Mission 115 earned its niche in the history of war as the most savage aerial battle ever fought. Not the least of the factors contributing to this distinction were the unprecedented fury and efficiency of the defending Luftwaffe fighter force. The presence of Thunderbolt escort fighters for approximately two hundred and forty miles out from England served substantially to reduce the initial effect of the enemy attack. Thirteen fighters definitely destroyed, as well as several damaged, resulted in an immediate if minor depletion of the enemy strength. More important, however, the aggressive Thunderbolt maneuvers broke up attacking German formations. This reduced the total time of enemy attack on the B-17’s and prevented the terrible casualties from becoming even greater.
As we have seen, the German pilots hit the bombers shortly after they penetrated the airspace over the Continent. The harassment all the way to Schweinfurt was constant and brutal, and to a lessened degree the enemy struck again and again at the battered force as it struggled to reach the safety of England. In some instances single-engine fighters harried bomber groups more than midway across the Channel. It is unfortunate that weather kept the Thunderbolts and Spitfires which were to have provided withdrawal escort on the ground. An effective withdrawal screen would have saved several more Fortresses.
Most of the tactics that the Germans employed against Mission 115—formation attacks, use of rockets and heavy nose-mounted cannon, air-to-air bombing, concentration on one bomber group at a time, and hitting swiftly at all stragglers— had been used before, especially in the terrible three days of October 8, 9, and 10. But not until October 14 did the Luftwaffe reach such efficiency in the maximum coordination of all their weapons and tactics.
The blows hurled against the B-17 formations varied from wing to wing, but consistent general patterns emerged. The most dominant of these was the large screen of single-engine fighters, usually Messerschmitt Me-109’s or Focke-Wulf FW-190’s. These raced into the bombers with an attack from dead ahead, firing their 20-mm. cannon and machine guns until very close to the formation. On the heels of the single-engine fighters, thus protected from B-17 defensive fire until the last moment, were large formations of twin-engine fighters. These roared in to attack in waves, the fighter mass launching deadly
The majority of single-engine attacks came from the nose, between ten o’clock and two o’clock, and were pressed home with three to five fighters. While these nose attacks closed to point-blank range, other single-engine fighters attacked simultaneously from high and low positions “in such rapid succession that gunners could not even make observations. At the same time the twin-engine fighters stood out from our tail positions and lobbed rockets into the formation.”
Another pilot reports: “Flights of the twin-engine aircraft stood off at 1,500 yards at both sides and on the tails of the formations to lob rockets or heavy cannon shells into formations. They hit with devastating effect. Simultaneously the single-engine fighters attacked from the nose, from high and low, spraying us with 20-mm. cannon. During the interval between waves of the twin-engine aircraft, the single-engine fighters dived through the formations from all angles.
“Those single-engine boys resorted to every tactic of aerial combat known, and from all angles. They even dreamed up a couple of new ideas. They barrel-rolled wildly through the formations, hurling out streams of cannon shells and tracers.”
The moment the single-engine fighters exhausted their am-munition, they dived at high speed for the nearest fields to refuel and to replenish ammunition, and returned at once to the battle as it marched across Germany. Since reforming into tight groups was impossible for most of these fighters, they swarmed individually into the Fortresses like hornets, striking targets of opportunity, and racing into and through the formations from all directions. During the intervals when the twin-engine fighters dropped away to refuel and rearm, the single-engine planes especially harassed the bombers. And soon afterward the heavier fighters returned. They reassembled in tight formations, sweeping in with their advantage of massed waves in precision attacks.
As the stream of Flying Fortresses neared the target, a definite change in the pattern of attacks emerged. The Germans began to concentrate on a single formation, closing in to point-blank firing runs. This was the most feared of all the tactics the Germans might adopt, and its effectiveness was appalling. The masses of twin-engine strikes sent rockets into the midst of the formations, scattering the planes and diluting the effectiveness of their defensive fire screen. Pressing their advantage to the utmost, both single and twin-engine fighters rushed in close, pressing their runs with heavy cannon and machine guns. The moment a cripple showed, a swarm of single-engine fighters immediately pounced to deliver the coup de grâce.
The Germans changed completely one previous pattern in their air-defense maneuvers. On earlier raids, a cripple that straggled from the formation was left to the attentions of fighters such as the Messerschmitt Me-110. Heavily armed with four cannon and two machine guns firing forward in a massed stream from the nose, the Me-110 was handicapped by a much slower speed than the single-engine airplanes. Against a crippled Fortress, however, its speed was excellent, and its ability to deliver tremendous bursts of firepower usually assured that the B-17 went down. On this mission, however, the Germans’ single-engine fighters swooped away from the mass formations to hit cripples and stragglers, while the heavier and larger fighters stayed with the bomber stream.
As best they could, the planners of Mission 115 routed the two bombardment divisions around German ground defenses. The bombers reported “en route meager inaccurate flak” at Domburg, West Schouwen, Woensdrecht, and Antwerp, and “en route meager accurate flak” at Limburg, Friedberg, and Würzburg. Flak over the target was “intense and accurate.”
Bomber crews reported anti-aircraft bursts as red, white, and black, and also caught the interest of intelligence officers with descriptions of flak that burst with a rich “purple flash, and produced a purple smoke cloud.” For the first time in any numbers the Germans employed flak rockets. These were seen near Worms as intense bursts of flame near the ground and thin smoke trails racing into the sky after the bombers. They proved ineffective, and were more interesting than dangerous.
The array of aircraft thrown into the battle was unprecedented, not merely in number but in types. The single-engine fighters included the familiar Messerschmitt Me-109’s and Focke-Wulf FW-190’s. For the first time in daylight intercepts the crews also sighted the small Heinkel He-113. “They were unmistakable as the He-113’s a pilot reported. “They were flown by green kids, were sloppy in their maneuvers, and they left themselves wide open for our gunners. They got the hell shot out of them.”
German twin-engine fighters included the twin-tailed Messerschmitt Me-11 o’s and swarms of Messerschmitt Me-210’s, much faster than the earlier fighters. Also among the twin-engine attackers were the Junkers Ju-88 bombers modified to carry rockets and heavy armament batteries. Focke-Wulf FW-189’s, normally seen close to the ground in support operations, also swept in against the Fortress stream.
B-17 pilots identified the vintage Heinkel He-111 bomber with its broad, unmistakable elliptical wings, which the Germans used primarily as rocket launching platforms. At 22,000 feet several bomber crews were startled to see single-engine Junkers Ju-87 Stukas, broad fixed landing gear unmistakable, as they struggled in the thin air. Dornier Do-217 twin-engine bombers, bristling with rockets and cannon, also attacked in waves.
Into the savage air struggle the Germans threw even their two main four-engine bombers. Heinkel He-177’s made rocket and cannon attacks against the Fortresses, while the giant Focke-Wulf FW-200K Kuriers, raiders of Atlantic merchant convoys, cruised behind the Fortresses to radio to fighter vector stations and flak headquarters sites the exact altitude, speed, and position of the American bombers.
The enemy fighters were marked with a dazzling variety of colors and stripes. Me-109’s were distinctive with gleaming paint surfaces that featured an orange-colored nose and under-side of the cowling, with the rest of the airplane black. Several FW-190’s were completely yellow, and polished to a high gloss. Me-11 o’s had a large yellow patch on the center under-side of the airplanes, and many Ju-88’s were seen with all-white bellies and multi-colored striped tops.
The 3d Air Division reported still further variations in fighter identifications. They saw Ju-88’s with all-black bellies and upper surfaces painted white or cream. Me-109’s appeared with green bellies and the rest of the aircraft all silver. The four-engine FW-200K Kuriers were all painted silver. Several FW-190’s were seen with yellow noses and green cowlings, and the He-177 four-engine bombers appeared in mixed black-and-white color schemes.
The 1st Air Division reported that between 250 and 300 enemy fighters were airborne and in positions to attack their formations in a continuous running air battle. Groups of from 50 to 60 fighters pressed home their attacks to “ramming distance,” and broke off their repeated passes only when fresh groups arrived as reinforcements to institute new sweeps into the formations. Other attacks were made from various positions of the clock in groups of three to seven fighters, with every firing run “pressed home most vigorously.” These served to distract much of the firepower from the heavy massed fighter runs from dead on.
The first attacks of the day against the lead air division began at 1333 hours, after the Thunderbolts turned back near Aachen. They continued until the French border was reached near Ludwigshafen. At 1647 hours—after three hours and fourteen minutes of continuous air battle—the Germans left.
“The air was literally filled with single-engine and twin-engine fighters,” states the official report of Mission 115 by the 1st Bombardment Division, “with FW-190’s acting as diversion screens for the twin-engine ships. The single-engine aircraft attacked to attract the gunners, and at the same time twin-engine fighters in formations of three, four, and five slipped in behind the diversionary groups. When the Germans attacked in this fashion, twin-engine fighters released their rockets as close as two hundred yards and then slipped away. Most of these attacks were made against tail positions.”
The 1st Division encountered most of its intense opposition en route to the target; attacks by German fighters dropped off considerably after the bombs were released, with only a few attacks made on two of the withdrawing task forces in this division.
The 3d Air Division in its withdrawal suffered a particularly severe and determined attack. “A very intense attack was made against the lead group by approximately 160 single-engine fighters just after the target,” reported a 3d Air Division wing commander. “They attacked in waves of ten to twenty/’ The 3d Air Division commander reported that “the enemy aircraft approached our formation in compact groups and in over-powering strength.”
Certain groups were virtually slaughtered by the Germans, and others miraculously found the gaps in the air battle and met only mild defense by the German pilots. “The whole German Air Force was there,” reported a weary Major George W. Harris, Jr., who led the 384th Group. “They dived in sixes and in fours and everything else, and they stayed with us until we had reached France on the way back.”
“We had no trouble until the P-47’s left,” said the leader of the 306th Group, “then all hell broke loose. Between the Rhine and the target our formations were attacked by at least three hundred enemy aircraft. Rocket guns mounted under the wings of enemy aircraft fired into our tight defensive formations caused the highest rate of casualties. The crews described the scene as similar to a parachute invasion, there were so many crews bailing out.” This group lost ten bombers and 100 men.
The 388th Group, as part of the second attacking wave of bombers, was one of the few units to enjoy a miraculous reprieve from the slaughter in the air. Eighteen bombers took off, two aborted, and the remaining 16 bombers went on. “Enemy fighter opposition was moderate,” reported the group leader at debriefing. “Fighters attacked from the vicinity of Eupen in eastern Belgium, in to the target, and all the way back to the French coast. There were never more than ten fighters in the air around the group at any one time, generally five to six. Most attacks were from the tail.” All 10 bombers came home, and only one man out of the 160 aboard was wounded.
The 92d Bomber Group (first wave) reported that ten minutes after the first German planes appeared in sight, a large flight of twin-engine Me-210’s came in fast from astern and a little high. “At 2,000 yards they split four ways to attack the groups in the rear of the formations. From then on both twin-engine and single-engine fighters attacked viciously.”
Usually the heavy fighter planes released their rockets from beyond the range of the bombers’ .50-caliber guns, though many also came in as close as 200 yards. Single-engine fighters carried these projectiles beneath the belly, and the twin-engine planes held two rockets beneath each wing, making a total of four. When fired, the rockets trailed a brilliant and long red streak.
Several crews reported Me-210’s closing in to about five hundred yards, when “suddenly the aircraft seemed to disappear in a brilliant glare. There were four very bright flashes. The rockets were on the way. Then they came in close to use the 20-mm. cannon.”
All reports were consistent that the rocket bursts were at least as large, or larger, than a heavy flak burst. Many of the rockets obviously were of a larger size, for the crews stated emphatically that these were “at least four times as large and as powerful in their effect as an 88-mm. gun burst.”
In the Ruhr area the fighters released rockets that “burst in a continuous stream of flashes. A red flare exploded first, followed by dense black smoke. Out of each burst came clusters of smaller shells that exploded a few seconds later. Some rockets were extremely large, bursting with four times the size of flak.” A pilot of the 92d Group reported: “Whenever a Fort was hit by such a projectile, it immediately exploded or fell apart.” One such victim was the one reported by Colonel Peaslee, hit directly ahead of his own airplane. A careful check of observations from all crews surviving in this group revealed two bombers lost within seconds. The first dropped from the formation in a steady dive, the number three and four engines burning, and the propeller of another engine feathered. Nine parachutes blossomed: “a slightly cheering prospect in the middle of hell.”
Then, exactly at 1357 hours, a rocket sailed into the wing root of B-17 Number 321, piloted by Lieutenant Clough, “The wing blew off, a tremendous sheet of flame ripped out of the airplane, and it whipped into a very tight spin. One chute was seen to come out before the airplane exploded at 21,000 feet.” Another report described a new type of cannon never experienced before Mission 115: “Several large twin-engine air-craft closed to 850 yards to fire their rockets, or to blaze away with cannon shells of a large size and type never before experienced. Large flashes were seen from the leading edges of the wings close to the wing roots. Continuous fire for a short time was observed, until the aircraft turned away. Gun flashes and projectile bursts were larger than 20-mm, fire, and the bursts exploded in the formation with black smoke on top and white smoke on the bottom. The bursts were equivalent in explosive force to flak.
“B-17’s hit by these projectiles invariably started to burn fiercely, and immediately. One projectile, not otherwise identified, was observed to hit the number-four engine nacelle of the lead aircraft of the second element of the 92d Group, and after one-half minute the engine caught fire. The shell seemed to sit on the wing of the nacelle and burn brilliantly.”
Both air divisions reported attempts by German fighters to bomb the formations from higher altitudes. In one instance five Focke-Wulf FW-190’s drifted in above the 92 d Group, approximately fifteen hundred feet over the bombers and flying parallel. When almost directly overhead several objects, “which looked like small standard bombs,” fell away toward the B-17’s. White smoke streamers trailed the bombs, which fell in a tight spiral. None of these bombs struck the Fortresses, and they all dropped out of sight without exploding.
Several times single-engine fighters made individual bombing attacks, which varied in approach. An Me-109 flew 1,000 feet above and parallel with one group formation. Directly above the bombers it dropped “several objects which appeared to be small and round. The crews stated that they believed these objects were dropped over the side of the enemy aircraft by hand, in rapid succession. No strikes were made...
A bomber group in the 3d Air Division was attacked by an Me-109 which flew along the same course as the Fortresses. This fighter stayed high; at 32,000 feet it was at least 5,000 feet above the B-17’s, The bomb dropped ahead of the formation, “about a thousand yards out, and exploded well below the group. Strings of smoke were observed when the bomb was dropped.”
Still another group reported a number of incendiaries which showered down. “These were spider-like in appearance; they burst with a heavy black smoke that looked like oil smoke. They exploded with a dull flash.”
And to add a final note to these attacks, several Me-110 twin-engine fighters were observed to fly above and ahead of the formations, releasing aerial mines slung beneath parachutes. These drifted wide of the formations—their closest approach was reported to be at least 5,000 feet. Several exploded with a “blinding light” in the air, the others drifted out of sight without any detonation.
In no instances were the attempts to destroy the Fortresses by these aerial bombing attacks reported as successful.
One sighting—made up by the crews of several bombers— has to this day remained unexplained. The sighting is included in the mission report of the 92d Group, and is reproduced verbatim:
Four P-47’s, thought to be friendly American aircraft flown by the enemy, were observed on the approach to the Initial Point at 21,000 feet, heading 120° Magnetic. These aircraft flew out to the side and parallel with the combat wing formation in the manner of fighter escort. They suddenly executed a 900 turn in toward the head of the combat wing formation. These aircraft were originally at 800 yards on the port beam. They approached to 300 yards when they nosed up and away, showing a full-plan view of themselves. Positive identification is claimed. The aircraft had brown fuselages and the wings were a very dark color, almost black. No white cowling and no white tail markings were observed. No insignia was observed and the aircraft did not open fire. Several B-17’s fired on them. The last P-47 escort had long since departed and the enemy aircraft had been attacking for some time at this point.
Heavy anti-aircraft shells and rockets from the ground, and in the air machine guns, cannon» rockets, bombs, aerial mines, incendiary bombs, and even hand-thrown weapons, made up the arsenal the Luftwaffe hurled against Mission 115, There was still another; this report is typical of many:
On three different occasions FW-190’s swooped down and just over the parachutes of our men who had bailed out. They raced in close, propellers just clearing the chutes. The slip stream either scooped air out of the chutes or collapsed them, and on each occasion the chute and wearer plummeted to the ground.