ALL THROUGH THE FIRST HALF of 1942 the Americans and British toyed with various notions for invading Europe. The Americans were anxious to get forces on the continent as early as that year, but British leaders rightly counseled that such a move was premature as there was no way that they or the Americans would have the necessary material, shipping or trained personnel. And certainly the Luftwaffe could not be neutralized in time for an invasion during 1942.
The focus subsequently shifted to a joint invasion of Northwest Africa by American and British forces. It was intended to achieve several objectives. Most obvious, it would put strong Allied forces to Rommel’s rear. Further, it would force the Germans to pour more resources into a secondary theater when they were desperately needed for the fight against the Soviets. Additionally, it would provide an opportunity for the British and Americans to practice and refine joint operations that might be subsequently adopted for the eventual invasion of Europe. Finally, it would be a test; American troops would be blooded for the first time in a major operation against the Germans. There was keen interest at home and abroad in how they would perform.
Of course, the operation—eventually codenamed TORCH—required significant air cover. All eyes turned to the only organization that could provide it: the Eighth Air Force. Consequently, during the late summer and the fall of 1942, just as they were readying to launch their strategic air campaign, Spaatz and Eaker were ordered by Dwight Eisenhower, the commanding general of the European Theater of Operations, to give up many of their combat units as well as the material and manpower necessary to support them. Carefully trained bomber and fighter groups as well as vigilantly husbanded stores were earmarked to support the invasion of Northwest Africa. There was a real fear that the entire Eighth would be dismantled to support the newly burgeoning Twelfth Air Force. That fear was intensified when Eisenhower ordered Spaatz to take charge of the air component of TORCH. Eaker was given command of the Eighth Air Force but was uncertain that there would be anything or anyone left to command.
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AS THE 303RD’S AIRCREWS TRICKLED into Molesworth, the greenness of its men sometimes showed itself. Ehle Reber, who didn’t arrive until more than a week after Schulstad, recorded the movement of his flight from the RAF field at Sealand to Molesworth on November 2. “Haze again made landing rather difficult, but I was second in. Lt[s]. Stockton, Robey and Broussard fell behind and tagged on to another squadron of B-17Fs, thinking it was us and landed at Grafton Field about 10 miles from here. They should be here tomorrow.”
The unit diary entry for October 28 confirmed that the inexperience of the 303rd’s aircrews was shared by the support personnel: “The first battle scar was received by one of the planes of the group today. A guard shot a hole through plane 41-24581 accidentally while guarding the ship. Slight damage to the ship.”
As green as they were, the 303rd’s men readied for combat as quickly and as best they could. Their training included formation flying, familiarization flights, time in the Link instrument trainer and classroom instruction. Their counterparts in the Royal Air Force had already built and handed over Molesworth but were additionally helpful in sharing their expertise during classroom and other training. Ehle Reber had great respect for his British comrades. “One day a ME109 was seen coming over the field like a bat-out-of-hell several hundred feet off the ground. About a mile behind were two Spits. They finally caught the 109 about three miles away from the field and that was the end of Jerry. The R.A.F. are marvelous fighters after 3 years of experience and hell.”
The 303rd’s men also learned to adapt to life in wartime England. Reber went to Kettering with friends on the night of November 10. “The streets are absolutely void of light except for an occasional flashlite held by individuals. The lites were very dim and of course my flashlite let out a beam which was comparable to the beam of an average searchlight on the east coast of England. Consequently, the first time I flashed it, an old, bent, cane-aided Englishman gave me hell and so my lite wasn’t much help the rest of the night.
“We went to a dance at the George Hotel Regent Room,” continued Reber. “We were not too much impressed by the English girls so we spent most of the evening at the pubs. We started drinking raisin wine and were beginning to feel pretty good until someone found out that the wine was not intoxicating. We sobered up rather rapidly. We had a good time.”
In fact, because the Eighth Air Force was made up of so many young men with so much energy and ready cash, heavy drinking while on pass or furlough grew to be a serious problem, as indicated by a notice later promulgated by the 303rd’s higher command, the 1st Bombardment Division: “A recent survey of the serious crimes committed by American personnel in this area reveals that over ninety percent (90%) are committed while under the influence of liquor and that the rate of cases of drunkenness is increasing. The military police of this area are instructed to take immediate steps to arrest all American personnel found in a drunken condition. The policy of this Headquarters is to consider drunkenness a courts martial offense.” In reality, the policy was unenforceable as the USAAF didn’t have enough resources to pursue it.
Still, some men were prosecuted for bad behavior while drunk. For instance, Private First Class Walter Sandage of the 358th Bomb Squadron was charged with striking Private First Class Enrico Caruso of the 1114th Quartermaster Squadron in the head. Sandage pled not guilty but was nevertheless found guilty and subsequently reduced in rank to private, restricted to the base for a month and fined $15.
The USAAF was also especially serious about operational security during this time, and men were forbidden to identify their units to strangers or to say where they were based. And when in town, they returned to Molesworth on a bus or truck with a special name or designator as described in the 303rd’s Instruction 80-3, dated October 28, 1942: “An identifying name, such as the name of a state or city, will be given to the truck, and all personnel in it will be ordered to use only that name in attempting to locate or identify it.” Indeed, Reber recalled while on a pass that “Our truck was named Arkansas rather than calling out the name of the field for which the truck was heading.”
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THE 288 DAYS OF TRAINING since the 303rd’s formation earlier that year were finally put to the test on November 17. Orders came the previous night ordering the unit to join an attack scheduled against the German submarine base at St. Nazaire. There was a calm earnestness about the men as they performed their particular duties. Everyone pitched in, anxious for the first mission to be a success. Rosters were completed, aircraft were fueled and prepared, and bombs were loaded. The kitchen was made ready to cook the group’s first ever pre-mission breakfast.
There is no doubt that men went sleepless that night, but the brief the following morning went well, and the 303rd’s commander, Colonel James Wallace, called out crew names and aircraft assignments. The participating squadrons were to be the 358th, 359th and 360th. The men of the 427th were crestfallen to be left behind as reserve. More details were passed and the targets were reviewed. The primary target was St. Nazaire, while the secondary and tertiary targets were Keroman and Brest. The first of the group’s aircraft took off at 0923 and just more than ten minutes later all sixteen aircraft were assembling overhead the field.
While the bulk of the 303rd winged its way east on its first combat mission, the 427th was left behind to fly training operations. Ehle Reber highlighted how the men still made basic mistakes. “I had a good experience when I took off with the pitot tube covers on. As a consequence I had no airspeed indicator.” The weather was good, and Reber was able to use engine power settings and visual cues to land, remove the protective covers and take off again. Had the weather been foul, there was a good chance that he might have lost control and crashed. “Of course I gave the engineer hell for he was the one who told me the plane was OK and that the covers were off. One must be able to depend upon his crew for certain duties for there are so many on a Flying Fortress.”
While Reber was busy trying to stay alive and his fellow 427th crews were training, the group’s other three squadrons joined with forty-seven other heavy bombers that the Eighth was able to get airborne that day. But it was for naught. The target at St. Nazaire was obscured by clouds and the backup targets were left unmolested. The 303rd brought its bombs back to Molesworth. It was a huge disappointment.
Reber’s recollection was unkind and he called the raid “a complete flop.” He noted problems at the start of the mission that weren’t recorded in the official history: “There was a hell of a mix-up on takeoff and in general the show was SNAFU [Situation Normal All ‘Fouled’ Up]. Stockton and Robey of our outfit went along but turned back when guns failed to operate correctly. On top of that the group failed to find the target. Consequently they landed with all the bombs. Glad the 427th [his squadron] still has a clean slate. I understand we are to lead the raid in the morning on sub pens and docks at La Pallice, France. Here’s hoping it turns out better than today’s.”
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EARLIER THAT MONTH, on November 7, Mel Schulstad wrote a letter that made it clear he believed it would be some time before he saw combat. “Right now we are restricted pretty much in camp. General activity is pretty much the same as in the States. Of course, I can’t discuss air activity. You know from your papers how successful the Flying Fortress raids have been but I don’t suppose I will participate for some time.”
In fact he flew his first mission on November 18, the day the 303rd logged its second mission. It was also the first mission for Ehle Reber, the one he had hoped would turn out better than the raid of the previous day. The 303rd—again, led by its commander, James Wallace—latched onto another bomb group and followed it to St. Nazaire, where German fighters were ready and where the flak was heavy although not particularly accurate. There, the 303rd dropped its first bombs in anger. And although good hits were registered by the nineteen aircraft making up the formation, they were registered not only on the wrong target, but on the wrong city entirely.
Instead of St. Nazaire, the group was supposed to have hit La Pallice, a hundred miles to the southeast. It was a grotesquely amateurish mistake. Nevertheless, the group lost no aircraft and a safe return was made to England. Still, whereas the first mission on November 17 had been an anticlimactic letdown, the second on November 18 was simply embarrassing.
Reber made scant mention in his diary of the group’s gross navigational error, but rather concentrated on his own sortie. “We were to bomb La Pallice, but ended up by bombing St. Nazaire, yesterday’s target. Bombing was quite successful with several good hits noted on photographs. My plane registered several good hits and was thought to have started a fire.”
After a mission to Lorient, France, on November 22, the 303rd went back to St. Nazaire—on purpose, this time—on November 23. It was on this mission that the group suffered its first loss when the Arthur Reddig crew, in Lady Fairweather, was knocked into the Bay of Biscay by FW-190s. No bodies were ever found although four parachutes were spotted.
Aside from fighters, the enemy antiaircraft gunners also scored hits. And they scored some of them on Reber’s aircraft. “While over the target Lt. [Allan] Mitchell and I received quite a scare when a piece of shrapnel came tearing through the cockpit directly beneath our legs and came to rest beneath, one against my oxygen bottle. I picked the piece up and put it in my pocket.”
Harold Fulghum, the group’s lead navigator, did not return from the mission. “The story has it that the plane in which he was flying [Holy Mackerel] was hit by an ack ack shell which burst the hydraulic lines in the cockpit,” Reber recorded. “This fluid looks much like blood and it is thought that Harold thought that the pilot and copilot had been killed and before the bombardier could stop him he had jumped. It is thought that he was wounded for the nose of the plane had blood on it and also the door from which he jumped.” As it developed, Fulghum was captured and spent the remainder of the war as a POW—the 303rd’s first.
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WHILE EAKER SPENT much of his energy at the strategic and diplomatic level during late 1942, attention was additionally directed down to the individual combat units of his Eighth Air Force. Eaker couldn’t afford for his crews to be anything less than well prepared for combat. They were inspected for the state of their training, their discipline, their material readiness and their morale. The 303rd received a visit on November 29, 1942, after several days of inactivity due to weather. The inspection failed to impress Ehle Reber:
General [Newton] Longfellow and General Cater [Laurence Kuter] paid us a visit yesterday and as a result the post is confined for a week. It seems as though no one saluted him while he was here. Poor boy. I guess they are all childish. It’s a wonder he didn’t pull out a tire gauge and start checking the air in all the tires on the post. If we go on two or three missions and risk our lives every day and when we come down we don’t salute a general as he passes by in his car we get confined. Maybe we should arrange to take him on a couple of them. Maybe he would find out there’s a war going on. I’m pished [sic] off.
On this point, Reber was off the mark. Brigadier General Newton Longfellow did indeed know there was “a war going on.” In fact, he had flown a mission nearly three months earlier as an observer aboard Paul Tibbets’s aircraft on the 97th Bomb Group’s September 7 mission to Rotterdam. The ship, at the head of the formation, was attacked by fighters. A cannon round blasted into the right side of the cockpit, shattered the instrument panel, sprayed Tibbets with shrapnel and tore away the copilot’s right hand.
Longfellow came unglued and reached over Tibbets to take control of the aircraft. Tibbets wrestled with Longfellow and somehow kept the aircraft at the head of the formation while also staunching the flow of blood that gushed from his copilot’s body. Tibbets finally smashed Longfellow in the head with his elbow and knocked him unconscious. Almost at the same time an enemy round knocked the flight engineer out of the top turret and down atop Longfellow.
Longfellow regained consciousness and collected his wits. Soon after he calmly tended to both the copilot and the flight engineer then climbed into the copilot’s seat and helped Tibbets fly the aircraft back to England. Although his performance under fire on his first combat mission was panicked, Longfellow understood the terror of combat at least as well as Reber. And if he wanted to punish the 303rd for a lack of discipline—real or perceived—it was his prerogative to do so.
On the other hand, if Reber believed that Longfellow was not a great leader, he had a point. Longfellow replaced Eaker as head of VIII Bomber Command when Eaker was given command of the Eighth Air Force in December 1942. Longfellow had a tense, dyspeptic demeanor and, as a brigadier general, was known by his staff as “The Shouting Star.” Officious and dictatorial, Longfellow was the wrong man for the job. He did not perform to expectations and was later relieved of command.