Pathfinders and Night Missions

In November 1943 after our first seven missions with the 95th Bomb Group, which included four raids during the notorious “Black Week” of mid-October 1943, my crew and I were sent to the 482nd Bomb Group at Alconbury train on the Pathfinder blind-bombing technique being developed at that time, using the British “Oboe” and “Stinky” radar equipment.

Within a few short weeks, we were flying to the various Eighth Air Force bases in the middle of the night to join as lead those groups selected to lead the Eighth Air Force, a division, or a combat wing in a daylight mission the following day.

In spite of a shortage of specialized Pathfinder equipment and trained personnel, the 482nd Bomb Group succeeded in furnishing enough trained crews to lead over 80 percent of the Eighth Air Force’s missions from early November 1943 to late March 1944. Consequently, the Eighth Air Force actually succeeded in flying more missions during the unfavorable weather conditions of those winter months than it had been possible to fly during the relatively favorable weather conditions that prevailed during the summer of 1943.

By the end of March 1944, each Eighth Air Force bomb group was getting its own B-17s equipped with the American type radar known as “Mickey.” This meant the Alconbury Pathfinders (Stinky) were no longer required to fly combat day missions. However, a radar school was established at Alconbury to train the Mickey radar operators before leading their own groups. Our navigator, Al Engelhardt, was in charge of this school. It was decided that radar maps, made up of from actual scope pictures, would be of great assistance both during actual missions flown by the Eighth Air Force and in instructing the new crews at the school.

This project was assigned to my crew because, I think, we were the closest to completing our tour. One of the Stinky B-17s was painted black, flame suppressors put on the turbo-superchargers, and a camera – complete with an automatic timing mechanism – was fitted to the radar scope.

The plan was to fly as high as possible (above 25,000 feet) during the eight or nine moonless nights per month that R.A.F. comber command’s heavy bombers flew at that time. We flew pre-determined tracks with the camera taking the scope photographs at regular timed intervals, which enabled a map overlay to be produced.

Flying at that high altitude we saw much of Germany and watched the whole of the R.A.F. missions develop, in stages, through the night. After flying only daylight missions over Germany, it was an incredible sight to behold, and the experience made believers of us all.

With the black landscape below us, any visible light was part of the war; first, the German night-fighter activity, punctuated by occasional bursts of defensive tracer fire, along the seemingly endless stream of British bombers; then the probing fingers of intense light from isolated searchlight batteries; then the marker flares cascading down over the primary target from the British Pathfinder aircraft; then the rapidly increasing movement and activity of searchlights and flak batteries in the target area itself.

As the night wore on, the searchlights, flak batteries, and the raging first in the target area transformed night into day.

When the German radar-equipped night fighters got among the bomber stream, all we saw was a streak of light, like tracers, then a dull-reddish glow, then falling pieces of burning wreckage as the remains of the bomber plunged to earth. It was entirely different from anything we’d seen during the big daylight air battles that we’d all experienced.

This was a deadly contest of furtive stealth between the hunters and the hunted.

We flew with the R.A.F. during its missions on the nights of 22-23 April to Dusseldorf in the Ruhr Valley, to Brunswick, 24-25 April 1944 and Munich and Karlsruhe in southern Germany, and to Bremen, northwestern Germany, 19-29 July 1944. It was during one of these nights, that the German fighters were outlining the returning bomber stream against the light band in the northern sky and taking a steady toll. Even on moonless nights, there is more light than one would think.

(Royal Air Force Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin middlebrook and Chris Everitt reveal that on these three dates [22-23 April, 24-25 April, 19-20 July 1994] R.A.F. bomber command lost a total of seventy-two bombers, or 3.2 percent of the total force committed to battle.)

Being in a single high-flying B-17, needless to say, we were all scared in the beginning. Searchlights would “walk” up to us, hold us briefly, then swing away. During one outbound flight, a high-flying German intruder aircraft followed us back into Germany for some considerable time, but it was apparent that we meant little to the Luftwaffe fighter controllers with all the other activity going on below us at that time.

One extremely interesting night mission was on the night of 27-28 May 1944. We were not aware of the location until the last possible minute, because it was top-secret at that time and had been requested by the senior Allied commanders. Although we’d been briefed earlier to go to Frankfurt, it directed that we were to fly over the south coast of England and take radar-scope photographs of the whole Allied invasion fleet assembled off the south coast. We had all been restricted from flying over that area for some months, but we now had the privilege of seeing a sight, ahead of time, that very few people would see.

On radar, the area of open sea between the south coast and the Isle of Wight was practically packed solid with shipping.

My crew flew again on 6 June D-Day, and we saw the whole invasion fleet, in daylight, on its way to the beaches of Normandy. It was a sight and extraordinary feeling that all of us will never forget.

I returned to the 95th in the fall of 1944, flew a few more missions, and after finishing a B-17 tour I was put on detached service with the Third Air Division Scouting Force with the 55th Fighter Group at Wormingford, near Colchester, Essex, from where I flew thirty missions in P-51 Mustangs by the time the war ended. I then returned to the 482nd Bomb Group at Alconbury and flew home in a B-17 after Germany surrendered.