Saturday, February 27, 2010

Flak in World War II

By: Author Unknown
Date: 1999-11-03
Reprinted by permission of the 773rd Hostiles and Chuck "Creamo" Kremer.

This story was originally sent to Central of the 773rd Hostiles by one of the American Heroes from W.W.II, Willard "HAP" Reese: Pilot of B17 flying fortress. This article has been reposted here by permission of the 773rd Hostiles and Chuck "Creamo" Kremer.

Many stories have been written about the gallant defenses and the huge losses that were sustained by the Eighth Air Force as a result of Luftwaffe attacks on our bomber formations. And, to be sure, they were especially devastating and very often resulted in major losses of bombers and crews.

Aircrew gunners have written time and again of the exchanges between their 50 caliber guns and the 20 millimeter cannons of the enemy and how bomber crews had fought off enemy planes and persisted in spite of the attacks. The "Memphis Belle" and "Twelve O'clock High" films are testaments to the tenacity of aerial combat.

I'm sure, however, that when the records are finalized and one looks closely at the losses, it will be determined that more B-17's were lost to antiaircraft fire than to FW190's or ME109's. One could not shoot back at "Flak" so it tended to be less glorious -- but nonetheless deadly.

Whenever there was heavy overcast we would encounter barrage type flak, that is, all antiaircraft guns were controlled by a central radar unit and all fired simultaneously causing hundreds of shell bursts in one general area and at one specific altitude. This was the kind of flak that was described as "heavy enough to walk on" -- and was the most deadly if it happened to be accurately placed.

On a clear day, when the antiaircraft gunners could see our formation, they were cleared to fire at any plane which they might pick out and adjust the direction and altitude of their shell bursts as they fired and as might be necessary. The quality of the German antiaircraft guns and the skill of their gunners made life miserable for those of us who had to fly straight and level through a sea of bursting flak and flying shrapnel. If "practice makes perfect", then the German gun crews were the best. Here is a typical German battery of four 88 milimeter antiaircraft guns and their crews firing in unison (barrage).

The following is about one of our many encounters with flak. It's about a German gun crew firing at a plane almost five miles above them. A gun crew whose accuracy and persistence almost brought to an end the tour of one crew of ten men in a B17 named "That's My Baby".

That's My Baby: February 16, 1945

This particular encounter occurred on Feb. 16th, 1945. It was our twenty-fourth mission and our target on this date was the synthetic oil facilities at Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The route of the 457th was on course and on schedule. The visibility in the target area was crystal clear with only light cloud cover at about 5000 feet. From the initial point to the target the flak was extremely heavy and accurate, something we had come to expect on a clear day such as this.

But this day, moreso than others, it seemed that each shell was bursting immediately adjacent to us and with each burst our plane shuddered a little as if fatally hit. Every plane in the squadron was taking a murderous beating from the flak.

Midway on the bomb run the deputy lead plane in the low box sustained a direct hit in his port wing between the number two engine and the fuselage. Almost immediately the wing folded up and broke off, almost colliding with another plane. The two parts of the plane spiraled out of control with fire billowing from each part as it fell. No one in our crew saw any parachutes. The intercom was ominously quiet. Weeks later we learned that six of the crewmen did not survive.

It was not unusual, after a visual bomb run with heavy flak, for the formation to break after dropping its bombs. Each plane would take its own evasive action to try to avoid the flak and then later reassemble with the squadron after leaving the target area. We felt safe from Luftwaffe fighters at this time since any attack while we were in the target area would also expose them to their own friendly flak fire.

On this day, immediately after dropping our bombs, we broke formation to the right from the high box and immediately were tracked by a single antiaircraft gun. The flak bursts were directly in front of the nose of our plane -- one after the other in rapid succession about 3 seconds apart. It seemed they were no more than 50 feet in front of the nose of our plane. The black bursts were unusually large and we were instantly engulfed in the residual smoke from the burst. We dove sharply and the flak followed.

We turned as tightly as a B17 can turn and the flak followed directly in front of us. Then suddenly we were hit. The explosion was in the nose compartment of the plane where the navigator and bombardier were located. Even with our helmets and headphones on, the sound was deafening. A fierce, cold wind suddenly blew through the pilot's compartment.

A quick glance at the instrument panel told me that engine number three had been hit. The oil pressure was dropping rapidly. Flying bits of aluminum gave me a clue that there was damage overhead in the pilots compartment and our instrument panel now had a major dent from the force of shrapnel hitting the forward side of the panel.

We immediately feathered engine #3 and cut the switches. Oil was streaming from the engine nacelle. I tried to contact Joel Lester in the forward compartment but could not. The silent intercom to the navigator's compartment only reinforced my belief that we had sustained major injuries.....or worse.

My worst fears were relieved when Joel's head appeared through the opening leading from the nose compartment to the flight deck. His oxygen mask had been blown off by the force of the wind and he was asking the flight engineer to get him the emergency portable oxygen bottle. We were still at 20,000 feet altitude and oxygen was an imperative. Joel shouted to me that he and the navigator "didn't have a scratch" but were about to freeze from the blast of subzero air now blowing through the front of the plane. The flak bursts were still coming but we were almost out of the range of the gun and were no longer concerned with evasive action.

A quick look upward told me that some flak had penetrated the fuselage above my head and there were several nicks in the bullet resistant glass of the windshield that had not been there before. Our bombardier and navigator crawled out of the nose and retreated through the pilots compartment to the radio room.

From the rush of cold air we knew there was a major opening in the nose of the plane and the acrid smell of gunpowder lingered in the air. The air temperatures at this altitude in the winter frequently exceeded 40 degrees below zero.

We were now down to about 16000 feet and far from our squadron which was reassembling several thousand feet above us. With only three engines we were never able to catch up with our group but we were able to keep them in sight till we reached the English coast. Again we were fortunate that no fighters were in the area as the physical condition of our plane and our isolated location was a 'made-to-order' type kill for them.

Our bombardier, Joel, having found a throat mike and helmet in the radio room, proceeded to update me on what had happened. He reported that the burst had not been in the nose but directly in front of it. The shrapnel had shattered the plexiglas nose, damaged the bomb sight, and sprayed the nose compartment with deadly pieces of flying metal. It had miraculously spared both he and the navigator.

It seems that one of the pieces of shrapnel had hit a 50 caliber ammunition box on the floor adjacent to his foot and had exploded several shells which, in turn, had blasted a hole through the aluminum fuselage of the nose compartment without injuring him.

After crossing the Dutch coast we dropped down to about 2000 feet over the North Sea where the air temperature was considerably warmer. It had become unbearably cold in the pilot's compartment and, although it was February, the blast of air now flowing through our compartment felt comfortably warm.

We continued to Glatton on our three engines and landed without incident.

As I loosened my parachute to leave my seat and review the damage first hand, I observed that the flak fragment that had pierced the fuselage almost directly above my head had indeed come close. It was lodged in my parachute directly behind my left shoulder. I later dug out the fragment and still have it today. A souvenir of a close call -- both to the plane, the crew, and to me.

A slow walk around the plane made me aware of how fortunate we had been. The front end of the plane suffered major damage. The plexiglas nose was almost completely gone. There was a hole just above and to the starboard side of the navigator's compartment about a foot in diameter (where our exploding 50's had exited) and the chin turret was inoperable.

Furthermore, one of the two 50 caliber guns veered off at a sharp angle from the other. Several other fragments had punctured the fuselage in the navigator compartment, the leading edge of the right wing, and the cowling of the number three engine.

This was one of many episodes with flak. I cannot recall a mission where we were not under fire from antiaircraft guns for at least a portion of the time we were over enemy territory. This time our plane suffered major damage but none of the crew was scratched. We had a few silent prayers of thanks as we returned to our hut that night.


The following is an excerpt from official War Dept. document about "Flak" and the results of flak on the air war over Europe.

Fliegerabwehrkanonen ( FLAK ) Ack-Ack

The accuracy and effectiveness of FLAK or anti-aircraft artillery fire was derided at the start of the war but it gained a healthy respect as the war dragged on. By 1942 15,000 88mm ( 3.46 in ) guns formed the bulk of heavy flak defenses for Germany. Large numbers of 37mm ( 1.47 in ) and 20mm ( 0.79 in ) guns filled the skies with shells during every air raid. Often arrayed in "belts" around a city or target 88s could fire 22 lb ( 10 kg ) shells up to 35,000 ft ( 10,600 m ) at a rate of 15 - 20 rounds per minute.

The excellent 88mm ( 3.46 in ) gun proved very effective especially when radar was used to help with aiming. The shells exploded at a preset altitude sending metal splinters flying in all directions. Later groups of up to 40 heavy flak guns Grossbatterien fired rectangular patterns of shellbursts known as box barrages that proved very deadly to enemy bombers.

In 1944 Flak accounted for 3,501 American planes destroyed, enemy fighters shot down about 600 less in the same time period. More flak guns gradually appeared, mainly the 128mm ( 5 in ) German Flak accounted for 50 of the 72 RAF bombers lost over Berlin on the night of March 24th, 1944. An incredible 56 bombers were destroyed or crippled by flak during a B-17 raid on Merseburg in November of 1944.

My thanks go to Willard "HAP" Reese and all the Heroes of W.W.II for their sacrifices to keep us free. I would also like to thank Central, Creamo and all the 773rd Hostiles for sharing this article. Thanks to Leo "Central" Park for gathering the information.

See also B17 Navigator's Diary and our Military History Index. Visit the 303rd Bombardment Group

Printed from COMBATSIM.COM (http://www.combatsim.com/review.php?id=619&page=1)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

World Battlefronts: The Blimy Coast

Monday, Mar. 20, 1944:
To the crew of the Fortress Passion Flower it was their 18th and biggest mission—the first big U.S. raid on Berlin. In the ball turret Gunner Dick Litherland of St. Francis, Ill. sweated it out—the toughest battle U.S. airmen had fought over Europe. Sixty-eight Fortresses and Liberators failed to return, but Passion Flower dragged home on three engines. Gunner Litherland told this story.

It took about an hour in the briefing hut to get all the dope. Then the chaplains came in. A Protestant guy and a Catholic guy. Each had a service at the same time in opposite corners. Just said a little prayer for us and then wished us luck. Most everybody goes to one or the other. Some went on to Confession, too.

By 6:30 we were wandering down to the ship. The ground crew was just finishing up. It was getting light—grey dawn.

Before the Takeoff. Everything was ready so there was nothing to do but horse around, wrestling with Henry Zaborsky, our navigator, and shooting the bull with the ground crew. It was so warm that morning we were hot in flying clothes. And so still the wind sock was hanging limp.

When we taxied out about 8:15 it was broad daylight. We circled up & up over the field until we were above the clouds. While we were getting into formation we could see hundreds of other Forts coming up at other places to make other formations. Berlin! Wow!

A Little Trouble. Over Europe, just as we saw the first flak, we had a little trouble. The skipper said "Number Four engine is actin' up, but I'm gonna take her on, anyway." He feathered it a while, then unfeathered just before we hit the German border.

Lot of flak around Hanover but not a fighter until we got near the IP (Initial Point). That first baby came in dead ahead—zingity dow. Then there were about 25 of them—110s, 190s and 410s—the 190s are the worst.

Those 110s were rocket-firing. First they made a pass through our formation with machine guns blinking, then they came up behind and threw their rockets our way.

Friday Gets His First. A little past noon, Friday Weitzel, our right waist gunner, got his first German fighter. First the left waist, Curly Carroll, fired a few bursts into him as he came boring down through the high formation.

I shot him some from my ball turret. Then Friday let him have it as he came through the other side. It just tore his tail off as though a big fist had twisted it. One guy baled out and we saw his chute open.

That first pass hurt our formation a lot. Forts were goin' down off our left wing—bing, bing, bing. Guys came balin' out of all but one. That one blew up—no pieces, even as big as a wheel, just tiny junk flyin' through the air.

Another went into a funny flat loop with a full bomb load. Chutes came popping out just as one wing cracked off.

That's when you begin to sweat. Our fighters were dog-fighting all around with their fighters—so many things you couldn't watch 'em all at once.

Before I knew it the bombardier was saying "Bombs away" into the interphone. Everybody was a little relieved.

Smart—in Some Ways. Even with all the fighters you could see Berlin plain. The prettiest city I ever seen from the air, prettier than Paris, laid out so perfectly. Those krauts are smart Joes in some ways.

Way down below there was a formation of B-24s crossing direct over Berlin through flak as thick as wheat. Every time there was a hole in the flak some gunner would fill the gap with another burst. There was such heavy air traffic our bombers were practically lining up to get a chance over the target. Our fighters were tearing around everywhere.

Here Come the Poles. Just about that time a gang of Polish R.A.F. guys, flying Mustangs, came in. They were outnumbered five-to-one but they sure put on a show. I saw one take on five krauts and knock down two of them. Our P-38s were out to the sides, trying to break up the fighters that hung out there. The krauts were breaking through and attacking us about eight or ten at a time.

By 1:20 we were beyond the target. Then things got worse. The skipper said, "We're out of formation. Keep your eyes open." He had feathered that Number Four engine and we went down easy to about 5,000 ft.

Four P-38s picked us up there and stuck around while we headed due west toward the blimy shore. There were broken clouds and we dodged into them when the P-38s left us.

Strictly Down. Three 109s were after us, but Skipper put our nose strictly down—until she was indicating 300—and we lost them in a big cloud. As we came out a 190-H belly-tank job like our P-47s came boring in.

Friday got him at 300 yd., but he kept coming until he burst into flames and disappeared below.

I saw another coming. I hollered to Skipper to kick our tail around so we headed right into him. This kraut was plugging our wings—and good—but Curly got him—a black ME-109E, the old type with square wings that look like a Mustang. He was so close we could see oil streaks on his belly and that old white cross with a black one in its middle.

For a couple of minutes nothing happened and Skipper said "Everybody okay, boys? We got three good engines and this is better than playing for fun."

Then flak started comin' up around us again. We did evasive action like you've never seen, turning from side to side, corkscrewing, all with one of our main spars shot away. It's a miracle we didn't lose a wing.

Last Cast. As we came through the flak Jim Arden, the tail gunner, saw a fighter so close he could have thrown a rock at him, but Jim was too hoarse to call her out on the interphone. He just gave her a short burst and the 190 blew up. I think the German had come up on us in a cloud and didn't even know we were there until too late.

Near the Zuider Zee we had P-47s with us a while. You could hear the sighs of relief over the intercom and everybody started singing and jabbering. One P47 flying on our wing said, "We've had a field day." You know 176 Germans were shot down that day.

Well, it was another kind of field day for us, flying back from Berlin alone through flak and fighters. As we got near the blimy coast I went forward, put my arm around the skipper and said, "You're the biggest,- ugliest sonuvabitch in the world but I love you."
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