January 14th, 1945 would be called by the Luftwaffe “Black Sunday” because of the disastrous losses they suffered that day. For the 390th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, based at Framlingham/Parham in East Anglia, it was mission 243, to Derben, Germany. For them, it also marked the greatest single mission loss during all of WWII, when an entire squadron was wiped out.
Call it fate or a colossal screw-up. For the crew of the lead Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress and the rest of the 568th Squadron, the cards were stacked against them from the beginning. The Group’s 242nd mission the day before to Mainz, Germany had set the stage for disaster. So many planes were damaged then that the 568th had only seven serviceable Forts to send up the next day. By borrowing an eighth bomber from the 571st, they would still be four short of the ideal 12, which would give the optimal “umbrella” of defensive fire. So overworked were the Group’s mechanics, laboring through the night to repair the damaged planes, seven of the 32 sent out on that mission turned back because of various mechanical problems. Ironically, the one that didn’t turn back would lead an entire squadron to its destruction.
The day started out well, the weather clear for the first time in months, with the promise that they would actually be able to see their target, bombing visually instead of having to rely on the lead plane’s “Mickey” radar to outline the objective.
At briefing, despite their path taking them almost as far as Berlin, they were led to believe that it would be a “milk run,” an easy mission for a change. The objective was an underground oil depot at Derben, on the Elbe River. Flak that had bedeviled them on most of their previous flights, and had been so damaging the day before, would be absent, as the enemy hoped to avoid betraying the facility’s location with anti-aircraft batteries.
A Command Pilot was assigned to the lead plane, displacing the regular co-pilot, despite their being the “C”, or low, element bringing up the Group’s rear. Perhaps it was because the crew was new at the job, having flown only three missions as lead by then. Whatever the reason, this factor likely contributed to the disaster that befell the 568th.
At first, all went well for the little squadron. But just as they entered German airspace, near Cuxhaven, the turbo-supercharger on the number three engine of the lead plane went out. Ready to take over was Mississippi Mission, the deputy lead, flying in the number two spot. Picking up speed, aiming to replace the failing Fort, they were ordered back into position, and that plane and the rest of the Squadron followed their ailing leader, falling behind and 2500 feet below the other two elements of the Group.
Aircraft leading an entire bomber stream often were forced to summon their deputy to take over when they had to turn back, and that day was no exception; the lead plane of the “B” element of the 487th Group and one other were forced to return early. The 568th’s didn’t, almost certainly because their Command Pilot countermanded the pilot. Why the word didn’t come back from Group Command to abort is unclear, but they too were struggling to make up a ten-mile gap between them and the 100th ahead. Aborting due to mechanical difficulties was commonplace, and that day seven B-17s of the 32 sent up by the 390th returned to base early, one with a supercharger out. Another early return reached Framlingham only an hour before the last Fort to bomb that day arrived back at base.
Despite the escort of P-51D Mustangs from the 357th Fighter Group joining them as they entered Germany, visual contact of the 568th was lost as they dropped below a high thin cloud layer that came between them. The fighters assigned to protect the 390th sped far ahead, protecting the 95th and the 100th, the first two Groups in the bomber stream. In the meantime, while the 571st and 570th Squadrons of the 390th continued on at the same altitude, they failed to close up, creating for the enemy that inviting ten-mile gap between them and the Group ahead. Even farther behind, and far below, the planes of the 568th were sitting ducks.
The main Luftwaffe defense, while depleted by attrition, was able to send up 189 fighters to strike the bombers of the 3rd Air Division. As the Mustangs of the 357th went after the heavily-armed Focke-Wulf-190A-8 Sturmbocks ahead, another hundred planes of Jagdegeschwader (JG) 300 attacked the lagging 390th, concentrating around half their number on the even more isolated and unprotected 568th.
While they didn’t receive protection from their assigned “little friends,” the Mustangs of the 357th, the two leading elements escaped the fate of the 568th by the timely intervention of the 79th Squadron of the 20th Fighter Group, charged with escorting Groups of the 3rd Combat Wing following in the bomber stream. Their tally, in allowing JG 300 only one other 390th Fort that day, was over 19 of the enemy.
As the beleaguered element continued on the planned course, the running battle between the gunners of the 568th and the FW-190s lasted half an hour, as one by one the Forts fell to Luftwaffe cannon fire. Considering the odds, lasting that long and able to continue on course, was a remarkable feat, testimony to their bravery, gunnery, and the ruggedness of the B-17.
Pilots of JG 300, who wiped out the 568th, couldn’t believe their luck in being able to down the eight B-17s unmolested by American fighters. One went so far as to accuse the 357th Fighter Group of a grave tactical error in not accompanying their “big friends” as they lost altitude. But the 357th was carrying the fight to the Nazi interceptors, drawing them away from the rest of the bomber stream.
Much of the reason for the loss of the 568th that day must be attributed to the tactics that had been changed at the end of 1943 by General James H. Doolittle when he assumed command of the 8th Air Force. Previously, the policy was to stay with the bombers and bring them home at all costs. He changed all that by allowing the fighter escort to leave the bombers and go on the offensive, pursuing and destroying the German defenders. This proved highly successful. The attrition on the Luftwaffe soon began to tell. With the loss of veteran pilots, replacements could no longer log enough flying hours due to dwindling supplies of oil and fuel. While German aircraft factories continued to replace downed planes, replacement of lost fliers lagged. Failure to produce men competitive with Allied pilots had become so critical that by the end of 1944, effective Luftwaffe attacks were possible only at certain points along the bomber stream where fighter cover was deficient or absent.
General Doolittle’s policy suggests the purpose of the mission on January 14th was not only to destroy German oil facilities and other strategic targets, but also, by using a maximum number of bombers, to draw the Luftwaffe up for the fighter escort to pounce on. Why else have the 187 Forts of the 13th Wing and other elements feint almost 50 miles past their targets, deeper into the Reich, turn back at their Initial Point, or IP, at Belzig, and then fly almost 50 miles more to reach the target farther away from the German Capital?
According to the official report of the mission, the underground oil facility at Derben was “low priority.” This, combined with the over 90 mile feint, leads to the inescapable conclusion that the entire force was, in part, being used as bait. Had the same number of bombers been sent directly to Derben, the toll taken on the 568th might have been less, despite their isolated status, some even reaching the target along with the rest of the 13th Combat Wing. The bomber force, altering course south along the Elbe directly to the target wouldn’t have seemed such a threat to Berlin.
44 of the 72 crewmembers of the Squadron gave everything that day. The men who survived the fighting by escaping their flaming Forts by parachuting, only to become prisoners of war, gave more than fair measure. Even those who sent them off to battle, and later anxiously scanned the skies for their return, gave some.
The 357th Fighter Group, for downing 55 German fighters received a Unit Citation. Returning gunners of the 390th claimed another 24, of which 14 were allowed. How many more the lost gunners shot down will never be known.
While the Luftwaffe continued to extract losses in the continued American daylight strategic bombing campaign until the war’s end, January 14, 1945 marked the last time they would be able to mount such an effort against any one Group.
This mission is fictionalized in the author's historical novel, "Wings of Love and War."
Lorant, Jean-Yves & Goyat, Richard, Jagdgeschwader 300 “Wilde Sau” Vol. 2,
Eagle Editions Ltd, Hamilton, Montana, 2007, pp. 167-169
Olmsted, Merle C., To War With The Yoxford Boys. The Complete Story of the 357th
Fighter Group. Eagle Editions Ltd, Hamilton, Montana, 2004, pp. 185-186
Copyright 2014 Patrick E. Taylor MD