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Air Battle Over The Netherlands

by Ab. A. Jensen

While we citizens of the German occupied Netherlands began a new day on the 11th of December 1943, 538 heavy bombers of the U.S. Army Air Force assembled over England. Individual planes, B-17s and B-24s, joined into elements, flights, squadrons and groups and then into wings before wheeling toward Emden, Germany. As they did, 313 P-47 Thunderbolts from seven groups, 31 P-38s from the 55th Fighter Group took off or readied for takeoff to carry out escort duties to the Big Friends. Since Emden was not a distant target, fighters would be with the bombers at all points along the route, A layer of dark stratus hung over the English countryside at 5,000 feet as the first Thunderbolts began a slow climb toward its bottom.

The 8th Air Force field order, outlining the mission directed the bombers to feint, flying west almost to Helgoland, before suddenly turning southwest to cut back on Emden, making straight for the target. The object was to fake any German fighters coming up through the clouds into the defending the Bremen-Hamburg area further east. Escort in the target area would be provided by the P-51s of the 354th, flying its third mission, and first deep penetration escort, across the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen, directly to Emdem.

All was not well though, for the meteorological forecast had underestimated the winds. While the fliers battled a 75 mph headwind that mad the trip over the North Sea longer than planned, the lead bomber navigator, changed the original turning point from near Helogland to one further west. This meant the bombers would be over the target before the rendezvous with their fighter escort. Up ahead, unexpected breaks in the cloud layer became larger and larger, revealing the northern coast of Germany. The hope that cloud cover would keep the Germany fighters grounded vanished. Before the first bomber cut in at the East Frisian coast it happened: “Fighters at one o’clock high!”

While the U.S. forces had taken formation over England, German radar plotters, ever attentive, recorded the first blips on their radar screens and watched the strong build-up of bomber formations. Minutes later the entire German defenses were alerted: “Ansammlungen in Dora-Dora.” Messages were at once relayed to the various fighter bases. At these bases young, aggressive fighter pilots were ready to man their sleek Messerschmitt Me 109s, the stalwart Focke Wulf 190s, the much propagandized “Zerstorer”, Messerschmitt Me 110, and even the all-purpose Junkers Ju 88.

“Alarmstart!” Black overalled mechanics stuck the cranks on the gray engine cowlings of the Me 109s and heaved. Three bladed props kicked and spun around. Quickly the men scrambled from the wings to avoid being tossed off by air blast. Cockpit canopies were closed, and the fighters took off with roaring engines. At Jever, trees lined the runway of the Luftwaffe fighter base, well hidden in a stretch of timber, flashed by planes as they took off. Wheels still turning, folded into the wings and spinners pointed upward as the fighter commenced their long climb to altitude.

“Dicke Autos in Dora-Nordpolgehen Sie auf Hanni achtnull!” the controllers instructions crackled in the fighter pilots earphones as they went for the bombers.

At landfall in, the first two boxes of the 3rd Bomb Division, led by the 390th Bomb Group, were attacked by six twin engine planes that dived out of the sun and concentrated on the 390th’s lead plane. “It was a frontal attack,” the Group history reports, “which knocked out the lead ship and swept through the lead squadron. Before the deputy lead could reassemble the formation, 30 single engine fighters joined the battle and shot down 4 other Fortresses.”

The lead plane – probably “Six Nights in Telergma” piloted by Capt. Hiram C. Skogmo – carried 11 men that day, including the strike leader, Major Ralph V. Hansel, Group Operations Officer of the 390th. Crew assignments had been altered slightly. Major Hansel rode as co-pilot, while Lt. W. Poythress, Jr. was in the tail gunners position in order to observe the following groups. The Group Navigator, Capt. Donald S. Warren, was an eleventh man. He was with Capt. Irving R. Lifson, the Squadron Navigator, in the nose, giving the lead plane two navigators.

It was still over the North Sea that this plane was attacked by enemy fighters and shot down. Only three men survived: Capt. Warren, Capt Lifson and T/Sgt E. Phillips, the top turret gunner. Capts. Lifson and Warren landed by parachute on the German island of Nordersey, and Phillips came down in the water nearby. The three were captured and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.

On the homeward route, the U.S. formations passed over the northern Netherlands. To the right of the planes lay the West Frisian Islands, brown-green specks in the bluish gray of the Dutch Shallows (the “Wadden”) bordered by pale yellow fringes of golden beaches. There in better times, thousands of Dutchmen peacefully enjoyed their summer holidays, but now steel-helmeted men angrily threw up dirty puffs of shells at the high flying raiders.

Below were the brown checked fields of Groningen, an old country that throughout the centuries had been guarded against the onslaught of the North Sea, furiously swept toward the shores by northwesterly gales. The people in the fields, in the villages and in the towns looked up at the tiny specks roaring high in the sky overhead, painting a mass of vapor trails against the blue. And they thought: “Here they are again. It is good to bring the Germans some of their own stuff. Smash them. They deserve it and the sooner this war is over and the pillaging Nazis gone!”

While the people watched, however, packs of German fighters furiously pressed home attacks on the U.S. bombers as they made their way back across the Netherlands. From the ground little of the action, which the high keen whine of the fighters, the shrill staccato of machine gun fire and the dull pop-pop-pop of cannon fire brought to their ears, could be seen.

At the Dutch-German border — somewhere near Nieuwe-Schans — snarling staffels of German fighters flung themselves at one formation. A bomber was hit and struggled to stay in the air. Five or six men were seen to abandon the smoke-trailing aircraft, then something happened which still infuriates the people of the village of Finsterwolde. As they watched the destruction of the Big Friend, the German flak battery of the “Steiling Dollard-Sud”, in the Carel Coenraad polder, hurled it death-dealing shells into the helplessly descending fliers who had bailed out. One of the parachutes was shot to ribbons, and the man dropped like a stone onto the hard frozen ground below.

While mighty vapor-trailing formations still above and the penetrating rhythm of hundreds of engines reverberating to the dark earth — sights and sounds the older generation of today will never forget — the plane that had been partially abandoned burned and, and in its death agony, circled high in the sky. Then it crashed, its fuselage cart wheeling end over end. All around the house of Mr. Roelf Remmers fragments came down, but by some miracle the house was untouched although the children cried for fear. One wing wedged itself upright in the ground.

Six men had successfully bailed out of this plane, belonging to the 560th Squadron of the 390th Bomb Group, and are said to have been helped to escape by the Dutch Underground, though this has never been verified and other accounts speak of at least one man being captured. The men were: Lts., Lester N. Mensch, Clyde L. Hughes and Marion E. Wiles. T/Sgt Edward W. Mayo, Sgt Maius Magnerelli and Sgt Kenneth W. Wheeler. Four crew members were killed including the man whose parachute was shot apart in the air.

Groningers received more than their share of the day’s action, as four heavy bombers came down in their province. One of the most spectacular crashes ever witnessed was that of a Boeing B-17, serial number 42-30667, of the 390th Bomb Group. It came down near a small village by the name of Harkstede, a few miles east of the town of Groningen. Witnesses tell how the big bomber circled over the village and how, all of a sudden some half dozen white spots blossomed against the bright blue of the winter sky. I myself, then a boy of 14, having just left high school in Groningen that Saturday noon, remember how somebody excitedly exclaimed: “Hey look Balloon!” He was, however, soon corrected by a more experienced observer who told us that the tiny white dots were parachutes. The crew of a bomber had abandoned their stricken plane! Fascinated, we watched the unusual scene.

High above Harkstede the big bomber trailed smoke, reeled and plunged down with one of the wings breaking off while still another crew member, the pilot, bailed out. The plane plummeted earthward to crash with an enormous explosion on a plot of pasture land, an ominous pall of smoke making the site of the crash and the end of a Big One. One German fighter roared low over the wreckage, then turned and disappeared.

Mr. Klaas G. Bos, now a teacher living at Hoogezand but a Harksteder by birth recalls: “The bomber had already been above Harksteder, and we could see that it burned. Part of the crew floated high in the sky above us. Then the aircraft appeared over our village a second time, and it crashed with a terrific noise. While pieces of the wreckage flew about our ears. I was already on my way to only man I had seen bailing out of the aircraft, the “Captain” who had stayed in the bomber till the very last, presumably to allow all of the crew to bail out.

“I was the second man to arrive at the spot where the pilot had come down. The first person was as baker’s man. The American had thrown his chute into a ditch, covering it with a sheet of ice, and asked, “Where can we talk?” Most unfortunately, there was not much to discuss a way to escape as lots of people rushed to the scene, making an attempt to smuggle the man away extremely dangerous.” (The Germans had some very unpleasant ideas about people helping Allied fliers.)

The pilot was taken into the house of Mr. Flip Heikens, a farmer, There he could compose himself after living through the ordeal, and he was given a drink and something to eat. His Dutch hosts quickly observed, however, that he could not get anything down his throat. He was that shaken by the last few minutes in the sky.

Mrs. Heikens remembers the incident well: “The man, of rather vigorous build and aristocratic in his appearance, presumably was an officer and about thirty years old. Under his sand colored outer overall — this I remember well, for a woman has an eye for such things — and quite a bit of gold: gold wrist watch, gold armlet and gold finger-rings.”

Soon the local physician, Dr. J. Berg, arrived and had short talk with the American. He asked him to write down his name with the intention of passing it on to the Underground organization. Rumors had it that members of “Knokploeg” (literally “Fighting Squad”) from Groningen, dressed in captured German uniforms has arrived in car to try and take the American flier out from under the Germans’ fingers. However this was thwarted by the overly enthusiastic local population which had assembled in large numbers with the result that a Dutch SS-man forestalled any help by arresting the pilot.

Mr. W. Kruise, a policeman in the municipality of Slochteren at the time, has given a detailed account of the latter events. Before rushing to the crash site, he reported what he had seen to the Police Group Headquarters by phone. “Then,” he said, “the two members of this group, who did excellent underground work, were informed (immediately) and could perhaps make arrangements to help the airman.”

The pilot had descended on farmer M’s land, and four men and some women, belonging to a resistance group and carrying civilian clothes for the flier, were among the crowd. A car with the two loyal policemen from Slochteren was also in the vicinity, ready to act at once when an opportunity came to smuggle the flier away, But there was to be no such chance.

“When I saw the pilot, he was already in the hands of the Germans. You never knew what would happen, so I gave the pilot a wink, and he at once answered my sign. I thought, ‘Now he knows that he must be on his guard, if a chance presents itself.’ Whether the Germans had gotten wind of something I do not know — a great many people were anti-German — but they started kicking and hitting bystanders. Many a spectator who had had a kick from such a Nazi boot hurried off. Then more Germans arrived, and the chance to render help vanished in thin air.

So the American was taken prisoner by the Germans. together with some of his crewmates. One eye witness says that the meeting of the U.S. airmen was particularly cordial. They were taken to Groningen and the “Rabenhaupt-kazerne” — barracks of the Dutch Army south of the town then in use by the Germans but whose buildings were destroyed during the heavy fighting of 1945 when Groningen was liberated by the Canadians. Once, when I stopped to look at these men through the bars of the heavy iron gates, I was rudely chased away by a bellowing German sentry. (It was even forbidden to look at an American then.)

Pilot of the Flying Fortress was Flight Officer Francis R. “Budd” Gerald. Others in the crew were: Lt. Ernie A. Amport, co-pilot; Lt. W. J. Bumgarner, Navigator; Lt. G. Garner, Bombardier; S/Sgt Nick M. Colagiovanni, Engineer; Sgt R. E. Lanham, assistant Engineer; S/Sgt J.J.Costa, Radio Operator; Sgt J.C. King, Jr., Waist Gunner; Sgt D. C. McConkey, Ball Turret Gunner and Sgt Collidge Howlett, Tail Gunner. This had been the first mission for the crew but the third for Budd Gerald who recalls:

“Our Bomb Group (390th) was hit heavily with flak while flying over the Frisian islands enroute to the target. We had one engine knocked out here but continued in formation with other B-17s. Just a minute or two before reaching Emden, 6 or 8 twin engine Ju 88s dove out of the sun on our lead squadron (568th) firing rockets. One rocket hot our right wing, leaving a huge hole and rupturing the right fuel tank.

“After dropping our bombs and leaving the target area, we were attacked by many Me 109s. With two engines now gone and the right wing burning, we were unable to keep up with the rest of our squadron and group. Being alone, the Me 109s singled us out and their machine gun fire knocked out our third engine. Our gunners were credited with shooting down one Ju 88 and two Me 109s.”

We lost altitude from 21,000 to about 15,000 or 16,000 feet and the controls became of little or no use with a wing fire and fire in the nose. While a badly crippled aircraft in danger of exploding and the Me 109s making attack after attack on us, I gave the bail out order for my crew to abandon the aircraft. We all bailed out. I last, after trying to set the aircraft on a course to the sea. Some of us had flak wounds. My Tail Gunner was hurt worst of all. Sgt. Howlett had been hit with Me 109 machine gun fire across both legs.”

A Fortress from the 385th Bomb Group came down near Zuurdijk. It exploded on land opposite the farm of Mr. Warendorp-Torrenga, and pieces of armor plate from flak vests are still found there. One man, probably a gunner, was killed in the crash. Another was unfortunate enough to parachute into the Reitdiep (a canalized river, emptying into the Lauwers Sea) and drown. The other crew members were captured by the Germans.

The co-pilot, 21 year old 1st Lt, John Richards Ward, hid himself throughout the day and, when darkness closed in, knocked on the door of the house of Mr. Cornelus Brinkhuizen, a locksman for the pumping station “Electra” (regulating the underground water level) near Oldehove. Ward spent the night, and it was Mr. Brinkhuizen’s intention to continue hiding the flier until he could be taken to safety. However, the following day he discovered that his neighbor, who had a very talkative wife who could not be trusted, also knew of the American’s presence. He dared not take the enormous risk of immediate discovery and had to give notice of the flier’s presence. “It cut me to the heart — he was such a nice decent guy.”

Mr. Brinkhuizen had to account for hiding the American for a night and was brought to the Scholtens-house (of very ill repute), it was the headquarters of the “Sicherheitsdienst.” There an S.D. man snapped at him, “Herr Brinkhuizen, this costs you your head.” That they did not take his head he owes to his pretext that telephone communications was interrupted that night, and to the Dutch-Nazi sergeant of the Constabulary who most fortunately confirmed his pretext. (Mr. and Mrs. Brinkhuizen still cherish the memory of the young U.S. airman and would be happy to know whether or not, after all these years, their one time house guest is well.)

At approximately 1300 hours, three German fighters came down west of Groningen. One, an Me 110 was “hacked” by U.S. fighter aircraft over northwest Groningen and dropped down with hits in both engines, making a strange rattling sound. Mr. H. Dorenbos, the blacksmith of Lettelbert, saw the incident. According to him, the pilot intended to put the crippled fighter down on the airdrome of Eelde, then a Luftwaffe base. Evidently he changed his mind when he saw Lake Leek before him and decided to belly down in a pasture right in front of it. With bent propellers, the plane came to a halt half-way between the village and the lake, almost turning over when its nose struck some uneven ground.

The gunner from this plane had bailed out and landed in a grove. He walked in the direction of the place where his aircraft landed and stopped on his way to exchange words with the smith. He told him that they had taken off at about 1200 hours from Hannover. This information identifies the blue-grey fighter as an Me 110 of Zerstorer Geschwader 26, “Horst Wessel,” which was based on the fields of Quackenbruck/ Wunstorf/ Hildesheim, near Hannover.

A Me 109 meanwhile went howling down and crashed in a plot of arable land at the village of Niebert, between Letterlbert and Marum. It left a crater large enough to accommodate a small house. The pilot parachuted to safety north of Marum. Another German fighter went down at Opeinde, just beyond the Groninger/ Frisian border, and the pilot was killed.

At almost the same time, a B-17 left its formation of about 30 aircraft. It lost altitude and flew in circle, as three crew members abandoned the bomber in quick succession. Spectators on the ground then saw the plane recover and fly away in a westerly direction, seeming to join other formations but flying much lower.

One of the crewmen from this Fort, Lt. Edward Pollock from New York descended at De Wilp, near Marum, and was rescued by a local Resistance Group. Lt. Pollock landed almost in the middle of the village. Though villagers had gathered around the celestial, some men belonging to the local Underground organization were bold enough to take the American with them, after warning the crowd “to keep their mouths shut!”

These men were from the group led by Mr. J.J. Zijp, a schoolmaster at De Wilp. He “worked” for the L.O. Landelijke Organisatie, National Underground Organization. (In 1944 his group was liquidated and he was arrested and interned in a camp at Wihelmshaven where his heath suffered, and he, in fact, never recovered.) Pollock was hidden for six days before the group Zijp sent him via the escape-line “Appelscha.” In Appelscha, pilots who had been shot down were picked up by the “Koerierster” Zwarte Tine (Black Tine). From Appelscha the line went to Meppel and from there to Belgium where the illegal travelers were placed in the hands of the “Grande Blanche.” This group attended to their further transportation via France, Spain and Portugal to England.

One Bomber that almost crashed into the North Sea off the Frisian coast was “Penny’s Thunderhead” of the 614th Bomb Squadron, 401st Bomb Group. piloted by 1st Lt. Richard Kaufman. That morning, “Penny’s Thunderhead” had taken off from her base at Deenethorpe in Norfolk. On the way to Emden everything went well, but when over the target the plane was hit by flak. Two engines went dead and the nose and bomb bay were hit.

Number one propeller was feathered but the prop on number three kept windmilling. A B-17 could fly on two engines, but it was nearly impossible from the drag of the unfeathered propeller. To make matters worse, number three engine overheated, caught fire and could not be extinguished. “Penny’s Thunderhead” gradually lost airspeed and altitude, dropping out of the protective formation. Her crew knew they were in a fix as the Luftwaffe had a nasty habit of picking out a straggler and concentrating their attacks on it.

In came the fighters, inflicting more damage, and finally the moment came when Lt. Kaufman could not longer control the crippled plane. He gave the order to abandon the aircraft. Three men went into space at 18,000 feet and moment later, over Harlingen on the Frisian coast, five more men followed. Two executed delayed jumps, so they made a quicker decent, dropping into the sea off Harlingen to be fished out by the Germans. The other three opened their chutes prematurely and were drifted away by the strong east wind. Only one of them, the radio operator, Sgt. Donald Carlson, could be saved by the lifeboat “Twenthe” which put out without permission of the Germans. Some three months later the body of the co-pilot washed ashore at Pietersbierum, also on the Frisian coast and was buried there.

Lt. Fritzgerald, the bombardier, had difficulties with his chute and was a bit later than the others. Just as he was finally ready to bail out, he heard Lt. Kaufman calling that the engine had stopped burning and the propeller had stopped windmilling. Immediately he stepped away from the escape hatch. Meanwhile the attacking German fighters had peeled off, no doubt convinced the entire crew had abandoned the plane and that it was flying on automatic pilot.

Quickly, Kaufman and Fitzgerald took stock of the situation. “Penny Thunderhead” had been badly mauled and was losing altitude, but with number three engine and prop under control they decided to try and return to England. And they made it! On two engines they came into the airdrome at Lindholm in York, near the coast, ending their harrowing mission. For their performance both men received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

At about 1215 hours, the people of Harlingen saw four German fighters over their town. They came in low and then zoomed up to attack U.S. fighters approaching from the west. They were, however, waylaid by the Americans and soon dogfights developed. One Me 109, probably from Leeuwarden, came down quickly, it’s engine shot up. The pilot managed to pull out of his dive and make a belly landing between Harlingen and Franeker.

Soon another 109 came down, but this one was able to fly, although its flaps were down. The Messerschmitt skimmed the town east to west, and then, to the astonishment of those watching the scene, the German flak gunners began to shoot like mad. Their aim was good. Then the entire tail of the plane snapped off. An eye witness exclaimed, “Certainly a beautiful sight,” but it may be assumed the German pilot had a somewhat different opinion. Not withstanding the unexpected incident he managed to bail out of the aircraft before it crashed into the sea. Not far off shore he dropped into the water. Luck was with him, for a fisherman was in the vicinity with his boat. He had watched the incident and understandably assumed that it was in no way a German plane. When he fished the German out, he asked, “Are you an Englishman?”

The reply came, Was Ddonnerwetter noch mal Mench, bring mir nach dem Hafenkaptitan!” (The bloody fools, take me to the port master!) It must be assumed that a stormy conversation followed. The Harlingers found it one of the better jokes in those days.

Two heavy bombers came down that day in Friesland. One was a B-17F, serial 42-30218, of the 95th Bomb Group which crashed at Ferwerd on the Frisian coast. It was pursued by several fire-spitting fighters until at last the mortally wounded bird tumbled down near the sea dike. Three crewmen parachuted down near Zwaagwesteinde, one was dead and the others were captured. It is not certain they came from the Fortress that crashed at Ferwerd, but they probably did.

Another straggler, also a Boeing B-17, of the 385th Bomb Group, was knocked down by fighters over Friesland. Some three or four men had jumped over Germany, and another three landed near Sneek. All three were wounded and were taken into the Roman Catholic Hospital of Sneek where their room was showered by flowers from enthusiastic locals. An eighth man is said to have come down in the vicinity of Grouw/ Terhorne, and two men were killed in the crash and buried locally (unitl after the way when all American war dead were reburied in the south of Holland at Margraten).

The plane crashed into Goengaaster Mieden, on the land of farmer Hinne Bosma, and burst into flames. The wreckage was never salvaged by the Germans, and more than ten years elapsed before metal hunting, traveling caravaners removed it, much to the relief of the farmer. All this time the blades of the four propellers had projected above the surface of the ground, continually wounding the legs of the cows!

The fourth bomber that crashed in the province of Groningen on this day, also a Flying Fortress, was from the 332nd Bomb Squadron of the 94th Bomb Group. It came to its end in the Shallows of the Eems after an heroic fight that cost the Germans at least several fighters. It came from the direction of Emden and it was pursued by 6 to 8 fighters which were firing on it as its crew returned the fire bravely. Two of the German fighters crashed into the Eems. Then the B-17 burst into flames.

Mr. H. Coolman, a farmer living at “Bosma” farm, Oudeschip, first saw the bomber flying in a westerly direction. Then it turned and reeled through the air like a drunk, engines roaring and evidently out of control. It dropped lower, leaving a black trail of smoke, until it came down behind the sea-dike. Smoke rose into the sky.

“When I looked up, I saw seven tiny specks. One of the parachutists, who was machine gunned by a trigger happy German pilot, descended into the Eems. The others steered their chutes landward and touched more solid soil. One landed at the “middeldijk” (middle dike). He came down at a distance of 75 yards from my laborer who could speak English, having been in Canada for a few years. The American folded his chute and then lighted a cigarette. Before they were able to exchange a word, however, the Germans arrived. The others came down at the coast. They were also captured.”

This crash, in which three crewmen were killed, is well remembered and has been vividly described in a local war history. In the villages of Bierum and Spijk, there are a number of men who will remember this event to the end of their days. There is Mr. Hoving who, with some friends, was arrested by a German patrol when on the way to the wreckage and thrown into jail in Groningen. After sweating it out for a fortnight they were quite unexpectedly released by the Germans and allowed to return to their homes.

Some twenty-five years have now passed since that day, but on both sides of the ocean there remain many men and women, who will never forget it.

Article written in

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The author is greatly indebted to M. Irving Lifson for his spontaneous and continuous help in locating F/O Gerald and for making many of the details in this narrative. Without his help, this story would not be what it is, and I wish to express my sincere thanks for his fine cooperation. Some other details have come from the book, “Harlingen in Oologstijd” by H. H. Drost.

Data courtesy of Colonel Harry F. Cuver, former Commanding Officer of the 100th Bombardment Group (H)