On March 4, 1944, Berlin was again briefed as the target. Eighth Army Air Force C/G General James Doolittle wanted to lead the Eighth's bombers on their first mission to Berlin. It was Gen. Doolittle who had led the first mission to Tokyo in 1942. He also led the first Allied bombing mission to Rome. Leading the mission to Berlin would have made General Doolittle the first to bomb each of the Axis Capitals. His plan was to fly a P-51 with a wingman ahead of the bombers. General Spaatz was on the fence with the idea, but later, probably backed by Gen. Eisenhower, said no, primarily because Gen. Doolittle knew too much about the upcoming allied invasion of France, and if taken prisoner by the German military, could have been tortured and possibly forced to reveal plans of the invasion. During WWII, many 8th Air Force Officers wanted to be the first to reach Berlin as this would give the American public a morale boost and would indicate hope that the war would soon be over. What follows is the amazing true story of how an unknown Lieutenant and his crew of a Pathfinder B-17 of the 482nd Bomb Group became the first to release its bombs on Berlin. It wasn’t by design or plan.
The 482nd Bomb group, 813th Bomb Squadron crew of Lt. Bill Owen was put on alert late in the afternoon on March 3, 1944 for a mission the next day. Little did anyone realize that through a series of unplanned events and decisions that they would become the first U.S. Heavy bomber crew to bomb Berlin?
It was never supposed to be them.
The crew was instructed to report to the 813th Bomb Squadron flight operations by 11:30 p.m. After a pre-mission breakfast, the crew picked up their Operations/Equipment bags and was trucked out to B-17 number 731. Their B-17 was equipped with the British H2S "Stinky" radar which had the radome under the nose of the airplane. B-17 #731 was a good B-17 having completed her 18 previous missions without incident. For this mission, the crew was to fly to the 95th Bomb Group base at Horham, UK. The night before the mission, Owens' crew flew to Horham to be briefed with the 95th BG group. The following morning, the officers of Bill Owen's crew attended the briefing with the 95th BG officers. Lt. Bill Owen's orders were simple, they were to use their H2S radar equipped B-17 to lead the 13th Combat wing on the March 4th mission to the target and home again. Their position in the Bomber stream headed to Berlin was good. They were planned to be in the middle of the formation of 750 Bombers, the safest place to be.
Although the weather was bad in England and over Europe, 750 aircraft were dispatched from airfields all across England. This was to be the first maximum effort mission against Berlin. Of the 750 Bombers dispatched 506 USAAF bombers formed up on March 4, 1944 over England and headed for the German capital. The actual military target in Berlin was the R. Bosch A-G factory located in Berlin. The R. Bosch factory produced ignition parts for military aircraft and vehicles. The bomber crews were very fortunate that no midair collisions or other mishaps occurred while the B-17s were completing their formations over England. As the B-17s approached the border of Germany, a mission recall was issued by 8th Air Force Headquarters because of the extremely bad weather en route and over the Berlin target area. The bomb groups turned 180 degrees and started turning around looking for targets of opportunity on their way back to England. However, one wing (13th Combat Wing) which was led by Lt. Col. Grif Mumford, 95th BG, decided to fly the course as briefed, ignored the recall order and continued on to Berlin. The radio operator of Col. Mumford's crew, S/Sgt Frank Atterby reportedly interpreted the recall as a phantom German trick. The radio recall became a famous point of speculation over the years as most all the B-17 radio operators that day verified the radio recall code to be genuine and returned to base. The radio operator (T/Sgt Ed Aken) on the crew of Lt. Bill Owen validated the radio recall as authentic but Lt. Owen made the decision to stay with Col. Mumford as he pressed on to Berlin. Their original position in the bomber formation went from the middle of the formation of 506 Bombers to the lead, as everyone turned back to England, with the exception of Col. Mumford's 29 B-17's that pressed on. They were alone, a small composite group of 29 USAAF B-17's with bombers from the 100th BG and 95th BG. With approximately 290 men of the 8th Air Force onboard they pressed on. They were on their way to attack Berlin, in bad weather, defended by 2000 enemy fighters and 414 88MM Flak cannon. What were their chances of success and survival?
The crew of Lt. Bill Owen's Pathfinder B-17 were furnishing radar fixes to Col. Mumford's lead B-17 on the way to the target. The unbelievably bad weather was causing navigational problems in Mumford's lead ship. His navigator, Lt. Malcolm Durr was relying on “dead reckoning” navigation. Without clearly visible landmarks and the strong winds at altitude, he hadn't realized that the wing had nearly drifted 47 miles off course according to the 482nd Pathfinder ship's radar fixes. When Col. Mumford’s B-17 supposedly reached the Initial Point (IP) of the Bomb Run they turned the lead over to Lt. Owen’s B-17 PFF to do a radar bomb run as the target was obscured by clouds. The time was approximately 12:46 p.m., which was the flight plan time. However, the H2S radar indicated that the group was 47 miles from the actual I.P. and according to PFF Navigator Al Englehardt’s navigation map and Lt. Owen’s pilot notes, 20 miles north off course at that time. Lt. Owen turned the small formation of Flying Fortresses back on course. This led to loud dissent over the radio from many in the formation. Lt. Owen turned the volume down on his radio and gave full attention to getting the mission back on course. They flew another 45 minutes to the true I.P. and turned on the bomb run. Lt. Owen placed the B-17 PFF on autopilot, and he, Lt. Englehardt and Lt. Thixton coordinated for either a visual or radar bomb run. At last the target was reached, and low and behold, there were two groups of USAAF P-51 fighters (4th FG and 357 FG) circling over the city waiting for the bombers. It was the nicest view the bomber crews had since leaving England. Col. Mumford's B-17's bomb bay doors were frozen shut and could not be opened. (If you look at the famous painting of artist John Rayson "First American Daylight Bombing of Berlin" you can see the PFF ship with its radome under the nose and you can also see Col. Mumford’s bomb bay doors clearly shut on the bomb run.) Lt. Bill Owen’s B-17 PFF ship remained in the lead position and released the first bombs on Berlin at 13:28. The bomb drop was coordinated between Al Engelhardt, radar navigator and Marshall Thixton, bombardier; and the first bombs of the 8th Air Force were dropped on Berlin, and a 482nd Pathfinder was the first U.S. heavy bomber to release its bombs on the Nazi Capital.
Artist John Rayson's famous Painting of the First Daylight Raid on Berlin March 4, 1944 (Note 482nd Pathfinder with H2S "Stinky" radar under nose) (Painting available in Mighty 8th Heritage Museum Gift Shop)
The rest of the combat wing comprised of the 95th and 100th Bomb group B-17's released their bombs on the signal from the 482nd BG B-17. There were about twenty or so German enemy Me-109 fighters that attacked the B-17s and Lt. Chuck Yeager (later to be the first person to break the sound barrier) shot down his first German fighter that day. A total of five B-17s were lost to enemy fire that day (four from the 95th BG and one from the 100th BG). The return flight to England was uneventful. Lt. Englehardt reported over the intercom that the formation was approaching the coast of England. The 482nd B-17 PFF flew to Horham with the 95th and then peeled off and continued on to its home base at Alconbury. They finally landed at Alconbury in the dark and cold, they were exhausted and oh so weary. As the crew crawled out of the plane and they touched the ground their legs were wobbly but they were home and they were all OK. After landing at Alconbury, the crew reported to interrogation by the 482nd intelligence officers. The interrogation involved a complete rundown of the entire mission and all of the recollections of all the crew members for details of the mission. The 482nd Bomb Group received a call and teletype from the 95th Bomb Group which gave Lt. Owen’s crew credit for the bombing and the navigational aid for the mission. Col Howard Moore, 482nd CO, sent a congratulatory message to the 95th BG for their achievement on this first mission to Berlin. The decision to ignore the recall and continue the mission to Berlin made by Lt. Col Mumford’s crew, was accepted by General Doolittle and other high-ranking officers of the 8th Bomber Command. Had Lt. Owen’s B-17 PFF crew been interrogated at the 95th Base at Horham by the high-ranking officers of the 8th Bomber Command their story of taking over the lead at the I.P. through the completion of the bomb run and for sometime after may have come to light. Oddly, Lt. Col Mumford’s mission report to the CO of the 95th BG written the next day never mentions the exact role that Lt. Owen’s B-17 PFF played in getting the 13th CBW formation back on course and leading the group to the target. The number of B-17s that attacked Berlin on this first mission is given at 29, 30 or 31, but regardless of the exact number, the first of many 8th Air Force missions to Berlin had been completed successfully with good bombing results. Lt. Col. Mumford received the Silver Star.
Colonel Griff Mumford 95th BG meets with 8th AAF Commanding General Jimmy Doolittle after the March 4, 1944 Berlin Mission (courtesy USAAF).
The 95th Bomb Group Received one of their three Presidential Unit citations for reaching Berlin. The 95th Bomb group was also featured in Life Magazine later in March of 1944 as being the first bomb group to bomb Berlin. It was a morale boast for the American public and the 8th AAF.
The 482nd Pathfinder of Lt. Bill Owen received press in the NY World Telegram and Stars and Stripes but for obvious security reasons there was never any mention of Radar or the exact role of the PFF B-17 in leading the 95th & 100th Bomb groups successfully to the target in Berlin and home to England. That is the true story of how a 482nd Bomb Group B-17 (PFF) piloted by Lt. Bill Owen became the first 8th Army Air Force Bomber over Berlin. It was never supposed to be them.
John J. O’Neil III
The first 8th AAF crew to Bomb Berlin including their Ground crew of 482nd Bomb Group, 813th Bomb Squadron – B-17 #731. Pose for pictures on March 5, 1944, the B-17 was equipped with British H2S "Stinky" radar. You can make out the radome – referred to as the bathtub under the nose. Standing from Left to right – Engineering officer – Lt. Edwin E. Kersgard, Crew Chief Lt. William V. Owen - Pilot, Tech Sgt. Donald E. White – Engineer/Top turret, S/Sgt Harlin R. Sours – Tail gunner, S/Sgt.George E. Moffat – Ball Turret, S/Sgt Edmund R. Aken – Radio Operator, S/Sgt Ellsworth A. Beans – Waist Gunner, S/Sgt. John J. O'Neil Waist gunner, Lt. Albert J. Englehart – Navigator, Lt. Marshall J. Thixton- Bombardier, Lt. Frank L. McAllister – Co-Pilot. Master/Sergeant Donald G. Rose (kneeling on left) and his B-17 #731 Ground Crew (kneeling/unidentified).
(Courtesy John J. O'Neil family)