Book: Hell's Angels

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“OUR FORCES ARE FIGHTING A HOPELESS BATTLE”

BY FEBRUARY OF 1944, Spaatz and Doolittle had more and better bombers available than ever before. Too, the USAAF’s fighter escorts were more numerous, more effective and more aggressive. Still, although more and larger missions were being flown deeper into Germany, the overarching objective of POINTBLANK—the destruction of the Luftwaffe—had not been achieved.

The notion of a great surge to achieve that goal—a concentrated all-out effort—had existed in various forms since November 1943. It envisioned a maximum effort including coordinated strikes between not only the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, but also RAF’s Bomber Command. By design, the raids, codenamed ARGUMENT, were intended to cause massive damage to various German manufacturing centers.

But perhaps as important, or even more important, was the supposition that the Luftwaffe would be compelled to defend against the raids. Allied intelligence indicated that the German daytime fighter forces were increasingly stressed. Indeed, administrative and support flights were curtailed in favor of fighter operations. At the same time, seasoned veterans were ordered to stay on operations for longer durations. For instance experienced pilots, who normally would have been sent to training units to get a break from the stresses of combat as they passed their expertise to neophytes, were kept on combat duty. And many of them were killed. Consequently, the quality of the Luftwaffe’s new pilots suffered while the ranks of their skilled men were inexorably thinned. Allied planners hoped that the German fighter arm, already under tremendous pressure, might be broken by ARGUMENT.

Accordingly, when it appeared that the weather would allow several consecutive days of operations, Spaatz ordered the effort to begin. The first missions in support of ARGUMENT were launched on February 20, 1944. The 303rd was in the thick of it and flew missions to Leipzig and Diepholz on February 20 and 21.

On February 22, the group put thirty-six bombers airborne early as part of the attack against the Junkers complex at Aschersleben. “This was the third mission in three days,” recalled Vern Moncur, the pilot of the 359th’s Thunderbird. “And we were plenty tired before we even started out.” Tragedy struck early as the group assembled after takeoff. Hell’s Angels II, piloted by John Stuermer, collided with a B-17 from the 384th Bomb Group, which was based out of Grafton-Underwood, only ten miles west of Molesworth. Hell’s Angels II was cut in half, and only the right waist gunner, David Miller, bailed out. Two crewmen from the 384th ship survived.

This accidental yet terrifying coming together of different bomb groups had a nickname. The crews called it “shuffling the deck.” Despite prescriptive procedures intended to prevent them, these tragedies continued throughout the war. They were inevitable when so many bomb groups were based so closely together. In fact, the bomber bases at Glatton, Kimbolton, Polebrook, Grafton-Underwood and Chelveston were all located within a dozen miles of Molesworth. That there weren’t more midair collisions between the groups is remarkable.

Aside from the loss of Hell’s Angels II, mechanical issues forced three aircraft to abort. The rest of the group was engaged by German fighters beginning over the eastern Netherlands at Nijmegen. Accurate flak harried the formation as it crossed the Ruhr and continued to the target.

German fighters exploited gaps in the fighter escort coverage: “Since weather conditions were favorable and high-altitude visibility good, our [German] assembly maneuvers were carried out smoothly and without interference from the enemy. Although, on the whole, the American fighter escort was a strong one, during the time from 1350 until 1415 the bomber formations were flying without escort. Thus our fighter aircraft, approaching from the north, were able to make repeated attacks on the bombers and succeed in bringing down a goodly number, while keeping their own losses to a reasonable minimum.”

The 303rd bore a share of those “repeated attacks.” William Werner was the tail gunner aboard the 427th’s Luscious Lady. The aircraft was under constant fighter attack for much of the run to the target. For his performance that day he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, one of only four awarded to men from the 303rd. His citation read, in part:

Before reaching the target Sgt. Werner was seriously wounded by a 20mm. shell. He realized that with most attacks being made from the tail the ship would be doomed unless a steady stream of fire was maintained from the tail gun[s]. In spite of his painful wounds he stayed at his post and destroyed at least one enemy fighter. Although wounded again by anti-aircraft fire and becoming weaker from loss of blood, he heroically stayed at his guns until all fighter attacks ceased before letting crew mates give him first aid.

Orvis Silrum was the right waist gunner aboard the Luscious Lady. “He [Werner] was able to crawl back to my position. I noticed he was not wearing his oxygen mask. I assisted him with my own mask and relocated him forward into the radio compartment where T/Sgt. Wayne Magner gave him first aid. I remained at both waist positions while the other waist gunner, S/Sgt. Sam Ross took over the tail gunner position.” As it developed, Luscious Lady made it back to Molesworth and Werner recovered. His recovery was due in some measure to the fact that his wounds froze and stopped him from bleeding to death.

The ship captained by Charles Crook was also hit hard. Much of the aircraft’s fuel escaped through a hole in one of the wings. As Crook considered his options, it became apparent that the aircraft wouldn’t make it back to England, or even to Sweden. Nevertheless, with no other good choices he turned west and descended. He did his best to keep the B-17 hidden in a deck of clouds, but the cover finally dissipated and he had no choice but to continue in clear skies. It wasn’t long before the crippled bomber was spotted by an FW-190 pilot.

“He came from below and at the rear,” recalled the engineer, Louis Breitenbach. “The rear guns were out and he was too low for the other gunners to shoot at. He gave us a burst of machine gun fire and the shells ripped through the ship. Our pilot [Crook] was doing some beautiful flying, but we were defenseless and the German came in from the left and to the rear again.”

Crook’s B-17 was doomed, and two of the crewmen bailed out. He ordered the rest of the men to stop firing and ready themselves for a crash landing. “We were all crouched down and waiting for the first bounce,” said Breitenbach. “It came and plenty hard. We bounced up into the air, came down again with a loud crash, and were sliding along the ground, taking fences and everything along with us. Things were flying all around inside the ship: ammunition, radio sets, flares, and boxes of all kinds.”

Broken, twisted and holed, the aircraft finally stopped. “The front of the plane was in the water of a pond and the tail was bent and pointing into the air,” Breitenbach said. “The pilot opened the window and crawled out of the plane. The bombardier had put on his parachute and was too nervous to get it off by himself. I helped him take it off as he was blocking the exit.”

As Crook’s crew struggled to clear the wreck that had been their aircraft, the FW-190 that knocked them down made a firing run. “There were still five of us in the plane and shells were hitting everywhere,” said Breitenbach. “A shell hit an ammunition box and they started to explode, adding to our discomfort. It was a miracle that no one was injured in any way. We finally managed to crawl out, the men in the radio compartment having to wade in knee-deep, ice-covered water to reach the embankment.”

All of Crook’s crew made contact with the Dutch underground, and all but two of them were repatriated back to the Allies. Breitenbach was not among them. He was captured by German soldiers several months later, during June.

While Crook’s crew was fighting for its life, the 303rd pressed eastward. The flak abated over the target, and the group made the best of it. Kirk Mitchell led the 358th, which was at the head of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing. He was very satisfied with the bombing results. “We weren’t bothered over the target and made a good bomb run. I think that we really smashed the place today.” George Angelo, the tail gunner aboard the 358th’s Connecticut Yankee made a similar observation: “The bombs were really in there this time. I only saw three hit outside the target. It was a beautiful sight.”

Notwithstanding the excellent bombing results, the 303rd’s crews still had to fight their way home. Not all of them were successful. George Underwood captained Satan’s Workshop. The aircraft was badly damaged by flak, and Underwood faltered at the French coast before making a play to get across the English Channel. It was an unfortunate decision. Unable to reach England, he ditched the aircraft in heavy seas. The ship hit hard and broke apart. The entire crew perished in the crash or drowned. Only three bodies were recovered.

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AFTER FLYING THREE big missions in succession, the 303rd, along with the rest of the Eighth Air Force, was grounded by weather on February 23. However, the group was at it again the next day when it hit Schweinfurt, and then again on February 25, the last day of ARGUMENT, when it was sent against Stuttgart.

The conclusion of ARGUMENT marked a turning point in the USAAF’s air war against the Luftwaffe. Whereas the American air campaign grew gradually stronger through 1943 and into 1944, ARGUMENT—or “Big Week,” as it came to be known—proved that the USAAF could go wherever it wanted, whenever it wanted. And from that point, it did.

The operation achieved a number of milestones, including, on February 20, a mission exceeding a thousand bombers; the massive effort hit twelve different targets. Throughout the week, operations were coordinated with the smaller Fifteenth Air Force—which was already hard-pressed to provide tactical support to ground operations in Italy—and with the RAF’s Bomber Command. The emphasis was against industrial targets, particularly various aircraft assembly and component manufacturing complexes.

Of particular note was the fact that the USAAF not only flew more sorties and dropped more bombs than the RAF’s Bomber Command, but it sustained a lower loss rate than its night-flying British counterpart. And it was more accurate. The American daylight precision bombing doctrine was vindicated. Additionally compelling is the fact that the Eighth Air Force—built by Eaker but commanded by Doolittle—dropped nearly as much tonnage during Big Week as it had during its entire first year of operations combined. The USAAF had finally become the force originally envisioned by American planners.

Still, the effort was not a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination. Rather it was a fiercely fought series of air battles during which the Allies sustained significant losses. The USAAF lost more than 250 bombers and their crews. Indeed, during the month of February, including Big Week, the Eighth Air Force alone lost 299 bombers—20 percent of its force. The 303rd’s losses—12 aircraft—were consistent with the Eighth’s loss rate.

On the other hand, aside from the damage sustained by German industry, the entire German Air Force lost one-third of its fighters and nearly 18 percent of its pilots during that same month. The loss rate among the units defending against the USAAF was much higher. The Luftwaffe, under assault from many fronts and failed by its leadership, was dealt a body blow by ARGUMENT. Although it would score occasional successes during the following year, its decline continued and it never again gained the upper hand.

German reports indicate that they understood how dire the situation was:

In number as well as in technical performance, the daytime fighter units assigned to German air defense activity are inferior to the American fighter aircraft forces. In spite of their demonstrated courage and their willingness to make every sacrifice for their country, in the long run our forces are fighting a hopeless battle. . . . The tactics presently employed by the German fighter units, i.e., going after the enemy bombers, should be revised and modified, since they are leading to heavy losses. Knowing that they need not fear an attack by the German fighter aircraft, American fighters are able to move into range and attack the German fighters from above. Because of our heavy personnel losses and the lack of sufficiently well-trained replacements, our daytime fighter forces are unable to maintain any degree of effectiveness in a lengthy combat. . . . Continuation of the present system is tantamount to the deliberate destruction of valuable personnel and materiel without hope of tangible results.

Of course, as noted by the Germans, much of the credit for the success of the effort went to the American fighter escorts. Although there were often planned and unplanned gaps in protection, they made it difficult for the Luftwaffe’s fighters to concentrate on the bombers. The P-47 was still the dominant fighter in the Eighth, and the increased range provided by extra internal fuel, external tanks and better tactics made a significant difference. Too, the long-range P-51 was increasing in numbers. The P-38 also had long legs and provided good protection, although it was trouble-plagued through much of its career in Northern Europe. Ultimately though, the American fighters dominated the Luftwaffe from ARGUMENT until the end of the war.

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FORREST VOSLER WAS RECOMMENDED for the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the mission to Bremen on December 20, 1943. As the recommendation wound its way through the USAAF’s bureaucratic machinations, Vosler, still crippled by his wounds and missing an eye, was released from the hospital.

However, George Buske barely clung to life. He was the critically injured tail gunner that Vosler saved from drowning after Jersey Bounce Jr. went into the North Sea. Shortly after he was evacuated to the Army hospital at Botesdale, Buske was put on the operating table again. His abdominal wound was hideously infected and much of the surrounding tissue was dead. It exuded a foul mix of digestive liquids and gas. The Army doctors cut away the rotten bits, cleaned the wound and additionally drained a large pocket of pus that had formed above the liver. The other two wounds had likewise turned empyemic and were cleared and cleaned. Still, there was little hope that the massive infections could be stemmed. It was likely that Buske would die.

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