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Hamburg – Last Big Battle

Paul Zak’s interesting story in the Fall 2003 Splasher Six called “Hamburg Remembrance, December 31, 1944” caught my eye since that was the mission when I was shot down. I have done research on the mission since WWII and thought perhaps a few more details might be of interest to readers. Among my sources, Roger Freeman’s books have been particularly helpful, and I have also examined files at the Washington National Records Center at Suitland, MD and at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC. I also have a copy of the Missing Air Crew Report on my crew, and have had access to the Mission Folder for the Hamburg mission and the bombing report, plus daily memos for December and early January for the 100th Group. I will tie this information in with personal recollections in telling my story.

To begin, 110 bombers attacked the target that day, the oil refineries of Deutsche Petroleum – A.G. and Deutsche Erdol – A.G. in the central dock area of Hamburg. These were among the most heavily defended targets in Germany at the time since the Nazi war machine was so heavily dependent on oil. The Eighth AF strike force included 29 B-17s from the 95th Bomb Group, 36 from the 100th, 35 from the 390th, and 10 PFF (Pathfinder Force). I was the navigator in Paul Carroll’s crew in B-17 No. 42-31895, flying in the high element at the Initial Point and on to the target. The day was clear and there was an unusually strong tail wind, which meant a relatively short time on the vulnerable bomb run. This, plus the lack of German fighters at the I.P., permitted squadrons to bomb individually rather than as part of a larger group.

But that was all the good news. Our escort of friendly fighters had been drawn away to the Lübeck area, permitting swarms of fighters to attack the dispersed formation during the bomb run. The operational report on the mission says, “At 1159 hours, at a point 20 miles southwest of Hamburg to 5340N-0450E, for a period of 15 minutes, the 100th Group was observed to be under a concentrated attack by approximately 50 enemy A./C. Of this number, two ME 109s, 14 FW 190s, and 6 ME 262s were identified as to type.”

Enemy fighter pilots usually took on larger bomber streams reluctantly, of course, owing to the massed firepower of the gunners. This day, however, the bombers spaced themselves farther apart than intended, giving the fighters ideal smaller targets. In addition, the clear skies afforded the German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground good visual targets. In the operational report later, veteran pilots said this was “the worst or the best flak they have ever encountered and much worse than Merseburg” and that most enemy fighter pilots were “very skilled…experienced and pressed home attacks.”

Our crew could vouch for the danger. By the time we dropped our bombs, two B-17s in our diamond-shaped box of four had gone down. We suffered major flak hits in the number 3 engine and this damage slowed our progress. Besides, the advantageous tail wind on the way to the target now became a disadvantageous head wind away from it; the post-mission critique says the ground speed was only “around 90 miles per hour:”. We and several other crews fell behind the rest of the 100th Group, and became sitting ducks for the many German fighters since they had almost no Allied fighters to contend with. The operational report says there was only 8 friendly fighters observed covering this Wing from target area to enemy coast on the route out.”

Fighters came in from 11 to 1 o’clock high, then re-formed for another attack on the tail; others made beam attacks from 3 to 9 o’clock. The attacks occurred so rapidly that it was not possible for me to unlash either the right or the left fifty-calibre cheek guns in the nose as the fighters flew from one side to the other and back again. These guns, in contrast to those in the turrets, were lashed up during missions to prevent possible “loose cannon” dangers during the buffeting of flight. They were so much less accurate than the turret-mounted fifty-calibres of our gunners that some navigators referred to them as morale guns: they gave a navigator something to do in the air when doing something was better than doing nothing.

As a crew we could not expect to agree on all details of an attack in the heat of battle, especially when involving a number of fighters. The likeliest scenarios, therefore, tended to be those on which at least two crew members could agree. In this case the co-pilot, Harry Winger, and the flight engineer, Irvin Olson, credit one of the ME 262s as finally setting us afire. Which makes sense, because the jet-powered 262 was 100 miles faster than Allied propeller-driven fighters, and was armed with four thirty-millimetre cannons rather than with fifty-calibre machine guns.

Our B-17 was set on fire in the wing stub near the number 3 engine, with Harry reporting he could see the flames reaching back almost to the tail. We feared that the plane would blow up, since the fire was close to the wing fuel tanks. We tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire with extinguishers, then tried chopping the burning metal away with a hatchet. No luck; the strong wind remained our enemy. Paul and Harry next decided that the extra wind while diving the plane might put out the fire, so we dropped steeply from our altitude of about 25,000 feet to about 20,000. Again, no luck, and growing fear of an explosion. We held a quick discussion of alternatives to trying to return to England, such as my setting a course for neutral Sweden or Switzerland, but decided both were impossible. Paul then gave the order for the nine of us to jump, which we did before our B-17 exploded near the North Sea coast.

I am tempted to go with my personal experiences here, but the make another story. Instead, let me summarize the unfortunate outcome of the Hamburg mission. The bombing report described the results as “nil,” presumably because of unusually heavy fighter and flak attacks and the wind. None of the bombs of the three groups, the 95th, the 100th, and the 390th, fell within 1,500 feet of the target, some as much as 6,000 feet away in open fields.

Yet on December 31, 1944, while the 95th and the 390th lost only two aircraft each, 12 aircraft and 109 men of the 100th Group filed to return. This was the fifth and last occasion during WWII when the 100th suffered an unusually heavy loss. As John Nilsson puts it in his The Story of the Century, the Hamburg Mission was The Bloody Hundredth’s “last big battle.”