Book: Hell's Angels

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“I WAS FINALLY FINISHED”

ALTHOUGH THE REQUIRED MISSION count—that is, opportunities to die—had been increased from twenty-five to thirty since he had stopped flying in combat, Eddie Deerfield returned to flight status on March 6, 1944, and flew sixteen more missions during the next two months. In that time a shot-out tail wheel on April 11 nearly ended in a catastrophic crash landing. And on April 24, during the Oberpfaffenhofen mission, the aircraft he was aboard was shot up so badly it nearly went into the North Sea. Deerfield had gone into the drink with the Cogswell crew several months earlier. “When the pilot told me to start sending SOS signals so that Air/Sea Rescue could fix our location, I thought to myself that there was no way I was going to be lucky enough to survive two ditchings; fortunately we made it back to England.”

The mission scheduled against Saarbrücken on May 11, 1944, was to be Deerfield’s thirtieth, and final, combat sortie. It was not the 303rd’s finest hour. Of the forty aircraft the group scheduled for the effort, three were badly damaged when the brakes on one failed and it collided with two others.

The 303rd’s remaining bombers made it to Saarbrücken, where enemy fighters were kept away by American escorts. But the escorts could do nothing about the flak, which was exceedingly accurate. That accuracy tested and broke Deerfield’s string of luck; shrapnel blew a hole through the radio compartment wall and metal splinters from the skin of the B-17 lacerated the left side of his face.

The 303rd made two abortive runs against the marshaling yards at Saarbrücken, but haze obscured the target and the radar equipment aboard the radar-equipped ships was shot up. Only a portion of the aircraft released their bombs, and the results were poor. Rather than make a third run through devastating antiaircraft defenses that had already hit every one of the group’s ships and sent one of them tumbling earthward in flames, the formation diverted to a target of opportunity—the marshaling yards at Völklingen—where the remaining aircraft dropped their bombs.

“It wasn’t until we were back over the North Sea and descending that I realized I had been hit,” Deerfield said. “My face was gashed just below my left eye, but at high altitude the wound froze almost immediately and there was no pain. It wasn’t until we got into warmer air that the cuts opened up and started bleeding. I called the pilot on the interphone to tell him I’d been hit.” An ambulance waited for Deerfield when his ship touched down. “I celebrated the completion of my thirtieth mission that night in the hospital,” he said. “I was finally finished.”

Milo Schultz remembered how the second run at Saarbrücken cost the lives of several of his 303rd comrades. “We turned at the I.P. and started our bomb run through very heavy flak. We ended by not dropping our bombs because [the] group bombardier [George Orvis] couldn’t see the target for late afternoon haze and smoke blowing down from the Ruhr. [The] Group made a 180 degree turn and came back without changing altitude into that horrendous anti-aircraft fire. We were flying alongside Captain Johnny Long. . . . One of our waist gunners saw his plane get a direct hit and go down. Johnny was killed along with several of his crew. I always remembered him because he slept at the far end of our barracks and he had a nude picture of a beautiful gal at his bedside.”

The bomber crews hated to make more than one pass over a target as they did that day over Saarbrücken. Doing so was virtually equivalent to flying two missions. Arguably it was worse as the antiaircraft gunners had time to fine-tune their firing solutions during the time between the first run and the second or third or later runs. The formation leaders were often compelled to make more than one pass when weather temporarily obscured the target, or when the lead bombardier experienced equipment failures or self-induced targeting miscues. And, as described by Warren Kotz, a navigator with the 427th, bomb runs were occasionally aborted when other bomb groups mistakenly flew into the way. This was the case during the mission to Abbeville, France, on July 10, 1943: “No bombs dropped from our group. Groups 379, 381 and 384 cut underneath our group so lead bombardiers didn’t drop bombs—SNAFU. We all saw target in our ship [and] could have bombed.”

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AS EFFECTIVE AS THE GERMAN antiaircraft fire was, it would have been more so had the USAAF’s fliers not developed tactics intended to foil it. Those tactics were built upon an understanding of how the flak guns worked and how they were employed. A training film solicited the men: “Let’s have a look at this flak business.” It subsequently described in very basic terms how a typical German antiaircraft gun worked: “The heavy gun destroys aircraft by using a time-fuzed shell to put a large explosive burst in the near vicinity of the target [aircraft].”

The men learned that it took approximately one second for an antiaircraft round to climb a thousand feet. For instance, if a shell was fired directly at a formation at an altitude of twenty-seven thousand feet flying at two hundred miles per hour, the formation would have traveled nearly two miles before the shell reached the point at which it was originally aimed. Accordingly the German gunners were compelled to lead—or aim ahead of—their targets. This was explained by the training film:

First the aircraft is picked up in an optical sight and held on the crosshair[s]. The sight keeps tracking it continuously, obtaining its direction and angular height while a stereoscopic range finder determines the altitude. At night or in bad weather the aircraft may be tracked solely by radar. Whether tracked by optical sight or by radar the information is fed by electric cable to a director. This mechanical quiz kid digests the data and automatically computes the right lead. Setting the guns so that they will fire not at where the target is now, but at where it will be at the end of the shell’s time of flight.

Exploiting this considerable time of flight was the key to survival for the American bomber crews. The Germans practiced a technique called continuously pointed fire wherein one or more batteries fired at a formation until it passed out of range. In heavily defended areas the formations often came into firing range of another set of guns, which received updated firing solutions. However, those updated firing solutions—accounting for altitude and course—took at least five seconds. The director subsequently pushed the new data to the batteries which set the individual guns. This required at least another five seconds. The shells, once fired, were on an irreversible course. And it took twenty-five seconds or so to reach the bombers, assuming they were flying at an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet.

The training film urged the bomber men to take advantage of the physical and temporal constraints to which the Germans were shackled. “Never fly one flight path for longer than the number of seconds you are up in thousands of feet. . . . Maneuvering every twenty-five seconds causes the flak to burst on a course you’re no longer flying. The gunner must refigure a firing solution for the new course you just took up before he can fire again.” Of course, so long as the bomber pilots made regularly timed—yet unpredictable—heading and altitude changes, it was impossible for the Germans to obtain a perfect firing solution. “Keep those gunners guessing,” the film urged.

Certainly, the Germans understood this and adapted. One technique they used was to shadow the American formations with an aircraft whose crew radioed exact airspeeds and altitudes to antiaircraft direction centers. Charles Ziesche of the 427th Bomb Squadron was aboard Miss Lace during the August 24, 1944, mission to Merseberg. He recalled the Germans doing exactly this—with a twist. “Looking out to the rear of our formation, I saw a B-17 quite a distance behind, and I called to our tail gunner to check and see if he could make out the markings and whether she might be in trouble. As far as he could tell, she seemed to be flying at the same speed and altitude. However, as we approached the I.P., he called back to say she was peeling off. This confirmed our suspicions that the Germans had captured one of our B-17s, repaired it, and used it to fly behind our formation and call in our air speed and altitude to the anti-aircraft batteries on the ground, thus providing perfect accuracy.”

Whether or not the aircraft was a captured B-17 is uncertain. However, the Germans did indeed reconstitute and fly damaged B-17s that came down on the Continent. In fact, the first B-17 the Germans returned to flying condition was from the 303rd. Wulfe Hound was downed on the mission to Rouen on December 6, 1942. Shot up and harried by Me-109s and FW-190s, the pilot, Paul Flickinger, crash-landed it near Melun. The crew destroyed the ship’s sensitive equipment and fled. Of the ten men making up the crew, four—including Flickinger—were captured and six evaded and returned to Molesworth. Wulfe Hound was repaired and flown by the Germans three months later during March 1943.

Another German adaptation made up with volume of fire what it lacked in finesse. Defending batteries were directed to simply saturate a portion of the sky—a “barrage box”—through which it was anticipated the bomber formations had to fly to reach the target. Maneuvering did no good as the antiaircraft fire wasn’t aimed and there was a good chance that changes in altitude or heading would get a formation into more trouble than not. Caught in a barrage box, it was better to simply hold a steady course that got the formation through the flak as quickly as possible. Indeed, because the barrage boxes were often close to the target, the aircraft were in their bomb runs anyway and the crews had no other choice than to hold a steady course.

Robert Butcher’s diary entry for the attack on Hamburg on June 18, 1944, describes what must certainly have been a barrage box. It was his sixth mission: “I never prayed so hard in all my life. It is just the Good Lord that brings us through. Low overcast over target. Bombed by PFF. The flak was a solid black wall just a little to our left. . . . I wonder now if I will make it.”

The primary German heavy antiaircraft gun was the 8.8-centimeter, or 88-millimeter, series of guns that were first prototyped in 1928. They were universally called “eighty-eights” by the Americans, or simply “flak guns.” The word “flak” was an abbreviation of the German word for an air defense gun, Fliegerabwehrkanone. The weapons were improved through the 1930s and into the war years and were produced in prodigious numbers. Indeed, more than twenty thousand examples of three variants—mostly Flak 18s, Flak 36s and Flak 37s—were produced, of which more than ten thousand were in service as antiaircraft guns by late 1944. They were also used effectively as antitank weapons throughout the war.

The rounds weighed approximately twenty pounds and were fired at a rate of about eighteen per minute. Although the maximum firing altitude exceeded thirty-five thousand feet, effectiveness dropped off above twenty-five thousand feet. Ideally, each gun was serviced by a crew of ten men. In practice, as manpower grew short, the crew sizes shrank and were increasingly made up of old men, teenage boys and women. Indeed, one of those boys was Joseph Ratzinger, who eventually became Pope Benedict XVI.

As terrifying and effective as the German flak defenses were, it still required approximately forty-five hundred antiaircraft rounds, on average, to knock down a bomber; such defenses obviously consumed a staggering amount of resources. Had the Germans developed proximity fuzes—as did the British and Americans—their guns would have been much more effective. Instead they waited too long to field any significant improvements. It wasn’t until April 1945 that an experimental round—a doppelzünder—was trialed with both a contact fuze and a traditional timed fuze. On April 9, 1945, flak defenses in Munich used the new round to knock down thirteen bombers at an average expenditure of only 370 rounds per aircraft. New radar promised to enhance the effectiveness of the guns even more. Such improvements, had they been fielded only a year or so earlier, might have grounded the Allied strategic bombing offensive.

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THE DAMAGE THE 303RD’S bombers sustained was not always caused by the Germans. Shell casings from other bombers’ spent .50-caliber machine gun rounds sometimes lodged in engines or dented the aircraft. However, The Floose was hit by a more unusual object. Donald Birkenseer, the navigator, was surprised by a loud pop and the rush of air through a hole in the very tip of the ship’s Plexiglas nose. He looked down at his feet and picked up a perfectly round piece of Plexiglas and a frozen peanut butter sandwich made from a hamburger bun. It had been tossed from one of the ships at the front of the formation.

In fact, the guilty party could have been the 360th’s James Geiger crew. He remembered the food that the crews were given: “They sent up peanut butter sandwiches but they froze solid so we couldn’t eat them. We threw them out and hoped they’d hit a German on the head and shorten the war up a little.”

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