B-26 Marauder 320th Bomb Group

 

Remembrances of the B-Dash-Crash & My Experiences with the 320th
by John (Jack) S. Harpster, 442nd Bomb Squadron

 

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Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

 

  Flak

 

 
 

German 88 mm Anti Aircraft Gun

Meanwhile “Back at the Ranch” things were picking up in the weather department and unfortunately we also were suffering increasing losses to anti-aircraft guns called Flak Guns. I guess the name Flak might have come from the noise it makes as it penetrates and goes through the aircraft structure. Don’t know that for sure, but I do know from personal experience that when you can hear the shell explode and can smell the cordite, you just had a real close call! Our missions were too high for the small arms fire and even the quad 40-mm guns. Our nemesis, however, was the famous 88-mm gun as shown here and at which the Germans were so very adept in using. The 88-mm was a fine weapon well suited for our altitude of operation and they had some very proficient gunnery crews.  In addition to the 88mm, there also was an occasional unhappy rendezvous with the heavier German 105-mm Flak Gun.

There were several methods used in trying to ruin our day. One of these was called predicted or tracking flak. They would use a computer type predictor with the inputs of altitude, windage, and true air speed that would rather accurately give the proper fuse setting for shell detonation. A German fighter flying just off to the side and calling in corrections sometimes updated these variants. The Flak would continuously follow us as we crossed over their area. Another method was for them to estimate where we would be at a certain time of flight and fire more or less a volley of shots. Another method, not quite as effective, was to set up a barrage, curtain, or wall of flak through which we had to fly in order to get to the target. This method was very hard on the nerves as you could see it ahead and tell the crew it’s time to circle the wagons and get out their beads.

On the following page are several pictures of B-26’s that did not make it through the mission. The first one was during a flight of which we were a part. The unfortunate crew suffered a direct hit just outside of the engine which tore off the better part of his left wing.  You can see the full aileron deflection in the right wing as the pilot was desperately trying to hold up the wingless side of the aircraft. It was to no avail, however, as in seconds, the B-26 spun out and went down. There were no chutes.

 
 

One of the better known WW II photos shows B-26 Zero Six of the 441st squadron flown by pilots Wigington & Wiggington just before it goes out of control after suffering a direct hit during the 10 July 1944 mission to Marzabotta, Italy. There were no survivors. The credit for this unusual photo is lost to history.

The next picture is self explanatory in that a direct hit was made just aft of the right engine and the Pratt and Whitney R-2800 has departed on a flight path of its very own. Sorry to say I don’t know of that crew’s survival, but suspect what with all the drag of the flat plate area, they must have had to bail out. Flight of a B-26 in that configuration would have required some sort of impossible miracle.

 
  An 88mm shell exploded between the right engine and the fuselage of "Flossie's Fury" on August 20, 1944, over Toulon, France. Of the eight crewmen aboard the B-26 Martin Marauder, miraculously, two survived (photo by S/Sgt. Peter Holmes)

This picture was taken in a raid on Toulon on the southern coast of France. Fortunately, I was not a part of this one which was an extremely rough mission. This picture very well demonstrates flak potential. The target that day was an attack on heavy gun positions in the coastal area, guns that were a real threat to a possible and probable allied invasion. Our B-26 Group sent two sorties against these guns and managed to knock out all but one of them. However, the very intense super accurate flak encountered damaged almost one third of the attacking B-26 force.


  Briefing a Mission

 

Group Intelligence would always have some data for the briefing information. From experience gained and other intelligence sources they would keep a plot on enemy gun positions. Mission planning would then consider these locations in setting up the route, the bombing axis of attack, and withdrawal. Also they would brief, based on their best known data, the projected flak hazards and possible enemy fighter intercepts.

During combat days I also kept a small personal in-flight notebook with pre take off data and all of the required in-flight information. Then after landing I would record my thoughts separately on the mission success or lack there of. Some of what I’m talking about is shown below and is in the format of a copy of my briefing data notes and then a follow up summary of what actually happened. These airborne notes would be the ‘need to know’ items such as start engine and take off times, position in the formation, radio call signs, and emergency data such as it was. Then the after-mission reconstruction would be made once I was back home in the hut.  To make reading easier I have reproduced and translated the handwritten Diary notes in typed form.

(Aircraft tail #) 47
(Flying on left wing)
(Last flight of four)

12-25-43

Start Eng time 10:40
Take off time  10:50

Target-Pisa M/Y    Alternate Viareggio M/Y
(M/Y means Marshaling Yard)

A coordinated raid with the 319th Gp
Best guess - 52 fighters in the area
Heavy flak at these towns and enroute
Possible 12 or so effective flak guns
Homing - (a radio station that could give us an assist with steering directions)
320th   : Mixtub (Our group’s call sign)
319th   : Crawford (The other guys handle)
17th    : Butler (Who also were in the air just in case we needed to talk)

For this particular mission shown above I have translated what the briefing notes meant. In the case of some following missions, however, I spare you the translation of briefing data as it is pretty self-explanatory. Also, I have transcribed the after action results from said in-flight book and show them in computer print out script for ease of reading…


More Missions

 

  Christmas Day - The Marshaling Yards at Pisa

 

This Christmas Day was spent in a very unusual manner, as 22 B-26s were launched to bomb the marshaling yards in Pisa. Our Christmas present today was receipt of a real easy milk run although we were briefed on the possibility of heavy flak at landfall. Also briefed was the potential of 52 enemy fighters none of which materialized. The worst part of the raid was that of fighting prop wash from the planes ahead.  Our Group leader did not do a sterling job in that he had us many times flying too close and directly behind the 319th Bomb Group. Consequently, we were eating prop wash a great deal of the time. The target was plastered with excellent bombing and no damage done to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Later, while coasting out of Italy, we had some rather close calls in formation due to clouds and less than brilliant leadership. Upon successful return to base we all were greeted with a wonderful Christmas dinner and miscellaneous good news that this mission qualified me for the Air Medal. Not the approved way to spend Christ’s birthday, but war is war.


  Marshaling Yards on the Eastern Edge of Rome

 

 
   

Today’s target was again railroad marshaling yards, this time on the eastern edge of Rome. We had a large formation of 36 B-26s and were briefed for no flak until after the break away. The mission went rather well and I was scheduled to fill in as a spare. That meant if no one dropped out, then I was to fly as “Tail End Charlie” which is just what happened. We picked up our Spitfire escort and then headed for Rome. Turning inland and on the bomb run the flak really started. At "Bombs Away” the flak got even heavier. Fortunately, it was not very accurate. Most of our 500 # demolition bombs were right on the target area which was briefed to contain over 300 units of railroad stock.  Coming back home, due to weather, we had to fly quite high and thus burned a lot of gas. I landed very low on fuel and was glad to even make the base. Am quite tired and see that I am scheduled for another mission tomorrow. Hope to get a day of rest soon as I note that out of all the missions and briefings in the last 28 days I have missed only one.


Gun Positions along the Aquina Area

 

 
   

Flew wing again today and by now I feel that the wing position in formation is a piece of cake. Today’s target was to be gun positions along the Aquina area on the hill just above the Cassino line Objective- an assist to our Allied troops advancing northward. This, my 20th mission, was very interesting except for the loss of a ship just in front of me. The target was nearly covered with clouds, but we were able to get our bombs away and really plastered the assigned area of gun locations. Then the flak started and as expected it was really heavy, probably 105 mm as well as the usual 88 mm stuff. One ship took a lot of direct hits and his wing caught fire and the B-26 crashed shortly thereafter. However, chutes were spotted and it seemed that most of the crew got out, but of course over enemy lines. One of the probable survivors was a VIP from Group Headquarters. Two other ships were smoking from flak damage although we were lucky and did not get hit at all. We came home sweating fuel.


Reflections as a Bomber Pilot While Flying Fighters

 

I used to think that it would be so wonderful to be able to dodge, twist, and run from the Flak as in a fighter airplane. Later on, however, when I did fly fighters in combat and was able to do all the jinking, diving, and climbing that I wanted to do, the durn flak seemed just as close, smelled just as bad, and was just as scary. In fact, during later escort duty of a bomber formation like the B-24s or B-26s, it would often seem to me that one of the fighter aircraft’s duties was to draw flak to the fighter and away from the bomber formation. It seemed that Jerry was shooting at me and forgetting the heavies. Not true of course, but as you twist and turn with full power on the R-2800 engine, a question often arising was:

“Why me?”

Also later on while flying a fighter in ground strafing attacks we ran into a new breed of trouble. We would sometimes dive down to shoot up a train and boxcars and all of a sudden  - “Hello” - the sides of the boxcar would rapidly fold and we would be looking down the barrels of as many as 8 - 20 mm anti aircraft guns. They were called flak trains and could be very detrimental to future retirement plans. Rail transportation was one of our primary targets in my later on days of flying fighters and you never knew when one of the lines of box cars would suddenly turn out to be very “Unfriendly”.

In the case of the high altitude bombing, fixing our correct altitude was one of the critical variables to the German Flak crews. Our Bomb Group started experimenting with what was called glide bombing. This was a procedure in which we would approach the target area well above the briefed bombing altitude and start a 1000 foot per minute gliding descent down to the correct bombing altitude arriving there just as close to release point as possible and then drop the bombs. It was a delicate and difficult maneuver designed to throw off the Germans being able to pin point our altitude. Due to the timing difficulties involved in this maneuver in arriving at the correct bomb release altitude just prior bombs away, however, it was later discontinued. We reverted to the nerve testing routine of a little evasive action inbound and then presenting our best profile to the flak guns while holding steady, straight and level on the bomb run. (Continued)


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