A flight of B17 Flying Fortresses, part of the 447th Bomb Group, 711th Bomb Squadron, 47th Wing of the 8th Air Force, come under attack over Nazi-occupied Europe by German fighter planes. Art courtesy of Lou Drendel/Aviation-Art.net



Beirne Lay was a USAAF co-pilot flying B-17 bombers on raids over Germany.

When our group crossed the coast of Holland at our base altitude of 17,000 feet, I was well situated to watch the proceedings, being co-pilot in the lead ship of the last element of the high squadron. With all of its twenty-one B-17Fs tucked in tightly, our group was within handy supporting distance of another group, ahead of us at 18,000 feet. We were the last and lowest of the seven groups that were visible ahead on a south-east course, forming a long chain in the bright sunlight – too long, it seemed. Wide gaps separated the three combat wings.

As I sat there in the tail-end element of that many-miles-long procession, gauging the distance to the lead groups I had the lonesome foreboding that might come to the last man about to run a gantlet lined with spiked clubs. The premonition was well founded.

Near Woensdrecht, I saw the first flak blossom out in our vicinity, light and inaccurate. A few minutes later, two FW-190s appeared at one o’clock level and whizzed through the formation ahead of us in a frontal attack, nicking two B-17s in the wings and breaking away beneath us in half rolls. Smoke immediately trailed from the B-17s, but they held their stations. As the fighters passed us at a high rate of closure, the guns of our group went into action. The pungent smell of burnt powder filled our cockpit, and the B-17 trembled to the recoil of nose-and ball-turret guns. I saw pieces fly off the wing of one of the fighters before they passed from view.

Here was early action. The members of the crew sensed trouble. There was something desperate about the way those two fighters came in fast, right out of their climb without any preliminaries. For a few seconds the interphone was busy with admonitions: “Lead ’em more . . . short bursts . . . don’t throw rounds away . . . there’ll be more along in a minute.”

Three minutes later, the gunners reported fighters climbing up from all around the clock, singly and in pairs, both FW-190s and ME-109Gs. This was only my fourth raid, but from what I could see on my side, it looked like too many fighters for sound health. A coordinated attack followed, with the head-on fighters coming in from slightly above, the nine and three o’clock attackers approaching from about level, and the rear attackers from slightly below. Every gun from every B-17 in our group and the one ahead was firing, crisscrossing our patch of sky with tracers to match the time-fuze cannon-shell puffs that squirted from the wings of the Jerry single-seaters. I would estimate that seventy-five percent of our fire was inaccurate, falling astern of the target – particularly the fire from hand-held guns. Nevertheless, both sides got hurt in this clash with two B-17s from our low squadron and one other falling out of formation on fire with crews bailing out, and several fighters heading for the deck in flames or with their pilots lingering behind under dirty yellow parachutes. Our group leader pulled us up nearer to the group ahead for mutual support.

I knew that we were already in a lively fight. What I didn’t know was that the real fight, the anschluss of Luftwaffe 20-mm cannon shells, hadn’t really begun. A few minutes later, we absorbed the first wave of a hailstorm of individual fighter attacks that were to engulf us clear to the target. The ensuing action was so rapid and varied that I cannot give a chronological account of it. Instead, I will attempt a fragmentary report, salient details that even now give me a dry mouth and an unpleasant sensation in the stomach when I recall them. The sight was fantastic and surpassed fiction.

It was over Eupen that I looked out of my co-pilot’s window after a short lull and saw two whole squadrons, twelve ME-109s and eleven FW-190s, climbing parallel to us. The first squadron had reached our level and was pulling ahead to turn into us and the second was not far behind. Several thousand feet below us were many more fighters, with their noses cocked at maximum climb. Over the interphone came reports of an equal number of enemy aircraft deploying on the other side. For the first time, I noticed an ME-110 sitting out of range on our right. He was to stay with us all the way to the target, apparently reporting our position to fresh squadrons waiting for us down the road. At the sight of all these fighters, I had the distinct feeling of being trapped – that the Hun was tipped off, or at least had guessed our destination and was waiting for us. No P-47s were visible. The life expectancy of our group suddenly seemed very short, since it had already appeared that the fighters were passing up preceding groups, with the exception of one, in order to take a cut at us.

Swinging their yellow noses around in a wide U-turn, the twelve-ship squadron of ME-109s came in from twelve to two o’clock in pairs and in fours and the main event was on.

A shining silver object sailed past over our right wing. I recognized it as a main exit door. Seconds later a dark object came hurtling through the formation, barely missing several props. It was a man, clasping his knees to his head, revolving like a diver in a triple somersault. I didn’t see his chute open.

A B-17 turned gradually out of the formation to the right, maintaining altitude. In a split second, the B-17 completely disappeared in a brilliant explosion, from which the only remains were four small balls of fire, the fuel tanks, which were quickly consumed as they fell earthward.

Our airplane was endangered by hunks of debris. Emergency hatches, exit doors, prematurely opened parachutes, bodies, and assorted fragments of B-17s and Hun fighters breezed past us in the slipstream.

I watched two fighters explode not far below, disappearing in sheets of orange flame, B-17s dropping out in every stage of distress, from engines on fire to control surfaces shot away, friendly and enemy parachutes floating down and, on the green carpet far behind us, numerous funereal pyres of smoke from fallen fighters, marking our trail.

On we flew through the strewn wake of a desperate air battle, where disintegrating aircraft were commonplace and sixty chutes in the air at one time were hardly worth a second look.

I watched a B-17 turn slowly out to the right with its cockpit a mass of flames. The co-pilot crawled out of his window, held on with one hand, reached back for his chute, buckled it on, let go, and was whisked back into the horizontal stabilizer. I believe the impact killed him. His chute didn’t open.

Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and still no letup in the attacks. The fighters queued up like a breadline and let us have it. Each second of time had a cannon shell in it. The strain of being a clay duck in the wrong end of that aerial shooting gallery became almost intolerable as the minutes accumulated toward the first hour.

Our B-17 shook steadily with the fire of its .50s and the air inside was heavy with smoke. It was cold in the cockpit, but when I looked across at our pilot – and a good one – sweat was pouring off his forehead and over his oxygen mask. He turned the controls over to me for a while. It was a blessed relief to concentrate on holding station in formation instead of watching those everlasting fighters boring in. It was possible to forget the fighters. Then the top-turret gunner’s twin muzzles would pound away a foot above my head, giving an imitation of cannon shells exploding in the cockpit, while I gave an even better imitation of a man jumping six inches out of his seat.

A B-17 ahead of us, with its right Tokyo tanks on fire, dropped back to about 200 feet above our right wing and stayed there while seven of the crew bailed out successfully. Four went out the bomb bay and executed delayed jumps, one bailed from the nose, opened his chute prematurely and nearly fouled the tail. Another went out the left-waist gun opening, delaying his chute opening for a safe interval. The tail gunner dropped out of his hatch, apparently pulling the ripcord before he was clear of the ship. His chute opened instantaneously, barely missing the tail, and jerked him so hard that both his shoes came off. He hung limply in the harness, whereas the others had immediately showed some signs of life after their chutes opened, shifting around in the harness. The B-17 then dropped back in a medium spiral, and I did not see the pilots leave. I saw it just before it passed from view, several thousand feet below us, with its right wing a solid sheet of yellow flame.

After we had been under constant attack for a solid hour, it appeared certain that our group was faced with annihilation. Seven had been shot down, the sky was still mottled with rising fighters and target time still thirty-five minutes away. I doubt if a man in the group visualized the possibility of our getting much farther without 100 percent loss. I know that I had long since mentally accepted the fact of death and that it was simply a question of the next second or the next minute. I learned first-hand that a man can resign himself to the certainty of death without becoming panicky. Our group firepower was reduced thirty-three percent, ammunition was running low. Our tail guns had to be replenished from another gun station. Gunners were becoming exhausted and nerve-tortured from the prolonged strain, and there was an awareness on everybody’s part that something must have gone wrong. We had been the aiming point for what seemed like most of the Luftwaffe, and we fully expected to find the rest of it primed for us at the target.

Fighter tactics were running fairly true to form. Frontal attackers hit the low squadron and lead squadron, while rear attackers went for the high. The manner of their attacks showed that some pilots were old-timers, some amateurs, and that all knew pretty definitely where we were going and were inspired with a fanatical determination to stop us before we got there. The old-timers came in on frontal attacks with a noticeably slower rate of closure, apparently throttled back, obtaining greater accuracy than those that bolted through us wide out. They did some nice shooting at ranges of 500 or more yards, and in many cases seemed able to time their thrusts to catch the top- and ball-turret gunners engaged with rear and side attacks. Less experienced pilots were pressing attacks home to 250 yards and less to get hits, offering point-blank targets on the breakaway, firing long bursts of twenty seconds, and, in some cases, actually pulling up instead of going down and out. Several FW pilots pulled off some first-rate deflection shooting on side attacks against the high group, then raked the low group on the breakaway out of a sideslip, keeping the nose cocked up in the turn to prolong the period the formation was in their sights.

I observed what I believe was an attempt at air-to-air bombing, although I didn’t see the bombs dropped. A patch of seventy-five to 100 gray-white bursts, smaller than flak bursts, appeared simultaneously at our level, off to one side.

One B-17 dropped out on fire and put its wheels down while the crew bailed. Three ME-109s circled it closely, but held their fire, apparently ensuring that no one stayed in the ship to try for home. I saw Hun fighters hold their fire even when being shot at by a B-17 from which the crew was bailing out.

Near the IP, one hour and a half after the first of at least 200 individual fighter attacks, the pressure eased off, although hostiles were nearby. We turned at the IP with fourteen B-17s left, two of which were badly crippled. They dropped out after bombing the target and headed for Switzerland. The number-four engine on one of them was afire, but the plane was not out of control. The leader of the high squadron received a cannon shell in his number-three engine just before the start of the bombing run and went in to the target with the prop feathered.

Weather over target, as on the entire trip, was ideal. Flak was negligible. The group got its bombs away promptly on the leader. As we turned and headed for the Alps, I got a grim satisfaction out of seeing a column of smoke rising straight up from the ME-109 shops, with only one burst over in the town of Regensburg.

The rest of the trip was a marked anticlimax. A few more fighters pecked at us on the way to the Alps. A town in the Brenner Pass tossed up a lone burst of futile flak. We circled the air division over Lake Garda long enough to give the cripples a chance to join the family, and we were on our way toward the Mediterranean in a gradual descent. About twenty-five fighters on the ground at Verona stayed on the ground. The prospect of ditching as we approached Bone, shortages of fuel, and the sight of other B-17s falling into the drink seemed trivial matters after the nightmare of the long trip across southern Germany. We felt the reaction of men who had not expected to see another sunset.

At dusk, with red lights showing on all of the fuel tanks in my ship, the seven B-17s of the group still in formation circled over Bertoux and landed in the dust. Our crew was unscratched. Sole damage to the airplane: a bit of ventilation around the tail from flak and 20-mm shells. We slept on the hard ground under the wings of our B-17, but the good earth felt softer than a silk pillow.


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