Book: Hell's Angels

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“OUR FIGHTER SUPPORT WAS SPLENDID”

NO CITY IN THE WORLD boasted air defenses as powerful as Berlin’s. Its approaches were guarded by an array of day and night fighter bases, and the city itself was ringed and embedded with closely coordinated layers and pockets of heavy antiaircraft guns. As the seat of the Third Reich, the heart of Hitler’s power, it was considered the ultimate target—almost unassailable. Most aircrews from the early part of the 303rd’s combat career never came close to reaching the city.

But although it had never been attacked by day, the RAF had been bombing Berlin since 1940. Those attacks, like most the RAF mounted, were area raids intended to de-house and demoralize the population. The British raids continued for the next couple of years, but Berlin was much too big and well defended to be rubbled by the relatively small efforts. However, by late 1943, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command, believed that his force was big enough to bring Berlin to its knees, and with it, Germany. He ordered a series of raids that ultimately numbered sixteen from November 1943 to March 1944. His ambitions were grand: “It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.”

Actually, the tally Harris offered for his own aircraft losses was accurate. Bomber Command lost more than five hundred aircraft and suffered a loss rate of nearly 6 percent. Harris’s other prediction was not as accurate. Berlin and Germany were very much in the war during early March 1944, as the USAAF readied to make the first-ever large daytime air attack against the German capital.

An air raid against Berlin would tick a lot of boxes for the USAAF. Firstly, it would be good for morale back home. It would demonstrate that the sacrifices made in sons and brothers and husbands—and material—were not just hurting Germany, but were striking the very heart of the Third Reich. And just as it would be good for American morale, it would help to undermine German confidence. That the German leadership and military were unable to stop the USAAF would be obvious.

Moreover, Berlin encompassed a number of important target sets, including transportation, manufacturing, government and power generation. And perhaps just as critical, especially as the time for the invasion of Europe approached, was the fact that the Luftwaffe would be forced to defend Germany’s most important city. And, just as with ARGUMENT, if the German pilots came to fight, they could be killed. Dead men did not oppose invasions.

Everyone in the Eighth Air Force recognized that the first USAAF attack on Berlin would mark another turning point in the air war. In fact, Doolittle—the head of the Eighth Air Force—planned a stunt that was little more than stupid self-aggrandizement: “I wanted to be in on this first effort and have the honor of being the first air commander to lead a raid over all three Axis capitals. I planned to fly a P-51 with one wingman ahead of the bomber stream over the capital city.” As the head of the world’s most powerful strategic air force, it was a notion that bordered on theatric spectacle.

Doolittle met with his boss, Carl Spaatz, the head of the USSTAF. “I had my argument all prepared mentally and launched into it with gusto. Tooey finally gave in and reluctantly said I could go. However, just a day or so before departure, Tooey changed his mind and said he couldn’t afford to risk the capture of a senior officer who had knowledge of invasion plans.” Doolittle guessed that his scheme might have actually been spiked by Eisenhower, who recognized that there was little upside to the stunt.

The first daytime mission to Berlin was scheduled to be flown by Doolittle’s Eighth Air Force on March 3, 1944. That the USAAF was ready so soon after the losses sustained during ARGUMENT underscored the vast human and industrial underpinnings of the American war effort. However, notwithstanding the fact that the Eighth was materially prepared for a great, climactic air battle—and that it had the trained crews it needed—it exercised no control over the weather. And the weather forced the first American attack on Berlin into a series of stuttering false starts.

Vern Moncur was the pilot of the 359th Bomb Squadron’s Thunderbird. “The target was the ‘Big B.’ The weather was so bad that we were forced to climb to 27,000 feet over the North Sea and were unable to get completely out of the clouds and poor visibility. This excessive altitude took a lot of extra gasoline since we had been briefed to go in at 20,000 feet. Therefore, because of the weather and shortage of gasoline, we were unable to get to the target.”

After bombers crossed the North Frisian Islands, the decision was made to return to England. The 303rd, together with the other groups that comprised the huge formation, started a great, arcing turn. Moncur recalled: “On our turn around in the haze, two Forts [B-17s from the 91st and 94th Bomb Groups] collided and exploded in midair. It was quite a spectacular sight. The bombs in these two planes went off like a Fourth of July fireworks display. None of the crew had a chance of getting out of either ship because it happened so quickly. Even had they gotten out, they would have been no better off because they were out over the water when the accident took place.”

None of the Eighth’s bombers made it to Berlin that day.

The results were scarcely better the following day, March 4, when the Eighth sortied 502 bombers. Vern Moncur was at the controls of Thunderbird once more: “Again our target was Berlin, and again the weather forced us to go to 27,000 feet. Therefore, our briefed route was too long to allow for this added climb because of the possibility of running short of gasoline. Our combat commander decided to bomb a target of opportunity somewhere in Germany. We flew over the southern part of ‘Happy Valley’ and bombed Bonn, Germany. The flak was quite thick over the target, as it always was over the Ruhr Valley, and we were lucky to be flying as high as we were. We picked up a few flak holes, but all of them were small. There was no injury to any of the crew.”

Although twenty-nine bombers did find their way through the weather to dump their bombs on a Berlin suburb, the tremendous and decisive air battle that American planners had hoped to provoke failed to develop.

Doolittle waited two days before sending 660 bombers against Berlin on March 6. The Luftwaffe rose up in force, and the sort of air combat for which Doolittle and his staff had hoped was finally precipitated. Again, the 359th’s Vern Moncur was airborne in his trusty Thunderbird: “Our fighter support was splendid, and even though the Krauts kept ripping through other wings, our combat wing was rather lucky in not getting too many direct fighter attacks that seriously threatened us. We had a few passes made at us, but no one in our group was hurt much.”

Although their escort kept the enemy fighters away, it could do nothing about the flak that exploded all around the 303rd’s formation. It impressed Moncur: “Over the target it looked like the Fourth of July—flak bursting in red flashes and billowing out black smoke all around us. . . . It seemed almost thick enough to drop your wheels and taxi around on it. The Krauts were practically able to name the engine they were shooting at. We received hits in the No. 1 engine, the No. 2 engine and the No. 4 engine. . . . The horizontal stabilizer had a big hole shot through it, and the vertical stabilizer received a jagged hole in the top of it. We also picked up another hole in the right side of the fuselage, near the tail wheel. . . . A piece of flak came through the cockpit and cut the left sleeve of my leather flying jacket, but didn’t touch me.”

But for all their intensity, the air defenses around Berlin failed to knock down any of the 303rd’s bombers. Of this, Moncur was proud: “Our group established a record on this mission. We put up twenty-seven ships, and every one of them went across the target, and every one of them came back.”

In light of what happened elsewhere in the bomber stream that day, the 303rd’s achievement—or luck—was remarkable. In fact, the losses the Eighth sustained on March 6, 1944, were the worst in the USAAF’s history. When the last aircraft returned to base and the final count was made, it was determined that sixty-nine bombers had been shot down, mostly by enemy fighters. It was a loss rate that exceeded 10 percent. Other bomb groups were as unlucky as the 303rd had been fortunate; the 100th lost fifteen bombers, the 95th lost eight, and seven bombers of the 388th were shot down.

Doolittle got the fight he wanted, but the best result he could claim—and then only with some qualifications—was a draw. Bombing results through broken and scattered decks of clouds were poor. And although American fighter escorts claimed eighty-two enemy aircraft shot down, and the bomber gunners tallied an additional and certainly inflated figure of ninety-seven, these weren’t the breaking point numbers that had been hoped for.

This is especially true since the claims, as usual, were overstated. Even if it is generously assumed that half of the claimed 179 German aircraft were actually shot down—approximately 90 aircraft—it was typical that it took three “shoot downs” before a German pilot was killed. Consequently, it is apparent that the Eighth Air Force paid 69 heavy bombers and their crews to kill approximately 30 German pilots. Notwithstanding the boost to stateside morale, the battle was a Luftwaffe victory.

*   *   *

BOTH THE ALLIES and the Axis exaggerated the numbers of aircraft they shot down. This was sometimes done on purpose, but mostly it was due to the fact that air combat was a swirling maelstrom in which machines were destroyed and men were killed in mere seconds. And then more machines were destroyed and more men were killed in the following seconds. During fights that sometimes lasted tens of minutes—or in some cases for an hour or more—it was difficult to track everything that happened. This difficulty was exacerbated by rushes of adrenaline and by the fact that the fighting sometimes covered every quarter of the sky. And of course each individual took away his own version of what actually occurred.

This can be seen to have caused particular problems when it is considered that the USAAF’s bombers carried crews of up to ten men. And every man but the pilot and copilot had guns for which he was responsible. When an enemy fighter attacked a heavy bomber formation and was shot down, there might be a dozen or more men who reasonably believed it was they, personally, who destroyed it. Further, there were times when attacking fighters caught fire or shed parts and dived away, but managed to land safely. And the Me-109 belched clots of black smoke when the pilot advanced the throttle swiftly. This was sometimes mistaken by the gunners for mortal damage.

It was for these reasons—and more—that the heavy bomber crews grossly overestimated the numbers of aircraft they downed. Debriefing officers did their best to untangle conflicting and overlapping claims, but it was an impossible task. Everyone, even the gunners, knew and acknowledged that the numbers were inflated, but it was difficult to apply against the claims a metric that produced a realistic number. It was a problem that persisted through the war. Howard Hernan was a flight engineer and top turret gunner with the 359th Bomb Squadron, and he remembered the frustration felt by all:

I know that gunners made many claims and probably a lot of us got credit for planes that were not actually shot down. . . . In order to claim a fighter, you had to have two other witnesses. Heaven knows how many men were shooting at the same plane. Intelligence would ask for the exact location and it would sometimes take up to 45 minutes in interrogation if you were claiming an aircraft. By this time you were absolutely worn out, hungry, and trying to get warm, and it just wasn’t worth the effort. . . . Eventually, intelligence told us we were claiming too many fighters. From then on I never claimed another fighter, even if I knew I’d got it.

*   *   *

ANXIOUS TO KEEP THE PRESSURE on Germany, Doolittle sent the Eighth back to Berlin two days later, on March 8. The weather was clear, and for the first time since trying for the city on March 3, the target—the Erkner bearing works—was utterly smashed. The Americans put nearly six hundred bombers over the city and sortied more than a thousand fighters to escort them, including 174 of the newly arrived P-51s. Losses, at thirty-seven bombers, were heavy but not nearly as considerable as the previous mission.

Doolittle’s Destroyer, piloted by Leo McGrath, was downed by flak, but otherwise the mission was unremarkable for the 303rd. This is borne out by the comments of Kirk Mitchell, who led the mission that day: “I know it’s hard to believe, but we had absolutely no opposition at all. We saw 20 to 25 enemy fighters, but our P-38s and P-51s took care of them. The flak wasn’t worth mentioning [except to the McGrath crew!]. When we got to the target, it was completely covered with smoke and fire, so we dropped our bombs right in the middle of it. I doubt if there is even an outhouse left there.”

Leon Witherwax, Mitchell’s ball turret gunner, made a similar observation: “The only time I saw fighters was in dogfights. One FW-190 came in out of the sun on a P-38 and shot out his left engine. About that time two P-38s jumped the FW-190 and blew him to pieces. The other P-38 feathered his prop and flew home with us as far as the Dutch coast.”

The last of this particular series of raids to Berlin was flown the following day, March 9. Clouds obscured most of the assigned targets, and the Eighth’s aircraft scattered their bombs all over the region. The 303rd dropped its bombs through clouds and into the city generally. The Luftwaffe appeared disinterested, as only about twenty fighters were spotted. The Eighth lost eight bombers. The 303rd sustained no losses. It was an anticlimactic finish that neatly bookended the anticlimactic start of the missions on March 3. For the 303rd, the much anticipated series of attacks against the Reich’s most feared target was wholly unexceptional. The group lost one aircraft in five missions. Ironically, to that point, Berlin was one of the least lethal targets the 303rd had hit.

Ultimately, at some level, the Germans had a good grasp of their situation. Wartime reports correctly noted that their fighters, when employed in overwhelming numbers, were able to inflict real losses on the American formations. “Whenever weather conditions permitted the concentrated employment of all available forces in close combat formation in a single area, noteworthy success was achieved in bringing down enemy aircraft and in keeping our own losses down to a reasonable limit. The success of our defensive operations over Berlin on 6 and 8 March gave ample evidence of the fighting morale of our fighter crews and of their ability to carry on effective combat despite the technical inferiority of their aircraft, but such successes were not frequent enough to represent any threat to the American offensive forces.”

*   *   *

EDDIE DEERFIELD HAD ASKED to be removed from flight status during October 1943 pending the recovery of his injured pilot, Robert Cogswell. However, by the end of the year it was apparent that Cogswell would not be returning to combat duty. Consequently, in early January 1944, Deerfield asked to be returned to combat operations. After two months of administrative processing, the March 6 raid to Berlin marked his return. “We didn’t get so much as a scratch,” Deerfield said. “I subsequently flew seventeen more missions with four different crews, until my tally reached the magic number of thirty. The other crews were just fine, but I never felt as comfortable as when I had flown with Cogswell.”

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