. . . A Time of War
On the first of January 1944 the entire American bomber force in Europe and the Mediterranean was reorganized. General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz was given command of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe with his headquarters in the United Kingdom. Lieutenant General James Doolittle was assigned command of the Eighth Air Force.
The men of the Eighth knew that with the assignment of Doolittle it would not be long before they would be sent to bomb targets deep in Germany, including Berlin. Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, who had built up the Eighth during the time since 1942, became Commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Mediterranean.1
Hoseason called it "Bloody January"--and with good cause.2 The Eighth flew eleven bombing missions that month, despite persistent bad weather.3 Its mission 182, flown by 291 of its bombers on January 11, bombed aircraft industry targets at Oscherslaben and Halberstadt in Germany. Forty-two of its bombers were lost--the heaviest enemy opposition met since the Schweinfurt mission of October 14, 1943 when 60 bombers out of 229 were lost On January 29, mission 8AF 198, a total of 863 bombers and 632 fighter planes were dispatched to bomb targets at Frankfurt; 29 bombers and 15 fighter planes were lost The B-17s, B-24s and the fighters claimed a total of 360 German fighter aircraft shot down on the two missions of January 11 and January 29. Brunswick and Hanover were targeted on January 30; 20 bombers and two fighters were lost.
On January 14, 1944 General Eisenhower arrived in London to begin the task of preparing for the invasion of the continent--Operation OVERLORD. Initially, it was thought that D-Day could come early in May, 1944. Such a schedule required the American and British air commanders to reorder their priorities--and fast Eisenhower had made it clear that if any aircraft was spotted over the invasion coast it was to be one of ours. Translation: take the Luftwaffe out of the skies! This was the purpose of Operation ARGUMENT and General Spaatz ordered that it be completed by March 1!
Bomber forces responded by flying strategic bombing missions that now had two purposes--the traditional purpose of destroying the German industrial base, and now also to attack targets the Luftwaffe would be forced to defend with all available fighter strength. The bombers were to fly in weather conditions that in earlier times had grounded them. It would rarely be possible to bomb visually and radar-sighting lead pathfinder planes became the norm. Bombing accuracy suffered, but the Luftwaffe fighters were being put under pressure.
At the same time, Doolittle changed the escort fighter doctrine. Where fighter groups had escorted specific assigned bomber groups, they were now to patrol fixed zones along the mission route. Their assignment was to locate the enemy fighters on the ground and in the air, and to destroy them. Bomber formations, at times, paid a high price when bombers and fighters failed to rendezvous at the time and place planned. These changes in strategy immediately began to pay off. Despite conditions that precluded their full-scale operation, the Eighth took a heavy toll of Luftwaffe fighter pilots and planes in January--160 pilots and 233 fighter planes--losses the
enemy could ill-afford.4
It was during this period that the Germans posed a new threat. They had developed secret weapons employing new technology--the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket. These weapons will be described hereinafter. Launching sites were being constructed in dozens of locations along the coast of France, in the Pas de Calais area and on the Cherbourg peninsula. These sites were termed "No Ball" targets and Operation CROSSBOW was mounted to destroy them. Bradley later flew several "No Ball" missions. See Figs. 18, 19, and 20.
By February 1944, as seen in Fig. 12, American airpower had been greatly increased. Thirteen additional bomber groups had arrived during the winter of 1943-44 along with many replacement crews and planes. The 453rd Bombardment Group (H) was one of the new groups. Bradley and the Jones crew were among the first replacements. The Eighth was now dispatching ever-larger bomber and fighter forces. With the arrival of the P-51 Mustang, its missions went deeper into Germany itself. Josef Stalin had long complained that his British and American allies were too slow in opening another war front in the west, but that was actually what the RAF and AAF were doing, and their "front" was now all of Europe. President and Commander-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeing what the Mighty Eighth was prepared to do, said, "Hitler built a fortress around Europe but he forgot to put a roof on it!"
As scripture puts it:
"To everything there is a season, and
a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;. . . .
a time of war. . . "
Yes, the season and the time of war had come for the 453rd and would soon come for Bradley, Jones, Croft, Stein, Finocchio, Fried, Seay, Mace, Goldberg and Westbrook! The 453rd had completed its movement overseas in January.5 It became operational when on February 5, 1944 it flew its first mission. Bradley and his comrades arrived at Old Buckenham on February 23rd and on March 4 were assigned to the 733rd Bombardment Squadron.
Despite bad weather in January and until mid-February, this was a period of intense activity for the Eighth. New groups and replacement crews were promptly initiated, experiencing the realities of aerial warfare. There were the satisfactions of successful missions but also the shock of loss of planes and airmen, and the many untoward circumstances and incidents which beset airmen in this war.
The 453rd flew 11 missions in February, sending 15 to 28 bombers on each mission. It lost four bombers and crews. It learned quickly what it faced: one of its bombers exploded after take-off; another crash-landed at a nearby airbase upon its return from a mission; a B-24 and P-47 collided near Tibenham--the 445th Group base; the B-24 of another group in their combat wing caught fire and blew up during assembly. Because of dense cloud cover and undercast on one mission, the formations were forced to split up and seek targets of opportunity (T/O). These were typical of the incidents Bradley, Jones, et al., were to witness or to experience.
The five missions flown by the 453rd on February 20, 21, 22, 24 and 25 were BIG WEEK missions--so named as 20-26 February 1944 was the week in which the Eighth Air Force, the Fifteenth Air Force (in Italy), and the British Royal Air Force put every available plane and crew into the air. This was in furtherance of the objectives of Operations POINTBLANK and ARGUMENT--to destroy the Luftwaffe and the aircraft
industry upon which it depended. On five days of the six, targets in Germany were blasted and every major aircraft factory was hit. On February 20 (8AF 226) the Eighth sent out its first-ever 1000 daylight bomber force--16 combat wings--along with 835 fighters. Twelve German aircraft factories in central and eastern Germany and western Poland were targeted. Bowman in the Mighty Eighth War Diary6 records that the 2nd Air Division dispatched 272 Liberator bombers against aircraft industry plants at Brunswick, Gotha, Helmstedt and Oschersleben. Remarkably, there were only 21 bombers and four fighters lost by the Eighth that day. The German defenders lost a total of 53 single-engine and 25 twin-engine fighters, out of the 362 sorties flown.7 The 453rd suffered one loss that day and another on the 22nd.
Of the mission on the 24th (8AF 233--Gotha) Hoseason wrote, "It was the greatest air battle of BIG WEEK--in fact, the biggest air battle so far. The Germans attacked in waves of 30 to 40 aircraft at a time. No less than 33 of 230 Liberators were shot down. In spite of the presence of American long-range escort fighters, the Germans evaded the protective screens and bored in on the bombers. Nevertheless, as the Eighth formation left Gotha, the Messerschmitt aircraft assembly plant beneath them was a volcano of smoke and fire."8 The 453rd returned without loss. Caldwell writes: "The Germans lost 39 single-engine and 14 twin-engine fighters on the 24th, a 15.7% loss rate based on the 336 sorties flown."9
Writing of the last mission of BIG WEEK (8AF 235, February 25), Hoseason wrote, ". . . the axe fell on Augsburg, Regensburg, Stuttgart and Furth aircraft industries. More than 2,000 planes from the Eighth and Fifteenth set out . . . the mission climaxed the five days of assault against Germany's most vital and well-protected aircraft industry. The Eighth had dropped 8,000 tons of bombs in those five days--more than had been dropped in the entire past year. Losses were 170 heavy bombers and 33 fighters."10 During February the German fighter force lost 225 pilots killed (17.9% of its pilot strength) and 141 wounded.11 The war of attrition against the German fighter forces, the purpose of Operation ARGUMENT, was clearly going well.
The 453rd flew its 12th and 13th missions on March 3rd and 5th--no losses. Then the 453rd Unit History reported as follows on the 14th mission (8AF 250) flown on March 6, 1944:
March 6 was an historic day. Berlin felt the sting of the first daylight attack. Four of the 24 planes sent out by the Group failed to return. Lieutenant Cripe and his crew of the 734th Squadron, along with Lieutenant Tobin and his crew of the 733rd Squadron, went down over enemy territory. Lieutenants Crockett of the 733rd and Meek of the 735th Squadron ditched their planes in the Channel. Lt. Joseph G. Cyr was the lone survivor of Lieutenant Meek's crew and Lts. George P. Nacos and Orvis C. Martin and S/Sgts. William T. Talbot and Max A. Martin were picked up with Lieutenant Crockett. Lt. Richard G. Holman had two engines put out by flak over the heart of Berlin. Attempts to tag onto passing formations failed, so Lieutenant Holman dropped to the cloud level, chased by six or seven FW 190s. With only top turret and waist guns in operation, the crew accounted for two and possibly three of the enemy aircraft. Evading the attackers, the crew ran into flak over Amsterdam. Lieutenant Holman put the crippled Liberator through violent evasive action, finally reaching the Channel. Desperately short of fuel, the crew tossed overboard guns, ammunition boxes, flying equipment and all other equipment that
could be detached. Despite serious damage by flak and 20mm cannon shells, the 'two--engine' bomber brought Lieutenant Holman and his crew home without so much as a scratch.12
This first-ever raid of the Eighth on Berlin was no picnic. Bomber Command dispatched 730 heavies and Fighter Command dispatched 801 fighter planes. Industrial areas in the suburbs of Berlin were targeted. Losses were 69 bombers and 11 fighters--the greatest loss thus far in the war. Bomber crew casualties were: 15 KIA, 31 WIA, 686 MIA! The Germans lost 66 fighters--12.5% of those scrambled. The GAF was taking a beating, but at what a price for the Eighth!
The losses incurred by the Eighth were now termed "acceptable" and it was possible to follow up with return raids on Berlin on March 8th and 9th. Thirty-seven bombers were lost on the 8th, while 77 GAF fighters were claimed to have been shot down. And on the March 9th mission--the third raid on Berlin--which was flown despite continuous cloud cover over the continent, the GAF defensive force was kept on the ground! Caldwell says, "For the first time, the Germans permitted the bombers to attack a key target without even a token interception by their fighters. Only eight bombers failed to return; all of them lost to anti-aircraft fire."13 The 453rd lost another crew and plane--its 9th loss--nine of its original 78 crews.
The 453rd flew its 16th, 17th, and 18th missions on March 9 (8AF 253--Brandenburg), March 13 (8AF 257--V-weapon sites at Ponthion in the Pas de Calais area on the coast of France) and on March 15 (8AF 259--Brunswick.)
* * * * *
Bradley and his comrades had arrived at Old Buckenham on February 23, 1944 and were unassigned until March 4. On that date they and the crew of First Lieutenant Fred G. Brady, Jr. were assigned to the 733rd Bombardment Squadron. The Jones crew did not fly its first mission until March 16.
When asked what he, Jones, Croft and Stein did between the dates of their arrival and first mission--20 days, Bradley said, "Hey, I don't recall that we did much of anything. Remember, it was windy and cold and the base was so new and unfinished that everything was MUD. We and the Brady crew officers shared a Nissen hut--Hut #28, I believe. But it was a cold place. There was an Officers Club--a bit more pleasant place to be. Brady's bombardier was First Lieutenant Rowland Holbert. He and I became good friends. We probably frequented the Officers Club--music, talking, writing letters home--stuff like that--no booze, except one's own ration. Bourbon and flying weren't a good combination. The main thing I recall is the mud and the poor food."
Bradley's flight record indicates that he did not have any flying time in February 1944. He was credited with 1:30 hours flying time on March 3, 1:35 hours on March 10, and 3:55 hours on March 11. These were not mission flight credits.
The one thing Bradley said he remembered vividly was going with Holbert and others to the flight line late each afternoon that missions were flown. This was a period when BIG WEEK and Berlin missions were flown by the 453rd. These were not "milk runs" and everyone was concerned for the safe return of the crews on mission. If wounded were aboard, flares were released and medics met the plane and rushed the flyer to the 231st Station Hospital nearby.
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