It started on April 8, 1944, at a dinner to which 41st Bomb Wing Commander Bob Travis had invited his three group commanders serving in Great Britain at the time.
An aide whispered in Bob’s ear, and Bob passed a message to his operations officer. Something was up. Bob rose and motioned me to a corner, where he whispered. “A field order just came in for tomorrow. It’s a big one. Marienburg in East Prussia. Your group’s leading the wing on this one.”
I nodded, and as usual my stomach contracted as I realized I would soon be flying over Germany.
“Who do you recommend as wing leader?” he asked.
“It’s my turn,” I responded, my heart heavy in my chest. Although I’d participated in twelve missions, each one presented a dreadful terminal prospect, and I hadn’t become fatalistic enough to take it impersonally.
“Okay,” Bob said. “You’d better get going Good luck.”
Departing without further discussion, I drove the fifteen or so miles to Grafton Underwood. There, I went directly to my office at the 384th Group operations blockhouse, an austere reinforced concrete structure half underground.
Lt. Cols. Willie Buck, my deputy, and Tom Beckett, operations officer, brought me the “frag” teletyped order and other data. They and the group staff had already made all the schedules and plans down to the last detail for my review. As always, a major worry was the weather. The forecast for England didn’t look good, although the route and target would probably be clear.
I crawled into the sack at 1:15 a.m., only to be awaked at 4:30 by the jangle of a telephone from ops. hastily dressing in the frigid hut, I emptied my pockets and deposited the contents along with my West Point ring in the old dresser. Then I drove the beat-up Plymouth staff car with dim blackout lights to the officers’ mess.
Inside it was glaring with lights and bustling with combat crews taking excitedly and enjoying the treat of fresh eggs and bacon provided to those scheduled for a mission. For me, the pleasure of a Stateside breakfast was marred by the pit of fear in my stomach. I couldn’t help wondering who among us would truly be eating their last meal.
Next stop was the large briefing room. The crews were waiting as I strode up the aisle with as much confidence and insouciance as I could muster. All stood to attention, sort of. Leaping onto the low stage (taking care not to trip), I turned and said:
“At ease, gentlemen. Be seated.
“Today our target is an FW-190 assembly plant. If we clobber it, there won’t be so many enemy fighters after us in the future. So I know you won’t miss.
“There’s a bonus. The Eighth Air Force hit this same plane last October, and it’s taken until now to get it back on line. To celebrate the occasion, Intelligence tells us, Hermann Goring will be there. we’ll strike just about the time he’s make to his speech.
“But it’s no milk run. It’s one of the longest missions we’ve ever had. We’ll be at maximum weight and will climb out slowly to conserve fuel. Tanks will be topped off at 2,700 gallons. Keep your mixtures lean and your RPMs low. We’ll have just enough fuel to get home.
“Now here it is!”
Pop Dolan, our intelligence officer, pulled the drawstrings, and the curtain parted to reveal a large map of Europe. Red yarn stretched over the North Sea, across the Danish peninsula, east through the Baltic Sea (where the map had to be extended), then southeast on a dogleg to Marienburg, a few miles from Danzig (now Gdansk) in Poland.
Reacting to the distant target, four hundred or so men lounging in leather flight jackets and fifty-mission caps filled the room with whistles, cat calls, and groans. I stepped down and took my seat by the aisle. There I found a small chart indicating the routes I was to follow, along with diagrams of our formations with aircraft numbers, call signs, and the names of pilots, leaders, and deputies.
Still other forms gave such data as fighter cover, rendezvous, flak areas, IPs, aiming points, etc. there was just no getting away from paperwork, even in the air.
Ops briefed on formations, assembly, routes, and rendezvous. Intelligence on flak and enemy fighters. Armament on bomb load and ammo. Communications covered frequencies, call signs, and gave us a time hack. Weather gave us the latest guess, and it still looked very bad over England. Layers of broken clouds to 12,000 feet. Target briefing had been held earlier for lead navigators and bombardiers.
I gave what I hoped was a short pep talk and asked for questions. There were none. “That’s all. Good luck!”
Next stop was the personal equipment room where we suited up with electrically heated underwear and boots. Over the wired long johns we wore summer flying suits and the usual leather jackets. I wrapped a large piece of black-dyed parachute silk around my neck and donned a warm leather helmet with build-in earphones. Next came a Mae West life vest and chest chute harness. I packed an A-3 bag with my detachable barrel chute, flak vest, electrically heated gloves, and a rebreather oxygen mask. An intelligence officer handed me an escape kit, which fit in the knee pocket of my flying suit and included a silk waterproof map of Europe, German marks, a compass, and other useful items.
My driver and aide, Sergeant Montgomery, had caught up with me and stood by the old staff car as I emerged with my gear. He took my A-3 bag and threw it in the trunk. I invited the group bombardier, Capt. Dick Brown, and the group navigator, Capt. Bob Chapin, to join me. Other crews were being shuttled by a parade of growling blacked-out five-ton trucks to the dispersed hardstands where the loaded Flying Fortresses crouched.
On Screaming Eagle’s pad I met Capt. Earl T. Allison and his crew, who would man the lead ship of the formation. Allison had proved himself an outstanding pilot and leader, having been one of the few 384th pilots who refused to abort in bad weather on the March 6 mission to Berlin. He’d fly and I’d ride in the copilot’s seat while his own copilot would take the tail gunner’s position and report to me on formation dispositions and other matters. Thus, I would have eyes in the back of my head. Allison’s navigator would assist Chapin in the nose, but his bombardier would stand down while Crown took his place.
Ready to Fly
Our crew chief had been up all night with his ship and had just shut down the engines and topped off the tanks. He reported the silver B-17 ready to fly. There wasn’t much to do but squeeze through the hatches, get settled with our gear, and go through our check lists.
Start engines was signaled with a yellow-red flare from the control tower. We kept scrupulous radio silence. No sense in advertising our mission any sooner than necessary. Seconds before the flares popped, we wound up our whining inertial starters so that when the flares blossomed the first forty big Pratt & Whitney engines coughed into life. We liked that precision.
Seconds later the air vibrated with the rumble of 160 idling engines. A yellow-green flare signaled us to taxi, and the heavy bombers waddled into line on the taxi strips with Screaming Eagle taking the lead at the end of the takeoff at thirty-second intervals, and that meant exactly thirty seconds, not twenty-nine or thirty-one. An accurate assembly depended on this kind of timing.
Ahead was a low broken overcast with ominous scud on the horizon at the end of the runway. I exchanged worried glances with Earl Allison as we studied the sky. It was going to be touchy enough getting the overloaded Fort into the air. And now we’d be on instruments even before our wheels were up.
Our ship trembled as Allison shoved the throttles forward and revved up the engines to takeoff rpm. Then a green-green flare stabbed the darkness. Earl released the brakes. More precision. A relentless well-oiled machine, I thought. But all this comforting order was soon to dissipate in chaos and confusion.
Screaming Eagle accelerated sluggishly with its great load, and the end of the runway was almost upon us when she broke ground. I quickly raised the gear and began monitoring the flight instruments as the low clouds enfolded us.
Our group assembly pattern was simple and well-rehearsed. The leader would climb straight ahead for X minutes at a prescribed rate of climb and airspeed and then make a broad precision turn to the left, bringing him back on a reciprocal course next to the field. Following aircraft would turn Y seconds sooner than the ones ahead, thus bringing us all together in an eighteen-plane group box formation. But this was predicated on good weather. As I passed the field, running in and out of clouds at 1,000 feet, the officer tail gunner reported less than half of the eighteen Forts in formation.
The route out had us zigzagging from one point to another as we climbed, with certain tracks designated for forming with the other two air groups of eighteen in order to complete the wing combat box of fifty-four. Spares tagged along to take the place of any ships that had to abort. But all this complicated flying also required good weather. I knew we’d never get formed by following the plan and that I’d have to find a clear area between cloud decks and circle there. this would require breaking radio silence. It was either that or abort the whole mission.
I radioed to the lost aircraft of my eighteen-plane formation to join me over point A at 3,000 feet. When I got there, I found solid soup. So I canceled those orders and announced we would assemble over point B at 5,000 feet. By now the radio channels were filled with grumbles and griping, pilots talking to each other and trying to get fixes. I had to repeat instructions to the Cowboys (our group call sign) several times to get through.
At Ten Angels
At point B a few stray birds tacked on to our formation, but the clouds were still too thick for any reasonable assembly. On studying the sky I realized I’d have to climb to 10,000 feet to get in the clear. That would be 4,000 feet above our departure altitude, and it would waste precious gas. I told the Cowboys that I’d circle over Splasher 4 (a radio beacon) at ten angels firing red-red flares. Up we went, and I could almost feel the fuel pouring into our laboring engines. On arrival over the splasher beacon we found the air filled with a vast whirlpool of circling bombers. Other wings had, of course, run into the same problem.
Our engineer fired red-red flares as fast as he could from the top turret. After two great circles, losing more fuel (a circle took about ten minutes for a combat wing), the tail gunner counted a box of fifty Forts tacked onto us, including strays from three other groups. That was enough to go to war, and we headed out over the sparkling North Sea.
Already I was planning how to shorten our return route. Only that way would we have enough fuel to complete the mission. Following the planned return route would have us ditching in the North Sea.
Mission strategy was to cross the Danish peninsula at its base near Kiel. There we were to rendezvous with P-47s from VIII Fighter Command who would give us cover over the crossing as proceeded east.
We expected the Luftwaffe to concentrate its whole force there to hit us on withdrawal. There’d be plenty of time for that. Consequently, it was planned that on return we would recross the peninsula a hundred miles north of Kiel and throw the Jerries off balance. But now that longer northern route on withdrawal would be out of the question. We’d have to return on the reciprocal of our penetration track and run the gantlet.
I passed this to Bob Chapin who, with his assistant, began to work out new withdrawal tracks and refigure fuel consumption. Even doing it this way would be a tight squeeze. I instructed our radio operator to inform Eighth Air Force in code of my intentions, hoping they would dispatch all the fighters available to help us recross the Jutland peninsula.
We put on oxygen masks, flak vests (I sat on mine), parachutes, and helmets as we climbed slowly to 12,000 feet. The tail gunner reported that he could see three other wing combat boxes behind us. I knew many outfits couldn’t get formed and had aborted the mission, and I had no idea how large the total force was. But with at least four in the stream, things were picking up. The gunners test-fired their .50s. we were ready.
Being about forty minutes late at the rendezvous with Vinegrove (our Little Friends), we missed them. But, wonder of wonders, we didn’t’ see a single enemy fighter as we sailed across the peninsula. I learned later that those wings behind us didn’t fare as well and got into lively scraps. Weaving our way through some sporadic flak we continued out over the Baltic.
The weather remained crystal clear as I watched surface ships zigzagging below us, leaving curved white wakes. “We’re not after you,” I thought. “We’re after much bigger game. We don’t launch a thousand warplanes to bomb a few nondescript freighters.”
Sweden loomed in the distant mist to our left as we droned steadily deeper into enemy country. We made landfall near Danzig after climbing to 15,000 feet. There was no flak. This was going to be a piece of cake. Hermann the German would be surprised to find us hunting him so far east of Berlin.
Marienburg materialized just as briefed along with the doomed aircraft assembly and airdrome. My three groups took intervals for separate bombing. Each would salvo on its leader’s bombs as they left his bomb bay. Bombardier Dick Crown took control of our eighteen-plane box and lived up to his deadeye reputation. The tail gunner reported solid hits, and I hoped we had caught fat Hermann outside his shelter. (After studying subsequent recce photos, Eighth Air Force reported results of the bombing “good to excellent.”)
There was some scattered and very inaccurate flak on the wing assembly after bombs away. Bursts dirtied the sky as much as a half mile behind us. the Home Guard must have been manning those guns. I laughed with relief. At this point we hadn’t lost a single Fort.
Back again over the quiet Baltic, two B-17s peeled off from our formation and headed toward Sweden. All props were turning, and I suspected they had found a good way to resign from the war. Rumor had it that the Swedes provided luxurious accommodations for interned crews. I was somewhat relieved to note that neither Fort had the 384th triangle “P” on its fin. I yelled at them to get back in formation, but there was no answer as they faded into the distance. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they could have been so low on fuel as not to want to risk ditching.
Chapin came on the interphone to say that we had enough fuel to make it to England, but just. He doubted that following aircraft could all make it to base, however, and suggested we make landfall at Great Yarmouth, the nearest English turf. An RAF base was nearby. That sounded good. If my fuel was low, the others were bound to be in worse shape because more fuel is consumed by flying formation than by leading. It’s the frequent jockeying of the throttles that draws down the gas while the leader can fly at a constant throttle setting.
But now we were approaching Kiel, and there were other things to think about. The whole Luftwaffe seemed to be lying in ambush. We began to take quartering and head-on attacks from flights of two to six, and our responding guns shook Screaming Eagle and thundered over the engine roar. Our box formation of forty-eight tightened up like magic for mutual protection, each pilot getting as close as he dared to his leader. My heart sank. Had our good luck ended?
But no! Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, commanding the Eighth, had not been asleep. Suddenly the tables were turned. The General had dispatched almost every fighter in England to rendezvous with us near Kiel. The skies erupted with Little Friends diving out of the low western sun like the US Cavalry coming to the rescue. It was a donnybrook the likes of which I had never seen. There were no more Luftwaffe attacks on us. German airmen were fighting for their lives, and losing. The sky was lit by one exploding fighter after another.
Greatest Show on Earth
Almost everywhere I looked there was a vicious dogfight in progress. I even saw Little Friends fighting with their droptanks still on. I supposed they wanted to stay in the fray as long as possible and run up their scores. I remarked to myself, “This is the greatest show on earth!” Then the afterthought: “But the price of admission is too high.” I was awed by the grandeur and heroism of this great aerial battle, which left our wing unscathed. Never did I more love and respect our Little Friends.
Within twenty minutes we had passed beyond the battle and found the North Sea beneath us. Now came the frantic and forlorn calls from one pilot after another. “We’re low on gas.” “Don’t think we can make it.” “What’ll we do?”
I told Chapin to steer directly toward the nearest landfall, but he was way ahead of me and already had us on that course. Then with the help of our engineer we figured the lowest possible rpm, manifold pressure, and fuel mixture settings and passed this data to the other aircraft. Putting Screaming Eagle in a slight descent altitude, we were able to stay in the air at a very slow speed, consuming minimum fuel. Next I ordered all aircraft short of fuel to lighten their loads—to throw out guns and ammo and to drop the heavy ball turrets.
Then I prayed.
It took more than two hours to transit the North Sea. I intercepted Maydays from two ships from other wings. They were ditching and gave their positions, which I relayed to Eighth Air Force. The sun had set before our straining eyes sighted land. Clouds had lifted over England, and within minutes we found the Royal Air Force station at Norwich. Everyone landed. We had been airborne more than ten hours. No one had to ditch, and none had been shot down. Only the two who went to Sweden were missing. But the 384th didn’t get back to Grafton Underwood until the next day after enjoying the warm RAF hospitality.
Eighth Air Force “Report of Operations, 9 April 1944” shows two combat wings of the 1st Bomb Division, 41A and 41B, attacking the Marienburg targets. Only three losses are indicated, which means the following wing lost one. However, because of the mixture of Forts from several groups in each air wing and because many landed away from home base, it is doubted that the official report is very accurate.
Wings bombing other targets suffered worse than 41A and 41B. a total of thirty-two bombers was lost, thirteen from “unknown causes.” Some of these must have ended in the cold North Sea. Oddly, no mention of this in the official report. Nor is there any note of the sweat we had with fuel consumption. I suppose the staff officers who wrote the report didn’t consider this too significant.
The author, Maj. Gen. Dale O. Smith, USAF (Ret.), is a 1934 graduate of West Point. Following wartime service in England, he went on to a varied Air Force career, including command of two air divisions and a long stint of high-level assignments at the Pentagon. Retiring from the Air Force in 1964, General Smith went on to a second career as a writer during which he became the author of a number of books on defense-related matters. One of his two sons is an Air Force Academy graduate, now serving as a fighter pilot in Germany.