STORY: THIS IS IT !
We had destroyed the heavy water plant in Norway, and took the second step to end the menace of an atomic bomb. This second step was the destruction of the atomic bomb delivery system. There were two delivery systems-long range four-engine bombers which Germany had, but more reliable were their submarines. Germany had a fleet of submarines which was sinking ships regularly, and if the United States had not given a fleet of sub hunter destroyers to England in early 1941, and declared war on Germany late in 1941, England would have been defeated. At this time German submarines were camped just outside U.S. harbors waiting for merchant ships to leave port.
The focus of German submarine operations was Audpico which was near Nantes, France, with a small operation near the Kiel canal in northern Germany. These were the repair and provisioning harbors for the submarines, and we learned quickly enough these were our next targets.
Wake up was early, and we were airborne by 6:00 AM. Assembly was at 12000 feet at Beachy Head, but en route to Beachy Head, Hilbert Braun, our tail gunner, announced over the intercom that three B-17's had exploded in mid air, and the remains were falling to the ground. I asked "What remains"? He replied "Four engines and four fuel tanks. There are no parachutes." Later, I thought there would be some mention of this at de-briefing, but there was never any official mention of lost crews. However, the losses were significant, and at this time our Group loss rate was twelve percent per mission.
We climbed to 35000 feet over the English Channel, and flew over France directly to the target . There were no enemy fighters encountered. It was very cold-so cold the oil in the propeller hubs congealed, and the plane flew as if the props were fixed pitch. It's hard to fly high altitude formation with a fixed pitch propeller.
As we passed Nantes on the right, the submarine pens appeared, and the lead bombardier began the acquisition of the target on the scope of the Norden bombsight. He acquired it, we began a series of gentle turns, and the bomb bay doors began opening. The B-17 formation closed up very tight. Heavy flak began at this time, and a number of B-17's took big hits, but kept their place in the formation. We took some small hits but nothing vital was hit. We were locked in tight, and committed to this bombing run.
The contacts closed automatically in the Norden bombsight, and the twelve five-hundred pound bombs were falling. The bomb bay doors closed quickly, and our speed increased to about 170 indicated and about 300 MPH true as we lost weight, turned right, and descended 5000 feet. The flak stopped hitting us, and the bursts were all well behind us. We had substantially destroyed this viper nest, as well as killing some of their best U- Boat commanders. The story of this raid was told by a German book "DAS BOT."
We flew east until we were clear of France, then turned north for the long flight over the Atlantic Ocean toward England. We passed close to the Brest Peninsula, looked at it, and did not mistake it for Lands End as was done on a previous flight. We were not in England when this happened, but we knew about it. As told, the flight leader decided that this was Lands End, he was low on fuel, and turned to land at an airfield that he saw. Jim D, the lead navigator, insisted that this was German territory. The Colonel told Jim that he knew where he was and to quit bothering him (the Colonel). Three B-17's were on final approach when the German machine guns began firing. No B-17's were shot down, but all three sustained significant damage. That was a height of dumbness display. If the Germans had not started firing, all the B-17's would have landed and been captured - 18 B-17's and their crews. Jim D never flew again while I knew him, but I never heard any complaint.
We continued on, descending to 12000 feet, and made landfall at Lands End. As we left Lands End, we spread the formation (turn 45 degrees right if on right side, fly one minute, then turn left to original course). Based on the weather forecast, we were to descend through about 2000 feet of stratus clouds, and below the stratus clouds there would be a 10000 foot ceiling with visibility unlimited .
As we descended, we could hear other planes over the Command radio " I'm at 2000 feet and still not clear" then ominously "I'm at 200 feet and still not clear." We didn't have the fuel to seek a clearer airfield, so we continued down. We were well in the soup at this time, on the way down, eyes straining to pierce the fog. Our position and landing lights were on but it was dark in these clouds, and we saw no other airplanes.
Finally we broke out at about 200 feet, supercharged engines roaring to stop the descent, and by sheer chance we were in view of a marker light which was a part of a circle of lights which ring and funnel planes into the landing runway at Royal Air Force Air Fields. We acquired the light ring, getting the gear and flaps down, switching to the main tanks and setting the props for takeoff. We followed the light line around, almost hitting a barn at one point, until we intersected the glide path indicator and rode it down to the runway. We were down and rolling!
We rolled to a turnoff, cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp as directed by the tower. We were too late for supper, and the barracks where we slept had no mattresses, sheets, blankets, or hot water. We bedded down in our flight clothes, tired, dirty, cold. So much for the Limeys! The next morning we loaded about 6000 pounds of fuel -enough to get us home- and flew to Ridgewell. The ground crew was delighted that we were back.
I later talked to Hilbert about the three B-17's that were lost, and he was greatly concerned. He said "This is a real war." We seldom if ever saw the final destruction of a B-17. We often saw a B-17 that would have a gasoline loss with or without flames, an oil loss, a supercharger failure and the consequent loss of power in one or more engines. A flamer required quick action. First, turn off the gas to the affected engine. If the flames are in front of the firewall, be patient- the fire will go out. If there is more involvement, dive to a speed of at least 450 MPH and blow the fire out. Try very hard not to pull the wings off when you pull out of the dive. This works- I know.
When the B-17 could not keep up , it would drop the wheels partially, immediately retract them, and slowly slide out of the formation. The others in the formation would see the wheels and clear a path for the cripple. After the plane left the formation, it disappeared from view except sometimes the rear gunners could keep it in view. The German fighters would immediately attack a cripple, but the B17 was a tough old bird, and we seldom saw the total destruction.
Lt Frye had this happen to him. After the war was over in Europe, I was getting a flight clearance at Ellington Field in Houston,Texas, when I realized I was standing next to Lt Frye. After joyous greetings, I asked him what happened. He told me that he got the fire out, and headed towards England, but the fighters killed six of his crew, and he was relatively helpless. He bailed out the remaining crew, and continued on one engine at maximum power. Before he got to the channel, the fighters had shot his flaps down, and he could go no further. He bailed out and spent the rest of his time in a prisoner of war camp.
While the B-17 was a tough bird, it had design errors that contributed to the losses. The worst were the naked fuel primer lines that ran from the main fuel tank to the manual primer beside the copilots seat and back to the intake manifold for each engine. The fuel booster pumps were always on with 60 psi pressure in the lines, and one bullet or piece of flak would sever a line. This would result in spraying high octane fuel on a red hot supercharger. Proper design would have a bullet resistant line about six inches long from the tank to the intake manifold controlled by an electric valve operated by a switch on the console. The second worst design were the oil tanks. There was one oil tank for each engine containing thirty- two gallons of 50 weight oil. If this tank got a hole in it all 32 gallons of oil would drain out, and there was no oil for feathering. This happened to us twice, and we were not aware of any oil leak until the oil pressure dropped to zero and the cylinder head temperature rose to the top of the gauge. Once the whole engine fell off (wonderful feeling- we had already sounded the bail-out alarm and left our seats). The second time the propeller broke the gears, spun at a very very high speed, then fell off going downward instead of at me (wonderful feeling). This could have been corrected by a separate oil tank for feathering or a standpipe in the tank for engine oil with the bottom fitting for feathering.
March 31, 1994
Hilbert Braun was the tail gunner, and was absolutely great. He kept his two 50 caliber machine guns in perfect working order, immaculately clean and perfectly oiled. He probably used more ammunition than anyone else, and never had a weapon failure. The tail gunner position had a terrible ride, having greatly more vertical and horizontal movement than anywhere else in the airplane. He was always first to be ready to fire, and never removed his guns until the propellers stopped turning. This was probably because three B-17's were shot down in the pattern one day, and in all three planes the tail guns had been removed. It was dusk-almost dark, and the Me 109 had simply entered the pattern, and probably would have shot down more if his ammunition had not given out. We always removed the guns after every flight, and cleaned and oiled them. Prior to the next flight, all the anti-rust oil was carefully removed, and the guns were very lightly coated with thin oil.
We were aware of Hilbert's concern, and we made a trip to the airplane junk yard and secured a lot of non-standard armor plate. When we returned to Base, we met with ground crew, and some of us asked them to cut up the armor plate and put it under our seat. Things did not work out as well as we had hoped. The next time we flew, old "This Is It" staggered into the air with a mighty heave on the wheel and flew like a dog. This was flying 4725, the best flying B-17 ever made, and we had to find out what happened. When we parked the plane, we finally found the problem. Hilbert had built himself a fort in the tail. He was safe, but we had to remove most of his treasured armor plate to safely fly the plane.
Hilbert was really a great guy. A dependable gunner, and a dedicated Christian. He and I regularly attended Chapel together. The Chaplain, Rev. James Good Brown and I still correspond. He was well thought of by all-he even wanted to fly missions with us and he did. When the great General Curtis LeMay died in the 80's, he gave the Eulogy. James told me later "Few came- he was a forgotten man."
In the meantime, Roosevelt was concerned about the atomic bomb. Democritus, a Greek, conceived of the atom as being the smallest particle in about 400 BC , and for 2000 years nothing was done about it. In 1939, Fermi approached the U.S. Navy with a plan to build a very powerful bomb, and the admirals nodded-'Thank you, Don't call us .We'll call you." But after Einstein's letter, General Groves was put in charge of developing an atomic bomb, and Groves was ruthlessly single minded in accomplishing an objective.
Groves first sought a technical director. He interviewed Robert Oppenheimer, was impressed by Robert's thoughts on a proposed organizing the of the research to avoid duplication, and hired him as technical director. Even though Oppenheimer had "Communistic leanings", he was the best man for the job. Groves and Oppenheimer selected Los Alamos, a remote site of 54,000 acres in New Mexico, for the location of the laboratory because of its remoteness coupled with a need for complete secrecy. Fermi, Fuchs (a Russian spy),Hornig Conant, Warren, Bainbridge, and Einstein were hired in great secrecy, and were moved to Los Alamos. A story is told that a young guard saw a strange looking man wandering around. The guard stopped the man ,and asked him where he was going. He said "I'm looking for the men's room." The guard led him to the men's room and said "I'm Private Jones ." The man replied "Einstein."
We now began the third step - the destruction of the laboratory, and the killing of the scientists. We knew exactly where the laboratory was, and I remember how it lay in the bend of the Seine River close to Paris. To make the most effective run, we would skirt the suburbs of Paris.
We were up at 6:00 AM, with takeoff at 8:00 AM, and fly at 22000 feet for better bombing accuracy. Spitfire fighters would accompany us across the channel to France, then P-47's would pick us up at landfall and accompany us to the limit of their range of about twenty minutes. We would have clear weather over the target, and flak was expected to be heavy.
Engine start was 7:30 AM, but we always waited for the tower to fire a green "go" flare before starting engines A red flare was a scrub or cancel. We did not get the flare - fog was over the target, and we would have to wait for the clearing of the river fog. New start time was set for 8:30, then 9:00, then 9:30. At 9:30 the flares were fired, and we got back in old 4725. The auxiliary power unit was running, and we started, taxied, and the planes began takeoff at 30 second intervals beginning at 10:00. When the plane ahead of you began its takeoff roll, the second count would begin, and the pilot would roll forward until the plane was straight, lock the tailwheel, and begin to push the throttles toward maximum power while holding the plane with the brakes. At the 30 second mark, the brakes were released, throttles went to maximum, and the plane was committed to takeoff.. Group assembly and wing assembly went smoothly, and we were soon at 22000 feet in three boxes of fifty-four B-17's headed to the initial point in France. We had started on oxygen before takeoff, our guns were armed, and all were alert for friend or foe.
Spitfires joined us as we left England, flying along beside of us until we reached the French coast. We occasionally shot at the Spitfires because they looked like a Me 109. They were safe unless they pointed their noses toward us. If they did this ,they were almost certain to draw fire from us, and I think we shot some of them down. The P-47's arrived as the Spits left, zigzagging above us leaving contrails. The P-47's had auxiliary gas tanks, and to engage the German fighters, the P-47's would drop the auxiliary belly tank. After that , they would have gas for one short engagement, then they would depart. However, the P47 was the best fighter we had - until the P-51 had not appeared. The P-47 had tremendous acceleration in a vertical dive, and had eight forward firing 50's synchronized at 500 yards to an area about six feet high and three feet wide. I saw Walker Mahurin dive on four Me-110's on one flight, and he flamed all four.
The German fighters appeared, the tanks were dropped, the P-47's dove for the 109's who promptly disappeared, and the P-47's headed home. The 109's promptly reappeared, began lining up, and engaged us in head on attacks. The guns in the nose and the guns in the top turret in all fifty four B-17's began firing. Two 109's were sent smoking and three B-17's were crippled - one engine out but keeping up - but the formation was intact. The German fighters did not make a second attack, They probably thought we would be bombing Paris, and they weren't going to die to save some of the French.
We intercepted the Seine at the initial point, turned to the left, and headed for Paris. I hated this route - we would encounter 1000 Flak guns at Paris, and we were flying low. Paris appeared, Flak guns began firing, and the Flak bursts rattled the plane. But: The lead bombardier had acquired the target, and we were committed - nothing could stop us now. The bomb bay doors began opening as we crossed Paris, and the formation closed up very tight. The bombs were away, the bomb bay doors were closing, and we were heading home.
The target was not impressive - just two buildings about the size and looks of a gymnasium. I wondered what could be so nothing but so important to commit 162 B-17's. The trip home was uneventful, and the next day we got the bombing results, including pictures taken from the ground. All was destroyed, the French thought that all were killed, and this was a research laboratory.
Now, knowing more than I did then, there was not a more important target , and the 1944 500 pound bombs totally destroyed such a tiny target and killed the scientists. One tenth of that would have wiped our atomic bomb effort at Los Alamos, and I now understand the need for the complete secrecy at Los Alamos. The scientists were the important target - the buildings were nothing. This ended Hitler's attempt to develop an atomic bomb.
PS: See "Day of Trinity" by Lansing Lamont.
(this story is and remains the sole property of the author, Bill Goodman. It is presented here with with his gracious permission. All rights are retained by same)
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