The Eighth Air Force raid on Schweinfurt in southern Germany was probably the most devastating single air battle ever fought. We shot down 99 Nazi planes, scored 26 probables and damaged 17 others. It cost us 60 Flying Fortresses and two P-47 fighters (about $20,000,000 worth of equipment) and 593 men. But the raid crippled a vital German ball-bearing plant and, according to Gen H H Arnold, chief of the US Army Air Forces, it would help save thousands of lives when Allied ground forces moved farther into Europe against the Nazis.
A Bomber Base in Britain [By Cable] It was still dark when they woke the crews. The fog lay thick and cold over the countryside that morning, and inside the barracks all was pitch black and silent except for the deep, steady breathing of the sleeping Fortress gunners.
I had been awake for some time and I heard the door of the next hut slam shut, and then the sound of footsteps outside. Someone struck a match and announced that it was 6 o'clock. Then the door opened and the lights went on, cold and glaring when viewed from a warm bed.
The squadron operations officer, bundled up warmly against the morning's cold in a sheepskin jacket and flying boots, walked toward the center of the room. He started to read the list of names from a slip of paper, quietly so as not to wake up those who weren't flying that day.
"Baxter, Blansit, Cavanaugh, Hill, Sweeney," he read. The men whose names were called sat up sleepily, slid their feet a little wearily to the cold floor and stayed there on the bunks, most of them, for a few seconds before getting dressed. They shivered in the damp and cold.
"Briefing's at 0730," the officer said. Then he went on to another hut.
The men dressed quietly, trying not to disturb those who could sleep a little later and secretly envying them. Next to me bunked Sgt Bill Sweeney, a former tire salesman and now a gunner. He lit a cigarette and came over to my bunk and said he thought this would be a fine day to christen his Fortress, which had made a dozen missions but until now was without a name. This was the first mission since the crew had decided a few days ago to name the ship YANK.
I drew back the blackout curtain carefully and looked out at the gray morning. "It looks pretty foggy to me," I said. "You never can tell about English weather," said Sweeney. "You're very goddam right you can't," said a sergeant gunner sitting on the next bunk. "You never can tell."
We headed for the combat mess. There, in the noise of conversation and the clatter of dishes, we had a big breakfast and polished it off with a cigarette before walking on to the briefing.
It was beginning to get light now. The briefing room, like the mess hall, was bright and noisy, until a mild-mannered Intelligence captain rose to speak. He had a long ruler in his hand and he kept toying with it as if it were a swagger stick.
Nobody knew where we were going, and there was a dead silence as he raised his ruler to the map. He pointed first to our base in Britain, then moved the ruler slowly over the North Sea into Belgium, as though he himself were exerting a tremendous effort to get us over the target.
The ruler moved through Belgium slowly and ate deeper and deeper into Germany until I thought for a moment we were being briefed for Austria. Way down in the southern reaches of Germany near Frankfort the ruler stopped. "This, gentlemen, is your target for today Schweinfurt."
The men listened intently, leaning forward from the long rows of benches and chairs. The air was clouded now with cigarette smoke. "Schweinfurt," the captain continued, "is the most important target in all of Germany. We cannot go ahead with other targets until it is seriously crippled."
The gunner ahead of us strained forward to get a better view of the map. "Half of Germany's ball bearings," the captain went on, "are produced at Schweinfurt, and ball bearings are important to Hitler. If we destroy these factories, we will have crippled the enemy's production of tanks and planes and submarines to a very great degree." Then the captain gave technical information about the target, the wind and the weather, and the briefing was over.
"I think this Schweinfurt is named after a very special kind of pig," said one of the radio operators as we headed toward the truck. We rode up the taxi strips to our head stand, where the crew stood around the ship. Station time was 30 minutes ahead, and the guns, ammunition, radio and bomb bays had been checked.
The skipper of YANK was a 21-year-old giant from Monterey, CA, Capt Ivan Klohe. While we waited for the take-off he wrestled with the two waist gunners, Sgts Charlie Hill and Edward Cavanaugh. Though Cavanaugh was only a little over 5 feet tall, he succeeded in pinning the captain's shoulder to the ground, and Hill put a deadly lock on the captain's legs. The rest of the crew stood by and cheered for the gunners.
Then station time was announced. The men, suddenly serious, took their positions in the ship. I climbed into the nose with Lt Howard J Zorn, the navigator, and Lt Richard J Roth, the bombardier. "The right gun's yours," Roth said. YANK took its place on the runway.
Lt Herbert Heuser, the co-pilot, announced over the interphone: "There goes Piccadilly Queen." We watched as she sped down the black runway, at 50, 60, and then 90 miles an hour. It was a beautiful take-off. So was ours.
About 11,000 feet the pilot told us to check our oxygen masks. We put them on. Heuser imitated a fireside chat over the interphone. "My friends," he began, and the crew ate it up. Then he sang, and Cavanaugh and Zorn chimed in occasionally with a razzberry, a hard sound to produce over the interphone. There were more songs from Hill, from Sweeney and from Sgt Roy (Tex) Blansit, the top-turret gunner. The war seemed beautiful at that point.
Our formation across the North Sea was perfect. We led the "Purple Heart" element, and in front of us the sky was literally clouded by B-17s. We counted as many as 190 and then quit counting. Zorn told us to look toward the long file of P-47 Thunderbolts on our right. They left a beautiful silver vapor trail behind them.
At 1302 the captain warned that we were approaching enemy territory. We were above 20,000 feet and suddenly over the interphone somebody shouted: "Unidentified vessels down below." A couple of seconds later he said: "They're shooting." "Why, the silly bastards," somebody else remarked.
By 1330 we were over Luxembourg. The sun was still with us, and the nose was so hot we didn't even bother using our electric suits. A pair of white silk gloves was enough to keep our hands warm. Enemy fighters were getting hot about that time, too.
Heuser did most of the calling, singing out the fighters' positions in a cool and undisturbed voice. From his place he could see all of the planes, and he didn't miss a German. "Fighter at 5 o'clock high fighter at 10 o'clock fighter at 8 o'clock low fighter at 3 o'clock fighter at 12 o'clock ."
There were fighters everywhere, but mostly on our tail. "The whole goddam Luftwaffe is out today," somebody said over the interphone. There were even Dornier bombers. There were single-engined ME-109s and twin-engined 110s. There were JU-88s and a few 190s. There were ME-210s and heaven only knows what else.
'This is nothing," Zorn said, evidently trying to calm me down. "We've seen worse on other raids, In about 25 more minutes we'll come to the target."
The captain put the Fort into a little evasive action, banking to the left and then to the right. On our right we sighted a huge column of smoke, like a great black cloud. That was the target. Liberators and Fortresses had passed the ballbearing works already, scoring hits on the plant.
The navigator told me to look out on the left side. A couple of planes were burning there, a Fort and an enemy fighter. Three white chutes and one brown were floating in the sky near by. The whites belonged to our boys, Under the brown chute was a German flyer.
"When the hell are we getting over the target?" Time had crawled by in the last 15 minutes, In 10 more we'd be there. Heuser was still calling the fighters off. They were coming in from all sides now, but not too close.
Looking back through the fuselage, we could see Tex's legs, his left one planted on a box of caliber-50s, the right one lazily dangling into space. From the interphone we knew that Tex was very busy in his top turret. His gun was tracking fighters all around the clock. Occasionally he concentrated his fire toward the tail, where his friend Sweeney was busy shooting at the enemy as they queued up from the rear.
A JU-88 and a 190 attacked Sweeney's position from 4 and 9 o'clock high. Tex's guns worked fast. Both planes peeled off. The 190 shied off but the 88 returned from about 500 yards to the rear, flying smack at Sweeney.
Tex called out directions to Sweeney. "You're shooting at him just a little high. Get him lower. A little lower." The 88 came closer and lobbed two of the rockets the Germans are using now deadly looking affairs shooting out like huge red flames.
Tex kept on guiding Sweeney over the interphone. "A little lower, Bill." Bill fired a little lower. The 88 wavered, flipped over, and Sweeney and Tex saw the German catch fire and trail smoke. Then there was one JU-88 less, and one less JU-88 crew; they didn't get out.
Klohe headed the Fort northeast, hitting a straight course for the tall column of smoke 6,000 feet high that marked the target. At our level and even higher flak blackened the sky. Roth was ready. It was only a matter of 20 seconds before he released the bombs.
Then came a hell great black balls of flak all around us. It seemed impossible to escape the barrage. We weren't having fighter trouble now; our enemy was flak and there was nothing we could do about it except to take evasive action. Klohe did just that, and he did it beautifully. It seemed a miracle that we ever escaped.
Suddenly we heard a loud, jangling noise, even above the roar of the four engines. I looked toward the navigator. A fragment of flak had broken through the plate glass at his side. Zorn lifted his head quickly, took off his gloves and fur cap, and felt around the part of his face not covered by the oxygen mask. He winked when he found that he was okay.
The flak had stopped now but enemy fighters and fighter-bombers were back again. Heuser, too, was back on the job. "Fighter at 11 o'clock," Heuser announced. Zorn tracked the German with his .50s until the plane was out of sight. "Fighter at 12 o'clock," Heuser reported, and Roth followed him. "Fighter at 5 o'clock," and Sweeney was back at his guns. "Fighter at 2 o'clock," and I grabbed my gun and tracked the German until Heuser bawled me out for using too much ammunition. I stopped fast.
Now Heuser's voice again: "Fighter at 3 o'clock." Tex saw the fighter, recognized it as a 190 and waited until it came closer before letting loose a barrage. Sweeney congratulated him. From where Sweeney was, he could see the 190 spiral down and the pilot bail out. That was Jerry No 2 for the boys of YANK.
A third fighter was claimed by Cavanaugh, the left-waist gunner, who bagged an 88. The plane went spinning toward the ground in flames but the crew of two bailed out.
All this time Sgt Ralph Baxter, the ball-turret gunner, and Hill in the right-waist position were engaging two 88s. Baxter had spotted the Germans diving after a lone B-17, forced out of formation with a feathered engine, and he called to Hill for a hand. Between them they saved the crippled Fort from destruction.
It was about 1650 now, as we were heading home, but the watch on the panel wasn't running any more. We cussed, and when some more fighters came at us, we cussed some more. A half hour later flak started bursting again, but it wasn't as heavy as the stuff at Schweinfurt. Zorn said he thought we were near Amiens, France.
Just then I heard another loud jangle of broken glass as flak hit the left front plate. Roth ducked, but Zorn went calmly about the business of navigating. I put on a helmet and then took it off a few seconds later; it interfered with my vision and I wanted to see. Roth picked up a piece of flak and handed it to me. "Maybe you'll want this for a souvenir," he said.
We tried guessing the time. I figured it was about 1730. We were well across the English channel and in a few minutes the English coast would be in sight. Klohe began losing altitude. At 17,000 feet Roth and Zorn took off their masks, and I did, too. Zorn smiled. Tired but happy voices began coming over the interphone. They were kidding again. Heuser sang. Zorn told us how sharpshooter Sweeney hadn't been able to hit a single skeet out of 15 a year ago. Somebody else kidded Tex because he was once rejected by the Army for flat feet. Cavanaugh gave the captain a riding over the interphone, and Klohe dished it right back at him. Personally, I just sat back, relaxed with a cigarette. The mission was over.
This story originally appeared in YANK, the Army weekly.
This version was sourced from The Best From YANK The Army Weekly, selected by the editors of YANK , published by E P Dutton & Co, Inc; ©1945 by Franklin S Forsberg; pp 14-16.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 5.4 MiB ] includes a thumbnail map of Europe showing the locations of London, Berlin and Schweinfurt.