A much different book and one I give four stars to is A Mighty Fortress: Lead Bomber Over Europe by Charles Alling. This is both a memoir and a meditation on war, violence, and the loss of so many friends. “How can anyone brace himself for the horrors of war? And if you think about it too much, you can hardly go on.”
Curiously, the author learned to fly in an open cockpit training plane in my very small town of Orangeburg, South Carolina which is the last thing I expected to come across reading this book. I have a vague recollection of someone once telling me that pilots were trained in Orangeburg but I don’t remember anymore than that.
Alling was a B-17 pilot and flew 27 combat missions in the last ten months of World War Two in Europe. He was one of two siblings and it is a terrible irony that he was in so much danger yet it was his beloved younger sister who died during the war. This wasn’t because of the war. She died of spinal meningitis a few weeks before Alling went overseas. He named his plane for her – Miss Prudy. (It was the pilot’s prerogative to name his plane.)
Alling saw the US 8th Air Force at its pinnacle of strength: 1600 heavy bombers and 1200 fighters and on days when most of the groups went up he relates what an awe inspiring sight it was. On 3 February 1945, the 8th Air Force (commanded by the famous Jimmy Doolittle of 30 seconds over Tokyo fame) put up 1600 four engine heavy bombers and 900 fighters for the largest bombing raid ever executed against Berlin both before and after that date. The stream of planes was so long that by the time the first bombers were over Berlin, the last bombers were just crossing the English Channel on their way to Germany.
Part of a 1,000-ship B-17 bomber stream during World War II.
A picture and description from World War II German propaganda.
The raid was targeted against the government quarter in Berlin which is the area around the Brandenburg Gate. Flak was intense. In fact, those few blocks were the most heavily defended blocks in Germany from air attack. Over 80% of the bombers sustained some damage which meant at least one or two holes from shrapnel. The aluminum skin of both the B-17 and B-24 was so thin one could punch a hole in it with a screwdriver. Nineteen bombers went down.
I am always amazed when I read any of the bomber pilot memoirs of how thin their margins of safety were and how they flew in conditions which far exceeded the design and technological limits of the aircraft. Mid-air collisions resulting in two or three bombers exploding and falling to earth were common place during take off and formation assembly.
On many occasions, fog was so thick that Alling pulled onto the runway and could not see the end. A plane took off every thirty seconds so when his turn came he could not hesitate. Since he didn’t have a lot of runway to begin with, he would rev all four engines to full throttle while practically standing on the brakes then let them off and the plane would shoot down the runway. Since he couldn’t see anything he did it all by speed. Once at his lift off speed he pulled the wheel backed and hoped he had not run out of asphalt.
After managing that, he, along with hundreds of other planes would climb through fog banks in which they couldn’t even see the nose of the plane. And they prayed no one rammed them by accident. One of the incredible sights he describes is climbing through pea soup fog for 5,000 then bursting out of the fog into brilliant sunshine. As he climbed higher he could see the vast cloud bank below him and every few seconds out of seemingly nowhere, a giant bomber would pop through.
As in every memoir by a pilot on either side in World War Two, Alling is unstinting in his praise of his ground crew who kept the plane flying. These men get little credit but without them, the bombers never would have flown.
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]