The Buzz

The Biggest Bombing Raid of World War II: 1000 Bombers Sent to Destroy Berlin

He was widely regarded as America’s best pilot, he was already a recipient of the Medal of Honor, he was commander of the Eighth Air Force caught up in 1,000-plane bombing missions deep into the Third Reich, and he was mad as hell.

Lieutenant General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle was also a gentleman who rarely used harsh language, but when they gave him the battle order for a mission to be flown on February 3, 1945—a mission to Berlin—Doolittle reportedly uttered an expletive or two. The order told American bombardiers to use the Frederichstrasse Railway Station in Berlin as the aiming point for the day’s air assault on the Third Reich.

To Doolittle, that sounded a lot like bombing a city. But Americans didn’t bomb cities. The British did that, at night. The Americans conducted high-altitude, daylight precision bombing of military and industrial targets, many of which, to be sure, were in the middle of cities.

Doolittle felt he was being ordered to change U.S. strategy and betray American principle. The Eighth Air Force commander got on the phone with his boss, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe (and an immediate deputy of General Dwight D. Eisenhower). No transcript of the conversation exists, and Doolittle did not mention the conversation in an autobiography published decades later.

But a staff officer remembers that hackles were raised and that Spaatz responded to Doolittle’s concern by telling Doolittle, in a not unkind way, to shut the hell up. Moreover, Spaatz reminded Doolittle that Berlin was not a new destination for American bombers and that legitimate targets lay within Adolf Hitler’s capital—Gestapo headquarters, the Air Ministry, railroad facilities, a panzer army on the move, etc.

The report that Germany’s Third Panzer Army was en route from the Western Front to the Eastern and would pass through the railway station was in fact an error on the part of U.S. intelligence. No such movement was taking place. But the Red Army was within 130 miles of Berlin and a punishing aerial assault on the city was seen as a way to help the Soviets advance.

A Big Day for the Eighth

For the 650,000 men under Doolittle’s command—his Eighth Air Force was the largest aerial formation ever assembled—February 3, 1945, was to be one of the biggest days of the war. Doolittle was to dispatch 1,437 heavy bombers and 948 fighters to attack Berlin.

The attack force consisted of 42 bombardment groups in three air divisions and 15,000 crew members. While 434 B-24 Liberators struck the synthetic oil plant at Magdeburg, 1,003 B-17 Flying Fortresses were to aim their bombs squarely on the city center of the capital of the Third Reich.

At this late stage in the war, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was no longer the formidable force it had been earlier in the air campaign. Unlike previous missions, this attack on Berlin received little coverage afterward because, for the most part, it lacked the high drama of air-to-air duels between Luftwaffe fighters and Flying Fortresses that had occurred earlier in the war.

Yet the mission was both a turning point in U.S. strategy and a continuation (since 1942) of a kind of warfare that had never been seen before and would never be witnessed again, carried out on a scale that seems, today, almost too much to imagine.

Generals gave orders. Young men carried them out.

First Lieutenant Robert Des Lauriers, co-pilot of a Vega-built Boeing B-17G-75-VE (44-8629) named Purty Chili of the 391st Bombardment Squadron, 34th Bombardment Group at Mendlesham in East Anglia, was quietly focused on pulling his weight as part of a nine-man crew. (A waist gunner had been deleted from traditional 10-man crews in part because the Luftwaffe was no longer likely to attack a B-17 from both sides).

Des Lauriers always surprised himself by being calm just after wake-up for a big mission. “We confronted the cold, the fog, the mist. We especially felt the cold. Asleep, awake, on the ground, in the air, we were always cold,” he said. Today’s journey into the cold, blue vastness above Europe was Des Lauriers’s 12th mission.

Inside a B-17 in flight, it was so cold that Des Lauriers’s pilot forbade crew members from carrying drinking water since it would freeze and become useless anyway. Inside a B-17, men were going forth at, typically, 28,000 feet where, until this war, no one had done battle before. Inside a B-17 you needed oxygen to breathe and heated clothing to resist the sub-zero temperature and then, only then, you also needed to be able to fight.

After they learned where they were going that day, Des Lauriers remembers a fellow crew member saying, “I hope we get Hitler today.”