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. 

Mission Checkpoint Locations Not Too Friendly

The pointer the major uses is a slightly shortened pool cue decorated with a red-and-white circular design along the shaft. As he moves from side to side along the platform, alternating between the map and a large blackboard with squadron designations and alignments, his shadow—enhanced by the harsh lighting—dances ghost-like across most of Europe. “Group assembly at 0930 at 9,000. Your mission checkpoints: 5114-0254 at 1100, 5006-0626 at 1155, 5025-1211 at 1030, target 1320; route and checkpoints home: 5028-0936 at 1400, 5007-0744 at 1424, 5044-0455 at 1452, 5117-0301 at 1543, buncher 28 at 1619, base at 1626.” Hardwicke knows the route in all too well and recognizes the checkpoints as close to some very unfriendly German cities.

Intelligence is next. Major Ollie Davis—taciturn, dispassionate—and his staff have been sifting information and transposing the field order into a workable interpretation of today’s mission since midnight. His war room is the sepulcher of secrecy where master target data is stored along with a coded index that translates meaningless numbers into: “Your target is the Leuna complex located just outside Merseburg. The target is a closely built-up area some 4,000 by 1,500 yards with the major axis in a north-northwest, south-southeast direction.” In concert with his description, lights are dimmed and a projection screen lowered just in front of the map. Photos of the plant are flashed on the screen as he continues. “This complex is engaged in the production of fuels and synthetic oils and your approach will be across these railway sidings, which will be on your right. We hope this will minimize length of the bomb run and reduce your exposure to flak. Good luck, gentlemen.”

Lights up, screen up as Captain Robert Lamb takes the platform. His business is weather and he brings with him a vertical cross-section, a layer-cake of clouds and meteorological symbols from ground level to 35,000 feet. “At base,” he explains, “about 5/10s stratus during assembly, winds from 310 degrees at 35. Over the continent, cloud cover is reported to have increased to 7/10s and at the target expect a low haze with reported winds from 320 degrees at 45, thin patches of alto-stratus at 12,000.”

Major Waltz returns for the final reminder. “You know the Merseburg flak, always intense and accurate, not to mention Zeitz. Expect some 1,500 guns in the Zeitz-Leipzig-Merseburg area. You’ll be subjected to tracking and barrage, and be alert to box barrages just before bomb release. We expect minimum response from the Luftwaffe. Any questions? OK, boys, drop ’em sûr le nez.”

“On the Nose, Bombs on the Nose”

“Sûr le nez,” Hardwicke muses. “On the nose, bombs on the nose.” A quaint enjoinder, he thinks, considering all the elements that irrevocably conspire to prevent Sûr le nez. “Ten-shun!” They rise in unison as Colonel Moller and the other staff members depart. “We’re going to Merseburg”; hundreds of B-17s, thousands of men committed to the single most critical phase of any mission, “sûr le nez.”His pipe has cooled, its contents little more than a crust as he carefully taps the bowl against his palm and returns this symbol of calm to his pocket. He, Flickema, and the other crews, among a few muted profanities, begin their short stroll to the dressing shack. This gray, unappealing structure is divided into two main areas, both indisputable reminders of human frailty and mortality. Just within the entrance, crew members deposit personal effects which, in turn, are recorded by Captain George Nelson and placed carefully in small canvas bags, neatly arranged on a series of floor-to-ceiling shelves.

Hardwicke empties his pockets—keys, wallet, and any other item that may aid enemy interrogators should the worst-case scenario materialize. Next he removes his John Marshall High School ring, class of 1939, and his wedding band, inscribed “GOH to HHH Jr. 1942.” He declares all except a prized silver dollar, a gift from his father many years ago. The enemy can glean little from an American silver dollar and its presence on his person is a source of comfort; his good-luck charm has been conspicuously successful. “Thank you, lieutenant and good luck,” Nelson says as Hardwicke and Flickema move to the next room. Here they collect the considerable array of flight clothing and equipment, all designed to protect them from external considerations, man-made and natural. To resist the intense cold of 50 to 60 degrees below zero while five miles above the Continent in an unheated and unpressurized B-17, layers of specially designed clothing are imperative. By now, as he and Flickema gather their gear, the routine is rote. Bulky and uncomfortable, the jacket and trousers are lined with alpaca and wool and fitted with a series of wires and connectors to permit electrical heating. Their boots are made of canvas duck with rubber soles, and electrically heated gloves usually are worn with an inner rayon liner. Flying helmets are leather with a chamois lining and sound-insulated earphone mountings, and designed to accommodate one-piece goggles with either clear or tinted lens. The kapok-filled earphone mountings support the standard headset with adjustable leather-covered headbands. Throat mikes are retained with a brown elastic neck strap.

Oxygen mask, parachute and harness, flak vest made of overlapping steel plates and a steel flak helmet complete the outfit. The customary “Mae West,” that wonderful bright yellow inflatable, is necessary along with the model 1911-A1 .45 semi-automatic both Hardwicke and Flickema carry in their russet-brown leather shoulder holsters.

All Prepared for Contingencies

They are prepared for the known contingencies. Much of the gear they toss in flight bags; they will don it later while awaiting takeoff or approaching enemy territory. Now, joined by Jackson and Papousek, it is time to board the trucks once more, this time for the trip to hardstands that encircle the 6,337-foot main east-west runway and the two 4,400-foot north-south alternate runways. Time, 0705, more than sufficient for the vitally important walk around and preflight checklist. As the truck slows to a stop, Flickema and Jackson pull the tailgate pins and the protective rear cover bangs down. All four toss their flight bags and follow them to the ground.

As the gray light barely sneaks its way across the English countryside, what has been a sprinkling of haze and mist begins to dissipate. What has been merely a cold, impersonal silhouette begins to take shape as the silver surface of a B-17G. Another truck bobs to a stop and the balance of Hardwicke’s crew—Hammond, Weaver, Avery, Downham, and Grogg—all of whom attended separate briefings, disembark. Avery and Downham are wearing most of their cumbersome flying attire while Hammond, Grogg, and Weaver prepare to suit up on the hardstand.

Their transportation to and, with good fortune, from Merseburg is well prepared for the journey. Master Sergeant Blumberg, the crew chief, and his four assistants, have devoted most of the past 96 hours to checking and rechecking all the elements so vital to remaining aloft. Hardwicke had noticed problems encountered during the six-hour mission to Hamm four days previous, including the loss of oil pressure on No. 3 engine on the way home. “No, 3’s OK, sir,” Blumberg reports. “Oil pressure, manifold pressure, prop pitch control all checked and repairs made,” he continues. “How about the left wing aileron control and trim tab alignment?” Hardwicke inquires. “Has been set properly and also pitch control on No. 4 adjusted,” Blumberg responds. “And sir, those hundred or so holes have been patched,” he smiles. Hardwicke grins back, “Good job, sergeant.”

The early-morning light not only discloses surface color, but the more intimate, personal details of this B-17G. Tail number 107176 is found just below the white J within a black square that identifies the 390th as the Square J. The 568th Squadron code—BI—appears in bold, black letters on both sides of the fuselage, almost above the wings and directly in front of the national insignia, a white star on blue background flanked by white rectangular bars outlined in blue; the national identification also is prominent on top of the left wing and bottom of the right. A square J also appears on top of the right wing.

The Bomber Always Safely Returns

Circling the nose, immediately behind the bombardier’s Plexiglas station, is a 14-inch red band which further identifies the 568th, and below the navigator’s windows and rows of vertical bombs, her names: “Uninvited” and “Missionaires.” Two previous crews have named her, and in the best tradition of good luck, Hardwicke and his crew accepted both. They did, however, select “Uninvited” for the backs of their A-2s, along with ever-increasing strings of yellow bombs. No. 176 is solid, reliable, and has carried them through 14 of their 25 combat missions. No matter the battle damage, thanks to her resilient character and their precise flying skills, always a safe return to Framlingham.

“OK, Flick, Sergeant Blumberg, let’s look around,” Hardwicke says. The essential visual inspection begins with the right wing. “Aileron, flaps, de-icer boots OK, no fuel leaks, air ducts clear, props look good,” Flickema notes. They check No. 3 and No. 4 engines; cowl flaps secure, exhaust systems OK, turbo wheels smooth. Next comes the main wheel; tire OK, hydraulic lines, drag link, and strut OK. Around the nose, pitot-tube covers removed, antennae leads connected, trailing antennae retracted, marker beacon secure. Engines No. 1 and 2 OK, left landing gear OK, aileron surfaces and trim tab alignments OK on the left wing, external locks removed. Tail guns in position and locked, gunner’s escape door closed, tail wheel inflated properly, shear pin and slot not rounded or worn. “She looks just fine, Hugh,” Flickema observes, “let’s get aboard.”