A PIECE OF THE ACTIONby Bob Holliday (continued)
Adventures in England
From Belfast we went by boat and train to Liverpool, England, where we marched en masse down the cobblestone streets to show Yanks off to the British, and to experience a welcome stretching of legs. Then we rode the train to a staging base at Stone, and finally to our combat base at Lavenham in Suffolk county, about 35 miles east of Cambridge. We found ourselves in the 837th squadron, 487th bomb group, 4th wing, 3rd division of the 8th Air Force. We were the first replacements: the 487th had been flying B24s, transferred to Lavenham and B 17s just in time for D-day. I arrived in July, a few weeks later. Everyone was still talking about those multiple missions on D-day. We really felt like the new kids on the block.
We shared a Quonset hut with the officers of another crew. I wound up with real sheets, a radio, a bicycle, and lots of cookies and candy from home (which I munched after dark until it was pointed out that I was supposed to share it). The medieval village of Lavenham, once known as the source of royal purple broadcloth, was only about a mile away down a dirt path. Nobody seemed to care if we went over the back fence for the walk or ride to town, to take in our laundry to Mrs. Ford or to have tea or eat at the Swan Inn. The church, our landmark from the air, was built around 1300 as was the village.
Jack was older and more experienced than most of the pilots so it was not long before we became a Lead Crew. This meant that I rode a few missions in the tail as Formation Control Officer because the right seat up front was needed for the Colonel or General who was flying with us as group or wing commander. General Castle was one of those— Castle Air Force base was named for him later. But I also got to fly a lot, especially if we were trying to hold formation with a squadron on the right. My most thrilling experience was flying the lead aircraft, with a thousand planes on the bomb run, to Merseberg, a synthetic oil refinery and the most heavily defended target in Germany. This meant flying through 15 minutes of heavy flack. We lost 56 bombers that day.
One crisp Sunday morning I got into trouble with the local forester for trying to shoot at rabbits in the woods with my .45 automatic. "Put that bloody gun down," he shouted from a distance. So I did, and he was nice about it. The English really are polite,
On a typical mission we would be awakened for the pre-briefing at 3:30 am. If we had real eggs instead of powdered eggs, it was probably going to be a rough one. Powdered eggs meant a "milk run." Lead crews went to pre~briefings to get details on the routes and targets since we would be doing the navigating and bomb-aiming. Most of the other bombardiers were really "toggle-eers" who flipped a switch when they saw our bombs fall. Then we would sit through the main briefing. Just like the movies "Synchronize your watches, gentlemen, on 2 minutes after 5 - three-two-one-hack." Each aircraft had an assigned minute to start engines, to start taxiing, and to take off. The latter could be scary with a full bomb load if the runway was icy. Andy, one time: "Can I open my eyes now?" We would climb in a wide spiral, joining the formation as we climbed, then heading out across the channel.
Sometimes the first flack was from Holland and those guys were good shots, even through cloud cover. At other times we could watch the V2 rockets being fired from Holland and leaving twisted condensation trails as they accelerated into their trajectories to London. Sometimes we flew as high as 38,000 feet to avoid flack but we could never avoid German fighters. Thank heavens for our little friends, the P47s and P51s that escorted us. If the target was visible, we could bomb quite accurately. If the target was overcast, we would bomb by radar and our accuracy would drop to a mile or more. The trip home would be a long descent, sometimes with an engine or two knocked out. We led our squadron home once with two engines out and Jack got the Silver Star for that. The average mission was about 8 hours but I remember taking 12 hours to bomb Cheb, Czechoslovakia on one of our first missions. Some B 17s in trouble would have to ditch in the English Channel; others might make it to a long, dirt strip near the water. It was always a great relief to spot the church at Lavenham and come whirring down to dinner and a night's sleep. If you had wounded on board, you fired a red flare (we never had to). Before we could relax we had a de- briefing session with questions like "How many chutes did you count?"
One time we had to land on a fighter base in Laon, France, because England was fogged in. It is not much fun spiraling down through 20,000 feet of overcast along with 2000 other aircraft. We managed to land all right but wondered, the next day, how we had avoided hitting the twin spires of the cathedral at Laon. I was so tired that I went to sleep with a noisy poker game going on right next to me. We came away with some French money, some awful green champagne, and exciting stories about Nazis entering US air bases disguised as Gls.
Hitler's weird new weapons became familiar to me. Buzz bombs used to fly right over Lavenham on their way to London. Early one morning, that funny washing-machine noise stopped and we all hid under our pillows. It blew a hole at the edge of our base. To save ammunition, Spitfires learned to send the buzz bombs into a spin by tipping their wings. The V2 (or A4) was the most frightening missile. It carried a ton of TNT at supersonic speeds so you couldn't hear it coming. I remember taking shelter in an Underground station durrrrg a V2 attack and seeing thousands of Londoners trying to sleep down there. We bombed Peenemunde, a rocket jresel|icR)center, and some of the "NoBal" (V2) sites..
I must tell you now how Adolph Hitler saved our lives. Years later, when I was working as a research engineer, I learned that Hitler had overruled scientists who wanted anti-aircraft fuses to work on contact as well as simply by altitude sensing (they didn't have proximity fuses then). We took an 88-mm shell right through our wing, near the main spar. But for Adolph, you wouldn't be reading this now.
On one mission a group of B24s crossed in front of us several miles away, generating terrific propwash. The aircraft in front of us flipped over, taking off the wing of his wingman. Both went down. The one that flipped over was 097, the B17 we had flown across the Atlantic!
Another time, after some heavy flack, our flight engineer (Reck, a farm boy) said, "It was too wet to plow back there."
On a few missions I rode in the tail as "formation control officer." There was one advantage to this: I had a prime seat for watching the battle between bombers and interceptors. But I never had to fire my twin fifties in action. At the debriefing I had to point the finger at crews whose formation flying needed work and those crews had to fly practice missions. It didn't make me popular, but the 487th, in September 1944, had the best bombing score in the 8th Air Force: 87% of the bombs within a 1000-ft circle. We were also shunned by fighters when they saw our tight formation; or at least we liked to think so. We were shunned, that is, except for Christmas Eve, 1944. Our crew was scheduled to lead the low squadron but we were scrubbed for some unknown reason. That was the day fighters shot down the entire low squadron. Some crew members made it back to our base because the incident was close to the front line. By then the Germans had adopted a strategy of mass attack with a hundred or more fighters chewing away at one squadron by over-saturating its defenses.
Midway through our tour we were given a week's "Flak Leave" at a manor near Oxford called Eynsham Hall. We dressed in civilian clothes, shot skeet, lounged by the fire, had breakfast served by a butler, read old novels, and tried to forget about the war.
As a lead crew we had to be aroused very early, around 0330, for Pre-briefing. We also had to attend the regular briefing. One week we flew missions six days in a row. Only young bodies with rigorous conditioning need apply, please. On the other hand, there was one month when we couldn't fly at all because of weather. We welcomed the chance to see Cambridge and London. I remember bobbing for apples and going on a scavenger hunt on Guy Faulkes Day with student members of the English Speaking Union in Cambridge; and I remember paying sixpence to hear Bertrand Russell lecture on an obtuse historical subject.
London fog really could get bad, especially in blackout; you had to walk along with one foot on the sidewalk and the other in the gutter in order to steer a straight course. Sometimes we hitchhiked and once, at about the time I would have been flying a mission, I found myself sitting on 500-lb bombs in the back of an Army truck.
Lead crews only had to fly 30 instead of 35 missions because they were aiming points for German flak gunners. However, our stay of nine months was about twice that of the non-lead crews. After 25 missions I was checked out as first pilot and possibly could have had my own crew; however, I knew that copilots were still in short supply so I opted to stay with Jack's crew. I flew my 30th and last mission in February 1945. Then I was offered a chance to fly RAF Mosquitoes on weather reconnaissance but declined—I was going home to start a new life.