To Kingdom Come: An Epic Saga of Survival in the Air War Over Germany
By Robert J. Mrazek. 400 pp. NAL Caliber, 2011. $25.95.
Three years ago, former congressman- turned-historian Robert J. Mrazek published A Dawn Like Thunder, a powerful recounting of the trials of the U.S. Navy’s Torpedo Squadron 8 at Midway and the Solomons in 1942–43. Here he turns his considerable research and narrative skills to an in-depth examination of a nearly forgotten air action: the Eighth Air Force’s strike against Stuttgart on September 6, 1943. Along with a detailed “anatomy of a raid,” emphasizing the human cost of air battle, Mrazek paints on a broader canvas.
The Eighth Air Force suffered more than its share of disasters before its bombers and fighters finally prevailed against the Third Reich’s formidable air defenses. The infamous Regensburg-Schweinfurt raid of August 17, 1943, and the catastrophic second Schweinfurt mission of October 14, 1943, each cost the Eighth 60 bombers and their crews.Yet Stuttgart, over which 45 planes went down, has a better claim to being the Eighth’s most disastrous outing. The more famous raids at least inflicted heavy damage on their targets. The Stuttgart strike was a complete failure: no primary target was so much as scratched.
Mrazek focuses on several air crew members from a variety of bomb groups (including the 384th, 388th, and the 306th “Reich Wreckers”). He takes us through the mission briefing, the preparations, the mission itself, and its aftermath. For some, it meant safe return to England; for others, escape, evasion, or capture; for still others, sudden death. Especially noteworthy is the portrayal of Brigadier General Robert Travis, the ambitious-to-a-fault mission commander. Incredibly, Travis brought the bomber stream back over the target three times in a vain effort to locate the aiming point through the heavy overcast. Controversy dogged him for the rest of his career, and beyond: his portrait at the California air base named for him was mysteriously vandalized years after his death.
Mrazek does an outstanding job of putting this into the overall context of the bomber offensive. The raid was the result of Army Air Forces chief Hap Arnold impatiently demanding results from Ira Eaker, the Eighth’s commander, who wanted to husband his forces. Eaker’s attempt to soft-pedal the disaster, and Arnold’s fury on learning the true story four days later, proves the adage that bad news does not improve with age. Mrazek convincingly argues that the fiasco hastened Eaker’s firing. He also offers us a glimpse of “the other side of the hill” by including the perspective of German fighter commander Egon Mayer, who invented the deadly “twelve o’clock high” frontal attack tactics used to great effect against USAAF bomber formations.
Mayer himself died in combat the following March, a victim of the growing Allied air superiority the men of the Stuttgart raid did their costly part to forge. Bringing the hows and whys to light so compellingly guarantees this superb book a place in the front ranks of its genre.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.