Key point: World War II's biggest bombing mission.
He was widely regarded as America’s best pilot, he was already a recipient of the Medal of Honor, he was commander of the Eighth Air Force caught up in 1,000-plane bombing missions deep into the Third Reich, and he was mad as hell.
Lieutenant General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle was also a gentleman who rarely used harsh language, but when they gave him the battle order for a mission to be flown on February 3, 1945—a mission to Berlin—Doolittle reportedly uttered an expletive or two. The order told American bombardiers to use the Frederichstrasse Railway Station in Berlin as the aiming point for the day’s air assault on the Third Reich.
To Doolittle, that sounded a lot like bombing a city. But Americans didn’t bomb cities. The British did that, at night. The Americans conducted high-altitude, daylight precision bombing of military and industrial targets, many of which, to be sure, were in the middle of cities.
Doolittle felt he was being ordered to change U.S. strategy and betray American principle. The Eighth Air Force commander got on the phone with his boss, General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe (and an immediate deputy of General Dwight D. Eisenhower). No transcript of the conversation exists, and Doolittle did not mention the conversation in an autobiography published decades later.
But a staff officer remembers that hackles were raised and that Spaatz responded to Doolittle’s concern by telling Doolittle, in a not unkind way, to shut the hell up. Moreover, Spaatz reminded Doolittle that Berlin was not a new destination for American bombers and that legitimate targets lay within Adolf Hitler’s capital—Gestapo headquarters, the Air Ministry, railroad facilities, a panzer army on the move, etc.
The report that Germany’s Third Panzer Army was en route from the Western Front to the Eastern and would pass through the railway station was in fact an error on the part of U.S. intelligence. No such movement was taking place. But the Red Army was within 130 miles of Berlin and a punishing aerial assault on the city was seen as a way to help the Soviets advance.
A Big Day for the Eighth
For the 650,000 men under Doolittle’s command—his Eighth Air Force was the largest aerial formation ever assembled—February 3, 1945, was to be one of the biggest days of the war. Doolittle was to dispatch 1,437 heavy bombers and 948 fighters to attack Berlin.
The attack force consisted of 42 bombardment groups in three air divisions and 15,000 crew members. While 434 B-24 Liberators struck the synthetic oil plant at Magdeburg, 1,003 B-17 Flying Fortresses were to aim their bombs squarely on the city center of the capital of the Third Reich.
At this late stage in the war, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, was no longer the formidable force it had been earlier in the air campaign. Unlike previous missions, this attack on Berlin received little coverage afterward because, for the most part, it lacked the high drama of air-to-air duels between Luftwaffe fighters and Flying Fortresses that had occurred earlier in the war.
Yet the mission was both a turning point in U.S. strategy and a continuation (since 1942) of a kind of warfare that had never been seen before and would never be witnessed again, carried out on a scale that seems, today, almost too much to imagine.
Generals gave orders. Young men carried them out.
First Lieutenant Robert Des Lauriers, co-pilot of a Vega-built Boeing B-17G-75-VE (44-8629) named Purty Chili of the 391st Bombardment Squadron, 34th Bombardment Group at Mendlesham in East Anglia, was quietly focused on pulling his weight as part of a nine-man crew. (A waist gunner had been deleted from traditional 10-man crews in part because the Luftwaffe was no longer likely to attack a B-17 from both sides).
Des Lauriers always surprised himself by being calm just after wake-up for a big mission. “We confronted the cold, the fog, the mist. We especially felt the cold. Asleep, awake, on the ground, in the air, we were always cold,” he said. Today’s journey into the cold, blue vastness above Europe was Des Lauriers’s 12th mission.
Inside a B-17 in flight, it was so cold that Des Lauriers’s pilot forbade crew members from carrying drinking water since it would freeze and become useless anyway. Inside a B-17, men were going forth at, typically, 28,000 feet where, until this war, no one had done battle before. Inside a B-17 you needed oxygen to breathe and heated clothing to resist the sub-zero temperature and then, only then, you also needed to be able to fight.
After they learned where they were going that day, Des Lauriers remembers a fellow crew member saying, “I hope we get Hitler today.”
Technical Sergeant Raymond H. Fredette, togglier of a Douglas-built Boeing B-17G-15-DL Flying Fortress (44-6465) named Fancy Nancy, also at Mendelsham but assigned to the 7th Bombardment Squadron, began the day knowing that someone had scratched “Fat Boy Hector”—referring to his girth and middle name—on the chin turret of his bomber. The previous day, a crewmate had kidded him about his waist size in a way that may not have been meant badly but was not well received. “It was not with great relish that I got up this morning,” Fredette wrote in his diary. This was to be Fredette’s 21st mission.
Berlin, 550 miles from East Anglia, was handily within reach of the final wartime model of the Flying Fortress, the B-17G. In fact, the “G model” Fort had been baptized during the Eighth Air Force’s first big trip to Berlin 11 months earlier, on March 6, 1944. With four 1,900-horsepower turbo-supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1820-97 Cyclone engines, the B-17G was credited with a maximum speed 287 miles per hour but cruised at about 180.
Crew consisted of two pilots, bombardier, navigator, radio-operator/gunner, and four gunners. The togglier was an enlisted man who filled in for the bombardier, usually an officer, and dropped bombs not by aiming them but by following a cue from the aircraft in the lead of the formation.
Des Lauriers and Fredette, who bunked down a few hundred feet apart in different squadrons and were not acquainted, were thinking about flying conditions. German flak was a worry, too—German fighters less so, because the Luftwaffe had now been largely neutralized by attrition and by far-ranging P-51 Mustangs, the bombers’ “Little Friends.”
Like nearly all of the 15,000 airmen suiting up for battle today, Des Lauriers and Fredette hadn’t been here the previous winter, so this was new—the bone-chilling weather of the British wintertime that brought colds, flu, and frostbitten body parts at high altitude; the electrically heated flying suits that were redesigned repeatedly and still caught fire; a shortage of heat in living quarters; pea-soup fog; howling winds; ice-coated roads, runways, wings and windshields. The forecast for today promised some relief: This Saturday would begin murky, wet, and cold. But over Berlin, at least, it would become CAVU—“ceiling and visibility unlimited.”
It began at 3 am with a flashlight in the face and the word “Up!” mouthed by a charge of quarters (CQ) moving through the Nissen hut with a clipboard.
The ritual followed. First—a close shave, because an oxygen mask would be strapped to the face all day; ablutions, a little hot water if this was a lucky day. Next—chapel, breakfast (real eggs were a harbinger of a difficult mission), and the main squadron briefing. The commander pulled back the curtain. The men gawked at the long, colored yarn stretching from England to the German city they least wanted to see at the end of their route—Berlin.
At briefings taking place at airfields all over East Anglia, men were told the target. Many crew members understood immediately that they were attacking an urban population, breaking U.S. doctrine and betraying Doolittle’s wishes. (The British Royal Air Force, the RAF, had bombed Dresden nightly since 1940 but the American firebomb attack on that city still lay two weeks in the future).
The “Big B”
With a wartime population that had mushroomed from three to five million and with an area of 1,600 square miles, Berlin was rated as the sixth largest city in the world. Thanks to scores of nocturnal visits by the RAF and a half dozen daytime incursions by Doolittle’s men, the city was partly a desert of rubble and detritus in which everyday services like running water and electricity were strained to the limit, yet it had at least one cabaret that catered to the Nazi military elite and a fully functioning opera house.
The Führer, Adolf Hitler, had spent much of the war in residences far from the capital but was now in the city, using apartments in the Reich Chancellery and spending some nights in his bunker deep beneath Berlin.
Berlin. The “Big B.” Its antiaircraft defenses stretched across 40 miles of searchlights, flak batteries, decoy fires, decoy marker flares and target indicators, and airfields that still held enough fighters to make approaching the city a risky business. The Allies were relentlessly picking off the finest of the Reich’s pilots, but the Germans never lacked aircraft. Although not as effective as in the recent past, the Luftwaffe had 1,600 warplanes defending the capital.