The report of a P-51 Mustang pilot, who escorted bombers to Berlin in March 1944.
“The first warnings for an attack on Berlin came in the morning of March 4th, 1944, toward 4 o’clock, as us lay in the Nissan huts in our sleeping-bags, wakened by the far off roar of B-17 squadrons which had just started up. Time was always scarce and since it was far too cold for shaving, we hurriedly got dressed and stumbled out for breakfast. When we gathered for the usual briefing after this, we noticed the gigantic illuminated map of Europe. A 2.5 m long red tape led from our base in Southern England, to the big B for Berlin.
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According to the plan we would join up with the bombers deep inside hostile territory. The P-47’s would accompany them up to their last drop of fuel and then change course. A couple of minutes later, we would arrive and accompany the bombers during their attack on Berlin and on their way back, until further P-47 and P-38 groups arrived to replace us. We expected heavy resistance from the German interceptors and the anti-aircraft guns the entire way. The fight would start to the north of Amsterdam, once over the enemy coastline. As soon as we arrived over the Zuidersea, we would be in the hunting ground of the Luftwaffe.
The bomber crews however, probably wouldn’t escape unharmed despite our efforts. As a rule, the flight path passed over Brunswick and Magdeburg, Osnabrück and Hanover. The German fighter units stationed in Magdeburg were always on the watch and would be in the air fast.
130 km further south would be more Bf 109 squadrons climbing up from Kassel, Erfurt, hall, Leipzig and others bases. These were the most important points covered in the briefing, along with the weather forecast, the altitude, timing and the rest.
The aircraft always start out in pairs, a leader and a wingman. Two of the three squadrons rolled onto the unused part of the runway up to the intersection point with the active runway close by. The third rolled up close to the takeoff point with the squadron leader and his wingman leading. The flights started right behind each other.
The escort commander circled the base until the complete lead squadron was in the air and formed up. Three times around and all three squadrons were in formation; 16 aircraft per squadron and two as replacements.
In this formation we got underway. After 200 km we were at approximately 20,000 feet. We would only find our bombers over Hanover or Brunswick. When we crossed the Zuidersee, we could already see the first signs of the battle, with the ground below strewn with the wrecks of burning aircraft.
Up till now everything had remained relatively the German air force didn’t attack Mustang groups generally. Something like that would have been very unwise. It was their task to attack our bomber squadrons; they were responsible for the damage. The P-51 was much more of a handful then a B-17, but if a P- 51 was in the way, they were attacked nevertheless.
We arrived at the meeting place and met the ‘Jugs’ (P-47’s) leaving on their way back to England. Our group, the 354th from Colchester and the P-38’s took over the escort. Since the bombers were relatively much slower, we had to fly in weaving lines above them. The P-38’s flew high cover; we remained tight to the bombers with our three squadrons distributed so that the complete bomber group could be covered.
Shortly before the first way point – a turn in the flight line – a heavy anti-aircraft gun focussed on us. When the flak-shells exploded nearby, you could recognize the orange explosion in the midst of the black cloud of smoke.
The voices erupted on the radio. German fighters attacking from the front! All the pilots dropped their two additional wing tanks and pressed the handgun switch. The Germans had used everything which had two wings. There wasn’t any attack focussed on me in my position. They just came from all directions in twos, threes or in fours.
My squadron leader went after a twin-engine Me-110 which was going after a B-17. I covered him and also looked after the rear. The 110 came in directly in the front quarter and we both opened fire on him, but without success; the speed and angle were still too great. A tight turn brought us back behind the Me-110, which tried to escape in a steep nosedive. We could dive faster and fired salvo around salvo but she was still too far away. We scored occasional hits and a little smoke streamed from her left engine. The bomber group was quite a number of miles behind us now and my leader decided to break off the chase and return to the real battle again.
We reluctantly turned away from the 110 and joined the general mess. The entire escort had split up into groups, the smallest fighter unit consisting of a leader and a wingman. Marked squadrons couldn’t be recognized anymore. It was each against everybody but still with some purpose. We still stayed at least in a twosome if it at all possible when together.
It wasn’t easy to pick out another enemy fighter. A thick smoke plume climbed high from Berlin and the anti-aircraft guns pounded us from all angles. The German fighter planes from the first attack against the bombers had gone over to free hunting now they had carried out their first orders. They were fully engaged in fending off the Mustang escort fighters, with whom they hadn’t bargained at all.
We both had nothing left to do but to get together with the rest of the 8th and 9th fighter groups into an accompanying position again and get ready for the expected fight on the way back to England. On the ground, wrecks of burning aircraft could be seen. The B-17’s were still taking heavy anti-aircraft fire. From time to time one of them caught fire and fell from the formation. Some parachutes – never everyone, usually opened. A burning bomber always became somebody’s casket.
The B-17’s usually with one or two huge holes in her fuselage and seriously injured crew members on board; would slowly dive down out of control. They would begin to break up, starting to spin before the last plummet to the ground. Usually a wing tore off, with the rest falling in a rolling spiral from 25,000 feet deep into the ground.
I have seen even a B-17; after she was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire make a complete loop over. Some crew members could still bail out as the machine’s nose sank and she started going down. She then soared back, high and over before falling onto her back on the other side. Some pieces broke off here and there, a part of the tail unit and a piece of the wing, before she was smashed to pieces on the ground below.
Our first complete escort mission to Berlin took place on March 4th, 1944. I truly believe that sufficient fighter planes were available to limit the losses of the bomber squadrons to a minimum. Five bomb raids on Berlin should rattle Hitler’s war effort. They were flown on March 3rd, 4th, 6th, 8th and 9th utilising every available aircraft. I took part in four of these missions.
Our squadron shot down 20 Luftwaffe enemy fighters for our part without one single loss on March 6th. We had made progress.”