27 September 1944, above the Werra Valley near Eisenach, Germany: As the result of a six minute aerial battle, thirty five 445th Bomb Group B-24 Liberators and three hundred thirty six men who make up their crews, suffer the greatest losses to a single group in a single day in aviation warfare history.
Twenty five of the heavy bombers are downed inside of Germany’s borders. Three crash land; two in France and one in Belgium. Two make forced landings at an emergency field in England, and another crashes at Old Buckenham, leaving only four to return to base in Tibenham. One hundred seventeen airmen of the Mighty Eighth’s 445th are killed in action, one hundred twenty one are taken prisoner, and only ninety eight are returned to duty.
Today marks the end of “Operation Market Garden”, the largest airborne assault in history which commenced ten days earlier on September 17, 1944. The 8th Army Air Force will put up three Bombardment Divisions of B-17s and B-24s on a maximum effort bombing mission to central Germany. Scheduled are over a thousand heavy bombers with escorts of P-38, P-47, and P-51 fighters. Nearly two thousand planes in all, including three hundred and fifteen B-24 Liberators from the 2nd Air Division. The 445th Bomb Group with 39 planes will lead the 2nd Combat Wing, in mid position of the division.
The 3rd Division will bomb targets around Ludwig Stegen, Mannheim, and Mein. The 2nd Division’s targets are the two Henschel engine and vehicle plants at Kassel. The 1st Division, following ninety miles behind, will bomb Cologne.
Command Pilot, Capt. John Chilton, will lead the 445th in the 700th Squadron with 1st Pilot Major Don McCoy. Following will be the 702nd Squadron in the high right position, the 701st high-high right, and the 703rd in the low left.
At 0550 hours, the control tower sends up the first flare telling crews to board and take their positions. Ten minutes later, a second flare is sent up signaling pilots to taxi into position for take-off. In the 703rd, 2LT Rene Schneider slashes a tire on the runway and aborts the mission. At 0630 the launch begins as B-24s of the 2nd Air Division take off. Climbing at a rate of 300 feet per minute, they circle Buncher 6, their radio beacon, which guides them as they maneuver themselves into squadrons and groups. At 11,000 feet the crews go on oxygen. At 12,000 feet, 445th crews spot their assembly ship, Lucky Gordon, firing red-green flares. The sky is a sea of warplanes slowly coming together with choreographed precision, creating the shape and form that will underscore the awesome power of the 2nd Air Division’s bomber stream.
At 0803, the 445th heads across the English Channel, gaining altitude under full throttle. They make landfall over Holland at 0840 and encounter 10/10ths cloud cover with a base at 3,000 feet and topped at 6-7,000 feet. Leveling off at 23,000 feet, they settle in for their journey into enemy airspace. En route, three crews from the 701st abort and return to Tibenham: 2LT Donald McClelland has an engine knocked out by flak, 2LT Keith Frost aborts when tail gunner Sgt Charles Summers becomes sick, and 1LT Wilbur Wilkens had engine problems.
On course, the bomber stream, including the thirty-five crews of the 445th, continues on its scheduled route into central Germany. After a final turn onto an easterly heading, the Second Air Division aligns itself with the I.P.
The trek through enemy air space has been relatively uneventful thus far, but now, suddenly and inexplicably, the 445th begins to drift to the left; much too far to the left. Immediately, calls go out to the lead ship. Straying further from the bomber stream, McCoy tells them “keep it tight--keep it together.” Procedure calls for the squadrons of the 445th to do exactly what the lead does, and they do.
Isolated and without fighter support, the 445th continues on a heading to the northeast and carries their payload to Göttingen, 24 miles from Kassel. At 0938, the group toggles on the squadron leader’s “bombs away” smoke signal. On the western outskirts of Göttingen, the rural area encompassing Gross Ellershausen, Grone and Rosdorf receives the 445th’s thousand-pound bombs. Through the few holes in the cloud cover, they watch their bombs hit buildings twenty three thousand feet below. Damages are minimal: a farm house is destroyed; damage is done to twenty five other buildings; sixty-nine fields receive damage; three people are injured; and a horse is killed in an open field. One hundred and three bomb craters are counted near Rosdorf. The group turns away from target and flies south, initiating a turn to the southwest as it nears Eisenach.
Like most bomb groups, the 445th usually flies a very tight formation for defensive reasons; but now, while negotiating a turn to the southwest, they are strung out and have lost their defensive alleys that overlap from plane to plane. At 1003 (1103 German time), elite pilots of Jagdgeschwader 4’s Sturmgruppe ll, Jadgeschwader 300’s l Gruppe and ll Sturmgruppen, and Jagdeschwader 3’s lV Sturm, catch up to the bomb group over the Werra Valley near Eisenach, and the onslaught begins. The 445th, caught off guard, is extremely vulnerable when it is attacked by as many as a hundred and fifty of the German fighters.
In an instant, the peaceful September sky is filled with calamity and destruction as Göring’s elite overtake the heavy bombers. Coming in at 6 o’clock low, the Luftwaffe, flying specially equipped FW190’s and ME109’s tear through the group in waves of ten to fifteen abreast. As many as 185 war planes fill the skies, locked in deadly battle above the Thüringian Forest. Some B24s explode from hits made by 20 and 30 mm cannon fire that rip apart the planes and crews. Through the clutter of falling aircraft and aircraft parts, hundreds of flyers try to bail out. At least two are hit and killed by aircraft as they parachute near or into the flight path of oncoming fighters. Some airmen are either blown or sucked out of their planes without parachutes. Many chutes and men are in flames after being doused by hydraulic fluid and gasoline from ruptured fuel lines. All but a few of the B-24s are on fire and/or exploding. Spectators on the ground hear the din of battle overhead, but see nothing until broken war machines and men pour through the clouds.
The historic battle is over in just six minutes, the costliest ever to a single bomb group in a single day. The littered countryside bears witness to the chaos and destruction that occurred above the cloud layer sitting at 3,000 feet. The twisted and burning remains of 21 B-24s are strewn across the Werra valley, all within a 16 mile radius of Ulfen. Scattered among the wreckage and beyond are 29 downed German fighters, four ME109s and 25 FW190s. Mustangs of the 361st fighter group claim 18 scores, and 11 are lost to B-24 gunners or mid-air collisions. A total of 25 B-24’s lie crumpled and burning on German soil. Only four of the 35 will make it safely back to Tibenham.
One hundred and eighteen American flyers and nineteen German pilots perish in the historic aerial battle. One hundred twenty-one Americans are captured and will spend the remainder of the war enduring life as prisoners of war. Many of the enlisted POWs will survive death marches. The most infamous will be the 86 day, 600 mile march which will originate at Stalag Luft lV near Gross Tychow, Poland (German held territory at the time).
Of the 336 American airmen who made up the 35 crews, less than one in three will eventually return to duty, and only one Liberator will return undamaged.
Thanks to our German friends Eberhard Hälbig, Günter Lemke, Walter Hassenpflug, and Heidrun Dolezel for their research and translations. Special thanks to friends and authors Luc Dewez and Linda Alice Dewey.
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“The Mighty Eighth compiled an impressive record in the war. This achievement, however, carried a high price. The 8th AF suffered one-half of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ casualties in World War II (47,000-plus casualties with more than 26,000 deaths). The Eighth’s personnel also earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, 850 Silver Stars, 7,000 Purple Hearts, [and] 46,000 Air Medals. Many more uncounted awards were presented to the 8th AF veterans after the war. There were 261 fighter aces and 305 gunner aces in the Eighth in World War II; 31 of those fighter aces exceeded 15 or more aircraft kills.”
Courtesy: National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.