Schweinfurt became for the 8th Air Force for a fateful word as she suffered heavy losses here in August 1943.

“I learned firsthand that a man can accept the fact of the own death without panicking in panic.”
Unknown of American airmen who survived the attack on Schweinfurt on August 17th, 1943

One wrote August 17th 1943. It was exactly a year that the 8th US Air Force had started with the bombing of the fortress Europe from their bases in Great Britain.

The sky over the American bases in east England was covered, and the crews of the Flying Fortress waited strained whether they would actually be used now or not – some from them to six hours. The tension was strengthened still by the high meaning, which measured out to everyone, from the general to the simple rank, this operation: It was the first, purely strategic bomb employment, which should meet the life veins of the German industry and shorten thus the cruel war.

“Okay, people”, was called it in the briefing, “we the ball bearing factories in the city named Schweinfurt in Bavaria will attack. We will be forced to fly in the middle by Germany both when we coming and flying home. In the factories half of the German ball bearings is manufactured there, and if we destroy it, our attack will be a success.

We will fly at a value of 23.000 foot (approx. 7,000 m) and will try to split the forces up of the opponent. The 3rd Division will first start, Regensburg attacks (the second largest aircraft factory in the German Reich) and then to fly to North Africa. The two other divisions will attack Schweinfurt and will return then to England. If we hope that the thing folds, because if we cannot clean-put it, probably so three hundred or four hundred airplanes become… ”

Propheti words. The plan did not function, the German air defense discovered it too early, and as consequence of it more than five hundred young Americans had to leave their life.

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The entire plan depended on a perfect timing. 146 Flying Fortresses, together with nearly 200 escort fighters, which them during the first hour cover give will, should the English coast in Lowestoft leave, in course over the North Sea after Holland fly, southern after Belgium turn off and Germany in southeast direction to fly over Mannheim, then after east swivel and the Messerschmitt – work in Regensburg bombard. The work would have been already at itself a valuable target, but it should serve only as diversionary manoeuvres for the diverson of the German fighters. After the leading formation under the instruction of Curtis LeMay, floww him under the command of Brigadier General Robert Williams further 230 B-17 and a number of escort fighters was started ten minutes, on the way to the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt.

And in order to make the confusion perfect, a mixed force with middle bombers of the type Typhoon and Mitchell should cross the road of Dover and just as German interceptor fighters as possible to the south, on which Bretangne divert too.

The time of the beginning of operation was set on 8.30 hours. At this time the fog lay still like a thick dripping cover over east England.

LeMays relays on their base at the coast with Norfolk could recognize a clearing up as first. Briefly after 9.00 o’clock became gradually the end of the runway visibly, although the cloud base was still with zero foot.

At 9.30 hours all machines was in the air and formed a far circle, which was enough from Norwich to over The wash-out. Now the remaining units of the 8th should push air Force to them. If they had more than ten minutes distance, would be the entire mission in vain. A larger time interval would make confusion tactics a warning for the entire air defense stations of Germany. With each minute, – and still many should apply -, came the plan passed more and more into the swaying.

Afterwards regarded, one can say easily that it would have been better to break off and on another day shift the operation at this time. But who is able to say, what proceeded in the head of the Brigadier General Frederick L. Anderson, when it sat as solely responsible in its command shelter in High Wycome and did not know which it do should?

Was pushed from all sides, the German strategic industry into the K.O. – impact to shift. From the US Air Force pressure came to prove that the strategy of the mass attack was the correct one. To it it came that the Meteoroligists had predicted clear view for Central Europe, for which next day however already again on one at least two weeks continuing bad weather phase counted.

The bomber forces their waiting loop divided for Regensburg flew a whole hour, and each movement of each airplane was pursued exactly by the German radio operators on the radar display screen. From the airfields in Holland and Northern Germany interceptors ascended, and also they began an aimless, lonely shade dance, like a boxer in its corner, before the gong sounds to the next round. The Typhoons and Mitchells started to its useless provocation maneuvers over the road of Dover. And general Anderson one hesitated still. At 10.00 o’clock was obligatorily removed from it the decision. If the Regensburg formation should reach the unknown combat air bases in Africa still with sufficient daylight, he had to now loose-fly.

The teleprinters in the control towers in east England began to tick, and the 3rd Division of US 8th Air Force started toward the east.

The fog began itself to clear now also further in the south and in the inland, where the relays beorderten to pig ford waited for the start. Further delays developed, while a relay joined after the other one the waiting loop. About at the airplane swarm turned 01.15 hours pm to the south off, over the coast of Suffolk, over the North Sea and beyond the borders of any reason, into another world. The majority of the second attack wave did not even see the corner of a protecting hunter, after the Dutch coast was overflown. Spitfires of the Royal air Force welcomed it, but the long-distance – Thunderbolts were started 9 minutes too late and did not catch up them.

“As itself the fog had finally so far cleared that we could start, must the 3rd Division Regensburg have already attacked and on the way to Africa have been. Instead of deceiving the German interceptor fleet and in the consequence to zerstreuen, the division had alarmed only the German raiding party and in readiness had shifted.

In approximately 1,000 feet height we pushed by the fog cover and flew then at a value of 23.000 feet on the continent too. A close cloud layer, which extended from 17.000 feet to 27,000 feet, blocked us the way. If we wanted to remain together, we could not in-fly there. Colonel Gross, which led the 1st Division, had to make a heavy decision: One could fly over the clouds and the risk accept that also the goal would then be covered by the clouds, one could another course take or the cloud cover fly underneath. Sense of the flight altitude of 23.000 feet was, the German interceptors, the Messerschmitt and the Focke Wulfs to meet at a weak point. On 16.000 feet or 17,000 feet was the German hunters on the flight altitude optimal for it.”

And exactly into this elevator volume directed Colonel Gross his bombers. That was the drop, which brought the barrel to overflowing.

The Luftwaffe attacks

“Within fewer minutes it was no longer heavy to differentiate between friend and enemy because were only enemy airplanes to see”
A Gunner

The dreadful bloodbath took here its beginning. Gross’ formation lost 10 airplanes due to the wrong decision of its leader in only 5 minutes. The Americans however were armed with eleven 12.7 mm machine guns per airplane heavily and flew to protecting box – formations. At the end of the daily one could not speak after the destruction of 288 hostile airplanes truly of an easy victory, besides was this balance somewhat probably exaggerated. Only which one is exactly white, the number of the Flying Fortresses, which were met thereby – altogether 147. 60 was never again seen. 27 was so strongly damaged that they, although it succeeded to them to return again to the base had to be copied. And 60 reached North Africa in a condition, which made a repair impossible locally.

The first attack wave did not have it meanwhile more easily. A pilot, who flew protected position in the latter and thus to few in the formation, tells: “we constantly ran the risk that our airplane was met by falling down rubble. Emergency exit hatches, doors, too early opened parachutes, people and wreck parts of B-17 or German airplanes went past in the wake at us. We flew on, followed this cruel trace of a desperate aerial combat, where after airplane other exploded and even sixty parachutes at one time were not in air anything unusual.”

B-17 Formation over Schweinfurt on 17th August 1943

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons // B-17 Formation over Schweinfurt on 17th August 1943

A salvo received the “X-Virgin” into the fuselage center, which killed one gunners. Four men bailed out, so that the most important crew members had still sufficient oxygen, in order to fly and the bombs off to throw be able to their target. When the releasing mechanism of the bombs wedged, wounded gunner the handles loosened with a screwdriver and jumped then on the bombs, until they fell out.

On the “My Prayer” fallow fires out and the entire crew, with exception of the pilot, the copilot and upper protecting, whose parachute was too strongly burned, bailed out. It succeeded to protecting despite a charge shrapnel in the leg to get the fire under control. Subsequently, he took over the front gun turret. Together with the copilot in the trunk center it repelled the enemy airplanes, until they were nearly on house height and flew in this height the whole way back to their base. The copilot began, everything that it find could and which not straight was bolted on, eject. When he came to a pair of shoes and straight wanted to throw it over board, he saw a Belgian, who signed enthusiastically on a field. It tied the tying lacings together carefully and threw to it the shoes! With the last drop fuel and without navigator succeeded it to the pilot to surely bring back the “My Prayer” to a RAF base in the south of England.

After the war diary of the VIII Bomber Command the first year of the combat missions was in Europe a full success. The results speak however another language. A navigator, who had enjoyed on the outward flight still about the silvery shining airplanes, tells: “I remember, as I down-looked and numerous, irregularly arising, yellow-orange fires at the soil to blaze saw. I understood first not – so silly I was. Here no cities could not burn and a heap of hay result in a fire, which one can recognize from 4 miles distance… Suddenly it dawned me. Were louder shot B-17, burned at the soil there…

Over Germany, Holland and Belgium completely extended this terrible picture of burning airplanes. Europe seemed to me paved with our dead ones… Over the channel coast we saw then, like a gift of the sky, roar-end Thunderbolts. My clock showed 4,59 hours pm. The in the afternoon sun shone warmly by the left window front in here, and I removed my heavy ball waistcoat.” On this distance the navigator had little work. The whole way, back and forth, the pilot needed to follow only the trace of burning airplanes.

A terrible mission. Hopefully it had contributed really to shorten the war.

With this attack on Schweinfurt 59 Flying Fortresses were shot down and to 100 heavily damaged, 25 German fighters went lost. The anniversary attack became so far the heaviest defeat of US – Air Force in Europe: Each 5. Crew member found death in this attack.

To the Witness-Reports of Schweinfurt Raid B-17 losses on 17/08/1943