Book: Hell's Angels

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“A CHARMED LIFE, MAYBE”

EHLE REBER, ALTHOUGH SCHEDULED to fly on the January 3 mission to St. Nazaire, never got airborne. “As I sat there waiting to join in taxiing for takeoff, I suddenly heard a loud explosion.” Stunned, Reber checked his engine instruments and rubbernecked over the rest of the aircraft as best he could from the cockpit. The engines seemed to be operating normally, and from where he sat there was no indication of what was wrong. “I looked at the tires and they were OK and then the smoke came filtering up front. It was gun smoke.”

Reber went to the back of the ship, where he found two of his gunners bleeding as they exited the aircraft. One of the waist gunners, Victor Hand, had inadvertently fired five .50-caliber rounds into the bomber. “He did not have it pointed out of the window at the time. It was in its carrying rack so that when it went off it tore several large holes in the rear door, went through some armor plating, through the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. It caused more damage than any raid I’ve been on.

“I was supposed to have flown Lt. [Frank] Saunders’ position. He took my place when I failed to get off. That’s the second time the plane that took my place on a raid has been shot down. A charmed life, maybe—huh. In the evening we had a party at the Club. Everyone was out of this world and forgot their sorrows.”

Reber’s recollections also confirm that the group’s crews were well aware of the beating they were taking. “The 303rd has now lost 25% [emphasis in original] of its air echelon in two months of operational flying. Nine crews and 11 airplanes, including Hayes [who was temporarily interned after mistakenly landing in the Irish Free State]. However, he should be back one of these days. Rapid turnover.”

The group’s experience to that point indicated the need for a modification to the B-17’s defensive armament: “It is apparent that the B-17 is in dire need of a nose gun or turret of some kind,” wrote Reber. “The enemy planes can come in from level at about 10:30 to 1300 [from head-on and slightly to either side] and can pound the fortresses unmerciful[ly] without accurate fire being placed upon them.”

The top turret, although it could be aimed directly ahead, could not depress its guns enough to bring them to bear against these sorts of attacks. The ball turret likewise was limited, as described by Reber: “Lower turret gun cuts out here when bomb bay doors are open and also for the props so it has only a small area it can come directly to the front, but only to the side and forward about 45o.” Various ad hoc nose gun arrangements were tried at the time but were not especially effective. Something more and better was needed.

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AS THE EIGHTH’S raids grew in size, one of the problems the pilots encountered that hadn’t been carefully considered previously was that of prop wash. This was the wake, or disturbed air, an aircraft created as it motored through the sky. The bigger the aircraft, the greater the prop wash. It could cause trailing ships to be rocked, or tipped, or otherwise thrown off course. Staying in tight formation while dealing with prop wash was not only difficult, it was dangerous.

This danger was underscored during the mission to Lille on January 13, 1943. “The mission was extra tough,” recorded Ehle Reber, “because of the continual prop wash of the group [306th] ahead of us. In fact it was so bad that two 17s collided in mid-air just ahead of me and the one plane broke in two and they both went down. It was really a horrible sight to see. Some parachutes were seen to come from the plane.”

The effects of prop wash—which descended below the elevation of the aircraft that created it—could be mitigated by increasing the lateral or vertical separation between aircraft and groups of aircraft. This was effective, but it dissipated the defensive firepower against enemy fighter attacks. Too, such offset formations were more difficult to maneuver and they also made it difficult to achieve tight bomb hit patterns. Ultimately, a blend of formation arrangements and spacing helped reduce the problem, but it was never completely eliminated and it vexed aircrews until the end of the war.

The 303rd’s only casualty on the raid to Lille was not due to enemy action. “Stock’s [Donald Stockton] tail gunner [Paul Ferguson] died from lack of oxygen on the trip,” recorded Reber. “He pulled out of formation over the Channel and hurried to the field in an effort to save him but the lack of oxygen and the extreme cold temperature was too much and he died.”

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VIRTUALLY NONE OF THE 303RD’S men knew or cared, but at the time the unit first started flying missions, the strategy behind those missions was being questioned at the highest levels of Allied leadership. As early as America’s entry into the war, Great Britain’s political and military leaders expressed doubts that the United States could successfully prosecute a daylight precision bombing campaign against Germany. The RAF had already tried—and failed miserably—to bomb Germany by day. Although the intensity of their insistence varied, many of Great Britain’s leaders were very keen to have the USAAF join the RAF in its night bombing operations.

Indeed, during mid-September 1942—a month after the Eighth’s inaugural raid and the same month that the 303rd arrived in England—Churchill wrote, “It is a great pity that General Arnold does not try first to send us two or three hundred of his big American bombers to expand our Bomber Command, after they have been adapted to night fighting. Failing this, he should send us as many American squadrons as he can to operate from this country, and teach them to fly by night. So far, his day bombing operations have been on a very petty scale.”

Certainly Churchill was correct when he observed that the size of the American raids was trifling; creating an organization as large and powerful as the Eighth Air Force would eventually become could not happen overnight. Indeed, when the 303rd started operations during November 1942, it was one of only four USAAF heavy bombardment groups available to Eaker. Other groups already part of, or slated for, the Eighth were being sent or diverted to North Africa to support TORCH, an operation that Churchill heartily supported.

At the time, the Eighth had been flying operations for only a few months. Although the missions were small and failed to inflict crippling damage or even to touch Germany, they did give an indication of the potential of daylight precision bombing. From them could be extrapolated what might be possible once the planned force was in place and missions of hundreds, or even a thousand or more, bombers were launched.

Some among the British, to include Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal and Assistant Chief of the Air Staff John Slessor, did indeed come to recognize the potential of daylight precision bombing. Or at the very least, they believed that the Americans ought to be given a chance to try it. In fact, during mid-December 1942, Slessor wrote a draft intended for Churchill: “No one can say for certain until it has been tried—and tried repeatedly.” He also offered: “And they will only learn from their own experience. In spite of some admitted defects—including lack of experience—their leadership is of a high order, and the quality of their aircrew personnel is magnificent.”

But still, Churchill outranked everyone else in Great Britain, and Arnold and Eaker worried that he might convince Roosevelt to order the USAAF to transition to night operations. In fact, alarm bells went off when Eaker received a message on January 13 ordering him to travel from England to Morocco and report to the Casablanca Conference. It read, in part: “Conference involves method of air operations from United Kingdom.”

Arnold traveled to Casablanca from the States and was there when Eaker arrived on January 15. The two men, among other ranking American staffers, confirmed that Churchill did indeed plan to pressure Roosevelt on the daylight bombing issue. It was decided that the best defense was a good offense, and Eaker prepared a one-page statement for the prime minister together with a larger, more detailed report. Eaker’s paper minced no words and listed a number of reasons why the USAAF should conduct operations during the daytime. The finishing argument opened with the following sentences: “Day bombing is the bold, the aggressive, the offensive thing to do. It is the method and the practice which will put the greatest pressure on Germany, work the greatest havoc to his wartime industry and the greatest reduction to his air force.”

Eaker had an audience with Churchill on January 20 during which the prime minister read his paper. One of its points was that—with the RAF flying missions at night and the USAAF conducting operations during the day—Germany would be, at least notionally, under continuous attack. This idea of “around-the-clock” bombing resonated with Churchill. He said to Eaker, “Young man, you have not convinced me you are right, but you have persuaded me that you should have further opportunity to prove your contention.” The Prime Minister declared that he would “withdraw my suggestion that U.S. bombers join the RAF in night bombing.” The notion was never seriously raised again.

So at Casablanca it was made substantially clear that the Americans were to be left unmolested—at least by their allies—to execute a strategic daylight bombing campaign against Germany. But in addition, the British and Americans agreed in principle to better coordinate their efforts. Tacit accords were reached to form what became known as the Combined Bomber Offensive. Shortly after, the British articulated the goals of the Combined Bomber Offensive in what became known as the Casablanca Directive:

The progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened. Every opportunity to be taken to attack Germany by day to destroy objectives that are unsuitable for night attack, to sustain continuous pressure on German morale, to impose heavy losses on German day fighter force and to conserve German fighter force away from the Russian and Mediterranean theatres of war.

Officially, it was the basis for the subsequent combined Anglo-American air offensive against Germany. In reality, it was a mutual permission slip for the two nations to prosecute the air war however they wanted. It would be several more months until they directed their combined efforts on a more focused objective.

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THE ME-109 AND FW-190 were the primary fighters the Luftwaffe used against the Eighth Air Force through the entire war. The Me-109 was the most produced fighter in history, with nearly thirty-four thousand examples built from 1935 to 1945. Introduced to combat for the first time during the Spanish Civil War, it was fast, nimble and relatively easy to fly, although its narrow-tracked landing gear caused considerable losses during takeoff and landing. A small aircraft with a very cramped cockpit, it was continuously modified and improved.

Risking pilots and wasting resources to engage the big American bombers with inadequate firepower was foolish. Consequently, many of the improvements were to the Me-109’s armament that, in various versions, ranged up to 30-millimeter cannons, although 20-millimeter cannons were more commonly used. Rockets were also tried, although they were heavy and limited the aircraft’s maneuverability when compared to American fighter escorts. Fitting the Me-109 with big enough weapons to deal with the bombers while preserving enough performance to defend itself against the American fighters was a challenge for which the Germans never developed a good solution.

Although the design was showing its age during the latter stages of the conflict, the Me-109 was still capable of meeting the best American fighters on near-equal terms when flown by a competent pilot. And it continued to kill bomber crews to the end of the war.

The FW-190 was a newer design than the Me-109 and was in many ways superior. It was easier to fly, offered the pilot better visibility, was more maneuverable and generally carried more armament. In fact, Adolf Galland, the commander of the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm and an Me-109 pilot for much of his career, proposed to end all Me-109 production in favor of the FW-190. His pitch was not accepted.

The FW-190’s chief shortcoming was that its performance dropped off at the high altitudes where the USAAF’s heavy bombers typically flew. This was not a critical fault so long as its pilots had the time and freedom to climb into an advantageous position from which to attack. However, they were at a disadvantage if bounced by American fighters.

Like the Me-109, the FW-190 was greatly modified throughout the war. One particular variant, the Sturmböcke, was especially armed and armored as a heavy bomber destroyer. The most dramatic change to the FW-190 was the replacement of the BMW 801 radial engine with a more powerful inline Junkers Jumo 213 engine that gave the FW-190D a “long nosed” look. Again, similar to the Me-109, the FW-190 was capable against the best American fighters when flown by a good pilot.

The Luftwaffe also used multiple types of twin-engine aircraft against the USAAF’s heavy bombers, to include the Me-110, the Me-210, the Me-410 and the Ju-88. Although typically slower than the Me-109 and the FW-190, they generally carried bigger, harder-hitting weapons such as rockets. On the other hand, they were bigger targets and were more manpower-intensive as they were typically crewed by two or more men. Additionally, their larger size and multiple engines made them more expensive. Their use against the USAAF’s heavy bombers was significantly curtailed as the American fighter escorts—to which they were easy prey—grew more prevalent and capable later in the war.

Although the character of air combat aboard the bombers could be appallingly gruesome, the nature of the fighting between the combatants was most often starkly impersonal. Men were generally killed from long range rather than at close quarters. An American bomber crew might straggle out of formation and perish in a burning aircraft miles from where a German fighter attacked it. And flak gunners firing through overcast skies might never know they had scored. Likewise, German pilots were sometimes killed as they streaked through the bomber formations, yet the gunners had little or no indication of their success. And of course, the bomber crews—unless they were shot down—never saw the effects of their missions up close.

But occasionally the fighting offered more human and personal perspectives. George Ashworth, a radio operator with the 427th Bomb Squadron, recalled an aerial clash during which he was reminded that he and the men he was fighting shared human characteristics. “A Ju-88 was going down so close that I could see the rear gunner’s face. He looked as scared as I was.”

And Russell Ney recalled an escorting fighter pilot joining the formation during a bomb run. Fighter pilots—enemy and friendly—normally distanced themselves from the bombers as they approached the target, because the flak was so intense. “He slowed to our airspeed, rolled his canopy back and waved to us.”

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