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. 

“Why So Much Essing?”

Once again, Jackson alerts Hardwicke, “We’re climbing too slowly,” and asks, “Why so much essing?” “Pilot to navigator, think the 93rd was late making altitude, had to wait for them.” Hardwicke knows that sustained essing, slow turns, and leveling off every 5,000 feet, eventually will permit the 93rd to take its position as lead wing; he also knows that the practice may stimulate course deviations and interfere with time to target.

When they cross the battle line there is heightened alert, and the vigil for fighters and flak intensifies. Flickema monitors the escort radio channel and once again chuckles to himself that “Little Friends” are, indeed, quite verbose. At the same time, radio contact within the group and wing is forbidden except in an emergency.

“Bombardier to pilot, ready to arm.” “Roger, Chick, go.” Papousek collects a portable oxygen bottle, connects his mask and, from the nose, moves past the flight deck, under the top turret, and swings open a door leading to the bomb bay. The catwalk is flanked on either side by bomb racks holding the 20 250-pounders. Papousek braces himself against the sometimes violent and always unpredictable aircraft movement, and carefully places his oxygen bottle in a nearby rack. Now he begins to remove the wires that secure a small propeller on the nose of each bomb. As the finned explosives are disgorged, the propellers twist and, at set intervals, activate the bombs to explode on impact. Papousek completes his work quickly and will add these wires to his already impressive collection, labeled with the date and destination of the 25 previous missions.

Cruising at 25,000 feet develops a shimmering contrast. The azure blue above forms a stark backdrop for the brilliant-white contrails below, as moisture from superheated engine exhausts freezes into vapor trails that extrude for miles behind each B-17. Hardwicke often ponders how awesome and how terrifying the sight must appear for those on the ground, especially those in close proximity to the target. While contrails may accentuate fear on the ground, in the air they provide excellent cover for German fighters sneaking through to pounce at very close range.

No Enemy Fighters Yet?

Enemy fighters have not yet been sighted by the 13th Combat Wing or its Little Friends. Maybe, just maybe, Hardwicke contemplates, Major Waltz was correct in the assessment to expect “minimum response from the Luftwaffe.” What a constructive thought, that German fighter strength had waned to the brink of ineffectiveness. Yet, in a vivid flashback, he recalls their second journey to Merseburg.

“Tail to pilot, they’re comin’ through the contrails, Jesus, must be 10 or 15, look like 190s and 109s.” Pappy Grogg greeted the intruders with short bursts. “Top to pilot, I see the bastards,” and as they peeled to the left, Waymon Avery followed with his contribution. Later, group intelligence reported that the 390th had been attacked by 12 Focke Wulf Fw-190s, five Messerschmitt Me-109s, and four Messerschmitt Me-110s. Avery claimed a 190, but had to share credit with the top turret gunner of their wingman. German flak was even more productive, sending two B-17s from Hardwicke’s low squadron to earth in flames.

Hhat was late July. Now in late November, “Navigator to pilot, CP 3 at 1155; we’ve been losing time and our heading has changed. We’re 15 to 20 miles south of the briefed course. If we stay on this heading, we’re going to miss the IP.” “Pilot to navigator, can’t help it Jack, we’ve got to follow the 93rd. Too damn much essing.”

“Bombardier to Pilot, Flak Comin’ Up”

Although German fighters mercifully remain absent, the second deadly F, flak, is expected any moment. Hardwicke and crew have become experts: 88s generate a sharp crack and black puff; 105s and 155s, muffled booms and gray puffs. Sometimes ground flashes may be spotted from the nose and both Papousek and Jackson keep Hardwicke informed.

“Bombardier to pilot, flak comin’ up.” Crack, crack, black puffs off the left wing; more cracks, more puffs, so far ineffective. A flash, crack, puff sequence comes once more, this time much too close, and with it comes the inevitable concussion as shrapnel hits “Uninvited.” Hardwicke knows shrapnel, from pen cap to softball size, is deadly unto itself; he hopes for more pen caps. “Pilot to crew, check for damage.” Their responses are negative.

Once more, Hardwicke and Flickema check instruments. Indicated airspeed 150, manifold pressure 29 inches, fuel mixture autolean, booster pumps on, props in synch, superchargers OK, rpm 2,000, carburetor air temperature 21 degrees centigrade, cylinder-head temperature 210 degrees centigrade, ship properly trimmed. With flak, each pilot reflexively seeks more space, room to perhaps escape those bursting projectiles. Hardwicke watches aircraft on either wing closely; ahead, he sees Tracy and Weigand drifting too close. They correct in time. His low element maintains its integrity.

When the 13th Combat Wing begins its bomb run to target, Jackson once again alerts Hardwicke—“We’re turning a helluva way past the briefed IP; I’d say we’re about 25 miles too far south and 12 minutes behind schedule. Hugh, this heading will take us over Zeitz and we’ll have to fly the bomb run on an elongated approach.” The briefed bomb run was designed for them to cross the target at its narrowest point and avoid as much flak as possible. Now, they will be exposed to the maximum wrath from enemy gunners at both Zeitz and Merseburg. To exacerbate their dilemma, a cruel headwind retards bomb-run speed and offers these gunners even more time to refine range and accuracy.

The Pounding Starts, Popping Much Too Close

Above Zeitz the pounding begins in earnest. Crack, crack, crack, boom, boom, boom, black puffs, gray puffs, flashes, and more flashes. It is popping close, much too close. Some flak fragments slice through the fuselage, wings, and tail, so far without significant damage to ship or crew. Tracking flak, barrage flak, pointed flak—they are, indeed, recipients of the most advanced German technology and the gunners’ tenacity to inflict maximum losses on the airborne invaders.

Hardwicke holds formation, occupied with throttles, rudder control, trim and aileron adjustments; Flickema is alert for flak and fighters. “Navigator to pilot, gonna be a damn long bomb run, maybe seven or eight minutes too long.” They are surrounded by dense, black walls of violent bursts, and in the midst of this most vicious assault from the ground, Hardwicke has no time for fear, but there is a thought. “Please God, get us through this, would appreciate a third wedding anniversary and a 24th birthday.”

Flak batters and buffets No. 176, as yet without major harm. “Pilot to bombardier, since we missed the IP, Chick, more essing necessary. A Squadron’s too close, gotta avoid ’em. Can’t drop ’till they’re clear.” Papousek acknowledges, and three minutes later, “Pilot to bombardier, we’re OK now, we’re clear.” Papousek recognizes it is neither feasible nor possible to drop on the leader as is always the bombing plan. “Bombardier to pilot, bomb doors open, target obscured by haze and smoke.” Within the next minute comes a two-word message always received with enthusiasm by combat aircrews; the succinct summation of their mission: “Bombs away!”

B-17 No. 176, some 5,000 pounds lighter, rises, and Hardwicke, as he has done on 25 previous occasions, compensates. Then, from Weaver, who has an unobstructed view of the bomb bay from his radio room, “Radio to pilot, one hanging, your end of rack.” Hardwicke activates the emergency bomb release, without results. “Pilot to bombardier, still hanging.”

“Bombardier to Pilot, It’s Salvoed”

“Bombardier to pilot, on my way.” Once again, Papousek makes the trek from nose to bomb bay, only this time, with open bomb doors, he must overcome wind force and extreme cold as well as steady himself against the unpredictable aircraft pitch and roll. He spots the problem quickly, and with a slight adjustment to the rack the missile drops free. “Bombardier to pilot, it’s salvoed.”

“Pilot to bombardier, thanks Chick.” Jackson closes the bomb doors and alerts Hardwicke.

With unanticipated suddenness and ferocity, the carnage intensifies. Hardwicke concentrates on formation integrity, ever aware of the B-17s on either wing and those ahead. Then, the unthinkable happens. It seems to him one massive, sweeping, flak burst strikes just about every plane in A Squadron. As if in slow motion, the lead ship, flown by his friend Dana Gary with Lucky Dolan aboard, inexplicably rises, wings over, and settles upside down on top of his wingman. When they touch, both are obliterated. From the fireball emerges an engine, its prop still spinning, and very small fragments of wing. Hardwicke watches as they fall and exclaims to himself in disbelief, “My God, the bastards got Dolan, they got Dolan.”

It was inconceivable, impossible, not Lucky Dolan, the one man who could lead them safely to and over Merseburg and then home. Almost simultaneously, another A Squadron ship disintegrates from a direct hit, then another, and yet another. Trails of fire, debris, dead B-17s, dead crewmen litter the sky. No. 176’s intercom comes alive: “Those poor bastards … how many … who … happened so damn fast … see any chutes … no … none … not one.” In a voice steeled by the mixture of adrenaline and inner strength, Hardwicke cuts through the horror. “Pilot to crew, long way to go boys, stay alert, check for flak hits.” Inside, his thoughts are less comforting. “Will any of us survive? Will any of us make it home?” As the gruesome panorama of men trying to annihilate one another swirls around him, Hardwicke relies on a practiced calm and analytical detachment to sustain sanity and control.