Key Point: These bombers had to get through highly-contested air space. Berlin had its own fighters and flak guns waiting for them.
“Bombs Away” rang out over the intercom static of the 29 aircraft of the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy). From each olive drab Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, five 1,000-pound general purpose bombs broke free of their shackles and fell through the open bomb bay doors.
Relieved of the weight, the bombers lurched upward. The high explosives streamed downward onto the Bremen, Germany, Flugzeugbau assembly works of the Focke-Wulf aircraft factory 26,000 feet below. The plant produced about 80 Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters each month. FW-190s, along with hoards of Messerschmitt Me-109s, were wreaking havoc among heavy bomber formations as they penetrated into German airspace.
Many of the bombs exploded within the factory itself, destroying at least half of the buildings. Others fell on the adjoining airfield and aircraft dispersal areas. The time was 1259 hours, April 17, 1943 and planes of the 91st Bomb Group had been in the air for almost three hours. Thus ended successfully the day’s work for Uncle Sam. From that point on, the air crews were working for themselves. The crewmen’s primary objective for the rest of the day was to return safely to their home base at Bassingbourn, East Anglia, England where a party awaited them. Local English girls, the crewmen’s dates, were already preparing for a night of dancing and general revelry. In a few hours, “passion wagons,” (trucks) would be heading out to nearby villages to pick up the girls and bring them to the airbase.
The Largest Heavy Bomber Contingent to Date
For the April 17 mission, VIII Bomber Command had launched the largest number of heavy bombers over the continent to date in the war. Of the 115 aircraft put into the air earlier that morning, 107 made it to the target, another record. It was a rough mission, even for this period of the air war over Germany.
Weather over the target was clear, perfect for bombing, putting the Germans on guard as to the possibility of an attack on Bremen. Further, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane spotted the American formation while it was still well out over the North Sea. German fighter control was alerted as to the likely target, as well as heading, speed, altitude, and number of bombers in the strike force. A “welcoming committee” of 150 German fighters awaited the formations as they approached the enemy coast.
This was the 69th combat mission the 91st Group had flown since its first foray over the continent on November 7, 1942. The 91st and the 306th Bomb Groups, comprising the 101st Provisional Combat Wing (PBCW), with the 91st in the lead, were first over the target that day. They were followed by the 305th and 303rd Groups of the 102nd PBCW. The 91st Group put up 32 bombers that morning, the largest force it, too, had mounted to date.
Heading for the Initial Point
The 91st Group lead aircraft, “Stupntakit,” of the 323rd Squadron, had lifted off at 0956 hours. Other planes followed at approximately 30-second intervals, the last one, No. 399, “Man-O-War,” leaving the runway at 1008 hours. There was considerable ground haze at Bassingbourn during takeoff, reducing visibility to between one and two miles. In spite of this, the pilots did not experience serious problems in forming up on the group lead and heading for the wing rendezvous with the 306th Group.
Weather conditions over the prescribed route to the target were the best they had been for the past month. Although a general ground haze covered the continent and cloud patches were prevalent at 6,000, 14,000, and 20,000 feet over most of the route, at no place did cloud cover exceed 5/10 density. Still, it required considerable skill and a little luck for the lead navigator, Captain Charles F. Maas, to identify checkpoints along the route.
The flight path took the strike force to the northeast over the North Sea, over the East Frisian Islands, and on to Germany west of Wilhelmshaven and Oldensburg. Checkpoints along the way were Baltrum Island, Edewecht, Ahlhorn, and the IP (Initial Point, beginning of the bomb run) at Wildeshausen. The IP was five minutes from the target. The prescribed rate of climb to bombing altitude while over the North Sea was very fast; the bombers had to move from 6,000 feet to 26,000 feet in 32 minutes.
Two Bombers Turn Back Early
This placed considerable stress on the heavily loaded bombers. Two aircraft encountered problems because of the fast rate of climb.
One 322nd Squadron crew in the Composite Group, Lieutenant McGehee Word’s “Piccadilly Commando,” had to return to base. After test firing his .50-caliber left waist machine gun, S/Sgt. Edward A. Murphy lifted the gun back into the aircraft to make adjustments. In doing so, he accidentally hit the trigger, causing the gun to run away inside the fuselage. He shot up the stabilizer, knocked the oxygen system out, and nearly hit the tail gunner, S/Sgt. Marvin E. Dyer. Word turned back at 1230 hours, 15 miles northwest of Baltrum Island.
When the group crossed onto the continent, only 29 of the 32 bombers that left Bassingbourn remained in the strike force. Eight 401st Squadron planes went over the continent, five in the low squadron of the 91st formation and three in the low squadron of the Composite Group.
The Luftwaffe Greeting Party
As the 91st passed over the East Frisian Islands, moderately heavy and accurate flak came up at the formation. None of the 91st Group planes received serious hits. As soon as the bombers passed beyond the range of these antiaircraft guns, German fighters appeared. The fighters did not at first charge into the bomber stream, but gradually picked up the tempo of runs at the bombers until the IP, Wildeshausen, by which time they were mounting vicious attacks on the intruding aircraft. All the while flak continued to come at the strike force from Aurica, Oldenburg, Alhorn, Wildeshausen and of course, Bremen.
Nearly every type of fighter available to the Luftwaffe came at the strike force. Most were Me-109s, but a number of FW-190s also attacked the bombers. Although the majority of the enemy aircraft stormed in on the bombers from between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock high, attacks were made from almost every conceivable direction. Many of the passes were made by “javelin” formations of several enemy aircraft flying in line directly through the bomber formation. Others swarmed at the bombers in groups of three.
Me-110 twin-engine fighters engaged the bombers at a distance of over 1,000 yards, beyond the protective range of the bombers’ machine guns, firing 20mm and 30mm cannon shells at the planes. Twin-engine Junkers Ju-88s were believed to have dropped aerial bombs into the formation from above. No fewer than 125 single-engine and 25 twin-engine enemy aircraft were estimated to have engaged the strike force.
Captain Maas could not see the IP because of the haze, but rather than diverting to the alternate target, he turned at the time he was supposed to turn on the IP and hoped for the best. He was accurate. Bremen appeared directly ahead, and the bomb run was on course.
The heaviest fighter attacks were experienced at the beginning of the flak barrage at Bremen. Fighters continued coming at the bombers over the target as enemy pilots ignored the exploding flak. It appeared to the bomber crews that the enemy attacks were planned to drive lead elements of the squadrons off the bomb run after the group had been committed, to render the entire bombing inaccurate. Many German pilots pressed their attacks to within 25 yards of the bombers before breaking off. In spite of persistent flak on the run into the target and intensifying fighter attacks on the 91st as the group approached Bremen, all 91st planes that crossed the enemy coast remained in formation over the target.
Despite Damage, ‘Sky Wolf II’ Makes It’s Bombing Run
Just after leaving the IP and beginning the bomb run, “Sky Wolf II” received flak hits and was attacked head-on by German fighters. The windshields in front of both pilots were shattered. Fighters were queuing up off to the left of the bomber, darting ahead, turning over on their backs, and circling back in head-on attacks. Others were coming in from all positions. Some of the enemy aircraft came so close that 1st Lt. Nicholas Stoffel and co-pilot Captain Robert Foster could see their eyes. Crewmen were literally screaming out directions of incoming fighters over the intercom.
One 20mm shell came through the nose of the plane and exploded in the bulkhead just in front of the pilots’ legs, severely wounding the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Everet A. Coppage, in the buttocks. A piece of shrapnel went on through the nose compartment and into the flight deck, hitting Foster in the right leg, causing a gaping wound. Stoffel was wounded in the left leg by the exploding shell.