Key point: Germany was not going down without a hard fight.
“Our mission was Berlin. We flew in that dreaded position—last and lowest in the squadron.”
Archie Mathosian, B-17 Radio Operator, A/C #521 (Skyway Chariot), 100th Bomb Group (H), USAAF
“Last and lowest in the squadron.”These words may not mean much to most readers, but to the crew of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flying over enemy territory during World War II, they meant almost certain death at 20,000 feet above the ground. Flying in the dreaded “Tail-End Charlie” position meant your bomber was at the end and bottom of the heavy bomber formation and extremely vulnerable to attacks by swift enemy fighters bearing down for a kill.
The German Luftwaffe anticipated when and where strategic bombers would drop explosives and anxiously planned for their arrival. Odds were good that they would destroy at least a few B-17s even though they would also suffer injuries and death.
On Sunday morning, March 18, 1945, under an unusually clear sky, the U.S. Eighth Air Force mounted one of its largest air raids against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The target was Berlin, capital of the Nazi regime. More than 1,300 heavy bombers from the Eighth Air Force, escorted by more than 600 fighter planes, departed their bases in East Anglia and flew eastward over the English Channel toward Germany. The payload that morning was more than 650 tons of 1,000-pound bombs.
Major Marvin Bowman commanded the 351sr Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, on its final mission to Berlin.
In one of those 72 B-17s, named Skyway Chariot, was my uncle, Archie Mathosian. Archie had volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) in January 1943. The next month he received basic training in Miami, Florida, followed by radio operator school in South Dakota and gunnery school in Yuma, Arizona.
As a radio operator, Archie sat just behind the B-17’s bomb bay and in front of the waist section of the Flying Fortress. He was primarily responsible for assisting the navigator and communicating with other planes in the formation.
Radio operators on B-17s also managed cameras and sometimes manned a .50-caliber machine gun located in a turret above their heads during periods of combat. They were isolated from the rest of the crew in the midsection of the plane and had restricted views when battles raged outside.
After gunnery school, Archie was assigned to a B-17 stationed at the RAF base Thorpe Abbotts in Norfolk County, eastern England. Construction of the airfield had begun in 1942 for the Royal Air Force; however, when America entered the war, the base quickly filled up with heavy bombers from the USAAF. The 100th Bombardment Group (Heavy) arrived at RAF Thorpe Abbotts on June 9, 1943, from Kearney Army Airfield, Nebraska, as part of the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign.
From RAF Thorpe Abbotts, Archie and the rest of the crew flew 13 to 17 missions without an incident, mostly in a B-17 named Heavenly Days. During their last fateful mission on March 18, 1945, they were manning a B-17G named Skyway Chariot (aircraft number 43-37521) because Heavenly Dayshad been damaged and was under repair.
The crew of Skyway Chariot that day had been together for many months and were “old hands” at the aerial warfare game. In addition to Archie, the crew consisted of pilot 1st Lt. Rollie C. King; co-pilot Lieutenant John S. “Jack” Williams; navigator Lieutenant John Spencer; nose gunner and bombardier Frank Gordon; flight engineer Ray E. Wilding; ball turret gunner Robert G. Mitchell; waist gunner Meyer Gitlin; and tail gunner James D. Baker. (A B-17 normally had two waist gunners, but on the March 18 mission, only one was assigned to Skyway Chariot.)
On strategic bombing missions over enemy territory, Allied bombers flew in large, orderly groups for better protection from flak and enemy fighter planes. A formation called a“combat box” or “staggered formation”was designed for this purpose, and it served two functions: offense and defense.
When on the offensive, the purpose of the combat box was simply the massed release of bombs over a target. The defensive posture involved the use of firepower from the bombers’ array of .50-caliber machine guns to ward off enemy fighter planes. Combat boxes typically consisted of 18, 27, 36, or 54 heavy bombers.
Three boxes completed a basic combat box group, although there were several variations used during the war. The basic formation consisted of a lead element, high element, and low element.
The theory behind the box formation concept was logical. B-17s would be protected by “interlocking” .50-caliber machine-gun fire, thereby allowing the Flying Fortresses to defend against enemy planes during daylight raids without the necessity of being escorted by Allied fighters. The combat box formation was used until the end of the war, even though this type of formation did have some disadvantages.
A serious shortcoming was that the lowermost and uppermost bombers had the least protection; they had the fewest number of bombers and machine guns covering them. Enemy fighters easily recognized their vulnerability and attacked the highest and lowest bombers first. “Tail-End Charlies” were picked off, and then the main body of the formation was attacked.
With the low element there was also the unfortunate possibility that bombs dropped from above would hit your plane below because formations always started out orderly but sometimes in the heat of combat became disarrayed.
On other occasions, simple human error could cause a bomber to move out of the formation and into harm’s way. One famous example that was caught on camera involved a B-17 on a bombing run on May 19, 1944, over Berlin. The mishap occurred when a bomber from above dropped a bomb onto a B-17 flying below and damaged one of its stabilizers, causing it to crash. Interestingly, the enemy is also known to have dropped bombs onto the orderly and predictable B-17 combat box formations.
Just after 5 am on March 18, 1945, the large formation of 1,327 B-17s and Consolidated B-24 Liberators was assembling over London for Mission 282. At its base in Germany, fighter wing Jagdgeschwader 7 (JG 7) Nowotny (later renumbered III./JG 7) went on alert, preparing for the onslaught. This wing was equipped with 50 Me-262 fighters. The probable target, the wing commander was informed, was Berlin.
Bombing runs deep into Germany’s heartland could last eight hours or more and were typically met by heavy resistance from fighter planes and flak. Germany’s military pilots flew against the invading force in Messerschmitt Bf-109s, Focke-Wulf FW-190s and the new jet-powered Messerschmitt Me-262s.
Entering service near the end of the war, the faster and more powerful Me-262 Schwalbe(“Swallow”), was the most advanced fighter plane of World War II. It has been suggested that if the Me-262 had been introduced in greater numbers earlier in the war, it may have decisively impacted the outcome of many air battles in favor of Germany.
Twenty-four deadly R4M (Rakete, 4 kilogramm, Minenkopf) missiles were attached beneath the wings of each Me-262 on specially designed wooden racks fitted with sliding lugs to hang freely from guided rails. When fired, these missiles traveled up to 1,700 feet per second and packed a 1.1-pound, impact-fused warhead. The missiles could easily vaporize a bomber. To some military historians, the use of the R4M missiles, nicknamed Orkan (Hurricane), was simply overkill.
As one would expect, the Me-262 was highly regarded by Germany’s Luftwaffe aces because it outclassed all other fighters of the period. It had a speed advantage, an excellent climb rate, and firepower consisting of four 30mm cannons in the nose.
By March 1945, almost all Allied air raids included at least 1,000 heavy bombers. During the March 18 bombing raid, a fierce defense was exhibited to protect Berlin, where Adolf Hitler and other Nazi elite were hunkered down.
Before the bombers reached Berlin, Me-262s were scrambled to attack the B-17s and North American P-51 Mustang fighters escorting the Flying Fortresses. This would be the largest attack by Me-262 jets and piston-engine fighter planes against Allied bombers during the entire war.
Just before reaching Berlin, the B-17s of the 100th BG encountered heavy bursts of flak from German 88mm and 105mm antiaircraft guns. Skyway Chariot took enemy fire shortly after turning on the mission’s initial point (IP)––the last leg of a bomb run when planes turn in a direction that takes them over their target. The IP was typically about 10 miles from the target over a highly visible landmark so navigators could get a fix on their positions.
Then the antiaircraft guns went silent to allow swarms of deadly Luftwaffe fighter planes to do their work from close range. Thirty-seven fighter planes, including Me-262s, engaged the massive force of Flying Fortresses and escorting fighters. Luftwaffe pilots were determined to protect their capital from the enemy bombers.
The attack began at about 11:09 am with seven Me-262s firing 30mm Mk 108 cannons at the invading force. A private company in Germany specifically designed these cannons for use against heavy aircraft, and they were installed on a variety of German fighter planes. The cannons were well suited for the role, firing high-explosive ammunition that could bring down a B-17 or B-24 with four to five shots.