From A Mighty Fortress

Excerpts from A Mighty Fortress: Lead Bomber Over Europe by Charles Alling.

The B-17 handled well, but flying in tight formation was exhausting, especially in heavy flak. We were flying wingtip to wingtip with our wing tucked inside the one in front of us. The strategy was to hug the plane whose wing you were flying off. That would discourage enemy planes from diving through the formation.

On one occasion, an anti-aircraft shell went clean through the starboard wing and made a large hole. The anti-aircraft shell had traveled five miles straight up and through the wing of our plane. The shell had not been fused to go off on impact, but timed to explode at an altitude above us.

During one takeoff in heavy fog, Alling cleared the runway but then had to climb through dense fog before attaining his specified altitude of 2,000 feet. Before he got that high, another B-17 came out of the fog headed directly at him. With just seconds to spare, he threw his plane into a steep dive and escaped a mid-air collision. Only now he had to pull out and not plow into the ground – which he could not see because of the fog. And the plane was going straight down. He and his co-pilot managed to pull out with nothing to spare.

…she shuddered and shook with a thunderous noise as gravity finally released its terrifying grip. Using every ounce of strength and power, she leveled off and gradually climbed back into the clouds.

The right wing of the aircraft had been damaged somehow so Alling brought the B-17 back to base. After he landed he inspected the plane with the ground crew.

It was time to assess the damage, the extent of which I hadn’t imagined. A foot of our wing had been sheared off – most likely by the branch of a tree. Green, raw wood was jammed into the wing, and fence wire was snagged in the belly of the plane. Clearly we had come several feet from hitting the ground.

I can hardly imagine the terror. Fortunately for the men it all happened in a flash. But the effects lingered. Writes the author fifty years later, “the near miss can still make me break out in a chilly sweat.”

To warn the pilot about German fighters, American bomber crews used the face of a standard twelve hour clock to indicate the direction the German fighters were coming from – with the bomber in the middle of the clock with the nose pointing to 12.

In Twelve O’clock High the famous war movie about US bombers in England starring Gregory Peck (4 stars), the title of the movie means the German fighters are coming in at the nose of the plane – “twelve o’clock” – but from a higher altitude – “high” – and are diving down from above to fire at the bomber. The movie was made in 1949 and movie audiences of the time would have understood what the title was referencing. Coming at a bomber this way was a standard German fighter tactic.

Being attacked by German fighters would be enough to give anyone nightmares. This is a sequence of reports Alling recounts in his book when they found themselves in the midst of a swarm of German fighters.

Bandits at twelve o’clock high.

Bandits at six o’clock.

Fighters at three o’clock.

Bandits at nine o’clock.

Bandits low and climbing fast.

Imagine being in the cockpit and hearing this in your earphones. I think I would have jumped out.

Here are some videos Tad found from WWII showing B-17’s being attacked by German fighters. The first shows the German fighter making a “twelve o’clock high” attack on a flight of B-17s. The second appears to be from Combat America, a documentary done in 1943 with Clark Gable where they accompany the 351st Bombardment Group of the US Army Air Force, stationed in the UK, on some bombing missions against Germany.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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