As I mentioned previously in the Photo Journal of Training and Trip Overseas, we arrived at Prestwick, Scotland on August 30, 1943, after a nine-day trip from Scott Field in Illinois. We spent one night at Prestwick, and were treated to an "old-fashioned" dance (similar to our square dances) by the residents. The next day, August 31, we boarded a train to Bovingdon, a small town near Watford, just north of London. The airplane we had flown from the U.S. to Prestwick had been taken from us there, and ferried to one of the combat bases for instant use, replacing a plane that had been destroyed or badly damaged in combat. The primary purposes of our two-week stay at Bovingdon were to receive our final pre-combat training, and to be assigned to a heavy bomb group in the Eighth Air Force. But it served another purpose to brand new crews in a war environment.
First, we were able to view from a distance a number of German bombing raids on London. Some of the incendiary raids left huge sections of London on fire. The second day we were at Bovingdon, several battle-damaged planes from a B-26 Marauder group, returning from a raid, landed there, and we eagerly discussed combat conditions with them. We also got our first view of many B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators assembling into their immense formations for bombing raids over the continent. Raids by American bombers were always made in daytime formations, while the RAF bombers performed their missions at night. To this point in time, the war had seemed impersonal and far away, and there was a feeling that in some way we might be spared from it. But now it was becoming more and more personal, and trepidation began to set in as we realized that in a very few days, we would be in the thick of it.
Most of the instructors at the llth CCRC (Combat Crew Replacement Center) were ex-combat pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, and radio operators who had completed their tour of missions, or who had been shot down over the continent, and had walked out with the help of the French underground without being captured by the Germans. The courses there were designed to let some of their combat experience rub off on us green crews. There were lectures on formation flying and evasive action for the pilots and co-pilots. Navigators were introduced to the British ground communication lights, called "pundits, occults, and darkies," which were secondary light aids. Navigators also got their first introduction to real gunnery, particularly how to disassemble, clean, and assemble the .50-caliber machine guns.
The most interesting experience there for navigators was learning how to navigate by means of the "Gee box". It was an instrument similar to Loran, but was more accurate and had shorter range. Transmissions from four towers on the ground were converted by the Gee box to sets of coordinates that could be recorded on a map overlaid by the coordinate lines, to establish a ground position. On one of our missions, the system proved to be accurate to within a few hundred yards as far away as the South of France. The system showed us to be over the bend of a river shown on the map, and looking down we could see that we were almost directly over that bend. But the Germans soon learned to determine the frequency of the Gee box and "jam" it. For a few flights, the B-17s carried four black boxes operating at different frequencies, each of which was inserted into the system at specified times. That increased the time the system was effective, but one by one, the Germans would jam those black boxes also, so before long, use of the Gee box was discontinued.
Men working at other crew positions were also given instruction to meet
their specialized needs. But almost all of the training at Bovingdon was on the ground, so when the time came that we were transferred to the Eighth
Air Force, we still had almost no flight experience over England.
While stationed at Bovingdon, opportunities for a social life were ample. There were dances (mainly the old-fashioned type) on several evenings of each week in the town hall at nearby Watford, and crewmen were allowed liberal off-base passes. There were also frequent forays to the restaurants in town. In the throes of wartime rationing, food in the restaurants was by no means of the very best quality. Most common in the fast-food type of restaurants were fish and chips, and braun and chips. Braun was similar to American blood sausage, and what they called "chips" were like our French fries. A restaurant on High Street featured small, but very good, steaks which the owners preferred to sell to Americans, because the higher-paid Yanks tipped better than service men of other countries. We were also introduced to tea and crumpets at about that time. British workers on the air base had tea at 8:30 and 10:00, lunch at 12:00, tea again at 1:30 and 4:00, and dinner at 6:00 PM. It was irreverently claimed that Royal Air Force pilots would pull up alongside a cloud to have their tea at the appropriate time.
Tom Dempsey (the co-pilot of our crew) and I made our first trip to London along with Andreoli and Myers (the navigator and co-pilot of the Frank Berry crew, who had been with us all the way from the Savoie Group at Pyote, Texas). We took a train to London, and then the underground to Picadilly and Leicester Square. In Picadilly, we had dinner at a Greek restaurant and made Pete Andreoli, who had frequently bragged about managing a restaurant in Manhattan, choose the menu for all of us. He chose macaroni and chicken, which turned out to be a very poor choice. It took him a long time to live that down. That was the first time we tried warm "mild and bitters", which is something like beer, and thought it was terrible. We walked around awhile to watch the "Picadilly Commandoes" (ladies of the night) working the crowds, and then caught an early train back to the base, to avoid having to walk about four miles to get there.
Tom bought a low-gear bicycle, which he let us all use. It came in handy to run errands around the base at Bovingdon, such as visiting the quartermaster to buy wools. We had originally been told in the States to prepare for a hot climate (probably North Africa), and the cottons we brought along would never have been adequate in winter in England, which is at about the same north latitude as Canada. The bicycle also provided an opportunity to contact the quaint countryside and the people directly. I believe most of us had expected them to be remote and aloof. Instead we found them to be very warm and of ready wit. They were not good, however. at giving effective directions. "Take the first turning on the right, and then a left. You cawn't miss it." Usually we ended up being more lost than before. The favorite request of the small children was: "Any gum, Yank?" They always knew when ration day was, and were always around on that day.
Cars driving on the left side of the road and the British monetary system soon became less strange to us. The Yanks got a kick out of the very small coal and freight railroad cars, connected by chains and having compressed-air bumpers. On most local passenger trains, stops were made at all of the small towns, which were about four or five miles apart. Passenger trains were similar to the European trains, with compartments having enough room to accommodate about eight or ten passengers, and the seats were quite comfortable.
The British were on double daylight saving time (a time shift of two hours) during the war, so that from late spring to early autumn the sky was never completely dark during normal waking hours, even at midnight. The countryside was a complete jig-saw of roads, as we verified later from the air. In the country and small towns, the roads seemed usually to never be straight for more than a block. Because of the perpetual fogs in winter and the lack of sunshine, it was very difficult to maintain a sense of direction. Road surfaces were mostly of asphalt, with some of the older towns still having cobble-stone or wooden-block surfaces.
Gasoline (or petrol, as they called it) was tightly rationed, even to priority drivers such as doctors. Jitneys (taxis) were awarded only about two gallons of petrol a day, and, for that reason, expected large tips for even short rides.
After thirteen days at the llth CCRC, the time finally arrived for our crew to be transferred to our permanent base. Up to this point, several crews of the Savoie Provisional Group had been able to stay together. The Sinnamon twins, who had been commissioned with me at Mather Field, were navigators on two of the crews who were still with us. They, of course, wanted to remain together on the same combat base. Pilots John Beriont and Frank Berry had enough influence to see that they were permitted to do so and to remain with us. So their two crews, our two crews and two other Savoie crews made up the contingent that was assigned to the 96th Heavy Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, located at Snetterton Heath, in East Anglia. The 96th was part of the Third Division (Fortresses) and the 45th Combat Wing. We were all pleased that we were not assigned to the 100th Group, which had suffered severe casualties in recent raids.
We and our baggage were loaded on trucks for the 150-mile trip to Snetterton Heath. En route, we made only one stop, and that was for food. We entered a small cafe, and by the time we left, we had eaten all of their sandwiches. We arrived at Snetterton at about seven in the evening, shortly after the 96th Group had returned from a raid, and were immediately pounced upon by crewmen of the 337th, 338th, 339th, and 413th squadrons, each touting their own squadron as best in the group, based on which squadron had suffered the fewest casualties in recent missions. Of the six Savoie crews that were assigned to the 96th, the Beriont and Berry crews were assigned to the 338th Squadron, and the other four crews were placed elsewhere in the other three squadrons.
Our quarters during our entire stay at the 96th Group were in Nissen huts, similar to advanced-base hangars except smaller, with four officers from each of three crews in each hut. Quarters of the enlisted men of our crews were located in similar huts in a nearby area. The floors of these huts were bare concrete, with no carpets, and the latrines were about fifty feet away. Even in the middle of the night, one had to dress almost completely to visit the latrine in the cold winter weather. The cots were reasonably comfortable. Mine was located at the very rear of the hut, across from Frank Berry. Our only heat was from a small wood-burning stove at the center of the room. This was adequate until winter, when some of the men obtained a larger one from the supply room. This one could be stoked, and it provided heat all night.
It was on the 13th of September that we officers arrived at the 96th Group. The enlisted men of the six crews were transported to the Wash area of northeast England for gunnery practice, and joined us at Snetterton later.
I spent the 15th watching our Forts taking off on a raid to Paris, and watching them return later, reporting excellent results but having lost three airplanes and crews. I also talked to as many as possible of the officers and crews with combat experience. One of them talked mostly about the gory side, such as crewmen being mangled by 20-millimeter fire. Needless to say, I got away from him as soon as possible! Most of the men assured me that all new crews always had from two to four weeks of practice navigation missions to "learn the ropes" before flying combat. There would also be gunnery practice for navigators and bombardiers, and ground-school classes on subjects related to combat missions. Is that the way it worked out in my case? Just wait until you read about a very green and confused navigator on his first mission, three days after arriving at his combat base.
When the time quickly came for my first combat flight, I was probably the
most confused navigator in the entire European Theater of Operations. The reasons for confusion on my first raid can best be understood by reviewing
what the normal procedures were on a typical mission, and comparing them
with what happened on my first one. Usually, for security reasons, it was never openly announced the night before a mission that there would be one the next day, let alone what the target would be. However, most of us could sense when there would be one, because those in charge of planning the mission would huddle in the Operations area. On those nights, most crewmen would "hit the sack" early, to get a little extra sleep.
Normally, there were more crews available than were required for a flight, meaning that every crew did not have to fly every mission. Members of those crews who did have to go were awakened by an orderly about an hour and a half before the briefing. Thus, for an early mission, we could be awakened at 3:00 AM or earlier. With the British double daylight saving time, it could feel more like 1:00 AM. Dressing for the day meant donning winter "woolies", then GI pants and shirt under a summer flying suit. Two pairs of heavy woolen socks were worn under GI brogans, and a cap and heavy jacket completed our preliminary dress until just before take-off. There were fresh eggs for breakfast before missions, instead of powdered eggs we got on days we did not have to fly. After breakfast, "buses", really GI trucks with wooden seats, carried crewmen through a very cold morning to the briefing room.
If there was sufficient time before the briefing, we would put on our heavy
wool-lined flying suit and fur-lined boots over our shoes. Later on, we would put on a wool-lined helmet, earphones, a throat microphone, an oxygen
mask, a parachute harness, and heavy gloves with silk gloves underneath. The silk gloves were used when it was necessary to use a pencil to navigate, or to fire a machine gun, in which case bare hands would have stuck to the
extremely cold metal. To replace part of this very bulky equipment, some
of the men would use electrically-heated suits; others chose not to because sometimes the suits shorted out, causing painful burns. Sometimes, also,
part of the equipment was carried to the plane from the "drying room" and donned there, to avoid the chance of becoming sweaty from so much clothing immediately before the extreme cold at high altitude. Whenever flak (anti-aircraft ground fire) or enemy fighter attack was expected, a flak helmet and flak jacket were added to this immense amount of clothing, and a parachute was attached to the harness.
At the briefing room, all of the crewmen were in high suspense as they stared at the covered map-board, which would reveal the target for the day. When all crewmen, the squadron and group commanders, and sometimes the wing commander (Col. Old), were present, the briefing was ready to begin. The operations officer would uncover the map, and crewmen would see for the first time what the target would be. If the target was known to be an easy one, a group sigh of relief could be heard. If it was a deep penetration of the continent, a deep gloom settled over the room. Once, when the target was announced to be Berlin, a pilot who would be flying his final, 25th mission, jumped up, ran out the door, and could be heard vomiting on the outside. Fortunately, for some reason the mission was aborted.
Then the first briefing officer would present general information from the battle order about the mission: the courses to be followed; locations of the Initial Point (IP), the point at which the last five or six minutes of the bomb run would begin; the Rally Point (RP), where the planes would gather in tight formation again for the trip home; the type of formation; time of takeoff of individual planes; time of takeoff of the assembled formation from England; and location of the planes of the individual crews in the formation. The group formation for bombing missions contained four squadrons with seven airplanes in each squadron. The planes in each squadron were further divided into two "flights", one with three planes and one with four planes. The lead squadron in the group would have a wing squadron on each side, one slightly higher and one slightly lower, and both of them slightly behind the lead squadron. Within a squadron, the three-plane flight would lead the four-plane one, with each flight having a high and a low wing plane. Among the crewmen, the favorite location in the formation from the standpoint of safety was in the high squadron near the front. The least favorite was "tail-end Charlie" in the low squadron, a position known by crews as "purple-heart corner."
Next, Intelligence officers (S-2) would present information on the location and strength of expected flak batteries, and the expected numbers and locations of enemy fighter planes. Also explained were time and locations of points at which friendly fighter support would join and support the group in relays to accompany it to and from the target. A weather man would give a complete forecast for the entire area to be flown over. The communication officer would discuss call signs and frequencies, and schedules of occults, pundits, darkies, etc. Last of all, Col. Old or Col. Jim Travis, the Group commander, would give a pep talk, such as: "Keep a good formation; you have an opportunity to do a lot of good today." Then navigators, bombardiers, and the pilots and co-pilots would go to their own specific briefings.
At the navigators' briefing, the group navigator would preside. He would have already worked out and mapped a complete flight plan, covering such
factors as drift, air-speed, heading, distance and time for each leg of the trip. Then maps and charts would be distributed to the navigators, to
enable them to plot the courses, show where enemy flak and fighter
opposition could be expected, and where we would rendezvous with friendly fighters. If time permitted, most navigators would check the flight plan, to verify that the flight plan as calculated by the group navigator would, in fact, get the group to turn points on time and on course. "Flimsies" would also be passed out, carrying a summary of the flight plan. These were printed on rice paper, which could be eaten and digested by the navigator, in case he had to bail out from the airplane and was captured by the Germans. Finally, to assure that the navigators all worked exactly to the same time as the lead navigator, all of their "hackwatches" were coordinated precisely to his.
Trucks would then carry crewmen to their airplanes. To minimize the danger of massive damage from German air raids, planes belonging to the four squadrons were parked on revetments in four dispersal areas located about a quarter of a mile apart, with two to four planes to a revetment, and the farmland among the clusters provided excellent camouflage. Crews were presented with maps showing the locations of their airplanes, which were identified by plane numbers. This was to assure that the trucks carried them to the proper location. Flashlights often had to be used to identify the planes when crews arrived in the areas before daylight. The .50-caliber machine guns were ready to be installed in the airplanes, and each
crewman, including the navigator and bombardier, was responsible for installing his own gun. Ammunition boxes in the nose area were placed in
the best location to feed the guns, but boxes of extra ammunition frequently had to be used as a chair to sit on. Navigation equipment,
including the Gee box, if it was to be used, had to be checked out, and the oxygen masks had to be adjusted.
At the briefed time for starting engines, the pilot would call all stations on the interphone, to make certain all was ready. The planes would line up in the order specified at the briefing, and each would take off at its planned time. Complete radio silence had to be maintained, to keep from alerting the enemy. At takeoff time for missions on which he did not fly, Col. Travis was invariably at the tower, near the head of the takeoff strip, to wave at each crew as the flare was fired for the takeoff of that airplane. After takeoff, the planes circled and climbed, usually over the area of the airbase. In certain cases, they would fly outward in a specified direction, climb to a specified altitude, and then climb back toward the base, to look for the appropriate squadron. In dark hours, coded signals from an aldis lamp were used to identify the proper squadron. With 28 airplanes looking for 4 squadrons in a relatively small area, all members of every crew had to be very alert for other airplanes to avoid a potential catastrophe. Bombing was usually done in wing or division formation, so after groups were assembled, the time came for assembly in
the proper overall configuration at a designated location. In the case of a massive raid on an important target, the entire Eighth Air Force would
participate. It is difficult to imagine, without actually seeing it, what the sky looked like with 700 to 800 B-17s and B-24s in the air, particularly
when each plane produced its own condensation trail under certain atmospheric conditions.
With the entire formation assembled and leveled off at flight altitude (normally 25,000 feet but occasionally as high as 30,000 feet), the formation departed from the English coast at the planned time. To this point in time, the primary duties of the navigator were to inform the crew of the significant details of the mission, to keep track of the position of the airplane during the climbing and circling, organizing the navigation tools and paperwork at the workplace, and assembling the gun in order to test-fire it over the North Sea. To prepare for the possibility that his plane might have to abort the mission at some point along the course to the target, compass headings that might be required to return to base from different points along the way had to be worked out in advance. Heading requirements were also worked out to fly from various points to Sweden or Switzerland in case abort to one of those countries might be advisable. Because outside temperatures at flight altitude were most often about -60 degrees F, it was also necessary by this time that all of the cold-weather clothing be in place.
If there was good visibility of the ground, the navigation process used by most of the navigators would most likely be by means of "pilotage", which means following the course of the formation by reading a map of the area, and comparing the location of features on the ground, such as rivers, lakes, and cities with their location on the map. When there was an undercast, the navigation would be by means of "dead reckoning", which involves calculations of position, course and ground-speed from data derived from the air-speed meter, compass, and drift-meter. The drift-meter is similar to a non-magnifying telescope installed in such a way that it looks vertically to the ground when the airplane is in level flight. The "lens" contains two parallel lines, parallel also to the axis of the plane when the circular scale around the tube reads zero. As the airplane flies along, the navigator picks a spot on the ground (such as a cross-road) that showed up between the lines. He would turn the drift meter in such a way as to keep the point moving between the lines and parallel to them. The number of degrees he has to turn the meter in order for the point to move that way is the angle between the airplane axis and the direction the airplane is moving, or the drift. The lead plane flies straight and level as directed by the lead navigator, and the results of his navigation could be very accurate.
On the other hand, all of the other planes in the group have to jockey around to maintain position in a tight formation. In particular, navigators in the outer planes of the outer squadrons had a very difficult time navigating, because of the wide variations of readings of the airspeed meter, compass and altimeter, so their location calculations could not be very accurate. In some of these situations, a navigator might be required
to "navigate by flight plan", assuming that the lead navigator had gotten the group to the locations where the flight plan said it would be at
Formations usually went to targets in northern Germany, such as Emden or Bremen, by looping out over the North sea, approaching the German coast from the north, dipping as short a distance as possible into Germany, and then scampering back out to sea as soon as possible. For targets in southern Germany such as Schweinfurt and Mannheim, on the other hand, the approach from England was more or less a straight line, with feints toward other targets to confuse the Germans. The final turning point was the Initial Point (IP), about six to ten minutes from the target, which was the beginning of the bomb run. At that point, the lead crew would fire a flare of previously announced color, and the enlisted men of all crews would remove the bomb pins and bomb-bay doors would be opened. Removing the pins "unlocked" a spinner on each bomb, permitting them to spin off and arm the bombs as they fell through the air.
On the bomb run, the lead navigator could set the pilot on an accurate heading toward the target, and the lead bombardier would actually take over control of the airplane, through the bomb-sight and the automatic pilot. With flight data in the target area set into the computer, the bombardier could make minor adjustments to keep the cross-hairs on the target, and the bomb-sight would automatically drop the bombs at the appropriate instant. If there was an undercast and the lead navigator used "Mickey" (a radar navigation box), he could establish the bomb run course using radar. When all the other bombardiers saw bombs drop from the lead plane, they would immediately toggle their own bombs. The crewmen who could best observe the bombs hitting the ground were the ball turret gunner and, by means of the drift meter, the navigator. It was part of his job to record for Intelligence exactly where the bombs struck on or near the target.
As our planes approached the enemy coast on the way in, crewmen of all the planes had to be on high alert to watch for German fighters. The first man to sight one would call attention to it and its location over the interphone, using the clock system, as, for example: "Two bandits coming in at ten o'clock high." Other planes in the formation would also be notified by radio. The courage of the German pilots could not be denied, as they swooped through the middle of a group, either singly or in clusters, with perhaps as many as 150 - 200 .50-caliber machine guns shooting at them. If there was heavy anti-aircraft fire over a target, the Jerries would wait outside the flak area, and attack any airplane that was damaged and had to leave the protection of the formation. Once, someone tacked, on a bulletin board, an advertisement from Life magazine by an aircraft company, asking the question: "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wulf?", referring to the German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane. Almost every man in the group signed underneath the advertisement!
During the worst fighter attacks, enemy planes would approach from every direction. Generally, their primary attention would be directed to "tail-end Charlie" of the low squadron, because that area had the least protection. The lead plane was also a prime target, because there would be a need for the formation to reorganize if that plane was knocked out, causing some confusion. When the attacker came within 1,000 yards of the formation, the maximum range of fire, all of the .50-caliber machine guns of the group would open up on it. Accurate firing was made difficult because the gunner had to estimate the required firing lead time for airplanes flying in assorted directions. Every fifth round was a tracer (a round that glowed), to indicate where the stream of bullets was supposedly going, so if there was a single attacker, one would see a cone of converging tracers. There was some question among group management officers as to whether the heat of the tracers might cause them to follow different trajectories than the cool rounds, and thereby lead to a false sense of general accuracy. The bottoms of the Jerry fighters were heavily armored, so that the tracers could be seen bouncing off when they hit there.
If any gunner was certain he had hit an enemy fighter, the fighter went down, and another crew member could verify it, he could claim a
"destroyed", a "damaged", or an "assist" at the interrogation session after the crew returned to base. It was the navigator's responsibility to record any such claims, as well as any losses of B-17s, the location of such observations, and number of parachutes seen. Claims of hits went in to division headquarters to be sifted. If it was clear that two gunners had legitimate claims on the same plane, each would be given credit for a half-ship destruction. In the case of massive attacks, all navigators, except those in lead positions, assumed primary duties as gunners, while also trying to keep track of the progress of the flight. At such times, the navigators might have to resort to "flight plan navigation".
Along with fighter attacks, the other danger to formations was anti-aircraft fire, or flak. The word "flak" comes from the German word "FLiegerAbwehrKanon" or "flier defense cannon". Flak attacks usually appeared in one of three configurations. One was "predicted concentrations." Based on the altitude and ground-speed of the formation, German ground gunners would calculate where the bombers would be by the time the fired rounds reached flight altitude, and fire a massive volley to that location. "Barrage"
configurations usually appeared over large cities such as Bremen. It
involved firing clouds of flak over the entire area being protected, and to all altitudes from 3,000 to 35,000 feet. Few airplanes could make it through these barrages without some kind of flak damage. From a distance, these barrages looked like huge, tall, black cumulus clouds. To use the third configuration, "tracking", flak bursts would be fired in a straight line to flight altitude with the track of the bursts moving at the same velocity as the formation, and adjusting the track of the bursts to intercept the path of the bombers. These bursts were usually six to ten in a string. After a string was completed, the best evasive action was to change course to where the last burst occurred, while the Germans changed the track of their bursts to where the bombers had been.
The fighter pilots who escorted the B-17s and B-24s were of unequaled courage. They were truly the beloved "little brothers" of the heavies. As brave as the German pilots were in attacking the bombers, many times when they were attacking the American formations, they would "turn tail" for home as soon as the P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51 Mustangs, or P-38 Lightnings came into view. The support fighters did not hesitate to enter heavy flak if in so doing they could help one of the bombers. The early fighters (P-47s) had the disadvantage of very limited range capability, reaching only about 100 miles into the continent, and leaving the bombers on their own when deeper targets were raided. When the P-38s and P-51s arrived in the UK around December 1943, they
could escort the bombers to almost any target on the continent. The same planes did not have to escort all the way to deep targets. Instead, groups
of them would arrive at specified points along the course of the raid at specified times to relieve preceding groups.
After "bombs away", the bomb-bay doors were closed and the altitude was altered somewhat. In the event the formation had been scattered during the bomb run, the group would re-form into the usual tight formation again at the pre-determined assembly point and head for home. The journey toward home was similar to the flight in. There could be flak or fighter opposition. Friendly fighter support arrived in waves at scheduled times, to escort the heavies back toward home. Everyone breathed more easily when the North Sea came into view on the way in, but alertness of the crews still could not be relaxed. Occasionally, damaged planes had to peel off from the formation and "hit the deck". Sometimes a "little brother" would escort it home for protection, if the damaged plane was able to continue that far. Once in a while, phantom B-17s, which were planes that had made forced landings in enemy territory and were taken over by the Germans, would join a part of the American formations. The purpose was for them to obtain air-speed, altitude, and heading data for the German flak gunners. The standing order of the Air Force was to fire across the nose of any B-17 having strange markings, or shoot it down if necessary. All friendly aircraft emitted IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) signals as they crossed the English coast. Any plane that failed to emit that signal was warned by ground gunners, and if no suitable response was received, that plane would be shot down.
The first view of the "white cliffs of Dover" was always a most beautiful sight. But even in the vicinity of the base, it was still necessary to be wary, since there was a record of returning B-17s having been shot down
there by invading German planes. There were frequent weather problems in
England in winter; days were short, and there was almost constant fog and haze. So returning planes had to disperse to descend through the fog. Nearing the base, any plane that was damaged or carried injured crewmen left the formation early, fired a flare, and landed first. With as many as 42 airplanes returning at once, it was sometimes a mess. Finally, when the planes all landed, the crewmen, including the navigator and bombardier, tore down their guns.
Trucks would pick up crewmen and take them to Operations for debriefing. Each crew got together with an Intelligence officer to provide him with any information that would be useful to S-2. This included such items as the apparent effectiveness of the bombing raid, location of flak concentrations and fighter attacks, strength of the Luftwaffe elements, number and locations where B-17s were damaged or destroyed, claims of destroyed or damaged enemy fighters, locations where parachutes were seen, and other such information. Most important was any information that could be given about the location of any airplane that was seen to "ditch", or crewmen that were seen parachuting into the icy North Sea. The British Air-Sea Rescue Service was very effective in rescuing crewmen in that area. In one of the few joint humane efforts to occur in wartime, when any of these men went down in an area that was too close to German-held territory for the British to be able to rescue them safely, the British would notify the Germans by radio, and the Germans would make the pick-up. They would be taken prisoner, of course, but even that was better than an icy death.
While awaiting a crew's debriefing, its members would have spam sandwiches and a drink, provided by the Red Cross. One of the Red Cross girls at Snetterton Heath was "Tatty" Spaatz, the daughter of General Spaatz and a very personable girl who never failed to attract much of the crewmen's attention. Once, when Gen. Spaatz walked into the mess hall during dinner, officers responded half-heartedly to a call to attention. Ten minutes later, his daughter entered, and instantly every eye in the room came to immediate attention.
At the debriefing, most attention was paid to lists of names of men on crews believed to have been lost, and names of other crews that had not yet returned from the mission. In all cases, persons on that list were close friends of others in the briefing room, and it was a very sad situation. When a plane had been forced to leave the formation but was believed to be safe, a large group of concerned men would gather near the landing strip, and cheer if the plane landed, and when the crew deplaned.
When a crew's turn came to be debriefed, it would enter the room and gather around one of ten or twelve tables. First an S-2 officer would ask questions about the mission in general. In addition to the types of questions discussed above, he was interested in such things as accuracy of fighter attacks, any new tactics by the fighters, and any complaints the crews might have about the handling and direction of the mission. At this debriefing, the navigator played a very important part, because it was his job to record and report any significant information he or any other member of the crew had observed during the mission. The crews also had to be debriefed in other areas, such as Communications, Weather, and Navigation (including "gee" if it was used on the mission). Afterward, log sheets, maps and charts had to be turned in, and other equipment returned to the lockers.
With all these duties completed, trucks would carry crews to the mess hall. Dinnertime provided time for some relaxation and time to talk about the raid, and home. Everything was tempered by sorrow about any personal acquaintances who may have been lost during the mission.
It was but a short walk down the hill from the mess hall to the barracks. It was during that walk, according to a number of the crewmen, that thoughts came to mind, such as: "Thank God, here I am back from another one." Stories that are told about the part religion plays in the lives of combat men are quite true. Short services that were held by priests, rabbis, and Protestant ministers prior to missions were always well attended, as were worship services at the chapel on Sunday. Very few of the men would deny that they said a prayer or two once in awhile. Chaplains in each of the three religions were trained to handle services in the other two. In an emergency, a Catholic chaplain could offer religious counsel to a Jew or a Protestant, for example.
In the evenings, crewmen sometime played cards or listened to music at the officers' or enlisted men's club, or wrote letters or read in the barracks. If there was a newly arrived crew in the barracks, they would listen with open mouths while the veterans told them about missions they had experienced. After their first few missions, or after a particularly rough raid, a good many of the men would have difficulty sleeping, but generally a mental discipline would be developed after awhile that permitted them to fall asleep quickly and sleep well. On days when there were no raids, frequently there were practice missions to improve operational procedures. Otherwise, there would be walking or bicycling trips around the countryside, or visits to the small neighboring towns. Sometimes the men would become personally acquainted with some of the people on the small farms or residents in the villages, and would visit them often.
But between missions, the barracks would be the center for recreation. There would be ball games, and, nearly every night there would be a bull session on a variety of subjects from women to religion to politics. Everyone would be talkative, probably to hide homesickness. If one person got candy or cookies from home, he would share them with all the rest. But he would carefully guard the rations he got each week. This would consist of one or two bars of chocolate candy, a bar of soap, a couple of razor blades, seven packs of cigarettes (they cost six cents a pack), and a package of cookies.