"The target must be hit at all costs!" Col Peaslee in briefing told us, repeated that phrase over and over again, convincing us beyond all doubt that the target would be hit and hit hard!
The day before the Schweinfurt raid our Group was alerted earlier than usual. Following our old habit, we strolled over to the weather office to see which of the target areas was most favorable. This habit of "checking the weather," is one to which most air crews are addicted because we can predict pretty accurately from the target areas just how difficult a raid will be.
The weather maps showed a front over England and Capt R F Kernan, the base meteorologist, predicted that it would affect the English Channel and adjacent land area both in England and on the Continent next day. The most favorable target area was deep in the heart of Germany. This section was under the influence of a high pressure area which promised clear, cloudless weather. However, the weather over our base areas hung low and grey and it seemed highly improbable that we could take off the next day.
As we walked back to quarters to dress for evening mess, we stopped at Group Operations, which is roughly equivalent in civilian life to the manager's office in a private corporation. Here are dispatched all the orders from higher headquarters, which are in turn transmitted into orders for the various Squadrons.
On every raid, one of the Group Executive Officers flies in the lead ship; so I asked Colonel Brousseau if he was going with us. He said that since we were scheduled to lead the air division, one of the Executive Officers from our Combat Wing Headquarters would ride with us as Air Commander.
At dinner and in the club that night most of the officers were guessing what the target would be. Speculation ran high after the unusually early alert. After dinner we started a bridge game in the Club lounge to pass the time, but soon broke it up so we could get a good night's sleep, an absolute necessity for anyone in combat. We were awakened before daybreak by an orderly who told us that breakfast would be at six and briefing at seven.
The weather at our base can only be described as zero-zero, a typical English autumn morning. A light drizzle was falling and the ceiling was right on the deck. At breakfast there was some grumbling for everyone felt that a mission could not be run in such bad weather.
After breakfast we went to Group Intelligence to be briefed. The aircrews are divided into two parts for this briefing, the pilots, navigators and bombardiers in one room and the gunners in another.
The first thing a combat man does on entering the briefing room is to check the target and memorize the route in and out for the flak area over which he might pass. This route, incidentally, is usually very well chosen by Bomber Command to avoid heavily defended zones. In the back of every pilot's mind is the distance from the enemy coast to the target, for we have to "sweat out" such hazards as having an engine shot and having to fly formation with only three or possibly even two good engines. It is an accepted fact in this theater of operations that "he who is not in formation is not."
When all the officers had arrived, the doors were closed and locked and Major Harmon, or Group Intelligence Officer, began the briefing, first pointing out the importance of the target and emphasizing the fact that the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory produced 75% of all the ball bearings used in the German war effort. "If this target is destroyed," he said, "it will be of incalculable value both to ourselves and the Russians; the production of everything that moves on wheels will be severely handicapped."
We were all impressed by the importance of the target but we were impatient at the same time for him to get on with the description of our route and the fighter escort that we would have. Although any combat officer is willing to go to any target given him, he is primarily interested in his own life and those of his crew members.
Intelligence told us that our route would take us east across the English Coast int Germany, just south of the Ruhr and straight on to the target. Thunderbolts would meet us above the enemy coast and take us to a point just south of the Ruhr. Our friendly fighter support would again meet us northeast of Paris on the route out. If we could keep that course we should go through very little flak except at the target, where a concentration of several dozen guns could be brought to bear on us. Each flak gun, we were told, could fire approximately twelve bursts per minute and we could readily realize that danger of a five minute run over this area. Possibly the most staggering bit of news was that there were 700 single-engine and 400 twin-engine fighters within possible interception distance of our route in and out. This was to be no milk run.
Pictures of the target were projected on the screen and we were able to see an enlarged view of the entire area. The weather data was given by Captain Kernan and once again everyone was sure the mission would be scrubbed. Although the weather in the Target Area was excellent we still had rain and low clouds and very poor visibility at our bases. After this Lt Col Brousseau gave us the formation line up and the runway to be used for takeoff. Then our Group CO, Col William Reid of Albany, Georgia, read us pertinent excerpts from the combat order including a message from Gen Anderson, the Commanding General of the 8th Bomber Command. He also told us the composition of the task force which would attack the target.
Then he gave us a short pep talk on flying good formation, making the most of our defenses. He then introduced Col Budd J Peaslee, who was Air Commander of the First Air Division. Col Peaslee re-emphasized the importance of the target as well as keeping a good formation and then said he would like to see the lead and deputy lead crews in the ready room. The the navigators and bombardiers went to their more detailed briefings on the target and route.
Just before eight o'clock the officers of our crew and those from the deputy plane met Colonel Peaslee. He had appeared to be pretty business-like at the briefing, but now we knew as we listened to him outline procedure that he was interested in only one thing: the destruction of the target. He talked mostly to the deputy crew, telling them exactly what to do if he were shot down in our plane. We left that meeting feeling that no matter what happened to us or to anybody else on that raid the target would be hit and hit hard.
We still had twenty minutes before station time and the bombardiers and navigators of the lead and deputy lead teams spent this interval studying the maps and photographs of the target area again.
The enlisted men in my crew and my co-pilot, Lt Sperry, preceded me to the ship in order to inspect their guns and see that all was ready for takeoff. Lt Sperry was to act as tail gunner today, chiefly to keep me informed of the most vulnerable spots of our formation and let me know when someone was in trouble.
I arrived at the ship about fifteen minutes before station time to run through a quick check up myself. T/Sgt M C Eidson, my engineer, greeted me saying, "she's okay, captain." T/Sgt Eidson is one of the most dependable men I've met in the Army and with his word I was immediately relieved of any doubts. Meantime Harry and Ed arrived from their briefing and we climbed in the ship to talk things over together.
The rest of the flying crew and the ground crew had finished their pre-mission inspections and were sitting inside waiting for takeoff time. I told them that Col Peaslee would be with us and warned them again to use their oxygen sparingly and try to keep interphone silence while we were on the bomb-run. Then we donned our flying clothes.
The weather was so bad we all still doubted that we would go. Taxi time was rapidly approaching and Col Peaslee had not yet arrived, but I told Sgt Eidson to get into the co-pilot's seat and help me start the engines since I knew we could not afford to be late. Then the Colonel arrived and arranged his equipment while I checked the instruments and warmed up the engines. We taxied out with the flag flying from the astrodome. Lt O'Grady's aunt gave him this American flag before we came overseas. The flag was blessed and we've always flown with it as our good luck omen.
I still couldn't believe we would take off as the visibility was decreasing. Flying Control had placed a red light at the far end of the runway to aid us in takeoff. Frankly I did not relish the idea of a zero-zero takeoff with a full bomb load, extra gasoline, and maybe bad icing conditions, realizing that with such weather conditions any of us would have trouble landing again in case of engine trouble or any kind of mechanical failure. I began to run up my engines slowly, and after a green light from the tower started down the runway.
The next fifteen minutes was purely instrument flying. We climbed on course until we broke out on top abut 7,000 feet.
As we crossed the Channel we saw squadrons of Thunderbolts high above us on their way to intercept any E/A that might come up to challenge us. While they were near we rode along in comparative comfort, but about ten minutes after we had crossed the enemy coast they had reached their deepest point of penetration and had to leave us to go on alone. Then began one of the greatest aerial battles of all times. We were under constant attack to the target and halfway back to the coast.
As soon as the last P-47s left, 6 FW-190s appeared below and ahead of us. At first only one of them attacked, as the others were slow in getting their altitude, then they all began attacking from the front, mostly in pairs. These were only minor attacks not pressed home, and they failed to account for any of our formation.
Presently two Me-210s appeared, escorted by about twenty FW-190s and Me-109s. They began circling us and my gunners were calling out attacks from all around the clock. Just then, well ahead to our left, we noticed the sky was filled with barrage-type flak. At once we began a gradual turn to our right to avoid it.
Our right waist gunner, S/Sgt Ford, called out another Combat Wing far behind us at about five o'clock. By this time there were easily 100 E/A attacking us, both single-engine and twin-engine. Reports of Forts going down were being called out on the interphone, along with every type of fighter attack conceivable. I noticed that the low group ahead of us which had crossed the enemy coast with sixteen ships had already lost five with a sixth beginning to straggle. Just then S/Sgt Ford yelled, "That formation behind us is all twin-engine ships and they are starting to split up for a big attack." For a moment, that statement really stunned me, but we are being attacked so heavily all around us that I hardly had time to think about future ones.
Major George L Ott of South Dakota, was our Deputy Leader and was flying on my right wing. Suddenly, while we were under attack from the right by two Me-210s, an Me-109 came down out of the sun like a flash and knocked one and possibly two of Major Ott's engines out. Immediately he began having trouble and could not keep up. He fell back and down and nine 'chutes were counted to come from his ship and he went down under control.
Two Ju-88s came in at 10 o'clock high. I called them out to T/Sgt Eidson in top turret in time for him to send home some good shots that made them break off the attack. Harry yelled, "My God, Mac, take some evasive action." This I promptly did as two rocket shells exploded off our nose.
By this time we were getting our heaviest attacks. Almost every type of enemy fighter was there including night fighters and fighter bombers. The low group ahead of us had now lost more than half its ships, most of them exploding or burning in the air. Just then Sgt Van Home in the ball turret said that Lt Clough, who was leading the second element of our squadron, had been badly hit and was afire. Then he reported that an explosion had torn the left wing off Lt Clough's ship. Two chutes were seen. All the time we were being pounded by German twin-engine fighters. These ships, attacking in twos and fours and carrying two "rocket guns" each were closing to about 500-600 yds from us and letting go with a double salvo from each gun, leaving twin clouds of black smoke all around us. The single-engine fighters were making close frontal attacks in an attempt to break up our formation, and finding plenty of "easy meat" in the many stragglers left by the rocket ships.
We were still not more than half way to the target, and we all realized that the chances for most of us to make it back to England were very slim. At one point Col Peaslee called me and said, "Captain, I think we've had it."
I didn't have much time to think about personal safety or about the safety of my crew. I had my hands full trying to hold what was left of our formation together and maintain some kind of a protective position behind the Combat Wing just ahead, as we had only two groups in our wing, but frankly I've never been more scared in all my life. The ship on our right and the one under and behind us had been shot down. The low group ahead had only four ships left out of sixteen. The other groups had lost heavily. I couldn't see much hope for any of us.
Somehow we did manage to go on. I had pulled our formation up as close as possible behind the wing ahead, using their protection against frontal attacks on us and in turn lending our protection against rear attacks on them. Then Harry said that in about a minute we would start our bombing run.
We made the turn toward the target and I told O'Grady that it was all his. By this time about half the E/A had left us and those left had to replan their attacks after we made our run toward a target. I was busy holding a constant air speed and altitude and hoping we would do a good job. As we approached the target the flak began filling the sky ahead but was never very close to us. After I turned toward the target, Lt O'Grady took over and this is his story of his bomb run:
"About ten minutes before the IP Harry called me on the interphone saying that the target wasn't very far off. It was quite apparent that the visibility was going to be good and I was glad. I guess I started to get a little excited however. I had a mental picture of the target firmly in mind and was hoping for a good bomb run. We made our turn into the target and I called the bombardier and said:'OK O'Grady it's all yours.' Harry, who in my opinion, is one of the best navigators in the world, then called in and said: 'There it is Ed, go to it.' Suddenly straight ahead was my mental picture just as clear as a bell.
"I had my sight set up pretty well and the corrections were nil. The run I guess was about what you'd call a Bombardier's dream. Col Peaslee kept calling me saying, 'Get that target, son, get it!' I checked with Mac on the air speed and then we were on our run. Fighters were everywhere and twice on the run I could see enemy ships flying, through my optics. The interphone was silent but I could hear those gunners behind me firing away and I felt pretty damn good about that.
"In the early part of our run the ack-ack was light. Suddenly it started coming up but I knew we had the target and I felt great. I called 'Bombs Away' and our job had been done. The fighters kept coming in and we were really catching hell. Enough has been said about the raid to let you know it was tough, and the way I like to describe it is that it's the first one I've been on that I felt I was not coming back from. I'll be a long time forgetting the most important minutes of my life which happened between the time Mac said, 'You've got it' and I answered 'Bombs Away.'"
We were hardly out of our turn before the fighters, mostly twin engine now, were hitting us. This time they failed to score and soon left us almost entirely to hit the groups behind us. Then for about ten minutes we went on without a fighter in sight. We all knew that it would not be long before they would be back, for now we were comparatively few in number, having lost nearly half our ships, so we waited and hoped there wouldn't be too many of them. Then Lt Sperry in the tail began calling them out from behind us. Some of them came around high and attacked from in front, coming down with great speed to avoid being hit themselves.
After we had gotten well into France on our return flight, the fighters broke off their attack, having downed three more of our bombers. From there on we had a sort of awed peace as we momentarily looked back; the white clouds below were broken only by a few negligible bursts of flak. The evening sun was bright in a clear blue sky, but we were not quite up to enjoying it.
Finally we reached the Channel, although it was impossible to realize it by any visual means. That same weather front was still lying over England and the Channel and all below us was a solid mass of white clouds, 12,000 feet thick and mocking our every thought of landing. We were tired both physically and mentally and our oxygen supply was nearly gone. As we began our let-down some of the ships left our formation for they were badly damaged or had injured men aboard who needed immediate attention. As we reached 15,000 feet I took my mask and helmet off. We had been in the air seven hours and on oxygen more than six.
O'Grady called the gunners to unload and come out of their turrets as we crossed the English Coast. They all came up front and opened a can of pineapple which tasted like the best ever canned.
At last we found a hole in the clouds large enough to take the remainder of our formation down through. As we began our let down we got a weather report saying that we could expect a ceiling of 1-2,000 feet and two miles visibility at our base. We decided to let down below 1,000 feet and go home.
Gradually the visibility grew worse and the ceiling forced us down to 500 feet with rain that made it very difficult to see. The formation stuck together and even though we finally had to pull up into the clouds the others pulled in close and stuck with me. I was almost ready to try to make it back to the South Coast when Harry said he believed he could get us home. After a number of small changes in course he told me to start a gradual let down on course; this I did, breaking out at 600 feet within sight of our home field. The others were able to follow me to within about five miles of the field then they too let down and came on in.
We circled the field and landed. I hurried off the runway to allow the next ship to land. No sooner had we touched ground than Lt O'Grady raised our flag from the astro-hatch the American flag his aunt gave him before we came overseas. It is our good luck omen. As it came up Col Peaslee let out a cheer. You know how hearing the Star Spangled Banner can send chills up your spine; well, as we taxied around the perimeter the various ground crews came to attention and smartly saluted our flag. The scene gave me a strange thrill and I felt that they were not only paying tribute to their flag but also to the men who had made the supreme sacrifice for the same flag that day.
As we taxied on to our dispersal, Colonel Reid and Colonel Turner or Combat Wing Commanding Officer met us, eagerly awaiting news of our trip and the missing ships.
I shut off the engines and climbed out, trying to answer questions and shed flying clothing at the same time. T/Sgt Germany, my crew chief, met me with his usual slow smile which broadened when I marked up "OK except for minor battle damage" on the Air Corps form used by pilots for complaints against the mechanical condition of the ship. We had been very lucky, for our damage consisted of one 20 mm hole in the tail, one small hole in the side of the fuselage by my seat. No crew member had even a minor injury.
Combat at times does get kind of tough and here it gets tough quite often. Somehow we all thought that night that we had done our jobs. A lot of good flyers and crews went down on this one and I like to think that some day soon they will hear about what we did.
The base was lonesome that night and sleeping came easy. The story has been told of the damage and I felt mighty proud when I read General Arnold's statement that "the war had been shortened six months Schweinfurt." It makes you feel good to have a part in something big and still better to know that in spite of all the opposition that day we went in, bombed and hurt them at the very heart.
This article was originally published in the April, 1944, issue of Flying Aces magazine, vol 47, no 1, pp 32-33, 56-59.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 6.8 MiB ] includes a photo of a formation of B-17s seen from below, a photo of a B-17 over Schweinfurt, and three aerial photos of bomb strikes at Schweinfurt.
Formation photo not credited; B-17 photo credited to Press Association; bomb strike photos credited to USAAF.