Death Trap: The Eighth Air Force's B-17s Had a Rought Time over Nazi Skies

https://www.reutersconnect.com/all?id=tag%3Areuters.com%2C2010%3Anewsml_BM2E6681ATB01&share=true

Death Trap: The Eighth Air Force's B-17s Had a Rought Time over Nazi Skies

Bombing Berlin wasn't easy.

Tragically for the B-17s that day, this was also the first time in aerial combat that the Messerschmitts were also armed with the deadly R4M air-to-air missiles. According to eyewitnesses, the effect of the R4M rockets was devastating. Massive amounts of broken B-17 aircraft parts filled the crowded, smoky sky that day, creating havoc for the B-17s, as well as for the attacking German planes.

Years later, a Luftwaffe pilot still vividly recalled the scene: “Shattered fuselages, broken-off wings, ripped-out engines, shards of aluminum and fragments of every size whirled through the air.”

Skyway Chariot’s navigator Jack Spencer recalled that shortly after 11 am all hell broke loose. He remembered, “Everything went well” until just after they turned on the IP when an Me-262  “got practically all of the left horizontal stabilizer.”

A second attack was fought off “halfway down the bomb run with no damage done. Since being hit, we were gradually trailing the formation and by the time we were over the target area, the rest of the formation was approximately one-half mile away.”

Spencer said that the bombardier toggled the bomb load over a “built-up” area of Berlin at about 11:25 am,and approximately 15 to 30 seconds later “there was a terrific burst that seemed to come from the rear of the plane. From where I was, in the nose, I could see smoke boiling up from under the pilot’s seat.

“The condition of the plane then was that the controls had been shot out, as had the intercom system, and the right wing was on fire. Up until we received this last attack, everyone in the ship reported they were all right. As soon as we were hit––since there was no communication––I looked through the astrodome into the cockpit and I handed my toggalier his chute and then put on my own but still wasn’t sure to bail out, so I looked through the astrodome again and saw both the pilot and co-pilot preparing to abandon ship. Then looking at the right wing, which was burning pretty badly, I decided it was time to leave. I bailed out, floated to the ground, and was picked up [captured] immediately.”

Spencer talked to fellow crew members when he ran into them two or three days later in a POW camp. He learned that the tail gunner, James D. Baker, was hit badly in the last attack––or may even have been killed and never left the ship. Later on, his unopened, bloody chute was shown to the enlisted men of the crew, and they recognized the number on it.

As for Mitchell, the ball turret gunner, his fate remains unknown. Waist gunner Meyer Gitlin, who was to assist him out of the ball turret in case of emergency, was also missing. Although Gitlin was known to have bailed out, he was not seen again. Spencer said that his suspicion was “that if [Gitlin’s] chute did open, he may have been killed by Germans, for he was a Jew, had it on his dog tags, and didn’t seem to care who knew it. That may or may not have happened.” Radio operator Archie Mathosian recalled that Gitlin bailed out ahead of him through a hole in the fuselage made by cannon shells from the Me-262.

First Lieutenant Rollie King, the pilot of Skyway Chariot, also reported on the plane’s last few minutes: “After bombs away on the target, we received numerous fighter passes. The first fighter pass knocked out our vertical stabilizer and the tail turret, killing the tail gunner. On the next fighter pass we received a great deal of damage to the plane and practically all of the controls were knocked out.

“I called back and had the radio operator check the crew members, however I did not receive a reply as to their condition. On the third fighter pass we received a burst near the front which knocked out all of our controls and put the plane into a violent spin. I ascertained that I was going to be unable to get the plane out of the said spin due to the lack of control, and I told everybody to bail out.

“I saw Sergeant Gitlin going out by himself and, inasmuch as Staff Sgt. Robert G. Mitchell was a very close friend of his, I do not believe he would have bailed out if he could have in any way helped Sergeant Mitchell. As soon as I bailed out, the ship exploded.”

The 100th’s intelligence narrative indicated enemy aircraft attacks were concentrated on the low squadron, with one pass being made at the high squadron. Six to 10 Me-262sand possibly two twin-engined Me-410sconcentrated their attack. Colonel Cruver reported that most attacks came from 5 to 7 o’clock low using contrails and cloud banks as cover. Four Me-262s made the first attack from 5 o’clock, slightly low, and out of contrails. Three were on the right and others were slightly ahead and below this element.

First Lieutenant Alfonso Guardino, the pilot of Patriotic Patty, was an eyewitness that day. He saw Skyway Chariot first being attacked by an Me-262 at approximately 11 am, noting that the stabilizer of Rollie King’s B-17 broke off and the bomber was observed going down “under control,” with enemy aircraft making further attacks. Sadly, Guardino, along with his entire crew, would be killed by a flak burst five days later during a bombing mission over Marburg, Germany.

Research reveals that Skyway Chariot was likely shot down by Oberleutnant (1st Lt.) Günther Wegmann flying an Me-262 from Jagdgeschwader 7 (JG7) Nowotny. Wegmann was an experienced Luftwaffe pilot credited with many aerial victories, including eight while flying his Me-262. Some of those kills included B-17s and P-51 Mustangs.

Wegmann was well suited for the task that morning. He was involved in the early experimental stages of the Me-262 with missiles as armament. Because of his flying expertise, he was assigned as adjutant to Major Walter Nowotny, the first commander of JG7. On March 18, 1945, Wegmann’s squadron of seven jets was the first to make contact with the bomber formation. Wegmann’s Me-262 was being repaired that day, so he was flying a substitute machine.

Wegmann picked out a formation of about 60 B-17s and signaled to begin the attack. To his right was OberleutnantKarl-Heinz Seeler (killed in action at a later date), and on his left was LeutnantKarl “Quax” Schnorrer with Leutnant OberfahnrichGunter Schrey (killed in action that same day) on the outside.

All told, they fired nearly 100 rockets into the midst of the bomber formation. Wegmann and Schnorrer each claimed two B-17s, and Seeler claimed one. According to documented reports, Wegmann claimed his kills had occurred at approximately 11:20 am.

After firing their missiles, the Me-262s dodged flying debris and lost sight of each other as they nosed down to dive away from pursuing P-51 Mustangs. In after-action reports, many JG7 pilots reported making direct contact with the formation, claiming 10 bombers and one P-51.

After the attack on Skyway Chariot, Oberleutnant Wegmann observed bits of aircraft, smoke, and flames. He started heading for home when he saw another bomber formation in his path, so he opened fire on it with his Mk 108 cannon. He was just over Glowen, Germany, when his jet fighter was hit by defensive fire from a B-17. His windshield and dashboard were badly smashed and after feeling a hard blow to his right leg he realized he had been shot; the wound was large enough for him to put his whole fist in. Oddly, he felt no pain.

His jet was still airworthy despite the damage, but soon flames erupted from one of his turbine engines, and he decided to bail out. He guided his Me-262 toward the town of Wittenberge, northwest of Berlin, which he recognized from the air, having flown over it many times. When the time felt right, he bailed out and engaged his parachute. He drifted past the town and landed in a meadow near a stand of pine trees.

An elderly German woman was the first to spot him, and he quickly identified himself as a German pilot. He was nervous because he was wearing a leather flight jacket obtained from a downed American flyer. If the villagers thought he was an American pilot, he might have been beaten or possibly killed. Instead, Wegmann was rushed away for medical treatment, and about four hours later his right leg was amputated.

On that March 18 air raid, the Eighth Air Force lost eight bombers to enemy fighters, 16 more to flak, and 16 others that were damaged and forced to land in Russian-held territory. According to Archie Mathosian, during the mission his squadron lost four planes, including Skyway Chariot.

After parachuting to earth, Archie and the five other surviving airmen were captured and imprisoned. He and the other crew members were transported to Stalag Luft I, a POW camp for American and British airmen at Barth in northeastern Germany.

The air war over Germany was incredibly costly. Casualties for the 100th Bomb Group are a perfect example. The “Bloody 100th,” so nicknamed because of the large number of losses it suffered, flew 306 missions during the war and lost 177 B-17 bombers to antiaircraft guns and Luftwaffe fighters; 765 airmen were killed while 903 were captured and interned at POW camps behind enemy lines or in neutral countries.