Gotha - February 24, 1944

© Copyright Annette Tison 2014 - All rights reserved

On 24 Feb 1944, the 392nd BG flew its 41st combat mission, to Gotha, Germany. By the end of the day, the 392nd had lost seven planes and crews but had also performed so admirably that it was later awarded its only Distinguished Unit Citation. The information that follows, from the Citation documentation and 392nd BG reports, has been slightly edited for spelling and format.

Narrative of Operation

In the Fall of 1943, the parent works of the Gothear Waggonfabrik at Gotha, Thuringia, was the largest German producer of twin-engine fighters and accounted for 30 percent of the total twin-engine fighter production. In addition to final assembly, it assumed an even more important role in the production of all the major components such as wings, fuselages, tail units and control surfaces for its own assembly, and supplied many of these items to the Miag plant at Brunswick and the Messerschmidt plant at Augsburg, for the assembly there of ME-110s and ME-410s. This plant therefore was the most valuable single target in the twin-engine fighter complex.

In the strategy of the plan “Argument,” the Liberator Second Bombardment Division (BD) was assigned the task of destroying this important factory at Gotha. Many weeks passed awaiting a break in the weather that would enable the Eighth Air Force to visually bomb the high priority targets in Central Germany. On the afternoon of the 23rd of February, the next day’s target reached the Division. It was the long awaited Gotha. The all important weather “high” that brought visual bombing conditions with it had moved into Central Germany and now the Division had the opportunity to strike the German Air Force (GAF) a smashing blow at the heart of its twin-engine fighter production. The mission as set up for the 24th of February called for an assignment of three B-24 Combat Wings (CWs) on Gotha, five B-17 CWs on Schweinfurt and five B-17 CWs on Kreising, Tutow and Posen.

The plan of the Second BD called for the assembly plant to be attacked by three Groups of the 2nd CW, leading the Division and two Groups of the 14th CW, the 392nd and 44th Bomb Groups. The German Air Force Station and factory airfield were to be attacked by three Groups of the 20th CW. The route in called for 2nd Division’s B-24s to effect a penetration on the same course as the B-17s of the 1st Division, but at a lower altitude. Fighter support was to be shared with the 1st BD, with fighters flying above the B-17s.

The 392nd BG with three 12-ship sections, followed by the 44th BG with three 12-ship sections flying high right, was leading the 14th CW, the second Wing in the attacking force. The enemy initiated his attacks against this formation when it reached the Dutch Coast and a savage battle continued for the next two hours and a half. The 2nd and 14th CWs bore the brunt of these attacks aided only by sporadic fighter support, as the B-17s flying above the B-24s shielded this formation from the umbrella fighter cover.

As the winds on the Continent proved to be weaker than forecasted, the formation gained approximately two minutes for each 100 miles flown, and consequently arrived at the places of rendezvous well ahead of the fighters and thus did not receive adequate support.

The course of the two Divisions forked as they neared Gotha, the Forts going to Schweinfurt and the Libs continuing on to Gotha. After this split, approximately 100 to 150 enemy FW-190s, ME-109s and rocket-carrying ME-110s, ME-210s and JU-88s viciously attacked the B-24 formation which was uncovered for bombing. These attacks were made from all positions with the enemy fighters relentlessly pressing home their attacks. Stragglers that fell out of formation were immediately shot down.

As the 392nd BG neared the Initial Point, the units of the 2nd CW, the lead CW, were observed to be proceeding on divergent courses. The Command Pilot of the 392nd was forced to make an immediate decision, either to follow the leader of the Air Division to a questionable target and maintain the integrity of the Division formation, or to lead the 392nd and the 14th CW on a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous, and which would certainly expose his isolated formation to even greater enemy attacks. He chose the latter alternative and the Wing, maintaining perfect formation, fought its way through the flak defenses and into the target area. The 392nd BG bombed the target with pin-point accuracy and virtually destroyed it. A savage running attack was maintained by the enemy for over an hour after the target had been bombed, during which the formation was attacked by wave after wave of enemy fighters which raked it with machine gun, cannon and rocket fire. The desperate enemy even tried air-to-air and cable bombing in a vain effort to break up the formation. In this bitter fighting and in battling their way back to the coast, the 392nd lost seven planes to the enemy and thirteen additional planes suffered battle damage. Their gunners claimed 23 enemy fighters destroyed, 4 probably destroyed and 2 damaged; they were awarded confirmed claims of 16, 1, and 5.

Four aircraft returned early, leaving a total of 32 dispatched. Of these, 29 attacked the primary target, dropping 87.25 tons of bombs, over one-third of the total tonnage dropped on this target of highest priority, the Gothear Waggonfabrik. Subsequent photographic coverage indicated that bomb damage had been extremely severe, with 24 buildings destroyed, 11 almost destroyed, 14 severely damaged, and 10 damaged. Reconstruction during a 16-week period following this devastating attack was very meager, attesting to the thoroughness and accuracy with which the Gotha Mission of the 24th of February had been accomplished.

392nd Mission Reports

Capt James N. McFadden, 392nd Operations Officer, reported further details. “About 1215 hours the first enemy fighters were seen to be making attacks on stragglers of the B-17 groups ahead. Later they were seen attacking B-24s of the 2nd CW. This action persisted on to the target. Anyone aborting or straggling was immediately attacked and shot down....During the bomb run fighters attacked hard. Though the lead section only suffered one or two attacks the high section lost six planes.”

High block lead bombardier 1/Lt George J. Jackson noted that “Intense fighter opposition was encountered all along the run. Five passes were made at our section from the front and low in an attempt to disrupt my run.” He then reported simply, “My bombs hit the target.”

In its Detailed and Evaluated Report of Enemy Aircraft Encountered, the 392nd said, “Tactics used by enemy aircraft (a/c) were the ‘figure eight,’ ‘sisters,’ ‘triple threat,’‘sneak attacks,’ and ‘swooper.’ Most variations on these were normal variations accommodating the tactical situation. The tactics of the enemy a/c were somewhat less troublesome than the persistence of the attacks. E/A attacked from all quarters, but emphasized the attacks from 11-12 o’clock and 6-7 o’clock. Many attacks were pressed to within 75-100 yards. One new tactic used quite extensively was that of attacking one ship concertedly in three or fours from twelve or six o’clock and then turning back through 180 degrees to attack the ship thus forced out of formation.”

In analyzing friendly fighter protection, the teletype said, “Cover from P-47s was excellent. The P-47s consistently engaged the enemy and destroyed several. The protection afforded by P-51s and P-38s was practically nil according to our crews. P-38s giving target coverage remained 5 to 7,000 feet above our formation and failed to come down to give assistance despite numerous green-green flares fired and direct requests for help over command channels. As a consequence of low-level attacks from enemy a/c, the high altitude coverage was ineffectual.”

Reaction by the Top Brass

Congratulatory teletypes flooded in. BrigGen H o d g e s , C omma n d i n g General of the 2nd Bomb Division, wrote the 14th CW, “Your bombing today was ma g n i f i c e n t . Every man in your outfit should be damn proud of this demonstration of how to destroy the German Air Force. My heartiest congratulations to you, your Group commanders and the officers and men of your units.”

bomb plot
This 8th AF bomb plot shows that of 110 bombs that could be identified as from 392nd BG planes, 23 percent fell within 500 ft of the aiming point, 64 percent within 1,000 ft of the A.P. and 97 percent within 2,000 ft of the A.P.

The next day, BrigGen Hodges wrote all 2BD stations, “I am confident that you destroyed Gotha yesterday... Our losses are a great blow to us, but it is my hope that a substantial number of them are now prisoners of war. Our only comfort is derived from the fact that their contribution to the war has been a decisive one, and by hastening final victory will save the lives of untold numbers of their comrades in the air and on the ground.”

A few days later, Gen H.H. “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, USAAF, wrote: “With relentless determination demanding the respect of everyone in the AAF, you are driving home an attack which is destroying Germany’s very vitals. The strongest defense a desperate enemy can devise are not stopping you. You have had heavy losses but you are inflicting heavier ones on the enemy. Your attacks on Regensburg, Leipzig, Bernburg, Gotha and other fighter factories so vital to the enemy are wiping out German fighter production and laying the foundation for decisive and final operations in the future. For continuing to deal such destructive blows at the heart of Germany, I send all of you my best wishes. For the superb job you are doing, I commend all ranks—from top to bottom.”

2nd Bomb Division Citation

On 28 Feb 1944, BrigGen Hodges cited five 392nd BG airmen for “outstanding achievement while participating in a highly successful heavy bombardment mission on 24 February 1944.” They were Command Pilot LtCol Lorin L. Johnson and from the 579th Sqdn, pilot 1/Lt James A. McGregor, navigator 1/Lt Roy Swangren, and bombardiers 1/Lt Thomas Kennedy and 1/Lt Robert E. Good.

Bombs from #42-99981
Bombs from #42-99981, BTO, fall toward the target at Gotha. This 578th Sqdn plane was manned by 1/Lt Cliff Peterson and crew.

The citation noted that “Despite the difficulty of accurately identifying landmarks because of the snow-covered terrain, the intensive pre-flight study of the target and its vicinity by the above crew enabled them unhesitatingly to advise the Command Pilot of the correct course to the target. His formation was already undergoing heavy and persistent fighter attacks. He was forced to make an immediate decision: either to follow the leader of the air division to a questionable target; or to pursue a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous and which would certainly expose his isolated formation to even greater enemy attacks. He chose the latter alternative, with the result that, although a substantial part of his force was lost to enemy action, the attack was successfully concluded and the target virtually destroyed.

“The professional technique and teamwork displayed by these officers as evidenced by the direct hits obtained on the target; the determination displayed in pressing the attack so successfully in the face of severe enemy opposition; and the ability to exercise cool judgment under fire in making a momentous decision reflect great credit upon themselves, their organizations, and the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Announcement of Distinguished Unit Citation

On 20 Apr 1945, Col Lorin Johnson, now the 392nd’s CO, sent a memo to all unit commanders that the Group “has been awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy on 24 February 1944, when the group attacked and virtually destroyed their assigned target at Gotha, Germany, despite almost overwhelming odds of flak barrages and vicious attacks by approximately one hundred and fifty (150) enemy fighters in a two and a half hour aerial battle.

“For this distinguished act a Distinguished Unit Badge may be worn as a permanent part of the uniform by all individuals who were assigned or directly attached to this group on 24 February 1944. However, those individuals who are subsequently assigned or attached may wear subject decoration as long as such assignment or attachment exists.

“The badge consists of a blue ribbon 1 3/8 inches in width and 3/8 inch in length, set in a gold colored metal frame of laurel leaves, approximately 1/16 inch in width. It will be worn on the right breast centered over the pocket. Issuance of Distinguished Unit Badges will be made to all members of the group as soon as supply is received.”

The Distinguished Unit Citation For The Gotha Mission

The 392nd Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in armed conflict with the enemy on 24 February 1944.

The Group dispatched 32 B-24 type aircraft, the maximum number available, to bomb the most valuable single target in the enemy twin engine fighter complex, the aircraft and component parts factory at Gotha, Germany. Of these, one was forced to turn back shortly after take off. Flying as the lead group of the second Combat Wing in the Division formation, they were attacked by the enemy upon entering the Dutch coast. In the bitter aerial battle that ensued, the Group was viciously attacked for over two and a half hours by approximately 150 enemy fighters, consisting of FW-190s, ME-110s, ME-210s and JU-88s, who raked them with cannon and rocket fire and even attempted air to air and cable bombing in a vain effort to disrupt the formation.

As the 392nd Bombardment Group neared the Initial Point, the units of the lead Combat Wing were observed to be proceeding on divergent courses. The Group was faced with the decision to follow the lead units of the Air Division to a questionable target and maintain the integrity of the Division formation or to pursue a separate course that might later prove to be erroneous and which would expose the Group formation to even greater enemy attacks. The Group chose the latter, and maintaining perfect formation, valiantly fought its way through the flak defenses to bomb the target with pin-point accuracy, virtually destroying it.

Although seven of their aircraft were lost to the relentless enemy in the battle into and from the target, and an additional thirteen aircraft suffered battle damage, they accounted for the confirmed destruction of sixteen enemy fighters, the probable destruction of one and the damage of five additional fighters.

The destruction of this high priority target was a serious blow to the GAF and was a contributing factor to its impotency in the invasion of Continental Europe. The aggressive courage, determination to do their task at all costs, and combat efficiency of the air crews together with the professional skill and devotion to duty of the ground personnel of the 392nd Bombardment Group (H) have reflected great credit on themselves and on the armed forces of the United States.

Aircraft 42-7473
This photo, taken at 18,000 ft by a/c 42-7473 in the lead squadron, shows the first bomb bursts directly on the mean point of impact (i.e., target). Aboard were Maj Myron H. Keilman and 1/Lt Vernon A. Baumgart and crew, 579th Sqdn.

Editor's note: The Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded to units of the Armed Forces of the United States and co-belligerent nations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy occurring on or after 7 Dec 1941. The unit must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart and above other units participating in the same campaign. The degree of heroism required is the same as that which would warrant award of a Distinguished Service Cross to an individual. The award will normally be earned by units that have participated in single or successive actions covering relatively brief time spans. In 1966, the Distinguished Unit Citation was renamed the Presidential Unit Citation.