SEVEN

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ROCKET SCIENCE

American heavy bombers mounted the first-ever, full-scale day-light attack on Berlin on March 6, 1944. Planners in the Eighth Air Force knew the Germans were developing jet fighters. They’d studied intelligence reports about the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet and Me 262 Schwalbe(Swallow). They weren’t sure the jets were ready yet, but they knew the defense of the Reich was in the hands of capable pilots. And although the P-51 Mustang was thinning the Luftwaffe’s ranks, attacking the capital of the Reich would be no piece of cake.

The mission came only after two failed attempts. “We tried twice to get to Berlin, the third and the fourth of March, and were recalled,” said former Capt. Charles R. Bennett, a bombardier in the 390th Bombardment Group. Some bombers did make it to the German capital on March 4, 1944, but only a few.

Reaching Berlin was a symbolic milestone in the relentless building up of the Eighth Air Force and its bombing capabilities, and it would have been impossible without escort fighters to accompany the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. But striking Berlin remained a difficult task that meant terrible loss of life on the American side—the highest number of aircraft lost in any mission mounted by the Eighth Air Force—as crewmembers fought every inch of the way to their objective. “As we went toward Berlin, you could just about navigate by the planes that had gone down ahead of us,” said Bennett. “Every hundred miles or so, you’d see a burning plane on the ground.” Many airmen on both sides saw the first Berlin mission not as an achievement for the Americans but as a debacle, and indeed as a victory for the Germans.

The first Berlin mission included 504 B-17 Flying Fortresses and 226 B-24s. The escort force included 86 P-38 Lightnings, 615 P-47 Thunderbolts, and 100 of the magnificent new P-51D Mustangs that were the only fighters with the range to go all the way.

One of the escort pilots, P-47 Thunderbolt airman 2nd Lt. Grant Turley, said to a buddy as they rode to the flight line: “This is the big one.” The same thought had to be on the minds of P-51D Mustang pilots such as Col. Donald Blakeslee and Lt. Col. Tommy L. Hayes, who’d been chaffing to go all the way to the city that symbolized the foe. Perhaps unaware that the Führer spent little time in the capital, Hayes allowed as how it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring the war personally to Adolf Hitler.

Berlin was the first large-scale mission for the final wartime model of the Flying Fortress, the B-17G, which boasted a chin nose turret with two .50-caliber guns. Turbo-supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1820-97 Cyclone engines powered the G model, which raised the service ceiling to thirty-five thousand feet.

The running air-ground battle raged along hundreds of miles of invisible highway in the sky. The bomber stream stretched ninety-four miles from the very first Pathfinder to the final “tail end Charlie.”

For bomber crews, the mission began with a wakeup shortly after midnight. Briefing, warmup, takeoff, form-up, and ingress all entailed work and risks. The fighting began around 11:00 a.m., when the first Focke-Wulf Fw 190s engaged Flying Fortresses over Holland. The first casualty may have been the Fortress piloted by 2nd Lt. Brent Evertson of the 322nd Bombardment Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group, which was riddled by gunfire from fighters near Magdeburg. Evertson’s crew bailed out and the Flying Fortress smashed to the ground at Wilmersdorf near Bernau, northeast of Berlin. Evertson’s ten-man crew became prisoners, but others were not so lucky. At least three bombers were rammed by German fighters, one by a twin-engine Messerschmitt Me 410. Although combat box formation of the bombers enabled them to concentrate defensive gunfire, more bombers took hits and fell away. Sometimes there was no smoke. Sometimes there were no parachutes.

Contrary to the expectations of some, German jets were not in the air during the first big Berlin mission. Thunderbolt pilot Turley, like Mustang pilot Gumm, became an ace and made a mark in shaping the force that would soon be fighting Hitler’s jets, but neither ever got the chance.

Dale VanBlair, a B-24 Liberator gunner with the 448th Bombardment Group, remembered how it felt to have Berlin as his destination that day. “I participated in the first mass daylight raid on Berlin,” said VanBlair. “A few of those ‘other planes’ [B-17s] had briefly hit the outskirts of the city on March 3 and 4 after ignoring a recall, but this was the first true mission to the capital. Although I normally flew in the tail turret, I was drafted to occupy the nose turret with another crew for this one. I knew the enlisted men of this crew but not the officers, and when I looked ahead at the flak barrage we were approaching, my main concern was whether the navigator or bombardier on this crew would take the time to let a stranger out of the nose turret if we had to bail out. I always left the doors of my tail turret open, thus didn’t have to depend on anyone to let me out. I couldn’t do that, of course, in the nose turret. Fortunately, we made it through without any major damage. After that, I was ready to go back to my tail turret where I didn’t have to worry about the flak that I saw, since by the time I saw it, we were leaving it: ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ ”

Jerry Wolf was an engineer gunner in the top turret of a B-17 who flew no fewer than four missions over Berlin, something few airmen accomplished. Wolf belonged to the 390th Bombardment Group. “We would get bulletins on mimeograph paper telling us about new events. I assumed they came from Eighth Air Force headquarters. In one of them, they told us the Germans were building something called a jet. That was the word. Jet. Nobody had ever used it before. I didn’t know what it was. When we heard that they had jets, it just put a shiver through you.”

Wolf did not see a jet on March 6, 1944, but he did later.

Blakeslee’s 4th Fighter Group had worked hard to integrate the P-51 Mustang into air operations. Still, the Mustang that traveled to Berlin on that first mission was a work in progress. The P-51B model of March 6, 1944, was not fully developed and was plagued by reliability issues. The Mustang’s four (later, six) Browning M2 .50-caliber machine guns were mounted in the wing at an acute angle, which made them susceptible to jamming during high-G maneuvers. Sometimes, a pilot was reduced to only one gun within moments of opening fire. Moreover, the extreme cold at high altitude froze the oil in the guns. The U.S.-produced Packard V-1650 version of the famous Merlin engine had problems operating with the poor-quality British aviation gasoline until U.S. airmen scrounged up British spark plugs. The big, four-bladed Hamilton Standard paddle propeller was flexible and reliable, but could run hot, bleeding off some of the “push” that was supposed to propel the Mustang through the air. As late as two months after that first journey to Berlin, more Mustangs were being lost to mechanical failure than to enemy action.

The P-47 Thunderbolt lacked the Mustang’s teething problems but still could not travel all the way to Berlin, a city whose rooftops 2nd Lt. Grant Turley never saw.

Over Germany but still many miles from the capital, apparently near the point where they would have to turn back, Focke-Wulf Fw 190s intercepted Turley’s 78th Fighter Group. “We were escorting American bombers in Germany when suddenly some Germans appeared,” group commander Col. James Stone later wrote. “They were going to attack the bombers, but before they could, Grant and a few other pilots intercepted them and a dogfight started. In the general confusion of the dogfight, everyone became separated and Grant was last seen chasing a German fighter that was headed for the ground.”

“This all took place at a very high altitude,” continued Stone, “so that Grant disappeared below before anyone could go after him to help. Grant probably chased this German and shot him down. Then he was probably alone, and may have been attacked by a superior number of German fighters while close to the ground. We will never know what happened. Grant, by his will to do all he could for his fellow flyers and his country, was responsible for saving the lives of many of the bombers and their crews.”

Major Richard Hewitt, commander of the group’s 82nd Fighter Squadron, wrote that after Grant Turley chased an Fw 190 toward the ground, “three other 190s were seen to bounce Grant’s flight. Grant’s wingman fought with one of them and Grant got on the tail of the one of the others and shot him down. The third 190 positioned himself behind Grant and several hits were seen on his ship. It is believed that he crashed. This story was told by Grant’s wingman and he is the only one who saw the fight.”

Turley became a first lieutenant, just as he’d predicted in a letter he’d sent home—but the promotion was posthumous.

April 1944

The Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter became operational in April 1944 with Erprobungskommando 262, or EKd 262 (Testing Command) based at Lechfeld. Here, Messerschmitt test pilots provided indoctrination in the new aircraft to Luftwaffe line pilots who were to fly the jet in combat. This test unit flew operational sorties and may have come within eyesight, at least, of Allied warplanes.

Separately, the buglike, rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet fighter was being tweaked up to operational status in Erprobungskommando 16, or EKd 16, located at Peenemünde-West—not far from the development site for the V-2 rocket—and commanded by Maj. Wolfgang Späte. After an initial round of flying in the Me 163, EKd 16 moved to Bad Zwischenahn, also in the far north of Germany and throughout the remainder of the war the largest airfield in the Reich.

Of the two Messerschmitt fighters that went into production without being pulled by propellers, the Me 163 arrived first. The Arado Ar 234 twin-jet reconnaissance aircraft and bomber was roughly between them in the development process, but at least one Ar 234 was operational on the morning of what Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel called “the longest day.”

June 6, 1944

The German warplanes and pilots committed to the defense of the Reich did their best to blunt the Allied air campaign and to forestall an Allied invasion of occupied Western Europe. To some extent, they can be credited with succeeding because some Allied leaders had hoped landings could take place much earlier.

The D-Day landing was a remarkable achievement of logistics, planning, and synchronized military action. On June 6, 1944, no fewer than 176,475 men, 3,000 guns, 1,500 tanks, and 15,000 other assorted vehicles landed in German-held Normandy across the five assault beaches or by glider and parachute in the fields of France.

Omaha was the code name for the second beach from the right of the five landing areas of the Normandy invasion. It ran for six miles, with a one hundred–foot cliff at its western extreme. “Bloody Omaha,” assigned to the U.S. V Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, was also the beach where everything went wrong.

“None of the plans were able to survive initial contact with the enemy,” said author and analyst Tim Kilvert-Jones. “The Germans were highly effective soldiers, sited in well-prepared defensive positions on a naturally fortified escarpment overlooking the landing beach.”

Kilvert-Jones also is a defense consultant and instructs U.S. Army units in lessons learned from past battles. Omaha Beach is a metaphor for the larger Normandy battle and was the day’s greatest challenge to American troops.

The 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division (“The Big Red One”) and the 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division made the initial assault at Omaha. The 16th Regiment landed at Omaha’s Easy Red and Fox Green sectors at 6:30 a.m. The sectors drew their names from the military phonetic alphabet.

Soaked, cold, and overloaded with equipment, the men of the 16th Regiment encountered so much German resistance that, hours after the landing, they believed they had failed.

Amphibious Sherman tanks fitted with flotation screens that were supposed to support the 116th Regiment sank in the choppy waters of the English Channel after being offloaded too far from shore. Nearly every man in those tanks drowned. Only two of the twenty-nine Shermans made it to the beach. Except for one rifle company, no element of the 116th came ashore where it was planned.

The 16th Regiment bogged down and fought for its life on the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach near Colleville-sur-Mer. For two hours, soldiers huddled behind the seawall. The beach was so congested with dead and dying there was no room to land reinforcements. Colonel George Taylor, regiment commander, told his men, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach. The dead and those who are going to die! Now let’s get the hell out of here!” The troops moved inland.

Rangers at Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach—re-created half a century later in the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan—had to improvise without any of the air and armor support they’d been promised.

Farther west, approaching in tricky coastal waters after being delayed by a navigational error, Rangers under Col. James E. Rudder had to come ashore on a bullet-raked shingle shelf under the face of a one hundred–foot cliff, scale the cliff, and attack German coastal artillery batteries. The location was Pointe du Hoc, on the extreme western end of Omaha Beach. Rudder hadn’t believed the magnitude of the task at first. “The first time I heard about it,” he told a superior officer, “I thought you were trying to scare me.”

At Omaha, heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force dropped bombs three miles from their intended targets, missing fortified German bunkers.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower prepared a statement of regret he would issue if the Germans pushed his troops into the sea. He never had to read it. The issue was never in doubt at Juno, Gold, and Sword Beaches, taken by British and Canadian troops, or at Utah Beach, taken by American forces. At Omaha, thanks largely to junior U.S. officers and noncommissioned officers—by tradition, exercising greater initiative than their counterparts in other armies—Gerow’s V Corps overcame horrendous difficulties and seized the beach.

In the air over the beaches was a massive armada of Allied warplanes that included light and medium bomber units of the Ninth Air Force. “The Ninth rarely gets the mention it deserves,” said retired Maj. Gen. John O. Moench.

Moench flew over the invasion beaches in an aircraft that would later spend much of its time fighting Hitler’s jets: the B-26 Marauder medium bomber. Accounts of the D-Day battle rarely pay tribute to the heroism of the A-20 Havoc light bomber and or Moench’s B-26.

“I was a member of the 454th Bombardment Squadron, 323rd Bombardment Group, stationed at Earl’s Colne, England. On June 6, I was a second lieutenant who had been around for about two months. I was one of the early replacements in the unit and was getting experience pretty fast,” Moench said

At the controls of his B-26, Moench was responsible for a seven-man crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, engineer (who was also a gunner at the top turret), and tail gunner. Some B-26s had had their copilot seats removed and were flown by a single pilot.

What was it like, flying over the largest invasion in history?

“The water was just loaded with ships out there. The fields of France were cluttered with gliders and parachutes. You’re looking down at all this and thinking, ‘Holy mackerel, look at all that stuff!’ ”

Moench knew that bombing near the invasion beaches to support ground troops would be no piece of cake. “The only thing that got me really uptight was when they said we would have go in at any altitude. That meant we’d have to fly very low if the situation demanded it, and we had lost a lot of airplanes the last time we did that,” he said.

“In fact, the weather was such that we were able to go in at four thousand or five thousand feet where you got light antiaircraft fire. It was the first time I encountered tracer fire from the ground,” he added. “The damn things come up at you, and you swear, ‘Every one of those is going to hit me!’

“Some crews were assigned to drop bombs in the water. Guys coming ashore looked at that and said, ‘Why are those damned aircraft dumping their bombs in the water?’ But it was done on purpose. The intention was to set off underwater German mines. Otherwise, those mines were a threat to our troops. There was some success with this.”

A fortnight after D-Day, as Allied armies battled to expand their foothold on Europe, Eisenhower took his newly commissioned son, John, on a tour of the invasion beaches. Second Lieutenant John Eisenhower was astonished to see vehicles moving to the front bumper-to-bumper, violating the textbook doctrine that called for dispersal to protect from air attack. “You would never get away with this if you didn’t have air supremacy,” John said to his father. The older Eisenhower retorted: “If I didn’t have air supremacy, I wouldn’t be here!”

It’s true that the Allies dominated the skies, but on August 2, 1944, an Arado Ar 234 Blitz (Lightning) twin jet reconnaissance aircraft whizzed right past the Americans, British, and Canadians without any of them firing a shot at it or, perhaps, even batting an eye at it.

The Ar 234—the history of which will be related in chapter 13—was still very much an experiment taking shape, but the number seven aircraft was equipped to fly a mission and did. Despite the problems, the Ar 234 V7 prototype became the first jet aircraft ever to fly a reconnaissance mission. On August 2, 1944, Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Erich Sommer whizzed over the Normandy beachheads at about 460 miles per hour and used two Rb 50/30 cameras to take one set of photos every eleven seconds. Although the Allies supposedly had air superiority over the beaches, as Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, Sommer’s warplane returned with its fuel, unscathed.

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was a weird and wonderful flying apparition that became the only rocket-powered fighter ever to fly in combat. Like so many of Adolf Hitler’s Wunderwaffen, the Me 163 incorporated revolutionary technology, yet it was also a simple machine made largely of wood and could be a fiery deathtrap for its pilot. Some associated with it called it not the Komet but the Kraftei (Power Egg) or the flea. This mix of bright promise coupled with serious flaws makes a good metaphor for Adolf Hitler’s mood and Nazi Germany’s prospects at the start of a foreboding new year.

As with so many aircraft that emerged from the Messerschmitt works at Augsberg, the Me 163 was not the work of Willy Messerschmitt. In fact, the plane maker was lukewarm toward the concept and had tense relations with the rocket plane’s designer, Alexander Lippisch. The lean, gaunt Lippisch, who rarely failed to remind others of his genius and was not easy to get along with in any event, had been hooked on aviation since at age fourteen he observed a flight demonstration by Orville Wright at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport in 1909.

It’s widely believed that Wright influenced many of the German aviation figures who were approaching middle age during the war years. Wright and his sister Kate sailed from New York aboard the ocean liner SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie and arrived in London on August 16, 1909, and in Berlin on August 19. Between August 30 and October 15, Orville made nineteen flights and set world records for altitude and duration of flight, including flight with a passenger, in front of crowds of two hundred thousand people. He even took the crown prince up for a flight. Small wonder Lippisch was impressed.

Lippisch was an aerial observer during the Great War and designed a tailless glider in 1921. After initially working on a future rocket plane at the Heinkel works and transferring to Messerschmitt to see the Me 163 through its design and early development, Lippisch transferred to the Luftfahrtforschungsanstalt Wien (Vienna Aeronautical Research Institute) to concentrate on the problems of high-speed flight.

Lippisch seems to have been impervious to the other “wonder weapon” developments taking place around him. Some of these developments were enjoying more traction than others. The Reich had never had much of an atomic weapons program and it did not have much of one now. The V-1 robot bomb and V-2 rocket were terrorizing London but not slowing the advance of Allied troops. In later years, those who love conspiracy theories would claim that Nazi scientists were developing everything from antigravity propulsion to a time machine—a device called Die Glocke (the Bell) was said to be the latter—but much of it was fancy. The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) jet fighter was making itself felt in the air war, but too often that was happening precisely because hundreds of Allied bombers were overhead.

If someone should have been terrified of the Me 163, it was not the Americans pressing toward Berlin in the air, not men such as Val Beaudrault or Clayton Kelly Gross. It was a German Rudolf “Rudy” Opitz, who was thirty-four years old when the year 1945 began and who once said he struggled with the Me 163 “just when looking at it.” He didn’t know it himself, but Opitz had just the right mix of youthful daring and steadfast maturity to survive in the cockpit of a fragile wooden machine with a fire-breathing exhaust that looked like a bullet and wobbled like a drunken sailor. The small, gaunt, rather plain-looking Opitz, who’d had an unsatisfying encounter with Hermann Göring at Insterburg fourteen months earlier, went into 1944 as the settled, steady mentor for the young men who were going to take the 163 into combat.

Opitz’s experience with the rocket-propelled Me 163 dated back to the beginning of the war in Europe. When he first saw plans for the Me 163, he couldn’t believe it. The aircraft was incredibly small, lacked a tail, and required its pilot to sit between aluminum fuel tanks containing extremely volatile fuels. At least one pilot was killed when caustic propellants leaked into the cockpit. Opitz entered 1945 as commander of the Second Group of Jagdgeschwader 400 (JG 400), the only squadron to operate the Me 163 in combat.

In order to strap himself into the Me 163, attempt to fly in it, and even attempt to fight in it, a pilot needed the courage to recognize that only inches behind his back was raw heat igniting a series of recurring explosions—and at any time, a larger blast could envelop the entire aircraft. In its original incarnation as the Me 163A version, the rocket engine could not even be controlled by a throttle. The rocket motor’s fuel of hydrazine hydrate, methanol, and an oxidizer was exceedingly toxic, in addition to being explosive.

Major Wolfgang Späte was an award-winning prewar glider pilot, thirty-three years of age in 1944, and was remarkably self-effacing. He was said to be unhappy when ground crews painted his Me 163 in a red color scheme patterned after the Fokker Dr-1 piloted by Manfred von Richthofen in the Great War. He quietly ordered a more subdued paint design.

He seems to have earned the distinction of being the first pilot of a “wonder weapon” to engage the Americans. On May 13, 1944—the day Allied naval forces in the Atlantic Ocean sank a submarine transporting plans for the Me 163 from Germany to Japan—Späte took off from Bad Zwischenahn and was vectored to intercept a pair of P-47 Thunderbolts operating at twenty-thousand feet over the Reich.

Späte got a visual fix on the Thunderbolts and was closing in when his rocket engine quit. This happened often in testing and was to be a recurring problem with the Me 163. Späte worked his way through a cumbersome restart procedure, got the engine working, and made a second attempt to close in on the P-47s.

The Thunderbolt pilots apparently never knew he was on their tail. Späte was squinting into his crude, ring-type gunsight, drawing within shooting distance when abruptly the left wing of his Komet dipped and he began to lose control. Späte groped around in the cockpit, managed to get the Komet under control, and looked up to see the Thunderbolts disappearing in the distance.

July 29, 1943

The first encounter between Americans and the Me 163 happened on July 29, 1943, when B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers were making one of their repetitive attacks on Merseburg, a city so heavily defended airmen called it Merciless Merseburg. Arkansas native Capt. Arthur F. Jeffrey of the 479th Fighter Group went partway to the target at the controls of a P-38 Lightning named Boomerang—and almost certainly freezing in the big, twin-prop fighter whose cockpit heater never worked. Jeffrey went to help the beleaguered crew of a straggling Fortress of the 100th Bombardment Group near Wessermunde.

An Me 163 appeared in the vicinity of the bomber. Jeffrey later said it was weaving around. Jeffrey turned into the Komet and lined it up in his gunsight. Like all P-38s, Boomerang had a control wheel rather than a stick (on late P-38s like Jeffrey’s, it was actually two conventional stick grips mounted on cross braces), and triggers on both side operated the guns. Jeffrey started shooting and saw his rounds striking the small, odd-looking German aircraft. A rush of fire came back from the rocket exhaust, and the Me 163 abruptly vaulted from Jeffrey’s altitude of eleven thousand feet to fifteen thousand.

Jeffrey chased the Me 163 up to sixteen thousand feet when it executed a hard left turn and began to bleed off precious airspeed. Jeffrey closed in on the rocket plane and opened fire again at three hundred yards. Again, he saw his rounds hitting home, again and again. The Komet dove hard for the cloud deck below and vanished at three hundred feet at more than 550 miles per hour. The Me 163’s flight envelope indicates that a pullout would have been impossible given its ninety-degree dive angle, speed, and low altitude. Jeffrey claimed and was credited with the kill. Many years later, when records from the German side became available, it appeared the Luftwaffe did not lose an Me 163 that day, which would mean that the official first kill of an advanced German warplane wasn’t really a kill after all. Two other P-38 pilots flying with Jeffrey came across a second Me 163 while Jeffrey was busy with the first. The rocket-plane pilot took advantage of his strong suit—speed—and raced away from the P-38s, unharmed.

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