August 194424 Hours of a Bomber PilotAnonymous
This article, by a captain in our Army Air Force in England, was written not for publication but in letters to the Captain’s family. He agreed to publication only if we made it anonymous.
A bombing mission doesn’t start with the take-off or even with the briefing. It starts the evening before, when the word goes round that they are loading bombs.
There is a world of difference in the targets. Some are very lightly defended; in attacking some we have friendly fighter cover all or part way; in attacking others we know we will have to fight our way all the way in, flying through heavy barrages of flak over the target then slugging our way all the way out. So when the bombs are being loaded, there is a lot of speculation as to just what the target for tomorrow is. You do have some indication from the type of bombs being loaded.
After supper you have nothing to do except to wonder, write letters (which is hard to do with your mind filled with other things), and try to get some sleep. You can hear the R.A.F. going out and wish them all the luck in the world and hope they manage to keep Jerry awake most of the night, so he will be as sleepy as you are going to be the next day. You know that sometime after midnight the CQ will be in to get you up, and you wonder if it is worth while going to bed, because you know you’ll feel twice as bad for just a half-hour’s or an hour’s sleep. But you convince yourself it is best to get undressed, hoping that it may be an afternoon mission.
So you go to bed and listen to the other fellows working very hard at the job of relaxing or going to sleep. And then when you finally have your bed nice and warm and it seems as if you have just closed your eyes, the lights go on and the CQ repeats several times (so that it sinks in), “Breakfast at — o’clock, briefing at– .”
You are so tired that the very idea of getting up is a physical pain, but you do, and stagger through the blackout to the mess hall. The sky is crisscrossed with a magnificent display of searchlights in patterns to signal the R.A.F. the way home.
Even your wife or mother would find it hard to recognize you as you sleepily eat breakfast with the questions of the night before still unanswered. When you see an old friend you make an effort to think up a joke of some sort, but this effort is becoming less and less necessary. You see the new replacements looking not too well and you try to help out a bit but really can’t feel sympathetic for them, because they don’t yet know enough of what the score is to be scared.
The target for the day determines how tough it’s going to be, and anyone who draws “Purple Heart Row” knows it is going to be tougher. When you file into the briefing room, the map showing the route to the target in pretty colored yarn, with bright-colored pins showing enemy fighter staffels and red areas for flak, is covered up, as is the blackboard showing the position assignments. The Colonel starts off by asking the group leader for the day to make the opening remarks. He gets up and says “Gulp” and sits down. Then they open the blackboard and you see your squadron has drawn THE position (depending on the group’s position in the wing) and you have THE spot in the squadron. Then they unveil the target map and it looks as if they had had to go out and buy some more yarn to cover the distance to the target.
There is definitely a hush as the Colonel outlines the operations of the day. All this time you have held your breath until he gets to the group’s position in the wing formation. Then the worst has come to be a reality–you have drawn the “Purple Heart Corner” in “Purple Heart Row.” You smile cheerfully as the others look around at you, obviously with sympathy, and you wonder if your cheerful smile looks as sick as those others do.
You hear, too, that you will have enemy fighters to contend with all the way in and out, made up of two to four hundred FW190’s and ME109’s. Looking at the map, you see the size of the red spot around the target which means flak concentration. You know you can avoid the other red spots on the map but not the target. About now you are convinced that even Lloyd’s of London wouldn’t bet on your chances of getting back.
It is cold when you go out to get the ship ready and still quite dark. Your gunners are probably already there, and they uncertainly ask you what you think of the position assigned to the ship. Then is the one time your smile cannot be sick, for you must somehow convince them that you have a good fighting chance. Confidence is absolutely essential for a fighting crew, because in an even fight with ten or fifteen fighters the decision will probably go to the side with the most confidence, and that must be you.
Carefully you check everything to see that it is all in working order and that nobody has forgotten anything. You know you already have two strikes against you and you don’t want to have the third one a called strike due to carelessness or an oversight.
Your stomach feels queer, and it is a relief when “stations time” arrives, for then there is a chain of events that keeps you moving and puts an end to the awful waiting. The crew goes into a final huddle to check signals and exchange ideas of what to expect and how best to handle it. We get into the plane a little too early and again check our positions, because it is a strange plane. The ship we brought back yesterday was too full of holes to fly again today.
In the cockpit you check your watch again and take another look at the map of your route. You don’t want to start the engines too soon because that would waste the precious petrol, but you must have everything warmed up and checked before take-off.
Again you look at your watch and wonder if you hadn’t better start ‘em. If something is wrong maybe you will have time to get it fixed. But you decide from previous experience that those extra gallons are too valuable.
You happen to look at the co-pilot and find him looking at you also, and you exchange grins, sort of; and you go over emergency procedure. It will be hard to talk during the raid itself and things will happen so fast that you must have a teamwork system all set in case anything should happen. As you glance at your watch again you see it is finally time to get going, and with a sigh of relief you go into action. The engines start, everything checks O.K., and you take your place in the line of taxiing ships.
Then the lead plane starts down the runway and you settle yourself in your seat. At any time up to now, from the first rumor of bomb-loading to the take-off, it would have been quite possible to have the mission scrubbed for any one of a number of reasons and you would have had your work and worry for nothing. This might happen several times for every mission you actually undertake. Or worse yet, when you were all set the schedule might have been delayed an hour or so and you would have had some more of that waiting. After take-off this is still likely but not so likely.
Then it is your turn and you get into take-off position. At last, for the first time since bomb-loading, you feel like mustering a grin. A check with the co-pilot to make sure you are all set, and you give her the gun. The lady is a little heavy this morning; those bombs with the chalked greetings on them slow her down; but well before she reaches the end of the runway she is on her tiptoes and you are air-borne.
Assembling the smaller formations into larger ones keeps your mind and hands busy. Gradually the beginning of the day’s operation unfolds before you in your grandstand seat, right on schedule. Reluctantly you watch the coast of England slip beneath your wings. A last look and you settle down to the business at hand. Actually you feel pretty good and wonder why.
Soon the climb to altitude starts. That is the critical period. If you can nurse those engines to take this heavy load up there, without straining them unduly, they probably won’t let you down. This climb period is where the weaknesses show up and also where most of the fuel goes. So it behooves a man who wants a future to use all the controls available to get the mostest for the leastest from the engines without punishing them. Plenty of time to strain their guts later in a pinch.
The last couple of thousand feet of climb, with the enemy coast in view, you do with your fingers crossed; but the lady pulls herself up to the assigned altitude and levels off to catch her breath for the battle to come. Almost immediately your searching eyes pick up a swarm of sinister dots coming up to meet you. So soon today? At that distance it is almost impossible to see such small objects, but you do. Experience is a hard teacher. There is no mistaking. Nothing else looks quite like a bunch of enemy fighters coming up to blast you out of the sky. They come up from behind, some of them, and pass you at your altitude as if you were standing still. Climbing, they go on ahead, after making several feints to see where the inexperienced gunners are who will fire when they are out of range.
There is a short period of looking each other over as you each choose a likely opponent. You know at the same time they are getting in position behind and possibly above you–and you sincerely hope your gunners see them.
The different enemy fighter groups have different tactics, and you watch the preliminary feints to see how the first attack develops, to see if it is the first team you are up against today. Then in they come right at you, four or five of them. At the same time you can feel your rear guns opening up and know there is an attack coming from the rear that you can’t see. But you set your ears to waiting for some signal that your gunners want the ship moved this way or that to uncover a gun. You can get some indications of the tail attacks too by watching the rear guns of the ships in front of you as they try to cover you.
It is funny what you think of in a split second before the fighters in front of you, very rapidly coming closer, open fire. There is that argument you have been having with your navigator about the color of the flashes from the business end of a 20-millimeter. Now you can settle it. You watch the incoming fighters to see which have chosen you as their target–because when they open fire you want to have just left the spot they were aiming at. Some of these boys are pretty good shots.
The leading edges of the wings of the first three suddenly erupt in a series of flashes. (There, by golly, they do look greenish. Wait till we get down; I told Benny so.) They are going after that ship to the right. You notice they start a half-roll, keeping their fire on the selected target. It takes a darned good pilot to do this. It is the first team you are up against today.
Watch it! That pair are coming at you. Yes sir, it is you that they are after. It is a comforting sight to see your nose guns’ tracers going out to meet them and even more comforting to see the supporting fire from the other ships in your formation. One attacker doesn’t like it and peels off, but the other keeps boring in. Before you expect it he opens fire and you see the burst of his 20-millimeter in a row of little white puffs in front of your nose. He was too anxious and opened fire out of range. Your guns were pushing him too hard. He breaks off and goes out of sight to the rear, surrounded by a stream of tracers. A beautiful sight.
You feel your tail guns go again and hear your tail gunner yell, “I got one of the so-and-sos,” and a pleasant glow goes through you. They come up again and hover out of range in front, but not so many of them. In they come again but not so enthusiastically, as a wall of fire goes out to meet them. Our formation is tight and the fire support is terrific.
After a few more spasmodic attacks they just stay out there and watch. They have failed to break the formations up and there were no stragglers for them to butcher. All right, they will wait and get us on the way back after the flak has shaken us up a little. With a final pass at us they peel off and go down to refuel. There weren’t enough of them, but they will see to that on our way out.
You turn the controls over to the co-pilot and take a look around to see if you were hit. You check the crew and they are fine. The enemy never touched us. You check with the navigator to see when you are due over the target and then relax a bit. Without realizing it you were working pretty hard there for a while; but there was plenty of incentive to work.
You check your ammunition with the gunners and look at the gas gauges. Oh, oh, 3 and 4 are getting pretty low–and you are still going into Germany. Well, there is no help for it. The trouble you were having with No. 1 engine on the climb seems to have ironed itself out. Thank goodness the formation ahead is turning in to the target. It was a long way in but you know it will be twice as long out.
The formations ahead are approaching the target. There can be no mistaking its position–and by now every Jerry knows what the target for the day is. Just ahead of the leading elements appear little black puffs of smoke. Flak! Over the target is one place you can’t dodge it. You are working a hundred per cent for the government and zero per cent for yourself. You just sit there and take it.
Those harmless-looking little black puffs now seem to sprinkle the first group of planes and you wait for one to go down, but they all go through it apparently unscratched. It takes a lot to knock a Fortress down.
Formation after formation goes over the target and the little black puffs have spread out into an ever-darkening black cloud. Jerry knows that you have to go through that one place in the sky and he is putting up everything he has got. When your turn comes the cloud is actually too thick to see through. You have heard stories of flak so thick you could get out and walk on it, and you see again the basis for those stories.
Then you are in range and the little black puffs are sprinkling your own formation. It somehow seems different when it happens to you. A puff, a second, and then a third appear just off your wing, each one getting closer so that you see the fourth one will be square on you. You really sweat out that fourth one for a second or two that seems an eternity, but it never comes. You rarely see the one that hits you.
Now you are really being peppered with them. Bursts appear between you and the next ship with loud whoompfs. Several puffs appear dead ahead and there is a strong desire to pull up or go down to avoid them. But that can’t be done on the bomb run. You can hear the spent particles rattle off the tough hide of your ship. At least you hope they are spent.
As you enter the black cloud over the target the air becomes quite bumpy and you have your hands full keeping her steady and in place, so you don’t see all the close ones. Maybe just as well, but your poor co-pilot has to see them.
All this time you are waiting for the bombs to drop from the ship ahead. It seems like a very long time to have to fly straight and level and serve as such a darned good target and not be able to do anything about it. Suddenly beautiful sticks of bombs begin to appear in neat stacks from out of the ships ahead, and then comes that feeling you have been waiting for so long–one you’ll never forget. The ship gives a startled little jump and seems to shake herself free of the load she has been carrying all this way for Uncle Sam, and the bombardier sings out, “Bombs away.”
Brother, from that moment on, you and your ship are working a hundred per cent for yourself. Your job for the government has been done and all you have to do now is to get home.
In the midst of your feeling of elation there is another feeling. The ship takes a sharp lurch. Flak! You’re hit. A hurried glance assures you that all the props are there and the engines are not burning. Then a light smoke and a smell of hot oil permeates the cockpit. Something is burning. A search of the engine instruments again reveals everything in order. It was evidently only the fuselage that was hit. Something down in the nose is burning. As your co-pilot looks down there, you check the instrument panel again for trouble. Out of the corner of your eye you catch something wrong. The hydraulic pressure is down to zero.
The bombardier’s head appears from down below and signals everything O.K. Then as your formation shakes itself free of the flak you put the evidence together and decide the hydraulic line below was hit and sprayed hot oil around a bit and maybe the flak smoldered a bit in the blankets you had down there for first-aid purposes. Nothing serious yet.
Free of the flak, you take careful inventory. Yes, the fuel in 3 and 4 is running low. Really too low. But there is nothing much that you can do about it for the present.
You look out at the formation, and the effects of the flak–the harmless black puffs–are beginning to be apparent. Here and there a ship is straggling in the formation. Flak doesn’t knock a ship down very often, but it can easily get an engine or a supercharger or an oil line, and the resulting loss of power makes it impossible for the ship to stay in formation. These stragglers are cold meat for enemy fighters.
Soon you should be getting fighter escort again–the unfriendly kind. You check everything carefully again. The lady is behaving fine but that gas is getting awfully low. Someone is calling you on the interphone and you realize the interphone system has been fuzzy for some time. It takes careful repeating to get over to you that the right waist gunner is having trouble with his oxygen. A check assures you that the pressure for the cockpit is still up, and not knowing just what is wrong, you tell him to do what he can. There is quite a bit of talking going on back there but you don’t get much of what is said. That gasoline is worrying you. . . .
Suddenly all that is forgotten or pushed to the rear of your mind. There are those darting specks again. Enemy fighters! Wearily the formation tightens up a little–at least the planes that can.
You can see the fighters picking off the stragglers in the formation ahead. A Fortress suddenly picks up a wing and heads for the ground. Perhaps it is hit or perhaps it is just heading for the cloud cover below. Little white dots appear. Parachutes. It must have been hit. You count seven dots and hope that you missed a couple.
Then a flash of fire catches your eye. A Fortress blazing from nose to tail slowly peels off. There are no parachutes. When it happens way out in front it is kind of like a show. Too bad. Again you check your group and notice one of your squadron has begun to straggle, and a careful look shows an engine gone. Flak, probably, and the trouble just now showing up. You catch the ship’s number and realize that the pilot is a buddy of yours. You have flown, eaten, and drunk with him for several months. An old friend in this business, and now he is slowly dropping out of formation. Your heart bleeds with the desire to drop back and cover him, but it would be two ships down instead of one. Besides, there are nine other lives on your ship you are responsible for and so you can’t do it. If you were alone, then it would be just your own life–but you are not alone.
All these thoughts go through your mind as you see him slowly dropping back. In your heart you already know the answer. With few exceptions there is but one answer to dropping out of formation so deep in Germany with enemy fighters in sight.
Another red light winks on as a gasoline warning and you decide you’ll have to call the engineer from his gun to transfer and even up what is left in the tanks. You squint ahead for a welcome glimpse of the coast and can’t see it, so you have the sneaking hunch you are still over Germany.
He dives a little and with extra speed is able to get into a lower formation. But soon he is slowly dropping back again. Really there are few more pitiful sights than to watch a good friend of yours in such a condition. His crew is probably fine and the ship well able to fly home but not able to stay in formation; so finis.
The navigator announces that our own fighter escort is due–the friendly ones–and you feel better. Sure enough you see them coming and call your gunners not to fire at the 47’s. You want them to come in nice and close. For a moment you relax, almost forgetting that the enemy fighters are still coming at you.
Then you see eight German fighters going in on him; your group opens up with protective fire but you see the tracers dropping short, out of range. He is on his own.
Then it happens. Although physically it is not possible, you see at the same time 20-millimeter and tracers exploding along both wings and skimming the glass overhead. In a split second you take this all in and wonder vaguely why you aren’t hit. But already you go into action, as you know something is very wrong, for there was no warning from your gunners. And then you realize what else was wrong; not a gun on your ship was firing. Since the ship is already on her nose and the tracers are still coming, you stand her on her tail and tuck yourself back tight into the supporting fire of the formation, loving each of those gunners covering you. Then suddenly the attack is over and you are still there, though those Jerries should have got credit for a “probable.” They had you dead to rights.
As the fighters close in they open fire. White puffs of 20-millimeter surround his ship and then they are on him. All up and down the fuselage and wings are bright flashes of exploding shells. His No. 2 engine belches smoke and the ship gives a lurch. The fighters pass by him and the ship rights itself momentarily and the smoke dies down. For an instant it looks as if he has weathered the first storm; then slowly his ship peels off and heads down. The fighters are on him again. Twelve butchers on one crippled Fortress. As the Fort disappears into the cloud below, the top turret is still firing. Stout fellow. . . .
It surprises you to find all your engines are still operating when you survey the holes and gaping tears in the wings. Cautiously you check pressures for a hit in the oil or fuel lines, but there is nothing wrong except the amount of gas left and the distance yet to go.
Then they come in at you, again and yet again, and you feel it will never end but are afraid it will. As each comes in from the front, or when the signals from the gunners tell you they are after you from the tail, you do what you can to make yourself a difficult target. It is physically hard work but the stimulus of seeing fighters and bullets coming at you does away with any feeling of tiredness for the moment.
Then you find you have been trying to get some answer from the rear of the ship but there is only a dead silence to greet your anxious calls. One by one you call the men, but there is still no answer and you fear the worst. You try to figure out something to do but see nothing except to keep going.
A red light on the dash catches your eye. One gas tank is at warning level and you are still over Germany. You don’t see how you can make it. Then a tremendous explosion rocks your ship and as you look around, first one engine, then another, and then the wing of the ship above burst into flames, and it quietly slips out of formation and a faint voice comes to you and you glue the earphones to your ears. “Tail gunner to pilot . . .” Eagerly you call back, and then with a lot of clicks and breaks comes “Tail gunner to pilot . . .” There is nothing more and your calls go unanswered, but although the indications are bad, you feel great. Mike is still alive.
The front part of the ship is isolated from the rear half. The bombardier calls to ask if he should go back and find out what is what and you agree that the loss of his gun is worth it to find out just what the answer is. Besides, the friendly Spits and 47’s seem to have the situation well in hand–there are only occasional single enemy attacks now–and there in the distance is the welcome, oh so welcome coastline of Fortress Europe.
In a moment the bombardier is back, collecting all the emergency oxygen bottles in sight. You can feel his urgency and appreciate that he can’t take time to plug in and let you know what he found. There must be someone still alive or there would be no need for the oxygen.
As you cross the coastline and head out over the water, more red warning lights wink on–the oxygen system is at warning pressure too, and the gas gauge is about worn out from testing tank after tank again and again. With the English coast in view (how you love it at a time like this!) you decide to drop back out of the formation to save gas enough to make the coast.
In a long slow glide, doling out the precious gas by spoonfuls to the faithful engines, you sweat out your chances of any enemy fighter having followed the formation out for stragglers. You can now see several other Fortresses doing as you are, under the watchful protection of your escort. Finally you reach the altitude where you think you can exist without oxygen and, turning the ship over to the co-pilot and navigator to find the nearest field, you start back to find what’s wrong.
Moving slowly to conserve oxygen in spite of your eagerness to know the answer, you work yourself way back. And you discover that the oxygen system in the rear half of the ship has been knocked out. The whole picture fits together in your mind now–you remember the waist gunner calling in about oxygen, and all that senseless chatter before the silence.
After over half an hour at twenty-six thousand feet without oxygen, the gunners had finally succumbed to anoxia. They had tried to load and fire in their weakened state and then they had collapsed. Wise old Jerry had been watching, and had noticed your flexible guns waving in the breeze and the turrets no longer tracking (you had called the engineer out at that critical moment); and three or four enemy fighters had come in close and let go with everything they had.
Nobody had been hit but Mike, and he apparently got only a flesh wound in the leg. The bombardier is taking care of him now. Duke, the radio man, is still on his feet, staggering around trying to help but having no idea what he is doing. His flesh is quite black and icicles have formed on his eyelashes and hair. The others look the same way. You practically have to clip Duke to make him sit down and conserve what little oxygen there is left in his system.
All this time the ship is going down to more oxygen and warmth, so they will be O.K.–but what a shambles! You marvel that nobody else was hit. Somebody must be looking out for you and your crew.
You want to get home, where medical attention is surely waiting for Mike and the crew. You check with the navigator in the nose to see what distance remains. You are over England now. He is carefully pinpointing your route and keeping the co-pilot on the shortest course home. He knows that he can’t afford to make a mistake.
When you get back to the cockpit, the co-pilot is looking longingly at each field you pass, and he even points out a few of the more likely ones; but you want to make home if you can, for the ambulance will be waiting and it may be a little messy, landing without brakes.
A check of the gas gauges shows that the engineer has kept them level; each is below thirty gallons; they can no longer be trusted. Of course all the red lights are on across the instrument panel, like a Christmas tree. But you are still flying.
Then when you have used up all but a minimum of your altitude and are about ready to grab the nearest field, the navigator calls in, “There’s the field.” Sure enough.
The bombardier wants to move Mike up to the waist in case of a messy landing, but you are afraid of moving him with a chance of a broken bone. Besides, there is no reason for your luck to stop now.
Making a circle to the long runway you discover that your radio is shot out. Firing all the signal flares you have (your engineer seems to like to shoot them) you come in on the final approach. The wheels look O.K. and then you are on. As soon as you have her under control you turn off into the grass to slow down, trying to judge your stop to end up near the ambulance.
Then she stops and you wave the ambulance to the tail and sigh–your job is done. Whew!!
Quickly, though, you jump out to check the doc’s opinion of the crew’s condition, especially Mike. Everything is functioning smoothly and efficiently without you, so you just watch. Mike looks up and smiles– “Nice landing, Bud”–and a lump comes to your throat.
In a couple of days there will be another crew to get to know and like, new names on the board and new faces in the mess, and a little later more new faces. How long will it go on?
With these crews gone from the squadron it will be harder to get passes. There will be more practice missions you have to fly with new crews. Just as you doze off into a troubled sleep you hear, “We are alerted for tomorrow,” and hope it isn’t an early mission, you are so tired.
As the ambulance drives away you turn back to gather up your equipment. There is a big crowd of curious ground crew and officers marveling that the ship came back with all those holes. A Fortress is tough. Suddenly you are terribly and desperately tired, but the job isn’t done yet. There is yet the interrogation.
So you gather the crew’s stuff together, and what is left of the crew, and climb on the truck to go to the interrogation. There you must go through it all over again, remembering everything in detail, remembering in each case time, place, and altitude.
The coffee and sandwiches help, but you miss familiar faces. Your squadron S2 officers come up and say so-and-so isn’t back yet–did you see? Yes, he won’t be back, is your answer. And his name is crossed off the list of doubtfuls.
Too tired to eat a meal, you head for the barracks. You shiver as you enter and see the beds of the crew that didn’t come back. Clearly you can see each of their faces and remember things they said and did. It is funny, but you can remember a fellow much better when you believe him gone. You had so enjoyed living with those fellows. But you are awfully tired, too tired to figure it out.
Before your nerves have a chance to relax, men come in to collect the clothes of the crew that didn’t come back. It makes you sick.