FIRST SUCCESSFUL DAYLIGHT BOMBING
OF BERLIN, GERMANY
MARCH 6, 1944
On March 6, 1944, a field order was received directing the 357th Fighter Group to stand target area support for the Eighth Bomber Command during the bombing of Berlin, Germany. Forty-eight P-51B’s were manned and took off in compliance with the order. These planes were the full combat strength of the Group. The Group was composed of three fighter Squadrons. Although we were the first Mustang equipped fighter group assigned to the Eighth Air Force, our experience was meager. Our group had only been on combat operations for about three weeks.
While the group had performed well during the "Big Week" (February 20 to 26), it had not had a "Big Day." A "Big Day" was when a group tallied twenty or more victories. In truth our losses had been severe, involving the loss of Group, Squadron and Flight leaders. All things considered, we were not yet setting the world on fire. In fact the previous day, we lost our Group Commander, Col. Russ Spicer.
On March 6, 1944, things started off with a bang. The new Group Commander had to abort the Berlin mission shortly after take-off. He was leading with my squadron, the 363rd. Old "lucky Pierre", OBee O’Brien, was now the Squadron Leader. On top of that I was leading it with Capt. C. E. "Bud" Anderson’s flight and not my regular flight. It could and probably would have been worse for me if Major Tommy Hayes, Commandiing Officer of the 364rd Squadron, had not been present. He assumed command and led the Group. I thank God every day for Tom Hayes.
Weather at take off was good, which was unique for England. The penetration was flown over low scattered clouds which prevented me and other leaders from being able to navigate with precision. In fact, I hadn’t seen a recognizable landmark since the Zuyder Zee, in Holland. By now the under-cast had increased in cloud density to about eight-tenth solid.
It was time for the rendezvous with the bombers when Tommy Hayes broke radio silence to ask me, "Where is Berlin, OBee?" This was the first, and only time, during an operation that I was ever consulted during an on-going mission. I told Tommy, "I think Berlin is behind us." Tommy said we would hold course for two more minutes. We did just that, then we made the well known 180 degree turn which had us flying into the Berlin target area from the East. And guess what? There twenty to thirty miles away was a wonderful sight, the Eighth Bomber stream. About this same time, we had more company, in the form of forty plus enemy aircraft on a convergent course with the bombers and us.
At this point, on the ruler of war scale, leadership had done its job. The enemy was in our vicinity and we immediately attack. Fortunately for us, the Germans had committed their twin engine night fighters, the Me.110, to defend Berlin.
We headed for a group of enemy aircraft attacking the bombers. The Me.110 that I latched on to was easy pickings, which was O.K. with me. I got him burning in his left engine area and we were in a very steep diving right turn, when my machine guns started jamming. I had four functioning 0.50 cal. machine guns when the air fight started, but now I don’t know how many are working.
I found myself going too fast and pulling quite a bit of "G". The Me.110 is heading vertically into the deck. I pulled up rolled a bit and watched the enemy crash into a large structure resembling a factory. You never saw such a fine explosion! It was plainly visible above 20,000 ft.
I tested my guns, with negative results. None were working. Having no wingman, I headed for England, knowing its not smart poker to hang out by one’s self in the area of a firefight.
When I had climbed to about twenty thousand ft., I saw a P-51 approaching me from about a 4 o’clock position. I observed the plane to be a "Yoxford" Mustang from the 357th group. It took a position on my wing and radioed, "Who are you?" The pilot was from a sister squadron and identified himself as Leroy Ruder. I told Leroy to hang on and I’d get us back to England.
A few minutes later Leroy called "Bogey at 2 o’clock". Sure enough it was a Me.110, so I told Leroy to take the enemy aircraft. He did and I had a first class seat to watch Leroy destroy the Me.110. We made it back to base in Leiston, England, in good shape. I never did tell Leroy that my guns were not working. I guess he just went on thinking that old OBee was a real nice guy.
The crowning glory came in Leiston, when we recognized that thirty-three planes made it to Berlin. "Teething" problems with new aircraft caused the high abortion rate (15 aircraft). We had shot down over twenty German aircraft, without loss of a single plane in the fight. This was the group’s first "Big Day."
It could not have come at a better time. The next day General Woodbury, Commanding General of the 66 Fighter Wing flew into Leiston. He said he came to congratulate us for our work at Berlin, but I always thought he came down to find out what happened to his friend and former chief of staff, Col. Russ Spicer (whom we had lost on the previous day’s mission).
Why were we so fortunate? I think there were a number of factors. First, was that we trained together for over two years as a unit. Next getting a new long range fighter, the Mustang, and finally Major Tommy Hayes leading us into battle from the East of Berlin, all combined to make the Berlin mission a great success. To my knowledge the Germans never again employed their Me.110’s in daylight against Eighth’s Bomber Command.
Interview with General Tommy Hayes
By Scott Richardson for his Graudate Thesis
Major Thomas L. Hayes adjusted his oxygen mask and anxiously searched the cloudy sky. Two hours and twelve minutes of flying in a haze, between tow layers of clouds, had forced him to lead the 357th Fighter Group without visual navigation. He was unable to see the ground and nervously wondered if the group was on course to rendezvous with the B-24 Liberators of the Eighth Air Force's Second Bomb Division.
"Where the hell are we?" a fellow pilot radioed. "I bet we overshot the target," another replied. "Gees, we must be over Russia!" lamented a third. Major Hayes quickly silenced this chatter by tersely ordering, "Gowdy Red here. Radio Silence! Got it?'
As the group flew eastward, a break in the under cast revealed red tile roofs of an urban area. Major Hayes was confirming the 357th Fighter Group's position over Berlin when events rapidly began to happen. B-17 Flying Fortresses, of the Eighth Air Force's First Bomb Division, suddenly emerged from a cloud bank to the left and seven miles in front of Hayes's fighter group. At the same time, someone radioed" Bogeys at 2:00 and 3:00 level." This brought Major Hayes's attention toward tow formations of German fighters on his right. Luftwaffe Major Hans Kogler's seven twin engine Messerschmitt 110 fighters, followed by a larger formation of forty-one twin engine Messerschmitt 410 and seventy-two single engine Messerschmitt 109 fighters, were on a collision course for the American bombers. Sheer luck had placed Major Hayes's fighters in a three way rendezvous, allowing the 357th to spring a trap.
Thirty-three P-51 Mustangs exploded from the haze and scattered German fighters all over the sky. "I'm taking the top guy!" shouted Hayes as he turned into four Me 109s trying to attack him. The top German fighter broke left with Hayes in pursuit. Both continued the tight left hand turn, circling, climbing and descending all the while. Suddenly, the German pilot had enough and went into a steep dive. Major Hayes followed his adversary, but lost the Me 109 in a smoke cloud at 15,000 feet.
The Oregon native leveled out just above the smoke only to be distracted by a column of bombs dropping past his right wing. He looked up and was shocked to see B-17s with open bomb bays above him. Horrified at the idea of being hit by armed five hundred pound bombs, Major Hayes flipped his Mustang over and dove parallel them. He pulled out at five hundred feet and flew away from Berlin, viewing explosions in his rear view mirror. Flying west and climbing rapidly, Major Hayes stumbled into his original flight at 15,000 feet. The four Mustangs continued to climb and turned eastward to escort B-24s toward the German capital. They remained with the Liberators until relieved by newly arrived escorts., Once relieved, Major Hayes and his charges dove for the ground to attack targets of opportunity in route to the North Sea.
An hour later, Major Hayes spotted a Me 109 flying the opposite direction and a few miles to his right while over Uelzen, Germany. He turned right and closed rapidly to two hundred yards before opening fire on the German fighter. Armor piercing incendiary rounds flashed all over the cockpit area of the Me 109, causing it to dive straight into the ground and explode into a ball of fire. Major Hayes had just scored the third of eight and a half victories he would achieve against the Luftwaffe. It was also one of twenty German aircraft claimed by the Leiston, England, based group on 6 March 1944.
The 6 March 1944 mission to Berlin marked the turning point of Eighth Air Force's operations against the Luftwaffe. Prior to this mission, control of European skies belonged to the Luftwaffe day fighter force based in France, Belgium and Germany. The Eighth Air Force penetrated this air space with the idea that heavily armed B-17s and B-24s could ward off attacks without the aid of escort fighters. This theory, practiced through out 1942, came to crisis in October 1943. Luftwaffe day fighters hammered home the superiority of the fighter over bomber n 14 October 1943, when sixty B-17s and B-24s never returned from attacking the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. The fact that most of these aircraft were shot down beyond the range of American escort fighters forced the Eighth Air Force commanders to admit the need for a long range escort fighter. Without such a fighter, the Luftwaffe's day fighter force could not be neutralized. Failure to neutralize the Luftwaffe would place the upcoming invasion of the European continent and the daylight bombing campaign in jeopardy. As a result, both campaigns would hinge on the ability of Eighth fighter pilots and their aircraft to defeat the Luftwaffe.
The Eighth Air Force lost nine more heavy bombers on 6 March 1944 than they did on the terrible mission to Schweinfurt. However, the aerial situation was very different. Eighth fighter pilots accounted for thirty-five German fighters beyond the range of previous Allied fighter aircraft. They were now able to take the battle to the Luftwaffe anywhere in Europe. German fighter groups, responding to deep penetration raids by escorted heavy bombers, were forced to fall back to airfields in Germany. This allowed Allied fighters to dominate the skies over Germany and , more importantly, western Europe. As a result, the Luftwaffe would not appear over Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944, nor would they be able to counter Eighth Air Force missions to German oil facilities after the invasion. this is the critical role Eighth fighter pilots played in achieving the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.