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February 3, 1945 Mission to Berlin

On February 3, 1945, 384th Bomb Group ball turret gunner Jack Coleman Cook saved the life of navigator Edward Field in the cold North Sea when their B-17, The Challenger, was forced to ditch on the return trip to England after their mission to Berlin.

The Challenger was one of a group of forty-two B-17’s and three hundred fifty-six combat personnel of the 384th Bomb Group assigned to the Group’s Mission #264 (the 8th Air Force’s Mission #817) that day. The 384th flew this mission as the 41st B Combat Wing of the 1st Air Division.

Of the assigned forty-two B-17’s, three did not go. One was an unused ground spare aircraft, one was scrubbed, and one was a weather aircraft that returned to base.

Of the remaining thirty-nine B-17’s, thirty-six completed the mission, returning safely to England at the end of the day.

Three did not make it back with the bomber stream. One, Stardust, crash landed in Russian territory, even after being warned not to do so during the morning briefing, and after repairs eventually made it back to England. All aboard were uninjured.

One, unnamed 42-97960, the lead squadron hot camera ship, was hit by flak which knocked out the #2 and #4 engines. The pilot reported they were on fire, losing altitude and had two wounded on board. All nine crewmembers bailed out and the ship crashed near Fuerstenwerder, Germany. All survived, but became POWs for the remainder of the war.

And then there was The Challenger, the ship of the Robert Long crew that successfully dropped their bombs on Berlin that day, but were forced to ditch in the North Sea on the return trip to England. The Challenger lost three men, pilot Robert Long, radio operator Fred Maki, and ball turret gunner Jack Coleman Cook. The remaining six men of the crew, including Edward Field whose life was spared due to the bravery and heroism of Jack Cook, lived to fight another day. [I previously related the story of the Long crew in this post.]

These are the statistics of only one heavy bomber group of the 8th Air Force on only one mission, though not an unimportant one. This was the February 3, 1945 raid on Berlin.

Almost 1,000 B-17 heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force made up the bomber stream to Berlin on February 3, 1945. The bombers were supported and protected by 575 P-51 Mustang fighters.

Officially, the target for the mission was the Tempelhof Marshalling Yards in Berlin, but Commander of Strategic Air Forces in Europe General Carl Spaatz and Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower had more in mind. The raid would be a massive attack on the city center of Berlin, a terror bombing designed to lower the morale of the German people. Eighth Air Force Commander Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle objected to such tactics and appealed to Spaatz to stick to America’s strategic principle of precision bombing of targets of military significance.

Doolittle was not successful in changing Spaatz’s mind. The raid was planned for the morning of February 2, but the mission was cancelled due to heavy cloud cover. It was rescheduled for the next day, February 3, a day with unusually clear weather which permitted accurate visual bombing. What started out for the bomb and fighter groups as a cold, wet English Saturday morning, over Berlin the day would become CAVU, with “ceiling and visibility unlimited.”

For Doolittle’s 8th Air Force, February 3 was to be one of the biggest missions of WWII. The bomber stream was to consist of forty-two bombardment groups in the three air divisions, 1,003 B-17 Flying Fortresses heading to Berlin and 434 B-24 Liberators heading to Magdeburg, with 15,000 airmen manning the bombers and accompanying fighters.

In Berlin, the fire caused by the bombing lasted four days and burned everything combustible to ash. It was only stopped by waterways, thoroughfares, and parks that it could not jump. Berlin was reduced to a city of debris and rubble, buildings destroyed or badly damaged, crater-filled streets, without water and electricity.

Statistics vary regarding the loss of life on the ground in Berlin on February 3, 1945. At the time, there were perhaps three million refuges in Berlin, what Donald Miller called “part of one of the greatest human migrations in history” in his book, Masters of the Air. Thousands were instantly cremated where they stood when the bombs began to fall and explode around them and the city began to burn.

Early estimates by the 8th Air Force put the dead at 25,000, but German historians estimate a much lower total around 3,000. Even at the doubtful estimate of 3,000, it was the most Berliners killed in a single raid in all of WWII. Regardless of an accurate number of deaths, historians do agree that 120,000 Berliners were made homeless by the bombing mission of February 3.

The next day, a report from London noted that “The powerful United States Eighth Air Force attacked the heart of Berlin yesterday noon with about 3,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries in the most concentrated bombing ever carried out on the Reich capital.” The New York Times carried the story with the headlines “3,000-Ton Blow Hits Berlin In Steady Bombing of Reich and 3,000-TON BOMBING IN BERLIN’S CENTER.”

The 8th Air Force planned to return to Berlin three days later, but bad weather caused the mission to be cancelled. The 384th, with a dozen less airmen, did not participate in another mission for nearly a week.

Sources:

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018

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