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“yes, By Damn, We’re Going Back To Berlin”
After two false starts, the B-17s got through. A pilot relives the 8th Air Force’s first successful daylight raid on the German capital .
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
WE WERE OVER Germany. Just north of Hanover, with visibility unlimited and scores of our fighter aircraft providing top cover, we were attacked by a group of Me-219s and Me-410s. My diary records that the first wave got about four Forts and that three of my aircrew members each claimed a Jerry. The sleek, single-tail, twin-engine Me-410 seldom rolled through the formation but delivered very effective firepower nonetheless. This was the first mission where we were told to expect Me-410 attacks. Willy Messerschmitt’s latest creation was a black, twin-engine, single-tail aircraft that always looked menacing and was said to have more armament—two cannons and four machine guns.
From Hanover to Berlin we were under continuous attack from FW-IQOs, Ju-SSs, and the Messerschmitts. Ordinarily the brunt of these attacks is borne by the low squadron of the low group, which we airmen dubbed “Purple Heart Corner.” Either the low group had come apart or it fell behind; I have no recollection of any planes on our left flank as we swung into our bombing run southwest of Berlin. Once the leader got to the initial point, the formation had to fly straight and level in order for the bombardier to kill the wind drift and deliver the bombs accurately.
The sound of machine guns told me I was conscious. I felt my body with my hands to find out where I was bleeding.
A dozen twin-engine Messerschmitts came straight at my squadron as we started the bombing run. These were experienced pilots; they throttled back when they came into range so that their cannons and machine guns would be more effective. We saw the dirty smoke from the cannons but tried to ignore it and get a good bombing pattern. Suddenly pieces of steel came ripping through the aircraft skin, something slammed me back in my seat, and everything went dark. The sound of Mickey’s twin fifties firing inches above my head told me that I was conscious. I felt my body with my hands to find where I was bleeding.
I wasn’t. A little window beside the windshield, which could be unlatched for the pilot to see through should the windshields lose their transparency, had sprung open and slammed into my helmet, knocking it over my eyes.
Fire was pouring from the squadron leader’s plane, directly under my left wing; it was even coming out of the cockpit and from the radio-gunner hatch on top of the aircraft. A figure crawled out of this top hatch, with his parachute already half-open and on fire. He bounced off the horizontal stabilizer, where his chute briefly caught, ripped, and was torn free. The plane, losing speed rapidly, went out of sight with the copilot trying to get out of his small window on the right side of the aircraft.
On the radio I called for the deputy squadron leader to take over. No answer. Phil Lunt in the tail gunner’s position reported that the deputy had been shot down. I called on the radio, “This is Mutter C Charlie, form on me,” and waited for the rest of the squadron to regroup. No planes showed up. Later I learned that three of our planes were shot down on that fighter pass and the other two were so damaged that they fell behind.
I was angry and determined that at least one plane of the squadron would deliver its bombs on the target. A half-dozen Messerschmitts came around for another pass, and they all seemed to be aiming angry red flashes directly at us. When the smoke started to come out of the leader’s wings, I put the aircraft into violent evasive action and kept it up throughout the attack. After the bomb run was completed, the group swung to the west, and I slid our B-17 into an opening in the lead squadron.
I always believed that a B-17 could shoot down any German aircraft in a one-on-one encounter, and this was one of just two times that my theory was put to a partial test. My plan, if I was caught in an isolated situation, was to drop the wing flaps and gear, slow the aircraft to 95 mph, and go into a steep turn, bringing as many of our thirteen guns as possible to bear on the target.
Lunt was an excellent gunner, but tail gunners in B-17s had only fleeting glimpses of the Jerries as they flashed by at a relative speed of over 600 mph. Lunt had an isolated post and the most unpleasant position, as far as motion sickness was concerned. It was not too pleasant as far as danger was concerned either; on one mission he had a rocket explode in the vertical stabilizer above his head, and on another mission a shell cut through his cheekbone. The aft section of a B-17 was far less comfortable than the cockpit or nose area, although the metal skin throughout was so bitterly cold that bare flesh would freeze to it. In the front end of the aircraft most of the empty shell casings would eject outside the aircraft, raining on other planes and on the ground far below. In the rear of the aircraft the shells ejected onto the floor. On one occasion Rudy Malkin of Baltimore, the left-waist gunner, repaired his jammed machine gun in the ankle-deep shell casings, freezing his ungloved hands in the process. The Fourth of July gunpowder smell would be with us always under enemy attack.