The Straggler

FROM The Luftwaffe War Diaries by Cajus Bekker

Still over Holland the Americans changed course to the south, and crossed Belgium at 20,000 feet. Then, shortly before reaching the German frontier the escort had to turn back. It was the moment the Focke-Wulfs had been waiting for. Setting on the bombers from head-on and slightly above, they let fly. Then, sweeping close beneath the formation, they climbed up and turned to repeat the attack.

The first Boeings caught fire. Four dived with black smoke-plumes down into the Eifel country, the next three into the Hunsrück. And now the sky was alive with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. As soon as one Gruppe exhausted its ammunition, it was replaced by another.

The battle went on for a full ninety minutes without let-up. The Americans lost fourteen aircraft, leaving 132 to bomb the target—the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg-Prüfening. Meanwhile German fighter control got ready to deal out similar punishment on the return flight. Usually this was the same course in reciprocal, but this time the Americans turned south, and demonstrated their enormous radius of action by crossing Italy and the Mediterranean to land in North Africa. Even so, another ten bombers were shot down by Luftflotte 1 in that area, so that this formation altogether lost twenty-four B-17s, with many more damaged.

But the zenith of the August 17th battle was still to come. In the early afternoon a still larger formation, numbering 229 aircraft, crossed the mouth of the Scheldt on its way to bomb the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. It was given a still warmer reception than the first. This time the German fighters did not wait till the escort had turned back. While one Gruppe engaged the Thunderbolts, a second went for the bombers.

Amongst the first assailants was again JG 11’s 5 Squadron, which had previously carried out experiments with bombs. Today its Messerschmitts had two 21-cm rockets slung under their wings. Creeping up behind, they sent these sizzling off from a range of 800 yards. The enemy formation was well staggered, and most of the rockets fell short. But two hit their targets, and these bombers literally burst asunder in the air. After this introduction the Americans did not enjoy a moment of peace during the whole remainder of their flight to Schweinfurt, or on their return. Over 300 German fighters were airborne.

From this mission thirty-six Fortresses failed to return, representing a total loss for the day of sixty, plus over a hundred damaged. Once again it had been demonstrated that relatively slow bombers in daylight were vulnerable to resolute fighter attack. It applied even to Flying Fortresses—so called because of their massive defensive armament. After this reverse they failed to appear again over the Reich for over five weeks. They avenged themselves by attacking Luftwaffe airfields in the western occupied countries under strong fighter escort.

Thus it was not until October that the U.S. 8th Air Force risked further ventures beyond the range of their own fighters, and then the lesson was rammed home even more firmly than it was in August. During one week, “from October 8th to 14th in which Bremen, Marienburg, Danzig, Münster, and once again Schweinfurt, were attacked, the Americans lost 148 machines. It meant the loss, within only a few days, of nearly 1,500 airmen. Even the Americans could not replace so many. About the second Schweinfurt raid the official American historian records that the German reaction was “unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed.”

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post – I really enjoyed reading and good picture of the aircraft.
    Thank you!

  2. Thanks. There is an undeniable, terrible majesty to air battle. But I believe you will agree that we must never forget the horror being visited on the hapless victims below.

  3. That is true! But please post more about these air battles, the pilots, etc. – I can sit and read for hours!

  4. Stay tuned. I plan to do Donald Miller’s excellent Masters Of The Air soon. Like you, I’m very interested in military history.


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