Military history


The Flying Fortress gathers speed to itself like an enormous boulder accelerating down a steep mountainside. With each passing second of take-off the propellers bite through an increasing volume of air, imparting to the wings of the heavy airplane the lift they seek. Faster and faster, recoiling with the shocks of the uneven runway surface.

The runway border lights stretch as far as the eye can see, but in the distance they fade into a fog-created limbo. Magically, as fast as the bomber gains its speed, new lights glow into being to replace those racing past the wings. The air-speed indicator needle creeps around the dial, and pauses momentarily at an even 50 miles per hour. The second bomber is already wheeling into position on the runway. Normally the Fortresses roll from their standing positions at thirty-second intervals; this morning, however, it is necessary to make full instrument-condition take-offs, and the interval is extended to one minute for each B-17.

Peaslee stares out into the murk, when McLaughlin’s voice comes crisp and clear over the interphone. “I’m going on instruments. Keep her on the runway and pick up the wheels when we’re clear.”

It’s the captain talking to the colonel, but the voice is sharp and meaningful, and it is a direct order. McLaughlin is the air-craft commander, and the colonel is the co-pilot, and there is absolutely no doubt as to who issues orders, who commands the machine.

The B-17 creeps toward the left of the runway, and with the barest touch of pressure on the right rudder, Peaslee over-powers McLaughlin’s foot on the pedal, and the bomber swings back where they belong. McLaughlin is taking no chances, he’s making a move that reflects excellent judgment. Right from the runway he begins his instrument take-off, adjusting his senses to instrument flight while he is on the ground. From this moment on, while everything is under full control, he will fly the artificial horizon, the air-speed indicator, and the other flight instruments without any reference at all to the earth. It is an excellent move because it always takes several seconds for any pilot to adjust to the transition from visual to instrument flight, and there are more dead pilots than the living want to remember who failed to snap fast enough from visual conditions to the world of instruments at the end of the take-off run. If the wing dips and the bomber slides off on that wing at this altitude, the trees and power lines and buildings and even the earth are too close.

When this happens, the take-offs continue without interruption, for there’s a war waiting to be fought in the high arena over the Third Reich, and every gun available is needed. The bombers continue to roll, but the ones still to take off are handled with more care, more precision. When they have all gone and are climbing for altitude, for the problems of rendezvous and assembly, the intense flame is dying in the woods behind them. There remains, perhaps, as has happened so many times, little more than a glowing light and a pile of twisted, blackened junk in the English woods. The rescue men gasp and fall over the undergrowth as they fight their way toward the light and the stench of burning flesh. They expect they’re all dead, but there’s always a chance that one in ten is alive, or half-alive, and it is their job to save that life if at all possible.

But on this morning, October 14, on Mission 115, it does not happen. A total of 383 four-engine bombers leaves the haze and wetness of England, and of the more than thirty-eight hundred men who are in those bombers, not one dies because the pilot has failed so near the earth.

Not too far ahead of the first of those 383 bombers the runway lights turn red, and Peaslee cannot help but feel a sudden stab of apprehension. Red means the end of the runway and a blinding explosion on the other end if the bomber does not raise itself, but even as the thought half-forms within his mind, he sees the needle reach the figure of 88. This is what he calls his moment of eternity, and at that same instant eternity stays its comfortable distance away. The rough feeling of the runway vanishes. That is the only change that Peaslee feels, but to the thousands of hours a pilot accumulates it is the same as a warning bell clamoring insistently in his ear. The B-17 is off the ground, and in one swift motion the colonel grasps the gear to bring up the wheels and tuck them away.

When he looks up again he sees nothing outside the airplane. The sky is heavy gray and except for the pounding of the engines, lessened because the ground no longer blasts the sound back into their ears, the heavy bomber is in limbo. Peaslee glances at the instruments; everything registers normal, the air speed is an even 100 and is still increasing. McLaughlin has made this take-off, from this runway, many times before, and he is not greedy for altitude—not yet. He is just high enough to clear all the obstacles he cannot see but knows are there, and he holds the heavy bomber flat as he waits for speed.

At 120 miles per hour he has what he wants. The air-speed needle glues into place at 120, and two other instruments be-come active. The altimeter is still a scant 300 feet but the rate of climb rises slightly above the zero point. Then there is 500 feet of air beneath the Fortress, and without looking at the artificial horizon, Peaslee senses the start of a turn. McLaughlin barely touches the wheel and his foot nudges the rudder pedal with infinite sensitivity, but the bomber responds.

The pointer of the radio compass starts a crawl around the face of the dial, edging toward zero. The airplane is turning under McLaughlin’s sure hands for the splasher, the pulsating radio signal on which the bomber centers its initial flight.

As the lead Fortress cleared the edge of the airfield, the sound boomed out from the accelerating machine, rushed through the trees and thickets; the airplane climbed slowly, and the sound spread out, an invisible wash of shock waves heralding the birth of new flight. Even as the echo reverberates into the homes of the countryside, the second ship is on its way. The lead aircraft emits its trail of thin blue smoke, sign of engines under full power. Then the third, and the fourth, each movement the juggling of 30 tons of bomber rushing into the blurred mist at the far end of the runway.

Each new take-off is more difficult, it seems. The lead bomber at least enjoyed an air space untroubled by the passage of another machine in front. Now the runway is alive, charged with the slip stream and the wake turbulence of the Fortresses that have rushed away into the leaden mists. The pilots fight the controls, muscles responding to the feel of pounding as the bombers rock on their wheels, accept the broadside slap of air, the uneven ocean into which they rush. The bouncing stops; there is the rumble of wheels coming up into their recesses, and then smoother flight.

In the lead bomber exhilaration sweeps over Peaslee. It is a sensation not uncommon to the crews, this wonderful experience of having completed a hazardous—and successful—take-off. The two men at the controls grin at each other in the dim light, and the feeling pervades the entire crew. It is a sense of joy; Peaslee describes it as an urge to break out into song. Abruptly the interphone crackles with a sudden burst of chatter from the crew. They’re calling to each other, wisecracking, snapping out jokes, and one man bellows happily in what is supposed to be singing.

The feeling passes quickly, for there is work to do; precise, careful, vital work. At 2,000 feet, for the first time this day, the heavy grayness begins to recede. It is the most grudging of retreats. Operations briefed the crews on a cloud deck at 2,000 feet. Instead, the lead Fortress has climbed to 6,000 before Peaslee and McLaughlin can detect the top of the overcast by the brightness above them. At 6,500 feet the bomber rushes through the last vestiges of cloud and breaks out into full daylight.

It is a dazzling world into which they ascend. Having lifted the gleaming machine from the earth and its mantle below, suddenly they are above a spotless sea, a vast and unending ocean of white that stretches in every direction, as far as their eyes can reach. With a rush that overwhelms them, they have been flung from the planet into a space that is strange and awesome, no matter how many times it is visited by men. But at this moment all that exists below is a distant thing, and this is their domain in which to drift. There is no sense of movement, no feeling of rushing through the air.

The four engines pound dimly in the recesses of the men’s minds; heard so often, they are prosaic and then no longer heard. The sky stretches up and up, right out beyond all sight into the edges of space beyond. There is a star 93,000,000 miles away, but it is now terribly close, and it blinds the men. They put on their dark glasses, and there is some relief, but still the star sends its needles of light to stab through to the eyeballs and to dance on the wings, until the glistening silver metal shimmers and becomes liquid pools of wavering light. It is beautiful, and the men for the moment are silent as they drink in the new world. But later many of them will curse the sun, because it is a haven, a place of ambush for fighters, and how the hell do you see a Messerschmitt or a Focke-Wulf when it screams in, straight from that blinding glare?

The lead Fortress is not alone for long. Peaslee turns cumbersomely in his seat and tries to look back through the side glass. The second bomber is 500 yards behind, shedding wisps of clouds as it breaks through into clear air. McLaughlin continues to climb until the needle reads 8,000 feet. This is assigned cruising altitude for this splasher, and he throttles back to cruising power. Over the source of the pulsating radio emissions, McLaughlin swings into a wide circle. For the next sixty minutes the Fortress turns tediously, one wing slightly low, as the other bombers seek the company of the early arrivals. From Peaslee’s ship bright signal flares rush into the air, a call for Fortresses far from the splasher to slide in, to join in V’s, to create triangular-shaped elements of bombers in the sky.

It is a tiresome procedure, it burns gasoline with frightful insistence, but it is absolutely necessary. This business of rendezvous and assembly is one of the most difficult phases of a bombardment mission, but it is tossed off with little enough consideration by armchair strategists who never seem to consider the thousands of gallons of fuel the bombers must bum to achieve formation before they can ever enter enemy skies. The procedure works well, except in isolated cases. Then there is the problem of an instrument failure, or inexperience, or weather that overcomes the best of instruments and piloting ability. Mostly in these cases, the airplane of one formation will run to join wings with any other available formation.

Peaslee has a specific problem. As commander of the 1st Air Division, he must assemble in a massive body in the heavens a huge pyramid of bombers. Before he moves into enemy air space, that pyramid must be properly built up into specific formation, so that it may gather strength from the unique positioning of the many guns: strength in numbers of aircraft, in bomb weight and pattern, and above all in the defensive fire screen that will provide their only protection against the enemy.

At H plus one hour Peaslee orders McLaughlin to break from the circling maneuver and take up a new course toward the second splasher, climbing slowly as they proceed. Twenty-one bombers, as scheduled for the mission, have taken off to form the strength of the 92d Group in the air. The initial splasher, where the bombers assembled, was over Thurleigh. Now they move toward the second splasher, which is the Combat Wing Assembly Line. Here Peaslee is to rendezvous with the 305th and the 306th Groups.

As Peaslee moves the formation through the sky, its strength accumulates steadily. Other groups have assembled over their splashers, and they fall into ragged shape behind the first, slowly beginning to dress into the larger wing formations. The plan is for three very large formations, made up of the 92d Group (19 bombers), 305th (10 bombers), and 306th (18 bombers), to form into the 40th Combat Wing, with a combined wing strength of 53 Fortresses. There will be three combat wings— the 1st, with 91st and 381st Groups (28 bombers); Peaslee’s Wing, the 40th; and the 41st, with the 379th, 303d, and 384th Groups (51 bombers)—which in turn will make up the 1st Air Division. The Air Division constitutes the opening wedge of the aerial armada to invade Germany.

Unfortunately, it does not work out so well on this particular morning. Mechanical aborts and other failures that force bombers to return to their bases cause an immediate depletion in strength. And then Peaslee, despite all his uncomfortable squirming in the cockpit, cannot find the low—the 305th— Group. Frantically he calls the lieutenant in the tail gunner’s position;

“Where the hell is the low group? Can you see a loose group anywhere?”

The answer is a strained “No, sir.”

Because of poor visibility, and layers of clouds that stretched far above the 6,500-foot level where Peaslee’s bomber broke into the clear, the 305th Group commander found it impossible to assemble with Peaslee’s formation. The 305th’s different arrival time at the assembly point meant that the two formations never actually sighted each other.

Making the best of a worsening situation, the commander of the 305th wisely proceeded, once he determined assembly with the 92 d and 306th Groups was impossible, to the next assembly area, where the radio beacon marked the position of Daventry. Here the 305th Group commander again searched in vain for the rest of his wing. Failing to find the 40th Combat Wing, he contacted the commander of the 1st Combat Wing— these B-17’s were in visual contact with the 305th—and then assumed the trail position in this wing.

Colonel Peaslee, to his extreme discomfort, knew nothing of all this; since he did not monitor the channel of the 1st Combat Wing, and his own calls to the 305th had produced no answer, he had no way of knowing the position of the 305th Group, or the decision that placed it with the 1st Combat Wing. All this time his own formation was climbing steadily, it had passed the successive splasher beacons that marked the assembly areas, and now the 40th Wing was almost at 20,000 feet as it neared the final beacon that marked the edge of the English Channel.

He has time for one final circle, when the Air Division will tighten its formation before taking the final plunge into Germany.

Bitter disappointment fills his mind, for now the entire mission is jeopardized, and it is definitely possible that all that has happened this morning will be to no avail, and he must scrub the mission. Peaslee, like every other commander, is under standing orders that no force of only two groups is ever to attempt penetration of the German defenses; there is every chance that in such a weakened force every bomber will be shot down.

There is still one last chance, and as McLaughlin leads the two groups into their final circle, Peaslee orders the bombardier to fire a signal flare every twenty seconds. It is a futile gesture, for there is not another lone group in sight. At least, however, Peaslee has a few minutes in which to struggle for a solution to his problem.

As the circle runs to its finish, Peaslee makes up his mind. He orders the formations to assume their course for Germany. Captain McLaughlin looks doubtfully at Peaslee; he never says a word, but there is no need for words. He is as informed as the colonel on emergency procedures, and he is fully aware that Peaslee is forbidden to order the groups to continue.

“Maybe the 305th is circling over the Channel; there’s a good chance that they’ll meet us there,” the commander tells McLaughlin. Both men know the hope for this is so slim as to be almost nil, but for Peaslee again it is a matter of time, or staving off the dreaded decision to abort the attack.

Below the climbing bombers the earth appears. The overcast begins to dwindle, and soon it becomes a ragged and shredding line. The sun slams down into the cockpit, and ahead of the B-17’s nose Peaslee stares out glumly at 100 miles of French coastline. The land comes closer and closer, and all the searching Peaslee and the rest of the crew go through is useless, for there just isn’t that missing group anywhere in sight.

Time has run out for the colonel. He has in his formation 42 giant bombers and that means a hell of a lot of bombs. It also means some 500 defending machine guns, and the other people in the air are going to need those guns, desperately.

Peaslee makes his decision glumly, and switches the VHF radio to a common channel. He calls the wing leader immediately behind his own position. This is his first order of the day as the air commander of Mission 115.

“I am short one group,” he calls. ‘You will take over the lead and I will ‘S.’ I will fly high—high on you to Bombs Away. I will retain air command from that position.” Peaslee is refer-ring to an unorthodox position just above and to one side of the top group in his wing formation.

It does not trouble the colonel, indeed he never thinks of it at the moment, but his order can lead to a court-martial with the most dire consequences; he has violated procedure, he has ordered an unorthodox formation, he has passed on the lead position of the raid. If he had not done so, it would have meant an abortive mission for two groups, and a seriously weakened force would have gone on into Germany.

“What the hell was I air commander for?” he shrugged later. “I didn’t even think of the people in my formation then. I was passing sentence on my own neck as well as theirs. Besides, we were up there to hit the Germans, not to waste a lot of gas and come home again without doing our job.”

At that moment, seventeen years ago, the only approval for Peaslee came in the look of McLaughlin’s eyes above his oxygen mask. Without a word said, without any instructions from Peaslee, the captain slowly swung the formation of the 92d and 306th Groups into two long curves of an S. The bombers gain in altitude; one S is enough, and as the mass of B-17’s crosses the French coast the 40th Combat Wing—Peaslee’s force —comes out just above to the left and nearly abreast of the top group of the new leader.

By the time the 1st Air Division strikes into enemy territory, however, the Mission 115 force is already depleted from that at the start of the mission. The three wings that constitute the 1st Air Division were assigned at take-off a total of 164 bombers. One Fortress, at Colonel Peaslee’s field, became mired in the mud adjoining the runways and never left the ground.

Behind the 1st Air Division, headquarters planned for two additional forces. These groups constituted the remainder of the 383 aircraft assigned to Mission 115.

The 3d Air Division dispatched 154 B-17 bombers plus six spares. The 2d Air Division, flying B-24 Liberators, sent 60 of these four-engine bombers into the air.

Trouble began from the outset. The B-24’s found it impossible because of heavy clouds to assemble properly. After all attempts to join forces, only 29 of the 60 planes, less than half the assigned force, managed to form in two units. Their assignment: to fly a longer route into Germany, to the south of the B-17’s of the 1st and 3d Air Divisions, and accomplish a specific time rendezvous just before the IP, so that the Liberators could join in the long bomber train which would concentrate strikes on the target.

If they could not assemble with the B-17’s to strike the ball-bearing works, they would hit the secondary target of the day— the center of the city. Mission 115’s “last resort” target, in event of clouds or other difficulties, was Ludwigshafen, and the alternate last resort the city area of Saarbrücken.

Wisely, the commander of the depleted force of only 29 B-24’s refuses to take his small formation deep into enemy territory. Instead, with the Thunderbolt fighter escort flying over the Liberators, the two units swing in a diversionary feint in the direction of Emden. Over the Frisian Islands the air-planes wheel in a wide sweep, and return to England. There are no incidents.

Score: 60 four-engined bombers immediately cut from the strike to Schweinfurt.

Two bomber forces struck out toward enemy air space, crossing the defense line thirty miles apart. In the 1st Air Division was a total of 149 B-17’s and in the 3d Air Division, a total of 142 B-17’s.

Grand total breaching the defense line: 291 heavy bombers.

Many of the Flying Fortresses assigned to Mission 115 failed, obviously, to join in the attack. Of the 1st Air Division’s 164 assigned airplanes, only 149 crossed into German air space—a loss of 15 bombers to mechanical and engineering difficulties. Eighteen bombers of the 160 Fortresses that took off as part of the 3d Air Division also turned back.

Examples: In the 92d Bomb Group, 21 B-17’s took off. Three aircraft aborted. B-17G, Number 42-3494 of the 407th Bomb Squadron, turned back after three hours of flight when the number-three supercharger ran away, leaving the airplane unable to maintain altitude with the rest of the formation.

B-17F, Number 42-30711, was also flying for three hours when it dropped out of the formation. Without warning, the manifold pressure of the number-two engine dropped sharply. Back at the home field, an investigation disclosed a large crack in the induction pipe of the engine.

Take the 388th Group of the 3d Air Division. This force took off between 1005 hours and 1042 hours, with a total of 21 bombers, and formed as the low group of the lead combat wing of the 2d Air Task Force (3d Air Division). The entire group proceeded on course. One by one, however, five bombers dropped out.

Three B-17’s suffered engine trouble, one experienced serious leaks in the oxygen system (fatal at high altitude), and the fifth became lost in clouds. This latter ship, finding itself alone in the sky, was flown back to its home field.

Fortresses aborted for all manner of problems. Engineering failures included rough engines, runaway superchargers, tachometer oscillation, leaking oxygen regulators, sluggish superchargers, generator malfunctions, weak brakes, insufficient oxygen supply, engine oil leaks, engine instrument failures, oil cooler failures, creeping flaps, cracked exhaust stacks, cracked air ducts, flat tail wheels, propeller governor failures, over-boosted engines, leaking fuel tanks, and inoperative fuel pumps.

The crews found trouble within the airplanes as well. On some ships the power gun turrets froze and jammed into position; these came home. Radio transmitters went out, and communication with other airplanes was impossible. Heated gloves burned out; electrically heated suits shorted. Oxygen masks froze up, and interphones refused to work. Not all of these problems brought the planes home; only where the difficulties encountered were so severe that the continued flight of a plane endangered its survival did the pilot turn back for his home base.

But whatever the reason—weather and assembly problems, engineering difficulties or trouble with equipment—a total of 93 bombers failed to continue as part of the combat force that plunged into Germany.

Figure it out with an average of three tons of bombs per air-plane. That makes 558,000 pounds of bombs that never reached the target because of such failures. As well as more than twelve hundred heavy machine guns missing from the defensive firescreen

There is so much more to a mission than the communiqué that bleats that “a maximum force of heavy bombers struck today at a German city...!”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!