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. 

The Relentless Barrage Continues

In what may have been 60 or so seconds of sustained fury, A Squadron is decimated and in disarray, B Squadron’s leader and two more are missing. Only C Squadron, miraculously, remains untouched by fatal flak hits. The barrage continues. It is relentless and unyielding, and “Uninvited” shudders. A sharp burst under the left wing, and No. 2 engine begins to vibrate and belches a wisp of blue smoke. Calmly and clearly, “Pilot to crew, looks as if we’ve taken a hit in No. 2 engine, will keep you posted.” While there may be a tinge of apprehension, all respond with a tone of confidence, unshakable in the belief that Hardwicke will resolve the situation in their favor.

Hardwicke and Flickema use the knowledge only many hours of arduous combat flying can provide. Oil and manifold pressure for No. 2 begins to drop, and Hardwicke sees ripples of black liquid seep from under the cowl flap and blow back across the wing surface. So far, no fire, but he knows that No. 2 must be feathered before all oil is lost. The decision made, they begin the all-too-familiar procedure: throttle back, feathering button pressed, mixture and fuel booster off, generator off, turbo off, prop low rpm, ignition off, fuel valve off. Hardwicke watches the prop slowly wind down and stop; he signals thumbs up to Flickema. More work is required as Flickema adjusts mixture controls for the other three engines.

They emerge from what seems an interminable vortex of destruction as the only 390th squadron without loss of aircraft. The remnants of A and B squadrons form on C, which has taken the lead, as they pass the rally point and prepare for the return flight to Framlingham. “Pilot to crew, how many do you count?” Five or so minutes elapse before consensus. “21, counting us, 22.” It does not require a nimble mathematical mind to quickly compute that of 37 ships on the bomb run 14 with around 125 crewmen aboard are, for the moment, missing. Hardwicke knows that some may have joined other groups, some may have crash-landed, and some may land safely. Verifiable losses will not be established until tomorrow.

“Tomorrow,” and Hardwicke realizes he is thinking demonstrably in the future tense. Less than an hour earlier, tomorrow was an ambiguous, even obscure concept. For the first time since takeoff, he allows himself to relax just a little and signals Flickema to take the controls. Hardwicke removes his flak helmet, lifts his goggles, squints a few seconds, adjusts his oxygen mask, and then wipes the sweat from his forehead and face. As he stretches within the cramped area between seat and controls, “Navigator to pilot, heading 270 degrees, altitude 24,500, ETA 1700.”

“We’ll Be Home … in Time for Supper”

“Roger Jack. Pilot to crew, another three hours and we’ll be home … in time for supper.”

Despite the loss of No. 2 engine, an instrument and control surface check discloses all is well. Further examination of No. 176 by other crew members indicates no additional flak damage of consequence. They follow the 490th group in a gradual descent, one that will carry them over two more checkpoints, the battle line, North Sea, to buncher 28 at Framlingham. The sunset they chase is brilliant for late November, and as far as Hardwicke can see, a harmonious, even synchronous coalescence of silver shapes with but one destination—England.

They … No, it’s more personal … He has defeated Merseburg. He, his crew, “Uninvited,” have not just endured, they have prevailed. Their 26th mission is nearing completion, and in this knowledge comes a renewed vitality, a resolute confidence that the next nine will be flown without mishap. Yet, today’s price for the 390th alone is significant: Lucky Dolan, Dana Gary and his crew, those aboard 407, Gary’s wingman, and the others who vanished so quickly. In combat an invisible line defines who will live and who will not. Hardwicke now knows, thanks to divine influence, with manifest certainty he will not cross that line.

A Happy Letter To Write to the Wife

In almost daily letters to Gladys, Hardwicke has, with unshakable faith, assured her that, no matter what she may hear, he will return to her as soon as the war is over. Survival today over Merseburg has vindicated his optimism. Tonight when he writes, he will employ their code for a successful mission with an understated amendment: “Dearest Gladys, we worked extra hard today.” It is an inadequate tribute to his friends and the others who died, but the censor will not permit expansive personal observations.

With these thoughts, fatigue yields to a compelling inner strength. Hardwicke adjusts his goggles and oxygen mask, taps Flickema on the shoulder, points to the control column. “I’ll take her, Flick.”

Originally Published May 30, 2019.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.