The 392nd – The Highest Degree of Bombs on Target.

In the northern reaches of Norfolk lies an airfield that was the most northerly American base of the Second World War in East Anglia. Of all its crews that flew on the first mission, only four were still around to fly on the 200th a year or so later. This airfield was home to only one operational flying group, a group that was cited for its incredible bombing accuracy over occupied Europe. In this trip, we visit Station 118, otherwise known as RAF Wendling.

 RAF Wendling (Station 118)

On 15th January 1943, a new bomb Group was formed at Davis-Monthan Field in Arizona, it would be the 392nd BG and would consist of four squadrons: the 576th, 577th, 578th and 579th Bomb Squadrons. On completion of its training, the 392nd would leave the United States, and fly across the Atlantic to their new base in England. These four squadrons would be the first to operate the newly updated B-24 ‘H’ model ‘Liberators’; an improvement of the previous variants by the addition of a motorised front turret, improved waist gun positions and a new retractable belly turret. The supporting ground echelons had left the United States, sailing on the Queen Elizabeth from New York, much earlier, and before the group had received these newer models. As a result, they had neither received any training, or gained any experience with these new updated variants. The arrival of these new aircraft would therefore be met with some surprise, followed by a steep learning curve supported by additional training programmes.

The first B-24s of the 392nd arrived at Wendling, Norfolk, on 15th August 1943, and would soon be joined by the 44th at nearby Shipdham, the 389th at Hethel and the 93rd at Hardwick; four Groups that would be combined to form the Second Bombardment Wing (later 2nd Bombardment Division)*1. Battle hardened from fighting in the Mediterranean Theatre, these other three groups knew only too well the dangers of bombing missions, all having suffered some heavy losses themselves already.

Wendling’s Watch office before it was modified (see below) (IWM FRE 1670).

During September 1943,  the 392nd joined with these other three units flying missions under Operation ‘Starkey‘; probing German defences and gauging their responses to massed allied attacks on coastal regions. Largely uneventful they went on to undertake diversionary missions over the North Sea, the first three being escorted by fighters, and without incident. On the fourth however, the fighters were withheld and the bombers struck out alone.

On this particular flight, 4th October, 1943, the 392nd would gain their first real taste of war, and it would be an initiation they would rather forget. During the battle over thirty Luftwaffe fighters would shoot down four B-24s with the loss of forty-three crew members. A further eleven were injured in the remaining bombers that managed to continue flying and return home – it was not a good start for the 392nd.

Licking its wounds, they would then be combined with more experienced units, flying multiple missions as far as the Baltic regions before returning to diversionary raids again later that month. Viewed with some misgivings by crews, these ‘H’ model Liberators were soon found to be heavier, slower and less responsive at the higher altitudes these deeper missions were flown at.

The 392nd would take part in many of the Second World War’s fiercest operations; oil refineries at Gelsenkirchen, Osnabruck’s marshalling yards and factories at both Brunswick and Kassel were just some targets on the long list that entered the 392nd’s operations records book.

RAF Wendling (Beeston)

Wendling’s runway looking West.

The massive effort of ‘Big Week’ of February 20 – 25th saw the 392nd in action over Gotha, in an operation that won them a DUC for their part. Upon entering enemy airspace, the formation was relentlessly attacked by Fw-190s, Me 110s and Ju 88s using a mix of gun, rockets, air-to-air bombing and even trailing bombs to disrupt and destroy the groups. Ironically it was the very same twin-engined aircraft and component factory that was the intended target that day; a focus of the Second Bomb Division in an operation that saw the lead section, headed by aircraft of the 2nd Combat Wing, bomb in error due to the bombardier collapsing onto his bomb release as a result of oxygen starvation. Unrelenting the 392nd carried on. They realised and ignored the major error, and flew on to drop 98% of their bombs within 2,000 feet of the intended target. This highly accurate bombing came at a high cost though, Missing Air Crew Reports  (MACR) indicate seven aircraft were lost, with another thirteen sustaining battle damage.

The 392nd would carry on, with further battles taking their deadly toll on both crews and aircraft. In March that same year, the 392nd would turn their attention to Friedrichshafen – a target that would claim further lives and be the most costly yet.

Even before entering into enemy territory, losses would be incurred. Flying in close formation, two B-24s flew too close – one through the prop wash of another – which caused them to collide bringing both aircraft down.  One of those B-24s #42-109824 ‘Late Date II‘, lost half of its crew.

Despite good weather over the target the attack on Friedrichshafen in southern Germany, would have to be led by pathfinders. In an attempt to foil the attackers, the Germans released enormous quantities of smoke, enveloping the town and concealing it from the prying eyes high above. Of the forty-three bombers to fall that day, half were from the 14th Combat Wing of which fourteen came from the 392nd. Despite losses elsewhere, this would prove to be the worst mission for the 392nd, in all some 150 crew men were lost that day.

Bombing targets in Europe was never straight forward and bombs often fell well away from the intended site. On one rather unfortunate occasion at the end of March, the 392nd joined the 44th BG in mistakenly bombing Schaffhausen, a town in neutral Switzerland. The event that not only deeply upset the Swiss, but heavily fed the Nazi’s determined propaganda machine.

Eventually March, and its terrible statistics, was behind them. The 392nd would then spend the reminder of 1944 supporting ground troops, bombing coastal defences in the lead up to D-day (their 100th mission), airfields and V-weapons sites in ‘NOBALL‘ operations. Like many of their counterparts they would support the St. Lo breakout, and hit transport and supply routes during the cold weeks of the Battle of the Bulge.

It was during this time, on 12th August 1944 that heroic pilot, 2nd Lt. John D. Ellis, flying B-24H #42-95023, would manage to steer his stricken aircraft away from a residential area at Cheshunt, some 15 miles north of London,  crashing the aircraft near to what is now the A10 road. Sadly all on board were killed in the incident but undoubtedly the lives of many civilians were saved, and a memorial in their memory lies in the nearby library at Cheshunt and on the wall at Madingley, the American War Cemetery, Cambridge.

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The Memorial Plaque at the American War Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

This was not to be the only accident that the 392nd (nor any other B-24 unit) were to suffer. Crews were finding that these heavier machines were difficult to get out of if hit by flak or attacking fighters. Ferocious fires in the wing tanks and fuselage were leading to many losses, and in particular, the pilots who after fighting to keep aircraft stable long enough for crewmen to jump out, were then finding it viciously spinning the moment they let go of the controls.

On February 16th 1945 Liberator #42-95031 ‘Mary Louise‘ flown by 1st Lt. Albert J. Novik, was hit by falling bombs from another aircraft flying above him. After wrestling for some four and half hours to keep the aircraft flying, he ordered the crew out and then attempted to leave the aircraft himself. This event occurred only a month after a similar incident where he had managed to dive through the open bomb bay to safety. In this instance though, Novik was pinned to the roof as the bomber, half its tail plane missing, spun violently towards the Norfolk landscape beneath. Eventually, after a 7,000 ft fall, he was released from this centrifugal grip by a change in the aircraft’s direction. He managed to crawl down from his position and throw himself out through the bomb bay just seconds before the aircraft exploded, sending burning aircraft parts tumbling all around him. For his actions Novik was awarded the DFC, but many others were not quite so lucky, and perished in these huge lumbering giants of the sky.

On April 25th 1945, Mission 285, the 392nd BG prepared for what would be their last mission of the war. The Target, Hallein Austria. Not only would it end the 392nd’s aerial campaign, but that of the Eighth Air Force, bringing the air war in Europe to an end for the American units based in England.

By then, the 392nd had conducted some 285 missions with a high rate of loss, some 184 aircraft in total, with over 800 young men killed in action. They had dropped around 17,500 tons of bombs on some of the highest prestige targets in the German heartland. The group was cited by Major General James Hodges for its degree of accuracy for bombs on target – higher than any other unit of the 2nd Air Division over 100 consecutive missions. Operations had ranged from Norway to southern France and as far as the Baltic and advancing Russian armies at Swinemunde. Over 9,000 decorations were handed out to both air and ground crews for bravery and dedication.

Bomb dump buildings

One of several bomb dump buildings now a nature reserve.

After flying food supply missions to the starving Dutch, the 392nd departed Wendling and the site closed down, remaining dormant until it’s disposal in 1963/4.

RAF Wendling, otherwise known as Beeston from the nearby village, was classified as Station 118 by the Americans. Initially intended as an RAF Bomber base it was updated during the winter of 1942/43 opening in the summer of 1943. It would have 3 concrete runways of class ‘A’ specification, one of 2000 yards and two of 1,400 yards. The bomb dump which survives today as a nature reserve, was to the south-east, whilst the technical area is to the north-west. Two T2 hangars were located near to these sites and the watch office (drawing 5852/41) seems to have been modified in 1943 with the addition of what may have been a Uni-Seco control room (1200/43). Originally built with an adjoining Nissen hut (operations / briefing room) this is now encompassed within another more modern building, and is not visible from the outside.

Around the perimeter were a mix of ‘pan’ (28) and ‘spectacle’ (26) style hardstands, all of which have since been removed or built upon. The technical area, housing a range of: stores, workshops, huts and associated buildings, were to the north-west also. Interestingly, Wendling used Orlit huts, built by the Orlit Company of West Drayton, a mix of panel and concrete posts they were more economical than the British Concrete Foundation (BCF) huts initially ordered by the Ministry of Works.

Today, parts of two of the main runways still survive, housing turkey farms these buildings synonymous with Norfolk. The third was removed and the perimeter track has been reduced to a path. The bomb dump is part of a local nature reserve which has very limited parking, but access to the remaining buildings there is straight forward. Many of the buildings from the remaining twelve accommodation sites have been removed, however a number are still believed to be standing bound in heavy undergrowth, or used by local businesses. One currently retains a huge mural covering an entire wall, with evidence of others also within the same building.

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A stunning memorial now stands in memory of those who served.

Unfortunately when I visited Wendling, daylight ran out forcing me to make a retreat and head for home – a return visit is certainly planned for later. Like many other airfields in this part of the country, losses were high, and the toll on human life dramatic, both here, ‘back home’ and of course, beneath the many thousands of tons of high explosives that were dropped over occupied Europe. Now a high number of these sites house turkey farms, small industrial units or have simply been dug up, and forgotten. I hope, that we never forget and that they all get the honour and respect they deserve.

On a last note, there is a remarkable memorial in the Village of Beeston to the west of the airfield site. This is in itself worth a visit. Not only does it mention the 392nd, but all the auxiliary units stationed on the base, something we often forget when considering the Second World War. A nice and moving end to the trip.

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Memorial to the 392nd BG at Wendling.

Notes and further reading.

Wendling forms part of Trail 10.

*1 September 1943 saw a reorganisation of the US Eighth Air Force, and in September, the ‘Wings’ designation was changed to ‘Divisions’. Then in early 1944, a further reorganisation led to further strategic changes of the Air Force, one of which, saw the 44th and 392nd join with the 492nd to form the 14th Combat Wing, 2nd Bomb Division. Both  the 389th and the 93rd became part of the 2nd and 20th Combat Wings respectively.

A detailed website covering every mission, aircraft and most crew members offers a good deal of information and supporting photographs. It is well worth a visit for further more detailed information .

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Luftwaffe diaries – Big Week

Following on from the earlier diaries of Luftwaffe pilots during the Battle of Britain, I have found other examples, worth sharing.

These examples, were written as the Allies launched the ‘Big Week’ campaign against heavily defended German targets. In defence, the Luftwaffe were operating a wide range of aircraft, heavily armed, they were designed to destroy the big heavy bombers, both quickly and easily. The US Eighth and Fifteenth Airforces were bombing during daylight whilst the RAF were bombing at night. As a result, brutal dogfights were common place between escorting P-51s, P-47s and P-38s and the German aircraft.

Based at Wunstorf near Hanover, was III Gruppe Zerstorergeschwader 26, (part of Luftflotte 2) whose primary role was defence of the North Western Sector of Europe, Belgium and the Netherlands. Formed along with I. and II. Gruppe; III. Gruppe were to suffer badly at the hands of their superior American counterparts. During 1940, they had a total fo 33 aircraft, by the time ‘Big Week’ had come in 1944, this number was significantly lower.

The entry starts in the middle of February, with visits from Generalmajor Ibel1, re-equiping of machines and flight training. Prior to Big week, the Gruppe were also operating in support of land forces. However, as the allied forces began their operations, this role changed.

20.2.44 – At 12:03 hours the Gruppe received orders from 2. Jagddivision to take off and engage reported enemy bomber formation. At 12:13 hours, Bf 110s were airborne and assembled at radio beacon Marie, after new orders re-assembled overhead base. The Kommandeur, Major Kogler, took off late with three more BF 110s at 12.19 hours but failed to meet up with the aircraft which had taken off at 12.13. At 4,000m the first formation was surprised by enemy fighters attacking out of the sun and as a result 11 Bf 110s were shot down2. During the incursion two enemy fighters carried out a low-level attack on the airfield. As a result nine aircraft were hit and suffered up to 30% damage.3

21.2.44 – At 12:41 hours the group received orders to engage incoming enemy formations. At 12:45 ten BF 110s were airborne; assembly over radio beacon Marie.
At 13:15 hours these aircraft joined up with the escort a friendly fighters in the Rottenburg area. Our formation made contact with the enemy force, but due to poor direction failed to reach a favourable position from which to attack.4

22.2.44 – The Gruppe was ordered to take off at 12:22 hours to engage incoming enemy formations. The Gruppe scrambled eight BF 110s at 12:28 hours. Weather at take-off: Fair weather, 50km visibility, cloud base 1,000m, 2–3/10 cover. At 12:55 to 13:00 hours joined own fighter escort at 7,000m above Lake Steinhude. The Gruppe joined up behind I./ZG 26 which was operating under the control of the 2. Jagddivision. At 13:35 hours three formations of Fortress IIs were sighted. The leader of our formation (I./ZG 26) closed on the enemy formation to attack from head-on. III./ZG 26, following, was too close behind for a head-on attack, and had to turn an attack from the rear. While closing in to attack, fire was opened from about 400m. The enemy machine flying on the left outside of the formation burst into flames along its right side. It began to curve away to the left and the second attack was carried out from above and to the left, from behind. This Fortress dropped away from the formation well ablaze. There was strong defensive fire from the enemy rear gun positions. Each enemy formation numbered about 60 aircraft, flying in arrow. Weather in operational area: about 3/10 cloud cover, cloud base 500m tops 2,000m. Visability above cloud more than 50km.

During the head-on attack, the formation leader turned in too soon, so that the aircraft coming behind were unable to get into an attacking position.

Landing: Two BF 110s landed at Wunstorf, at 13:58 and at 14:10 hours. Four BF 110s made belly-landings. No landing reports received so far from two BF 110s. 5

Successes: One Fortress II shot down by Oblt. Bley.

23.2.44 – No operations. The Gruppe carried out instrument flying training missions as planned. The 7th Staffel is in the process of receiving replacement aircraft.

24.2.44 – Operational report.
Take off: Four BF 110s from Wunstorf at 12:01 hours. Order: Scramble take-off to engage incoming enemy formations. The Gruppe assembled at 7,000m over Brunswick with ten BF 110s of I./ZG 26. II./JG 11 joined up to provide the escort at 12:15 hours. Instructions received from JaFue6 during the assembly. At 13:15 hours eight formations each of about 15 liberators were seen in the area of Nordhausen, stepped up from 4,000m to 7,000m and flying on the south-easterly heading. It was noticeable that the enemy aircraft were wavering about. On the approach of our Gruppe the enemy force turned south and later south-west. Attack was carried out at 13:00 hours in the area of Holzminden, from the left and above. III./ZG 26 scored one victory7 and one Herausschuss (bomber leaving formation after attack by Major Kogler). Several liberators were observed to be on fire; others were seen to crash8. The claims of I./ZG 26 are not to hand. Landing: Two BF 110s landed at Wunstorf at 14:08 and 14:14 hours. One BF 110 suffered damage to the cabin and turned back. One BF 110: no landing report received (Gern’s aircraft).

Supplement: the enemy bombers were escorted by Thunderbolts, which flew above the formation. It was ascertained that the leading formation, which I tried to attack, always went into a turn to the right when I was in front shortly before I turned in to make my attack. It is possible that this forced the bombers away from their target.

Diary written by Major (Gruppe Kommandeur) Kogler, 1944

On February 24th 1944, there were several missions flown by the USAAF: Mission 233, (to attack targets at: Gotha, Rostock, Poznan and Schweinfurt) and 234 which occurred at night.  Mission 233 was the second largest operation to take place during ‘Big Week’ and involved 809 bombers with 767 fighters as escort.

Mission 233 took place in 3 Waves, Wave 1 – 239 B-24s were sent to Gotha; Wave 2 – 266 B-17s were sent to Schweinfurt and Wave 3, 304 B-17s were dispatched to the primary target of Poznan.

A fatal mistake by the lead aircraft in the first Wave (due to a faulty oxygen mask) led to Eisenach being bombed by mistake. The following formation also bombed by mistake, following his mark.  These are the only B-24s that flew on that day and as a result, it is probable (but not certain) that these are the Liberators mentioned in Kogler’s diary for that day. Casualties reported by the USAAF for that mission were: 3 KIA, 6 WIA and 324 MIA9.

Liberators of the 392nd BG from RAF Wendling were involed in this mission, an account is available here along with MACRs and statements from those involved.

It has been interesting to compare explantions from both sides, with limited resources, any connection is only presumed, but it does give an interesting perspective to the bomber war over Europe.

Sources:

1 – Generalmajor Ibel was the Commander of 2. Jagddivision

2 – Six pilots and five radio operators were killed in the attack. Two pilots and four radio operators were wounded.

3 – One armourer was killed along with one Radio operator and one mechanic wounded.

4 – Combat report D1

5 – Later found to have been shot down, their crews were killed.

6 – JaFue – Fighter Controller.

7 – Oblt Meltz.

8 – Lt. Gern, who was shot down during the action but bailed out of his aircraft, logged a claim for one Fortress shot down when he returned to his unit.

9 – 8th Airforce Operations, http://8thafhs.com/missions.php

The full diary entry appeared in The Luftwaffe Data Book, by Dr. Alfred Price, Published by Greenhill Books, 1936, 1977, 1997. pg197-200