Bombardiers, with flak bursting around them, sight on Axis targets from 28,000 feet while navigators and radio officers thread a hazardous, invisible line while buffeted by cross winds. Pilots battle thunderstorms and air gunners sight, fire upon, and destroy enemy craft which flash and roar about them. But all this takes place on the ground, within a space no larger than a baseball diamond back home in the States. War is no picnic, but here the Eighth Air Force combat crews knock off in the middle of a flight over the Reich and go to lunch.
The latter action is, of course, Utopian. More often than not, senior officers will insist that crews return their ships to base before running to chow. It is hardly proper to dive into lend-lease potatoes while your Fortress remains four miles above Cologne. This, briefly, is a picture of an American station in Great Britain where post-graduate combat students face situations so realistic that even the instructors are frequently fooled. It is, officially, the training laboratory of the US Army Eighth Air Force.
Surprising in its importance and realism to casual observers, it remains no less a mystery to the crew members participating. "We were gathered around one of the gunners," said Lt Neil M Ritchie of Bloomsburg, PA, "watching the kid aiming at a Jerry fighter. Motors were roaring, tracers were flashing, and this Jerry was weaving around trying to get a bead on the Fortress. Of course, the gunner was holding his fire, waiting for the Nazi to come within range, but as the Jerry grew larger and larger in the sights, somebody yelled, "Fire, for Pete's sake, you're letting him get too close." The fighter was only a Messerschmitt shadow on a screen but nobody believed that.
This post-graduate school for combat crews of bombardment aircraft has a real purpose, an inestimable value. Heavy bombers cost $250,000.00 and their crews are priceless. The school saves a lot of lives and a lot of planes by giving the men who take our B-17s and B-24s over enemy targets the realism of every situation likely to be encountered before they leave the safety of their English base. As more bombers arrive from America, these men, trained close to the battle zones under combat conditions, will man the new planes with a skill and confidence previously engendered only by the hazardous trial and error of actual air fighting. Some alumni of the school have already proved its value by destroying enemy aircraft, mauling targets on their first forays over the Reich.
Major John P Dwyer, who commands this unique training center, believes that just telling the boys how to fight, or having them read a few books, isn't enough. They must feel the battle, not once but many times. Learning it the hard way, as the old-timers did, would be effective but much too expensive. The school offers a close approach to the real thing and turns green students into veterans before they lay their first bomb on an Axis target, before they see their first Focke- Wulf through the reticules on their guns, before they navigate a ship through Channel storms.
"In many ways, this is better than actual experience," explains Major Ritchie, chatting three thousand miles from his Orion, PA, home. "Our gadgets can simulate situations which navigators and pilots will encounter only once but must be able to meet in order to survive. Our boys go through these seldom-if-ever incidents time and again until the proper action becomes almost instinctive. In combat, a man makes a mistake because he doesn't know any better. The price for his lesson may be his own life. So we fake the experience and the man knows what to do."
The most fascinating part of this training consists of the various devices employed, the intricate machines which bring war to a peaceful parade ground. In "bombers" firmly moored to the ground, instructors can reproduce anything from the laying of explosive eggs on submarine pens to navigating by wireless or stars or landing a four-engine bomber in the fog. Some of the equipment was loaned by the British, most of it was created by American airmen and scientists. All of it has a Rube Goldberg flavor entirely out of keeping with its military importance. Take the "grope" room, for example. Here, in a small cubicle built to reproduce a compartment in the fuselage of a bomber, radio operators and navigators work together charting courses, pin-pointing positions, and directing the pilot. They use the "intercom" because the loud roar of motors drowns ordinary conversation. They work tensely to maintain contact with "ground" stations in order to make calculations based on compass and radio bearings, then figure wind drift and what to do about it. If it is a clear night it may actually be high noon in the adjoining room the navigator can take bearings on the stars and thus perfect his celestial navigation. It is a weird experience to stand in a well-lighted room, then pull switches and look up to a sky full of planets. If you know your stars, you'll know just where you are over Germany, for the heavens are reproduced exactly.
There's a second oddly-shaped building at this base where you can sit in the nose of a bomber vibrating with the thunder of powerful engines, and see the landscape sliding past 20,000 feet below. Machine guns add to the din, and suddenly an ack-ack battery goes into action. The guns flash on the ground, tracers stream up and shells burst in blinding patterns. The student bombardier squinting through the sight sees an Axis harbor, then picks out the submarine pens and squeezes the bomb release. "Good shot," says Lt Lemuel F Wright, who came from Hamilton, AL, to preside over "bombardier hall" at this English base. "But don't let the flak confuse you. Let's try it again. Blowing up the ocean right next to the pens isn't good enough." Then Wright leans over the platform railing to watch his pupil's work while M/Sgt James B Dill, who hails from Tampa, FL, operates the "landscape" from upstairs. Dill wears a bombardier's wings and a pack of hash marks. He holds up a small slide and explains, "We put this in here among these racks, lights, and levers. By pushing a few handles, we make the ground roll along under the bomb-sight. You can take it from me that it really looks like the ground does from 20,000 feet."
Another building houses a small, oblong booth which contains more magic with everything done with the aid of mirrors and wires, according to Sgt Paul H Biery of Allentown, PA, and Pvt William F. Mooney of Chicago. At one end of the booth sits a group of gunners staring into the pitch darkness. Suddenly, a window seems to open, revealing an airplane poised against the pink light of early morning. "Me-110 at eight hundred yards," shouts one gunner. "Correct," commented Sgt Biery. "Now look at it in fog." The sunrise changes instantly to a semi-opaque gloom and the airplane all but disappears. Later, Pvt Mooney explained that this equipment accurately reproduces any kind of weather, any time of the day, and puts the planes at any desired distance away from the guns. In this manner, the gunners learn to spot and shoot enemy aircraft in any light, at any range.
An RAF aircraftman supervises the devices in a concrete hut shaped like an observatory. He pushed a button and the dome-shaped ceiling disappeared into darkness. A few more clicks and a large patch of sky appeared suddenly. Pock-mark specks in the sky rapidly turn into diving aircraft while a student, undisturbed by the thunder of the engines, identified the attacking planes, carefully aimed his machine gun and pressed the trigger. There was a realistic clatter as a beam of light shot from his muzzle and picked out an airplane. This arrangement is similar to another in which planes dart in and out of clouds, affording gunners quick, short bursts. Lt Ritchie explained that gunners can be trained "from scratch" at this school while finishing touches are put on the training of pilots, bombardiers, and navigators. Continuing, he pointed out that the "faculty" at this college for homicide are all men with extensive experience assigned directly to the school from operational groups. A number of them balked at giving up their trips over German territory, their mauling of Axis strong-points. Now they're more than satisfied. They see their own personal fighting tricks going out against the Axis in the hands of many new crews and their gadgets give them most of the kicks of a real foray. "When the planes arrive from the ferry service, we'll have the crews ready. Good planes and good men make a tough combination, and we'll have it. Thousands of Americans will soon be blasting the hooks off the Swastika. That's when these students get cum laude tacked onto their diplomas from our school."
This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 5, pp 12-13.
The original article includes 5 photos.
Photos credited to US Army Eighth Air Force.