By: Sid Smith – July, 2015
Before each individual squadron takeoff, it required the efforts of thousands of people involved in intelligence, target selections, weather info including not just surface conditions, but winds aloft at varying altitudes as well as icing conditions, target routes, ordinance required with fusing requirements, squadron aircraft availability, aircrew availability, alternate target choices, decoys and decoy routes, fighter escort range, expected fighter attacks, known flak (anti-aircraft) installations etc.
And it all had to work seamlessly or … some would pay the ultimate price.
As the old saying goes, the ground crews especially knew the absolute necessity of getting it all right because of the all-too-truism: for want of a nail…
It was those ground personnel remaining behind who knew the quiet reality of what was termed “sweating them in” as they waited for the familiar sound of the returning bombers. (To this day if I hear the rare so-distinctive sound of a B-17, it will bring me upright out of a deep sleep. No one of that era will ever forget the unique sound of those four engines). Everyone among the ground crews back at Deopham Green worried silently about whether or not their crew and their plane would be among the survivors … and if the landing gear was okay … and if the flaps were not shot away … if the brakes were working … if the rudder was still there … but, worst of all, if the dreaded colored flare arced upward from a stricken aircraft and then slid over and fell slowly toward the ground indicating that there were wounded, or worse, on board.
Every man knew how many aircraft had been sent, whether there had been any “aborts”, and each man silently counted the returning bombers as they did their classic “peel off” to land. Each man hoping that if “his” plane and “his” crew were missing that “ops” would get a call telling them the welcome news that those boys had been forced to land at some other airfield in East Anglia.
As each plane taxied slowly to its hardstand with usually only the outboard engines running, the sound slowly died away as props stopped turning, and the entire bomber seemed somehow to sag as if in tired relief. The crews slowly emerged, faces drawn, tired, emotionally exhausted, quietly glad that once more they had survived, and waited for the ride back to the debriefing room. Sometimes they might discuss something that had happened on the mission, but usually they just wanted to get out of their flight gear, get something to eat, and sleep, if sleep could come at all.
They tried not to notice the ambulances, or the fire trucks.
If they were very, very lucky, they might get a pass to go to the railroad station at Attleborough and go to London. In London the most popular destination for the guys was the Red Cross-operated Mostyn Club near the Marble Arch because that was one place that actually had heated baths … and a guy could just lie there and soak in sheer warm relative luxury. They never knew when they might get another opportunity.
By the way, that railroad station at Attleborough is still there and on the wall is a plaque dedicated by the grateful British to the 452nd Bomb Group.
All of the squadrons had their stories and the 452nd alone had a wealth of them, some of them pleasant, some of them not, but all of them in their own way memorable.
One of the unusual ones concerned a B-17 from Deopham Green named “Sunrise Serenade” after the popular song of the period. “Sunrise Serenade” was hit hard on a mission and had been hit so hard that several of the crew decided the time had come to leave. A few were able to use their parachutes and get out, but “Sunrise Serenade” was damaged so badly that it broke apart and crashed. Part of the bomber crashed onto the lands of a castle in Belgium and the tail nearly hit the castle itself. What was left of “Sunrise” then lay nearly forgotten for half a century until a Belgian group decided to attempt to recover whatever might be left.
Back in the states, one of the survivors who had jumped from the falling bomber heard about the recovery effort and made the cryptic remark, “If they find a pair of boots, they’re mine!” When questioned about why he had not been wearing his boots, he explained that at altitude it was so cold that the G.I. boots were not adequate protection against the cold so many of the guys would bring along a pair of boots to use on the ground in place of their flying boots in case they were shot down. Flying boots were not built to endure walking. The damage to “Sunrise” had been so sudden and so drastic that the gunner had had no time to do anything except make certain his parachute was strapped on and then jump.
Yes, the search group found his boots!
It is unknown if they gave them back … but it would have been one hell of a souvenir!
Another story concerned a young lieutenant who was the co-pilot of a B-17. He and his crew were jumped by a pair of Luftwaffe Ju-88 fighter-bombers and shot up badly with both of their left engines so badly damaged that they had to stop them and feather the props. (Note: actually it was a good thing for the allies that some “genius” in Germany had decided that the Ju-88 had to be redesigned to have dive-bombing capabilities with the result that it was built much heavier than it needed to be with resulting lower performance. Had they left it as originally designed it would have been an even more fearsome opponent.) The two pilots realized that it was going to be a truly daunting task to keep a loaded B-17 airborne on only two engines, and even more so on only the two right engines; they realized they would have to “go for the deck” and lighten the bomber as much as possible. They jettisoned their bomb load and began to throw out every piece of non-essential equipment as they traded about twenty-five thousand feet for additional range.
Carefully looking at their briefing maps, they plotted a return to England that avoided all of the known flak installations. Or so they thought.
But even at their lightened weight, flying their B-17 at minimum altitude on only the two right engines was a nearly herculean task and the two pilots had to help each other with all they had to keep it in the air. At one point they almost lost it when they had to climb a few feet to miss some high-tension wires and they must have had to virtually stand on the rudders to keep the stricken bomber flying anywhere near straight.
Seeing a farmhouse below them, they barely missed the roof and discovered that, masked by the house, there was a flak gun installation in the back yard! The surprised gunners opened up on them and tore up the right inboard engine setting it on fire and thereby making moot the point of trying to keep their B-17 in the air.
Choosing a nearby field they put their Boeing down as lightly as they could and when the smoke settled found that the crew were basically unhurt. However as they climbed out they saw German troops from the nearby flak gun running toward them and firing in the air to frighten off the few Belgians who had run over in an attempt to help the Americans. The two pilots later reported that they were “roughed up” by the Germans and as they were marched off, they saw two young Belgian boys on their bicycles who had witnessed the entire crash landing and subsequent events from a road adjacent to the field. They did not notice that one of them was writing something on a scrap of paper.
As an interesting aside, because the pilot was Jewish, his dog tags were stamped with the letter “H” (for Hebrew) but it was a common practice for Jewish aircrew to have a second set of dog tags stamped with a “P” (for Protestant) which they wore on missions. The Germans often asked if there were any Jews among their POW’s; but no one ever talked.
They were eventually sent to Stalag Luft 3 in Poland (which was the location about which the actor Steve McQueen later made the subject of his film The Great Escape), and it was not nearly as habitable a place as the film portrayed. Our two pilots also endured what became known to a few as the Stalag Luft 3 death march as the Germans force-marched the camp several hundred miles away in deep winter to keep the valuable American aircrews from being captured by the advancing Russians. More than a few Americans died from cold and starvation. Our co-pilot saw and experienced it.