Gotha - February 24, 1944
THE BIG WEEK
by Col. Myron Keilman, flying deputy lead

I remember the Big Week and the day the 392nd earned the Distinguished Unit Citation.

General Jimmy Doolittle took command of the Eighth Air Force on 1 January 1944. At group and squadron level we were quite impressed. We all felt we knew the famous aviator, if not from his airplane racing days, from his leading the famous Tokyo bombing raid. We didn't realize that at that moment his orders were: "Win the air war and isolate the battle-field." In other words - destroy the Luftwaffe and cut off the beaches of Normandy for the Invasion.

By 20 February our group had been alerted, briefed, and taxied for take-off nearly every morning since General Doolittle took command. There we waited for hours in the dense fog before the red flare signal of "Mission Cancelled" was fired from the control tower.

Then back to the airplane's dispersal pad; back to the dank Nissen huts; back to the damp ice-cold cots for needed sleep and tomorrow's alert. "Damn the foggy weather, damn the war, and damn General Doolittle, too." After those early hour breakfasts, the mess sergeant had to pick up the General's portrait from a face-down position in the middle of the floor and rehang it in its respected place. Disrespect? Yes, but who wants to be rousted out at 0300 hours day in and day out just to sit in the fog? We couldn't win the war doing this, and you didn't have to be a general to see that the weather was unfit to fly a bombing mission - were our glum thoughts.

The weather had been so adverse during January and to the 20th of February, our group had flown only sixteen missions; most of them were No-Ball strikes against buzz-bomb (V-I missiles) launching sites. Then came a streak of decent weather and an all out air offensive against the German Luftwaffe factories. Five great air battles were fought over Germany on 20, 21, 22, 24, and 25 February 1944. They have gone down in Eighth Air Force annals as the "Big Week".

A maximum effort by Eighth Air Forces 1,000 bombers (B-17s and B-24s) were made during those five days against airplane manufacturing and component plants at Tutow, Rostock, and Straslund on the Baltic Sea coast; Magdcburg, Augsburg, Bernbugr, Oschersleben, Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha. Furth, Halberstaddt, Schweinfurt. Regensburg, and Stuttgart in central and eastern Germany. More tons of bombs (precisely 7,935) were dropped by Eighth Air Force during those five days than had been dropped in the entire past year. 550 German fighters were declared shot down. 170 B-17s and B-24s, and 33 friendly fighters were lost.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) Halifax and Lancaster bombers got in their "licks", too. At night, they dropped block-busters and fire bombs on the cities of Leipzig, Schweinfurt and Augsburg, causing great fire storms and devastation.

On the first day, Sunday 20 February, the 2nd Air Division's B-24s struck at Brunswick and Magdeburg. Cloud cover was a big problem. The 392nd had to bomb Helmstedt as a target of opportunity. The results were rated as fair and we lost one airplane. The B-17's managed to get in destructive strikes on airplane plants at Leipzig, Bernberg, and Oschersleben. 25 bombers and 4 fighters were lost; 153 Germans shot down.

On the 21st, clouds covered the big targets; so the main scheduled targets were airfields. My group bombed the fighter base at Vorden, Holland, northeast of Arnhem. The bombing results were good, but we lost another airplane and crew. 19 bombers and 5 fighters went down with 60 Germans.

The 22nd, our target was Gotha, but the mission was recalled because of weather conditions, and no bombs were dropped. Some B-24 groups did strike targets of opportunity in Holland and West Germany. The B-l7s did the same. Fifteenth Air Force in Italy struck the Regensburg plants.

Weather in England on the 23rd caused a stand-down for all of Eighth Air Force; however, the Fifteenth Air Force struck Weiner Neustadt factories.

On the fifth day, Thursday, 24 February, most of Germany was clear of clouds, and formations of 860 B-I is and B-24s struck deep. Nearly 800 P-47s, P-38s, and P-51s provided protective fighter cover for the bombers. The 2nd Air Division target was the big Messerschmitt airplane plant at Gotha, 420 miles due east of the White Cliffs of Dover.

Our briefing for the attack on Gotha was at 0630 hours. It was our group's fortieth mission; so we took it all in stride. To most of us it meant another mission to be accomplished against a total of twenty-five - then back home to the safety of the ZI (Zone of Interior). Remember? The intelligence officer briefed on the importance of the big plant to German's ability to carry on the air war; on the fact that it was heavily defended by big 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery like we faced over Bremen. Keil, and Wilhelmshaven, and we were certain to encounter heavy fighter attacks all across enemy territory - 400 miles in and 400 miles out.

After drawing our escape and evasion kits, donning our heated flying suits, gathering up our oxygen masks, flak helmets, maywests, and parachutes we climbed aboard 2 1/2 ton trucks for a cold ride to our airplanes dispersal pad. It was still very dark as we made our airplane inspection, checking all the engine cowling for loose Dzus fasteners; the turbines of the super-chargers; the propeller blades and pushed them through to release any piston hydraulic lock; the fuel cells for being "topped-off' and their caps for security; the guns and turrets; ammunition quantity of 500 rounds for each of the ten 50 caliber machine guns; the Sperry bombsight; the twelve 500 pound bombs, their shackles, fuses and safety wires; the oxygen supply and regulators; signal flares; camera; and many other things. Remember?

At 0810 we started engines. At 0815 the lead ship taxied to take-off position. At 0830 the green flare from the control tower signaled "Take Off!" It was breaking dawn.

Lead crew pilot Jim McGregor "revved-up" his engines, checked the instruments, released the brakes and rolled. Thirty-one B-24Hs followed at thirty second intervals.

In the clear at 12,000 feet, the lead ship fired red-yellow identification flares. Flying deputy lead, I pulled into position on his left wing, and the group formed over radio beacon "21" into three squadrons. Then it flew the wing triangular assembly pattern to Kings Lynn.

Leading the 14th Combat Wing, we fell into number two position of the 2nd Air Divisions bomber stream over Great Yarmouth. Heading east over the Channel and climbing to 18,000 feet, our gunners test fired their guns. We penetrated enemy territory just north of Amsterdam. At 235 miles an hour true air speed over the Zider Zee, our streaming vapor trails signaled our presence and our intent. It was a thrilling moment. Onward over Dummer Lake, past our future Osnabruck target, southeast past Hanover's bombed-out airfields our big formations hurried.

Parallelling our course to the right were the B-17 formations of the 1st Air Division heading for their tough old ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. Over the North Sea, the 3rd Air Division "Forts" were enroute to their Baltic coast targets. P-47 fighters covered us to the vicinity of Hanover, then P-38s and P-51s orbited over us to Gotha. Luftwaffe fighters made attempts to penetrate our formations but "our little friends" kept them at a distance and, when opportunity prevailed, dove in for a "kill". Using our thick vapor trails as a screen, the Germans often struck from below and from behind to shoot up any lagging bomber.

Bending south eastward toward Gotha, the white, snowy earth looked cold and lifeless; only the large communities, rail lines, and an autobahn stood out in relief. Fighter attacks became more persistent. By the time we reached our initial point (IP) to start our bomb run, the sky about our three squadrons was full of busy P-38s and P-51s fending off the Germans. I remember how they dove past the lead ship in pursuit of Messerschmitts and Folke-Wulfe making head on attacks. Our gunners got in a lot of shooting, too. The staccato of the turrets' twin fifties vibrated throughout the airplane. It was real scary.

The weather was "clear as a bell" as we turned to the target. Red flares from the lead ship signaled "Bombbay Doors Open". The bombardier removed the heated cover blanket from the bombsight. (Bombsights had heated blankets before people did. Remember?) He checked his gyroscope's stabilization, and all bombing switches ON. Our high and low squadrons fell in-trail and all seemed great. Then Piotage Navigator Kennedy in the nose turret observed the lead wing formations veering from the target heading. A fast and anxious cross-check with Lead Crew Navigator Swangren and with a recheck of compass heading and reference points, they assured Command Pilot Lorin Johnson that the target was "dead ahead". Thirty years later, I don't know where the 2nd Air Division leader wound up, and I've forgotten which group and wing it was, but at that moment the 392nd, leading the 14th Combat Wing, was "on course - on target". Within minutes Lead Bombardier Good called over the interphone, "I've got the target!" Lead Pilot McGregor checked his flight instruments for precise 18,000 feet altitude and 160 miles per hour indicated air speed, and carefully levelled the airplane on auto-pilot. Then he called back: "On airspeed, on altitude. You've got the airplane." Making a final level of his bombsight, Good took over control of
steering the airplane with the bombsight.

The bombardier's target folder didn't contain a snowy, winter view of the Messerschmitt Aircraft Works. He had to use his keen judgment and trained skills in discerning the briefed aiming point. Only his one eye peering through the bombsight optics could determine where to place the cross-hair. He could and did give a commentary to the command pilot and crew of what he saw and what he was doing in steering the lead airplane and formation of bombers to the bomb release point, but only he - the lead bombardier - "knew for sure" what was viewed through that bombsight.

At 18,000 feet, it was forty (40) degrees below zero, but the bombardier never felt the cold as his fingers delicately operated the azmith and range controls. He cross-checked all the bomb and camera switches to the ON position, especially the radio bomb release (RBR) signal switch that would release all the bombs of the other airplanes in the formation simultaneously. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.

When the flak started bursting near the formation, Lieutenant Good had already attained a synchronized bombing run with the wind drift "killed" and the cross-hair holding steady on the aiming point of the great manufacturing complex. The bombsight indicies crossed and "Bombs away!" Beautiful!

While the camera was recording the impact of the bombs, Lieutenant McGregor took over and swung the formation to the outbound heading and the rally point.
In spite of the new accurate flak from the 88 and 110 millimeter anti-aircraft artillery, the second and third squadron bombardiers, Lt. Ziccarrilli and Lt. Jackson, steered their squadrons to the precise bomb delivery points, too. Of thirty-two B-24s that took off that morning, twenty-nine delivered 348 500-pound bomb'. precisely on the Gotha factory as briefed. Outstanding!

The bombs were smack "on target", but the battle wasn't over. No sooner had the wing left the target's flak than we were accosted by German fighters again. Strung out in-trail and with some planes slowed down from flak damage, our three squadrons became vulnerable to vicious attacks. For the next hour and more, Messerschmitt, Folke WuIf and Junker fighters worked us over until our fighters could fend them off.

As deputy command pilot, I frequently changed off flying formation with the airplane commander to keep occupied and not have to watch the Jerries press their blazing gun attacks. The interphone was alive with excited calls of enemy action. Head on passes and tail attacks; in singles and in "gaggles"; rockets, 20mm cannon, and even some cables were thrown at us. Seven of our B-24s were shot down. Many of us were shot up, but it was not all one-sided. The gunners of the twenty-two airplanes that returned accounted for sixteen German fighters. At 1530, seven hours after take-off, the battle weary group landed back at Wendling. Eighth Air Force lost 50 bombers and 10 fighters; 155 German fighters were shot down.

The very next day, Friday, 25 February, the target areas were again clear, and the 2nd Air Division struck the aircraft plant at Futh, near Nuernberg. The 14th Wing with the 392nd's two squadrons of twenty-two B-24s bombed it with excellent results. In spite of the nine hour long deep penetrations, our group did not suffer a loss. The "Forts" successfully struck aircraft plants at Regensburg, Augsburg and Stuttgart. The Eighth lost 33 bombers and 3 fighters; the Germans lost 70.

This ended the famous "Big Week". General Doolittle had struck the Luftwaffe a devastating blow and all but won the air war. Within a couple more months, through persistent bombing of air fields and railroad marshalling yards, shooting the German fighters in the air and on the ground, in France, Belgium and western Germany, the battlefield of Normandy was isolated. The stage was set for the great invasion of the Continent on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Remember?

On 20 April 1945, our group adjutant, Major "Jack" Fritsche, sent the following notice to all units of our group:

"1. The 392nd Bombardment 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 virtually destroyed their as-signed target at Gotha, Germany, -."

War Department General Order Number 37, 1945, that awarded the Distinguished Unit Badge to all individuals who were assigned to the 392nd reads in part:

"2. The destruction of this high priority target (Gotha) was a serious blow to the German Air Force and was a contributing factor to its impotency during the invasion of Continental Europe.-"


| B24.NET Home | More Stories | Top of this page |