By the same token nobody really wanted to go to Berlin because it was a very long mission over heavily fortified German territory and was very heavily defended by both fighters and antiaircraft. The thought of being in sub-zero temperatures and having an oxygen mask on for eight hours or more was not particularly appealing.
The 457th Bomb Group had bombed Berlin several times in the past but the mission of February 3rd, 1945 was to be the biggest in terms of aircraft involved and tons of bombs dropped.
At this point in time the German offense in the Ardennes (Bulge) had been stopped and the Whermacht was now in retreat. The allies were advancing on German soil and the end of the war seemed within grasp. I believe that this raid was a political statement more so than a raid on a strategic target. I'm sure it was felt that this strike at the heart of Nazi power would demoralize the enemy military and civilian forces and put extreme pressure on Hitler to seek an armistice and a quick end to the fighting.
Toward this end the allies put up 2000 bombers and over 1000 fighters from the 8th Air Force alone and the British, who bombed exclusively at night, put up many hundreds of Lancasters that preceded the 8th to the target. The RAF went in ahead of the 8th Air Force in darkness and we followed in a bomber stream that is recorded as being 500 miles long. The bombing of Berlin was sustained from near midnight through the following day till near 2:00 PM that afternoon. I recall that before we were within 300 miles of Berlin we could clearly see the RAF Lancaster bombers to the North of us over the Baltic Sea on their return to England having already dropped their bombs on Berlin.
The 457th put up 36 planes for this mission and led the 94th Wing with Col. Rogner as commander. We flew as deputy lead in the high box. We had been briefed that the weather over the continent would be CAVU (Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited), a condition that we seldom experienced in the winter of '44/'45. This made the adrenaline flow a little faster because we knew that with clear weather like this the antiaircraft fire would be more devastating than usual. We were not disappointed.
As we formed up over the Glatton buncher it was apparent that the weatherman was correct. I had never seen the sky so clear and the visibility so good. Forming up a bomber stream of 2000 planes is extremely difficult when clouds or fog interfere. Because of the inability to see distant planes in the sky, precautions had to be taken to avoid mid-air collisions involving dozens of planes. There were times when one group would actually fly through another (called shuffling-the- deck) leading to multiple collisions and the loss of many lives. This usually happened over England and was especially heart wrenching because a mid-air collision was usually fatal to the whole crew and sometimes to other crews in the same formation. So, to avoid this, the bomber stream got either strung out or bunched up in bad weather and the crowding sometimes followed you all the way to the target area. That was not the case on February 2nd.
We had no trouble forming up and the bomber stream was orderly and well formed. The sky was filled with planes. I often wonder how it looked to those on the ground to see 2000 planes in the air on a clear winter day. We proceeded to the continent without incident, following our prescribed route. Once we crossed the Dutch coast we started to get some antiaircraft fire, which, with this visibility, would continue sporadically for the rest of our 9 hour flight.
Other than the antiaircraft fire that we encountered on the way to Berlin there were several other events that remain fresh in my memory.
First I remember the tail gunner calling "Bandit at 12 o'clock high". I never saw him nor did any of the guns in our plane fire at him. It was a single plane that made one pass at us and disappeared below - being chased by our fighter escort. No one fired at this intruder because he appeared so suddenly, made one pass through the formation at very high speed, and was not identified by any of the crew as a German aircraft. It turned out from information gathered later that we had seen a rocket powered miniature Luftwaffe fighter designated as an ME-163 Komet. This was the only time that we saw this fighter and was one of only a few that got into combat before the end of the war. This was an advanced swept wing rocket powered fighter that could outrun and out climb any Allied fighter but had the shortcoming of being able to make only one pass at a formation because of it's limited fuel.
The Komet could climb to extremely high altitude, almost vertically, and then could dive onto a bomber formation at perhaps over 600 mph but would have insufficient fuel to climb again. It had no landing gear so it had to belly land when it returned to it's field. The P-51's did not attempt to catch the Komet only to follow it to it's base and then attack after it had landed or when it was on it's final approach.
The other two events occurred about the same time as we passed near Potsdam.
Our radio man had almost no duties when we were on the bomb run except to monitor the radio. The radio room had only two small windows, one of them on the port side next to where the radioman sat but above the level of the wing. From this window the radioman could see nothing of the ground, only the top surface of the port wing and the two engines on that side.
Sgt. Kenny called on the intercom just as we crossed our initial point and said that we had been hit by flak in the port wing. None of the others in the crew could see any damage and my instruments showed normal for engines #1 and #2. After returning to Glatton, Sgt. Kenny took me by the hand and led me around the plane to the area of the wing between engine #2 and the fuselage and pointed up. There in the wing was a perfectly round hole about 10 inches in diameter that passed directly through the wing without touching anything vital. A few inches to the port side and it would have punctured one of our fuel tanks. The damage was not at all like holes created by shrapnel. We concluded that an 80 millimeter shell had passed cleanly through our wing without exploding. "I almost never look out that window and especially on the bomb run but this day I did" Kenny said. "While I was looking out, this hole opened up right before my eyes" he said with a look of dismay. I believe we were all pretty lucky that day.
Shortly after we passed the initial point (IP - start of the bomb run), the intercom was active with voices from the waist gun position. Sgt. Knox sounded off on the intercom that he had been hit by flak and was asking Sgt. Hetrick to check his leg around the knee. Hetrick, coming to his aid, said that he did not see any blood or any sign of injury. It was not until we returned to our home field that we found what had happened to Knox. Below the waist gun window is a section of armor plate, about 3 ft by 4 ft, intended to protect the gunner from flak or gunfire - not a lot of protection but some. It seems that Knox was kneeling on this plate (which most waist gunners did when flack was bursting nearby) when a piece of shrapnel hit the armor plate very close to the spot where his knee touched the plate. We later examined the hole through the fuselage and could see a major dent in the armor plate made by the flak. Knox carried a bruised knee for several week after but was able to continue flying.
As we approached Berlin at about 25,000 feet (and still a hundred miles from the city) we could see that it was taking a terrible pounding. Smoke billowed from all areas of the city. The smoke made it difficult for our navigator and bombardier to see the check points and our target. This did not seem to have any affect on the antiaircraft gunners however. The flak was intense and a number of planes from the earlier groups were seen over the city trying to maintain flight with one or more engines feathered or on fire.
Our target on this day was the bridge across the River Spree. The map to the left shows the location of our aiming point which was on the Friedrichstrasse (noted on the map as Friedrich Street) near the Railway Station (Marked on the map). The dual road at the bottom of the map is Unter den Linden.
With the visibility so good each squadron dropped it's bombs on it's squadron leader instead of on the group lead. To do this we had to space out each squadron of our group before we started the bomb run. It was a procedure we had followed many times and presented only minor problems. We dropped on our squadron leader and the bombing results were excellent.
We were the seventh group in the Division formation that was led by the 379th Bomb Group with Col. Lewis Lyle as Air Commander. Col. Lyle's comments about the mission were as follows:
"There was a bomber stream three to five hundred miles long. Turning off the target and heading back to England, there were bombers heading for Berlin, practically all the way back to England. It was a very successful mission".
After dropping our bombs we turned north and then west and headed back to England over the Baltic Sea. The group lost no planes on this mission. Eight other planes besides ours were damaged by flak. The mission was long and it was eventful. We all slept well that night.