In an instant, Lord, Adams, and Cavalieri and all of Klette’s crew—one of the most experienced in the Eighth Air Force—were gone. Among the 11 who died aboard 42-97632, the radio operator was on his 79th mission, the engineer on his 81st.
With burning debris and detritus flying around everywhere in the bomber formation, a confetti of metallic junk struck B-17G-35-BO Flying Fortress (42-32085/DF-K) Yankee Belle, piloted by 1st Lt. George F. Miller, and a Vega-built B-47G-40-VE Flying Fortress (42-97959/DF-Y) Rhapsody in Red, piloted by 1st Lt. E.O. Johnson. Both fell out of formation. Miller’s crew bailed out and became prisoners. Rhapsody was sorely damaged but, thanks to Johnson’s ministrations, was able to complete the return flight to England.
For almost two hours, bombers approached and passed over Berlin. Togglier Ray Fredette aboard Fancy Nancy wrote in his diary that night: “It was a fairly long bomb run. I was fully aware of the entire situation—hundreds of bombers bearing down with tons of high explosives to be dropped on Berlin.
“Berlin! Berlin! The very name of this city pounded on my brains. This was the heart of Naziland. This was the city where Hitler had preached his defiance to the world. This was the city where the throngs had shouted ‘Sieg Heil!’ but today it was the shriek of falling bombs and the rocking explosions that were heard throughout Berlin.”
Fredette continued: “As we approached flying over Potsdam there were large breaks in the clouds over the ill-fated capital. Large portions of Berlin were visible. Smoke was rising from the bomb hits scored by other bomb groups that had preceded us.
“Bomb bay doors were open now and there was flak up ahead. But for the first time I was more intent on the target than the flak. I felt exhilarated. My fingers twitched as I held the toggle [bomb release] switch.
“My eyes were glued on the lead ship. Then its bombs dropped along with two white smoke markers that hurtled downward. This was it. I struck the toggle switch and two tons of explosives in Fancy Nancy’s bomb bay fell away.”
Fredette wrote that the journey out of Berlin was “exhausting.” Yet he never saw a German fighter. Purty Chili co-pilot Robert Des Lauriers noted in his diary that his crew was in the air for eight hours and 30 minutes, a grueling ordeal of cold, vibrations, and dehydration. Des Lauriers thought he saw German fighters in the distance. He noted that the German flak was “exceedingly accurate.”
Although Berlin that day was a tragedy for some crew members, it was easier than earlier strikes on the German capital. Twenty-five bombers and eight fighters were lost to all causes. Eighteen Americans were initially listed as killed in action, with 208 missing. Gunners did not claim any German fighters shot down but eight aerial victories were credited to U.S. fighters.
The American fighter pilots followed revised doctrine and ranged away from the bomber formations to seek out German fighters where they lived. Using new external fuel tanks for the first time, P-47 Thunderbolt fighters of the 56th Fighter Group made their first appearance over the German capital and claimed several aerial victories. The longer ranged P-51 Mustangs that had become the primary escort fighters in Doolittle’s Eighth Air Force strafed German airfields and caught Luftwaffe warplanes when they were most vulnerable, in the airfield pattern.
American crew members who had hoped to kill Adolf Hitler were disappointed. They did kill top Nazis, including Berlin’s “hanging judge,” Roland Freisler, who was sitting in his courtroom conducting a trial of conspirators who’d attempted to kill Hitler the previous July. The roof fell in on him, literally.
In some sense, what the bombing mission did to Hitler was almost worse than killing him. They drove him underground.
The government quarter of Berlin, already pounded by previous air attacks, was now a smoldering shambles. The February 3, 1945, attack destroyed Gestapo headquarters on Berlin’s Prinz-Albrechtstrasse—previously untouched by the war. Germany’s Air Ministry was left ablaze. The original Reich Chancellery, a neo-Baroque structure dating to Bismarck’s days, still appeared almost undamaged when viewed from the front but had been totally smashed on the inside. The new Reich Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer, sustained bomb damage.
Debris and rubble were strewn everywhere, smoke emerged from government buildings, and bomb craters holed the streets. Hitler was now forced to move permanently into the Führer Bunker located beneath the garden of the New Reich Chancellery. The Führer would see daylight again on only two occasions for the remaining weeks of his life.
According to a U.S. intelligence document from the period, more than 10,000 people were killed on the ground. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. In the government quarter, water was available only from water carts positioned near the Chancellery. Both the government quarter and large areas of Berlin were without electricity, or had it only intermittently. Transportation, utilities, and infrastructure were badly snarled.
The February 3, 1945, mission was the largest air assault on Berlin and the second largest of the war, involving almost 2,400 aircraft and 15,000 men on the American side. (A Christmas Eve 1944 mission by the Eighth Air Force used more men and aircraft against about a dozen separate targets). In some sense, this appearance by B-17s over Berlin was a metaphor for the larger bombing campaign, its results, and the ongoing debate over its effectiveness.
At the time, leaders like Spaatz and Doolittle believed that high-altitude daylight precision bombing was extremely effective. A postwar analysis demonstrated that the bombing was far less accurate than believed at the time. Yet the air campaign tied up tens of thousands of German troops and airmen and several thousand German aircraft that might otherwise have been used against Allied ground forces on both the Eastern and Western Fronts.
Although German industry increased its output during the war—the result of gearing up from a peacetime economy—the bombing had a huge impact on factories, airfields, railways, storage centers, and especially Germany’s capability to produce and refine petroleum.
So did the mission achieve its intended purpose, which was to facilitate the Red Army’s advance toward the German capital? There is no way to accurately measure, but the disruption of activity in Berlin had to help the Soviet forces as they closed in. The postwar Strategic Bombing Survey found that this mission, and others, also eroded citizen morale. Unlike the British during the Blitz of London, residents of Berlin did not gather new strength from being attacked. Instead, they blamed their own institutions, including the Army, the Luftwaffe, and their Führer.
When this giant air battle over and around Berlin ended and the planes came home, there was a final postscript for the crew of, the B-17G-75-BO (43-38031/VN-M) Blue Grass Girl, piloted by 1st Lt. Lewis Kloud of the 486th Bombardment Group. It was testimony to the fickle nature of war.
Every man on Kloud’s crew was flying his 35th mission, the magic number that meant a ticket home. These nine B-17 crew members had defied flak, fighters, and fate and were almost home from their last flight, never touched by the Germans. All looked forward to receiving certificates signed by Doolittle making them members of the “Lucky Bastard Club”—men who’d completed their tour of duty and would now be able to go home. To celebrate this triumph, a member of the crew of Blue Grass Girl grabbed a Very pistol and began firing colored flares out the waist-gun hatch.
The Kloud crew had reason to celebrate. They pulled away from the target. They crossed Europe, crossed the North Sea, crossed the English Channel, and within minutes they would be putting down their landing gear. That’s when crewmembers in a nearby B-17 looked at Blue Grass Girl and saw that it was on fire.
One of the flares had gone off inside the plane. Only two of Blue Grass Girl’s nine crew members were able to jump before the bomber crashed and exploded in a field near Southwold, England––the last casualty of the largest mission by B-17s to Berlin.
This article by Robert F. Dorr originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.