Military history

Chapter XIV — SCHWEINFURT BELOW

Colonel Budd J. Peaslee: “We are right behind the leading formation as the bomb run starts. They are in good order, but one of their groups of 11 bombers has been reduced to two. The unit has been devastated, and it’s more than a little pathetic to see those two lonesome guys plugging along as though all were intact.

“McLaughlin is all concentration now. He ignores the tigers completely and talks to the bombardier. They are hooking the controls to the bomb sight. From now until bombs are away the bombardier will fly the Fortress by remote control. The pilot rests his hands on the wheel. He can overpower the bomb-sight control if it becomes necessary. The controls move in little metallic jerks.

“Down below us, in the nose, the bombardier is searching for his aiming point. When he finds it, he will push a switch and the bomb-bay doors will grind open. The trick is to move the sight indices together; and to do this the bombardier controls the flight of the airplane by moving a knob on the AFCE. This swings the Fortress slightly to the right or the left.

“‘Let’s make it good.’ I call to McLaughlin. ‘We’ve come a long way for this.’

“The fighters come at us from all directions. It will be almost a relief to get into the flak zone. They will break off there, to pick us up again as we come off the target and out of the zone.

“We begin to get a few bursts of flak. It is inaccurate. They are scared, too, down on the ground 23,000 feet below. They are firing while we are still out of range. We rapidly move into range, and the ground fire changes from meager and inaccurate to accurate and intense. The sky around us is filled with black bursts. Some of it we hear—the handful of rocks on the tin roof again, when the bursts are within 50 feet. The men handling the guns at Schweinfurt are no amateurs.

“It is past time now for the fighters to leave us, but they do not. They stay with us, fighting in their own flak. This is very strange. Their orders must have been to defend Schweinfurt at all costs.

“I have never seen braver men than these fighter pilots, our mortal enemies. If I were the German in command of men and machines like these, I believe I could stop the daylight bombing of Germany—at least up to this point. But Hermann Goering is their commander, and he has chosen to violate a simple principle of war. He should have ordered total annihilation of the first formation of each attacking force. Our commanders live in fear that he may one day do so. Today he has come the nearest to achieving that principle, for his guns allow only a few of our leading aircraft to escape. But he does not know— and at the moment neither do I—that soon the Mustangs will come, the fighters that can cover us anywhere in Germany. Thank God for Hermann—he is our friend.

“The determination to keep us from reaching the target has been futile, but they have made us pay a terrible price, a price that we cannot afford to pay. The stakes in this game have been terrific for both sides, and the devil took the pot. Below us Schweinfurt is rapidly going to hell as the bomb strings ahead of ours walk through the city. Its dead will outnumber our own by fantastic figures, and the machinery that has made the ball bearings is literally beginning to fly apart.

“The bomb run is good in spite of the fighters and the flak— the kind we refer to as ‘flak you can walk on.’ It seems as though our aircraft will never reach the bomb-release line—the seconds drag by. Finally, just as we are thinking the bombs must be hung, we feel the bomber lighten in regular little jerks and we know the halfway point has been passed.

“‘Bombs away,’ the bombardier reports.

“McLaughlin releases the controls from the bomb sight, and we swing into a right turn toward France. It’s a slow turn for reassembly, but there is little need to reassemble. Those left of us are already huddling close.

“’Primary bombed.’ The strike message flashes back to England. It is a simple statement, nothing more.

“As our right wing dips in the turn, it reveals our approach route, both on the ground and in the air. At our level I can see the rear formations approaching Schweinfurt. They look ragged and are under intense attack. The fighters have left the empty planes for the time being to charge those still carrying bombs toward their city. Our formations do not waver as they crawl across the sky. It is as though they were being pulled by an invisible chain into the thresher of flak over the city, and there they will disgorge their heads of grain, the thousand-pounders.

“Far below them on the ground I see part of our ante to the devil’s pot. Our course is plainly marked by rising columns of smoke. I know what those columns mean and I count them— nine, ten, eleven. They represent 11 bombers, with 110 men aboard, punctuating the line from the Initial Point to the target.

“Behind our dipped right wing I can see the city, and it is smudged with smoke in the sunlight. As I watch, and as more bombs splash down, the smudge is renewed and thickened. From now until long after the war is over there will be no windows in this city, and the cold winter winds will sweep un-checked through the homes—all the homes, rich and poor alike, for there will be no window glass at any price.

“We are pulling away from the target toward the French border when there is an unexplainable occurrence. One of our bombers climbs out of formation. He does not appear to be damaged and has plenty of power left in his engines. There are no fighters near us at the moment, and I wonder what his object can be. I broadcast an order for him to return to formation, but there is no acknowledgment. Then parachutes begin to blossom behind and below him. They come at regular intervals until there are ten—the full crew.

“What in hell is this? I will never know. The bomber continues momentarily to fly beside us, then slowly noses over and, gaining speed, disappears below. I cannot fathom it. Did the crew hold a caucus—decide there was no future in this business, decide to quit the war? I wonder.

“‘Well,’ McLaughlin tells me over the interphone, ‘we have done our flying for Uncle Sam for the day. Now we fly for us!”

The two combat divisions of Mission 115—the 1st and the 3d —lost 21 bombers shot down before they reached Schweinfurt. Of the total force dispatched, 228 Fortresses reached the target area; a force, notes the Army Air Forces’ official history, that was “sadly mauled,”

Despite the terrible casualties and the battering received by the Fortresses, an official Army Air Forces’ study made after the war was able to report that “the bombing was unusually effective.” The sudden course change near the Initial Point proved an unexpected source of relief to some Fortresses by confusing the formations of attacking German fighters, and their blows diminished greatly as the bombers wheeled into their runs.

The first force enjoyed excellent visibility, and the immediate result of the run was “a high concentration of bombs in all the target areas. In all, the 228 B-17’s that succeeded in bombing dropped some 395 tons of high explosives and 88 tons of incendiaries on and about all three of the big bearings plants. Of the 1,122 high-explosive bombs dropped, 143 fell within the factory area, 88 of which were direct hits on the factory buildings. The incendiaries, as usual, proved somewhat less accurate.”

There are discrepancies and conflicting reports of the bomb run, which is to be expected considering the brief time involved, the savagery of the fighter attacks and flak, and the exhaustion of the men both physically and emotionally. The official Army Air Forces’ historical report states that ‘‘the second-force bombardiers were handicapped by clouds of smoke caused by the preceding attack.” Many of these bombardiers were affected, but not all, as Colonel Peaslee explained: “I sat only a hundred yards behind the 305th on the bomb run and only 100 feet from the 306th.

“The 300th and the 92d had each lost two squadrons at the bomb run, so we joined together and bombed as a group. The 305th had been reduced to two aircraft and was bombing with the lead combat wing commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Milton. We had no mix-up at the Initial Point and everything went just as it was supposed to.

“It was a real good bomb run and the targets were in the clear as the bombs of the lead formation had not hit the ground when our bombs went away. We certainly had no problems of visibility from smoke, although some trailing bombers might have encountered some.”

It was gratifying to note, stated the official report of Mission 115, 1st Bombardment Division, that the 40th Combat Wing, although greatly depleted in force from previous operations, was able to place all of their bombs “squarely on the designated Mean Point of Impact.”

Crippled badly, and suffering from many disabled planes in its formation, the 40th Wing turned in one of the most excellent bombing runs of the entire war. Fifty-three per cent of all its bombs dropped, photos revealed beyond question, fell within 1,000 feet of the aiming point of the primary target.

There is no contesting the fact that the lead division suffered a terrible beating by the time it was in position to drop its bombs. The case of the 305th Bombardment Group is most striking. Major G. G. Y. Normand of the 385th Squadron led the formation, and grimly held his wing position through the worst attacks of the entire mission. When the target finally was reached, the bombardier, dissatisfied with the approach, called for a bomb run separate from the remainder of the wing.

But Major Normand, knowing what the bombardier did not —that there were only two other planes left in the entire formation (Peaslee remembers seeing only two planes: Normand’s and one other)—wisely elected to fly with the group directly ahead, since the fighter attacks were still continuing. The bombs from these three airplanes, reported the bombardier, fell to the left of the aiming point, toward the center of Schweinfurt. No sooner had the bomb-bay doors closed than Major Normand watched another of his bombers plunge away from the formation, wrapped in flames.

The course change near the Initial Point, final evaluation reveals, assisted a major percentage of the bombing Fortresses in gaining temporary relief from the attacking fighters. The German pilots hammered without respite at Peaslee’s formation, as he and Normand recalled grimly.

Captain James C. McClanahan, bombardier in the lead Fortress of the 384th Group, reported at the debriefing after the mission: “The visibility was good over the target. I saw our bombs hit and I can say we knocked hell out of it. The bombs burst and the smoke rolled up, then there was a big explosion and all of a sudden there was a great splash of fire right in the center of everything.”

During the bomb run of several groups, starting at about the time the Fortresses approached the Initial Point, there occurred one of the most baffling incidents of World War U, and an enigma that to this day defies all explanation.

As the bombers of the 384th Group swung into the final bomb run after passing the Initial Point, the fighter attacks fell off. This point is vital, and pilots were queried extensively, as were other crew members, as to the position at that time of the German fighter planes. Every man interrogated was firm in his statement that “at the time there were no enemy aircraft above.”[4]

At this moment the pilots and top turret gunners, as well as several crewmen in the plexiglas noses of the bombers, reported a cluster of discs in the path of the 384th’s formation and closing with the bombers. The startled exclamations focused attention on the phenomenon, and the crews talked back and forth, discussing and confirming the astonishing sight before them.

The discs in the cluster were agreed upon as being silver colored, about one inch thick and three inches in diameter. They were easily seen by the B-17 crewmen, gliding down slowly in a very uniform cluster.

And then the “impossible” happened. B-17 Number 026 closed rapidly with a cluster of discs; the pilot attempted to evade an imminent collision with the objects, but was unsuccessful in his maneuver. He reported at the intelligence debriefing that his “right wing went directly through a cluster with absolutely no effect on engines or plane surface.”

The intelligence officers pressed their questioning, and the pilot stated further that one of the discs was heard to strike the tail assembly of his B-17, but that neither he nor any member of the crew heard or witnessed an explosion.

He further explained that about twenty feet from the discs the pilots sighted a mass of black debris of varying sizes in clusters of three by four feet.

The SECRET report added; “Also observed two other A/C flying through silver discs with no apparent damage. Observed discs and debris two other times but could not determine where it came from.”

No further information on this baffling incident has been uncovered, with the exception that such discs were observed by pilots and crew members on missions prior to, and after, Mission 115 of October 14, 1943.

The 1st Air Division’s Circular Error Report[5] for its groups read as follows:

92d Group—1,800 feet for 61 bombs

305th Group—2,000 feet for 8 bombs

306th Group—1,920 feet for 16 bombs

91st Group—1,100 feet for 39 bombs

381st/351st Groups              —5,930 feet for 60 bombs

379th Group —1,010 feet for 34 bombs

384th Group—1,660 feet for 18 bombs

303d Group—2,369 feet for 19 bombs

The 388th Group, which formed as the low group of the lead combat wing of the 2d Air Task Force (entire 3d Air Division), reported the target area as heavily obscured by smoke from the previous attack of the preceding division. The lead bombardier was unable to identify either the target itself or the marshaling yards that were located to the south. He set up his horizontal cross hairs on the bridge over the Main River which was southeast of the target. Unfortunately, the prearranged check point for the course, which was to have passed over the marshaling yards, was also obscured by smoke and the bombardier had no positive check on his course.

The bombs of this division, strike photographs revealed, fell slightly to the right of the target, enveloping the southern half of the target and the eastern end of the marshaling yards.

Colonel Van DeVander, leader of the 385th Group, which led the 4th Combat Wing, 3d Air Division, reported: “‘We had perfect visibility and could see the target from forty to fifty miles away. The lead wing never did make a definite turn, and did not drop any flares. I was going to go inside of the wing ahead; however, after firing two flares, they started swinging back in front of us. I had to swing over, and that may have bothered the 94th Group. I set up the Automatic Flight Control Equipment and gave it to the bombardier. The pilot turned it off accidentally, but I immediately switched it back on again, and we had a perfect run. Flak was not bad in some areas, but intense over the target. Then I could see many bursts. We made a fairly sharp turn off the target, but we pulled into fairly good defensive formation. I could not catch up on any distance on the lead wing without increasing speed. The 94th Group said that they could increase their speed, and we then made up distance and fell into formation. There were some fighter at-tacks, not heavy.”

Of all the Fortresses dispatched, it will be recalled, a final number of 228 bombers reached the target area. One additional B-17 was forced to get rid of its bomb load, which it dropped on the first “target of opportunity,” and did not contribute to the attack.

The B-17 force struck the targets—the primary of the ball-bearing works and the secondary of the city of Schweinfurt— in two waves that extended from 21,000 to 24,000 feet altitude. The first wave—1st Air Division—started its bomb runs at 1439 hours, and the last plane passed over the industrial center of Schweinfurt six minutes later, at 1445 hours.

Six minutes later the first wave of the 3d Air Division (2d Air Task Force) moved into its bombing run; this continued for exactly six more minutes. From the beginning to the end of all bomb runs eighteen minutes were consumed.

The 1st and 3d Air Divisions, as noted in an earlier chapter, dispatched an effective total of 291 Fortresses on Mission 115. Of this force, 26 bombers turned back to England because of mechanical and equipment failures. Five aborted the mission from personnel failures, two became lost in the overcast during attempt to assemble, and excessive fuel consumption forced another abort.

The loss of these 34 bombers, plus that of the 60 B-24’s of the 2d Air Division, and other aborts, depleted Mission 115’s strength to 257 bombers. The fierce Luftwaffe fighter attacks on the approach and penetration into Germany cut another 28 bombers out of formation before the target was reached, leaving 229 Fortresses. Battle damage forced one of these to dump its bombs on the first available target.

There was no question—either then or after careful study of the results of the attack—that in respect to effective bombing, Mission 115 was an unqualified success.

Nearly four hundred tons of high-explosive bombs and 88 tons of incendiaries fell on or about all three of the major ball bearings works. The plants were struck heavily, much more effectively, in fact, than in the initial raid of August 17, which had caused a severe drop in the production of one plant.

The success of Mission 115 left no question but that it was the most important of the sixteen raids carried out during the war against the Schweinfurt complex. Beyond any doubt it was the most effective in bombing, and it caused the most damage to plants in the city. It also caused, directly, the greatest interference with production. The repercussions of the raid that swept the industrial hierarchy and the government itself led directly to a reorganization of the entire German bearings industry.

“The raids of 14 October,” states the Army Air Forces in its official history, “coming upon the still fresh damage of 17 August, alarmed the German industrial planners to a degree that almost justified the optimistic estimates made by Allied observers in the fall of that year.”

All this, however, still lay in the future. For the moment there was the task for the bombers of surviving to reach England.

The prospects of survival were not good. Just after the lead group of the 3d Air Division came off the target a force of 160 single-engine fighters rushed in for “a very intense attack.” The worst losses of Mission 115 were yet to come.

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