Why Flying a B-17 Bomber over Nazi Germany Was Nearly a Death Sentence

October 2, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: B-17MilitaryTechnologyWorldU.S. Air ForceHistory

Why Flying a B-17 Bomber over Nazi Germany Was Nearly a Death Sentence

A legendary plane with a very tough assignment. 

“Never Saw the Target … Wish to Hell We’d Get Some Good Weather”

Flickema nudges Hardwicke’s shoulder, “Come on, Hugh, let’s eat.” Jackson chuckles, “Wake up, Hugh, chow time.” Not to be remiss, Papousek adds, “OK, Hugh, move it.” All four slide from the truck and stroll into the combat mess, already alive with other crews and chatter. The serving line is short, fare basically the same.

Hardwicke assembles his plate, stainless steel flatware, napkin, and cup, and accepts a heaping spoonful of reconstituted eggs, four slices of crisp bacon, some well-browned toast. Coffee, hot and black, is the final ingredient as they find places at one of the long wooden tables, each equipped with a multitude of individual wooden chairs. Suspended from the ceiling a dozen or so shaded bulbs provide the sole source of illumination, enough to notice the many posters with a central pictorial and verbal theme: “It comes 5000 miles/Eat what you take … Don’t be a chow-hog/Take only what you eat … Eat what you take!” Discussion of a mission to the railroad marshaling yards at Hamm four days earlier elicits general agreement. “Heard the results were OK … had to drop through clouds … never saw the target … wish to hell we’d get some good weather.” Today’s mission was a matter of speculation. “Wonder where the hell they’re sending us today … what kind of opposition you think we’re gonna see … we were up early, expect it’ll be a long one.” Hardwicke checks his watch, it is 0520, about 10 minutes before briefing when these and many other questions will be answered.

Field Order No. 500, received the previous day at 2040 hours, confirmed an earlier phone alert from 3rd Air Division headquarters. It outlined in terse, impersonal terms the basis for today’s mission; it was refined during early-morning planning sessions by the 390th operations staff and soon will be explained in detail to those expected to implement it.

May His Dust Not Precede That of the Walls

As Hardwicke approaches the oversized Nissen building’s entrance, he once again glances at the message, flanked by an American eagle, inscribed above the door: “The deeds of the men who pass through these portals shall be remembered long after the walls have crumbled to dust.” He embraces the thought with a mildly amusing caveat: may his dust not precede that of the walls.

While awaiting official briefing from group leadership, the accepted practice is to light up, smoke a cigarette or two or three, and a dull haze soon envelops the room. Some men already are seated, others are standing casually in the center aisle and around the periphery engaged in idle discourse, sometimes punctuated by a bit of nervous laughter. Hardwicke and Flickema edge their way through the clusters and find a couple of canvas folding chairs midway through the room. Jackson and Papousek are attending concurrent briefings for navigators and bombardiers specifically related to routes, times, bomb load, and run.

As Hardwicke settles into his chair, he carefully removes from his A-2 pocket his favorite smoking instrument, a well-worn, prewar, genuine Amphora briar pipe. Perhaps it validates his calm and assured persona, perhaps it offers a trapping of maturity, perhaps he simply prefers a pipe to cigarettes, or perhaps it is all three in combination. A few short puffs, a long draw and he turns to Flickema: “Whaddya you think, Flick, where’re we going?” Capable, quiet, reserved, Flickema shrugs, “You know, Hugh, there’s been a big push on oil, so maybe Magdeburg or Bohlen or Ruland or Merseburg.”

Hardwicke stares forward intently. Resting on the slightly elevated, rough wooden platform is a huge mapboard that clearly depicts the British Isles and continental Europe. For the moment it is obscured by a nearly floor-to-ceiling-length black curtain. The target, details of which he must absorb, is shielded by that curtain.

At precisely 0530 comes the expected command, “Ten-shun!” They rise in unison as Colonel Joseph Moller, the group’s commanding officer; Major Robert Waltz, operations officer; and Major Robert Good, air executive, stride briskly to the platform. Colonel Moller pauses a few seconds as three overhead lights come to life, illuminating a dull void surrounding the mapboard. “Good morning, gentlemen, as you were.” Rustling and crinkling, a few coughs, and some throat clearing are heard as the 75 or so men present rearrange themselves.

“My God, Not Merseburg Again”

With a snap of the wrist, Moller unveils the detailed National Geographic-like map. A red ribbon, which defines routes to and from the target with small flags to mark points of interest along the way, stretches taughtly from Framlingham, across the North Sea, through Belgium, over the battle line and into Germany, deep into Germany. Destination: Merseburg and the Leuna synthetic fuels complex.

With target disclosure comes an undercurrent of sentiment that sparks a unanimous, yet-unspoken response, “My God, not Merseburg again.” Hardwicke shares this, as well as the expected vocal dissatisfaction, manifested by a series of groans and “oh-no’s.” Early in 1944, the Eighth Air Force embarked on a maximum effort to destroy German petroleum production; deny the enemy oil and his war-making capability will diminish accordingly, it was theorized. German response was predictable: Surround these plants with the most efficient antiaircraft weapons and the most proficient operators; maintain an ever-alert Luftwaffe, despite a dwindling base of experienced pilots.

The paradox of four months past races through Hardwicke’s mind. On July 28, he and his crew began their combat odyssey. Their first mission was to Merseburg and the Leuna complex. They encountered moderate flak, few German fighters, and pathfinder radar was used for bomb aiming from 24,000 feet through solid cloud cover. All returned safely to Framlingham, and Hardwicke recalls an observation by his friend, Red Joyner, after debriefing. “Nothin’ to it, Hugh, I could fly a million of ’em.” Bad news came the next morning at mission briefing by Major Waltz. “OK, fellows, you did a beautiful job on a wheat field yesterday, so today we’ll go back and do it right. No cloud cover, no excuses.”

On this trip, flak near and over the target was “intense and accurate,” and two B-17s from Hardwicke’s low squadron were hit and went down. Flak was followed by FW-190s, and ME-109s and 110s and Hardwicke’s top turret gunner, Avery, claimed a kill. They limped back to Framlingham and once on the ground, counted more than 200 flak and bullet holes in the left wing and tail surfaces. Following debriefing, Red was a bit less optimistic: “I believe they really got mad at us, Hugh, I quit.”

Hardwicke’s Confidence Renewed

Colonel Moller snaps Hardwicke’s momentary lapse. “That’s correct, gentlemen, Merseburg again. This time the mission will, in addition to the 13th, include the 93rd, 4th and 45th combat wings. Overall, we expect to put up around 540 aircraft, of which some 300—including the 390th—will attack the Leuna complex. The 93rd will lead the 3rd Division and Colonel Dolan will be command pilot for our group and wing.” Hardwicke is elated, filled with renewed confidence. Lieutenant Colonel Louis W. (Lucky) Dolan is the 390th’s deputy commander, and he is well known and well respected throughout the Eighth Air Force as one of its most able and experienced combat leaders. He has participated in or led assaults on nearly every major enemy target in Europe. Why, he even looks the part, the handsome prototype of the senior officer. If anyone can take us to and over Merseburg and back home without incident, it just has to be Lucky Dolan, Hardwicke convinces himself. “You’ll be there in about five hours, gentlemen; you know what you have to do, let’s go and do it. Major Waltz will provide the details. Good luck to all of you,” Moller concludes.

“Good morning, let’s make it just the opposite for the Germans,” Waltz begins as mission sheets with A, B, and C Squadron designations are distributed. “As you know, Colonel Dolan is wing lead. He’ll be flying with Captain Gary in 080, A squadron. Major McHenry will lead B squadron with Kenny in 225, and Lieutenant Watts will lead C Squadron with Stene in 013.” Hardwicke scans his mission sheet for the other assignments. He will lead C squadron’s low element, which also includes Goodrich in 337, Norman 807, and Mazzechelli 093; also in C are Tracy 345, Weigand 6143, Sarden 390, Sweeny 026, Coffin 526, Lewis 673, Robison 972, Nash 632. A Squadron shows Dieters in 470, Peterson 407, Jefferson 836, Meigede 7041, Combs 927, Hannold 868, Harris 325, Dognibene 8472, Corcoran 275, O’Conner 375, Booth 519; B consists of Philip 456, Shira 926, Torrance 053, Mitchell 831, Herring 306, Drinkwalter 846, Monit 121, Henry 173, Maddron 274, Kurtz 515, Massa 319, Duppenhaler 967.

“Zero hour is 1300, bombing altitude 26,000, bomb run from 320 degrees magnetic. Combination PFF and visual, 100-foot intervalometer settings, twenty 250-pound GPs.

C-1 autopilot for bomb run.” Waltz is resolute, a pragmatist and what Hardwicke needs at exactly this moment is an extra-large dose of pragmatism. “A squadron start engines at 0740, taxi 0750, takeoff 0805, estimated time of departure 0850, estimated time of return 1625. B squadron start engines 0750, taxi 0800, takeoff 0815, ETD 0855, ETR 1625. C squadron start engines 0800, taxi 0810, takeoff 0825, ETD 0905, ETR 1625. Fighter groups will rendezvous at 1100.”