Not until 49 years later did B-17 pilot ‘Woody’ Woodward learn why his 15th mission had been such a disaster.
September 12, 1944: 5:02 a.m. Lead pilot Ellis M. “Woody” Woodward’s crew was delighted with their short takeoff run in their Boeing B-17G Group had just converted from Consolidated Ramp Happy Pappy. The 493rd Bomb B-24 Liberators to B-17 Flying Fortresses. Compared to the B-24s Woodward and the rest of his crew had flown through their first 14 missions, the B-17s had big, fat wings that offered markedly better low-speed lift than the Davis airfoil design of the B-24’s slender wing.
The pilots and crew had not slept well. As Woodward would write years later in his memoir Flying School: Combat Hell, “Who can sleep when he’s nervous and knows that someone is coming to wake him up just after midnight?” A half hour for breakfast, then briefings for the crew. Next they were off to the “drying room” for a heated suit, coveralls, flak vest, hard helmet, oxygen mask and parachute. For this trip, Woodward opted to wear “pussy-foot” shoes—heated felt slippers inside his flying boots—in place of the frigid leather GI footwear he had worn on his first 14 missions.
As the lead B-17 of the low squadron, Woody’s Ramp Happy Pappy was fifth to take off from Debach, England, on that cold morning. He was followed by the low squadron’s deputy lead, then by 32 more heavy bombers. Their target was the ordnance depot at Magdeburg, Germany, about 70 miles southwest of Berlin along the Elbe River.
After assembling as a group, the 493rd’s three squadrons joined other airborne groups and began the long cross-Channel climb to bombing altitude. When Woodward’s low squadron reached the assigned altitude, 26,500 feet, the outside temperature read minus 60 degrees.
Lead crews flew three to four combat missions per month, while regular wing crews flew six to seven. The distinction had its penalties, though. Lead crews were required to fly an equipment check nearly every day, weather permitting, and check flights included a climb to 15,000 feet to monitor the oxygen system. Lead crews were also the enemy fighters’ targets of choice. In compensation, at this stage of the war lead crews were required to fly 30 combat missions for a tour while wing crews flew 35.
Woodward had earned his lead crew distinction and responsibility by virtue of experience. A 1941 graduate of New Orleans Academy, a military school, he applied for Army Air Forces pilot training and was ordered to report nine days after Pearl Harbor. His primary training was in Stearman PT-17s, secondary in Vultee BT-13s and advanced in twin-engine Curtiss-Wright AT-9s and Cessna AT-17s.
In November 1942, Woodward was assigned to the 19th Anti-Submarine Squadron as the co-pilot on a B-24. The next month, he was hospitalized with the flu. A replacement co-pilot was assigned to his crew, and they shipped out for East Africa, forced to leave him behind. Some weeks later, he learned they had flown off on a patrol mission and had not been heard from again.
Next assigned to an antisubmarine training squadron, B-24 co-pilot Woody eagerly awaited his check ride as first pilot. But when that day arrived in January 1943, he was stunned to find himself at the controls of a Douglas B-18. The obsolete twin-engine bomber was a 1934 design with a 170-mph cruising speed, adequate for antisub patrol.
When Woody was transferred to Grenier Field, N.H., in March 1943, he was assigned as first pilot on an antisubmarine patrol North American B-25. Five months later, the 13th Anti-Submarine Squadron was ordered to Langley Field, Va., for B-24 training. The squadron flew patrols for a few months, returned to Grenier and then transferred to Pueblo, Colo., to become part of the newly formed 493rd Bombardment Group.
Assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England, the 493rd became operational in May 1944. At 231⁄2, Woodward was the oldest man on his crew of 10. The youngest was his 19-year-old co-pilot, William C. Rawson. By the time he and his crew landed in England, he had logged more than 1,000 hours as a pilot—almost three times the flying hours of most of the other 493rd pilots.
None of the crew’s first 14 missions was as hectic as a practice bombing mission they had flown before becoming combat operational. “As we flew toward the target area,” navigator Franklin W. Littleton recalled, “we had to penetrate a moderate squall line over the English-Welsh border. We flew on to the target, bombed it and headed back toward base through the squall line. Now, though, the cumulus towered over 30,000 feet. We entered at 20,000. Woody was still nominally in control, but the up and down drafts were shooting [our B-24] up and down like a paper airplane.”
Suddenly the warning sounders of barrage balloons overrode the bomber’s intercom system. “I never did figure out how they did that,” Littleton said. “It was a way of warning friendly aircraft of the balloons and their dangling cables. In total blackness inside the squall, battered by rain and hail, with the altimeter winding up and unwinding and the sudden WHOOP-WHOOP-WHOOP shrilling over the intercom, I was more frightened on that practice mission than on any of my 30 combat flights.”
Their first combat mission, a troop support effort flown on June 7, 1944, was a dud. Cloud cover obliterated the battlefront. No bombs were dropped, so no mission credit was awarded. During the next 14 missions—10 against targets in France, three against German targets and one attack in Belgium—Woodward recalled several flak hits on his Liberator. “On one occasion,” he said, “a fragment from an exploding shell came out through the side of one of the gasoline hoses in the wing, but through luck and luck alone, it didn’t cut through the hose itself. We had grown accustomed to minor damage from flak and no attacks at all from German fighter planes, and we made the mistake of thinking these experiences would continue to be the norm for all of our missions. How wrong we were!”
As the 493rd approached Magdeburg on September 12, 1944, in the teeth of a 120-mph headwind, things began to go awry. At the initial point of attack, Woodward’s 12-bomber low squadron faced a problem. The high squadron was out of position, forcing Woodward to swing his 12 B-17s away from the target in a wide turn to give the high group time to reposition itself. This put his low squadron dangerously behind the rest of the group—making them perfect targets for a fighter attack.
Normally Woodward’s lead crew flew with two navigators: Littleton and Gordon W. Weir. But for this mission Littleton had been assigned to a different crew as group navigator. From his vantage point in the lead squadron, he noted that Woodward’s squadron had now become isolated. Littleton did note escort fighters “high above us,” but since enemy fighters had been almost nonexistent at that late stage of the air war, they did not cause great concern. The major worry was the radar-controlled 88mm and 105mm flak artillery massed around the target area.
Again on course toward Magdeburg, the 12 B-17s of Woodward’s squadron thundered into heavy flak bursts. On the bomb run a large shell streaked into Ramp Happy Pappy’s open bomb bay and ripped out through the top of the fuselage, taking with it half the life raft stored there. At nearly the same time, a B-17 in one of the other two elements suffered a direct hit in its gas tanks. The big plane burst into flame along its entire 103-foot wingspan. The Fortress fell into a slow left turn, and then exploded.
“In the aftermath of the explosion,” Woodward recalled, “you couldn’t see wings, or tail, or engines, or wheels, parachutes or people. Nothing.” Navigator Weir recalled that “nothing was left but four black streaks as burning engines plunged earthward.” The sudden vaporization of plane and crew was even more sickening because the pilot’s brother, also a pilot in that same squadron, had witnessed the disastrous explosion.
As Ramp Happy Pappy’s bomb racks emptied, instead of saying “Bombs away,” bombardier Marvin “Mike” Wright yelled “I’m hit!” A shell fragment had struck his right forearm.
Relieved that he’d dropped his bombs but still trailing the rest of the group, Woody led his squadron toward home. The bomb bay doors refused to close. The shell that had banged out through the life raft compartment had cut the wiring. Woody asked flight engineer Tech Sgt. Joseph J. Vales to climb down from his top turret position and crank the doors shut manually. As Vales began to retract them, tail gunner George Kenawell shouted over the intercom, “Fighters!” and began firing.
In a coordinated steep dive, a mass of Focke Wulf Fw-190s flashed through the low squadron, cannons blazing. Woodward’s B-17 shook with multiple hits from 20mm cannon shells. Then suddenly the sky was clear. Horrifyingly clear. Looking around in disbelief, Woodward realized that only one other B-17 of his squadron, his deputy lead, had survived the onslaught. Within 90 seconds, 10 B-17s and their 90 crewmen had been blasted out of the sky, an 83 percent loss.
In Ramp Happy Pappy, radio operator Joseph Sutton had been struck in the face with splinters from the plywood flooring. Both Sutton and Mike Wright insisted their wounds were minor. Waist gunner George Spinney, ball turret gunner Blair Archer and tail gunner Kenawell reported the damage they could see from their positions. Vales checked for engine damage. The outlook was not good. Half the left elevator had been shot away. The wings and flaps were cratered with cannon hits. The engines showed signs of multiple oil leaks, and the supercharger on No. 3 had been shot out of commission.
Abruptly, the stricken B-17 nosed down. “I grabbed my parachute and tore open the escape hatch,” Weir recalled. “Mike, too, was busy fastening his….I was still on the intercom expecting the command to bail out when Woody let us know our precipitous descent of thousands of feet was because much of our oxygen supply had been shot out.”
In denser air, the crew of the severely crippled B-17 hunkered down for the fighters’ next attack. It never came. After their solitary devastating pass, the Fw-190s had peeled away and disappeared.
Vales proved to be the luckiest man on the mission. A 20mm shell had ripped into his top turret, plowed through the gunsight and could have hit Vales right between the eyes. But he had been in the bomb bay cranking up the damaged doors. Looking back on a day that would live as the worst in his memory, Woodward said, “Vales’ sheer luck at being in the bomb bay is the happiest memory of my life.”
The lead crew hadn’t simply sat there and taken the beating. During the sudden attack, Staff Sgt. Kenawell, the tail gunner, had managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me-109 that seemed to be flying escort for the Fw-190s. “It’s a wonder that Sgt. Kenawell was able to accomplish anything,” Woodward marveled years later, “and the 109 that he shot down might have been the plane that would have shot us down after the Fw-190s had finished with us.”
The only other surviving bomber in Woodward’s squadron, the deputy lead piloted by Captain Roy L. Holtman, had suffered less damage. With the plane’s radios inoperative, Holtman escorted the limping B-17 for four harrowing hours back toward England.
With the English coast finally in sight, co-pilot Rawson decided “we were going to land the plane, but we wanted to give the rest of the crew the option to bail out….We asked the engineer to go through the plane and talk with each of the crew, explain the options and let each make his decision independently from the others. In a few minutes the engineer returned and said all of the members of the crew wanted to stay with the plane.”
Using axes, the crew chopped out all windows except those in the cockpit, to serve as escape hatches in case of fire. Then they braced themselves for a crash landing on an airstrip near the coast.
On the approach leg, Woody discovered that the flaps had been shot out. The touchdown was fast. The landing gear held up, but as the Fortress slowed it veered to the left. The fighters had blown out the left tire. In an attempt to control the swerve, Woodward and Rawson hit the brakes— which failed. “We had lost all control of the airplane, so we simply cut the switches and let the plane coast to a stop,” Woodward recalled. It finally came to rest only 15 feet from a gas pipe that circled the field as a fog burner.
With Woodward’s bomber safely down, Holtman flew on to the 493rd’s base at Debach to celebrate his crew’s survival— and his 24th birthday. The British “hauled the airplane to the salvage dump,” Woodward remembered, “from where it never flew again….If we had suffered the same damage in a B-24—the gaping holes in the wing and tail assembly—we would never have made it back to England.”
For his role in the hard-hit Magdeburg mission, Woody received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Years later he would look back and exclaim: “But what about the other pilots and their crews whose airplanes were damaged beyond airworthiness? What were they awarded? German prison camp if they survived, or an asterisk after their names if they didn’t.”
After coming so close to disaster at Magdeburg, Woodward never again wore “pussy-foot shoes.” He had realized that if he were shot down, the felt slippers would be useless as walking shoes. During 13 of the remaining 15 missions in his tour, his B-17 suffered flak damage, but he admitted his worst injury was psychological: “After the Magdeburg mission, my positive attitude performed a 180-degree flip-flop. It turned negative and it remained negative for the last 15 missions.”
His reaction to lighthearted comments at subsequent briefings was “They’re probably coming home today, but maybe we’re not.” He summarized his outlook this way: “It was amazing how one truly disastrous experience could alter your outlook. Taxiing out to takeoff position for our 16th mission, our ride was less than smooth. This was due to my legs shaking from fear. They just wouldn’t respond normally for me.”
Only two of the five crews selected as lead and deputy lead crews for Woodward’s squadron completed their 30-mission tours. “Looking on the bright side,” he said, “the fact that we were unaware of the odds against us, from the time we opened the throttles on our first lead crew mission until we closed them on our 30th lead crew mission, lends support to the proverb ‘What you don’t know can’t hurt you.’”
Not until 49 years later did Woodward learn that his 12-plane squadron on the Magdeburg mission had been the target of an almost unknown German attack unit, a Luftwaffe Sturmgruppe (storm group). His source was an article in the January 1989 issue of the 8th AF News, but Woodward wasn’t aware of it until his former navigator and friend Franklin Littleton brought it to his attention in 1993.
The several Sturmgruppen were made up of volunteer German fighter pilots who had pledged to attack only four-engine bombers, to close within 200 meters before firing, to ram them if gunfire failed to bring down their targets, and to avoid engagement with Allied escort fighters. Thus their slashing close-proximity dive at Magdeburg and their abrupt disappearance.
For these close-in attacks, Luftwaffe planners had selected the Focke Wulf Fw-190 models A-5, A-6, A-7 and A-8. A bulletproof windshield, armor plate behind his seat and armored side panels protected the pilot. The radial engine could take a pounding, and the oil cooler was armored. All that armor led to heavy fuel consumption, but two jettisonable auxiliary fuel tanks extended flight time to three hours. Because their heavy, short duration attack fighters were unsuitable for encounters with Allied escort fighters, the Sturmgruppen were accompanied by Me-109G escorts.
The Sturmgruppen’s missions began in August 1944. Including the September 12 attack, the pounce-close-and-dive-away technique cost them 30 killed and eight wounded. On September 27, Gruppe II (Sturm),Jagdgeschwader 4, attacked 30 B-24s from the 445th Bomb Group. More than a third of the Liberators went down. The attacking Sturmgruppe lost 10 Fw-190s, several due to collisions with each other. Among the dead was their commander and founding mentor, Lt. Col. Hans Günter von Kornatzki, killed after downing a B-17 for his sixth victory.
The Luftwaffe continued its near-suicidal attacks until the turn of the year. Then the Sturmgruppen were converted to conventional tactics in defense of the Fatherland.
Woodward remained active in the U.S. Air Force Reserve until he resigned as a major. He subsequently enjoyed a successful career as an investment counselor with several Baltimore brokerage houses.
Franklin Littleton, who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, remembers Woody Woodward as a man who “inspired confidence in others, a good leader with an inventive mind.” The publication of Flying School: Combat Hell in 1998 was Woodward’s final venture. He died in 2004 at age 84.
William Hallstead, who writes from Sanibel Island, Fla., served as a B-24 radioman/ gunner with the 456th Bomb Group in Italy. Suggested reading: Flying School: Combat Hell, by Ellis M. “Woody”Woodward.
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.