Two months later the Mustangs would have made a difference. Four months
later there would have been four P-51B groups with men like Don
Blakeslee, Glen Eagleston and Don Gentile to watch out for their Big
Friends. The carnage would have never happened.
But on October 14, 1943 when the 103 P-47s turned back near Aachen, the
Luftwaffe fighters pounced like lions on the B-17s sent to bomb
Schweinfurt's ball bearing plants.
ROUND & HARD
To put it concisely, every piece of war machinery from a search light
or 88mm gun to a fighter or bomber aircraft used ball bearings, at a
rate of 2.5 million per month. The strategic concept was to lessen then
destroy the vital production of ball bearings so that the hardware of
conflict could not be manufactured.
Similarly, attacking fuel production facilities was another way to
hinder Germany's ability to wage war. Schweinfurt contributed 45% of
the nation's bearings from its vast complex of production
An August attack on Schweinfurt had lost 36 bombers. The early days of
October leading up to the raid showed mounting losses of heavies as
increasing numbers plied the skies to German targets.
It would have been a combat flight simulator hobbyist's dream to
see so many types of planes in vast numbers. For the men in the B-17s
it proved a nightmare.
Virtually every type of combat aircraft intercepted the American force
once the Thunderbolts were forced to return home due to minimal fuel
status. The P-47s did break up many attacks and accounted for 13 German
planes before sorrowfully winging west. Once the Little Friends were
gone it must have looked like a Luftwaffe recognition book to the
crewmen on the bombers. Bf 109Gs, FW 190s, Me 110s & 210s, six
cannoned JU 88s, Do 217s and even rocket lugging He111 attacked.
Green kids in feeble He113s were airborne with the likes of He 177s
while huge FW 200s trailed the Fortresses giving position to incoming
comrades. Even JU 87 Stukas were seen by the startled airmen at 22,000
feet altitude. FW 189s, usually used in ground support, swept against
the Forts too. Beyond that, the color array of aircraft was astounding
in its variety as well. The paint shop show soon took on a macabre,
Dali surrealness as the slaughter commenced.
Sixty B-24Ds were to be part of the attack force but the heavy
clouds made it impossible, once airborne, to join up with the B-17Es
and "Fs". Only 29 assembled. The plan was for attack on a secondary
target if that occurred. With 56 P-47 Thunderbolt escorts the
Liberators performed their diversion attack on Emden without losses.
The original plan for Mission 115 called for 383 heavy bombers. Now at
the onset there were sixty less.
B17sa by Robert Taylor
The bomb group assembled, the difficulty of maintaining position and
speed relative to the leader, Colonel Budd Peaslee, began. So began the
concert of twiddling throttles to keep in the 130 to 190 m.p.h. range.
Me 110s and P47s. Artwork by Heinz Krebs.
Height position in relation to other B-17s was crucial to keep fire
coverage in the box formation. Pilots were constantly moving throttles
to speed up or kicking rudders left and right to slow down then moving
the control column to gain or lose height. All this became infinitely
more difficult once the Germans attacked. Eighteen big bombers made a
box and it was roughly a 750 foot cube of aircraft.
INTO THE FIRE
It was figured that about 300 German fighters were along the path of
the bombers. Actually, in the summer of 1943 many squadrons were
recalled from other fronts to defend the Reich proper. The force
consisted of 600 Bf 109 and FW 190 single-engined fighters and nearly
200 twin-engined day fighter destroyers. Many of these planes and
pilots flew a second sortie that day.
The fighters assembled to take on heavy bombers were heavily armed.
Extra armor and armament was the order of the day. These planes didn't
come to dogfight; they came to transfer as much ballistic power as
possible from their guns into the B-17s to bring them down. There were
many rocket-carrying twin-engined planes mounting the huge 21 cm.
They lobbed the rockets from both sides and from the back of the
formations from 1,500 yards as the 109s and 190s bore in from head on.
From the time the P-47s broke off near Aachen leaving the Big Friends
to their fate, the Germans attacked. But as they neared the target the
Germans began concentrating on one formation at a time and fired from
very close range for effectiveness.
There were Bf 109s with bright orange noses and the rest of the plane
black. Some 190s were painted yellow all over. 110s had big yellow
patches on the bellies. The Ju 88s had multi-colored striped tops with
white bellies. Other 88s were solid black over white undersides. More
109s were noted all silver with green noses. The Fw 200s were all
silver and 190s were seen with yellow nose and green cowls. Attacking
He 177s were black and white; one would think Göering himself was in
the paint shops.
But as surreal as it seemed to the defenders, the 20mm rounds were real
enough as fifty to sixty fighters at a time from groups of an ongoing
gaggle of 300 closed to ramming distance to fire. A large flight of Me
210s closed to 500 yards and released rockets. B-17 crews said the
rocket bursts were as powerful as the 88mm flak explosions from the
guns four miles below.
Some were even larger. Huge flashes from high caliber cannon mounted on
twin-engined attackers were noted. FW 200s and Bf 109s flying above the
formations dropped air to air bombs which exploded differently
depending on the type- incendiary, fragmentary or bright high
And most strange of all, four aircraft were positively identified as
P-47s near the B-17s. They were painted a very dark brown and had no
Allied white stripe markings or insignia. They were fired on since the
last P-47 escorts left long ago. They were captured aircraft!
THE SARGENTS' DEFENSE
Through this melee the 228 remaining B-17s bombed the target area and
defended themselves. Gunners with limbs shattered or lost fought on
with their fifties. The gunners were getting confirmed kills, probables
and plenty of damaged claims but the onslaught came at the rate of
fifty to seventy individual, close-in attacks per minute not counting
the rockets fired in standoff mode at a distance!
Between 1405 hours and 1421 hours near Luxembourg the 332nd Squadron
94th Bomb Group were hit by 109s and 190s. Sargents R.E. King, W.P.
Wetzel, and S.H. Rodeschin got three of the Messerschmitts and damaged
another, and then Sargent D.A. Nowlin killed a Focke Wolf 190. These
were confirmed kills with exploding aircraft, not eager claims by
enthusiastic, confused crewmen. The kill ranges are significant in that
they ranged from 300 to 600 yards out.
At 1431 hours a Bf 109 closed on a Fortress near Wurtzburg at
22,500 feet. At 500 yards Sargent E. Hunt, tailgunner opened up. Two
wingmen just behind peeled off but the leader kept closing. It was a 20
millimeter vs 50 caliber duel as the 109 thrust in to point blank
Without any serious damage on either side the German plane passed
beneath the tail. Seconds later the belly gunner saw the pilot bail and
the fighter violently explode. At 1440 Hunt again drew blood, flaming a
109 diving from 5 o'clock. Then another and yet another were fired upon
as the fighters kept coming.
Hunt Scores Again
1451 hours saw a JU88 fighter, probably the G7 version, lobbing in 20
millimeter shells met by top turret gunner Sargent F.C. Mancuso. He
flamed both engines but the crew never took to chutes and the Ju 88
dove into the ground.
A few minutes later at 1515 hours while tailgunner Hunt was firing at a
Ju88 off to the side, another heavy fighter slipped up to only 150
yards, closing slowly at six. The nose lit up with cannon fire but the
big plane made an easy target for Hunt who smashed the cockpit with
fifties. Sheets of flame broiled from the cockpit and spread as the
plane went down.
Ten minutes later at 1525 it was the left waist's turn. Sargent S.J.
Maciolek dueled with his one fifty vs the six cannons of yet another
Ju88 who fired rockets as well from 8 o'clock. Both engines aflame, the
stricken enemy rolled over and went down to crash and explode.
Me 109s. Artwork by Robert Taylor.
Another 94th group B-17 at 21,000 feet near Eupen hours took on a 109
at 1400 hours. Right waist Sargent Mccabe fired a short burst and the
fighter began its death dive. The ball turret confirmed the kill.
At 1445 near Wurzburg Sargent Rand in the left waist opened on a Bf 109
at 1,000 yards. Three very short bursts sent the pilot to his chute.
At 1510, near Schweinfurt the tail gunner, Sargent W.P. Brown, tangled
with a twin-engined fighter firing repeated 20mm bursts. Brown fired
about sixty rounds at the plane. Pieces flew off as it began smoking
then the tanks lit up. It crashed without the crew escaping.
1515 hours saw top turret Sargent C.T. Troot pour fifty rounds right
into the cockpit of a 109 at seven o'clock. The aircraft finally
Still another Fortress approaching the Initial Point, found top turret
A.A. Ulrich scoring on an FW 190. A pair of them came in and Ulrich
began firing at the leader at 800 yards. He kept firing until at fifty
yards the plane erupted in flames and careened away, exploding below.
The ball turret, Sargent C.T. Noulles, fired on an Me 210 from 1,000
yards out to 400. Peeling off, the 210 came back for more. Noulles had
plenty more and blazed the 210 to pieces with 300 rounds.
At 1506 Ulrich drew a bead at 1,400 yards on a 109 from seven o'clock
high. At 700 yards he opened up with a continuous burst of about 200
rounds. Finally he quit firing at 300 yards. The fighter had pulled up
and was engulfed in .50s, wreathed in flames and fell away.
1533 hours saw Sargent B. Lewis in the tail unleash seventy five rounds
from his .50s at 200 yards into a 109 which spun and began shredding
itself to bits. Five minutes later Lewis took on a 190 with its belly
tank still on. From 600 yards he maintained steady bursts until the FW
passed over the tail at twenty yards, belly tank ablaze. It exploded
and there was no chute.
From the 92nd Group a B-17 had about thirty Ju 88s attacking them. A
lone 88 closed at 5 o'clock level. Sargent D.M. Radney, the tail
gunner, saw flame from the port engine at 500 yards. The enemy
responded and its nose produced familiar 20mm fireworks. Radney fired
till the fighter broke at 200 yards.
Belly gunner, Sargent J.W. Disher defended against an FW 190 A-4. It
was his two .50s vs two 7.9s and four 20mms. The German got hits on the
Fortress' belly. Disher was struck by fragments but continued the
maniacal duel. The .50s won the face off and the German went over the
side to fight another day.
A pack of Ju88s now concentrated their fire on the group. Sargent B.L.
Boutwell in the top turret lived up to his namesake and fired at a
Junkers coming in at 2 o'clock from 300 yards, hacking it with his
fifties. The ball turret confirmed the plane was afire as two chutes
Simultaneously, a Ju88 G7 was engaged by Radney in the tail as it came
in from 5 o'clock low. Radney sprayed the big twin from 500 yards in to
about 350. The German was scoring though and the Queen shook from hits.
The starboard wing of the 88 was soon roasting itself and the port-side
V-12 caught fire as well. As if in an arcade another Ju 88 appeared
forcing the Sargent to swing his guns into the next gunfight as it
A new type arrived, none other than a Dornier Do 217 night fighter
which came in pumping large caliber cannon shells into the B-17. This
time Disher in the ball scored with three heavy bursts. With both
Daimler V-12 blazoned from the .50s, it fell out of control and
exploded two miles below.
Now more of the nasty Ju 88 appeared and began streaming in their fire.
Radney frantically swung his duel fifties to attempt to meet each
challenge, snapping off bursts.
Suddenly an FW 190 was dead astern at only twenty five yards! The wings
and nose were enveloped in a corona of yellow-orange flash from its
guns. Radney winced at the impending collision, but kept firing. Smoke
appeared in the 190 and at the last second it broke to port. Once again
Sargent Radney's aim was true. About 150 yards out it exploded in a
Even the bombardier, Lt. K.A. Pfleger took out two 190s from 1 o'clock
at 400 yards with a single cheek-mounted fifty. Sargent C.T.Hultquist
in the right waist confirmed that the one Pfleger hit went out of
control and smashed into the second one!
Left Waist Sargent N.J. Barbato drew blood when a Ju88 was caught in
his sights at 600 yards. The right engine flamed and the German went
out of control and struck the ground far below.
190s Return Home. Artwork by Nicolas Trudgian.
Hulquist tagged one in a group of attacking 109s coming in at 2 o'clock
below the starboard wing. Strikes on one got him smoking heavily
immediately and Radney saw him explode.
Navigator, Lt. P.L. Stebbins got hits on a Ju88 hosing it 400 yards
out. Trailing smoke from both engines, the plane finally dove into the
Other Forts went down. Pilots descended in circles so as not to make
too easy of a target. Parachutes blossomed and lucky crewmen escaped.
Some damaged aircraft were forced to jettison their bombs in order to
keep pace with the others and maintain fire coverage. Lone B-17s were
usually doomed to be picked off.
Planes like Brennan's Circus plunged from 25,000 feet to just fifteen
feet off the deck with two engines out as she ran for the coast. She
was riddled with holes but the attackers, not able to make good pass
angles, finally left her, certainly to crash. Every gun on the ground
fired as she swept past. A barrage of tracers took out a third engine.
The pilot, Lt. Joseph Brennan knew the book said that he couldn't fly
on one engine but he revved up the remaining, venerable Wright Cyclone
and dragged the cripple away. They were drawing fire still as the
flying wreck crossed the shoreline. But Circus made it to within five
miles of the British coast where she ditched with casualties.
Flak hit the previously unscathed Paper Doll just seven minutes from
the French coast. Then fighters came in spewing 20mms. A rocket killed
the pilot and left the co-pilot severely wounded. That left the
navigator, Lt. Miles McFann, as the only salvation. McFann had flown
light planes before and even the Fortress for brief stints in calmer
moments. Paper Doll made it home.
An unnamed plane the crew called "741" lost one engine but stayed in
the box. But when the squadron climbed out she could not. Soon she was
alone in the big sky with 190s and 109s attacking wounding ball turret
gunner Sargent Walter Molzon.
The continued onslaught let daylight into the sieve-like rear
compartment. Tail gunner, Sargent James Sweely said that all the armor
around him was cut or dented but his wounds were minor. Finally the
plane lumbered into the gray bliss of the clouds.
They had three choices:
Bail out over Germany
Head for internment in Switzerland
Steer for England.
The vote was to head for home. Diving to tree-top level 741 began
her race for the French coast. Lt. Harold Christensen, piloting the
Fort, collapsed from wounds. He died the next day.
The co-pilot, Lt. Stuart Mendelsohn recovered the big bomber but it
smashed the nose into a tree as a crewman called out a burning engine.
The radio operator had the only ammo left and picked off several enemy
gunners on a sea wall as 741 staggered out over the water. Fuel
exhausted to where the engines began coughing, Mendelsohn brought the
Fortress into a British airfield.
Windy City Avenger had the elevator shredded and the crew bailed out at
1,000 feet over England. Others bellied in and some landed on their
wheels with chewed up metal as a souvenir of the day.
Three Thunderbolts were lost defending the Big Friends. Fifty nine
B-17s went down over the Reich's airspace. Six others were destroyed
near of over England from ditching or bail-outs. Another seventeen were
damaged so badly that they would never fly again. Only fifty planes
received no damage of the 257 that made it over Germany's airspace.
In the space of a few days eighty eight bombers were lost on mission
leading up to the big Schweinfurt raid. While the Germans acknowledged
the accuracy of the bombing, the 8th A.F. could not sustain the
percentage of losses needed to keep the pressure on the German war
The attack forced 80% of ball bearing production to be dispersed buy
October 1944, but that was much to German advantage. But by March 1944,
with P-51s capable of to and from target escort, the tide began turn
ever so slowly. Never again would the Big Friends be mauled as bad as
they were that bloody Thursday.
Between the hours of 1439-1457 the 228 B-17s dropped 450 1,000 lb. high
explosive bombs, 663 500 lb. HE bombs 1,751 100 lb. incendiary bombs
and expended 697,828 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition.