Military history

Chapter VI — THE BRIEFINGS

Across more than fifty miles of England, on the cold morning of October 14, the flying crews of the nineteen bomber groups committed to Mission 115 drift toward the briefing rooms. It is the flow of 3,000 men who will forsake earth and enter the high vaults. Their movement is in the form of small tributaries thickening into streams of air crews; these swirl temporarily in the backup before the building entrances. Outside each building there stand two guards, immaculate of dress, carefully checking passes and faces.

Thurleigh, the headquarters of the 40th Combat Wing, is also the home base of the 306th Group. Wing headquarters, a tenant on Thurleigh, is just big enough to tie three heavy-bomber groups—the 306th, the 305th at Chelveston, and the 92d at Alconbury—together in their combat operations. Colonel Howard M. (“Slim”) Turner and Colonel Budd Peaslee, along with some operations and intelligence officers and some airmen, make up the staff. They have no administrative function; they are concerned entirely with combat operations. Peaslee’s destination this morning is the 92d Group at Alconbury; he will fly the right seat in a B-17 that takes off from that airdrome.

Outside wing headquarters Peaslee’s driver switches the jeep lights on to full bright, but they can barely penetrate the early-morning gloom and fog, and what is now a driving rain. The car rumbles along; the colonel has been over this road a hundred times or more, and he sinks back into his own private thoughts. “I think about home, about my motherless children, my own mother, the take-off, the assembly in the air, the German fighters, our escort, the flak.” He smiles for a moment, seventeen years coming back clearly in his mind. “Those thoughts really weren’t so special, after all,” he explains. “At times like that the same things always came into my mind. I’m sure that 3,000 other men were thinking the same things.”

The car moves slowly in the murk toward Alconbury, head-quarters of the 92 d Bombardment Group, and stops beneath one of the few shielded lights glowing dully at the entrance. There are little groups of men—“the sloppiest men imaginable,” Peaslee describes them—entering the building under the watchful scrutiny of the usual two guards. No two of these men, it seems, ever dress exactly alike. They wear an amazing diversity of flying equipment. Some are clad in heavy leather jackets zipped up, and there is about them a semblance of dress. Many others have put on, of their flying gear, only their outside pants, and when these are left unzipped they flop around sloppily like ragged blankets. Only one item is common to all, always. This is the pair of clumsy sheepskin-lined flying boots that will keep their feet warm and dry.

Inside the building, under the glaring lights in the briefing room, Colonel Peaslee joins the crews. Today, as the air commander of the 1st Bomb Division, he will lead the Eighth Air Force into the enemy heartland. The colonel is forty-two years old. The “old-timers” usually stay on the ground, except when their turn comes to “lead the show.” For the moment, however, Peaslee joins the rest of the 92d’s crews like any other airman attending the briefing. Let his own notes, written so many years ago, bring the scene back to life:

“There is a heavy smoke haze now, and the temperature has risen noticeably from the body heat given off. They sit at all angles and postures on wooden benches and chairs. Some, sitting erect, are sound asleep. Others engage in animated conversations with their neighbors, and still others stare ahead at nothing. They are getting in their thinking, as I have. Bill [Colonel William Reid, 92d Group commander] and I are sitting in heavy leather chairs that never appeared on a supply order. I must ask him about them sometime.

“A neat major steps on the platform at the front of the room and begins roll call. He sings out only the names of the plane commanders. Each answers for his crew. There is some screwing around in the front rows as a few commanders turn to scan the faces in the back for their men. All are present. The major moves to the rear of the platform and rips aside a black curtain hanging against the wall. A large-scale map appears with the usual length of black yarn crossing it. There is no noise now as all lean forward, looking at the eastern end of the yarn.

“‘It’s Schweinfurt,’ the major says, and starts shuffling papers on the platform desk. He is giving us a few minutes to think it over. A buzz of talk breaks out instantly—wisecracks for the most part. One voice penetrates the others.

“‘Sonofabitch! And this is my last mission!’

“It may well have been.”

All across the Midlands and East Anglia much the same scene is enacted, in the nineteen bomber group briefing rooms, in those of the fighter groups which will escort the bombers to the limit of their endurance. But it is only for the bomber crewmen that Schweinfurt has its very special meaning. The briefings are on the same target, but not all the briefing officers follow the same scripts—except for the security officers. At each base the security officer steps to the front of the room with his usual warning; today, October 14, it assumes special significance.

“Do not talk about the target once you leave this room. Report at once to the S-2 officer any person having knowledge of the target whose duty does not require it. This applies even more to a scrubbed target.

“Anyone flying this mission who has not had PW instruction report to an S-2 officer immediately after the briefing.

“Be sure you wear your dog tags, GI shoes, and do not— repeat—do not wear squadron insignia. Carry your rank, name, and serial number only.

“No one will leave this briefing until dismissed.”

The Nissen huts and the brick buildings across England seem almost to be other-worldly, isolated as they are from the miser-able weather just beyond their walls. In some briefing rooms there are not enough seats and the men lean against the walls or against desks. The conversation is a loud, ragged drone. The movement of the intelligence officer to the front has all the effect of a curtain rising on a stage. Silence erases all sound.

A long ruler moves along the wall map. It begins with a light tap at the home station where the briefing takes place, then slides toward the east. The ruler leaves England, eases across the Channel, into the Continent, working its way toward Germany. Deeper and deeper into the enemy land, until in the far southern reaches, near Frankfurt, the ruler stops. But Frankfurt is not the answer. The intelligence officer, still looking at the map, states flatly, “This, gentlemen, is your target for today. Schweinfurt.”

He pauses. At the 92d Group, Peaslee and the other men in the room wait for the words to begin again. Why Schweinfurt— again? The question is in every man’s mind.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the intelligence officer at the front of the room continues. “That this is going to be a rough show. You are remembering the twenty-four bombers we lost on the first mission to Schweinfurt. You are wondering why we have to go back....

“I must impress upon you that Schweinfurt is the most critical target in all of Germany. It is at the head of our list. We cannot really go ahead with other targets until Schweinfurt is practically destroyed, or, at the very least, seriously crippled.” The men listen attentively. There is no longer any “screwing around,” for these are words of life and death. The intelligence officers at these bases are not assigned regularly to combat missions, but they command the respect of their men. Most of them have volunteered for and flown combat missions because they were self-conscious and sensitive about briefing combat crews on flak and fighters they had never seen.

The intelligence officers all across England explain why it must again be Schweinfurt. They discuss the importance and the relationship of ball bearings to industry, to planes and subs and tanks and guns and all sorts of equipment. “Half of all Germany’s ball bearings are produced at Schweinfurt,” drones the voice, and there is not a man who does not immediately reach the same conclusion. The Luftwaffe is going to turn not only Schweinfurt, but the route to and away from that target, into a vicious hornet’s nest. A shudder sweeps, almost perceptibly, through the briefing rooms. The men try not to look at one another, but many think the same thing. “Who will be missing from here tonight? How many crews will get it today?” Move across England into the area of the 3d Bomb Division area, the wave that will follow the force led by Peaslee. Here a group intelligence officer concentrates on target details: “Our target—the VKF Number One Plant—is one mile to the east of two other larger ball-bearing plants. It consists of a ball shop and a heat-treatment building surrounded by assembly, testing, and storage buildings where a six months’ supply of bearings is stored. These buildings are of old construction with wooden floors—they are pretty well soaked in oil. In the raid of August 17, the 1st Bomb Division did most of its damage to the west of our target, and only one or two bombs fell on the lower left comer of our target. Photos are on the wall and you can study them after the briefing.

“There are camouflage and smoke screens. The plants have probably all been camouflaged by disruptive painting since the last raid. Elaborate, double-ringed smoke screens, the inner taking in the target and the city. The outer ring forms an elongated pattern including an airdrome and the bend of the river, and enveloping the inner ring.”

In the briefing room of the 92d Group Colonel Peaslee studies the faces of the men around him. Until the target was announced to the combat crews, only he and a few briefing officers knew the eastern terminus of the black yarn stretching across Europe.

“Such a decision—selecting this target—was a terrible thing to have to do,” Peaslee recalled recently. “Not only were hundreds of lives involved, not only the fate of a nation, but the fate of many nations. Day after day, as the target decisions were made, the history of the world war changed. And a general who made one of those decisions knew it only too well. He has feelings like you and me, and when he was aware that hundreds and even thousands must die as a result of his order, his sleep became troubled and his food was tasteless. He had no choice but to inject steel into a heart as soft as yours and mine. He killed the enemy physically if we carried out his orders. He killed us emotionally if we turned back showing a white feather. And he killed himself a little all the time.”

At the 92d Bombardment Group, the intelligence officer—a schoolteacher in civilian life, whom the crews call “Dad”—is explaining, as recorded in Peaslee’s notes:

“Flak will be light to nil along the route, but you will get a few rounds as you pass south of the Ruhr, According to our last flak information, the target is defended by 300 heavies—88-mm. guns—and the gun crews are excellent. Your route will take you through the lightest concentrations and you will be under aimed fire for seven minutes. Your IP [Initial Point, where the bomber formation is committed to its specific target] is twenty miles southwest of Schweinfurt. You will turn right at ‘Bombs Away’ and get back into tight defensive formation for the return flight. The air commander [here he refers to Peaslee] will execute a series of slow turns to aid you in tightening up your formation. Your return route is over France, of course, and direct to the Channel. It is possible that the enemy may muster 300 fighters along your route [this was seriously underestimating the total], as he can draw from all of north Germany and France....

“The enemy fighters are persistent and aggressive. They will probably try to break up our formations with head-on attacks. You new crews—don’t panic and try to dodge. You’ll leave yourself wide open to get picked off if you straggle. You play into their hands and leave your comrades without their best defense, and you’re sure meat alone. Freeze into defensive formation, and if someone ahead gets out of tight formation, move right up into his place, for he has either been hit and will go down anyway or he is straggling. Don’t hesitate—it’s your neck.

“You tail gunners”—the major emphasizes this point—“keep a sharp watch for twin-engine 210’s sneaking up on vapor trails to blast you. Most of the day fighters are FW-190’s and Me-109’s, and it’s possible for some of them at least to hit you twice—on penetration and withdrawal. They will expect us to return across France, so the chances are that they will land in France after the first interception to rearm and refuel for your return. Consequently you must maintain defensive formation until you recross the Channel. The P-47, P-38’s, and Spits will cover you on the return to the limit of their range, but take no chances.”

They didn’t; the big P-47’s never got off the ground because of clouds that closed in the fields. The twin-boomed P-38 fighters didn’t become operational until the next day. No Spitfires showed up.

The major turns to the side and gives a quiet order to an aide, who grasps a rope and lowers a screen that has been folded on wooden arms against the ceiling. The lights blink out, and an operator steps up to a projector in front of the platform. Several pictures flash in succession on the screen while the major taps the pictures with a long pointer, and explains carefully the details the crews must know. The plane commanders carefully jot down notes. They follow the pointer as it touches on flak positions, on the aiming point for the bombs. They study schematic views of the city, stare at photographic blow-ups, mark down details of the RP—the Rally Point, where they will reassemble the formations after the bombs are gone.

The lights come on, and the screen disappears. The major known as “Dad” steps down, and another officer stands before the crews. The new speaker concentrates on escape and evasion. His talk is somewhat more grim, for he operates on the assumption that he is speaking to crews who are definitely going to be shot down. He discusses the escape routes available, and the procedures to follow in the event a crew reaches the ground alive in Germany, or France, or perhaps Holland or Belgium. (Many will.) If the airplane is under control while it is descending, the officer tells the pilots where to go—if at all possible.

He points to an arc of red yarn on the map. It is like a fence; inside the yarn there is protection. Outside the yarn—beyond the reach of friendly fighter escort—is No-Man’s Land. The yarn, unhappily, is much less than half the distance from England to Schweinfurt, where the black yarn ends. The officer tells in detail where the rescue boats are located in the North Sea to snatch up the crews of planes that must ditch in the water (one will). He emphasizes strongly the value of the escape kits, and explains the reception to be expected if the men parachute into the occupied countries. He spends little time on Germany itself. Most of the men in the room listen with impatience to this briefing, for they have heard it many times before, and they are bored; the briefing officer knows this, but there are new crews in the room, and even the older crews may hear something which this very same day will save their fives.

The cast on the stage changes, and the group navigator steps to the front. He punctuates his briefing with numbers and times and schedules, and the flying crewmen and navigators afford him absolute attention. He completely covers the take-off plan. He details individual planes into squadrons, the squadrons into groups. He assembles groups into wings, wings into divisions, and divisions into Air Task Forces.

These Air Task Forces will consist of the 1st, 2d, and 3d Air Divisions. They are intended to form an unbroken stream of four-engined aerial might that stretches a length of twenty miles. There should be more than three hundred heavy bombers in that stream.

No one knows it yet, but their actual number will be much less. Not just in numbers of aircraft, but in machine guns, in formation slots, in defensive boxes and fire screens needed desperately, but unavailable.

The group navigator continues with information on fighter routes, timing, and escort positions.

Finally he calls off the time “hack.” Each man in the room sets his watch at a selected minute and second. They listen carefully as the group navigator drones off the seconds—“give—four—three—two—one—hack!” At the final word every man in the room presses in the winding stem of his watch. Thus every one of the watches of the more than three thousand men assigned to the mission is correct and coordinated down to the second. Each briefing officer then announces H-hour; this is the take-off time for his group. The crews will man their aircraft exactly sixty minutes before H-hour.

The group bombardier announces data on bomb loading, fuse settings, the aiming points, and the bomb interval of the various squadrons. Next comes the armament officer, who specifies the amount of ammunition to be carried. Each airplane will carry for this mission an extra supply of .50-caliber shells. It means a tricky take-off in an airplane heavier than usual, but no one minds. They’re going to need every shell, and they are well aware of that need.

The weather officer takes the stand in front of the group, and his is the least assuring of all the briefings. The weather, to put it bluntly, stinks. Outside the briefing room, out on the runway of the 92d Group, and at the other twenty-one groups, the visibility is down to a quarter of a mile. The weather officer promises one mile at take-off time; that is vastly better, when you are rolling down a field no more than five thousand feet in length and the belly of the airplane is pregnant with stifled hell. Further details: the planes should break out and be in the clear at 2,000 feet. Along the assembly route there will still be a solid overcast beneath the bombers but, assures the officer, the Channel is clear and it’s just about perfect over the Continent. The weather for return does not look good at all, but the picture is changing almost by the minute.

Do they go, or stay? No one truly knows, and the decision to take off, or to scrub the mission, will not be made until the very last moment, when the bombers are at the runway, engines idling, waiting for the signal to roll.

The first briefing officer, the major from intelligence, returns to the front of the room. “Colonel Peaslee is here from Wing,” he announces. “He is air commander today and will be in the leading aircraft as co-pilot. Colonel, will you say a few words?”

“I knew this was coming,” Peaslee groaned in recollection.

“I had been trying to think of something to say all during the briefing. My mind is a complete void as I stumble to the plat-form. I have talked to these men, or men just like them, many times before. I want to break their tension, to get them to laugh if possible. I can’t think of a thing that’s witty or funny in connection with what we are about to do. Finally I just start talking. I tell them how to fly their formation—as though it were an exhibition, a presidential review or inauguration. I tell them to anticipate the turns, to conserve their ammunition, and not to fire at fighters that are out of range; to move up at once if they see someone straggle. I caution them to keep their guns loaded until they land, and remind them of the time we lost ten bombers when the crews started cleaning their guns over the Channel and got jumped, and the time we lost eight when German fighters invaded the landing pattern over England. The story of one of our own fighter boys on his first sweep pops into my mind, and I pass it on. He worked into a German transport formation in a landing pattern and came home an ace, with six transports to his credit, then found out later that all the German pilots he had shot down were women.

“I use plenty of profanity. For some reason these boys enjoy hearing the Old Man swear in public. It doesn’t matter much whether you swear at them, or at higher headquarters or at the enemy, although they seem to enjoy most hearing you cuss out higher headquarters. I guess it puts you on their side and makes them feel you belong to them. I’ve been on a good many of these outings and they know it. That, too, gives me a membership in their lodge. They are receptive to what I say, and when I make some inane remarks about the Germans of Schweinfurt walking on roller skates tonight as a result of all the balls we are going to scatter around, they laugh—a good hearty laugh. I sit down.”

The intelligence major comes back just once more. “Well, fellows, that’s it,” he says to wind up the briefing. “This could be a milk run! When you land, come immediately to the debriefing rooms. I’ll have a man there for every crew and plenty of doughnuts and coffee. We won’t keep you but a few minutes.”

The major, of course, is lying. He knows it, Peaslee knows it, the pilots and gunners all know it. They are all too painfully aware that at this stage of the game a milk run into Germany, this deep into Germany, just isn’t in the cards. They all know that in just the last week, in a three-day period alone, nearly nine hundred men went down before the German’s guns and his cannon and rockets.

The major is a liar, and no one blames him for it. His briefing has been honest in every respect but this one, that he has played down the mission as routine. This is not a routine mission and it cannot possibly be anything but hell for most of the people who are leaving England for the east.

From every mission like this one there will be more than one debriefing officer who will sit at his table, waiting vainly for a crew, feeling guilty as hell even though he didn’t have anything to do about his empty table, about the gunner report sheets that will never be filled in, the pencils that will stay clean and sharp, the chairs that will stay in their places. He will sit there alone, unhappy and morose, and against the background of chatter from the other crews that have returned he will have time to think about flame and a wing torn off and the screams of men and parachutes that don’t open. The coffee will grow cold and the doughnuts will become stale and lifeless, and just what the hell can he do about it?

So with the lie hanging in the air, unquestioned and unopposed, the men start to leave. Some of them wait, and they assemble in little groups that collect silently in the corners of the room, where men slip to their knees before their chaplains— Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.

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