BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 2009 by Eric Hammel
The 15th Light Bombardment Squadron was turned out of its night-fighter school when the RAF precipitously shut down the course on June 29, 1942. As a quick fix, the American A-20 crews were assigned to the RAF’s 226 Squadron and ordered to undergo daylight bombardment familiarization training. That very day, June 29, the squadron commander, Captain Charles Kegelman, flew with 226 Squadron on a mission against Hazebrouk, a manufacturing center in northern France.
Eaker and his staff were itching to make their presence in England felt, and Captain Kegelman’s combat flight showed them the way. There were enough well-trained 15th Light Bombardment Squadron airmen on hand to take part in a mission. It was decided that six three-man crews—pilot, bombardier, and radioman/gunner per airplane—should accompany 226 Squadron on a series of raids assigned for July 4. The participation of the Americans was considered deeply symbolic.
There were no USAAF A-20s in England; the 15th Light Bombardment Squadron had been training in the export variant the British had dubbed Boston. In fact, these were airplanes originally purchased by the French; they ended up in British hands after the fall of France. As such, they lacked many modern conveniences built into American A-20s—superchargers for example—because Hap Arnold had won his argument in 1940 to hold back such goodies.
Eaker and Ike trekked to 226 Squadron’s base on July 2 to speak with the six American pilots who had volunteered for the July 4 mission. The youngsters were enthusiastic and confident, so the generals gave their blessing.
The mission plan called for fighter-escorted flights of three Bostons each—twelve light bombers in all—to attack four Luftwaffe airdromes in the Netherlands and Norway at very low level. The fighter escort appears to have accomplished nothing at all. The various flights crossed the North Sea at low level to avoid German radar.
At De Kooy Airdrome, in the northern Netherlands, one American-manned Boston was shot down by extremely and unexpectedly heavy flak (antiaircraft fire). Captain Kegelman’s Boston, also over De Kooy, had its starboard propeller shot away, and the damaged starboard engine needed to be shut down. The Boston was so low when it lurched from the flak hits that its starboard wingtip and rear fuselage scraped the ground, but the airplane remained in the air. Kegelman passed his target while getting his airplane back into trim, and he jettisoned his bombs. When he spotted a flak tower whose gunners were tracking him, he veered off course and doused the German position with four fixed .303-caliber machine guns deployed in two two-gun blisters, one on either side of the airplane’s nose. This survivor flew all the way home at low level on its one good engine.
Another American-manned Boston was shot down by flak over Bergen/Alkamaar Airdrome in Norway, and an RAF Boston was shot down by a German fighter after it was hit by flak. In all, only two American-manned Bostons even released their bombs.
The Americans had unknowingly been treated to unprecedented flak concentrations, so losses and mishaps were not charged to their inexperience in war. The RAF chalked the heavy opposition up to a possible advance sighting by a German ship in the North Sea. These Americans were in fact treated to a first-hand experience in the most difficult and dangerous use of offensive aircraft to come out of World War II. Airfields are always huge, flat open spaces defended by numerous antiaircraft weapons with broad fields of fire designed to hit low-flying aircraft from numerous angles at once.
Captain Kegelman was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the army’s second highest valor medal, and promoted to major. All six American crewmen downed on July 4 were taken prisoner.
The Fourth of July mission was laced with irony. At that point, America’s only strategic air force was led by fighter pilots. Its only means of delivery was the long-neglected attack arm. Airplanes used on the mission were borrowed from the RAF. The Bostons were second-rate A-20s built for the dead French air force. It was flown in broad daylight by crews trained to undertake night missions. It ran into the heaviest flak concentrations 226 Squadron had faced in months of similar missions. It was supposed to herald America’s entry into the air war over Europe, but only RAF markings showed on each airplane; the Germans had no idea they had been attacked by Americans until they had six live American airmen in their hands. And the mission itself was an utter dud that caused little if any damage to the four airdromes.
The 15th Squadron got a chance to even the score on July 12. Once again in borrowed Bostons, six volunteer crews took part in 226 Squadron’s attack on Abbeville/Drucat Airdrome. The mission was flown at a respectful 8,500 feet. Two American-manned Bostons were lightly damaged by flak, but there were no casualties, and all bombs were dropped without mishap. After the mission, which turned out to be a graduation exercise, the 15th Squadron was separated from 226 Squadron and, in due course, equipped with its own airplanes, which initially were more re-borrowed Bostons.
Help was on the way. On June 23, fifteen B-17s assigned to the 97th Heavy Bombardment Group left Presque Isle, Maine, on the first leg of the USAAF’s new northern ferry route to the British Isles. All fifteen had reached Goose Bay, Labrador, without incident. A flight of P-38s also completed this leg of the type’s first flight outside the United States. The B-17s were held over at Goose Bay until June 26, when they took off for the two airfields in Greenland—Bluie West 1 at Narsarssuak on the southern tip and Blue West 8 at Sondre Stromfjord on the west coast. The flight was something of a shambles; six B-17s returned to Goose Bay and three others crash-landed on the Greenland ice cap, albeit without casualties. As weather permitted, the B-17s next flew on to Reykjavik, then Scotland, and down into southern England. The first American-manned B-17 to reach the BOLERO terminus, Prestwick Airdrome in Scotland, was a 97th Bomb Group airplane that arrived safely on July 1. Behind it, in the near term, were more than forty other B-17s, eighty P-38s, and fifty-two C-47 transports. And behind them were the tens of thousands of bombers, fighters, and transports that would be assigned over three years to the American air forces in northwestern Europe.
For all that July 1 was a red-letter day at the far end of the northern ferry route, USAAF headquarters in Washington refined downward its estimate of sixty-six operational groups in England by March 1943. The estimate foresaw only fifty-four groups in place by the target date, because the needs of other theaters had to be met, at least in part, out of Eighth Air Force’s future allotments. By July 10, however, the estimate for air groups based in England by the end of 1943 was set at a rather stunning 137.
Seven 1st Fighter Group P-38s reached Prestwick on July 9, and other aircraft emerged from the ferrying pipeline over the next few days. But on July 15, owing to severe weather, six P-38s and two B-17s acting as navigation guides for the fighters were forced down on the Greenland ice cap. Thanks to bad weather and heightened caution, it took until July 25 for the last airplanes of the first allotment of Eighth Air Force fighters, bombers, and transports to actually reach Prestwick. The last flight of the allotment was composed of 60th Troop Carrier Group C-47s. On their way by sea were the ground echelons of the 14th Fighter Group, a P-38 unit; the 92d and 301st Heavy Bomb groups, both B-17 units; and the 64th Troop Carrier Group, a C-47 unit. The airplanes from these units were being concentrated at the same time at Presque Isle, then sent off in batches as weather permitted. Between August 15 and August 27, the 92d Heavy Bomb Group flew in batches direct, without stops, from Gander, Newfoundland, to Prestwick. Thus, by the end of August, the early stages of Operation BOLERO saw the build-up in England of a force of 119 B-17s, 164 P-38s, and 103 C-47s via the northern ferry route. Thirty-eight airplanes went down along the way, an unsustainable 10-percent loss ratio, but in due course the loss rate fell to a fairly constant 5.2 percent. Looking ahead, all northern ferry operations would have to be suspended with the onset of winter weather.
The new southern ferry route was operationally tested beginning on July 14, when B-25 medium bombers bound for Egypt departed Florida for a journey that would be made in stages via South America, west Africa, and central Africa. In due course, year-round ferry routes would be open between west Africa and Britain.
The arrival of combat aircraft in England triggered the establishment of a huge growth in headquarters in Britain. Advance headquarters echelons of the 1st and 2d Heavy Bombardment wings were established in mid-August, each to oversee three heavy bomb groups. VIII Ground Air Support Command was set up in July even though there would be no ground-support aircraft sent to the British Isles for nearly a year; for the time being, this headquarters, which was redesignated VIII Air Support Command in September, oversaw some training and acted administratively in behalf of a collection of reconnaissance and troop carrier units.
Operational unit training was to have been placed under VIII Air Force Composite Command, which was set up in September, but early-arriving combat units trained themselves at their own bases, so the composite command was left merely to plan for the future. Key to operations by the burgeoning Eighth Air Force was VIII Air Force Service Command, which oversaw supply and maintenance all across the British Isles and eventually took charge of all unassigned troops—replacement crewmen, for example.
Eighth Air Force itself was directly subordinate to ETOUSA and Tooey Spaatz reported directly to Ike, whom he also served as theater air officer. The only point of overlap, and therefore contention, between Eighth Air Force and ETOUSA was where duties of VIII Air Force Service Command coincided with those of ETOUSA’s Service of Supply (SOS). The senior echelon was in charge of all construction for American units in the British Isles—ground and air—as well as the supply of items used by both ground and air organizations. SOS also set priorities for goods shipped from the United States. Ike and Spaatz were themselves disinclined to squabble over pieces of the supply puzzle, and the SOS and service command chiefs settled differences in their viewpoints early and amicably, though there were occasional flareups. The service command manned the main air depot at Burtonwood, established several smaller regional depots, and activated several mobile depots.
To help get the Americans as close to Germany as possible, the British initially assigned Eighth Air Force forty-five base sites in five clusters in southern England, west to east from Huntingdonshire to East Anglia. The Americans decided which combat group went to which base. As combat units arrived, the British assigned antiaircraft units and communications teams plus such other services that units far from their homeland needed, either on a temporary basis, as logistics and headquarters elements caught up, or on a permanent basis. Some British paraphernalia—rubber life rafts, for example—were better than similar American items, so the British provided these goods in whatever quantities the Yanks required. They also provided and initially installed VHF radios for use by ground controllers in all of the American-built airplanes that arrived in the British Isles in 1942, which insured a uniform system for both air forces. The level of cooperation was stunning. The British people treated the Yanks as literal saviors and opened their homes and their hearts, as well as their warehouses, to their Anglophone cousins from across the sea. Fully aware of the burdens they placed on the British supply and personnel systems, the Yanks did what they could to reciprocate. For example, the USAAF volunteered to provide all the troop combat airlift both armies would need for training and the eventual invasion of France.
There was an implicit political commitment the United States had to make to so completely earn the cooperation of the hard-pressed British, and that was the assurance that all the brutal effort was in service of a proposed spring 1943 invasion of France. The Americans were expected to have shipped to England by then a million-man ground force and an air force operating nearly three thousand combat aircraft. There was a second plan in play too, Operation SLEDGEHAMMER, which contemplated an early, partial, and shallow penetration into France in the event the Soviet Union appeared on the brink of collapse. SLEDGEHAMMER was designed to draw off German ground and air forces to help the Soviets recover. But the 1942 and 1943 invasion plans, and the commitments behind them, were literally shot down when Prime Minister Churchill inveighed President Roosevelt in July meetings to take part in an invasion of French Northwest Africa. It was Churchill’s hope in the nearer term to relieve Axis pressure against the Suez Canal by drawing Axis forces from Egypt and Libya to Algeria and Tunisia. But the Prime Minister had been, as early as World War I, fixated on striking Germany via what he called Europe’s “soft underbelly.” To reach that belly, the Allies would have to kick Axis forces out of the entirety of Africa. Roosevelt supported Churchill’s plan because domestic pressure, especially upcoming congressional elections, required that he get American ground forces into battle against the Germans. Northwest Africa seemed like a place in which the untested American air and ground forces could prevail.
An invasion of French Northwest Africa in late 1942 guaranteed that any invasion of France would be delayed until the spring of 1944 and that Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing offensive over Germany would be hollowed out before it even began. Churchill assured Roosevelt that he was willing to make the inevitable sacrifices, and the deal was set.
The first planning conference for the Northwest Africa invasion took place in England on July 18, 1942. Heading the planning session was Ike, who had been named to head the invasion force while retaining his command of ETOUSA. In very short order, Ike tapped Spaatz to be his air chief in Northwest Africa. The two had developed a deep and trusting relationship after only a few weeks working together, and both were loath to split up so soon. Eaker was put on notice that Eighth Air Force would become his when the time came for Spaatz to devote his full energies and attention to what became Operation TORCH. Any headiness that Eaker achieved by his prospective elevation was tempered with the certainty that his air force was going to lose the bulk of its strength—some temporarily but a lot permanently—to the new Twelfth Air Force (which would be activated in August). In a way, the Eighth had been relegated to the status of training command for the Twelfth at the precise moment it was struggling to get into the fight. On top of that, the nascent air force in Egypt—eventually to become the Ninth—was being strengthened with combat units from the States that might otherwise have been shipped to England for service with the Eighth.
If there was any doubt that Churchill would temper his plan, the Prime Minister dashed it on July 23. A massive German breakthrough between the Don and Volga rivers in the Soviet Union brought a plea from Premier Stalin that the western Allies open a second front posthaste. Operation SLEDGEHAMMER was impossible on its face at this juncture—there were no troops—and Churchill’s attention was riveted on North Africa. He snuffed any remaining notion Stalin clung to that the cross-Channel invasion would take place in 1942, and he more or less privately thought an invasion of France in 1943 had become fanciful. The only concession the British and Americans were able to make to Soviet woes was scheduling TORCH for earlier than December 1, 1942.
Eaker and to a lesser degree Spaatz faced an immense dilemma as planning for Operation TORCH got underway. There were too few combat units in England at that moment to open a strategic bombing offensive against Germany, and the B-17 groups that had arrived were not completely trained. Their presence in England was just that, a presence—a show of future intent. But Spaatz and Eaker—both of them career-long fighter pilots with no personal or even professional stake in the concept of strategic bombing—felt they owed it to their service to at least mount newsworthy demonstration missions against targets near at hand while they still had a force in hand.
The Army Air Forces bomber doctrine did allow as air superiority was a precondition for a successful bombing campaign. There were German-manned airfields in France that could do with a little clearing. Moreover, the airmen were raring to get started on the work of war. A few bombing missions against targets near at hand would certainly serve as graduation exercises for hard-training groups in England. And bombing missions against nearby targets would certainly be a means to put two decades of strategic thought and preparation to the test as well as study tactical flourishes and provide the first entries in the lessons-learned book.
The first mission involving aircraft with USAAF markings took place on July 26, 1942. Six 31st Fighter Group Spitfires joined a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Spitfire squadron on a routine cross-Channel sweep in the vicinity of Gravelines, St. Omer, and Abbeville. The six American pilots were senior officers on their first familiarization hop over enemy territory.
The fighter sweep was the means by which the short-legged British-built fighters kept their fingers on the pulse of German air operations in the region on and backing the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts facing the English Channel and North Sea. The Germans rarely responded; they were too war savvy to risk damage to their airplanes—much less their lives—in combat in service of nothing. Spitfires could do little damage to the German war effort, so why bother with challenging them?
On July 26, German fighters did rise to the challenge. In a duel that ended in seconds, one of the German pilots shot down one of the white-starred Spitfires. The pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Albert Clark, was the 31st Fighter Group’s air executive officer. He lived through the ordeal and was taken prisoner. (Far from being cheated of an opportunity to make war against the Germans, Clark became an important operator in the March 1944 prisoner-of-war venture known as the Great Escape.)
The 31st flew again on August 5 and 6. In both cases, eleven Spitfires were launched to undertake practice sweeps under a program dubbed RODEO. The 31st ran into zero opposition on both practice RODEO missions, but a few of its rank-and-file pilots learned to function smartly with their hearts in their throats. The RODEO missions were modeled precisely on British fighter sweeps, which concept VIII Fighter Command chief Monk Hunter, a World War I ace brought up in the “Dawn Patrol” era, had embraced straight out of the package. Hunter, whose headquarters was located quite close to the RAF Fighter Command headquarters and who visited with his opposite number frequently, had come to be enthralled by all things British; he never once thought outside his hosts’ box.
The first American airman flying an American fighter to put bullets into a German warplane was Major Harrison Thyng, a 31st Fighter Group squadron commander who accompanied an RAF coastal patrol near Shoreham, England, on August 9. The contact was made at about 2000 hours and resulted in Thyng’s being credited with damaging a Focke-Wulf 190 (Fw 190) fighter taking part in a sweep along the English coast. The 31st mounted RODEOs—about a dozen planes per mission—on August 11, 12, and 15, and the Germans ignored them. Two 31st Group Spitfires made a familiarization flight with a routine RAF convoy patrol over the English Channel on August 15, but nothing happened.
The first full victory credit awarded to the USAAF in the war against Germany was for an Fw 200 maritime bomber downed on August 14 over the Iceland coast by 2d Lieutenant Elza Shahan, flying a 1st Fighter Group P-38, and 2d Lieutenant Joseph Shaffer, flying a 33d Fighter Squadron P-40. (The 1st Fighter Group’s 27th Fighter Squadron had been temporarily assigned to Iceland to bolster the independent 33d Squadron, the only air-defense unit permanently assigned to the island.)
The first American heavy bomber mission over northwestern Europe took place on August 17, 1942.