Book: Hell's Angels

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NO OTHER DAY of the war saw more jets in air combat than did April 10, 1945. Walter Schuck was one of the Me-262 pilots airborne that day. He was a veteran of air combat in the Arctic. Fighting against the British and the Soviets, he was credited with nearly two hundred aerial victories—mostly against the Red Air Force—but he was called back to Germany during early 1945, where he transitioned to the Me-262. The Reich needed its best men to fly its best aircraft regardless of the fact that the war was already lost.

The Me-262 had been operational for many months by early April, but the Germans were still devising tactics that maximized its tremendous speed advantage. As the B-17s of the 1st Air Division—the 303rd among them—approached Oranienburg, just north of Berlin, Schuck, at the head of JG 7’s 3 Staffel, led a flight of seven Me-262s in pursuit. He was careful to avoid the protective screens of American fighters. If his little formation was attacked and caught up in a dogfight, its chances of breaking away and getting to the bombers were slight.

It wasn’t long before Schuck led his packet of jets to a point behind and above a long column of B-17s. “Once in position, and with the advantage of height, we launched our attack on the Flying Fortresses.” Schuck eschewed the traditional, curving, high-side attacks that were the German standard for much of the war. The Me-262 bled too much airspeed in a hard turn, and it took precious time to regain it. As speed was the jet’s chief advantage, it made little sense to waste it. Too, the old method used too much fuel and took too much time. Moreover, the big, looping turns were predictable and made the Me-262s more vulnerable to ambushes by the overwhelming masses of American escort fighters. Consequently, Schuck formulated a different scheme of attack:

As there were more than enough targets to hand, I decided that I would “surf-ride” along the length of the bomber stream; dive on the enemy from a height of 1,000 metres [approximately 3,300 feet] above, select a bomber flying out on one of the flanks, put a short burst of fire into an inboard engine, pull up and away while still at least 200 metres above the bomber in order to ensure safe recovery, climb back to 1,000 metres [above the bombers] and repeat the process.

Schuck’s concept was akin to a running stitch, and because the attack followed the same flight path as the bombers, it did not require complex deflection shooting. Additionally, the B-17 was less well defended from above than it was from the side. Another advantage of the technique was that the Me-262s stood a good chance of escaping out of range before the defending gunners could spot them, bring their guns to bear, aim and fire. And although the jet pilots couldn’t easily reverse course to finish off any cripples they created, their 30-millimeter cannons were exceedingly destructive and made cripples less likely. A single, well-placed round could bring down a bomber.

Schuck watched the B-17s release their bombs. “At this moment I didn’t spare a thought for the pain and suffering that my cannon shells would soon be inflicting upon the enemy bomber crews. Vengeance, hate, retribution? No, those are the wrong words to describe the unbridled fury at the hundred-thousandfold deaths of innocent German women and children that filled my entire being as I opened fire on my target.” Such were the ironic thoughts of a frontline airman who was likely unaware that the government he served had already murdered millions of innocent women and children.

The rounds from Schuck’s cannons severed the tail section from the fuselage of his first target. The tail and what was left of the bomber tumbled earthward. He pulled on the fighter’s control stick and chose another B-17 before nosing over into a second attack. His closing velocity was tremendous as he triggered the cannon once more. Schuck felt in his feet the bump-bump-bump of the big rounds as they arced away from the nose of his aircraft and into the bomber’s right wing, between the two engines. He was forced to haul his fighter into a near-vertical climb to keep from colliding with the B-17. “As it tiredly lifted one wing prior to going down, I thought I caught a glimpse of a name written on the exposed nose section: ‘Henn’s Revenge.’”

Henn’s Revenge was a 303rd ship, of the 358th Bomb Squadron. The aircraft, a B-17G, flew its very first mission on October 26 and flew another thirty-five missions unnamed until January 23, when it was named by the Richard Gmernicki crew after their tail gunner, Thomas Henn. Henn had been badly wounded the previous day on the raid to Sterkrade. Shrapnel from a flak burst knocked his oxygen mask loose and punched into his skull. It was serendipity that swung the mask back and forth across his face and kept him alive until his crewmates came to his aid. Henn survived, but the flak wound left his left side paralyzed.

Since that time Gmernicki and his crew had finished their combat tours, and Henn’s Revenge flew thirty-nine of the 303rd’s next forty-five missions—it was a remarkable record that Schuck ended on April 10. The official statement from the Missing Air Crew Report, or MACR, matched Schuck’s description of the ship’s demise almost perfectly: “Missing A/C held course for very few seconds after being hit, then peeled slightly up and slid over and down to the right through the formation. Appeared at that time to be out of control.”

Vito Brunale was the engineer aboard Henn’s Revenge that day. The long seconds immediately following Schuck’s attack were marked by chaos. The interphone lines of the pilot, Robert Murray, were shot away. He motioned to Brunale that the crew should bail out. Brunale turned to pass the signal to the radio operator, Theodore Bates: “When I last saw Ted, he was in the radio room and I motioned for him to bail out. He then closed the door of his radio room.” Brunale turned and ducked to look into the nose of the aircraft and saw the navigator, Harold Smith, bail out through the forward hatch. The togglier, Carl Hammerlund, was already gone.

And then the aircraft exploded. “When the plane blew up over Oranienburg,” Brunale recorded, “all crew members with the exception of Hammerlund and Smith were aboard. I was blown out but had my chute on.” Pieces of the aircraft fell past Brunale as he descended in his parachute. “I did see large shattered pieces of the plane floating down above my chute.” Higher still, he saw the bomber stream continuing east.

Brunale was captured, interrogated and made a POW. None of the rest of the Robert Murray crew survived. Although Brunale spotted two chutes below him—presumably Smith and Hammerlund—they were listed as killed in action.

*   *   *

FOLLOWING HIS ATTACK on Henn’s Revenge, Schuck spotted a B-17 staggering north, away from the bomber stream. The American aircraft was smoking, and the German pilot readied to finish it off. It was only after he closed the range that he saw that virtually the entire right side of the fuselage had been shot away. Inside he could see the crewmen at their different stations. The big ship was obviously doomed, and Schuck—despite the “unbridled fury” he had earlier felt—held back. “As the bomber’s fate was already sealed, I flew a wide circle around it, not wanting to shoot at the defenceless crew members: the copilot was slumped forward in his seat harness . . .” Schuck counted nine men as they parachuted from the wrecked bomber.

But he didn’t linger. He climbed up above the bomber stream again and made another high-speed run, knocking down two more B-17s in quick succession. And then, out of ammunition, he scanned the sky for his comrades. He collected a wing full of .50-caliber machine gun rounds for his trouble. An instant later he spotted a Mustang—piloted by Joseph Peterburs of the 20th Fighter Group—as it dived past. Reacting instinctively, Schuck winged down into a protective layer of clouds, but it wasn’t long before his aircraft began to come apart. He bailed out, injured his ankles upon landing and never flew another combat mission. Ironically, Joe Peterburs, who had shot him down, was knocked down along with his wingman a short time later after strafing an airfield. Both men, like Schuck, survived.

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