September 27, 1944
Normally a "Red Letter Day" is denoting something memorable; a significant event. In the case of the history of the 445th Bomb Group, this day will be forever seared into the memories of the 39 crews scheduled to fly a mission deep into Germany. The day started off in a usual manner - it was another strike into Germany. The target was the Henschel tank production facility in Kassel.
The Tiger tank was a technologically superior weapon system to anything the Allied forces had at the time. The original design incorporated the infamous 88mm high velocity gun that was originally used as a flak gun system. Beginning shortly after the Normandie D-Day invasion, the new Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, refered to as the Tiger B. It also was known by its unofficial name of Königstiger (the German name for the Bengal Tiger), where the semi-literal translation of King Tiger or Royal Tiger was used by Allied soldiers.
This tank weighed in at a massive 70 tons; was 33 ft 9 in long from its exhaust pipes to the end of the gun barrel; 12 ft 4 in wide; and 10 ft 2 in tall. It carried a crew of 5 enclosed within armor ranging from 1 to 7 inches thick. The original Tiger tank mounted a squared turret which was replaced with a sloping, curved turret designed to defeat anti-tank rounds. The main gun was a single 88 mm gun Kampfwagenkanone 43 L/71 and carried a mix of 86 rounds of ammunition (PzGr. 39/43 APCBC-HE - Armour Piercing Capped with Ballistic Cap - High Explosive, PzGr. 40/43 APCR - Armour-piercing, Composite Rigid construction [solid shot], and Gr. 39/3 HL - High Explosive Anti Tank [HEAT]). Secondary armament was two 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34 (machinegun) with 5,850 rounds. At ranges of up to 1,000 meters, the Tiger II could achieve a 95% first round hit accuracy thanks to the Turmzielfernrohr 9d monocular sight by Leitz. Up to 1,500 meters the percentage rate dropped to 65%. Designs were under development to add a stabilized gun/sighting system, a more powerful 105 mm Kampfwagenkanone L/68 main gun, a Zeiss stereoscopic range finder, and stowage space for 12 additional rounds of main gun ammunition. The importance of this target can be easily understood. If the Germans were allowed to get this weapon system into full production, the devastating effect on its firepower could go a long ways in prolonging the war.
The day started out like any other mission; the early morning wakeup call; breakfast in the combat crew's mess; briefing - another deep penetration mission with a big bomb load - six one-thousand pound general purpose bombs. Little thought was given to the Luftwaffe as aircraft production facilities and critical fuel refineries had previously been hard hit. Only very light and sporadic contact with German fighters had been seen since D-Day. Little did they realize what was waiting for them.
As the planes were taxiing around the perimeter, one plane, piloted by 1st Lt Rene Schnieder, managed to get one tire off the pavement and cut the tire. They were able to get the plane clear for the others to proceed but there wasn't a spare ready for that day. So now there are thirty-eight ready to go. The tower gives the green light, a flare soars into the sky, and the planes start down the runway, one every 30 seconds.
The 38 planes quickly form up in their assigned positions at the Group rendezvous point and head for the Wing Assembly point. The 445th was to lead the 2nd Combat Bomb Wing that day with the 389th Bomb Group on the left and the 453rd Bomb Group on the right. Wing assembly was completed and the planes headed for their final assembly point where they would form up into the massive formation heading for Germany. Once the main bomber stream was assembled, they departed the English coastline and headed into Europe.
Enroute to the target, two B-24s had to abort. 1st Lt Wilbur Wilkens and 1st Lt Keith Frost, both assigned to the 701st Bomb Squadron, had to drop out of the formation due to mechanical problems. A third abort came from the 701st Bomb Squadron with 1st Lt Donald McClelland in "Tahelenbak" when their aircraft was hit by flak and they lost an engine, preventing them from continuing with the formation. All three aborts returned safely to their home field at Tibenham, leaving 35 aircraft to push on to the target.
The weather over the Continent this day was solid undercast, preventing recognition of ground terrain points to monitor their route. The lead aircraft of each squadron had additional personnel flying that day - an extra navigator called a "pilotage navigator". His job was to ride in the nose turret and assist in navigation by picking out terrain features show on the map he carried. With the solid cloud cover, his job became impossible. The weather conditions played a significant role in the events of this day.
There was another navigator called the "dead reckoning nav" whose job it was to keep track of the formation's position based on time of flight, air speed, and winds aloft. D/R navigation requires precise information obtained during the navigator's briefing prior to takeoff. Weather reports gave wind velocities and direction at the various altitudes along the briefed route. Meteorology in 1944 was nowhere as precise as today and little was known about the jet stream (high speed winds at high altitude).
The most critical navigator onboard the lead aircraft was the radar navigator. His job was to observe the radar reflection from the ground returns to pick out prominent terrain features like lakes and rivers. The returns from those natural features would show up clearly on the display inside the aircraft. The return images would be compared to pictures of what the returns should look like. As visual ground reference is needed for both the pilotage and dead reckoning navigators to do their jobs accurately, the role of the radar nav becomes critical.
The briefed route contained a series of control points which would guide the formation to the target. The first control point was hit at the expected time and a new heading was taken. The 445th overshot the second control point. At this point the course of events becomes confused even to today. What follows is one interpretation of the mission logs from the National Archives.
The route from control point (CP) #1 to CP #2 had a quartering tail wind which would give the aircraft a greater ground speed than indicated. When they reached CP #2 according to time, they had already passed the point on the ground. They turned to the heading to take them to the Initial Point (IP) at which point they would open the bomb bay doors and set up the bomb run. A possible glimse of the ground indicated they were drifting East of the desired route due to a now 90 degree crosswind at altitude. A slight right hand turn was effected to return to the correct heading to reach the IP.
At the IP, the lead aircraft made a left hand turn to get on the bomb run. The radar navigator in the lead aircraft (2nd Lt Cloys Johnson) should have configured the radar unit to look 45 degrees on either side of the intended flight path, looking for prominent terrain features. Somehow, in the process, the 445th took a heading to the ENE which took them out of the main bomber stream. Reports from survivors indicate that the lead aircraft, flown by Capt John Chilton, with Major Don McCoy as Command Pilot, disregarded radio calls from other 445th aircraft and directed the formation to close up on them. Unfortunately, one of the last aircraft lost that day over Germany was Capt Chilton's.
Now it's possible that they thought they were on the correct heading based on the D/R nav's plots, but unknown to them, they picked up an approximate 70 mph tail wind almost dead on their tail. This gave them a ground speed well in excess of what they predicted to reach the target. In fact, when it came time for the bomb release, the 445th's formation was 25 miles NE of Kassel, near the town of Göttingen, Germany. The bombs fell just outside the village of Grone, just to the West of Göttingen.
At this point, the 445th executed the plan to turn towards the NE, then make a right turn to the SE before another right turn, heading to the Rally Point (RP). At this point the 445th Bomb Group is approximately 40 to 50 miles behind the main bomber stream, and more importantly, the fighter cover. The planned 2 right turns ended up being one big sweeping turn to allow the left hand sqaudron formation to maintain position. In the process the low left squadron got strung out and was slow in getting back into position. They regained position when the formation neared the town of Eisenach. A final turn to the WSW would put the 445th back on the planned route. It was at this point that disaster struck!
Unknownst to the 445th, a large force of German fighters under ground radar control had formed up further to the East. The force consisted of a mix of Focke Wulf 190 A8/R3 and Messerschmitt Bf 109 single engine fighters. The Bf 109's provided a top cover for the slower but more heavily armed Fw 190's. The most heavily armed of the Fw 190's were the R3 variants. These planes had the 20mm cannon mounted further out on the wing (outside the propeller arc) replaced with the heaver hitting 30 mm. It only took 3 or 4 hits from the 30mm to bring down any of the heavy bombers.
The fighters made a stern attack, hitting the low left squadron formation first. The fighters came in in a series of waves with 10 to 12 aircraft making up each wave. Coming in from the rear gave them about 100 mph closure speed advantage on the bombers. Their first targets were the tail gun positions as they would be the first to return fire. Successive waves tore through the rest of the 445th's formation and in a matter of less than 6 minutes 25 aircraft were in their death throes. The sky was instantly filled with burning and exploding B-24's and a multitude of parachutes from those lucky enough to escape their burning planes. Staff Sergeant John Lemons, a waist gunner in the 702nd Bomb Squadron, recounted how he had to crawl under the flames of his plane named "King Kong" to get the chutes for the three gunners in the back of their plane. They successfully managed to escape just moments before King Kong exploded in the air.
Only the timely return of the fighter escort prevented the total destruction of the 445th that day. Of a force of 35 aircraft, there were now 10 struggling to stay in the air. 1st Lt John French managed to crash land his plane on a P-47 air field near Metz-Frescaty, France. 1st Lt William Hunter crash landed his plane 12 Km East of Lille, France. The last plane to crash in friendly territory on the Continent was 1st Lt Raymone Heitz who came down near Brussels, Belgium. Seven planes made it across the English Channel, but just barely. 2nd Lt William Dewey and 1st Lt Jackson Mercer managed to set their badly shot up planes on the emergency strip at Manston, within sight of the Channel. 1st Lt Stanley Krivik actually flew past Tibenham and crash landed near Old Buckingham, home of the 453rd Bomb Group. The four remaining planes returned to their home field at Tibenham, much to the shock of the crews on base.
Although the sequence of events that day will probably never be known, one thing is for certain. In the words of noted 8th Air Force researcher and author Roger A. Freemen, the 445th Bomb Group suffered "the largest loss by a single group on a mission in World War II". The official report submitted by the commander of the 2nd Bomb Division to Headquarters, 8th Air Force Bomber Command, cited the 445th with 2 gross errors - one for navigation and one for leadership. As very few remaining survivors of the Kassel mission are with us today, the truth of the story will probably never be known. But right or wrong, the decisions made that day were done by highly experienced officers who thought they were doing the right thing.