B-17 crew in front of airplane
5 min read

During World War II I flew B-17 bombers out of England, performing 30 missions bombing Germany. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a very good four-engine plane and 12,000 of them were built. I was in the 547th squadron of the 384th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force under General Jimmy Doolittle. We were based 90 miles north of London at Grafton-Underwood, a former Royal Air Force Base, near Kettering in Northampton County.

On bombing missions we put up what was called a group, consisting of three six-ship squadrons and usually had 20 or 21 planes take off, providing spares in case any had to abort and come back to base.

B-17 crew in front of airplane

At 24, the author was “the old man” on board.

On the 24th of April, 1944, we flew a mission to Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Our target was a large ball bearing plant and a fighter factory both vital to the German war effort. The flight was rather uneventful until near the target. On a mission this long, our fighter escort could not go the whole way with us and just before the target we were attacked by German fighter planes (Bf-109s), a formidable machine. Mostly their attacks were head-on and their guns going off was like photoflashes going off.

Some as they whizzed by would be shaking their fists at us. Some would roll over just before reaching us and I could see our tracer bullets bouncing off their bellies, as their underside was armor-plated. (About every tenth round from our machine guns had a smoking so-called tracer bullet so the gunner could see where they were going.)

There were scores of B-17s and due to some mix-up in turning toward the target, groups ran together resulting in several mid-air collisions. My flight engineer in the upper turret just behind the cockpit would yell push down! Next thing it might be the ball turret gunner hanging under the belly yelling pull up!

We had already had one engine disabled by fighter fire and over the target about the time we had released our bombs the number three engine was hit by flak from the ground batteries and immediately was enveloped in flames. My co-pilot, usually a cool soul from Colorado, yelled over the intercom, “Bail out, bail out, we’re on fire!” As plane commander I got on the intercom and said, “You’d better stay in this plane until the old man tells you to bail out.” (I was all of 24 years old.)

My reason for this was Broullard in a plane ahead had been hit and had headed southeast toward Switzerland and refuge. Broullard was a longtime friend, a big Cajun from Louisiana, who had been with me throughout most of our training. He had gotten no more than three miles from us when the 109s swarmed on him like martins attacking a hawk. They got him, there was a tremendous explosion, and when the smoke cleared there was nothing to see: no airplane, no parachutes, and we later learned none survived.

My navigator called and said the heading to Switzerland was 125 degrees and 65 miles, however, our real protection was to stay with the formation where the combined firepower was formidable to the German fighters. So these two factors caused my decision. After dropping our bombs and leaving the target, the group always slowed down so stragglers could keep up and we were lighter too. We had engine fire extinguishers so managed to put out the fire in engine number three.

Bombs away

Flak is not a B-17 pilot’s friend, no matter how high you’re flying.

Incidentally, we usually bombed from 20,000 feet or more. The air up there was anywhere from 30 below zero to 60 below. We managed to stay with the group until the bandits, which is what we called the German fighters, left. We had fought them off for over an hour and later received a commendation from General Doolittle.

Unable to stay with the group, we went down to treetop level going home. You did that so the German radar couldn’t pick you up and direct fighters to you. As we pulled out over the English Channel and felt relatively safe, the flight engineer (who was a former coal miner from southern Illinois) pointed upward and said, “You know, that Man up there decided we would come home today.” Wondered why he didn’t give me a little credit too.

Our aircraft had flak holes and bullet holes all over; all four engines had been hit and a gas tank. (Our tanks were self-sealing so only a big hole could possibly cause an explosion). The mission had been nine hours and fifty minutes long. It was also remarkable how much punishment the Flying Fortress could take and still come home. Our bomb group lost nine planes out of twenty we put up that day and we destroyed our target.

Our Group Commander, Col. Dale O. Smith, led us that day. He was a West Pointer, six feet seven inches tall and the finest commander I was ever under. He had guts. Some group commanders would pick the easier missions, but not him; he went with us on the rougher ones like Berlin, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, Schweinfurt, Hamburg, etc. He ended up a Major General. I still consider him a friend and we correspond.

Alfred Humbles
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18 replies
  1. mike harper
    mike harper says:

    My older brother, Roland Harper, was a aircraft mechanic in the 8th in England. He took photos of the bases he was assigned to. After Normandy, he was with a group cleaning up crashed 17’s in France, Belgium and Holland. His photos also show how tough the 17 was. He was interviewed by the Library of Congress.

    Reply
  2. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Thanks for a riveting story an thanks for being a part of the Greatest Generation!

    My late father in law was a TT gunner and FE with the 95th BG out of Horham. I wrote about his shootdown on his 2nd mission and time as a POW and then his escape. It was published here a while back. Do a search for “Winged Boot” to read it.

    Again, thanks for your story and your service!

    Reply
  3. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    I remember the times when all airline pilots were former Army and Navy pilots from the war. I flew with several of them in my early career days, and I always had great respect for them.

    Reply
  4. Stephen Shore
    Stephen Shore says:

    Great piece. My great uncle Claude Edwin Gatlin was a waist gunner on a B-17 based out of England. His crew was shot down over Oranienburg Germany on their 28th mission on March 10, 1945. They were directly over the target with bomb bays open when they took a direct hit from flak. The aircraft was blown apart in mid air.

    About 10 years ago, I was going through some letters, telegrams from the War Department, and other documents that my grandmother (Edwin’s brother) gave me before her passing. To make a long story short, from some research of Army Air Force records obtained online, I learned that the “Blythe Spirit” went down over it’s target but that there were two survivors who were subsequently captured – the co-pilot and the navigator. The remainder of the crew died.

    From the records obtained, I had the names and home towns of the two survivors. I did a quick Google search and found a possible match for the co-pilot in the San Luis Obisbo CA area. I hesitantly made a phone call and had my phone call answered by an obviously elderly male. I quickly asked him if he had been a B-17 pilot in WWII and he hesitantly answered “yes”.

    We had a long conversation and struck a chord with each other and we made the mutual decision to meet in person and record the events of the Blythe Spirit crew and what led up to their 28th and final mission.

    Robert Dwight and I became good friends and remained in contact until his death about 5 years ago. I have a video recording of his account of his time in the war and the suffering he endured for all the years afterward as he thought about what happened on that day in March of 1945 every day of his life until his passing.

    Theirs was a generation that probably really was the greatest generation of our time.

    Reply
    • EW Ristau
      EW Ristau says:

      I have a similar video of my Great Uncle, who was a B-17 pilot shot down over Germany. You should put it on YouTube for posterity and to help future generations see what these guys did for our country. Greet job making that tape!

      Reply
  5. Marc Silvers
    Marc Silvers says:

    Thanks for this personal view. And for the lives you brought back to base. An uncle was in the 8th; had lied about his age to become a waist gunner on ’17. Panicked by flak hits and fighters over Regensburg, he tried to bail out and was dragged away from the door and tied up.
    Have read endlessly on the air-war over Europe and tried to imagine elements of it when flying the 172 or thr PA 28. Not sure I could have stayed in the waist with during coordinated head-on mass attacks by 109s, either.

    MOH’s to you all.
    Marc

    Reply
  6. Dan Farmer
    Dan Farmer says:

    I was a B52 co pilot in the 8th Air Force, 644th Bomb squadron in the mid 1970s. Nothing but respect for all combat personnel of the WW II era. As good as there equipment was for that time it was dangerous compared to todays equipment. The men were much braver and tougher in my opinion. God Bless the greatest generation!

    Reply
  7. Don L Etchison
    Don L Etchison says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. It’s important for all Americans to know about, and remember, the service and sacrifices that were made by our valent soldiers in WW2. The stories of our bomber crews and fighters over Germany are all profiles in courage. On another matter, I’m working on a WW2 memorial project at our local airport in Florida that was used for bomber training. We are seeking a high resolution photo of a B-17 crew to use in the exhibit. Is there any way we could use your photo? Thanks, my email is: [email protected]

    Reply
  8. Jim Stott
    Jim Stott says:

    Though I never flew with AT Humbles – he was very senior at TWA when I was a brand new hire. However, I did work with him on several Airline Pilot Association (ALPA) projects. As I recall he had a quick sense of humor and when asked would unfold yet another story about the 8th Air Force and the missions they flew

    Reply
  9. Edward J Peckham
    Edward J Peckham says:

    My father, Edward Lawrence Peckham, was a top turret gunner on a B17. His plane was shot down on his third mission over France. He says that he does not recall pulling the rip cord on his parachute but woke up on the ground with a wound over his eye. He was with the French underground for nearly a year but was given over to the Germans by a turn-coat who had offered him and some of his crew a “tour” of Paris. That man was eventually tried and executed by the French. My father returned to France to testify. He spent nearly two years in Stalag 17 before being liberated by the advancing American troops.

    Reply
  10. Mac McLauchlan
    Mac McLauchlan says:

    Best account of B17 ops in WW2! As one born too late to serve in that war, although did so in later conflicts in Arabia, When I changed from Flight Lieutenant RAF to First Officer British European Airways in 1963 many of our elderly Viscount Captains had flown the Lancaster or Halifax in Bomber Command, Crewed with a redoubtable veteran on layover in Cologne I mentioned that it was surprising how the vast Cathedral had survived the 1000 bomber raid in 1942. His reply, succinct and free from any drama, “Yes, it was our aiming point”. Tough times and tough men.

    Reply
  11. Tom Pflug
    Tom Pflug says:

    The date, April 24, 1944, jumped out at me. My uncle, William D. Pflug, flew as a B-17 co-pilot with the 369th Squadron, 390th Bomb Group, from Framlingham, England. He was lost on April 24, 1944 on a mission near Friedrichshafen, Germany. His airplane was hit be flak, fell out of formation, and exploded. None of those on board survived. It was his tenth mission. As mentioned above, I try to imagine what it might have been like to fly those missions in those airplanes while I cruise comfortably along in a 182 or Bonanza. God bless all of those who served and continue to serve our nation. May we always honor their memories and their heroism.

    Reply
  12. Peter N Steinmetz
    Peter N Steinmetz says:

    I am a bit puzzled. The bio says the author flew west in 2001. Yet this is published in 2022. Is it from the archives?

    Reply
  13. Bruce Knight
    Bruce Knight says:

    My late father was a POW in the province of Thuringia in Germany for 4 years until liberated by Patton’s notorious leading wave. He recalls the sky turning dark in the daytime as the US USAF bombers flew overhead, blocking out the sun. He could always recall the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, he always believed that the bombers were using the POW camp as a reference point to turn to their approach to dropping their bombs. The bomb doors were open and they could look up and see the bombs.
    I am writing his memoirs, I wish I had done this 30 years ago when there were men still alive that I could talk with who may have flown over his camp. ASEL, Instrument. [email protected]

    Reply

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