Leading "The Mighty Eighth" to Leipzig

By Keith Anderson, Pilot, 600th Squadron

The most unique of the many memorable missions I flew as Co-Pilot of the Gene Douglas lead crew was the Group’s 44th mission on July 7, 1944, when we led the entire 8th Air Force into Germany with 1st Combat Wing CO, Brigadier General William M Gross, sitting in the right seat as mission commander for the 1st Bomb Division and me in the tail gun position as his eyes astern.  I flew 8 missions as tail position observer for various fine air commanders – Colonel Frank Hunter, Lt Colonel Robert Simeral, Lt Colonel Bruce Daily, and Major Jean Miller – but General Gross was in a class by himself.

Upon meeting us at our PFF lead ship, he commented that he anticipated a routine mission, not particularly rough, and, as a point of reference, mentioned that he had led the 1st Combat Wing to Schweinfurt on the infamous August 17, 1943 two-pronged Regensburg/Schweinfurt thrust and that his was one of the 3 aircraft from his formation that survived.  That, apparently, defined “rough”.  Thereupon, to emphasize his own lack of concern, he declined a flak suit and offered it to any of the crew that might desire additional protection.  He didn’t decline a parachute, however – there was a limit to his coolness!

The 398th put up 36 aircraft as the lead and low groups of a 54 plane “LeMay” combat box wing formation – one of the last missions we flew in that unwieldy configuration.  Soon thereafter, we converted to the more nimble 36 plane group formation with lead, high and low 12 ship squadrons.  I don’t recall or have records to show whether the 91st or 381st provided the 18 plane high group.  A total of 756 B-17s from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions were dispatched to various oil, ball bearing and aircraft plant targets in the Leipzig/Merseburg area and 373 B-24s from the 2nd Bomb Division to other oil facilities in the region.

Weather was excellent over the entire area, permitting a visual bomb run by both of our formations.  However, heavy smoke screens completely obscured both primary and secondary targets so the MPI was shifted to a railroad marshalling area.  Strike photos showed good result.  Fighter escort was excellent during the entire time we were over German territory (not surprising since General Gross was directing traffic) and flak was moderate but accurate during the bomb run.  We lost 2 aircraft shortly after bomb release - Folger from the lead group and Nisewonger from the low -  with 3 crew members killed and 15 POW.  Both were replacement crews with 8 prior missions for Folger and 3 for Nisewonger.

We turned left out of Leipzig and then made several wide circles while General Gross observed and directed the rest of the 1st Division making their runs.  I imagine that there were many choice words over intercoms in our formation but we were actually fairly safe since all the flak in the area was directed at the incoming bomber stream and we were surrounded by Mustangs.   I had the best view of a bombing mission of my entire combat tour during these circles and can still visualize a dozen or so parachutes, both white American and tan German, floating below.  There was considerable fighter activity and several collisions reported.  9 B-17s, including our 2, and 28 B-24s were MIA as well as 1 P-38 and 5 P-51s.  114 enemy aircraft were claimed destroyed.

Adrenalin slowly subsided when the last wing in the division dropped its bombs and we finally headed west.  Reports of heavy icing over England forced us to lower to 1,000 feet over the North Sea and adrenalin rose again as we groped our way back to Nuthampstead in group formation in very bad visibility.  A routine mission, indeed!

Later, I learned more about General Gross.  He had assumed command of the101st Provisional Combat Wing in July 1943, while still a Colonel, and soon advocated use of VHF radio in aiding assembly and control of formations during missions as opposed to the RAF doctrine of radio silence which had been adopted by the 8th Air Force.  He reasoned that prudent radio communication would add little to German intelligence since our large formations routinely operated at radar detection and contrail producing altitudes.  An opportunity to prove that VHF command and control could benefit the outcome of a mission came on August 31, 1943 when Gross flew as air commander to attack Romilly-sur-Seine airfield.  When his leading formation reached the target area they found it covered by clouds, so he immediately radioed the following combat wings, saving them needless miles over enemy territory.  More importantly, on the route in he had sighted, in the clear, the Amiens/Glisy airfield, another important Luftwaffe base, so he improvised a new mission profile on the spot and radioed instructions to his task force for a successful attack.

He was named commanding general of the 1st Combat Wing, based at Bassingbourn, in May 1944 and continued to develop significant changes in combat flying techniques.  One was the first use of fighter aircraft as weather scouts flying to target areas an hour or so ahead of the lead bomber formations.  These scouts were armed P-51 Mustangs flown by bomber pilot volunteers who had completed their tours and flew in two-ship elements with experienced fighter pilots as wingmen.  Another first introduced by the 1st Combat Wing was use of bright colored paint on wing tips and tail surfaces to aid in formation assembly and yet another was initiation of the “buddy wing” concept between specific fighter and bomber wings.

Another “first”, which nearly ended his career prematurely, was acquisition of a brand new B-17 for use as a Command Scout for the 1st Combat Wing.  The airframe was streamlined and lightened by removal of the ball and chin turrets and bomb racks so the aircraft could easily make sustained flight at 200 mph IAS.  Gross took it all the way to Dresden on the mission of April 17, 1945, planning to fly with the first group across the target, circle away and come in with the second and repeat the procedure with the remaining groups of the 1st Division.  An ME 262 appeared during the move from the first group to the second and made a firing pass.  Fortunately, the German pilot was not a sharpshooter and only one cannon shell exploded in the bomb bay.  The wounded Command Scout promptly tucked in with the nearest formation and remained there for the return flight.

Shortly after VE day, Gross volunteered his wing to evacuate allied prisoners from Stalag Luft #1 at Barth and he and his staff arrived there on the afternoon of May 12th to supervise the operation.  Waves of B-17s, including many from the 398th, soon began arriving at the rate of 25 per hour and transported over 1,000 former prisoners to airfields in France during the next two days.

Gross graduated from West Point in 1934 and was the first in his class to become a Brigadier General.  He retired after 30 years of active duty without ever receiving a second star.  He was a courageous, innovative and “hands on” combat commander but apparently not so successful at peacetime military politics.


See also:

  1. 398th Mission: 07 July 1944 - Leipzig, Germany
  2. 398th Mission: 17 April 1945 - Dresden, Germany
  3. 398th Experiences - POW


Printed in Flak News Volume 23 No. 3, Pages 7-8, July 2008