Key point: The Eighth Air Force was pivotal in helping to defeat Nazi Germany.
General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, was a man both driven and under great pressure in the spring and early summer of 1942.
He wanted his bombers and fighters in the air as soon as possible, operating from airfields in Great Britain and joining the hard-pressed Royal Air Force in its offensive against Nazi Germany. He had promised British Prime Minister Winston Churchill action by July 4.
The jovial Arnold had to justify USAAF appropriations to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress, and the public. In addition, he had to maintain aircraft production and strategic priorities in the face of challenges from the British and the U.S. Navy. All of this required a perception of the USAAF as a successful and aggressive offensive weapon. FDR demanded results justifying the massive aircraft production and shipping program.
But by that summer, several months before it had become a force to be reckoned with, Arnold’s growing air arm also needed to have its image bolstered. Navy carrier planes had won the climactic Battle of Midway, June 4-6, 1942, while officials and the public were still disturbed about the USAAF’s performance in December 1941 at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, where large numbers of aircraft had been destroyed on the ground by Japanese raiders.
Arnold’s demands put pressure, in turn, on his main combat commander, Maj. Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, who had recently arrived in England to head the newly formed U.S. Eighth Air Force, and Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, commander of the Eighth Bomber Command. While waiting for Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber groups to cross the Atlantic, the tireless, methodical Spaatz also had to satisfy the needs of Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the new U.S. chief of European operations. The latter was busy with Operation Bolero, the buildup of war matériel in England for the coming invasion of Nazi-occupied Western Europe, and the planned invasion of North Africa later that year, which had been decided upon at the Arcadia Conference in Washington in December 1941-January 1942.
While Spaatz and Eaker lacked the planes for a major operation, the USAAF did send bombers against a European target for the first time on June 12, 1942. Led by Colonel Harry A. “Hurry Up” Halverson, a pioneering Army Air Corps flier, 13 Consolidated B-24D Liberator heavy bombers took off that day from the RAF airfield at Fayid, near the Suez Canal in Egypt, and attacked the German oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. It was the first of a series of missions against the strategic target. Halverson’s B-24s bombed through heavy cloud, and only minimal damage was caused. Seven of the planes landed as planned in Iraq, two were interned in Turkey, and another crash landed. The raid passed almost unnoticed because headlines were full of the Navy’s triumph at Midway.
Planning the First Raid In Northwestern Europe
On June 28, General Spaatz received orders from the impatient Arnold to schedule a raid in northwestern Europe—the first for the USAAF—on Independence Day, six days hence. President Roosevelt had approved the mission, and he and Arnold believed that July 4 would be an appropriate day for the USAAF to open its aerial offensive against Germany. But Spaatz and Eaker considered the venture premature. Eaker’s B-17s had not arrived, and the 31st Fighter Group was learning to handle RAF Supermarine Spitfires.
Spaatz regarded the planned mission as a “stunt” triggered by the American press, which believed that the Allies needed a morale boost. But he went ahead, nevertheless, and chose a squadron of Eighth Air Support Command light bombers for the groundbreaking mission. The assignment fell to the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light), which had arrived in England a few weeks before as part of a token U.S. force.
Constituted on December 22, 1939, and initially activated as part of the 27th Bombardment Group at Barksdale Field in Louisiana in February 1940, the 15th Squadron had been reassigned to the Fifth Air Support Command in late 1941 and based at the Fort Dix, New Jersey, Army airfield. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the unit flew antisubmarine patrols along the New York and New Jersey coasts.
The squadron was reassigned to Lawson Field in Georgia and manned by the personnel of the inactivated 27th Group, who had fought in the ill-fated Philippines campaign of 1941-1942. The unit was briefly redesignated the 1st Pursuit (Night Fighter) Squadron in April 1942 before being assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England. It was redesignated the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) on May 7, 1942, and arrived at the RAF’s big Grafton Underwood base in Northamptonshire on May 12. After being assigned to Eaker’s Eighth Bomber Command two days later, the unit moved to the RAF airfield at Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, on June 9.
The squadron was equipped with twin-engine Douglas A-20 light bombers from No. 226 RAF Squadron. Called Havocs by the Americans and Bostons by the British, A-20s had been used briefly by the French Air Force in Algeria and saw extensive service with the RAF in the Western Desert. In action later with the RAF and the USAAF in the European and Pacific Theaters until the end of the war, they flew in New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Sicily, Italy, Burma, and Normandy. A-20s also served with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and the Australian, Canadian, South African, New Zealand, Free French, and Soviet Air Forces.
Manned by a crew of three, the versatile A-20 “attack bomber” had a maximum speed of 317 miles per hour, a bomb payload of up to 4,000 pounds, and mounted six .50-caliber forward-firing machine guns, two in a power operated dorsal turret and one in a ventral tunnel. Its ceiling was 25,000 feet and its range 1,025 miles.
The 15th Bombardment Squadron was commanded by 26-year-old Captain Charles C. Kegelman, a clean-cut, genial native of Oklahoma destined to become America’s first hero in the Allied aerial offensive in Europe.
Born on Friday, October 22, 1915, in the small agricultural town of El Reno on the North Canadian River in Oklahoma’s central Canadian County, Kegelman was the son of Missouri-born Charles Kegelman and his Nebraska-born wife, Alva. Young Charles had three sisters—Renee, Inez, and Anna. Nicknamed “Sonny,” the boy attended local schools, studied at the Oklahoma Military Academy until 1934, and then went to the University of Oklahoma to prepare for a medical career. But after graduation, aviation and a possible future in the Army Air Corps beckoned the young man.
Charles underwent flight training at Barksdale Airfield in Bossier City, Louisiana, and Savannah, Georgia, and attended a transition bomber pilots’ school in Nevada before being promoted to captain and ordered to England in the spring of 1942.
Kegelman and six of his inexperienced crews underwent several weeks of training in the Bostons and then moved to Swanton Morley in Norfolk, where they were attached to the RAF’s No. 226 Squadron commanded by Squadron Leader J.S. Kennedy. For the Independence Day raid the six American-manned bombers would accompany six RAF Bostons and be under overall British leadership. It was to be a low-level daylight raid against four German airfields near the North Sea coast of Holland. The operation was expected to be a “milk run.”
The Independence Day Raid
At 7:11 am on Saturday, July 4, the dozen light bombers started taking off from the small, grassy airfield at Swanton Morley. After assembling into four flights of three planes, with a seasoned RAF crew in each flight, the Bostons headed across the North Sea toward Holland. They flew low to avoid detection by enemy radar.
Everything went smoothly until they passed over two German “squealer” boats, which radioed a warning to defense outposts in Holland that hostile aircraft were approaching. When the Bostons droned across the Dutch coast, the Germans were ready. Antiaircraft batteries threw up salvos so intense that it shocked the veteran RAF crews.
The four flights split up to attack assigned targets. All pilots had been instructed to make their approaches and bomb runs flat and low. Intense fire greeted the three Bostons heading for the airfield at De Kooy. The leading RAF plane escaped, but an American-manned A-20 piloted by Lieutenant F.A. Loehrl had its nose blown off by a direct hit and crashed in flames.
The third Boston, piloted by Captain Kegelman, was shot up badly as it swept in low over the De Kooy airfield. Its starboard engine took a direct hit, the fuselage was ripped open, and the right wing was damaged. The right wingtip and rear of the fuselage scraped the ground, but Kegelman skillfully wrestled with the controls and managed to keep the plane airborne.
Kegelman jettisoned his bombs, and the crippled Boston swung away from the airfield—into the path of fire from a flak tower. But the American’s trigger finger was faster than the German’s as he silenced the tower with his nose guns. Then he steered the plane to the dubious safety of the North Sea.