Military history

PART II — THE MISSION BEGINS

Chapter IV — FIRST MOTION

In the history of the Army Air Forces in World War II, the second week of October, 1943, is listed as “most critical.” The VIII Bomber Command made four major efforts during those seven days to destroy vital industrial targets within Germany.

On October 8, 399 heavy bombers left their bases to attack Bremen and Vegesack. A force of 357 of these aircraft struck their targets. Thirty bombers were shot down, 26 received major damage, and another 150 bombers were “slightly damaged.”

The next day, October 9, 378 bombers went out, of which 352 struck their objectives at Gdynia, Danzig, Marienburg, and Anklam. German fighters and flak shot down 28 heavy bombers.

On October 10, the third attack in as many days, a force of 236 bombers attacked the city of Münster. Thirty bombers were lost to the enemy.

For the three-day period, the VIII Bomber Command had lost in battle a total of 88 heavy bombers and nearly nine hundred men. Several hundred bombers were damaged in varying degrees; a number of these never flew again. Within the aircraft that returned to England were dozens of dead and wounded.

Then came Schweinfurt, on October 14....

Mission 115 begins in subdued fashion, invisible to the outside world. The scene is Pinetree, General F. L. Anderson’s headquarters for the VIII Bomber Command at High Wycombe, and, more specifically, in a square, large room with a high ceiling buried beneath thirty feet of reinforced concrete. Here five officers sit around a large table at what is known as the Daily Operations Conference. On the table there are thick sheafs of paper, charts and graphs, maps, photographs, messages, and scribbled notes.

These men may discuss the affairs of the day for perhaps forty-five minutes, or the conference may stretch out to four hours. When they have completed their meeting, they will have dissected in its most intimate detail an enemy city, its factories, labor force, products, shipments, its vulnerability. They will have discussed its anti-aircraft defenses, the German fighter forces along the route to the target and along the aerial pathway the bombers will follow to return to England. The route is carefully chosen; it is impossible to avoid the Messerschmitts and Junkers and Focke-Wulfs and Dorniers and Heinkels directly, but the route can skirt the bristling flak batteries of the Luftwaffe. These men who meet beneath the thick concrete walls leave nothing unsaid, nothing unanswered; they will weigh the vital nature of this city’s industry against that of other cities, and they will fit this impending mission precisely into its place among those already past and those to come.

For this target, what size bombs? Incendiaries to high explosives in what proportion? All bombs internal, or thousand-pounders also to be slung beneath the wings? What about weather: at take-off, on the route, over the target, on the way home, and for landing? Escort? How far can the fighters provide cover? Thunderbolts or Spitfires, or both in a coordinated outward-and inward-bound escort mission?

On a large wall in front of the five officers is a giant map of Europe. The heartland of the enemy. It is a map laced with red lines—the “blood highways of the air,” as they are aptly named —showing the aerial pathways to and from the targets of Germany proper and its occupied nations. The “Old Man” completes his discussions with his aides. For all intents and purposes, indeed, in full reality, the decision to attack, or to keep the bombers on the ground, for whatever reasons may exist, is his and his alone.

General Anderson stares into space for a long moment. He thinks now not simply in terms of statistics and tonnage and target analysis. These are human beings, flesh and blood, who make the statistics move, who change the lines on the graphs. For the moment the silence is oppressive, and it is gloomy. How many men will be killed today? How many were killed last week, and the week before? The general’s hand slaps lightly on the thick wooden table.

He looks up. “All right. Schweinfurt it is, then.”

Schweinfurt it is, then...”

The four words are the signal that opens a torrent of orders and movements. It begins as a trickle, a Warning Order that flashes from VIII Bomber Command headquarters to the air divisions scattered throughout England. The Warning Order is the command to grind into motion the vast and intricate machine of destruction that is the modern heavy-bombardment force. Behind the order are months of experience, bitter and

“Schweinfurt—that’s that god-damned killer town,” one officer mumbles as the order clatters from its teletype machine. Ahead are many hours of intense manipulation of men, machines, aviation gasoline, incendiary bombs, and high explosives. The coordination of the sprawling complex is truly a masterful effort, so that the VIII may spawn into the sky several hundred bombers, several thousand men, thousands of bombs, and hundreds of thousands of machine-gun bullets. Into the great formations that will wheel with throbbing majesty through the cloud-flecked skies must go fuel, oxygen, sandwiches, first-aid kits, bomb sights, maps, clothing, extra shoes, parachutes—all the many hundreds of small items that are essential to bring about that fateful moment when men in plexiglas wombs may peer through optical sights at cross hairs and toggle bomb switches that blink out rows of red lights.

The orders disseminate like electronic waves across miles of England. At 1815 hours on October 13 the 92d Bombardment Group at Alconbury receives its orders to load all B-17 aircraft with six 1,000-pound bombs each. At 2335 hours of the same day Field Order 220 arrives from the 1st Bomb Division. The Group will brief the crews at 0700 hours on October 14, and commence take-off at 1012 hours. During the long hours as the ground crews ready the giant bombers, the 40th Combat Wing Field Order for Mission 115 comes in at or 30: the 92d Group will put up 21 B-17 aircraft and will fly as the lead group in the 40th Combat Wing Formation.

That’s all; just the lead group. Prime target for the fighters.

At all the other stations the same orders, varying only in details of minutes and bomb loads and numbers of aircraft and positions in formations, are received, passed on, and generate their activity. Airdrome station names, unknown only a year ago or less, today mean “home” to thousands of men, enlisted men and officers, young and old. Alconbury, Bassingbourne, Grafton Underwood, Polebrook, Thurleigh, Hardwick, Great Ashfield, Knettisham, Ridgewell, Thrope Abbotts, Chelveston, Kimbolton, Molesworth, Bury St. Edmunds, Framlingham, Horsham St. Faith—and the others. Tonight they all have a great deal in common, and they are all also wet and cold and dank and uncomfortable.

Pick one station at random. A flat and grassy plain stretches two miles on a side, and it suffers the crisscrossing of its center by ribbons of concrete or macadam; the ribbons are the runways to send into the air, and to receive, the 30-ton bombers. Around these ribbons there runs a paved track, circling the field, a perimeter taxiway along which the big bombers trundle like great, ungainly winged whales. Then, farther out, along the edges of the crisscrossed area, there are the dispersal areas where the great birds squat, stolid and brooding, insensitive and mute to the ministrations of their ground crews.

Cavernous hangars loom like ghostly embattlements around the field; on the sides of these structures with their gaping maws that swallow 60,000-pound bombers whole are the clusters of administrative buildings, the closer huddling forms of workshops. Sometimes on the airdrome itself, but more often spilling out in a strange haphazard fashion across the plowed land and the thickets and the stinking, everlasting mud, are the mess halls for the officers and men. The paths to these oases of food and hot coffee rarely are visible in the mud, the snaking quagmire that works its way to the doors, but they nonetheless are always known.

Then, of course, there are the barracks. The barracks that are cold and dismal and wet. The barracks that never have had, or ever will have, coal sufficient to keep them warm and dry. The favorite pastime for the young officers at this station, it seems, is to steal sacks of coal from the unhappy British farmers nearby, and then to lead the shouting and irate citizens in wild chases under wet skies across the plowed fields. An odd way to keep physically fit, perhaps, but at this very station, the night before the Schweinfurt mission, this is exactly what happens. A first lieutenant, twenty-three years old, a pilot and veteran of two dozen bombing missions (also cited for bravery under fire), had to steal a 50-pound bag of coal to replenish the empty stock in his barracks. It is just another phase of life in the cold winter of 1943...

Now, shortly after midnight, the stations in England are un-lighted. There is the familiar haze overhead, the scud sweeping across the country only 300 feet high, the atmosphere sodden.

You cannot say too much about this weather, because for the crews it is a curse that must be borne anew almost every day. Yet, even at those stations where the dispersal areas and the hangars do not yet give forth the rumbling thunder of bomber engines being tuned for their work, there is sound to be heard. It is a whisper, a bass drone. Somewhere “up there,” perhaps in the murk or beneath the stars gleaming over the thick cloud tops, a coal-black night fighter cruises on patrol, the cannon and guns “hot.”

The four-engine bombers squat and brood in darkness, but as a man’s eyes become accustomed to the night, the Fortresses no longer are formless. Now they are grotesque, shadowy hulks in the gloom. Men stand beneath the winged metal creatures, guns slung over shoulders; perhaps they pace impatiently on their guard duty, or welcome the subdued slap-slap of mechanics’ feet on the concrete approaching the mute aircraft. As each group receives the orders spreading through the divisions, the nocturnal stirring increases. The guards listen to the rumble of heavy trucks moving slowly, shifting gears whining in protest as they move around the perimeter tracks, splashing through black water to deliver parts to another shadow in the wet night.

The hangars are alive, the scene of many men hard at work, attending to the Flying Fortresses. Propellers turn slowly, they complain as starters move them around; smoke boils out of exhaust stacks, spats back angrily as the controlled explosions begin the internal frenzy beneath the cowlings, and then frays into wisps as the big blades revolve into blurs. All manner of work goes on: a new turret is eased into place, a new propeller is bolted to its shaft. Repairs large and minor, sometimes accomplished easily, but often with sweating, cursing labor ... all to ready the 30-ton bombers for their rendezvous with the elite of the Luftwaffe.

At each group airdrome there is a windowless room, sealed tightly and guarded heavily. The entrances are gas-proof, the blackout curtains double. Here is the Message Center and the Operations Room, drowning in brilliant light.

Between one and two in the morning the teletypes clatter suddenly across East Anglia, in 16 bomber groups with B-17’s and three with B-24’s; they trickle their messages into three fighter groups of the VIII Fighter Command, signaling preparations for the powerful P-47 Thunderbolt escort fighters. The sheets of paper snake upward beneath the viewing glass. At each base there is a virtual repetition of what occurs elsewhere.

It is a pyramiding effect, starting at the top and flowing downward, broadening as it moves. Command conceives the raid, and from here responsibility moves on to Bomb Division, which plans and schedules the “big picture.” At the next level, Combat Wing further details and then directs activity. The groups receive their orders from Wing, and transpose the teletype messages to action. Within the groups there are the individual squadrons; within squadrons the flights. Within the flights, the individual bombers. And within each bomber we reach the level of flesh and blood. Ten men.

The entire vast machine rumbles into motion. Now, Command can only wait. Bomb Division is through; it files its papers, locks the files, puts the staff people on duty, and wearily goes to bed.

In the intelligence rooms of the nineteen groups at the bomber bases the duty officers pin large pieces of transparent plastic over the wall maps. They then carefully rule long lines in grease pencil on the acetate: the aerial pathways, routes to and from target.

The flak officers brush past the inner blackout curtains. With other officers they huddle in groups, studying reconnaissance photographs, peering at pictures of rivers, streets, smokestacks, gas and water tanks, power stations, factory buildings and workshops, bridges, hutments, airfields, flak gun positions, railroad sidings and yards.

At each group the intelligence officer bends over the target chart and carefully marks a small circle. This is the MPI—the Mean Point of Impact. Bull’s-eye for the day for the thick, ugly darts with blunt noses and squared tail fins and innards of a thousand pounds of blasting hell.

Shortly before 0200 hours, at the average group, the commanding officer enters the intelligence room and walks to his desk. Waiting for him is a complete copy of the Combat Order. It contains the full details of the symphony in thundering motors and take-off schedules and assembly times and altitudes. It contains information on Take-off, Mean Point of Impact, Initial Point, Rally Point, routes, opposition expected, bomb loadings and weights—everything to accomplish the orchestral din of heavy bombardment in massed strength. The C.O. reads every word. He studies, makes notes, commits details to memory. The hands on the wall clock move, and the hours pass....

Each group flying officer plots in exacting detail the assembly of all his forces. His task is to juggle dozens of pieces and then have all the pieces drop at specific time slots into their proper places. Each heavy bomber must be in its proper position on the perimeter track at a specific time. Each must move to the edge of the runway and each must take off at thirty-second intervals. Each must lumber into the air, wheel exactly on schedule, and reach its appointed place at so many thousands of feet in the sky, so that it may assemble with the other bombers. If the schedule is not met, the formations will be disorganized, the wings will straggle, the divisions will lack the complex interfiring defensive screen they will need so badly over German territory.

In the operations room the watch officer checks the crew lists with squadron commanders; this is the level of human beings under the flesh-and-blood-cloaking titles of pilot, co-pilot, bombardier (or toggleer), navigator, radio operator, gunner—again this is broken down into TT (Top Turret), BT (Ball Turret), TG (Tail Gunner), LWG (Left Waist Gunner), and RWG (Right Waist Gunner).

The group navigators have their flight computers out, charts spread carefully on long tables. They are juggling into proper sequence take-off times, rendezvous points, altitudes to match positions, code names, colors, letters, and signals, “splasher” radio navigational aids, frequencies to use, check points—all to make possible the exact course in the sky.

There are haze and mist and rain over the runways; in the Briefing Rooms hang the thin and acrid smell of coal smoke, the gathering accumulation of smoke from cigarettes and pipes and cigars.

At Thurleigh, Colonel Budd J. Peaslee, who is to lead the 1st Air Division into battle, moves through several doors at Wing Headquarters to the operations office. Here the duty officer has glued his ear to the red scrambler, a special telephone rigged for secret conversation. The words spoken into the telephone are snarled electrically into an unintelligible garble of sound that is so much static to someone who taps the line; at the receiver, however, it is rescrambled again into sensible sound. Peaslee watches the duty officer, who seems to be engaged in a one-sided conversation; his only contributions are curt, a “Yes,” or “No,” or “Twenty-seven” or “Fifty-two.”

Peaslee walks to the wall containing the operations map, pulls back the curtain, and stares only at the German end of the black yarn stretched from England to the target. “One look was enough,” he recalls today with distaste.

The duty officer says “Over and out,” drops the red scrambler back on its hook, and looks up.

“Rough show,” he comments flatly to Peaslee, “but with this soup outside they’ll probably scrub it before take-off.” “Maybe,” the colonel replies, “but we’ve gone before when it was like this. Remember the morning we lost ten at the end of the runway?”

The duty officer doesn’t like to remember it, and neither does Peaslee, but it isn’t easy to forget. That particular morning ten bombers had piled up during take-off. “They all had armed bombs in their bays,” Peaslee recalls, “and there were a hundred men aboard. It was the same kind of morning, wet and lousy, and suddenly it was lighted by a series of brilliant flashes* and then there was nothing.”

One hundred men, and...nothing.

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