Book: Hell's Angels

Previous: “Could We Keep It Up?”
Next: “You Could Have Heard a Pin Drop”


AS THE EIGHTH AIR FORCE expanded through the summer of 1943, its planners explored various ideas for how to use it; it was critical to extract as much effectiveness as possible from the burgeoning force. Henry Arnold, President Roosevelt and the American people demanded it. At the same time, it was essential to prosecute the objectives of the Combined Bomber Offensive and POINTBLANK.

Thus was born the notion of a simultaneous strike to Regensburg and Schweinfurt. Regensburg was a primary manufacturing center for the Me-109, and Schweinfurt produced most of Germany’s ball bearings. Aside from the obvious disadvantage to the Luftwaffe if Regensburg’s Me-109 plants were smashed, USAAF planners also theorized that Germany’s war industries would be brought to their knees if Schweinfurt’s ball-bearing facilities were destroyed.

The scheme for the mission was relatively complex and had the look and feel of a “trick play.” Eaker was not an advocate of the idea but was pressured—presumably by Arnold—to carry it out. “We were pushed into this before we were ready,” he later said, “and I protested bitterly.” Eaker’s chief worry was that the participating forces would not be large enough to penetrate so deeply into Germany without suffering outsized losses.

The plan was for one group of 146 B-17s, led by Curtis LeMay, the commander of the 4th Bombardment Wing, to attack Regensburg. Then, rather than turning back for England, the formation was to continue south and cross the Mediterranean to USAAF bases in Algeria. A second formation composed of 230 Schweinfurt-bound B-17s was to follow closely behind along much the same route. The hope was that they would be unmolested during that brief period when—having spent their fuel and ammunition during attacks on LeMay’s force—the defending German fighters would be regrouping on the ground. Too, it was hoped that LeMay’s unexpected track to the south, concurrent with the second group’s approach from the north, would confuse the German defenders. After being canceled on August 7, the mission was scheduled for August 17, 1943; it was the one-year anniversary of the first mission to Rouen.

As it often did, weather upended the Eighth’s plans. Fog and low clouds mantled most of England, and LeMay’s takeoff was delayed more than an hour. However, the Schweinfurt force, instead of taking off soon after LeMay, did not get airborne until more than three hours later. That interval was more than sufficient for the Luftwaffe to savage LeMay’s formation and subsequently land, refuel, rearm, attend to biological imperatives and prepare for the Schweinfurt bombers.

The result was predictable and horrific. Fighter escorts took LeMay’s bombers as far as the German border, but from that point the B-17s were left to the Luftwaffe. During a ferocious running battle that lasted ninety minutes, approximately fifteen bombers from the Regensburg force were knocked down by fighters prior to reaching the target. Another nine B-17s—already damaged for the most part—crashed after hitting the target.

It was long after LeMay’s formation dropped its bombs on Regensburg when Robert Williams, the commander of the 1st Bombardment Wing, led the Schweinfurt-bound force over the continent. As with the Regensburg force, Luftwaffe fighters were waiting for the B-17s when the escorting P-47s, low on fuel, turned for home. Not only were the German units that had attacked LeMay’s formation refueled, rearmed and ready, but so were additional units that were raised in anticipation of hitting the same bombers as they returned to England. However, LeMay’s force hadn’t turned back, but instead was on its way across the Mediterranean. Consequently, the Schweinfurt-bound B-17s became the sole focus of the German fighter pilots.

The 303rd was part of that effort. Eddie Deerfield, aboard the Iza Vailable with the rest of the Robert Cogswell crew, remembered when the P-47s wagged their wings in salute before leaving the bombers. “There were deadly Me-109s and FW-190s joined by the relatively cumbersome Me-110s and Ju-88s. The Germans were throwing everything they had at us.” Only moments later a cannon round holed Iza Vailable’s right wing, barely missing the fuel tanks. Another smashed into the number two engine.

The fighting continued all the way to the target and its savagery was confirmed by Deerfield:

The box formations out on the far left and far right seemed to be getting most of the attention, and Fortresses were falling everywhere. As they dropped out of the protection of the formation, the enemy fighters roared in for the kill. Parachutes started peppering the sky as American airmen jumped from their burning B-17s; what sickened me to the point of tears was the Fortresses that exploded in mid-air, giving the crews no chance of escape.

The 303rd, in two separate formations, was toward the rear of the attacking force. The route was marked by the white blossoms of parachutes and by the orange-and-black pyres of burning aircraft. In fact, twenty-nine aircraft from the 1st Bombardment Wing were knocked down on the way to the target. As the formation approached Schweinfurt, it was apparent that the raid had degenerated into chaos. The bombs from earlier groups were scattered across a broad area, and clouds of dust and smoke obscured the three separate ball-bearing plants. German smoke generators further degraded the visibility. Still, Kirk Mitchell, the pilot of the 303rd’s lead aircraft, declared that he saw the target at a distance of twenty miles and that the group’s bombing accuracy was outstanding. “I’m not making any excuses for that one,” he said. “We really knocked holy hell out of the place.” That the group achieved such results is all the more remarkable because Mitchell’s bombardier was hit by flak. Only the navigator’s quick reflexes and good sense got the bombs away before it was too late.

German fighter crews, as described by Deerfield, renewed their attacks as the bombers turned for England: “Then the Me-109s and FW-190s swooped in again. Our aircraft suffered no hits on the return journey, but B-17s in other formations were being pounded unmercifully. It was a bloody reenactment of the inbound flight as American parachutes filled the air and more B-17s plunged to earth or became fireballs.” The Germans knocked down nine more bombers during the retreat. The carnage only ceased when P-47s met the bombers over Belgium.

The final reckoning revealed a debacle unlike anything the Eighth had ever experienced. In fact it was the greatest beating that any American raid had ever sustained. The mission cost the Eighth 60 aircraft—24 from the Regensburg force, and 36 from the formation sent to Schweinfurt. It was a 19 percent loss rate. Crew losses were tallied at 552 men killed or captured. Salt in the wound was the fact that the battle was so lopsided. Although the bomber crews put in claims for 288 enemy aircraft shot down, actual German fighter losses—at 27—were less than a tenth of that. And only 16 enemy pilots were killed. The Luftwaffe had had a very good day.

The bombing results were mixed. The Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg was well and truly plastered. However the capacity was quickly reconstituted both on-site and at dispersed locations. This notion of relocating manufacturing capability to smaller, not easily bombed shops—rather than massive factories—was one that the Germans began to practice with vigor in the coming months. In reality, the Regensburg raid did not have much of a practical impact; the Luftwaffe was not forced to curtail operations because it lacked aircraft.

Definitively determining the impact of the Schweinfurt raid was more difficult. Although many of the groups dropped their bombs far from their targets, the different plants did sustain some damage. Estimates ran to as much as 34 percent of capacity. However, the Germans dipped into existing stocks while they rebuilt their factories. Ball-bearing supplies from Sweden also mitigated the effects of the strike. Ultimately, the raid did not achieve the effects that the USAAF’s planners had hoped for.

There was no sugarcoating such middling results against the gruesome outlay in men and machines. Nevertheless, the 303rd played little part in paying the butcher’s bill. The group lost no aircraft. Jack Timken, the pilot of the 358th Bomb Squadron’s Sky Wolf said, “There was a big air battle going on. I saw my first enemy plane go down and there were plenty of them going down. It wasn’t any rougher than the Ruhr for me, thank God.”

Why the 303rd was spared when so many other groups were brutalized is open to speculation. It might have been that its position toward the rear and the center of the formation made it less vulnerable compared to other groups that were more exposed. Or perhaps its pilots flew tighter formations; aircraft grouped closer together put up more concentrated defensive gunfire and were consequently less liable to be attacked. Or it could be that the 303rd was simply lucky on that particular day.

That Arnold—the USAAF’s chief—was flummoxed by what his forces in Europe could or could not do is evidenced by what he recorded in his memoirs soon after the war: “Could we keep it up? . . . To this day, I don’t know for certain if we could have. No one does.”

Yet, despite the slaughter the Eighth endured that day, it was apparent that the USAAF’s leadership believed that its bomber crews could defend themselves against concentrated enemy fighter attacks. An example was the mission to Stuttgart three weeks later on September 6, 1943. During that raid 45 of 338 bombers—again, unescorted—were chopped out of the sky. Worse was to come.

*   *   *

ROBERT COONEY WAS A TAIL gunner and part of the 303rd’s original cadre. Consequently, he flew many of the group’s most dangerous missions, to include the first raid to Schweinfurt on August 17, 1943. He was young, and one particular recollection put his age—and that of his peers—in context. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Brigadier General Robert Travis, the commander of the 303rd’s parent command, the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing. “The general had been a friend of my father for many years and when he was presenting it to me, he said, ‘Bob, I should be giving you your high school diploma; you are the youngest man that I have ever awarded the Cross to.’ I was 19 at the time.”

The 303rd’s target on August 19, two days after the raid to Schweinfurt, was Gilze-Rijen, in the Netherlands. Although the group didn’t lose a single aircraft during the splendidly tragic raid to Schweinfurt, the men were nevertheless somewhat rattled and more than ready for a milk run. Gilze-Rijen looked as if it would fit the bill as the route was relatively short and did not penetrate Germany. Certainly the men did not believe that the ferocity of the defenses at Gilze-Rijen would equal what they had endured on their way to Schweinfurt and back.

The raid was to be Louis Moffatt’s first. In fact, he wasn’t a trained crewman, but rather was the 359th’s assistant engineering, or maintenance, officer. He had asked permission on August 10 to go on a raid as an observer. In his request, he outlined why he believed it was important for him to go on a combat mission: “As [the] Assistant Engineering Officer, I should like to observe airplane and engine performance on extended high altitude formation flights and to observe what troubles are encountered with oxygen systems and electrically heated clothing.” In order to dispel the notion that Moffatt’s request was a gutsy lark, his command endorsed his request with the following statement: “The interest of the Government is the dominant and controlling factor in this request.”

In truth, Moffatt probably could have gotten all the information he needed simply by debriefing with the crews. But he was like many of the support men; through choice or chance they were not selected to fly in combat. Nevertheless, either to satisfy a sense of adventure, or mindful of how they might reply after the war when asked about their experiences, many of them made requests similar to Moffatt’s.

Indeed, there are stories of men—cooks, clerks, mechanics, etc.—who went on missions as stowaways, or who were allowed onboard, outside of official channels, by crews who were sympathetic to their cravings “for some action.” These accounts are probably apocryphal. First, it is very unlikely that a pilot would risk disciplinary action, and his career, by allowing an untrained man aboard his ship for a combat flight. Additionally, an extra body would have simply been in the way. During combat, there was no advantage in having someone aboard the ship that was not only in the way, but who also required special care and attention. Finally, if an aircraft was shot down with a stowaway aboard, it is likely that the man would have been listed as a deserter; there would be no way to know that he had been airborne on a mission.

The takeoff and assembly went well, and none of the 303rd’s twenty aircraft aborted en route to the target, which was a German airdrome and its storehouses. However, sun glare and haze conspired to stymie the crews sent against it that day. The lead group failed to find the target and did not drop its bombs. When the rest of the wing gave up on the mission, the 303rd turned back for another try. It likewise was unsuccessful, although half the crews released their bombs, likely in frustration.

Alone after their desperate try, the 303rd’s crews finally headed home. It wasn’t long before the group was attacked by a formation of approximately thirty German fighters. After-action reports remarked on the aggressiveness of the enemy pilots, noting that the crews had never seen enemy fighters come so close during their firing runs; this, two days after the Schweinfurt raid. The B-17 piloted by James Nix was hit in the wing and caught fire. Likewise, the nose of the ship was hit and the bombardier was trapped by an oxygen fire. The ship exploded and killed four of the crew, including Nix, but not before seven of the men, including Moffatt—who had gone on the mission “to observe what troubles are encountered with oxygen systems and electrically heated clothing”—bailed out. These men were made POWs.

Aside from Nix’s ship, eleven aircraft were hit by light but accurate flak near Antwerp. One of them, Stric Nine, of the 427th Bomb Squadron, was knocked down. Only four of the ten-man crew survived to become POWs. Of the dead, four bodies later washed ashore and were buried in Dutch cemeteries.

The result of the day’s mission was that the 303rd lost two of twenty aircraft on a short mission to a wholly unremarkable target. It was a bitter irony when compared to the group’s experience during the horrifying mission to Schweinfurt two days earlier. The caprice of providence in the skies over Europe was mystifying.

*   *   *

RECON, THE 427TH’S MASCOT, had been smuggled to England by William Nelson in his “A” bag when the group made the move aboard the Queen Mary the previous year. The effects of the rattlesnake bite she had sustained while protecting Nelson at Alamogordo were long gone, and she had little trouble making canine friends in her new home. She whelped a litter of pups during the spring of 1943.

Previous: “Could We Keep It Up?”
Next: “You Could Have Heard a Pin Drop”