A Twelfth Air Force intelligence officer came up with a daring plan to cripple Axis supply lines in northern Italy.
Colonel Randy Holzapple strode into the smoke-filled briefing room on Sardinia at 5 a.m. on July 12, 1944. Yanking back a curtain to reveal a map, he said: “Men, you’ll recognize this as northern Italy, and you’re about to become a great deal more familiar with it. Our recent Operation Strangle has successfully choked off the southbound German supplies to central Italy. Without those tough missions, the Anzio beachhead, and the capture of Rome, would have cost us many more Allied lives. Our next mission is Operation Mallory Major.” When a bold airman piped up with, “What the hell is Operation Mallory Major?” Holzapple said simply, “My answer is I don’t know where the hell they came up with that name, but it’s a damn good plan.
“There are 22 bridges across the Po River,” he continued, “and our mediums are going to knock them all out in one fell swoop—before the Germans can mount an effective defense. The bridges range from 1,000 to 3,700 feet in length. Half are permanent structures built of steel girders or masonry arches. Six are major combination road/rail – road heavy structure bridges. MATAF [Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force] Headquarters assigned one of the six combo bridges to us today, the one at Cremona. We’ve planned two missions today to knock it out, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Recon will check after the morning mission, and we’ll adjust the key aiming points for the afternoon mission. We’re flying 60 sorties—four six-ship boxes in the morning and six in the afternoon—against this vital bridge. It’s imperative that we knock it out immediately. You lead bombardiers take good aim.”
This would be my first mission on the bombsight. Earlier I had flown sorties in the wing position, toggling my bombs on the lead bombardier’s drop so that I could get a feel for aerial combat.
I learned later that Operation Mallory Major had its genesis a month earlier, on June 15, when Major William N. Mallory burst into Lt. Gen. John Cannon’s office at Twelfth Air Force Headquarters and blurted out, “I’ve got it, general—a plan that will stifle the whole German army in Italy.” He swept a pencil across a map of northern Italy from Venice on the east coast to Turin in the west, saying, “My OSS agents confirm that there are 22 bridges across the Po—most of them virtually undefended. Do you see where I’m going, general?”
“You want to knock them out,” said Cannon, “but why now? Our troops will need to cross the Po eventually.”
“The Germans are attempting to hold a defense line—the so-called Gothic Line—in the Apennine Mountains from La Spezia in the west to Rimini in the east,” Mallory replied. “I intend to convince you that MATAF must enlarge its sphere of operations into the Po River valley and beyond. In fact, the destruction of eight bridges can cut off all rail traffic from Germany and the rest of Europe to the German area of operations south of the Po. Six of the bridges cross the Po, one the Trebbia River and the other one is the Recco viaduct on the west coast line east of Genoa. Five are combination road and rail bridges, and road bridges closely parallel another two. A successful attack could knock out two for one on each mission. They are all excellent targets, and all, except for the Recco viaduct, are at least 100 miles from the Gothic Line.
“We don’t know how long it’ll take our troops to break through the Apennine Mountains. There’s ample evidence the Germans have massive supply dumps north of the Po. I believe the destruction of these bridges will have a disastrous effect on the Germans’ ability to defend the Gothic Line. Not only that, if we act decisively, we can knock out all the bridges before the Germans get a chance to defend any of them. General Webster of the 42nd Bomb Wing and General Knapp of the 57th Bomb Wing tell me we can knock out all 22 bridges within a week using available planes and crews.”
Cannon needed no further convincing. He told Mallory that he would authorize a major air offensive, to be code-named Operation Mallory. “I’ll call both bomb wing generals and set the wheels in motion,” he said. “We’ll set the start date for June 17.”
MATAF assigned Brig. Gen. Robert Knapp’s 57th Bomb Wing the five-span steel bridge near Pontelagoscuro, a six-span masonry bridge south of Ostiglia, a seven-span steel bridge near Borgoforte and a 10-span steel bridge south of Casalmaggiore. Brigadier General Robert Webster’s 42nd Bomb Wing would target a 12-span steel bridge south of Cremona, an 11-span steel double bridge north of Piacenza, a 22-span masonry bridge over the Trebbia River and the 20- span masonry Recco or Zoagli viaducts. The provisional operation date was June 19.
Intermittent bad weather caused delays, and then on June 26 the commander in chief of the Allied Armies in Italy summarily canceled the operation, concerned that the bridges would be too severely damaged for Allied forces to use as they advanced. But by July 11, with the Germans increasingly relying on the Po River crossings, the AAI commander decided the time had come to eliminate them. The operation was expanded and renamed Operation Mallory Major.
Our Martin B-26 Marauder crew was scheduled to join the afternoon mission on July 12. Pilot Ed Steinman and I attended the lead bombardiers’ meeting, briefing the rest of the crew once we all reached our aircraft. As we waited at the hardstand for word to start, a courier arrived with a message for Stein – man, who announced: “It’s a decoded message from the radio operator of the lead ship on the first mission. The first group reported the target obscured by smoke from smoke pots. They couldn’t drop. We’re ordered to take off within the next hour, so we’ll reach the target as the wind builds up. The good news is the wind is expected to be favorable. We’ll change our approach and fly a downwind heading. The wind should clear the smoke for us.”
“That means a different IP [initial point],” I said. “Right,” replied Steinman. “Major Pewitt radioed a new IP, Casalpusterlengo/ Cadogno. It’s about 20 miles west of Cremona and five minutes from our target. He advises us to stick to the original evasive action plan in case the bridge is clear.”
While we took off with engines roaring and climbed into formation, I moved forward, gripping my bombardier’s briefcase as I crawled into the nose. I immediately took out my maps and located our current position. The squadron navigator in the lead flight would set the course, but I needed to know where we were at all times, since I might have to navigate home or to an alternate landing site if we had engine trouble or got shot up.
Knowing it would take two hours to reach our target, I lit a cigarette and reviewed the bombing sequence. First I would turn on the bombsight and let it warm up. Then I’d input the ballistic parameters of the bombs we were carrying. Since we were headed for a hard target, each Marauder was loaded with four 1,000-pounders, one of which would have to be equipped with a 48-hour delay fuse, to discourage the enemy from making rapid repairs or constructing a temporary bridge.
I reached inside my pocket to make sure I still had the delay fuse, which I’d have to install when we reached the IP. It was a tricky maneuver—one I’d never done before. Inserting it required a continuous right-hand turn to a positive stop. If you backed off the fuse just a quarter of an inch, the bomb would explode—an antitamper feature intended to keep the Germans from defusing it.
Our evasive action plan involved making a right turn over the IP onto a heading directly to the target. For the next minute or two I would check landmarks and search for the target. We would be coming in at 11,500 feet and descend to a bombing altitude of 10,000 feet. At three minutes out, the pilot would start descending at 500 feet per minute, a maneuver intended to foil German anti-aircraft crews, who had to set their shells to explode at fixed altitudes.
While we descended I would initiate my first evasive action. Turning upwind, we’d hold that heading no longer than 20 seconds—knowing that it took the Germans 20 seconds to track the heading and get the shells up to altitude. The rest of our maneuvers would be in random directions, until our final turn to the target for a 15-second bomb run.
Steinman called me on the intercom: “I see the coastline ahead. What’s our landfall?” I replied, “That’s La Spezia off to our right, but our landfall is 25 miles up the coast at Moneglia, dead ahead. Our target is 20 minutes due north of the city.” I flipped on the bombsight, which soon warmed up enough so that I could input data. Normally that took five minutes, but because I doublechecked the settings it required about 10 minutes. I began to feel rushed.
As I crawled through the tunnel toward the bomb bay to install the delay fuse, my head abruptly met a pair of knees—and my copilot looked down at me, scowling. But when I pulled the fuse out of my pocket and waved it in his face, he backed up in a hurry to let me by. Entering the noisy bomb bay, I unscrewed the bomb’s nose plug and slipped it inside my pocket. Then, placing both hands on the fuse, I carefully guided it into the threaded hole. Holding my breath, I slowly screwed it into the bomb, making sure it went in only one direction until it stopped. Did I have it tight enough? Could engine vibrations cause it to back off? For good measure, I twisted the fuse clockwise as hard as I could, using both hands. It moved just a little more, but felt solidly in place.
I hurried to get back to the nose just before we reached our IP. We passed to the left of Piacenza, and Codogno lay dead ahead. I had everything ready when we made a right turn over our IP. Our target, the Cremona Bridge, was easy to spot now that the smoke had cleared, and I followed the Po River off to our right. At three minutes to target I could still see no flak. Opting to begin evasive action anyway, I called on the intercom, “Bombardier to pilot; begin descent at 500 feet per minute and turn left 15 degrees.”
I opened the bomb bay doors and set the intervalometer at the mini – mum 20 feet. Although there was still no flak, I struggled into my cumbersome flak jacket anyway. I was sweating profusely. Soon, thankfully, we were ready to make the final turn onto the bomb run; I could finally put my head on the sight and focus on the target. With just 15 seconds to go, I saw smoke beginning to rise from both shores near the bridge. The Germans had lit their smoke pots again—too late. I synchronized my cross hairs on the center of the bridge. Ten seconds to go, but every second seemed like an eternity. Still no flak. I made one more correction, then shouted: “Bombs away! Let’s get the hell out of here!”
I leaned out over the bombsight, watching the bridge as our Marauder dived to the right. The bombs walked right across the center span and destroyed it. “We did it!” I yelled. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I hadn’t messed up on my first mission as lead bombardier.
I flew a second mission against the Cremona Bridge the next day. This time we took no evasive action beforehand and extended our bomb run to about a minute, completely obliterating the bridge. Once again we encountered no flak. Apparently the Germans had relied on their smoke pots for defense— a mistake they would soon correct.
Good weather and the element of surprise contributed to the overall success of the operation’s opening phase. During the first four days bomb groups from the 42nd and 57th wings flew an average of 300 sorties a day. The first two days saw 11 bridges disabled or destroyed, three others half destroyed and the remainder considerably damaged. By the 15th all 22 bridges had been destroyed, cut or closed to traffic. As a result, MATAF Headquarters judged Operation Mallory Major successfully completed. Follow-on operations over the next 12 days revisited bridges that had already been hit, also targeting rail and road bridges west of Piacenza and road bridges east of that city.
The enemy quickly deployed defenses to partially damaged or remaining bridges as they grasped the Allied operation’s objectives. The key to Mallory Major’s success proved to be targeting the Po River valley’s bridges almost simultaneously.
On July 15, General Cannon sent a message to the commanding officers of the 42nd and 57th Bomb wings that read in part: “In just over 72 hours your Wings have damaged or destroyed no less than 22 bridges over the Po River. I regard this feat as being outstanding in the history of air warfare.”
During the war I didn’t realize that Operation Mallory Major had been named after an individual. While recently researching the operation, I came across the story of the man behind it. “Memphis Bill” Mallory was a Tennessee native who had been an All American football player at Yale and captain of its undefeated 1923 team. He had enlisted in the Army Air Forces after Pearl Harbor, at 41 about twice the age of the average enlistee. He served with distinction as an intelligence officer with Twelfth Air Force Headquarters throughout the North African, Sicilian and Italian air campaigns.
Cannon awarded Mallory the Legion of Merit for his brilliant plan. He also authorized Mallory’s return Stateside in February 1945. Tragically, Mallory died when the plane he boarded for the trip crashed on takeoff.
Yale University later established the William Neely Mallory Award for athletic excellence, and in 1954 Rhodes College—where he had served as treasurer—dedicated its gymnasium to Mallory. Both were fitting tributes to an outstanding athlete who played a key role as a strategist in the Mediterranean theater of World War II.
Joseph Connaughton, who served in both the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters with the 319th Bomb Group, writes from Huntsville, Ala. Now retired, he formerly worked as an engineer with the Army Missile Command. For additional reading, try: The Big Tailed Birds, by Victor C. Tannehill; and Twelfth Air Force Story in World War II, by Kenn C. Rust.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.