The Biggest Bombing Raid of World War II: 1000 Bombers Sent to Destroy Berlin

May 6, 2017 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: HistoryMilitaryWorld War IIBerlinNazisAir ForceDoolittle

The Biggest Bombing Raid of World War II: 1000 Bombers Sent to Destroy Berlin

Doolittle’s aerial armada was the war’s biggest bombing mission.

Many weeks later, one of the trio, prisoner of war Logan, would be killed by gunfire from a strafing Allied aircraft while Bancroft stood beside him on a forced march of POWs—and survived. Bancroft wrote, “For this to happen to Logan, a flyer rescued from certain death with other aircrew members of the mid-air crash, then to fall victim after enduring so many bombings and strafing while on the forced march in Nazi Germany, is too difficult and unreal for our limited human understanding. Especially for all of us who knew him and how he would help the weaker POWs keep up with the group so as not to be shot by the guards at the rear of the column. Logan would be there to give of himself, and in the end, that’s exactly what he did––all the way.”

As if impervious to the fate of the 18 men aboard the two Fortresses that had merged in mid-air, the bomber formation continued toward Berlin. Some aboard the bombers had a clear look at the loss of the planes and men, and it stayed with them. But the bomber formation, unable to help, kept going, never slowing down, even as exploding flak shells began to fill the air around the planes.

Someone called out, “Fighters!” Fortress crew members saw the Luftwaffe warplanes nearby but most never saw them close-up. The war had changed since its early days when bomber gunners and Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf pilots concentrated on killing each other. Now, P-51 Mustangs ranged in front of the bombers and held off most of the Bf-109s and Fw-190s.

As the first Flying Fortresses pivoted on the Initial Point 10 minutes from the Berlin city center and began their bomb runs—each squadron following a lead aircraft and a lead bombardier—the flak bursts became even more intense.

“Imagine somebody throwing rocks against the side of a metal building and that’s what it sounded like,” said 1st Lt. Robert Des Lauriers, co-pilot of Purty Chili. “The shell blasts and black puffs of smoke came in threes. They bracketed our aircraft, on one side, above us, and then on the other side.”

Bomber Stream

From behind the bombers of Fredette’s and Des Lauriers’s 34th Group, a German fighter flew directly through combat boxes of bombers and ended up in front and to the left of the formation. Said another 34th airman, 1st Lt. Charles Alling, “It did a pirouette on its tail, like a ballet dancer, and then exploded. We flew through the mass of exploding metal, a piece of which tore into our right wing. Somehow all of the planes in our group flew through the remains of the German fighter and survived.”

How long was the parade of bomber boxes marching toward the German capital? When the first wave of Flying Fortresses reached Berlin, the last bomber was still over the Zuider Zee in Holland: The stream of bombers, from one end to the other, was 360 miles long. Group after group arrived over Berlin. Altogether, fully 90 minutes would elapse while the bomber formation passed over the capital.

In the co-pilot’s seat of the lead Fortress, a Vega B-17G-60-GE (44-8379/EP-J) for the 3rd Air Division, Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal of the 100th Bombardment Group and pilot Captain John Ernst peered through flak bursts at smoke-covered Berlin.

In the book Flying Fortress, Edward Jablonski wrote: “The flak proved to be murderously accurate over Berlin that day—‘a beautiful day,’ as Rosenthal would later recall it. He was of course referring only to the clear weather. The plane shuddered under the impact of the flak and the air filled with the noises of ripping metal. The number one engine spouted flame, a great white sheet spilling into the air stream behind the wing; the fabric-covered aileron shriveled, exposing the graceful metallic structure.”

Two men were killed in Rosenthal’s Fortress. Thick, white smoke filled the flight deck. Ernst looked at Rosenthal for guidance. “Rosie” gestured to continue, straight ahead. He knew the B-17 would never make it home. He also knew that if his aircraft didn’t bomb accurately, his entire division might scatter its bombs and needlessly kill civilians.

Rosenthal’s Fortress stayed on a steady course until lead bombardier 1st Lt. Eugene E. Lockhart toggled its bombs. Other B-17s in the division followed suit. The bomber was hit a second time. Crew members of other aircraft saw the Fortress lurch upward and then down. Its bomb bay doors closed and reopened.

Rosenthal slid back his window and peeled off to the right, directing the group’s deputy leader to take command. He took the controls from Ernst and headed northeast. A wall of noise surrounded him as the aircraft began tearing itself apart. “Rosie” ordered crew members to bail out.

Rosenthal looked in all directions, listened, and satisfied himself that every crew member had jumped from the Flying Fortress. Still at the controls, Rosenthal put the aircraft on autopilot so it would continue straight and level as long as possible, just in case a straggler was still trying to get out. He pulled his parachute straps tight, fought his way out of the pilot’s seat. The nearest exit was the forward emergency door below and in front of the pilot’s compartment.

Rosenthal fought his way toward that door and did a double take when he saw at the last moment that a crew member was sprawled on the floorboards behind him. He had no way of knowing who it was because the man had been decapitated. There had been 13 airmen aboard Rosenthal’s Flying Fortress. Ten of them survived to become prisoners of war.

The Death of Klettge’s Crew

Of the many bomb groups over Berlin that day, the 91st Bombardment Group from RAF Bassingbourn, near Cambridge, had it the roughest. In an apparent mistake, the men had been told there would be no mission on February 3 and had been partying as late as 1 am. Many took off for Berlin without having gotten any sleep. Some were still under the influence or were seriously hung over.

That was not the situation aboard the lead aircraft for the group. This was another relatively new bomber that had no nose art and no name, but the crew was old in experience if not in years. On two dozen missions, this crew had been led by Major Manny Klette, who had a reputation for being daring and brazen but was recognized as one of the best pilots and leaders in the European Theater of Operations.

Today, Klette was on furlough in London. Another very experienced and dead serious leader and pilot, Lt. Col. Marvin D. Lord, occupied the co-pilot’s seat where Klette would have been. Lord and the regularly assigned pilot, 1st Lt. Frank L. Adams, had made certain the entire crew of Vega B-17G-20-VE (42-97632/DF-H/R) got plenty of sleep and had a thorough crew briefing.

Lord was a Silver Star recipient from a previous combat tour, was near the end of his second, voluntary tour in bombers, and was a former squadron commander, group staff officer, and lieutenant colonel at the age of 23. He had a wife and baby daughter back home in Milwaukee. His cheerful, upbeat personality was a contrast to the somber Klette. Some who flew with him claimed Klette had a death wish. If he did, he was about to be cheated in a very big way.

At the start of the bomb run, Adams’s bombardier, Captain Nando A. “Tony” Cavalieri, engaged his Norden bombsight; the group would now bomb on Cavalieri’s lead. First Lieutenant Theodore M. “Mike” Banta was watching closely from his B-17G-70-BO (43-37844/DF-K) Yankee Gal.

In an interview for this article, Banta described the tension as bombers passed over the smoke-covered German capital: “As we flew toward the target, each succeeding battery of flak bursts moved closer to us. This is when the sweat begins. Will we reach ‘bombs away’ before the antiaircraft gunners make the final correction that puts their bursts in the middle of our formation?”

Said Banta, “When bombs are released by the Norden bombsight in the lead ship, one of them will be a smoke marker bomb. As soon as the bombardiers in our other ships see this, they will pull a toggle switch releasing their aircraft’s bombs. We bomb as a unit and a tight formation leaves the best diamond-shaped bomb pattern possible.”

Cavalieri released. Banta said, “Immediately after ‘bombs away’ and before lead pilot Adams could start his evasive turn, the lead ship received a direct hit from an antiaircraft shell right where the trailing edge of the wing meets the fuselage. The lead ship was blown cleanly in half. The nose section went immediately into a dive with engines still under power. The tail section appeared to fly along with the formation for a split second and then drifted out of my sight behind my co-pilot’s window. My co-pilot told me that it fluttered back over the top of our rear element and was lost from his sight.”