World War II Odyssey
Chapter XV: More Missions and Learning the Routine
2. Ostheim (August 15)
3. Delitzsch (August 16)
4. Kolleda (August 24)
5. Neubrandenberg (August 25)
By Bill Frankhouser, Navigator, 603rd Squadron
Our next four missions were mostly bombing German air bases near Köln (Cologne), Leipzig, Erfurt, and Berlin. On two of these missions our plane aborted (turned back) from the Group formation because of mechanical problems. New crews were assigned older planes and some were war weary.
One problem in an abort was possible attack by German fighters against a single plane, which would be a choice target. On our first abort, a P-51 accompanied us to the English Channel and called Air Sea Rescue to watch for us, but no such help was needed. We lightened the plane by ditching all heavy items, including the guns that could be dismounted. The ground crew was upset to get a stripped-down plane back. Results of the final analysis on cause of the abort were never revealed to me, but Herb, our pilot, talked about a faulty airspeed meter and loss of oil in the engines.
Another problem on an abort was the navigational problem in finding a return route when clouds obstructed your view. Radar would help, but it was now available in the lead ships only. On the first abort I had no problem because land was visible and my route to avoid flak gun emplacements shown on my maps was picked out easily by pilotage.
On the second abort our plane left the Group formation when an engine failed, and was feathered, while over an arm of the North Sea between Denmark and Sweden. Cloud coverage over both land and sea areas was unbroken and no fighter planes were available for escort. I used DR to guide us back across the Danish peninsula and to keep us from the major known 88-mm. gun emplacements that were marked on my map. Finally, fairly close to England, I was able to get a position fix through the radio direction finder. The English coast was a welcome sight when the weather finally had cleared partially.
We were learning quite a bit about German 88-mm. (flak) guns. Most gun emplacements had batteries of four guns that were fired in a sequence and the shells burst in a typical pattern of four consequtive explosions. When the bursts were coming toward your plane, you prayed that the fourth would end before you got there or that the plane would pass between the explosions in the sequence.
In formations, evasive action was impossible. We simply sat there helplessly and watched the explosionsa sort of fireworks display, except that black was the only color evident. With the roar of plane engines, sound from these explosions was normally not heard. The smell, however, of burning powder was quite pronounced when you flew through the powdery remnants of a bursting shell.
Normally navigators were provided maps of the mission routes to and from the target that identified sites of fixed gun emplacements. One responsibility of lead planes was to steer the formations away from these danger areas. On the other hand, many flak guns were mounted on platforms that were easily transported; thus, our information on location of flak guns was neither fully accurate nor always timely.
Our crew also was becoming accustomed to the typical routines associated with the Group missions. Each crew on call for a mission on the next day was listed at Squadron Operations. In some cases, however, this list was posted rather late in the evening. When you crawled into your bed, you might or might not know what was in store for you the next morning.
On mission days, a ground crew sergeant from Squadron Operations would enter a tent or a hut with a flashlight and bed plan and try to rouse those who were needed without disturbing the other sleeping occupants. This wake-up call most often came between three and six oclock in the morning, although for one mission I was rousted out at 12:30 a.m. The flyers sometimes cursed, stumbled, and groped about with their own flashlights to the common latrine hut and took care of morning ablutions in company with others who were arriviing from other huts in the squadron quad area.
This routine included shaving because smooth cheeks were required for proper sealing of oxygen masks against the face. Dressing in old clothes was finished back in the sleeping hut. In my case, this dress was a disreputable Army shirt and trousers that I now considered to be a good luck amulet. These two garments did not get laundered or dry cleaned. We then walked, usually with the aid of flashlights, across a field to the Officers Mess.
Breakfast usually was a relatively quiet meal. No one felt much like conversation. Besides, the food was nothing to rave about. Actually, our food often was better than that available to the English civilians, but we complained. Our breakfast food was prepared from powders that had been shipped from the U.S. in dried form. Square eggs and dry cereal doused with milk that had been liquefied from the powder form were standard fare. These eggs had also been reconstituted from a powder form and cut as squares from the cooking pan.
Trucks took us to the large briefing room which had a raised platform at one end with a wall behind that was covered with a curtain. Promptly at the time designated for briefing a senior Group briefing officer stepped out and began our briefing. As the curtain was drawn along the rear wall, a route from Nuthampstead to the German target was revealed as a heavy line on a large map. This revelation was truly the witching hour. At this point, a lot of people in that room, such as myself, probably were evaluating in their minds the percentage chance that he would or would not be at Nuthampstead the day following.
Supposed milk runs were greeted by the audience with whistles and animated conversation. Conversely, anticipated tough missions were greeted mostly with groans. At this point, as a security measure, communications into and out of the base, except for official 8th Air Force transmissions, were shut down to prevent leakage of the target identity to enemy spies.
These briefings also included plane assignments (by number and location), weather information, and discussions of expected German resistance with fighter planes, and of anticipated locations and number of flak guns. The number of flak guns expected between the IP and target was of considerable interest because the tightly formed and steadily moving Group formation was especially vulnerable during that ten or twelve minutes. On one of our missions, we were told to expect approximately 800 flak guns during our approach to the target.
When the navigators were excused, we went to another room to receive our maps, charts, possibly some additional information on radio codes, etc. The pilots were briefed further in the original room. Our next step was to move to a locker room where outer flight clothing, microphones, parachutes, Mae Wests, oxygen masks, etc., were stored. Steel flak helmets and jackets (body shields) usually were provided in the planes.
We then jumped into the rear of a large Army truck, while carrying our bulky equipment, for transport to the planes parked in the Squadron revetments. The people within a truck load typically would be from several different crews. Consequently, conversa-tions normally were quite limited except for a wiseacre or two who might be trying to impress a buddy about some amorous conquest.
At the assigned plane, both flying and ground crews were busy with necessary tasks. Bomb loading might not be complete, guns had to be loaded with ammunition belts, and engines checked. Microphone operation was verified and all instruments checked out. Oil had to be circulated through the four engines by manual rotation of the propeller blades. I usually checked radio code information with the radio operator, and details of the route to Group assembly with the pilot. Flak helmets and jackets were distributed to everyone and presence of a parachute for each crew member was confirmed. All such duties had to be completed before the time designated for start engines.
Each person was now at his flying station except for the rear and ball turret gunners, who usually stayed in the waist area or radio room during take-off. The radio order to start engines usually was accompanied by a green flare that was shot from the control tower in the runway area.
Occasionally, we experienced a delay at this point. The 8th Air Force Command might be rechecking weather, rescheduling departure times from the English coast, or changing the mission from the primary to a secondary target, which both had been identified previously in the briefing.
Whit, our bombardier, and I usually sat quietly during such periods immersed in our own thoughts. Mine were usually about what might be happening on the farm or at Penn State, or what my brother might be doing in the Pacific Theater. If the mission was scrubbed, perhaps because of new information about the weather, a red flare was fired from the tower. At this point, regardless of having gone through the preceding hours of preparation, sighs of relief were evident and animated conversations sprang out all through the plane. As Herb, our leader, remarked on one such occasion, My life expectancy has just been extended by twenty-four hours.
When the flare was green, engines were started and planes moved out onto the taxi strips in a prearranged sequence. Thirty-six ships had to move in the proper order and advance to the end of the runway. A plane took off every thirty seconds. When he wasnt flying, the Group CO, Colonel Hunter, and Chaplain Duvall stood at the starting point and waved good-bye.
At takeoff, engines roared, brakes were released, and the big plane lurched forward. As speed increased I watched the oil spots on the runway surface go past at an ever-increasing rate. I usually said a prayer that this massive metallic and winged hulk would really lift off the ground and soar into the air like a bird.
Speed was crucial in getting aloft before reaching the end of the pavement. As the plane bounced considerably more with some wing lift, my eyes were glued to the airspeed meter. We hoped to reach more than ninety miles per hour, and those numbers were being announced loudly up in the cockpit to aid the pilot in deciding when to make the final lift-off. At this point we usually hit a blast of turbulence caused by prop wash from the previous plane getting airborne. The resultant wing wiggling and dipping was another cause of concern. As soon as we were airborne, I reminded the pilot of the course required to start our ascent to the altitude designated for Group assembly.
Typically, English weather meant clouds at various altitudes. We had to stay on a precise course because other planes usually could not be seen in these cloud formations. When 1,000 to 2,000 bombers were being assembled within a small area over eastern England, not much tolerance was available for course diversions.Furthermore, in the winter planes could ice up in these cloud layers so vigilance was required in looking for ice on the wings. Severe icing would cause heavily loaded planes to go out of control and crash.
Each Group assembled as they flew in a circular pattern around a designated radio beacon (buncher). Hopefully, the Group Lead had gotten there first and the other planes arrived and came into position behind him in the sequence of takeoff. Color-coded flares fired from the lead plane were often used to help crews find their own formation. Once Group formation was completed, the leader headed for a pre-designated point on the English coast. Each Group had to reach this point within plus or minus one minute in order to take a designated position in the long stream of bomber groups. These constraints on time were a real challenge to the capability of the lead navigator and command pilots within each group.
Once over the English Channel individuals checked in over the intercom, gunners got to positions (e.g. down into the ball turret), all guns were test fired, bombs were armed, and all of us began surveillance for enmy aircraft.
Depending on target location, altitude might be increased over the channel at this time while in the bomber stream, or bombing altitude might have been reached previously during the group assembly. From this point until the mission completion, the task of the navigator in the follower planes was to read instruments or watch the earths surface, when visible, and plot the route on a navigation log. In case of an abort, the navigator would need to know the location of his plane at all times.
Between the IP and target, we navigators in the follower planes sat tensely, watched and smelled the flak explosions, and prayed. When the bombardier released our bombs and the Group moved from the target, we started reading instruments again and putting data in our logs.
Another sometimes humorous and usually urgent problem encountered was elimination of liquid waste from the human body and its disposal. A relevant statement often heard on the farm back in Honey Brook was that so-and-so had the you-know-what scared out of him. On combat missions, we were frightened often and urine accumulated in large amounts during long missions. The outlet provided was a funnel and tube located in the bomb bay, which opened to the external air stream.
This facility was used mostly by the pilots, flight engineer, and radioman because of the easy accessibility to them. Other crew members had some access problems, especially when encumbered by oxygen hookups. Some of us carried sizable cardboard food containers for such usemuch like the ones that I had used for puke buckets back at San Marcos.
I had teased Paul Deininger about his frequent use of the relief tube. No matter how scared I was, my retention capacity had been sufficient during the early missions to get me back to the grass around the parking revetments at Nuthampstead without urination. On one long mission, however, my capacity for retention was exceeded and I filled and overfilled the available container. The mess left on the bottom of the fuselage was the subject of considerable discussion during subsequent flights.
Another necessary caution on urination was to warn the ball turret gunner if the relief tube was to be used. The stream of urine from this tube impacted onto his turret while flowing in the air stream. At high altitudes, it froze as a yellow cloud on his turret. The instruction was to warn him about your intention so that he could turn his view screen away from the relief tube. When not warned, his guns were useless since he had no visibility until the yellow cloud melted at lower altitudes. Often, forgetful urinators were cursed roundly by ball turret gunners.
On the way back from the target, when clear of enemy interference, almost everyone except the pilots could relax. Those guys had to keep us in formation. We were hungry and each of us had a Clark bar to eat. It had frozen at high altitudes, but we munched on it anyway. After landing, we were trucked back to the briefing area, deposited our equipment, and were debriefed as a crew. Each one was offered a shot of bourbon prior to this procedure. The drinkers on crews with abstainers got bonus drinks on these occasions. Also, the very pretty U.S. Red Cross girls were there with donuts, crumpets, tea, etc.
Another item carried on missions was an escape kit. This packet included maps of Europe, local European money, and a personal picture taken in civilian clothing. Since underground resistance organizations were active in western Europe, they helped downed Allied fliers elude capture by the Germans and aided them in getting to Allied battle lines or to Spain. They occasionally were successful; in fact, twenty-five downed crew members from the 398th BG evaded capture with such assistance.
My picture, and all others at Nuthampstead, was taken with the same necktie, shirt, and jacket. I often wondered whether German Intelligence had ever detected this similarity among pictures of persons traveling through their occupied territories.
Note: all mission dates are in 1944.
Personal History Information
- Veteran: Bill Frankhouser
- Navigator, 603rd Squadron
- Date of Personal History: October 2006 Web Page submission. Excerpted from World War II Odyssey by Bill Frankhouser.
- Author: Bill Frankhouser
- Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Bill Frankhouser