Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Tribute To The Brave Young B-17 Pilots of WW II

In the acknowledgments section to Falling From The Sky I noted that the saga was, in part, a "tribute to the brave young men who took to the skies over Europe during the war in the face of massive losses of life and property. . . ."  Featured throughout the first half of the story are battle sequences generated in my imagination from research focused on actual events that occurred during the time-period November 1942 to April 1945.  As noted in the acknowledgments that research benefited from several exhaustive books about the air war over Europe, plus the website created to honor the memory of  the 8,960 men who served in the 303rd Bombardment Group (H) "Hell's Angels".  The 303rd flew 364 missions during  those 30 long months.  Surprising to me was the fact that the 303rd did not fly a bombing mission to Berlin until its 116th sortie on March 3, 1944.  After that mission, they soon returned and flew three more Berlin missions in a four day time-period, March 6-9.  It was the accounts of those missions that became the basis of many of the battle scenes in FFTS.  With great honor, awe, and respect, set out below are first hand reports from two pilots who flew on those raids.

303rd BG (H) Combat Mission No. 118
6 March 1944

Target: City Area, Berlin, Germany (PFF)
Length of Mission: 8 hours, 40 minutes

Bomb Load: 10 x 500 lb G.P.; 42 M47A1 Incendiary bombs

Bombing Altitudes: 20,800 ft; 22,000 ft

Ammo Fired: 10,645 rounds

Berlin was again the target and the entire 1st Bomb Division bombed in the first large-scale
daylight attack against the German capital. Twenty-seven 303rd BG(H) aircraft

were airborne and dispatched. 1Lt. John C. Lawlor, flying in the No. 7 position of

the 360BS 379/384BG Composite Group in #42-31055 Aloha, lost his No. 4 engine 15
minutes before reaching the target and jettisoned his bombs near Werferlinger, Germany.

The other 26 B-17s dropped 50 tons of 500-lb. G.P. M43 bombs in a suburban area about

six miles east of the heart of Berlin. The M47A1 65-lb. incendiary bombs of the High Group,
in which the 360BS was Low Squadron, covered six blocks of a residential area. Bombing

was done from 19,800 and 22,000 feet by PFF. The 8th Air Force dropped more than one
million leaflets over Berlin.

There were 2/10 to 5/10 cloud cover over the entire route to the target. Flak was

very intense and accurate. Ground rockets were reported at various points. Eighteen
aircraft suffered minor damage and five suffered major damage from anti-aircraft fire. No

chaff was carried. Briefing officers predicted the heaviest concentration of enemy fighters
on any mission so far flown. This prediction proved accurate as vicious enemy fighter

attacks were experienced. The 303rd BG(H) crews reported 40 to 50 enemy aircraft with
two direct attacks: one by 8 to 10 ME-109s and FW-190s, and the other by eight ME-109s

damaging two 303rd BG(H) aircraft. Lt. Lawlor, who lost an engine and became a

straggler, was subjected to severe attacks from all directions.

The first 8th Air Force mission to Berlin was on 4 March 1944, but it was not

executed as planned. The 3rd Bomb Division dispatched 238 B-17s, but the weather
deteriorated to such an extent that only 30 Fortresses dropped their bombs on Berlin.

General Doolittle tried to get permission to lead this mission flying a P-51, so he could

claim the honor of being the only person to have led raids on Tokyo, Rome and Berlin–the

three Axis capitals. General Tooey Spaatz gave him permission to fly on the 4 March

mission, but changed his mind at the last minute. He stated that he couldn't afford to risk

the capture of a senior officer with knowledge of the invasion plans.

The Berlin mission on 6 March 1944 was much more successful, but the loss of 53

B-17s, 16 B-24s and 11 fighters dimmed the success. The heavy losses were a new record
for an 8th Air Force mission. Three of the B-17s landed in Sweden. Fighter pilots made

claim to 82 enemy aircraft destroyed, 9 possibly destroyed and 32 damaged.
6 March 1944 — Mission #118

Ed Miller’s Memories and Recollections
Since the 3rd of March 1944 we have been trying to reach Berlin – to let Hitler

know that the 8th Air Force does exist. Today we made it – but we paid a huge price in
human lives and aircraft.

We put up 812 heavy bombers (504 B-17s and 226 B-24s) and 474 B-17s and 198
B-24s made it to their targets, but the bombing results were not too good. Photo’s indicate

that no bombs hit their assigned targets. And the losses were staggering – at least 80
aircraft (53 B-17s, 16 B-24s and 11 fighters), a new 8th Air Force record for any one

mission–even greater than Schweinfurt. This may have been due to the fact that we were
at a much lower altitude than our usual bombing. But it was necessary as the trip in and

out took almost nine hours. Three B-17s and five B-24s were lost to AA fire, 41 B-17s due
to enemy aircraft and 4 B-17s and 2 B-24s due to both AA fire and enemy aircraft.

Two hundred thirty nine B-17s and 97 B-24s sustained major damage, which
meant a very busy night for the ground support personnel.

The briefing officers said that Berlin would be defended with the largest array of

enemy fighters and anti-aircraft artillery known to man. They were right – as the enemy
fighter attacks were indeed, very vicious today. Eighteen of those B-17s lost were from

the 1st Air Division. But we escaped with only two crewmen being wounded. Major
Richard H. Cole, Commander of the 359th Bomb Squadron was our Group Commander

The 1st Air Division led the attack on Berlin, with the 3rd Air Division flying second

and the 2nd Air Division (B-24s) flying third. The first enemy aircraft attacks began at

about 1200 hours against the 1st Air Division formations in the area north of Osnabruck

and continued until 1230 hours, just north of Brunswick. Approximately 100 plus Me-109s

and FW-190s were encountered and they attacked in groups of six to fifteen at a time
concentrating mostly on the low groups.

All types of tactics were employed and enemy aircraft pilots were described as
being very experienced and eager for combat. At approximately 1330 hours, on the way

out, enemy aircraft renewed their attacks against the two middle combat wings of the 3rd
Air Division, and continued them for over 15 minutes, in an area just north of Berlin. At

approximately 1415 hours, attacks again started in the area north of Brunswick and lasted
for 30 minutes until the formations were north of Osnabruck. The 3rd Air Division lost 35

B-17s. One B-17 was lost after being struck by a B-17 spinning through the formation as
a result of enemy aircraft action. A second B-17, engaged by enemy aircraft, collided with
another B-17 and both were lost. Three B-17s, probably somewhat disabled, landed in

Sweden–all crews were uninjured.
This was my second “close encounter” with enemy fighters. 1Lt Earl N. Thomas,

my pilot was in the number six position in the low squadron of the 379th/384th Bomb
Group Composite Group. We were hit about 15 minutes before reaching the target area.
(The first two wings of the 1st Air Division – the 1st CBW and the 94th CBW – which were

over the target first, reported seeing over 100 enemy aircraft.) The Division lost 18
aircraft. We probably saw more fighters today than on any other mission that I flew during
the war. Crews from the 303rd reported seeing about 40 to 50 enemy aircraft. And our

Composite Group was hit twice by Me-109s and FW-190s.
Enemy aircraft came through the Composite Group and hit 1Lt Lawlor of our 360th

Bomb Squadron, which was flying directly to our right in the tail-end-Charlie position.
Again, like in my first mission to Frankfurt on February 4th, it seemed that the “tracers”

were coming directly toward our aircraft. But this time it was my turn at the controls and
I didn’t get to see too much as I was busy flying as close formation as was possible. Lt

Lawlor lost an engine and had to jettison his bombs. When he became a straggler, due
to the lost of an engine, he was hit from all directions, but, luckily he was able to avoid

being shot down. He got home by joining up with other groups as they were heading back
to England.

This was the first time that I saw enemy aircraft firing rockets and then following
it up with 20 mm fire. There was a report of air-to-air bombing with the use of parachute

bombs. The report from the 3rd Air Division was that all of their aircraft lost to enemy
aircraft were seen burning as they went down and they believe this was due to enemy

aircraft firing fused incendiary shells from the 20 mm cannons in the FW-190s. This shell
was reported to have a burst with a sparkler effect.

But with all of the enemy aircraft action, we must not forget that we encountered
intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire over the vast Berlin area. In addition, AA fire at
Diepholz, Lingen and Vechta was reported as moderate to intense and accurate.

Fifteen (15) groups of Eighth Air Force fighters, four (4) groups of Ninth Air Force
and two (2) squadrons of RAF Mustangs provided continuous escort for this attack. In

fact, three of these groups flew double sorties, one on the penetration and one on the
withdrawal of the bombers. We had P-47s on the penetration, P-51s over the target (they

were the only one’s that could fly that far) and a mixture of P-47s, and P-38s on the
withdrawal. In total, 796 fighters took part in this action, with a loss of 11 aircraft. Our

fighter pilot claims were 82 enemy aircraft shot down, 9 damaged and 32 probably

As for the results of the bombing, there were good concentrations of bombs in the
southwestern suburbs of Berlin, especially in the Zehlendorf area. Bombs hit the main

railway line in the Spandau section of Berlin. Photo Reconnaisance aircraft covering the
attack, reported fires still burning in the districts of Steglitz and Zehlendorf, three hours

after bombs away.
Personnel losses for this mission were 708 crew members are missing, 14 crew

members were killed and 38 crew members were wounded— probably an 8th Air Force
record for losses from a single mission.

So, this was the third time that I had started to Berlin and finally made it. And I
was barely able to get home. I was sure one of those enemy aircraft bullets had my name

on it – but not today.

From the Journal of Vern L. Moncur, 359th BS Pilot
Date: March 6, 1944

Target: BERLIN
Altitude: 19,200 feet

Plane: U-050 "Thunderbird"
Position: No. 5, Lead Squadron, Low Group

This was our third briefing for "Big B" in three days - and we made the most

of it this time! We went over at a very low altitude for Berlin and all of its flak guns.
Our fighter support was splendid, and even though the Krauts kept ripping

through other wings, our combat wing was rather lucky in not getting too many
direct fighter attacks that seriously threatened us. We had a few passes made at

us, but no one in our group was hurt much.
Over the target it looked like the Fourth of July - flak bursting in red flashes

and billowing out black smoke all around us. The flak over Berlin was the most
accurate and most heavy flak we ever got into. It seemed almost thick enough to

drop your wheels and taxi around on it. The Krauts were practically able to name
the engine they were shooting at. We received hits in the No. 1 engine, the No. 2

engine and the No. 4 engine. Our left Tokyo tanks were shot out. (We had
transferred the gasoline out of them before this hit.) The plexiglass surrounding the

left cheek-gun was shattered by a chunk of flak. The horizontal stabilizer had a big
hole shot through it, and the vertical stabilizer received a jagged hole in the top of

it. We also picked up another hole in the right side of the fuselage, near the tail
wheel. The hit in the No. 1 engine went through the cowling and clipped the four

cable conduits carrying the wires to the front spark plugs in two cylinders. It also
knocked off a few fins on both cylinders. The hit in the No. 2 engine knocked out

one cylinder, though the engine still gave us partial power and continued to
operate on our return flight to England.

On our way back from the target, we had a few passes made at our group,

but the P-51 fighter escort very quickly took care of these Me-109s. Our fighter
escort was really swell on this mission. The whole day's operation cost the 8th Air

Force sixty-eight bombers. This was the heaviest loss ever received. Our group
established a record on this mission. We put up twenty-seven ships, and every

one of them went across the target, and every one of them came back. Our ship,
the Thunderbird, received the heaviest damage of any of the planes in our

We were lucky on this mission and got along fine. Our plane was shot up

the worst this time of all the missions we flew, but still we received no injury to any
member crew - though I had a close call. A piece of flak came through the cockpit

and cut the left sleeve of my leather flying jacket, but didn't touch me. Our bomb

load was 10 five-hundred pound high explosive bombs.

If you find the above accounts interesting you might check out the 303's website,  It is full of information and insights about this heroic unit.

That's all for now.


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