In the late summer of 1944, as Addison and his crew trained in Gulfport, Mississippi, for deployment, the Red Army captured the heavily damaged oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, denying the Germans access to natural crude oil. To counter this, the Nazis, under the ever-resourceful Reich Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, accelerated the production of synthetic fuel from coal at two-dozen plants situated inside Germany itself.1 The Allied air campaign against these fuel plants commenced in the spring of 1944 and continued throughout the summer and fall of that year. Addison’s first mission would be to the largest fuel plant in Germany and it would prove to be a dangerous one. The target city was Merseburg, a name that was all too familiar to members of the 91st. Addison would experience combat for the first time in the company of eight veteran crewmembers; men that he had never flown with.
“I didn’t expect a tough one like that for my first mission,” Addison bemoaned, describing what it was like in the briefing room that morning when the target was identified. The large curtain was drawn back to reveal a map. “A string showed the route we were going to take,” Addison said. “A groan went up in the room.”
The Eighth Air Force mission #723, on November 25, 1944, Addison’s first, involved 1,043 bombers and 955 fighters dispatched to make radar-guided attacks on oil targets and a marshalling yard in Germany.2 Addison’s bomber was among the 766 that were directed to make a deep penetration attack on the enormous I.G. Farben chemical factory named Leuna Werke.
Located in central Germany in the city of Merseburg, not far from Leipzig, Leuna Werke was one of the best-defended targets in the Third Reich. Nazi Germany possessed approximately 25,000 total anti-aircraft guns,3 mostly of the 88 mm caliber variety, and a hefty 7% of these guns, or 1,700, were placed in defense of Leuna Werke.4 Such was the importance of this fuel plant to the German war effort.
A German 88 could shoot as high as a B-17 could fly, and a typical gun crew could put out between 15 and 20 exploding rounds per minute.5 The Germans never developed a radio proximity fuse that would cause a shell to explode near an aircraft (this was a top-secret American innovation) but using radar and visual sighting techniques they could manually set their fuses so the shells would detonate at or near intended targets. With all of these guns firing, the Germans could put up nearly 30,000 rounds of exploding flak per minute. This was as concentrated as flak could become.
The first of 20 Eighth Air Force missions to be flown over Leuna Werke took place on May 12, 1944. A commentator referred to this series of attacks as Twenty Missions in Hell.6 Addison participated in two of these missions: on November 25 and again on December 12, 1944. Collectively, the 20 USAAF missions to Leuna Werke and the additional missions to other synthetic fuel plants became known in military aviation history as “the oil campaign.” With each succeeding mission to such targets, enemy flak and fighter attacks intensified. Yet, only 11% of total Eighth Air Force resources had been allocated to the oil campaign,7 and when Addison attended his first combat briefing he had reason to hope for another, less dangerous assignment.
“We all knew where the heavily defended targets were,” Addison said, “and Merseburg was the least popular place for a mission.” Addison further explained that it was common knowledge at the time that Merseburg produced the highest USAAF casualty rates. “I’d have rather gone to Berlin on my first mission,” he indicated. After he did go to Berlin months later he still felt the same way.
This round-trip for Addison would be approximately 1,200 miles, with a good portion of it over enemy territory. Addison’s first mission would be a long one, taking approximately eight hours.8
The 91st BG’s operations officer spoke at the early morning briefing and he covered the route and the planned rendezvous with other Eighth Air Force groups. The weatherman followed. Addison indicated that the weather forecast for the return trip was critical; that the squadron might take off in lousy weather and even bomb through clouds, but that good weather was essential for finding one’s way home and getting safely down. U.S. Navy ships stationed in the Atlantic were tasked with reporting approaching weather conditions.
“Pilots with prior experience with the target would speak,” Addison said, “to share what they knew.” The commanding officer of the 91st, Col. Henry W. Terry, would be present at the briefing and offer words; that is, if he felt anything needed to be added. Terry was well regarded and had a reputation for listening. “We were ‘Terry’s Tigers’,” Addison proudly noted. “He called us that.” Indeed, the bomb group had a B-17 that went by that name. Terry commanded the 91st from May 1944 through May 1945, the end of the war in Europe.9 The Colonel led from D-Day on.
The fuel plant at Merseburg bore the nickname “Flak Hell Leuna” or “flak alley” or even “flak den,” as it was at all times truly a dangerous place for Americans to fly over. The worst of the November 2 Massacre at Merseburg however, had been caused by German fighters and not flak, as there had been no in-flight diversions to fool the Luftwaffe as to the intended target.10 Addison confirmed that this was not the case for his first mission on November 25. “That string on that big map on the wall had a number of bends in it,” he recalled.
Addison could not remember what position in the squadron formation the bomber that he flew in occupied that day, but he did remember vividly other things about the mission. The experience terrified him. “It was at the target area that I thought I saw enemy fighters. Our fighters were diving all over the place and it was wild. I believe they were engaging enemy aircraft, I’m not sure, but for sure all hell broke loose.” Addison explained: “I cannot tell you how many fighters I actually saw. It was a fighter campaign, though, no doubt. I couldn’t tell you if I saw 20 or 50 or even 100, but they were all maneuvering.”
Addison had flown into the middle of a dogfight and he confirmed what scores of other U.S. bomber pilots reported: in aerial battle it is extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe. “It was pandemonium and we were following a lead bomber to make an attack,” Addison said. Addison and his pilot focused on staying in formation as the “initial point” approached for the bomb run. On the run itself Nazi and American fighters alike pulled out to avoid being hit by flak.
“We bombed from twenty-four thousand feet,” Addison explained. ‘And as soon as we dropped our bombs we would turn either to the left or right and drop down a couple thousand feet. We wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.” This maneuver, that is turning and dropping altitude, was called a rally and it was very important for the bombers to hold a tight formation. “The [flak] shells had been programmed for 24,000 feet and we wanted to get under the explosions,” Addison related. “They would re-program them, yes, but that takes a little while.” Diving would enable the bombers to immediately boost needed airspeed and without a heavy bomb load they could fly faster and be more maneuverable.
Addison pointed out that the tight formation was needed for defense against the expected re-emergence of enemy fighters. Multiple machine guns from different bombers could be concentrated on the same targets and dangerous passing lanes denied to the enemy. Loose formations were preferable in flak barrage situations to allow room for individual evasive action, that is, to anticipate where the gun batteries might shoot next and dodge and dart accordingly. Klette, however, had a bias for “holding extremely close formations.”11
“Klette did order close formations,” Addison agreed, and then that wry smile came over his face, and he chuckled. “But there were always some who did what they wanted,” he said, implying that an individual bomber or even several bombers might maneuver in an unauthorized fashion in order to dodge incoming trouble, such as being charged directly by a Fw-190.
What Addison described had to have been a gut-wrenching experience: four or five hours of nerve-wracking flying in the sure knowledge that when one reached the target area an incredible violence would occur and that people would die both in the air and on the ground. The mental build-up for this had to have been an almost out-of-world experience, particularly for those new to the fight. “We zigged and zagged all the time,” Addison indicated. “We did not fly a straight course coming in.” He added: “The enemy knew what our target was going to be; that is, they knew what we were going after. The Germans were prepared.”
“We generally flew the bomb run straight and level,” Addison said but then qualified his statement indicating that Klette might make a route deviation if he spotted a flak field ahead that could be avoided. “Everyone was supposed to follow.” Addison again laughed. “I don’t know what went on behind me.”
The USAAF Chronology for the November 25 raid on Leuna Werke indicated that a radar attack was made. “I never saw the plant,” Addison recollected. “Never. The sky was full of smoke and clouds that day, it was also dark in November.” Visibility from the air may have been diminished in part by the Germans who were known to spray acidic fumes into the air to produce a dense smoke screen and hide their factory.12 Addison had no knowledge of this, however.
As regards to flak bursts he said: “They were orange and angry. Some left white smoke and others, black. I guess it depended on what kind of shell they shot at us. The explosion sound was drowned out by our engine noise and the fact that we wore earphones. We could feel the explosions, though. They moved the plane around like it was passing through a storm. It was very rough.” Addison could not remember whether his airplane suffered flak damage that day. “We would have inspected the plane after we got back,” he explained, “but I don’t recall if we had any holes.”
For Addison, Leuna Werke had lived up to its USAAF reputation. “I was terrified,” he admitted. “The flak was so thick one could almost roll on it.” As co-pilot his duty had been to be prepared to take over. He also was an extra set of eyes. “You might see an enemy fighter coming at you,” he said, indicating that was what the intercom was for, to sound the alarm.
“A smoke bomb from the lead plane would signal the drop and then it was simply a matter of someone throwing a switch. There was a back-up toggle on the flight deck but I never saw it used. As the bombs released, the plane rose like an elevator.”
In World War II bombers did not delay turning in order to track the downward descent of their bombs. “We turned immediately,” Addison re-emphasized, “and dropped down to get under the flak.” He added: “We flew these missions at 150 miles an hour airspeed. We needed to get out.” What Addison said made sense. Photos might be taken from a waist port or another station on a ship but the pilots were only concerned with skedaddling. A photoreconnaissance airplane such as the fast P-51 Mustang or a British Mosquito could gather evidence of bombing effectiveness after the fact.
The Nazis used slave labor at Leuna Werke and other fuel plants in a frantic effort to ring the factories with thick walls of concrete in order to minimize blast damage.13 This effort failed completely.
Asked if he encountered any German fighters on the way back, Addison replied, “I don’t recall any.” Fortunately for Addison, he did not witness any B-17s blown out of the sky this first day, although it happened.
As an aside, Addison recollected that on all of his missions, only on one occasion did he see a fighter that he could clearly identify as German. This fighter flew through his formation from the rear and he spotted the swastika. There was talk it might have been a ME-262 jet as it traveled so fast. Addison did not know this, however.
Thinking back on that day Addison pondered whether the training he had received had prepared him well for aerial combat. “I came out of it alive, that is all I know,” he declared, meaning that the end result for him justified the means and validated his training.
On the way back the bombers stayed at 24,000 feet and zigzagged until they were safely into friendly territory. Addison hardly noticed the ferocious cold in the unpressurized airplane. The small cockpit heater helped some, he supposed, but then he offered this: “One would perspire occasionally,” referring to his reaction to combat. “One tended to generate internal heat,” he laughed.
Relieved and exhausted, Addison participated in his first mission debriefing. “They sat the entire crew down at a table and they gave us each a half-full coffee cup of bourbon. They asked us to tell them what we saw and took notes. It was over in 15 minutes or maybe a half hour.” Addison described what it was like to have that bourbon—“the best elixir in the world.” After the briefing he went to chapel. He knew that it would be a long time before he would enjoy the concept of seriass again. For now everything had turned serious. Whether he drank any of Father Ragan’s hot chocolate he did not mention.
One mission down and 34 to go!
That evening in the bunkroom he told Dave and RJ about his mission. Dave and RJ were assigned to fly the next day along with four members of the Bishop Crew. Things had progressed well so far for the young men who had trained together at Gulfport, and it was expected that after a few more missions the nine Bishop crewmembers would fly and fight as a team.
Wake-up for those on the duty list was between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. A duty officer with a flashlight would be assigned to make the rounds of the dorms to make sure no one scheduled to fly overslept. The next day, November 26, Addison would not have that flashlight shined into his face; Addison would not have to ride the early morning beam.
The Eighth Air Force Strategic Mission #723, Addison’s first, witnessed moderate losses. A total of 671 Fortresses attacked the Leuna Werke synthetic fuel plant. An additional 95 B-17s failed to make it to the target area due to one reason or another—weather, mechanical failures, navigational errors and the like. The USAAF Chronology report states, as regards B-17 bombers: “lost 8,” “damaged beyond repair 4” and “damaged 197.” Additionally, six fighter escorts were lost. All bombers belonging to the 91st returned safely to Bassingbourn. The numbers that were most important, however, for the mission as a whole, were reported as “KIA,” “WIA” and “MIA.” For Addison’s day of indoctrination, November 25, 1944, these numbers for B-17 crews were 7–5–64. Fortunately for Addison and his bomb group, no casualty report needed to be filed.
The sacrifice of the Allied airmen who participated in the oil campaign was not in vain. By war’s end, 220,000 tons of high explosives had been dropped on the production plants and this reduced the Reich’s synthetic fuel output to a mere 5% of what it was before the campaign began.14When Hitler launched his final offensive in Belgium on December 16, 1944, his panzers had less than a week of fuel supply available. The Nazi fuel shortage proved to be a critical factor in the U.S. success in the Battle of the Bulge and it equally served as an advantage to the advancing Soviets. Near the end of the war the Luftwaffe was grounded days at a time for lack of aviation gasoline.15 The Germans had no shortage of airplanes; only fuel and experienced pilots to fly them. As a strategy, the oil campaign was a total success.
The bombing of the Leuna Werke synthetic fuel plant, Addison’s first mission, epitomized the execution of USAAF strategic bombing doctrine at the time: high altitude, precision, and daylight bombing of military targets only.