever flown. Here, we were after oil targets: refineries, handling facilities and storage. The 1st Division had 9 separate oil plants as pinpoint targets and destroyed every one of them. Added to the constant attacks on synthetic oil plants in every part of Hitler’s Europe and the constant hammering of the Fifteenth at Ploesti in Romania, the day might come when the Wehrmacht would cough out and come to a halt for want of gas and oil. Would this phase of our mission bear fruit, as our phase against the fighters of the GAF had paid off? Only the future would tell.
Statistically, the month was one we might equal again, but we really doubted it this time. We were credited with the amazing total of 2,100 sorties. We led the Division in daily average effective strength, cashing in on the fact that we now had three seasoned Groups in our Wing. Maintaining a daily average of 146 ships and crews ready for war, we had more weight to throw than the Eighth Air Force fought the war with during its first year of existence.
For the fourth time in four successive months, we led the Division in abortives. Again, we led in percentage of dispatched aircraft attacking targets. We had only 25 ships that returned early or 1.2%, compared with 3.1%, which was the average for the other three Combat Wings. The 381st Group had only one airplane return early out of 716 scheduled and was cited by General Williams for this amazing record. And we had 91.5% of our aircraft attacking, against a Division average of 87.5%.
And again, as we closed the books, we wondered what would come next.
This was the month when we began to smell victory in the air. We knew that the critical days of the Normandy invasion were over, because we started going back on our strategic targets in a big way. Of course, the tactical targets continued to crop up, as we knew they would until the end of the war. There were certain tactical jobs for which the heavy bombers of the strategic air force were ideally suited, such as the saturation of area from which the enemy had to be dislodged by bludgeon methods, where the rapier-like capabilities of the tactical forces were not the right weapon. True, we weren’t let in on the plans of the highest command, but the missions they handed us were a pretty good index of what the situation was on the ground. Strategic targets when the ground situation was static or proceeding according to plan; tactical targets when there was a critical situation on the ground, either to insure positions already gained or to start the ball rolling when it had stalled. That, at least, was the way it looked to us from our vantage point.
The fact, however, that the surface forces were cashing in on the air supremacy that our boys had created through two years of struggle and sacrifice did not serve to keep the month from having a decidedly routine flavor for us. There was plenty of satisfaction in watching the progress of the battle of France, in knowing that but for our labors in clearing the air none of it could have happened, but the perceptible effect on the kind or quantity of work we had was nil or nearly so. It was still a matter of staying up nights for our planning sessions, then crawling out of bed around noon to receive the reports of the mission that had been flown while we slept. We had an occasional critique, we followed our accustomed rounds of work and the sporadic search for pleasure. We needed that and yet for most of us it was no source of joy, merely an anodyne to dull the homesickness that jumped us when we weren’t looking. Still, we managed and our boys continued to say the United States a good and sufficiency in return for its investment in the shape of results accomplished.
The month opened with what was probably our major celebration of the war. On the night of the 1st, the Combat Wing threw its first, and so far only, wing ding. For a first party, it was a lulu. Credit goes to several leading spirits: to the Boss of supervision, to Moreau for organization, to Ace Akins for exercising his notable scrounging talents effectively in the search for potable refreshments, to the gals of the Red Cross, Henry our indispensable English butler for decorations and floral arrangements, and to the station GI band for furnishing music. For the occasion we appropriated the station movie, known under the influence of our surroundings as the local cinema. This room was designed to serve as a mess hall and the décor was of the type normally associated with sanitary facilities, i.e. glazed white tile and bare white walls. For our evening, it was transformed into a place of glamour by the artistic use of camouflage netting festooned with leafy garlands gathered from the countryside. It was no stand-up affair; not like the usual GI party where one spends an evening in the vertical position as long as the sense of balance continues to function. No, we had tables set in a crescent along one side of the room as though it were a nightclub and each table was graced by beautiful flowers arranged as only Henry can arrange them. Only the size of the party made all this possible. We kept it exclusive, inviting only the Group Commanders of our Wing, the Commanders of the other three Wings of the Division, and General Williams our Division Commander.
Being a special occasion, every member of the Wing invited the most attractive gal he knew, but the honors of the evening were carried off by none other than our own Miss Ella Prentice, who appeared in a seductive creation of black lace that knocked the assembled populace off its pins. Our own GI’s presided at the bar and to this day it remains a mystery how the guests managed to consume the quantity of liquor that was decanted during the course of the evening. Perish the thought that our impromptu bar ladies had anything to do with the disappearance.
The party was originally projected months before as a celebration of the Wing’s 100th mission, but we reckoned without the great number of missions flown in the months immediately preceding, so that by the time the blowout came and was brought to fruition, the 100th mission was long past and nearly forgotten. That, however, was a minor problem: the preceding month had been a sort of anniversary. It was the month after the month in which our first anniversary really happened. So we made that the excuse and it sufficed. Anyway, it was a glorious party. Some of us remembered and some of us had to take the word of others that it was and that made it unanimous. We were due for a stand down that night and General Williams saw to it that we got one. We made good use of it, gentle reader, good use.
Our Wing pioneered two tactical developments of note during the month. One was a “first” only for the Division, as it was previously in use by Combat Wings of the 2nd Division, although to our credit we may assert that the idea was stewing around in our heads before we knew about the 2nd Division. That was to paint our aircraft with distinctive Combat Wing markings, to facilitate recognition and eliminate confusion during assemblies and in deploying before the reassembling after bombing. Our devise was to cover the vertical and horizontal fixed empennage and the wing tips of our Forts with bright red paint. We painted one ship experimentally and went up and looked at it. The results were unmistakable, especially on the newer ships without camouflage. So we painted them all and it developed to be a big help to our operations. The other Combat Wings of the Division saw our ships in the air and promptly paid us the compliment of putting distinctive markings on their own ships.
The other new departure was wholly original with us. As we write this, we are firmly convinced that it will make a big difference during the coming winter, if by that time Jerry still thinks he can take it and forces us to continue dishing it out. We were looking forward to the season of bad weather, when we could fly our missions without seeing the ground at all. In that period, everything would depend on the efficiency of our so-called Mickey equipment and the Mickey navigators without whom we could not bomb effectively through cloud.
The Mickey business had just about reached its stage of ultimate development. To trace it from the beginning; at first, when H2S, otherwise known as “Stinky”, first came to our Theatre, all radar bombing equipment was based at Alconbury, where the 482nd Group maintained Stinky aircraft for the whole Eighth Air Force. (Mickey was a later and improved version of Stinky.) Alconbury was a necessary evil from the start; our Mickey ships had to be on a single base because there were so very few of them and trained maintenance personnel were inadequate to man more than a single station.
Then, as the number of men and ships increased, it became possible for each Combat Wing to have its own Mickey ships and crews and to assign one Squadron in each Wing to act as a full-time Mickey outfit for the whole Wing. That was a big improvement, but it didn’t fill the bill entirely for two reasons. First, it was still necessary to dispatch Mickey ships to other fields the night before a mission and that robbed the boys of their badly needed sleep. It made them less receptive to briefing and it meant that they would fly their missions in a state of very undesirable fatigue. (There was one occasion when a Mickey Pilot who had been hard-pressed for several days, slept in the cockpit all the way to Berlin!) So the Division authorized us to break up the specialist Mickey Squadron, which in our case was the 324th of the 91st Group, and transfer the ships and crews to our three stations. This was a big step forward, because it meant that the boys could sleep until just before briefing, just like the other crews. Also, it meant that a Mickey Pilot would always be flying in the lead of an outfit that he belonged to, whose habits and tricks he knew – an outfit that he knew how to fly with and that he knew how to make fly with him, and that meant plenty.
However, it became apparent to us that the new arrangement carried with it certain implications. We tried never to lose sight of the fact that the Boss, as Wing Commander, had been given a definite mission; he was charged with responsibility for the tactical efficiency of his Wing. As long as there was just a single Mickey Squadron that responsibility could be discharged by seeing to it that there was a competent and responsible officer in command of that squadron and then holding him for the results. But when the Mickey function was dispersed among the three Groups, the supervising responsibility could no longer be delegated. There was Mickey training, Mickey maintenance, special briefing and interrogation. The Mickey operators of the various Groups had to pool their experience. There would inevitably be occasions when the Mickey ships of one Group would be out of commission and ships in commission would have to be traded back and forth. There would be responsibilities for maintaining a Mickey trainer machine for the Wing and seeing to it that a program for using it was put into effect and coordinated with maximum benefit between the various Groups. The conclusions were obvious, even though nobody had reached them. There had to be a Mickey Officer on the General’s Staff. So we conferred with Lt. Col. Dick Weitzenfeld, the Commander of the 324th, and he gave us Captain Hillard C. Alloway, one of the most experienced of Mickey navigators. With our new setup, with the advantage of dispersal of ships and crews and at the same time, centralized supervision and coordination of effort, we thought we had the ideal arrangement at least for the present. We wrote a letter to the Division about it.
There were also developments in our fleet of private airplanes: not the big, rough B-17s that were so unpopular in Germany, but the nice little airplanes that the Wing Staff used for hops to Ridgewell and Nuthampstead and Sh! an occasional flip up to Scotland. Initially, we had a Cub (L-4B) to the Army, and an Airspeed Oxford and an A-20, which last named airplane was the personal true love of Smitty the Mole. Well, the Oxford just sort of naturally wore out and one evil day, while returning from a mission without brakes a Fort ran smack and chewed off Smitty’s pet A-20, while Smitty was home on furlough in the good old U.S.A. (There really is such a place , you know.) So, we got a new fleet: a Cessna and a P-47 Thunderbolt for our local hot pilots to work off their steam with. And, for the first time, the Boss had an airplane of his own; one that he could fly without humbly craving the by-your-leave of his operations staff. It was a Norden Norseman, one of those Canadian-built parasol jobs that they use in the frozen wilds of the north instead of dog teams and Robert W. Service. The General was deeply conscious of the great generosity of the Ops. crowd in letting him have his own airplane. Nice of them, he said.
Operationally, the month showed a fall in volume of business. We flew “only” eighteen missions. Eleven of these were strategic. We attacked Leipzig on the 9th, the experimental station at Peenemunde on the Baltic on the 18th, Leipzig and Dessau on the 20th, Schweinfurt on the 21st, the huge synthetic oil works at Merseburg on the 28th, again on the 29th, and an aero engine works at Munich on the 31st. The quality of these attacks was, on the whole, excellent. On the 11th, 12th, 13th and 16th there was cloud over the Continent and we made four heavy PFF attacks on Munich with first-rate results and a good deal of important industrial damage. PFF was paying off.
On the 6th, 8th, and 9th, we attacked Noball targets so called, that is: flying-bomb launching sites in the Pas de Calais area. The entire Division benefited from a Noball Master Map devised by our G-2 section, which served as a complete index and guide to all the un-coordinated target material, which had been accumulated for more than a year. But the days of attacks on targets of this type were numbered, for several reasons. For one, the buzz bombs, while unpleasant for London, were not an important military factor in the war. Another, there were fewer sites to worry about, because the ones in the Cherbourg area had been taken by our ground forces. Lastly, the ground and air defenses of the British proved to be surprisingly effective, so that it was worthwhile to divert our striking force from its proper and more important tasks.
There were also tactical missions. On the 4th, we attacked bridges over the Loire at Tours, as part of the program to continue isolating the Normandy battlefront from the rest of France. On the 24th and 25th, we played our part in what was undoubtedly one of the decisive battles of this war when we along with the rest of the Eighth Air Force plastered the German concentrated in the area south and west of St. Lo, leading to the great break through at Avaranches, the swift occupation of Brittany, and the breath-taking swing to the south and east by General Patton’s armored forces, which resulted in the encirclement of the German 7th Army and the winning of the first phase of the battle of France.
During the month, we were credited with 1,787 sorties, which was a respectable figure. We had only 22 aircraft returning early, or 1.2%, and in that department we led the Division for the fifth successive month. Our losses were 27 aircraft, or 1.5% of those entering enemy territory. We were credited with nine enemy aircraft destroyed, five probables and 16 damaged. It wasn’t up to some of our previous months, but still it was, as the British say, “not ‘arf bad”. The U.S.A. was still getting its money’s worth out of the old Foist and Woist.
There were some personnel changes during the month, as always. Major Smith, alias Major the Right Honorable Sir Sterling C. Mole (the ‘C’ was for character), was still in the states on furlough, and we followed his route through work and word received from our wives, whom he telephoned at various stages of his hegira. On the 2nd, Capt. John W. Brunning came to us after finishing his missions at Ridgewell to act as assistant Wing Navigator. On the 10th, we opened a Wing Weather Bureau, with 1st Lt. Leslie E. Jones of the 18th Weather Squadron, formerly attached to the 91st Group, assigned to the position of Private Weather Prognosticator. On the 14th, it became officially known that Colonel Claude E. Putman, Jr., permanent commander of the 91st and our genial host, who had gone home with Smitty, had become Commanding Officer of a B-29 Wing in the states and would not return. The loss of Terry, in consequence, became permanent and official, as he assumed permanent command of the 91st on that date. We didn’t really lose him; he merely graduated from our little coterie of station guests to become our host. We were all pretty proud of him.
On the 18th word came that Chima, our own Cornelius the Chink, had been promoted to Major. Rejoicings were in due and proper form. And on the 18th we acquired a new stalwart: Captain Robert E. Sheriff, who came to us after a tour with the 91st as an assistant Operations Officer.
For the first time, a monthly installment of our History requires two new departments: a Sports Column and a Society Column. Under the first heading, it is incumbent on us to report that during the month we instituted a physical fitness hour, daily at 16:30 hrs., when all and sundry repaired to the athletic field for a game of volleyball or softball, as the case might be. We met and defeated the 91st Group in softball, but found ourselves outclassed by them in volleyball. In the intramural struggle between our officers and our GI’s the GI’s had the edge in softball, but were polished by the officers in volleyball. It was good fun and good for us – chair-born troops that we were.
The Society Column records with pleasure the marriage of Colonel Terry to Miss Hazel Boston of Norwich, which took place at St. John’s Church in Norwich on the afternoon of the 20th. The Tiger had met his future bride in his early days at Thurleigh when he and the other stalwarts of the 306th Group were in the pleasant habit of repairing evenings to the Falcon, a pub of note at Bletsoe, not very far from Bedford. The Falcon was no ordinary pub; it is celebrated both locally and elsewhere as the wayside inn where Edward Fitzgerald found solitude while composing the verses of the Rubaiyat of Omar the Tentmaker, and it was presided over by the genial owner, Mrs. Dickson, who ran the place mostly for her own pleasure and always closed it to the public when friends were around. In these idyllic surroundings, Terry met Hazel, who was Mrs. Dickson’s niece, and their romance bloomed.
When it came to a showdown, the Wing stood up for old Terry. Hugo Toland was the handsome best man, playing opposite Hazel’s sister, June, who made a lovely bridesmaid. The General headed the Wing delegation, which included Miss Prentice, Chima, and Haberman. After an impressive if inaudible ceremony at the church, a lawn party was held a the home of the bride’s parents, where all made merry and the Boss, after the English custom and a little coaxing, made a speech. The weather man put on his best show for the occasion. It was a lovely event, enjoyed by all.
And after these and other things had transpired, we preceded to go ahead and wait for August to take place. After all, what choice did we have?
August, a month of fateful decisions on the ground when the forces under the command of General Eisenhower, known to the British press as “Montgomery’s right flank”, encircled and assassinated the German 7th Army in the Calais pocket, was just another month of slogging and working to the units of the Eighth Air Force, including us. Days and missions went by in their usual procession while our excited interest and our hopes were wrapped up in startling events, which transpired in France: the landings on the Mediterranean coast, the rest of the Germans, the liberation of Paris, the end of London’s ordeal with the liberation of the Pas de Calais buzz bomb coast and the amusing progress of General Patton’s armored columns through the heart of northern France. Daily we awaited the arrival of the tactical bomb line by Teletype from higher headquarters: with absorbed interest we stood around while the G-2s outlined the new area of operations on their big map in the Intelligence office.
Perhaps the high point of the month was the General’s excursion to France. This took place on the 12th of the month, only a few days after the American had broken out of their Normandy beachhead in the Avaranches area, swept like wildfire the length of the Brest Peninsula, reached the Loire in the vicinity of Nantes and started eastward swing, which was to turn north in a few days and accomplish the entrapment of the German armies. But these things were not generally understood at the time of our expedition. We went over to see a beachhead and the beachhead was what we saw.
The Boss did a rather nifty piece of organizing. Some had rank, some were good mixers. A combination of both, in this man’s army, is a useful mixture; in this instance, it enabled the Boss to borrow from some friends a C-47, complete with crew and everything. So, on the morning of the 12th, much too early to be bright, the lucky few assembled and we piled into the waiting transport, taking with us the pride and joy of the 91st Group: a sports model jeep all dolled up with chromium and white side wall tires. The party included General Gross, General Beeman (Chief of Staff of the Division), Colonels Terry and Berry of the 91st , Colonels Hall and Reed of the 381st, and Smitty, Chima, and Haberman of the Wing staff. Colonel Hunter of the 398th, who was permitted to bring one guest, held a war bond contest and brought a lucky corporal instead of a member of his staff.
We took off in poor-ish weather at seven in the morning. Weather continued poor over England, but when we hit the Channel it cleared, and by the time we picked up the French coast it was beautiful, fresh and balmy. At about eight o’clock, we swung in at low altitude over the Points de Barfleur, the eastern tip of the Cherbourg peninsula, skirted the coast as we flew south. The shore presented a unique spectacle: we plainly saw the remains of the beach obstacles, the scars and pockmarks of the battle that had raged across the land only a week or so earlier, the multitude of ships lying offshore, the myriad of ducks lying next to the ships, taking cargo, paddling away, waddling up the beaches and onto the roads, and so into the fields where stores of equipment were being piled up in improvised depots. Then, crossing the estuary of the Vire with its mud flats and winding tidal creeks, we struck inland and toward the east until we picked up and sat down on our briefed destination, which was the newly-built landing strip known as T-2, located near Collerville, just southwest of Port-en-Bessin, which was roughly the geographical center of the beachhead. Our landing was made at 8:20 in the morning.
Parenthetically, there was none of us who was unimpressed by the startling demonstration of air supremacy we had just been given. Not merely that we had flown in an unarmed, unescorted transport plane through an area where history was being made to within five miles of the frontline fighting, with as little concern as though it were a routine flight from New York to Philadelphia, but at the thought of what we could have accomplished over the beachhead area had we been a hostile airplane. We thought of our experience when the story came through a week or so later about the captured German officer who demanded fighter escort before being sent from France to England in a transport. Clearly, you could do things in a C-47 that you couldn’t do in a Ju-52. For there was nothing unusual about what we had done: unarmed, unescorted transports were flying routinely in and out of the beachhead in broad daylight every day of the week with nothing more than an ordinary flying control clearance, bringing supplies, ferrying wounded and performing a thousand other unglamorous work-a-day jobs, as though Goering’s Luftwaffe had ceased to exist. We took pride in that, for we knew that it was the Eighth Air Force that had brought this state of affairs into being.
After landing, we unloaded our jeep. It is a nice thing in your travels to have two Generals in the party. Generals are convenient things to have around: you don’t have to carry your own things because you can pretty well borrow what you need when you need it. One jeep was not enough to carry our party, so we pulled our Generals on the flight-strip commander and before long we had two more jeeps and drivers. We proposed to do the beachhead in style.
We took off. We thought we would have traffic trouble along the route, but no. The organization of traffic in the beachhead was breath-taking. The old two lane highways of what had been a peaceful countryside were obviously inadequate to the vast quantities of traffic pouring across the beaches, so the engineers had dispensed with their need, driving brand-new four-lane roads inland from the beaches wherever needed. Amazing things: these modern armies, building their own facilities wherever they go, counting not at all on existing facilities that could be destroyed by the enemy in his retreat. The air strips were another thing of the same kind; also, the six-inch pipeline that followed our troops and air units wherever they went to bring oil and gasoline, which are the life-blood of modern armies. We saw these things and we marveled.
Our travels took us first to the beach at Port-en-Bessin. Offshore were countless ships discharging their cargoes in sub-line disregarding the lack of port facilities. Heading inland along the roads newly built was an endless stream of tanks, mobile weapons, trucks and ducks. Overhead were innumerable kite balloons, tied own with steel gadgets simply stuck in the ground. It seemed that every few hundred feet you passed a new airstrip packed with airplanes of all kinds, and in-between were fields, which had been turned into depots where acres and acres of stores of all kinds were lying out in the sun, stacked ten and twenty feet high, uncamouflaged, begging for air attack. There was rather less battle evidence here than we had expected. Every so often you passed a chimney or a fragment of a wall that testified to a house, which had stayed in one place too long. We carried along the road that paralleled the beach until we came to the spot not far from Avaranches that our own boys had bombed on D-Day just ahead of the first assault wave.
Here we dismounted. As we went down to the beach there was an unexpected salute: they were dynamiting hulks. Colonel Hunter’s GI guest promptly hit the nearest ditch. The dust he collected didn’t differentiate him from the rest, who by that time were clawing dust out of their eyes, ears, noses, and mouths and not worrying about the inch-thick layer that covered our clothes. For the yellow dust was the all-pervading characteristic of the entire beachhead. Every vehicle that moved raised an enormous cloud of dirty, yellow-gray, choking powder and there were plenty of vehicles. Only part settled; the rest remained airborne and accumulated until the landscape was obscured and the sun was, at times, invisible, at best a dull, coppery plate apparently unconnected with the illumination of the scene below. There were plenty of times when the visibility was so low that we had to go into low gear; at times we had to stop entirely until the dust cleared somewhat.
Where we dismounted there was plenty to show where Hitler’s Atlantic wall had stood. What a formidable thing it had been before we attacked. Remains of underwater obstacles showed above the low tide. Facing the beach just inside the high-water marks was a rampart of reinforcement concrete some eight feet thick, studded with spikes as thick as railroad tracks garnished with miles of wicked-looking wire. At intervals, the beach was covered by the embrasures of massive concrete forts and pill-boxes set in the rampart. Yet these things had been ridiculously neutralized. The fortifications were split like eggshells and the openings as wide as roads had been driven through the rampart wherever needed. Through these gaps, the engineers had built concrete ramps furnishing ready access to the beach. Steel boxes braced together had been floated across the Channel and sunk in place, running out from the shore a half-mile or more, and these served as breakwaters to implement the transition of ducks from the water to the land.
Continuing, we followed the shore road to Coursoulles, near the end of the British east end of the beachhead. Then inland in the direction of Caen. Here there was no doubt that a battle had taken place. The nearer we got to Caen, the greater the devastation of the countryside. Caen itself was the peak of the crescendo. Here the Germans had been literally blasted out of places by a series of massive droppings of thousands of tons of high explosives by the RAF and by massed artillery bombardment. To see Caen was to understand for the first time that this is the war of high explosives. The devastation and desolation of what had been a thriving, prosperous city boggled description and then went on to boggle whatever faculties we had left. A few parts were relatively untouched, but for the most part there were only heaps of rubble and skeletons of buildings. A building in Caen meant a thing one-third of which lay in the road and the other two-thirds in its own basement. The streets were hardly recognizable as such: you drove through lanes, which the bulldozers had cleared through the rubble heaps. You could not sympathize with destruction so complete: there was no chord in your own experience that things like this could touch. It lacked reality; you could see it, but you couldn’t feel it.
After journeying through the devastated portion of the city, we came to one of the outskirts where only isolated incidents of damage had occurred. We stopped in a little estaminet for a drink. The barmaid was glad to see us, but she had little to offer. Supplies had been cut off since bombing. Obligingly, she made a sweet concoction out of raspberry syrup and water. At least it was wet. Those of us who had a little French made conversation. We tried to commiserate. You have had a bad time here, we said. “Oui”, she answered, “Mais ca c’est fini maitenant”-. “Yes, but it’s all over now; good times are here again. Proudly they exhibited a new baby just before the invasion apparently in the best of health. In the estaminet, we were amused by a poster plastered on the wall by the local German Kommandantur. “ACHTUNG”, it said, “All persons are warned as follows: 1. It is strengst verboten to rent rooms to German soldiers not holding a billeting order from the Regimental authority. 2. It is also verboten to rent rooms to French civilians for the use of German soldiers. 3. Any persons violating this order will be tried by court-martial on charges of promoting debauchery in the German armed forces”.
Once more we took off, this time down the straight road from Caen to Bayeaux. Here the British had driven south to capture our old friend, the Caen/Carpiquet airfield. This country was not badly chewed up, apparently because it was open, unbroken land ideally suited to tank warfare. Chief evidence of the battle that had passed was the large number of Jerry tanks, busted and abandoned, with their guns drooping in true Freudian symbolism. Everyone in the party was struck by this point. Bayeaux, with its beautiful tracery cathedral, was entirely unharmed, and the country around it was still smiling. We didn’t stop to see the famous tapestry, which Jerry the art-lover had taken with him in his flight.
Finally we returned to Colleville. We were advised not to buck the southbound traffic between there and Cherbourg, so we piled into our C-47 and took off for Cherbourg/Querqueville airdrome, in its day another prominent member of our targets list. Jerry had done a good job of spoiling here, but the engineers did a better one and we landed on a perfect landing ground, which had been completed only that morning. Once more we pulled our Generals and were provided with a weapons carrier and a command car to take us into Cherbourg. A Red Cross Club was open there and we had doughnuts and coffee, which by that time we needed rather badly. Then we took in the port. It was really all beat up. Where the care maritime had stood, there was a pile of rubble thirty to forty feet deep. This was not bombing, but good old Jerry demolition, carried out when he knew he would lose the port. But in spite of the spoiling of the port facilities, the harbor was chockfull of vessels of all kinds and the stream of traffic leaving for the south was endless. It was good to see railroad rolling stock working for us with the words, “Deutache Reichsbahn” on the side. But the Jerry stuff looked pretty speedy compared with the shiny new trains and diesel engines bearing the words “Corps of Transportation U.S. Army”.
After three hours of wandering around, we finally went back to Querqueville, where we saw a big British battleship lying offshore and lazily letting off a salvo every minute or so. A few days later we read in the Teletype poop that it was the Rodney, bombarding a troublesome coastal battery on the Island of Alderney. The Navy lads took a lot of credit for jobs of that kind, and it was useful work, but we know that without the air force, the Rodney wouldn’t have dared to sit there at all. Finally, we loaded on our C-47 and were back at Bassingbourn for a shower and supper, tired but happy and feeling most educated. It was a great day for the ones who were lucky enough to go.
We had some personnel incidents during the month. On the 1st, having lost Terry for good, we were given Lt. Col. Ross Milton of the 91st as our Exec. He was an old friend; first at Polebrook when we had the 351st in the Wing, then as a Deputy Group Commander of the 91st. But we got him on paper only for the time being, for on the 2nd he took off for a well earned 30-day furlough home. On the 2nd, Smitty the Mole completed the last leg of his trek to California and back and rejoined the ranks. On the 16th Hugo Toland, our Bombing Officer, left us for good to go home for reassignment, his place being taken by Capt. William E. Sticklen of the 91st, just returned from a 30-day stretch in that far-off land called the United States. On the same day we also lost our chief duty officer, 1st Lt. Francis B. Clark. Clarkie got in on a go-home deal, which called for officers to terminate government contracts. Being a lawyer by trade, it was right down Clarkie’s alley. We were plenty sorry to lose Hugo and Clarkie, two of our best. On the 27th, we were given the assignment of 1st Lt. Elmer C. Laedtke of the 91st, who had come to us about a month earlier on DS from the 91st to act as an assistant Operations Officer.
We had one pleasant surprise toward the end of the month. Our old friend, Lt. Col. J.W. Wilson, who was our Wing Exec. for a day during the summer of 1943 as previously recorded in these columns, returned to the ETO in search of a job. He was certain to find one: after all, he was one of the earliest early worms in the Theater, but jobs worthy of his talent and experience didn’t come open every day. Pending a permanent post, he came to live with us here at Bassingbourn and we were mighty glad to have him.
Operationally, we slogged ahead, now hitting tactical targets in support of ground operations and now going after our reliable strategic ones. Our tactical missions came only in the first half of the month, while we were aiding the conditions that enabled the ground forces to make their amazing advance that carried them from the Normandy beachhead to the French and Belgian frontier in the course of a few weeks. We began to understand more fully that we operated mainly when the enemy situation needed loosening; when the loosening had been completed and there was a fluid situation on the ground, which the ground and tactical air forces could exploit, we were turned again to strategic bombing.
On the tactical side, we attacked Melun/Villaroche airdrome south of Paris on the 1st, transportation facilities at Saarbruken and Mulhouse on the 3rd, miscellaneous tactical objectives on the 7th and 8th and again on the 13th, enemy airfields at Versailles/Buc and Metz/Freseaty on the 12th and 14th respectively, and fixed defenses at Brest on the 11th.
Strategic targets were, to us, more interesting. On the 4th we hit Peenemunde on the Baltic, where Jerry had his huge experimental station that had spawned the V-1 projectile, or the “buzz bomb”, and was hard at work on his so-called V-2, reputed to be a long-range rocket packing ten tons of high explosive in the nose. Our aiming points, which we hit, were two large buildings where he was manufacturing hydrogen peroxide, which was supposed to be a propellant for the rocket. On the 8th, we continued the attack on his oil situation when we went for oil storage depots at Neinburg and Dollbergen in the Hanover area. With the fall of Ploesti to the Russians then only a short time ahead, those oil attacks loomed ever larger in their strategic importance to us – and to the Hun.
On the 9th, we were briefed for an attack on one of the lucky targets: one of those few targets that somehow seemed to bear a charmed life. This was the BMW Aero Engine works at Allach, near Munich. It had been repeatedly attacked, but had only sustained minor damage. This time its luck held good again, for the weather was so bad that our boys were unable to penetrate. Instead, they dropped on Saarbruken again and on a German military camp at Kleenborn in Belgium, near the German border.
Cologne/Cathein airfield was our target for the 15th. Here Jerry had built up some of his dwindling reserves of fighter planes, thinking that the formidable flak defenses of Cologne would keep us away and save his planes from the fate that was rapidly overtaking them elsewhere. He was wrong, for we made a concentrated attack with first-rate results; and the flak deterred us not at all. Then, on the 16th we carried the fight against the GAF forward again with successful attacks on the Siebel aircraft works at Nelle and the GAF airdrome at nearby Delitzach.
At this point, just as we were heading for a new record with 14 missions already flown in 16 days, ol’ man weather took a hand and we were grounded for eight consecutive days. This was a bore and a nuisance, for we were in our stride and every day we lost was, we feared, a week gained for Jerry. Then, on the 24th things opened up again and we finished the month in a burst of activity, attacking the V-2 rocket factory at Woimar/Buchenwald and the airfield at Kolleda on the 24th, Newbrandenburg airfield north of Berlin on the 25th, synthetic oil plants at Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr on the 26th, and an aircraft assembly plant at Berlin/Schonefeld on the 27th. Finally on the 30th, we polished off the month with an outstandingly successful Pathfinder attack through cloud on the Krupp Germania works at Kiel.
It should be recorded that although it wasn’t our show the last Noball mission was flown on the 30th by aircraft of the 2nd Division. “Noball”, gentle reader, was the cryptic name for attacks on the buzz bomb launching sites on the French coast. We had been there again and again. Now, with the tide of battle swinging north to encompass the buzz bomb nest in the Pas de Calais sector, London’s ordeal of sudden death and destruction was drawing rapidly to a close. A night or two later just before dawn, as the narrator of these pages was returning to his own couch after a night of work and briefing lo! a sure enough buzz bomb flew impertinently over Bassingbourn and drove your narrator to the vicinity of the shelters and conked out just beyond our establishment. Your savior who had kept away from London for months because his wife was frightened (he speaketh not of himself) promptly decided that London was safer than Bassingbourn and took off on pass. The few buzz bombs that still came over were being air-launched by HE-111s. There was no telling where these things would light.
During the month, we accumulated the respectable total of 1,904 sorties. We led the Division in number of aircraft scheduled per mission, with an average of 102.2 per each. We had the largest number attacking assigned primary targets, 1,588, dropping 4,145 tons of bombs on our primaries. After leading the Division for five consecutive months in having the smallest percentages of abortives, we dropped to second place. What really happened was that we had shown the others what could be done and they reduced their percentages to the point where one of the other Wings succeeded in nosing us out by a small margin. We lost 20 aircraft during the month: 13 to flak, 6 to enemy aircraft, and 1 to causes unknown. This was exactly one percent of aircraft scheduled and was the lowest loss ratio in the Division.
By comparison this was one of our less eventful months. Not that we didn’t work; there was work and plenty, but we had long ago reached the stage where missions were planned and executed with the regularity of an assembly line. We had come to the part of our career when it was news if we didn’t work.
General Gross led a successful mission against the synthetic oil plant at Lutzkendorf, near Leipzig, on the 13th. This was what had come to be known as a policing job; the target and others in the same category had been effectively attacked before on more than one occasion. The original job of paring Jerry’s oil supply far below his operational requirements had long since been done. Now it was a case of keeping it there, of waiting until the plants were repaired to the point of recommencing work and then slapping them down once more. This was such a job.
The only other mission of more than purely routine interest came on the 17th, when we attacked the flak batteries around the airfield at Eindhoven, Holland, in preparation for the dropping of units of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. This was the operation that resulted in extending the British salient through Holland with the intension of outflanking the Siegfried Line and obtaining their bridgeheads over major water barriers in one leap and resulted ten days later in the tragedy of Arnheim. Our part in the job was well done. We derived great benefit from our habit of posting all targets on our Intelligence map. This being a mission against tactical positions and not against a target in the strategic list, we were given our targets merely in the form of map coordinates. No air photographs, so badly needed by our bombardiers, could be furnished. Our Intelligence map shows us, however, that the Eindhoven airfield, which was a target in our strategic lists, was nearby. A glance at the target folder was rewarded with photographs of the very area we were to attack. It was a matter of a few hours work only to plot our assigned aiming points on the photographs and furnish the information to the Groups. We did some of the best bombing in the Division. This may have been partly attributable to the photos and plotting work; at least it was certain that the pictures showed up certain inaccuracies in the maps referred to by higher headquarters, which might have confused our boys and spoiled their aim if the pictures had not been made available.
A major tactical change requires belated recognition. The massive 60-ship formation assembled from several stations has become a thing of the past. The change did not occur overnight. We previously reported that we had begun experimenting with a formation of 36 aircraft consisting of three twelve-ship elements in vertical staggers. The fact was that the reduced fighting value of the GAF plus the added protection longer necessary for us to accept the disadvantage of the larger formation, which we had always recognized but had flown the added protection against fighter attacks. The smaller formations had the advantage of presenting a more compact, hence less vulnerable target for flak, greater maneuverability and a more compact, hence more effective bombing pattern.
There was no specific date on which it was decided to abandon the larger formations in favor of the smaller. The smaller formation was tried out at first on short missions, especially tactical missions in support of ground operations during the Battle of France, when fighter opposition was consistently nil. Then, as we went back to what we considered our proper task, flying deep into Germany, we just never went back to the old formation, although we thought all the time that we might be forced back if our losses showed a tendency to increase. As we look over our records, it now appears that the last massive formation we flew was to Peenemunde on the 18th of July. Obviously a Chapter has been closed.
With the closing of the chapter, it must be recognized that the reason that gave birth to the Combat Wing idea no longer exists. With our Groups at an initial strength more than twice the size of the normal 36-ship formation, it was an easy matter for us to put up three separate combat formations, instead of assembling a larger formation from each of three stations. Each Group would henceforth be called on for an entire formation and would readily comply. Yet so tardy was our recognition that a major change had occurred that we continued to use our old terminology, calling each 36-ship formation a “Combat Wing”. Not until recently was the confusion finally cleared up. Now a 36-ship formation is a “Group”, a 12-ship element is a “Squadron”, and so forth.
The disappearance of our original function did not mean, however, that we were to be released from our labors. More and more we were coming to be the directive force of our Groups: the unity that had been created did not disappear. Our function of bearing the responsibility for the tactical efficiency of the Groups, both as units and as a fighting whole, continued. We seemed to stay busy, we seemed to have as much to do in preparation for missions as ever.
But it was a good thing that the size of our formations had been reduced, because the enemy flak continued to grow in accuracy and effectiveness. As he lost control of vast areas of western, southern and Eastern Europe, Jerry’s defensive commitments were similarly diminished. Consequently, as the ring around the Reich shrank, he was able to withdraw his flak defenses from their previous wide development and correspondingly increase the defenses along the Rhine became linked by the addition of further flak areas until there was almost a continuous Siegfried Line of the Air standing behind the West Wall. For another, such points of major sensitivity as the synthetic oil plants were surrounded by unheard of concentrations. Politz, for example, which but a few months ago was undefended, now had an aggregation of 310 guns, more than such cities as Hamburg, Bremen, or Frankfurt. Where guns had formerly been grouped in batteries of four, six, and eight, sensitive targets now had “gross batteries” of up to 24 guns.
These things were no laughing matter. Only one mission to Politz and the 94th Combat Wing lost 14 aircraft without being attacked by fighters. Losses included a Group Commander, Colonel Luper, and many of his key personnel. In the old days, when fighters were the thing, we hardly gave flak a thought. Now, the bulk of our losses were to flak.
Counter-measures were a lively subject. As we write this, we were experimenting. Some improvements had already been made. One was to bomb by 12-ship elements, “Squadrons”, even when we were attacked by PFF. This had a tendency to dilute the defenses. We had formerly flown our lead and deputy PFF ships in the lead Squadron, bombing by 36-ship elements if the blind procedure had to be used. Now we put a Mickey ship in each Squadron. We tried approaching the target at different levels, with units coming in simultaneously. This had the effect of making it impossible for the flak gunners to engage everybody. Generally we raised our altitude of attack. This helped on the flak problem, but created engine difficulties. Also, there was no denying that above our best altitude, bombing accuracy tended to fall off rapidly as you moved up. We considered dropping the ball turrets from our ships to get better performance at higher altitudes, but an unfortunate experience of the 2nd Division, whose B-24s had already dropped their ball turrets for operational reasons, caused us to think better of the idea, at least for the time being. We considered bombing by six-ship elements, but this was fought with the danger of higher elements dropping their bombs on the ones below. Much indoctrination would be necessary before this could be attempted.
Eindhoven, we knew, furnished the only complete answer. Air power could neutralize ground defenses, if you had it to spare. But unless the price of admission went up to a figure we could not afford, it was cheaper to pay the price than to attempt to eliminate the ticket man. Sometimes you had to use it, as when you were going to drop paratroops from low-flying, slow-flying aircraft that were ducks for flak. For our regular work we knew that we would continue to pay our admission, although we planned to keep it down by palliative measures as described above.
Otherwise, the principle fact about the month was that we were back in the season of overcast skies, when but for the blind bombing equipment that had come to us during the last year, we would have flown very few missions and some of those flown would have been abortive due to inability to see our targets. We had 23 missions laid on during the month. Of these, five were scrubbed because of weather before takeoff. One was abandoned in the air for the same reason. Seventeen were mission targets, while twelve resulted in Pathfinder bombing. This was the season when we would cash in on our Wing Pathfinder Officer, Capt. Alloway.
It was a good thing that we had Pathfinder equipment. A glance at last year’s record shows that during September of 1943 we managed to fly only nine missions, not all of which were successful. Even so small a figure dwindled as we got on toward winter, reaching low ebb for November, with only five missions flown the entire month. In fact, we had spent the whole winter waiting for the six days of good weather that didn’t come until February, when we launched the now historic attack on the German aircraft factories. This winter, we had the satisfaction of knowing, we would keep working steadily even though layers of soup would cover the Continent for weeks and months with scarcely a break.
It was the interest that the Hun came up to fight on only two days when we were over Germany – and now that the Occupied Countries of the west had been liberated, we had no occasion to go anywhere else except on the single occasion of the Eindhoven mission. Our ships were not opposed by intercepting fighters on any except the visual days and even at that Jerry was only able to oppose us on two of the five. A short penetration to the Stuttgart area on the 10th evoked no opposition from the GAF, but when there was a long mission to the Merseburg sector on the 11th, Jerry came up and fought. He repeated the performance in strength the following day, when we went still deeper into the Reich, but on the third successive day of visual attacks deep in Germany, Jerry was exhausted. Jerry had paid too big a price for the 97 bombers he had knocked down the previous day.
Our Wing was not among those attacked. We had the lowest losses of the Division for the month. Even so, we made the losses of the rest of the force the occasion for a fresh indoctrination of our crews. We reminded them that the war wasn’t over, that Jerry would still come up from time to time and that they couldn’t afford to relax or lean on their guns. And we reminded them of what was, we thought, inevitable, namely: that sooner or later the Hun would jump us in force with the jet aircraft he was developing. We pointed out that the jetties were being pushed in an effort to get something that could evade the fighter escort and get at the bombers. We didn’t want our crews to have any false sense of security just because they hadn’t been the ones attacked on the recent days when Jerry fought.
The month brought only two personnel events: the promotion of Robert W. (The Mole) Smith from Major to Lt. Colonel and the return of our new executive, Lt. Col. Ross Milton, from his thirty day furlough at home.
Operationally, we were in good shape as a Wing. We had an average of 188 airplanes on hand during the month. We scheduled 1,542 aircraft for missions and were credited with 1,498 sorties. The Wing delivered 4,025.5 tons of bombs and 24 tons of leaflets. Only one of our aircraft scheduled failed to take off. Our losses were the lowest in the Division: ten aircraft failed to return, 7 due to flak and 3 to unknown causes. This represented only 0.6% of sorties, against a Division average of 1.6%.
OCTOBER, 1944: Another month wheeled by. As it passed, we became increasingly aware that the end was not to come this year. By all the rules, Jerry should have surrendered. His position was far worse than in November of 1918. He had war on both his western and eastern fronts. He had lost his satellites: Rumania, Bulgaria, and Finland had quit him and were fighting on our side. Only Hungary remained, weakened by Horthy’s attempt to get out of the war and the Nazi putsch that replaced him. The battlefields on which Luderdorff decided that Germany had lost in 1918 had been over-passed at breakneck speed: we were on the frontiers of the Reich.
Yet Germany fought on. Doubtless this was partly because the bad conditions had forced her to desperation; her crimes made surrender impossible. She sat behind her West Wall, partly over-run, like a gangster trapped in his hideout but determined to shoot it out with the G-Men. That she could hold out was due to two causes, as we saw it here. One was that as yet we had no good port on the Continent. The other was the weather as it affected our missions.
The classic battle of Normandy that had delivered the French was largely the result of the flying weather that then prevailed. Day after day, without surcease or respite, our heavies had pounded Jerry in his supply centers, and communications, while our friends of the tactical forces had denied him the ability to maneuver, to fight, even to put out his nose in daylight and still live. One German Commander after another had given eloquent testimony that this was so.
Now in October, our ol’ enemy, the weather, tied us up. We had only two visual missions during the month. Of the other days, there were five when no mission was scheduled, nine when missions were laid on and then scrubbed and fifteen missions resulting in blind attacks.
True, fifteen missions is a total not to be amazed at. But there is a vast difference between Pathfinder attacks and visual attacks. Our Pathfinder equipment was a scientific miracle, but there was no denying that it was in its early infancy. For one thing, only a few types of targets were vulnerable to it. For another, percentage of hits on each target was low, at least by contrast. You couldn’t assign different targets to each of twenty or thirty Combat Wings and expect most or all of them to be knocked out, as had been the case during the summer when Jerry was formally introduced to the grinding machine in the Calais pocket. For another thing: you had to dilute your bombing pattern over a wider area in order to be reasonably sure of getting any hits at all, and that factor considerably diluted the damage you were able to accomplish. You could damage targets, but only rarely was the damage heavy or fatal. Also, you didn’t fly many long missions under such conditions. There were many reasons why long missions deep into Germany were unprofitable unless the visual bombsight could be used. Beyond any doubt, weather was one of the things that denied us quick victory. By giving the Hun another breather at a critical moment, it might prolong the war well into 1945.
Meanwhile Jerry’s fighter picture was improving. We took occasion to warn our Groups that fighter trouble could be expected. Jerry had fighters again in good numbers. We couldn’t hit his well-dispersed production facilities while they were under comfortable cloud blankets. Some of his factories had been moved underground: a rare compliment to our work, but still an effective counter-measure. That he was still having trouble was probably due to what we had done and were continuing to do to his synthetic oil plants, which continued to be top priority targets.
His sensitiveness to our oil program was well evidenced by his flak deployments. Targets like Politz, Lutskendorf, Mersburg/Luens and Madge/Hothense, likely defended, exceeding the defenses of Berlin and other key industrial targets. At the oil targets, the guns were concentrated in defense of a single target, not scattered to defend an area such as Munich, Hamburg, or Bremen. (Also, permanent repair gangs were set up in barracks areas adjoining the production sites; the smoke of our attacks was not allowed to clear before clearance and reconstruction were underway. It was clear that in this one matter of gasoline, the Hun’s coattails were in the Sheriff’s grasp.)
Jerry showed us that his other point of sensitiveness to our attacks was as the communications centers behind his lines, principally the rail and road centers along the Rhine: Duisburg and the Ruhr, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Koblenz, Frankfurt, Mannheim, and Stuttgart. Formerly, the cities and industrial areas were well defended, but there were corridors through which we could pass, flak-free, to central Germany. Now these corridors were practically closed; a Siegfried Line of the Air extended, practically unbroken, from Holland almost to the Swiss Alps. Nor had Jerry forgotten the hammer blows dealt his troops in the Line when we helped our boys break out of their Normandy beachhead in August. Flak a plenty was marshaled in defense of what he considered his touchy spots.
These flak maneuvers, coupled with the now high-velocity 86M, gun and control-fragmentation projectile, were becoming a respectable headache. Counter-measures were being constantly developed and improved. For one thing, there was convincing evidence of the effectiveness of chaff, which was effective when properly used against radar-controlled flak. Naturally, radar-control was the only sighting method available to the Hun when we bombed through the overcast. Chaff was the name given to metallic strips of paper that acted as a reflecting agent when dropped in quantity in the path of the flak-directing radar beams. It seemed to be almost 100% effective when dropped at the right place in sufficient quantity. It was a major tactical development when a start was made at using sufficient screening force for the sole purpose of flying upwind of the target and discharging chaff in hard doses just before the arrival of the attacking force.
More than ever before, however, the navigator became a key man in the crew. We had pilots to guard our ships against the dangers of the air. Gunners and fighter escorts protected against enemy air attack. But the navigator was the sole defense against flak. Faulty navigation would lead the ships off the briefed course and over non-essential flak. When it came to the attack and withdrawal there was no getting around the flak guarding the target, but every attack was planned on the basis of a carefully considered estimate of the flak situation involving a computation of the exact number of rounds that could be fired on each possible axis of attack and withdrawal. Studies prepared by our own Hal Hanes showed conclusively that losses and battle damages through flak varied inversely to the accuracy with which the briefed course by the navigators was flown. And, of course, you had to be there at the practice time laid down in order to get the benefit of the chaff dropped by the screening force.
Hence, it was a source of genuine concern when it became apparent that there was a tendency for our navigators to relax and rely too much on the Mickey Operators. H2X, or Mickey, was a perfect navigation medium above the overcast when it was working, but it had a fatal tendency to become inoperative, especially on long missions. The dead-reckoning navigators couldn’t afford to relax a moment. Fix-crawling was all right as long as the Mickey was working, but a navigator who lost content with it while the Mickey was working was certain to be lost the minute it went out. In one case a Group went astray when the Mickey operator suffered from anoxia and started giving crazy directions to the Pilot. Briefed to come out over the Zuider Zee, another Group wandered off on its own and came out via Hamburg before the Mickey operator was able to re-establish his position and navigation could start anew. It was apparent that we would have to maintain eternal vigilance in this matter. Constant indoctrination would be required to insure that Mickey was used as an aid to navigation, not as a substitute for it. Soon, we were told, we would have Gee coverage all the way to Berlin. Then it would be a case of preventing Gee “fix-crawling” from becoming another substitute.
The weather that interfered with visual bombing had little effect on the ability of our Groups to fly their assigned missions. This was eloquent testimony to the high state of training in the Groups. Take-off under difficulty, assembly above the overcast, let-down and return to base through the overcast were accepted as routine: all in the days work. It bespoke a high degree of skill and coordination on the part of all sections having to do with operations, notably the signals organization. Our only trouble with communications was that the boys persisted in talking too much on VHF. It was hard to remember that once we had to throw a crusade to get the boys to use it at all. Now, we were faced with entirely too much talk, resulting in frequent channel-jamming. Everything would be all right if we could get the boys to cut out unnecessary transmissions, keep silent if the channel was in use, and when talking state the message on the first transmission and then shut up. If this didn’t work, ultimately, it might be necessary to reduce the number of ships equipped to transmit.
Still, the weather kept playing funny tricks. There was no escaping the fact that it came in five-cent packages. Our three stations had three entirely different kinds of weather. Ridgewell was not much higher than the surrounding country. Bassingbourn was in a broad valley with high ground on either side. Nuthampstead was the highest operational station in England, as far as we knew. Consequently, it not infrequently happened that one or the other would be socked in while the others were wide open. This happened more than once during the month. Clouds that gave us a comfortable base at Bassingbourn and Ridgewell were sitting on the ground at Nuthampstead and were reported as heavy fog. On one occasion the 398th had to be scrubbed. On another, we had to divert the 398th to Bassingbourn while returning from a mission and although Bassingbourn stayed open throughout they couldn’t return to their home base until late the next afternoon.
Missions flown during the month by the Combat Wing were Kassel/Bettenhausen on the 2nd, Nurnbern on the 3rd, Cologne on the 5th, Stralsund on the 6th, 14th, and 17th, and 11th on Cologne, Brux on the 7th, Schweinfurt on the 9th, Ludwigshaven on the 19th, Brunswick on the 22nd, Kaltenkirchen Airfield on the 25th, Munster on the 26th and 28th, and Hum on the 30th.
The only personnel change of note during the month was the loss of Lt. Col. Milton, who left us to assume command of the 384th Group at Grafton-Underwood. We were glad to see him get recognition, sorry to see him go. His place was taken by Lt. Col. Lewis P. Ensign, heretofore Deputy Group Commander of the 91st. We thought of changing our designation from 1st Combat Wing to 1st Group Commander’s Replacement Depot. Three of our graduates were doing us proud as Group Skippers: Terry here at Bassingbourn, Jimmy Wilson with the 92nd at Podington, and now Ross Milton up at the 384th.
The only other event was the departure of Capt. McDaniel for 30 days’ rest and recuperation in the (ahem) United States. Judging by past experience, we were beginning to think that things were going on back home that we didn’t know about: the rest and recuperation seemed to occur through force of necessity when the patient returned to the ETO. But we maintained discreet silence as each of us waited more or less patiently for the day when he might be among the lucky ones.
The main event of historical note during the month was that General Gross went home for a 30-day “rest and recuperation” period. It was about time. He was one of the first in the whole show to put five “Hershey bars” on his sleeve, signifying that he had been overseas for more than two and one-half years, without relief. He left on the morning of the 13th, via one each Bombardment airplane, Model B-17G, kindly offered for the trip to Prestwick by the 91st Group. As we write this, we can trace him only as far as New York, where on the morning of the 14th, he telephoned Haberman’s wife, leaving word that he was “between trains” and that the scrivener of these lines was still taking nourishment and bearing up, all things considered. The rest is still silence at this date.
His plane was taken by our Old Executive, Col. Terry. During the Boss’s temporary absence and the Tiger’s temporary incumbency, the 91st was temporarily under the skippership of Lt. Col. Don Sheeler, one of the old and tired, and true.
Otherwise, changes were not many. McCarthy, Wing Navigator, made Capt., and Frank Livoti, T/Sgt. in charge of the Operations Section, made M/Sgt. Smitty the Mole cashed on his new silver leaves and took charge of a party that went to Italy for 30 days to do bombing practice under the auspices of the Fifteenth Air Force. Lt. Jones, our Weather Officer, was transferred to U.S. Strategic Air Force in Europe Headquarters, and made his departure.
Operationally, it was a small month by current standards. We were stood-down eleven times and five missions were laid on and scrubbed. Fourteen missions were flown by the Wing. On only one occasion were all the Groups able to bomb visually. On three occasions, one Group managed to bomb visually through a hole in the undercast. On all the other missions, bombing was through the overcast on instruments. The weather continued to work for the Hun: we were able to intervene in the ground fighting in a decisive way. The deadlock on the western front began to have an unpleasant order reminiscent of World War I.
Twice during the month we gave direct support to ground operations. On the 9th we attacked the forts in the Metz area. On the 16th we hit defense positions before the town of Nuchweiler, a few miles east of Achen. The latter operation was highly successful. The ground troops and commanders were enthusiastic about our bombing, which was done by the GH system of blind attack. Capture of Eschweiler and a limited advance in the direction of Duren followed within the next few days. But this was no sample of what air attack could have done under unlimited weather conditions. True, we could break a hole in the enemy defense at a critical point, but we couldn’t paralyze enemy movement and thus enable the ground troops to credit the breakthrough to the fullest extent, as had been done in the battle of France. Our third Thanksgiving Day in the ETO became a reality; our third Christmas became inevitable.
Targets for the month, except for the two already noted, were in the oil and transportation categories. There were four attacks on the synthetic oil works at Merseburg/Leuna, two attacks each on natural oil refineries at Hamburg and Hanover/Misburg, and one each on synthetic plants at Zeitz/Troglitz, and Lutzkendorf, in the Leipzig area.
Transportation targets included marshalling yards at Frankfurt, Offenburg, and Cologne. There was also one attack on a railway viaduct at Altenbaken.
Otherwise, there was nothing worth of recording during this, the least eventful of all our months.
Operationally, December can be classified as a normal winter month. As in November, unfavorable weather again clipped our wings, allowing us to operate on only 12 occasions. It was particularly disheartening to have been grounded at the time of Rundstedt’s counter-offensive.
Plagued by warm and cold fronts during the early part of the month, the Yuletide was ushered in on December 19th, by a dense and persistent fog, which added to our feeling of impotency. This condition extended on thru December 27th. Visibility was restricted to 1,000 yards during the first six days of this period, deteriorating to 200 yards on December 24th and remaining thus until December 28th.
On December 24th, with take-off conditions that not so long ago would have been considered impossible, we took-off on our biggest assignment to date. Never before had we been asked to schedule such a large force. 151 aircraft dispatched of which 149 aircraft attacked dropping 313 tons of bombs with excellent results. This was one of the few occasions on which we bombed visually. No aircraft were lost.
In addition to our regular bombing missions, we also flew a Screening Force for the first time. Although this force had been employed by other Combat Wings before, it was comparatively new to us.
This force is composed of 12 aircraft loaded with chaff, which preceded the leading unit of our Division into the target area, dropping their chaff intending to jam the enemy’s radar devices on anti-aircraft guns.
To date we have used it twice. It proved a very effective measure on Merseburg on December 12th and was again used with good results on Cologne on December 18th. On the Merseburg mission our lead Group received no major battle damage from flak although there were three hundred and fifty-four (354) guns in the target area.
During the month, 18 missions were planned, 12 of which were completed and had 13 stand-downs. Weather forced us to bomb by instruments on 9 missions. Bombing was accomplished on a majority of these missions by GH methods. The opportunity to bomb visually arose on only 3 missions during the month.
We scheduled 1,268 aircraft of which 93.3% attacked, dropping a total of 3,061.6 tons of bombs; 355.8 tons of incendiaries and 2,705.8 tons of demolition bombs. 11.7 tons of leaflets were also dropped.
In the past we have been borrowing GH aircraft and operators from the 41st Combat Wing for GH missions. They have again extended a helping hand in checking out some of our own operators and helping us set up our own school. We have a good start on this school and some of our aircraft will soon be modified for GH bombing, so it should not be long before we are independent in this line of aerial warfare.
There were three promotions in our organization this month. Congratulations go to Major William E. Sticklen, the Wing Bombardier, Major Warren E. Dewlen, the Wing Communications Officer, and M/Sgt. Frank A. Livoti, our tireless Chief Operations Clerk.
Christmas was made a little more joyful by the return of General Gross and Captain McDaniel from a 30-day rest period in the States. They each brought a touch of home with them; General Gross with some San Fernando Kickapoo-joy-juice, and McD with Springfield Anti-freeze.
Since there were no operations on Christmas Day, breakfast was served from 0900 to 1000 hours. Dinner was served at 1500 hours and not a soldier away from home could have asked for anything better. It was a real Christmas Dinner, turkey with all the trimmings.
At 1800 hours Christmas night the tannoy announced that all Officers of the 1st Combat Wing would appear as if by magic in the General’s Quarters, and as if by magic we appeared. After some San Fernando Kickapoo-joy-juice we allotted, Miss Prentice, the General’s Secretary, and Combat Wing pin-up girl, distributed presents from the General to his staff. Then some more Kickapoo-joy-juice.
New Year’s Eve was marked by the enlisted men’s party in the Aero Club. It was attended by 48 men and their guests. The local swing furnished music for dancing. Refreshments both liquid and solid were served. General Gross, Colonel Smith, Captain Moreau and Lt. Smith, made their appearance during the course of the evening. General Gross and Colonel Smith cut the cake of the old, and new, year.
Engineering, take the stand. The “Ace” we dub, not with the sword, but with a crew of priceless superchargers, engine failures, blown heads, feathered props, and gas gauges. His untiring efforts, constant vigilance, and regular visits to the Groups of this Wing repaid themselves by bearing ripe fruit in abundance. 1st Combat Wing had the lowest percent of abortives in the 1st Bomb Division. Of a total number of aircraft dispatched during the year, only 3.4% of them returned early. We are justly proud of this achievement.
The first month of the New Year has passed bringing us ever closer to the complete destruction of the Hitler-ite machine. This was the month of the great Russian drive from Warsaw to within 50 miles of Berlin. On the Western Front the German salient in the Ardennes was eliminated and our Armies were jockeying for position in what we hope will be the final push.
Communications centers again were objects of our own private war. Of the seventeen targets attacked, ten of these were Communications Centers. The majority of these targets were attacked by instruments, so results could not be assessed. On the three occasions on which the weather did allow us to sight visually, the results were good. 69% of our bombs fell within 2,000 feet of the assigned Aiming Points, which placed us first in the 1st Air Division.
The second priority targets seemed to be the Rhine River bridges, seven of which were attacked by this Combat Wing. Three of these targets were attacked visually with good results. At this rate the Rhine will soon become a bridge-less river. The importance of depriving the enemy of use of these bridges will become more evident in the approaching campaigns. They were presumably attacked to attempt to trap enemy forces west of the Rhine and prevent reinforcements from moving from the West Front to the East Front. These attacks should have far-reaching effects. Time will tell.
Of the remaining three missions, two were flown against industrial targets and one against the synthetic oil plant at Sterkrade in the northwestern corner of the Ruhr. The industrial targets were attacked by instruments, but the weather was clear over Sterkrade making visual methods possible. We took advantage of the break as evidence by cameramen was confirmed by strike photos of the target area. It was evident that a great deal of damage had been caused. This mission was one of the most successful of the month.
The total weight of bombs for these seventeen missions was 3,873 tons of which 2,434.4 tons were dropped on primary, 1,199.5 tons on secondary and 239.1 tons on last resort targets. We led the 1st Air Division in tons of bombs dropped on primary targets.
During the month we scheduled 1,505 aircraft of which 4 failed to take-off. Of the 1,501 aircraft airborne, 54 or 3.6% of the aircraft returned early leaving us with a credit of 1,447 aircraft sorties only 4 aircraft or 0.3% failed to return. Two of these were due to flak, the remaining two were lost to unknown causes.
This creditable performance rates the Wing first in the Division in the following categories:
1. Lowest in number of aircraft failing to take off
2. Highest in % of attacking sorties
3. Highest in % attacking of aircraft scheduled
The use of the Gee-H method of bombing an obscured target increased this month. Thus far we have been compelled to borrow Gee-H aircraft from the 41st Combat Wing, but it is easier to modify an aircraft to Gee-H than it is to check out a navigator on this system, our main shortage is Gee-H operators. But with our present training phase, that situation should be remedied in the not-too-distant future.
Although we still did not have an adequate number of aircraft and operators, we managed to run our first Gee-H mission on January 20th with our own personnel and equipment. The target, Mannheim, was attacked thru an overcast with results unobserved.
The advent of Gee-H leaves us with three radar methods of bombing an obscured target, namely Gee-H, H2X and Micro-H. The latter method has not yet been used organization.
Misfortune struck us this month with the loss of Colonel Frank P. Hunter, Commanding Officer of the 398th Bombardment Group. His aircraft failed to return from the Neuss mission, January 23, 1945. About 2 minutes before bombs away his aircraft received a direct hit in the right wing. The aircraft was last seen rapidly losing altitude and skidding to the right. No chutes were seen, but we are hoping for the best. He was well liked by all members of this Command and his loss will be keenly felt.
We also lost Captain Hillard C. Alloway, but under much pleasanter conditions. Captain Alloway was the Combat Wing Mickey Navigator. He had completed his tour of operations and, after 4 months staff duty with us, was transferred to the United States.
Promotions this month fell on 2 officers and 1 enlisted man. Capt. To Major William J. McDaniel, 1st Lt. to Captain Laedtke and Private to Private First Class Thomas Amadruto. Congratulations to these men.
With the event of good flying weather, this month paralleled February 1944, but on a more extensive scale. It was a month of much night work since 26 missions were planned during the 28 days period, leaving us two stand-downs for the month. Of the 26 missions planned, 6 of these were scrubbed shortly before take-off, 3 were recalled after being airborne and the remaining 17 were completed. This credits us with an increase of 7 missions over previous the February. If this is the beginning of a period of favorable weather, such as was encountered at this time last year, the same strategic results may be achieved on the enemy’s transportation system as was achieved on the German Air Force.
During the month we scheduled 1,695 aircraft of which 1,693 were sorties. Only 1.5% of the aircraft scheduled were classed as “Non-Effective”. An enviable achievement by any standards. We led the Division in percent effective sorties of aircraft scheduled with a large 97.5%. Another enviable record and a tribute to our crews and engineering sections.
Only 8 of our aircraft failed to return this month. In this category we were tied for first place with 0.5% failing to return. This record was achieved not by wishful thinking, but by hard work of the Combat Wing Staff and the chain of command below them. The coordination, which General Gross has been striving to install among the section heads, seems to be achieving the desired results.
Transportation targets again were first priority targets. Almost every mission was directed against a transportation center. Eight (8) of these vital targets were attacked visually with good results; ten (10) more were attacked by H2X and three (3) by GH with results unobserved. Our only non-transportation targets were synthetic oil refineries at Pelzen and Brux. These were attacked visually with good results. 4,459 tons of bombs were dropped on targets during the month.
Social activities reached new low, partially because of the large number of missions, which had to be planned at night. Forty-eight hour passes to Paris were instituted this month. Captain McCarthy and S/Sgt. Gillett were the first of the unit to take advantage of this opportunity. Champagne and Cognac flowed freely. Some difficulty was encountered with the language, but this was quickly overcome through the cooperation of the mademoiselles. The rest of the Officers and enlisted men are eagerly awaiting their venture to the great city. One Officer and one enlisted man will go to Paris every twelve days under the present conditions.
The only other sortie of the month was made by Major Dewlen and Captain McCarthy. This time, London was the object of their affection. Interrogation of this mission did not reveal much information so we had to draw to our own conclusions of what happened judging from the war-weary condition in which they returned. These London sorties are only planned once a month because of the high cost of living in the city. You would also have to be a Superman, physically, to withstand such trips.
There were many promotions this month. Promotions fell on 2 officers and 8 enlisted men. Captain to Major Jules L. Moreau, 1st Lt. to Captain Vernon P. Smith, T/Sgt. to Master Sgt. Herbert A. Williams, S/Sgt. to T/Sgt. William D. Brown, Maurice R. Brunault, and Robert C. Opp, Sgt. to S/Sgt. Darrell W. Gillett and Edward (NMI) Haller, Cpl. to Sgt. Victor (NMI) Bogart and Richard J. Meskill, Jr.
March is the month that will be remembered for the crossing of the Rhine River. It was a month in which our ground forces made advances across the Reich, which was beyond the hopes of even the most avid optimists. The great Rhineland cities of Cologne, Boss, Frankfurt, Ludwigshaven and Mannheim had fallen and were left behind. Opposition was described as disorganized and our advances continued unchecked. The Wehrmacht seemed to be a broken army.
This Combat Wing as well as the rest of the Eighth Air Force had been concentrating on Communications targets for some time. The enemy-held Marshalling Yards west of the Rhine had been left in chaos and most of the Rhine bridges had been destroyed leaving enormous numbers of the enemy stranded on the wrong side of the Rhine. When the big push across the Rhine was accomplished, the Wehrmacht was denied the lateral movements of troops. Our ground forces advanced at will. Supply, not the enemy, seemed to be the biggest problem.
The 1st Combat Wing contributed much to the disorganization of the enemy. Never before had we completed so many missions. During the month we planned 27 missions, 25 of which were executed. Two missions were scrubbed before taking off, and were stood-down 4 times. It was a month of little rest for the Operations Section as we were already short-handed. Major McDaniel had to be drafted to Division to help them out, which left us with only 2 officers to plan the missions.
The weather seemed to be on the up-grade and visual bombing was accomplished on ten of these missions with good results. H2X methods were used on 12 missions. We bombed by GH twice before the break-through, but the rapid advances of our ground forces soon took us out of range of our GH missions. We were not able to use that method again.
Statistically, we had one of the best months in our history. We had been fighting abortives since the Combat Wing activated and it often appeared as though we were fighting a losing battle. But it later became apparent that little by little we were lowering our abortive rate. This month we have an enviable and impressive record. Only 0.5% of the forces scheduled failed to attack, which was the lowest in the Division. This figure, no doubt, accounts for the big smile the Engineering Officer has been wearing these days. He had often said that our Combat Wing would someday have the lowest percentage on record in the Division for any single month of aircraft returning early. Now that his prophecy had come true, he deserves to be congratulated.
2,451 aircraft were scheduled of which 2,439 attacked, dropping 6,405.1 tons of bombs. This 99.5% credit sorties of the aircraft scheduled, the highest in the Division.
Accurate flak information, good navigation, and Lady Luck contributed largely to our low rate of losses. Only 8 aircraft of the 2,439 sorties failed to return from these missions. Six of these aircraft were lost to flak. The cause of the remaining two, have not as yet been determined. This Combat Wing was not attacked by fighters during the month.
We started an experiment during the month. We stretched our necks out a bit and ordered the 381st Bomb Group to fly one Squadron with no ball turrets, the 91st Bomb Group to fly one Squadron with no waist guns and the 398th Bomb Group to fly one Squadron with no chin turrets. We are keeping records on gas consumption, manifold pressure, and RPM settings, with a view to adopting the best of the three conditions. We feel that one of the projects may save us many engine failures in the future, and also make it easier to carry a bigger bomb load at altitude. Results of these experiments will be available in April.
Colonel Marlin I. Carter came to us direct from the United States as temporary Executive Officer, to take the 1st Combat Wing Group Commander’s training course. After graduation he became Group Commanding Officer of the 351st Bomb Group. This made the 6th of our former Executive Officers to have become Group Commanders: Col. Henry W. Terry, 91st Bomb Group, T.R. Milton, 384th Bomb Group, Col. J.W. Wilson, 92nd Bomb Group, and Col. Carter, 351st Bomb Group, Lt. Col. L.P. Ensign, 398th Bomb Group, and Col. W.W. Dunlop, who took over control of a 9th Air Force Group but, who is now on duty in the United States.
This station was honored by a visit from the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Frank Alexander. He christened a new B-17, “The Tower of London”, with a bottle of water from the River Thames. After the christening, he was taken for his 1st airplane ride. He was very enthused with this experience and promised us another visit at a future date.
The 398th Group basketball team won the Eighth Air Force championship, which was held in Norwich. They breezed through the tournament with hardly any opposition. In the IK tournament they were beaten in the finals by the 2nd SAD. Both these teams were scheduled to go to Paris to compete in the ETO championship, which would be held in April.
The social activities were held to a minimum due to Operations. Lt. Paul Dreiling and William Hutchings, M/Sgt. Frank Livoti and Cpl. Hays were the lucky members of the organization who went to Paris on a 48-hour pass. Their activities consisted of wine, women and song, which is SOP for us now. Major Dewlen made the only reported sortie to London, which was also SOP.
We lost one member of our family, but gained another when Capt. David A. McCarthy, the Wing Navigator returned to the United States. He was replaced by Major James Delano, the former 381st Bomb Group Navigator.
We decided to enter the Station Softball League and staggered through one practice session.
There were no promotions during the month.
With the flying of Mission No. 324 to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on April 25th, 1945, the bombing career of the Wing in the ETO came to a close. We didn’t know it at the time. Nobody even thought of it as the last mission. But the incredibly swift overrunning of Germany by our Ground Forces, once the Rhine Crossing had been firmly secured and the effective fighting power of the Wehrmacht crushed by the classic double envelopment of the Ruhr, proceeded to eat up all of our remaining worthwhile targets before we realized what had happened.
It should be noted that none of the sixteen missions flown during April was strategic. Our efforts were spent in the useful task of smashing German communications, airfields and supply depots in advance of the victorious Allied Armies. That we were engaged in purely tactical operations is hardly surprising, for strategic bombing, according to the definition, is that which precedes the successful offensive of the Ground Forces and denies the enemy the wherewithal to resist the attack when it begins. In this final phase of the war, the strategic phase of our operations was definitely past; the last offensive was rolling. Our job was to prevent the enemy from re-grouping and reorganizing, to help keep the Allied Armies on the move by steamrolling enemy facilities in their path, to play our part in preventing the Luftwaffe from returning the compliment.
There was great satisfaction for us in the final collapse of German resistance, in watching the eastern and western bomb lines on our planning maps spread like an encroaching tide over the remnants of Nazi Germany until the fateful day when they met on the Elbe, not far from our old friends Megdegurg and Merseburg and Leipzig and Dessau, while at the same time the inner bomb line, depicting the last stand of the western armies in the Ruhr pocket grew smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared. It seemed incredible that the ugly red splotch on our map, denoting the murderous flak of Happy Valley, had lost its meaning.
For we, as a part of the Eighth Air Force, had played our part in making these things possible. Even the stand and conservative “Times” of London acknowledged that, but for the strategic air offensive over Europe, these things could not have been done. When the final breakthrough came, it was evident to all, even the most skeptical, that the air war had slowly but inexorably turned Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” into a hollow shell whose last failing strength had been drained into the maintenance of a crust. When that crust was broken nothing remained except to march into the vacuum left by the smashing of what had been the most highly integrated and closely-knit industrial fighting machine the world has known.
What had been the steps that led to all this? We knew, because we had taken part in all of them. First, there had been the trial period, starting from small and humble beginnings, while we learned about the air war the hard way. Then the summer and fall of 1943, when, with increased forces we tried unsuccessfully to mount an ambitious air war without fighter escort. In retrospect, we realized that our missions to Schweinfurt and Anklam in that period were staggering defeats for us, great victories for the Luftwaffe; that, had the entire character of the air war not been changed by the advent of our escort fighters, today’s victorious history could not have been written. But the fighters did come, and with their advent came the six days that charted the future course of the war just as surely as its tide was reversed in the Battle of Britain, at Alamein and at Stalingrad; the six days of good weather in February of 1944 when our boys fought and won the battle of German Aircraft production. For from that battle the Luftwaffe, although it had its brief spells of recuperation, was never capable of sustained offensive or defensive action. The fruits of this action were many and of the highest importance. The pre-D-Day softening and isolation of the invasion beaches was made possible; our invasion forces could cross ninety miles of channel in the teeth of the enemy practically unopposed; the beachheads could be exploited and developed and the liberating armies built up and deployed with absolute impunity while the tactical air forces massacred the enemy’s opposing forces in a one-sided carnival of destruction; Patton’s Armor, after the Avaranches pocket with complete disregard for the security of his flanks, which could be furnished by the unchallenged air: when the flying bombs came, delayed and whittled down by our constant pounding for the air in which we were supreme, it was possible to re-deploy the entire air defensive of Great Britain without fear of orthodox German bombing. Then when the Wehrmacht had withdrawn to the borders of the Reich, our attacks on rail transport and, through oil, on motor transport had reduced German mobility to the vanishing point. The prepared positions of the Siegfried Line became Germany’s last hope: the defenders had to fight where they stood because they could not move. Once the final line had been breached, the end was a foregone conclusion. And now, unbelievably, we stood on its threshold, for the turn of the month and the first days of final smashing and surrender of the German Armies in Italy, the ignominious deaths of Mussolini and Hitler, and the final collapse and ruin of the Third Reich.
Not a few important events of the months were closely related to a substantial addition to the Wing family in the shape of a beautiful shiny new B-17. This was to be the General’s own baby, and quite a baby it was. Destined for immediate purpose of serving as a Command Scout airplane and also to perform such other tasks as might seem appropriate, it was lovingly modified in certain respects under the careful supervision of Major Ace Akins, the Wing Engineering Officer. Top turret, ball turret, and chin turret were removed and the interior fitted with extra seats in the cockpit, no less than three full -length bunks for the accommodation of the weary (or, in honesty, the airsick). And aft of the radio room, near where the ball turret would have been, was an electric galley. Ultimately these conveniences would serve us well should the time for redeployment arrive, for in this airplane the General planned to cart his staff to the next place and job, whatever that might prove to be.
The new arrangements did not permanently change the ship’s character. No basic structural changes had been made. The homelike facilities could easily be removed and fight apparatus restored. Meanwhile, however, we had a lesson in what a truly wonderful ship the B-17 can be when shorn of its lead-splitting bumps and protuberances, when restored to the true air-form the designer had envisioned. For this ship, with all its size, flew and handled like a fighter. When a full complement of joy riders, sightseers or like, she would loaf along at 180 to 190 IAS pulling only 29 inches manifold pressure, and if you wanted to put on a little coal, over 200 was easy.
The formal christening was delayed until after this dove of peace had been honorably wounded in combat. Twice during the month, the General took her off to war as a Command Scout. The general idea was to go along on a mission, not as part of the formation, but to tag along on the fringes of the battle and slightly kibitz the proceedings. On the first such occasion, the target for our groups comprised on the ground offenses on either side of the mouth of the Gironde River, where isolated German pockets left behind when the Germans abandoned France were still denying our ships the use of the harbor of Bordeaux. Our Groups bombed well, and the General and guests had the pleasure of watching the bombs burst on the target from their aerial OP, while only a few puffs of flak and no Jerry fighters made feeble protest. A day or two later on the other hand, the story was slightly different. The target was Dresden. The Boss planned it so that he would fly with the first box on the bombing run, then circle alone and come in with the second, and so forth. The procedure proved unhealthy. While circling from the first combat box to the second, three ME-262 jet fighters came out of nowhere, made one pass and disappeared before the tail guns could say, “HA-HA-HA”. One shell, caliber unknown, took effect in the bomb bay, putting a not-too-neat hole in the side of the ship, tearing out any amount of electric wiring, and sadly mangling the bulkhead that had been installed to hold luggage on any one-way trips that might come up. Whereupon, the Command Scout made tracks for the nearest formation and stayed with it until the friendly troop-line had been crossed on the return ride.
But the damage was soon repaired. With her newly acquired personality, the ship was ripe for naming. There was no doubt whatever on the score: obviously, the ship had to be named for our good companion, Ella Prentice. Nor was a name lacking, for old Hugo Toland, who dubbed us all with our permanent aliases, had left her the affectionate handle of “Bridget O’Prentice”. There was no hesitation: the General declared that the ship would be called “OUR BRIDGE”, and all concurred.
Due and fitting ceremonies were accordingly held on the fine afternoon of the 25th. With a name and a goodly likeness of Miss P. proudly painted on the nose, the ship was parked on the grass in front of the Control Tower, while all and sundry: the characters, officers, and men in their Sunday best, stood in formation and at attention. At the appointed hour, the car drove up bearing Bridget in person and the General as her escort. While all came to the salute, Cpl. Hakeem presented the lady with a bouquet of pink and white carnations. Appropriate remarks were made by the General, whereupon the guest of honor mounted the platform and proceeded to whang a bottle of putative mountain dew against the number two prop. Then followed the presentation of a scroll commemorative of the occasion, and “OUR BRIDGET” took her first formal flight. Loading list for the flight was as follows:
GROSS, WILLIAM M., BRIG. GEN
SMITH, ROBERT W., LT. COL.
AKINS, ARREN A., MAJOR
DEWLEN, WARREN E., MAJOR
DELANO, JAMES, E., MAJOR
HABERMAN, PHILLIP W., MAJOR
HANES, HAROLD J., CAPTAIN
HAMAKER, DEAN O., S/SGT.
On the 26th, we put into effect a project long planned, but long delayed; a sightseeing tour over Germany. The General led the show with McDaniel as co-pilot, Delano as navigator, Dreiling as acting flight hostess and Haberman as the interphone barker of our flying rubberneck wagon. Briefing was held in the Wing War Room at 0930 and at 1020 we were off for a “Ruhr Tour with a reat pleat”.
Our route was short, but interesting. We flew from Bassingbourn to North Foreland, then across the North Sea. Landfall was at Ostend, the famous Belgium watering place. Then, maintaining our altitude at 2,000 feet or less, we passed by Burges, with its famous medieval bell tower, and on to Holland, over smiling and beautiful country, justly famous for its snug, red-roofed towns, its geometrical network of canals and orderly, tree-lined fields. Here the marks of war were few. Every once in a while, we passed over the evidence of battles: pockmarks and tank tracks and foxholes. But the Dutch and Belgian countryside was generally untouched, and the towns and villages showed no outward signs of spoil or damage. The results of four long years of German occupation and tyranny are not visible from the air.
Eindhoven airfield was a different story. Here in the latter part of 1944, airborne troops had landed in the operation that led to the failure of the Arnheim bridgehead. Before the paratroops went down, we had bombed Eindhoven airdrome. Although the runways had been repaired and the field displayed a polyglot collection of airplanes of every nation and type, the results of our bombing were very much in evidence. Here for the first time, we had an opportunity to inspect, at low level, the deadly flak emplacements that had been our targets in the Eindhoven operation. We were amazed to spot on the ground a B-17 bearing our own Wing markings: an “L” ship from Ridgewell. A few moments later we saw another crashed in a field not far from town. The town of Eindhoven was untouched with one exception: we saw plainly the wrecked Philips radio tube plant, a frequent low-level target for Mosquitoes of the RAF.
We flew on, skirting the famed but ineffectual forts along the Albert Canal, until presently Delano announced over the interphone that we were over Germany. The announcement was hardly necessary, for bomb damage on all sides proclaimed that this was the sacred soil of Hitler’s Reich, upon which Goering had vowed no Allied bomb would ever fall. “If the Allies bomb Germany”, said he, “you may call me Hermann Meyer.” On what we saw during the next two hours, his name had turned to Meyer.
We saw destruction aplenty before we reached the Ruhr proper. Munchen-Gladbach brought forth exclamation and expletives that strained the wiring of the interphone. A huge P/W cage in the vicinity invited and received inspection at close quarters. But all the damage seen West of the Rhine was a mere curtain-raiser to the awful scene of desolation presented by the cities of the Ruhr. We crossed the Rhine. What symbolism lay in the spectacle of the mystic German River, subject of legendary and patriotic emotion for Germans since the beginning of their history, flowing between the ashes of recently proud cities and swirling in forlorn eddies around the hulk of vast bridges demolished by the Hun in his last retreat.
Dusseldorf was our first major spectacle. No longer a city, a shattered and broken thing. Here the doom pronounced by the advocate of airpower had come true. The air forces had executed the sentence pronounced by Churchill a scant two years ago, when he said that the cities of Germany would lie dust and ashes before the Hun went down to final defeat.
We visited other targets. Throughout the Ruhr the story was the same. Essen, the home of Krupps, Munster, Hamm, Dortmund, the whole industrial monster, cradle of Germany’s military strength, hotly contested for three long years of classic all-out air struggle, lay dead beneath our eyes with its defenders expelled form the scene of battle and its thousands of venomous flak guns silenced. It was indeed a strange fabric, for between the blackened skeletons of the sprawling cities and industrial areas lay stretches of peaceful-looking, lovely countryside, green and seemingly ignorant of the many days and nights of literal hell on earth that had transpired around them. And as we saw, we wondered what on earth people with such a beautiful country of their own wanted other peoples’ countries for.
All the previous devastations in the Ruhr Valley were as nothing compared to Cologne. The condition of Cologne has been described so often and so adequately that we have nothing to add except a report that we have no words to describe what we saw. For what we saw could hardly be described as ruins; Cologne was merely a geographical expression, a place where formerly ruins stood. From the air it looked like a disorderly sand pile where children had built sand houses and then kicked them into disorder.
The trip back to base was pleasant and uneventful. We were profoundly impressed by what we had seen and highly approved the policy laid down a few days later by the Eighth Air Force that all personnel, both air and ground were to be afforded the opportunity of making a similar trip.
There were few personnel events during the month. Haberman, the local G-2, arrived back from the United States after getting the big diploma from the Command and General Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. He was closely followed a day or so later by a large wooden crate containing his new education. Dewlen, our Signal Officer, went home on TD to attend school. Later we learned that he would not return.
Such is the record of the last month of active operations of the 1st Combat Wing. Events were moving to a close faster than we knew. What happened in our final month is recorded in the next installment.
Here, gentle reader, endeth the story of the Combat Wing, a child of the war in Europe. For on the 8th of the month, the Third German Reich, acting through its ersatz Fuehrer, Doenitz, officially gave up the ghost and unconditionally surrendered its arms to the conquering Allied powers.
Before signing off, we compiled figures to show the extent of our effort during the two years we had been at work. We had scheduled, we found, a total of 26,295 aircraft for missions against the enemy. Of these, 64 failed to take off and 909 returned early, or 3.4% of aircraft scheduled. With 25,310 accredited sorties against the enemy, we dropped a total of 53,339.7 tons of bombs on enemy targets. This record represented 23.02% of the 1st Division effort and 9.15% of the total Eighth Air Force effort.
To effectuate the result, we lost a total of 379 aircraft: 130 to enemy air action, 103 to anti-aircraft gunfire, 8 to accident and 138 to causes unknown.
What was to happen to the Wing? During the month we learned our fate. The Combat Wing was to be recognized as an administrative Bomb Wing and move to Germany as a part of the occupational air force. The thing that we had learned to love as Gross’s family was to go on, but in another form, another place and with a different task. Also, the long arm of Washington reached into our little circle and snatched four characters: Smitty (“The Mole”), McDaniel, Akins, and Haberman. These four were alerted to be ready for movement on the 1st of June. They were to go home for a brief spell, then be fed into the hopper, which many of the old characters were being used for the augmentation of the Twentieth Air Force. In our re-organization, others of the faithful would leave us. The first to go was Hutchings, who left us on the 20th to go home with one of the units selected to return to the States.
Ours was not the only chapter drawing to a close. We were to lose our Groups, all of which were scheduled to go home, and the entire Eighth Air Force and the 1st Air Division were to be broken up.
But these things did not come to pass before we had pulled our last job of work in the air. There were no more bombs to be lugged to Germany, no more targets to be demolished, but in the eastern marches of the Reich were thousands of Eighth Air Force and Allied lads who had come to bring them home.
Accordingly, on the 12th of May, the Boss and his staff set out in “OUR BRIDGET” for the former GAF airfield at Barth. This spot was located on the shores of the Baltic Sea due north of Berlin, and was a hundred miles or so behind the lines of demarcation between the Western Allies and the Red Army area. On a point of land, not far from the airfield, was Stalag Luft No. 1, where nearly nine thousand Eighth Air Force and Allied airmen were waiting for transport.
The night before the operation was one of feverish preparation. Then at ten in the morning, the BRIDGET, with the Boss in the left-hand seat, took off from Bassingbourn with a load of men and K-rations and pointed her nose for Germany. In spite of the urgency of our missions, we couldn’t resist the temptation to see a few sights, and on the way back we flew at low level over our old friends Emden and Wilhelmshaven. Then, three hours after take-off in a flight that was a breeze for the BRIDGET the Barth airfield hove in view.
Naturally we didn’t know what to expect. Every German airfield we had seen since the breakup had been pocked with bomb craters, and we knew that Jerry was in the habit of mining fields before he abandoned them. So we prepared to give the field a good buzz before landing, with every man Jack straining his eyes to try and see what the field would do to us if we landed. But as we came over the field, to our amazement a big green flare came up from the tower. So we circled and landed and when we got to the end of the quite undamaged runway, there was a typical airdrome car flying yellow flags and carrying a sign with the words “FOLLOW ME” in big letters.
We soon learned the explanation. About two weeks before, just before the arrival of the Red Army, the Jerry P/W camp Commander had sent for Colonel Hubert Zemke, who was the P/W Commandant, and confessed that he had lost control. The Luftwaffe was running away from the airdrome, and the German staff of the prison camp had gone completely out of control and was fleeing in panic and disorder.
This was what the P/Ws, or Kriegies (short for Kriegagefangene) as they called themselves, had been waiting for. Under the able leadership of Colonel Zemke, former Thunderbolt Group Commander, and the senior officers of the Camp, the Kriegies had an organization that had been set up for months, just waiting to go. At the head was a provisional Wing organization, and under the Wing there were four Groups, each comprising a single camp compound, and an air base Group ready to take over the GAF airdrome as soon as they could get their hooks on it. The minute the Jerries took off, the boys swung into action. Bursting out of their compounds they seized arms, commandeered every vehicle within miles, and took control not only of the prison camp and the airdrome, but of the town of Barth, a not inconsiderable place of some 30,000 inhabitants, and the surrounding countryside.
To their eternal credit, it must be recorded that one of the first things the Kriegies did was to break open the Hun concentration camp located on the airdrome. Here was a huge compound, surrounded by barbed wire, high tension, ten feet high, in which the detestable Nazis kept political prisoners and foreign slaves, workers employed in an assembly plant where AR-234 jet fighters were put together.
What the Kriegies found was another sordid chapter in the story of the stinking postholes with which the Hun had filled his Europe. For the barracks within the compound were filled with the dead and dying. Stinking corpses were strewn indiscriminately in the rooms where there were the shadows of men, wasted with starvation and diseases, too weak to do anything about the dead. There was little the Kriegies could do except to remove the living to a place where they could die decently, for they were nearly all beyond help. Then they locked and bolted the gate to prevent the spread of disease and pestilence. We did not enter, but the stench was all we needed or cared to sense. If this was the smell of Hitler’s Reich, we wanted none of it.
To come back to our own saga, the little FOLLOW ME wagon led the airplane to a parking place on the line, and we dismounted. We had a theory that we ought to impress the Russians, if we met any, so when we climbed down on the ground, the General put on his full regimentals while Moreau and Haberman danced attendance and snapped to attention if he so much as sneezed. And sure enough, the Russians were there, but the armies remained to be observed, for the Kriegies had gone out and patrolled the area until they made contact with the Russians, then led them into the area, turned over control and completed negotiations for their evacuation. So, the General was greeted by Colonel Nikitin of the Red Army, who came to extend the compliments of General Major Vladimir Alexanderovitch Borisoff, the local Divisional Commander, and would the Yankee General give General Borisoff the pleasure of his company at tea, with two officers of his staff?
Well, he would and, By Gum, he did!
Leaving the airdrome situation under Lt. Col. Don Sheeler of the 91st, who had come after us in a special airplane equipped with tower-type radio, the Boss singled out Moreau and Haberman (who had brought their blouses) and went off to have tea with the Red Army.
The Kriegies briefed us. In the first place, tea isn’t exactly tea: it is a drinking contest. You sit down at a table loaded with food and bottles, and then the Russians start proposing toasts. You drink four or five kinds of liquor all at the same time. If you fail to drain the glass every time you pick it up, that is the insult fatale. You eat as much as you can get down your throat between drinks, or you will surely end up under the table and carry down with you the honor of the United States Army.
And so it turned out. First we met his nibs, the General, a hard-bitten cuss with what looked like false teeth made of steel, who needed no urging to tell us, through several interpreters, all about the Battle of Stalingrad. Oh yes, that was the battle. Russians, we found, suffer from modesty. Stalingrad was the biggest battle of the war. And he was one of its heroes. Candidly he took his place in line with the victors of Salemis and Thermopylne and Lepanto and Waterloo and all the rest. Probably he was right, but we didn’t argue. Not even to the extent of suggesting that maybe the United States had something to do with winning the war. Somehow, we didn’t think he would appreciate it.
Then tea. A long, snowy table set for thirty, groaning under sixteen kinds of herring, black, winy Russian bread, spiced and smoked meats, butter and pickled onions and caviar and black Russian cigarettes and chocolate bonbons. And glasses and bottles, dozens of bottles; wine and liquors and vodka. And Russian women waiting on the tables. It seemed that the Russians fight a thoroughly co-educational war, with their women going right along. And if the going gets a bit tough, the gals pick up their rifles and get right up in the front line with the boys.
Immediately, the serious business of the afternoon got underway. General Borisoff got up and spouted for five minutes. Then the interpreter got up and said, “The General, he propose toast the Red Army”. Then another and another. Always the Red Army. Finally, it was the Boss’s turn. After all, what could a man do? He toasted the Red Army. After a while, we didn’t need the interpreters anymore. It didn’t matter what anybody said. There was hilarity and good fellowship and no end of eating and drinking for three solid hours, and all in the name of tea. We shuddered at the thought of a real drinking party. It was a real experience, one for the book. And we all had one and the same thought: except for the fact that our hosts were plain soldiers and not titled nobility, it couldn’t have been very different had we been the guests of the old Imperial Russian Army.
The party broke up at six, when everyone was given a cup of real tea. But our respite was short-lived, for at seven we sat down again with the Russians, this time at a sumptuous repast prepared by the Kriegies in what had been the Jerry Officers’ Club. There were plenty of bottles here, too, bottles liberated from the fallen clutches of the Luftwaffe. Again, we were toasting the Red Army, doing bottoms up. It was an unforgettable day, an unforgettable evening.
Meanwhile, the serious business of the expedition had not been neglected. While we were having tea with the Red Army, 36 ships of the 91st Group arrived and did a trial evacuation, taking away about 1,000 Kriegies. It was determined that the airfield could conveniently handle twenty ships an hour, with a comfortable margin in case of breakdowns, and the General sent a message back to the 1st Air Division by W/T to start pumping the ships in at that rate the following day.
On the 13th, the big movement was run off. We were up at five in the morning, breakfasted with the Kriegies, and went down to the airdrome. When the ships started to arrive, we were loaded for bear. The Kriegies were organized in shiploads of 30 each and marched from the camp to the field, where they formed a pool in a former prisoner cage until needed. Then, as the ships arrived on the field, an officer of the Wing Staff would board and brief the crew, who were not allowed to leave their seats or shut off their engines. Briefing proceeded while the ships were taxiing. Then the ship would pull up at a loading station, the briefing officer would get off and the Kriegies would embark. Within a few moments, the ship would be off, carrying the Kriegies to France on the first leg of their journey to the port and home.
The joy of the Kriegies made us all happy. There were many happy reunions, notably our own with Captain Bill Martin and Dave Williams of the 91st, lost over Germany more than a year ago. Many were excited exclamations as Kriegies recognized the airplane markings of their old outfits, come to take them home again. Over and over again, we heard the boys exclaim, “A Fort brought me to Germany and by God a Fort is gonna take me home!”
We were justifiably proud of the performance put on by the ships of the 1st Division, including our own. Gasps of joy came from the Kriegies and excited admiration from the Russians, as formation after formation came over the field, each at its appointed time and each in precise military formation. This was air power in its most impressive form. The Russians were overwhelmed the previous day when they inspected BRIDGET. But when two hundred fortresses arrived and cleared the field in a single day, coming and going with the scheduled precision of a great passenger terminus, they were speechless. Only two minor malfunctions marred the day; otherwise, every ship was landed, loaded and took off again in less than fifteen minutes. And even the ships that had trouble were fixed on the spot and returned to base under their own steam. One ship that had damaged a prop in landing took off again with three engines and went home, to the consternation of General Borisoff, who witnessed the event.
That one-day disposed all but a few of the Kriegies. The next morning, the balance were readily taken off and then, after bidding farewell to the Russians, and taking with us as the spoils of war everything that we could carry that wasn’t nailed down, OUR BRIDGET took off, leaving behind an empty camp and taking away a bunch of guys with memories that would last a lifetime. We carried Colonel Zemke to Paris and then flew from Villacoublay to Bassingbourn in one hour and fifteen minutes, with the BRIDGET heading home like a mule for the barn at a nifty 220 IAS, and not even trying. Then a bunch of tired and happy guys got in some much needed sleep.
Nothing remained but to liquidate our operation and observe, at one and the same time, the occasion of our second anniversary as a Wing, the end of the war in Europe and the end of this, the greatest adventure of our lives.
We gave a Wing Party. It was a great party, the party to end all parties. We took over the local cinema, as we did the year before, and we all brought our best local girls and we tried to show them that they, too, had been a part of this adventure. We tried to say a lot of things: that we had shared something that would never be recaptured, that we had learned to love these Islands, that we would never forget each other or the times we had together.
The scrivener of these pages is one of those to leave the Wing. In closing his part of this History, he can do no better than quote our Old Man, General Bill Gross, who summed it all up when he said:
“THE WING IS DEAD - - - - -
LONG LIVE THE WING!”