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Posts Tagged ‘Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’

Well, it’s been a week…actually, longer than that.  But sometimes things just work out that way. We’ve covered half the month of February, and I’ve written just two times.  The “calendar of events” is, except for two days, completely full for the remainder of the month.  So I’ll see how many I can get churned out.

Max Hastings is a brilliant historian.  At least I think he is.  And by the number of books he’s sold, a great many people agree with me.  The last two books of his that I read (Armageddon and Retribution) are what I would call “personal” history…telling a larger story while focusing on individuals who were intimately involved with it, making it more tangible and real for the reader.  Maybe his long experience as a journalist honed his skills, or maybe he possessed the ability from the get-go.  Whichever, it works.

The city of Dresden, Germany was bombed by the Allies as the Second World War was winding down in Europe.  But “bombed” is the 20,000-foot view.  Hastings’ “man-on-the-street” for this event, which began on February 13, 1945, was Gotz Bergander.  For much of the last war’s last months, rumor had come to Bergander (and the other Dresdeners) that their city would be spared due to the tremendous cultural value it possessed.  There was even talk of it being used as the occupation capital.

Shortly after 9:00pm, all the talk and all the rumors were drowned out by the wailing of the air-raid sirens.  Young Bergander and his family descended to the reinforced shelter in the basement (his father’s office comprised the ground floor of the building where they lived) and waited, enduring 25 minutes worth of pounding.  They came out to find that no bombs had fallen in their neighborhood.  Gotz climbed to the roof of the home/factory and put out a couple small fires started by burning debris, and looked out to see everything on the horizon burning.

The residents of Dresden barely had time to collect their wits when the alarms sounded again.  The 244 Avro Lancasters from the first raid had been merely an appetizer to the main course…529 Lancasters.  And as you may remember from eons ago, Lancasters weren’t tremendously fast, but they carried a substantial payload.  Forty minutes later, Gotz Bergander emerged again from his shelter to find his home just about the only undamaged building he could see amidst a massive firestorm.

But it still wasn’t over.  The next day, as survivors were getting a view of the charred remains of their devastated city, destruction rained down again, this time courtesy of 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF.  And through it all, the Berganders survived a bombing and subsequent firestorm that killed 35,000 of their fellow residents.

As an old man, Bergander looked back on the events with sixty years of perspective, and Hasting records his words.  “The bombing of Dresden was an extravagance.  Even in war, the ends must relate to the means.  Here, the means seemed wildly out of proportion to the ends.  I will not say that Dresden should not have been bombed-it was a rail centre, and thus an important target.  I will not say Dresden was an exceptional case as compared to other German cities.  But I do not understand why it had to be done on such a huge scale.”  His words are especially weighty when compared with post-attack photos of the railways, which were mostly undamaged and running again within a couple days.

The debate over Dresden, and quite frankly, the bombing of many of the other German (and Japanese) cities in 1945, has consumed enormous amounts of ink.  Germany was clearly beaten.  Her offensive capabilities had been reduced to burning hulks and rotting corpses in the west and, in greater numbers, to the east.  Her defensive capabilities and wartime production had been pulverized from the air.  The fact that the Allies were attacking with massed formations in broad daylight is a testament not only to the power the Allies possessed, but also to the lack of resistance from their enemy.

In 2009, we talked about the idea of “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind“.  I believe this is clearly a continuation in that theme.  London had been bombed heavily earlier in the war and, now that the Allies were firmly in control, their response would not only equal what had been done to them, but far outweigh it.  For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, Dresden was just another instance of payback, called by Hastings a target on “his notorious schedule of unfinished business in Germany.”

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  Last time I wrote…well…it was nearly last year.  I’ve been away too long, but that’s ok.  Most of us have had plenty of other good diversions to keep us busy.  It’s another quickie…

During the last half of the 1930s, Americans watched the increased aggression taking place abroad.  A great number of people wanted nothing to do with foreign intervention, or entanglements, or war.  But as Hitler expanded out from Germany and Mussolini did the same in Africa and southern Europe, it became pretty apparent that war would come.  And there was growing disquiet over Japan’s push in China and her desire to create a giant Japanese pond out of the Pacific Ocean.

Of course, the U.S. military noticed all this as well, and they began pushing for increased armaments production.  It was during this time that the potential for war actually gave America the head start she would need when war did arrive in 1941.

One of the better-known projects to come out of this period was the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.  The Consolidated Aircraft Company had been approached by the Army Air Corps to produce B-17 Flying Fortresses under license from Boeing.  The B-17 was a durable, rugged aircraft that was pretty well loved by those who flew it, and Boeing couldn’t keep up with the increased demand.

But Consolidated believed they could do better.  And just like North American Aviation (when asked to build P-40 Warhawks for Curtiss), Consolidated’s leadership believed they could build a better plane.  So they built a four-engine bomber that was a bit faster, climbed a little more quickly, and could perform a 2,000-mile mission carrying three tons of bombs.

The new mark first flew on December 29, 1939 and, while there was favorable response to the aircraft’s abilities, actually flying the plane turned out to be a more difficult affair.  It didn’t fly in formation nearly as well as the Flying Fortress.  It’s lightweight design (which gave it greater range) meant it couldn’t withstand the same level of damage as the 17s.  And they had a tendency to catch fire.

But they could carry a big bombload for quite a distance, and that made Liberators a very popular weapon of choice.  So popular, in fact, that the B-24 would become the most mass-produced aircraft in U.S. history, with on the order of 18,000 being produced.  And with so many in service, lots of guys flew them, including my next-door neighbor when I was growing up.  He flew in Germany and was actually shot down.

And while there were myriads produced, hardly any are still flying.  There are a handful of survivors on static display, but only two are still capable of taking to the skies.

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It was freezing cold with below-zero temperatures, the snow was two feet deep, and it was one of the worst blizzards in recent memory.  And for William Miller, it was a nightmare.  A B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in the U.S. 94th Bomb Group, Miller had been shot down in eastern Germany back in October of 1943.  Captured by the Germans, he had already spent a lonely, miserable 15 months as a German prisoner-of-war in Stalag Luft III.  But that time in captivity now seemed relatively sweet indeed.

In the face of the Soviet onslaught from the east, the POW camp had been emptied with all the prisoners forced to march west to Spremberg, 75 miles distant.  Weakened, hungry, and poorly clothed to withstand the bitter January conditions, men all around Miller began falling…falling and not rising again.  And this was just their journey’s second day.

And William knew his time was coming as well.  He discarded everything possible to lighten his load, but still it wasn’t enough.  Already lagging, Miller could go no further and fainted in the snow, his body awaiting death.  When he came to, someone was rousing him to his feet, urging him onward.  As his vision cleared, something clicked in his mind.  The face staring at him was familiar…it was no stranger with him on this march to death.

His mind went back to another evening…another winter evening in Pennsylvania.  It was February 21, 1940, and Miller was ripping down the road in his first car, heading home from Harrisburg.  And like any kid with his first car, his foot was too heavy and the accelerator too light.  At more than 100mph, the cold, the ice, and Miller’s inexperience caused the car to careen off the road and into a culvert, catapulting its hapless driver through the windshield and into the night.

A passerby, named Warren Felty (shown above), stopped and helped the unconscious Miller to the safety and care of the hospital.  And now, nearly 5 years and a World War later, here was Felty again.  But how?!?  Where?!?

As it turns out, Warren Felty was also a Flying Fortress pilot (in the 96th Bomb Group), had also been shot down, and had also been a prisoner in Stalag Luft III, just in a different compound.  And across thousands of miles of planet, here was Felty pulling a man, the same man, out of a snowbank and certain death.

And together, Warren Felty and William Miller would survive this leg of their march, and the War itself.

Recommended Reading: Best Little War Stories From World War II

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