Military history

PART III — ATTACK

Germany heard a clashing of arms all over the sky; the Alps trembled with uncommon earthquakes....Never did lightnings fall in greater quantities from a serene sky, or dire thunders blaze so often.

Virgil—Georgics, Book One

Chapter XI — LINE PLUNGE THROUGH CENTER

Prelude to Schweinfurt: “The German fighter raked us the length of the Fortress’s belly. It was like sitting in the boiler of a hot-water heater and being rolled down a steep hill. The right wing was shot to hell. There were holes everywhere. A lot of them were 20-mm. cannon holes, and they tear a hole you could shove a sheep through. The entire wing was just a goddamn bunch of holes.” — Report of a B-17 pilot after a raid against Meaulte on the French coast.

Share the thoughts of a B-17 gunner, 384th Bomb Group, Mission 115: “You try to remember what the target will look like. A sprawling plant, cluster of vehicles,…a river for identification, then there’s smokestacks, marshaling yards. Sometimes it’s all a blur; something for the pilot, the navigator and the bombardier to worry about....”

“A long time ago I should have known Chicago like a book. But when I walked around to find an address, I had to ask a dozen people where the hell I was going.

“Now we’re moving directly to an address in a city none of us have probably ever seen before. You don’t ask anybody down there about it, and you’re coming in without knocking on the door. Instead, you’re going to blow it in, with the walls and everything else.

“The pilot makes a routine check of positions ... like every-one else, you glance at your oxygen indicator, and in turn add your ‘okay’ to the comments passing back through the bomber.

“From this high, Germany is beautiful. Greens and browns. Peaceful and serene. You think about it, when suddenly some-one cries: ‘Fighters at eleven o’clock!’

“The whole airplane begins to shudder and shake through its length. Tracers spill through the air like crimson fireballs, arcing lazily, hiding the hidden four bullets between each flashing blur. You kick out some short bursts, leading a black-nosed shape swinging in fast from the three-quarter stern position. They’re Focke-Wulfs; one screams in from above, a beautiful swing through the air, and just as his wings and nose blink brilliantly, you squeeze and hold down for a long burst. The guns shake and shudder, hammering sounds, the wind tearing in at you…and goddamnit, but your bullets smash into the cockpit! She whips over crazily, starting a cartwheel, and your bullets keep at him until suddenly flame appears, the stress of the wild tumble tears a wing off and the fighter disappears in a flash.

“Then, suddenly the Fortress shudders, a quiet groan, but louder than the motors and the calls on the interphone and the hammering guns. A groan, and magically, a jagged tear appears in the left wing. And you’re scared; oh, God, how you’re scared. ...”

“Bogies at six o’clock climbing.”

These are the first warning words that Colonel Peaslee and the rest of the crewmen in their Fortress hear of the German fighters closing in. It is impossible to record the terrific Schweinfurt battle in complete running continuity; impossible because so many things happen at once, happen too quickly, explosively, and violently. Missing from this narrative, of course, are the reports of all the crews of heavy bombers that fell to the enemy. This, from an historical standpoint, is infinitely regrettable, for theirs would be the stories to reveal in all their grim horror the terror and pain of air battle. Yet there is more than enough to tell....

“Bogies!” the tail gunner cries again. “Many, all climbing on our tail. My God, I count 60 of them, some twin engine!”

Bedlam explodes through the interphone system; not only in this aircraft, of course, but in all the others to which the German fighters are drawn. Everyone in the crew sees German planes—for they are coming in from all directions, from all points of the compass, from high and from low—and tries to report. This is the moment when the initial flush of the combat about to detonate sweeps the men in its particular excitement; the words babble from their lips, and they shout out the positions of the approaching fighters.

The moment there is a lull in the shouting and Peaslee can make himself heard, he curses the crew, emphatically and with every choice bit of profanity he can jam into several seconds, for their breach of discipline. He admonishes them to keep calm, to break their silence only when necessary. Efficiency and discipline in a Fortress of the sky are indispensable to survival.

Because of the furious speed, and the wide arena of battle, it is necessary to report all fighter positions by the clock-sighting method. The nose of the bomber represents twelve o’clock. Directly off the right wing is three o’clock. Dead astern is six o’clock, and off the left wing is nine o’clock. “Six o’clock” high represents an attack made from high above and directly to the rear of the bomber. “Seven o’clock level” indicates a fighter coming in from just to the right of the tail (looking aft), and at the same altitude as the bomber.

“All right, you men,” Peaslee snaps. “You’re all aware now that attack is imminent. Concentrate only on those fighters that come in to us. And for God’s sake, don’t waste your ammunition on fighters that are out of range! We didn’t expect these people to show up this early. It’s a hell of a long way yet to the target, and it’s going to seem a lot longer going back home. Stay on your toes              .”

The Germans swoop in from the vast air space surrounding the bomber boxes. To the Luftwaffe pilots the formations of Flying Fortresses seem to be exactly that—a giant box in the sky bristling with death from every single bomber. They know the staggered formations give the Americans an excellent defensive fire screen. They know that no matter from what direction they attack, the defending tracers will erupt toward their airplanes. They know that it is a hellish thing to ask a man to rush headlong into a great space in the sky that literally comes alive with flame, with bombers twinkling and sparkling from nose and tail and sides and belly and top with heavy machine guns. They know this, and more than one German pilot is frightened before he makes his move to attack.

Who wouldn’t be? But the fighters still move in for their firing runs, and no one ever accused the German fighter pilot of being anything but a skillful, courageous, and dangerous foe.

The men in the bombers look out—it is just past 1333 hours, and the Thunderbolts are on their way home now—and see the black-crossed airplanes everywhere, closing in. Now, we share these moments with Colonel Peaslee:

“There are enemy fighters on both flanks and at the rear now—how many I don’t know, but many. So far they have made no hostile move. We sit in dread, for we know there will be unlucky ones among us when they start their play. I happen to be looking dead ahead when the first break comes. Suddenly out in front appear flashes resembling continuous photography multiplied a hundred times. I recognize it instantly—I have seen it before. Just as quickly I make out the approaching silhouette of the fighters—and flashes are coming from their 20-mm. cannon.

“The opening play is a line plunge through center, The fighters whip through our formation, for our closing rate exceeds five hundred miles per hour. Another group of flashes replaces the first, and this is repeated five times as six formations of Messerschmitt Me-109’s charge us. As each group of flashes appears our nose guns break into sound and the vibration shakes the bomber. After the first wave, they are joined by guns of the top turret and the ball turret as these guns swing around to bear. The tail guns join in occasionally as the gunner takes a quick shot at the fading targets.

“The shock of the first attack is over, and I start to get scared. How the planes ever miss collision is a mystery. It depends on the enemy fighters alone, for we are unable to dodge. That is probably our salvation. If we were able to, we might possibly dodge into their paths, and the results would be sensational. There are few things more spectacular than a head-on collision of bomber and fighter.

“As soon as I get a grip on myself again, I strain to find out what has happened to our formation. It seems a miracle. As far as I can see, all are in position. I call the tail gunner. He reports the aircraft to the rear still in position, but two are smoking —one badly—and another appears to be drifting back. More damage than that has been done, I know—inside our bombers there are dead and dying. The gunner adds one bit of cheerful news—a trail of smoke far to the rear arcs away toward the ground. It is not very much to be cheerful about, of course; the sky is absolutely filled with German planes.

“I yell into the throat mike—I curse the long machine-gun bursts. I condemn the crew for wasting ammunition. We have hundreds of miles to go yet—if we are among the lucky. Even as I yell, my earphones become bedlam once more.

“Here they come! Fighters attacking! Fighters at nine o’clock high! Fighters at four o’clock low! Fighters at six o’clock!”

“I try to look simultaneously in all directions. I can see the fighters on my side. They’ve half-turned and are diving toward us in a continuous string, their paths marked in the bright sun-light by fine lines of light-colored smoke as they fire short bursts. It is a coordinated attack, the finest I have ever seen. Their timing is perfect, their technique masterly.

“‘B-17 going down in flames,’ the tail gunner reports. ‘No parachutes yet. We have two aircraft lagging badly—back about three hundred yards.’

“The damage is beginning to show. The tail gunner continues: ‘Formations of twin engines approaching seven o’clock high. They’re back about six hundred yards. My God, they’ve fired rockets!’

“I look back, my face against the ice-cold side window, and barely see them as they dive away in a turn. When I face front again several great black blobs of smoke appear, and we fly through the smoke almost instantly. There is a slight jar. That was close. Fleetingly I wonder how those rockets were able to strain through our formation without hitting anyone. The whole procedure is repeated a few seconds later, and this time I see it all the bursts are only fifty feet off our left wing. They are big—about four times as big as ordinary flak, with angry, shapeless blobs of dirty red flame in the centers. I hear them over the roar of the motors, and they sound like someone throwing a handful of heavy stones against a tin roof—hard!

“Now we have fighters above us, below us, and to our flanks, all attacking or climbing back into position to attack again. Their coordination, however, is gone. Momentarily I am aware of our own guns. The bursts have become short, but the sound is almost continuous as it bounces at me from the various gun positions. Our gunners are finally aiming, not using their guns like garden hoses.

“As the rocket attacks go on, the action around us continues at such a pace that I see only fragments of it from the corners of my eyes. I try to look everywhere at once to absorb reports from the gunners. For the most part they have fallen silent. There is little use in reporting fighters that are everywhere. There is no way of counting them.

“I feel McLaughlin’s hand on my arm. It’s a hard grip and I see he is looking down and ahead. I lean over, craning my neck, following his eyes. A few hundred feet in front of us a bomber has been hit by a rocket. I catch sight of it just as the right wing starts to fold upward. The fuselage opens like an eggshell, and a man dressed in a flying suit spins clear out in front. I see the pilots still at the controls, then the plane is swept with flame. The right wing breaks free, and with the two engines still spinning it drifts to the rear, flaming at the ragged end. The shattered mess disappears under our left wing, and the sky is clean again. It all happens instantaneously, but to me it is like a slow-motion movie scene.

“As I look around again I notice our right-wing man, my deputy formation commander, is out of position. He has drifted back a few feet but I can still see him in the cockpit. I call him on our wing channel. There is no reply. I know he is not out of position voluntarily, and I have a premonition that he is not going to be with us long. Our formation has become ragged. Many gaps are left by missing bombers, and our gunfire suffers.

“‘Close up formation, close up formation!’ I call it into the mike, then shout the words. Formation; it means everything to us now, it is the road to some salvation, some defense against the men in the black-crossed planes.

“Yet it is a futile order, and I know it. But at least it distracts me for a few seconds, and Christ! I want to be distracted from the carnage around me. Captain McLaughlin glances at me. In spite of his concentration on keeping our formation in position, little has escaped him.

“‘Colonel, I don’t think we’re going to make it.’

“His words are incredibly calm; a matter-of-fact statement. They are nonetheless grim and biting. I agree, of course, but I refuse to commit my thoughts to words, and as our eyes meet above the oxygen masks, I just nod.

“I get a report from my tail gunner. One of our aircraft has pulled out of formation and is turning back. I take a look, I know that if the pilot is trying to reach England he is condemned. Fighters will pick off his aircraft like a sitting duck. There will be a patrol out looking for such as he. I cannot guess the reason for his action, since the plane appears to be in good shape, but he may have a ruptured fuel tank, or wounded aboard who could not survive the full mission. Or he may have become mentally unbalanced by this fight. Whatever it is, he is lost.

“My deputy has drifted farther back, now he has lost the protection of our massed guns. The fighters jump him, but he plugs ahead by himself—he is trying to make the bomb-release line, if no more. That is pure guts.

“Another bomber leaves us. He is smoking and his wheels are starting down, a signal that he is going to land.

“‘My God, please take some evasive action!’ someone in the crew begs over the interphone. Yet he knows as well as I do that evasive action in formation is futile—less than futile. ‘Jinking’ is all we can possibly do—moving suddenly a few feet up or down. Even that serves only to disturb the aim of our gunners, and we are just as apt to jink into a burst as to avoid it. Its only accomplishment is to give some mental relief to the crew. The men feel we are at least doing something.

“I suppose this feeling of being caught in a hopeless situation is far from new. Men must always have experienced it. I think of the Middle Ages. I see myself strolling across an open plain with a group of friends. Suddenly we are beset by many scoundrels on horseback. They come from every direction, shooting their arrows. We defend ourselves as best we can with slings and swords, and crouch behind our leather shields. We cannot run, we cannot dodge, we cannot hide—the plain has no growth, no rocks, no holes. And it seems endless. There is no way out-then, or now.

“I have been studying the tactics of the rocket attackers. They make the same approach each time and fire from the same range. I can tell within a few seconds when they are going to fire. I decide maybe there is something that can be done—that I can contribute a little to this fight. There is nothing so useless as being an air commander in an air battle. You just sit there and watch what goes on, for command is lost in the fog of battle and all depends on the training of your crews.

“We will try an experiment. I talk to McLaughlin. As the next rocket formation approaches the firing point, we will start a shallow turn to the right—almost a drift. It will give the enemy an increased deflection shot and will not disturb the formation. As soon as the rockets have been launched we will slide back to our former position.

“I see the rocket planes coming into position. Now! I give the signal. The maneuver works—or maybe it’s just luck, or just poor shooting. Anyway, the bursts are to our left. We continue the practice. The bursts still miss.

“We are approaching the Initial Point, the point at which we commit ourselves directly to the bomb run on the target. Schweinfurt, here we come! As we turn, I take a hasty reading on our formation. I have eight aircraft left and my other group has been reduced to six. Fourteen planes left, and we still have so many miles to go! I call the captain leading the other bombers and tell him to close in on me and to drop on my command, ‘Bombs away.’ He does not respond, but his formation moves in near to ours as we start the sighting run. The fighters know what our intentions are and they come at us like tigers...”

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