At zero seven thirty, twenty-one B-17s, three squadrons of the 918th Bomb Group, 1st Bombardment Wing, 8th Air Force, took off from Archbury, England, heading for Hamburg, Germany. The lead plane was piloted by the Group’s Commander, Brigadier General Frank Savage. His call sign was 'Ramrod', and the lead, high, and low squadrons were his ‘Flankers’.
Frank Savage. Savage was a tall man and well built, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He was a handsome man with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, and at thirty-seven, young for a General Officer. He was also one of the most experienced Group Commanders in VIII Bomber Command.
General Savage’s plane, 'Piccadilly Lily', was out of commission, so Savage was flying Captain Herb Phillips' plane, 'Lucky Lady', with Phillips' crew. He had picked Captain Phillips' plane primarily because the crewmen were experienced - this would be their fifteenth mission - and because their bombardier, Lieutenant Jack Walker, had a very high bombing accuracy rate. Another factor was that Phillips' regular co-pilot was in the hospital recovering from a burst appendix.
'Crewmen'. Savage thought, shaking his head. ‘The average age of this crew was twenty; they were still boys. But the Air Force calls them men and they'd been proving it.’
The target today was to be the Shipyards at Hamburg. Their flight plan would take them diagonally across England, over the North Sea to a point south of Denmark and then southeast down the Elbe River to Hamburg.
After takeoff, the squadrons assembled over the field, then the formation, following the signal from a 'bouncer' radio beacon, flew at very low level, to keep German radar from detecting them, to Margate on the southeastern tip of England.
At Margate they joined up with their P-47 fighter escort. They would provide protection for them most of the way across the North Sea, then due to fuel constraints, they would have to return home. ... from that point on, the bombers were on their own.
Once they had departed the English coast and headed into the North Sea, they began the climb to their operational altitude of 29,000 feet, and the gunners were given permission to test fire their guns.
As they climbed above 10,000, Savage got on the interphone, “Pilot to crew. Ten Thousand feet. Go on oxygen.” Then he put on his own mask and continued to climb. Once they attained altitude, the crews donned their electrically heated suits and heavy gloves to provide some protection against the cold, which could go as low as 60 degrees below zero.
With the help of strong tail winds, they made good time crossing the North Sea. As they approached Denmark, they turned south to follow the coast toward Germany, and Savage heard the call he had been dreading, “Radio operator to pilot. Sky Cap is on channel 3."
Switching to the designated channel, “Ramrod to Sky Cap Leader. Go ahead."
“Sky Cap Leader to Ramrod. Sorry, sir. We have to leave you here. We are bingo fuel. Good luck.”
“Understood, Sky Cap Leader. Sorry to see you go, but appreciated your company. Ramrod out.”
Switching back to channel one, Savage radioed, "Ramrod to all Flankers. Keep alert. We lose our fighter escort here, and we’ll be within range of their fighters in a few minutes. Gunners keep alert, and everyone keep the radio chatter down. Let's don't tell them any more than we have to.”
On the interphone again, Savage called, “Pilot to navigator. Check in.”
“Navigator to pilot. Approaching Cuxhaven. On course, on time, sir. Three minutes to next heading.”
The Luftwaffe was also aware of the range limitations of the P-47s, and fighters would delay their attacks until the escort turned back. As the formation made their course change at Cuxhaven and headed inland along the Elbe River, they found the fighters, Me-109s, waiting.
'Lucky Lady's'interphone immediately came alive as gunners called out 'bandits', first at 12 o'clock, then at every position on the clock, high and low. Although it wasn’t necessary, the other gunners had eyes too, Savage passed the warning on to the Group.
“Ramrod to all Flankers. On your toes, here they come. Fighters all over the clock. Fighters all over the clock. Keep it tight. Don’t let'em split you.”
The fighters came in swarms like angry bees, darting in and out at top speed. They liked to attack the Forts head-on, where they had the least firepower and were most vulnerable; they especially targeted the lead plane, because if they could knock it out, there would be a few minutes of confusion while the Group reformed on a new leader, and they were more vulnerable to attack. But other favorite targets were the ‘tail-end charlies’, the last planes in the high and low squadrons, because they had the least protection.
It was unnerving to sit there and watch a fighter come straight at you, guns blazing. Every fifth bullet was a tracer so the enemy pilot could watch the bullets leaving his plane and adjust his aim. Even in the daylight you could see the line of bullets that seemed to be coming right at you, and though it would do no good, you’d instinctively duck. The 'Flying Fortress' , or 'Forts', as they were called, positively bristled with their own machine guns - thirteen .50-caliber Brownings - and generally gave as good as they got; if not, better. But it was always an uneven trade: one fighter plane and one pilot in exchange for a B-17 with a crew of ten.
The 109s continued to press the attack for over 30 minutes before they finally turned away. But they had been bloodied and left with fewer fighters than when they had arrived.
But the Group had been hurt, too. Several planes had been damaged and had taken wounded, including 'Lucky Lady', whose right waist gunner, Sergeant ‘Johnny’ Johnston, had been hit when bullets from the ME-109’s 7.9mm machine guns ripped into the fuselage along the waist. One of the bullets creased Johnston’s skull, and he collapsed in a heap unconscious.
They had also lost a Fort from the low ‘Green Flanker’squadron. As they continued up the Elbe River toward their target, crews watched as Green Flanker Four, plummeted down in flames, and they counted nine chutes as the crew bailed out ... and were glad that it hadn’t been them.
“Ramrod to Green Flanker One. Close it up. Fill in the gaps.”
With the fighters gone, the squadrons reassembled into a tight formation and cared for their wounded. Some of the inexperienced crews congratulated themselves, thinking that they had beaten the fighters back, but that was short lived.
Up ahead they could see the real reason..... 'flak', a several thousand foot barrier of deadly little black puffs laid out ahead of them as far as they could see, a barrier through which the bombers had to fly, and they were still over fifteen minutes from the target.
'Flak' was the result of the detonation of anti-aircraft shells, their fuses set to explode at different altitudes. The little black puffs marked the shells' detonation, which then spewed thousands of metal splinters in every direction; splinters which when they hit, destroyed engines, blew up fuel tanks, and cut through a B-17s unarmored aluminum skin... and human flesh... like it was paper. Everyone hated and feared 'flak'.
You could do something about the fighters, take some evasive action, defend yourself, but with flak you had to just sit there and take it. The Forts had to maintain their positions to ensure bombing accuracy - because you didn't want to have to come back and do it again - but also to be able to provide the most effective defensive fire should fighters attack through their own flak. ... It was rare, but it did happen if the target was important enough. Experienced crews knew few airplanes could make it through these flak barrages without some kind of damage.
As expected, the flak was thick, brutal and appeared endless. 'Lucky Lady'shuddered and shook as the flak burst all around them. It was all Savage could do to maintain his coarse and altitude as they bounced around. Checking the formation, Savage looked up at the high ‘Blue Flanker’squadron just as Blue Flanker One, piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Peterson, his Air Exec (Deputy Commander of Air Operations), blew up and fell from the sky, and there was nothing he could do but radio Blue Flanker Two to take over as squadron lead. ... and close it up. For the next few minutes the formation flew through not only the shrapnel of bursting flak, but pieces of airplane. ... and other things they didn’t want to think about.
Then Savage’s tail gunner, Sergeant Tom Williams, reported over the interphone that Green Flanker Three of the low squadron had dropped out of formation and was trailing below and behind.
Looking out through his side window, Savage located the damaged 'Fort' and radioed, “Ramrod to Green Flanker Three. You’ve left the formation. State your status. Over.”
“Green Flanker Three to Ramrod. I’ve lost my number one engine, and my number three is running hot. Losing speed and altitude. Will try to stay with the Group as long as possible. Over.”
“Ramrod to Green Flanker Three. If you can’t keep up, try to find some clouds to hide in and make your way home as best you can. If you have to bail out, or crash land, your radio operator has the code to contact the Resistance. They’ll be able to tell you where it’ll be safest for you to jump, or set down. Be sure to destroy your bomb site and code books. Good Luck. Ramrod out.”
Savage knew they would try to make the bomb run, and stay with the formation as long as they could for protection, but as he watched, they fell further behind. Their chances weren’t good; if the flak didn’t get them, the fighters would be waiting outside the flak area to pick off any stragglers.
Ahead in the distance, Savage could see the outline of Hanskalbsand Island, the final turning point before the start of the bomb run. “Pilot to navigator. How long to the IP, Gardiner?”
“Initial Point in two minutes, sir.”
“Pilot to bombardier. Coming on the IP, Walker. Center your PDI.”
After a minute, “PDI centered, sir.”
"Okayyy. You've got it.” Savage said as he engaged the autopilot, and released control of the airplane to the bombardier.
The Pilot's Directional Indicator, or PDI, was part of the Norden Bombsite System. When the PDI was centered and the autopilot engaged, as the Bombardier set his sight on the target, the autopilot would automatically make the necessary course corrections. In essence, the Bombardier was flying the plane.
Savage could feel the bomb bay doors open, then shortly, “Bombs away!” and he felt the airplane lift as the string of thousand-pounders left the bomb bay and fell earthward toward the target.
“It’s your airplane, sir” said Walker as he released control back to the pilot.
When the other bombardiers saw bombs drop from the lead plane, they immediately toggled their own bombs. As the bombs began to strike their targets, Hamburg’s shipyards erupted in explosions and flames, and the ships in the harbor, and those tied up at the piers, began to explode and sink into the water.
Savage closed the bomb bay doors and pulled back slightly on the yoke. “Pilot to navigator. How’s it look?” he said into the interphone.
Lieutenant Gardiner, whose job it was to record where the bombs struck for Intelligence, reported back, “Looks good, skipper. Nothing down there but fire, explosions and sinking ships. We got some good pictures; they’ll tell the story.”
The group had made their run over the target and got their bombs away; they’d done their job. Now it was time to go home. Their return flight plan called for them to angle over Germany, on a southwesterly course, then out over Holland, across the Channel, and home.
“Ramrod leader to all Flankers. Starting a ninety degree turn to the right. I say again, a niner-zero degree turn to the right. Close it up. Let’s go ho.....”
Suddenly the plane was rocked by violent explosions. Two flak bursts detonated almost on top of them: one near the nose and the other just in front of the left waist. Shrapnel riddled the cockpit, and its occupants. Both left engines were on fire, and the right inboard propeller was windmilling. Most of the Plexiglas nose was missing, and all that remained was a smashed tangle of metal and melted plastic. The ball turret was gone too, along with its gunner, and the tail was severely damaged. The plane should not still be flying, but it was .... at least for a moment, then it began to dive.
The top turret gunner in Red Flanker One, the Group’s alternate lead, and the plane to the right and slightly behind 'Lucky Lady' in the lead squadron, saw Savage’s plane get hit and reported on the interphone, “Top turret to pilot. Top turret to pilot. Lucky Lady's been hit. She’s on fire and going down.”
The pilot, Major Joe Cobb, responded, “See any chutes?”
“Just one. The ball turret gunner.” the gunner replied. "The turret just seemed to explode, and blew him out, but I think his chute opened." He paused, then said, mostly to himself, “Come on, you guys, get out of there! Bail out!”
Major Cobb knew there was nothing he could do to help the General; he would either make it, or he wouldn’t. That’s just the way it was. “Pilot to crew. Everybody keep looking and report any chutes."
Then switching from interphone to radio, "Red Flanker One to all Flankers. Red Flanker One to all Flankers. Ramrod has been hit. Keep your eyes open for chutes. I am continuing a niner-zero degree turn to the right. All Flankers rally on me .... and close it up. The fighters will be waiting as soon as we lose the flak.”
As the Group turned away for home, Cobb saw Red Flanker Twooff his left wingtrailing smoke. She seemed to stagger for a moment, then plunged downward with one of her wings breaking off. As he watched, the plane, barely missing Green Flanker Oneof the low squadron, spiraled earthward in a ball of flame. There hadn’t been a chance for anyone to get out.
“Red Flanker One to Red Flankers. Close it up. Close it up. Let’s get out of here.”
Cobb hoped they’d done a good job today; hoped the mission had been worth it. It had been a costly trip. They’d lost four airplanes, so far, and he didn’t know how many killed and wounded ...... and they’d lost Ramrod.