Among the aircraft to take part in the early phase of the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bomber offensive over occupied Europe were three B-17s that shared the same name—and the same fate.
Remembrances of the strategic bomber over occupied Europe often focus on the great raids such as Schweinfurt and Regensburg, or the massive 1,000- offensive plane missions that laid waste to Berlin, Dresden and other cities. Less glamorous but far more hazardous to the men who flew them, the raids conducted by the U.S. Eighth Air Force during the first year of its combat tour receive far less attention. A review of the initial missions of “the Ragged Irregulars” of the 91st Bomb Group (BG), and in particular the three Boeing B-17s dubbed “Short Snorter” that flew in it, provides a telling look at what happened when the theories of prewar advocates of daylight precision bombing were put to the test of combat.
The first Short Snorter, Bureau of Aeronautics No. 41-24449, was a B-17F assigned to the 401st Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) just as it and the 91st BG’s 322nd, 323rd and 324th squadrons were taking up their first station in England. Named after the good luck charm that members of the “Grand Order of the Short Snorter”—an elite group of interwar air travelers who had made transoceanic air crossings—all carried, the bomber was flown to Bassingbourn, England, by 1st Lt. William D. Bloodgood and missed the 91st’s combat debut by just one day.
This Short Snorter’s war began on November 8, 1942, with a raid against the German fighter airfield at Abbeville, France. The takeoff went smoothly, and it was not until the formation was 10 miles east of Aul that the group started to receive flak. Fortunately for the Americans, most of the bursts were below and to the rear of the formation and the bombers continued on. Lieutenant Bloodgood dropped his bombs on the target at 1159 hours from 21,000 feet. New to combat, he then banked No. 449 a little too soon coming off the target, which caused an inaccurate release. Two of the 10 500-pound bombs Short Snorter carried got stuck in the bomb bay and remained in the belly of the plane as it began its return flight.
Fourteen Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters struck the formation as it headed for home. The Luftwaffe pilots approached to within 800 yards of the bombers during their attack. Captain Haley W. Aycock, the group leader, flying in The Saint, was hit in the left leg by a .30-caliber bullet at the beginning of the attack and earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first 401st casualty of the war. Soon afterward, shrapnel from 88mm anti-aircraft shells broke the window in front of Bloodgood and punctured Short Snorter’s No. 1 gas tank. Picking out the damaged bomber, three Focke Wulf Fw-190s pressed their own attack and hit all four of the B-17’s propellers and both wings. Additional damage was inflicted by a 20mm cannon shell that penetrated the No. 4 engine cowling and a second shell that exploded in the rear of the fuselage and hit the VHF radio transmitter. Also destroyed were the elevator control and auxiliary cables as well as the oxygen line to the radio compartment. Nevertheless, Bloodgood brought his aircraft and its crew back to base with only two wounded crew members.
The bomber was repaired in time for the 91st’s December 20 mission to Romilly-sur-Seine Airdrome near Paris. Captain William R. Harris, flying as first pilot for Captain John W. Eanes’ crew, was at the controls. Seated next to him in the copilot’s seat was 2nd Lt. Beman E. Smith. While the flak was light, enemy fighter opposition was intense. Between 50 and 75 aircraft, Me-109s and Fw-190s, began harassing the bomber stream 35 miles inland from the French coast. The attacks continued up to the target and on the return. German fighters peeled out of their formation four at a time to make a feint at the bombers and then split into two groups that attacked the Americans from 11 and 2 o’clock.
During one of those attacks a 20mm shell exploded in Short Snorter’s cockpit, and another badly damaged the No. 4 engine. Subsequent attacks left two small holes in the ball turret, one in the left horizontal stabilizer, four in the tail section and one in the tail assembly. Large holes were also blown in the nose and left wing just back of the No. 2 engine nacelle, as well as three others in the left wing. None of the crew were wounded during these attacks, and Harris and Smith brought Short Snorter safely back to base.
Working around the clock, ground crewmen repaired the battered bomber and had it ready on the flight line for the December 30 mission against the U-boat pens at Lorient. For this trip Bloodgood was back aboard with his original crew. Each of the 19 B-17s the 91st BG dispatched carried a pair of 2,000-pound bombs in its belly.
As was to be expected over such an important target, the opposition was intense. Heavy flak tore into the bombers, and approximately 30 Fw-190A-4s of III Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 2 (III/JG.2 “Richthofen”), attacked while over Lorient. The German pilots formed in two lines and then peeled off to charge through the American formation. Short Snorter was hit in the No. 3 engine just as it cleared the target. Dropping out of formation and heading down, about five minutes after it had been hit two chutes were seen coming from the plane, but seconds later the bomber exploded in a ball of fire, tiny bits of debris scattering across the water. None of the 10-man crew survived. The bomber’s destruction was credited to III/JG.2’s commander, Captain Egon Meyer, his 56th of an eventual 102 victories before he himself was killed in action on March 2, 1944.
Soon after it arrived at Bassingbourn in early January 1943, Boeing B-17F No. 42-5362 was christened Short Snorter II. It was assigned to Captain Oscar O’Neill’s crew for its first mission on January 13. Shortly after takeoff, however, it was necessary to abort. Ten days later, No. 362 was given another chance but once again had to abandon the mission due to mechanical problems.
It was not until the 91st’s mission on February 4 that Short Snorter II’s crew was put to the test. For this mission, and those to come, Short Snorter II would be commanded by now-1st Lt. Beman Smith. The lieutenant and his crew were to fly their newly assigned bomber as part of a strike force made up of 65 B- 17s from the 1st Bombardment Wing against the marshalling yards at Hamm, Germany.
Although the technical difficulties that had dogged it before did not return, this time Short Snorter II had to contend with Mother Nature. Thick cloud cover obscured both the primary and secondary targets, and the force was diverted to a target of opportunity at Emden. Fifteen to 20 German fighters, including for the first time twin-engine Me-110s, hit the 91st when it was about 10 minutes from the target and continued their attacks until the bombers were on their way home and well out over the North Sea. Two bombers in the 91st’s 323rd Squadron went down as well as three others from the 1st Bomb Wing.
On February 14, Smith and crew were back in the air, but bad weather over the Continent scrubbed the mission. Two days later, Smith took Short Snorter II out with 2nd Lt. John W. Wilson as his co-pilot, but again the bomber was forced to abort, this time after the plane had already reached the Continent.
It was almost two weeks before Short Snorter II was given a chance to improve upon its dismal performance. The morning of February 26 saw Smith and his crew awakened at 0230 hours and after a quick breakfast disperse for their various briefings and other preparations for a mission to Bremen. All crews were at their stations by 0730, and the group was in the air by 0815. The weather was clear, and from all indications it would be just one more sortie for Smith and his now veteran crew.
On the way across the North Sea, the lead navigator for the 305th Group, which was leading the mission, forgot to check wind velocity and all four groups of the 1st Bombardment Wing drifted several miles south of the briefed route. This brought the bombers directly over anti-aircraft positions on the Frisian Islands that immediately opened fire, which continued until German fighters appeared to join the fight.
Just as the Americans neared Vlieland Island, Short Snorter II began to experience technical problems. Smith decided to abort and return to base at the same time that the German fighters pounced. Now out of formation and vulnerable, Short Snorter II was attacked by five twin-engine Junkers Ju-88s. Tail gunners in the bomber formation could see No. 362 fending off attacks as they flew out of visual contact, but most knew the likely result of the encounter. Short Snorter II was shot down, and Smith and his crew were lost in the North Sea.
Next to bear the Short Snorter moniker was B-17F No. 42- 5337. The bomber had arrived at the 91st at the same time as No. 362, but had not been sent on a mission until February 14, when, along with the rest of the strike force, it was called back because of poor weather. Two days later, it was back in the air, but this time it too experienced mechanical difficulties and had to abort.
On February 26, No. 337 took off on the mission to Germany with Short Snorter II and the rest of the 401st. This time the electrical suits of both waist gunners went out. The pilot, 2nd Lt. Nathan F. Lindsey, turned back an hour and 10 minutes after takeoff. Still with no name, No. 337 seemed to be falling into the same pattern as that of No. 362. While ground crews worked to repair the problems, word came back about the heavy losses suffered on the mission—including the loss of Short Snorter II. Shortly afterward, No. 337 was dubbed Short Snorter III.
With a freshly painted name on its nose, on February 27 Short Snorter III took off, Lieutenant Lindsey piloting his plane into position as No. 2 in the second element of the 401st, which was the lead squadron in a mixed force of 78 B-17s and Consolidated B-24s headed to Brest, France. The flight was short and cloud cover blocked a view of the ground until about 40 miles from the target. When the bombers finally broke through the clouds, the formation discovered it had drifted north of the intended course, but they were still able to drop their bombs on target.
Number 337’s debut as Short Snorter III had been relatively uneventful, but its March 4 mission would be anything but. The Ragged Irregulars would have the dubious distinction of being the first group to attack targets in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland. While 14 B-24s from the 2nd Bomb Wing conducted a diversionary raid, 71 B-17s from the 1st Bomb Wing’s four groups would strike Hamm.
Major Paul L. Fishburne, the 22-year-old commander of the 322nd Squadron, would lead the group, which was in the rear of the wing. The force took off at 0800, formed on schedule and headed out over the North Sea. All four groups encountered heavy cloud cover. Believing that the weather over the target was unlikely to improve, headquarters in England reluctantly sent out a recall order to the four groups.
As soon as they received the signal, the 303rd and 305th groups diverted south and bombed Rotterdam. The 306th aborted and returned to England. In the rear, Fishburne either did not hear the order or chose to ignore it. Due to radio silence and the impenetrable cloud cover, he was unaware that the other groups had been diverted and that he was now flying alone.
At his briefing earlier that morning, Fishburne’s weather officer, Major Lawrence A. “Sunshine” Atwell, had told the crews that there would be dense clouds over the North Sea, but conditions should improve as they approached the Continent. As Sunshine had predicted, when Fishburne and his men approached the coast, the lower cloud layers diminished.
Once the 91st was over land, the skies cleared completely and Fishburne now knew for certain that there were no other friendly planes ahead of him. Alarmed, he called his tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Hansbury, and asked how many planes were still in the formation. Hansbury replied, “Sixteen.”
It was the policy of higher headquarters that small groups of unescorted bombers not go deep into enemy territory, and Fishburne would have been justified in turning back. He did not. Instead he continued on and bombed Hamm with what he had.
At first it seemed the 91st would be lucky. With the other three bomb groups in the wing scattering in different directions, German air defenses were temporarily confused. When the 91st was 30 minutes from the target, however, the Germans had recovered their senses, and they struck with a vengeance.
Over the next four hours, the group was attacked by 175 enemy fighters. Four bombers were lost in the melee, the 322nd and 323rd each losing one and the 324th two. None of the 401st’s aircraft were lost, and for once Short Snorter III’s luck held—a postmission inspection found only two small holes in the right wing and a rip in the tail elevator fabric.
Pictures taken by photoreconnaissance flights three days after the raid revealed that almost all the bombs had fallen on target. Captain Tex McCrary of the European Theater of Operations (ETO) News Service, who had flown on several other missions and perused numerous strike photos, was along on the mission with Captain O’Neill. Later, he joined with scores of other photo interpreters to pronounce that the Hamm strike had been among the best flown by the Eighth Air Force to date.
Still, the brass at higher headquarters was fuming about Fishburne having continued on to the target with such a small force. It was hard to argue with success, the generals reasoned, but they also could not allow squadron commanders to conduct their own private wars. Somewhat reluctantly, the decision was made to award Fishburne the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was then reduced in rank to captain and transferred to the 351st Bomb Group at Polebrook, where no one knew what he had done. There he was made commander of the 509th Bombardment Squadron and promoted back to major.
The 91st BG was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for its accomplishments, the first bomber group in the Eighth Air Force to be so honored. To prevent other squadrons from becoming inspired by this recognition, however, the award was not made public until 1947.
The Hamm mission had one other important outcome. When the strike results were reported to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt, their growing skepticism over the soundness of high-altitude precision daylight bombing in the face of terrible losses diminished, giving the Eighth’s commanders the time they needed to prove the worth of their strategy.
Two days after the Hamm mission, Short Snorter III was part of a strike against the submarine pens at Lorient, which proved to be a milk run. The bomber returned to the skies again on March 8 as part of the 91st’s strike on the marshalling yards at Rennes. Exhausted by their earlier sorties, Lindsey and his crew were stood down and 1st Lt. Harold Beasley and his crew took No. 337 aloft in their place. The bombers enjoyed the protection of friendly Supermarine Spitfires for the start of their mission, but two minutes after the “little friends” left to refuel, the group was charged by 20 enemy fighters, which attacked off and on for nearly an hour before Allied fighters reappeared.
Lindsey and his crew were back aboard No. 337 for the squadron’s next mission on March 12 to Rouen, which was successfully completed with no damage to Short Snorter III and no losses in the group. The crew went up again the next day on the 1st Bomb Wing’s mission to Amiens. The group flew behind the 305th and 306th BGs. The 91st’s lead squadron was composed of two elements from the 324th Squadron and one from the 323rd Squadron. Captain Robert K. Morgan was in Memphis Belle, the lead aircraft.
About 100 bombers were to take part in the strike, and the confusion of maneuvering so large a force began soon after takeoff. As the squadrons and groups formed up, the 306th insisted on flying at the altitude and position originally assigned to the 91st. It was only with great difficulty, and a fair degree of cursing, that the pilots of the Ragged Irregulars were able to edge the 306th out of their designated spot.
With everyone finally in their places, the formation headed toward the Channel, but once over the water the navigator for the 305th took the bombers to the west of the briefed route, crossing over Dieppe. This led to difficulties as the 91st neared its target. When the group reached the initial point (IP), its pilots saw that the bombers from the 306th were flying to their right at the same altitude. This prevented the 91st pilots from turning onto the IP and making their own run to the target, and it also scattered their formation.
Frustrated, Captain O’Neill popped his plane upward to avoid the 306th’s bombers, continuing up and over their formation and on to the primary target. Six other 91st bombers went with him, including four other planes from the 401st. Making their way through the aerial traffic jam, the seven bombers dropped 42 1,000-pound bombs on Amiens from 24,500 feet. In the confusion during the approach, however, it was unlikely that many of them hit their intended targets. The rest of the lead squadron, meanwhile, turned to the left and dropped their bombs on Abbeville, which was the alternate target.
Fortunately for the small ad hoc formation, the Germans did not take advantage of the confusion to attack with fighters that were based nearby, and there was almost no flak. Short Snorter III’s biggest problem was a recurrence of serious mechanical difficulties that resulted in the controls freezing. It took the muscle power of both Lindsey and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. George Slivkoff, to keep the plane in formation and land safely at Bassingbourn.
The crew was then given a short respite before being assigned to the March 18 mission to Vegesack. A submarine facility on the outskirts of the port city of Bremen, it was getting a good deal of attention from the Eighth Air Force as the Allies attempted to neutralize the U-boats that were menacing their transatlantic convoys.
It would be the first mission where the bombers would use the automatic flight control equipment (AFCE), which it was hoped would improve bombing accuracy. Previously, pilots had flown their planes directly to the objective. As they approached the target, the bombardier would direct the pilot during the bomb run. With all the distractions frequently encountered over a target, this often meant that the pilot would be more preoccupied with fending off enemy attacks than maintaining the level course vital for accurate bombing. With the new equipment, as soon as the bomber began its run, control of the aircraft was maintained by AFCE. The “autopilot” system was connected directly to the Norden bombsight found on all American bombers.
With the Americans attacking such a vital target in the Fatherland, the Luftwaffe was not as passive as it had been over many of the targets in France. Just east of Heligoland at least 60 enemy aircraft began the day’s attacks. More than half were Fw-190s, with Me-109s, Me-110s and Ju-88s also taking their turns to harass the bombers.
Three minutes before reaching the target, an Me-109 came in on No. 337 from 2 o’clock high, approaching to within 250 yards before breaking away at 5 o’clock. The left waist-gunner, Staff Sgt. Alvin T. Shippang, began firing short bursts at the diving enemy aircraft while it was 1,000 yards out and continued to do so as it broke away. The Me-109 spun downward, burst into flames and exploded at about 10,000 feet. Six minutes after bombs away, an Fw-190 dove on Short Snorter III from 2 o’clock high. This time it was top turret gunner Tech. Sgt. Sebastian Scavello who shot back, firing 50 rounds at the aircraft when it was 800 yards away. The fighter dove past the right wing of the bomber and continued straight down into the ground. Three minutes after Scavello’s victory, another Fw-190 passed at 1:30 o’clock level. Ball turret gunner Staff Sgt. Joseph A. Rekas sighted his twin .50-calibers and fired 50 rounds at the fighter as it closed. He then whirled the ball turret around and got off two more bursts as the Fw-190 tried to escape. Hit again by Scavello, the German fighter dove downward; parts flew off the fuselage at about 20,000 feet, and the plane continued down and burrowed into the ground. Having fought off attacks for over an hour and a half, Short Snorter III returned home safely.
The April 4 mission to the Renault works near Paris was another test of the gunnery skills of the 91st’s crews. In addition to moderately heavy flak, on the way back from bombing the factory, the Americans were jumped by at least 60 enemy aircraft. During the hit-and-run attacks, which persisted all the way to the French coast, Short Snorter III was hit by an Fw-190 coming in from 6 o’clock high. The tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Anthony J. Roy, let the German come within 600 yards before opening fire. His aim was accurate, and he saw his foe’s right wing cowling fly off, followed by part of the wing itself.
As the German hurtled to earth, two more Fw-190s appeared. Sergeant Roy immediately switched his focus to those two who, for reasons unknown, decided not to press their own attack. Eight minutes later yet another Fw-190 dived at Short Snorter III, from 6 o’clock high. The radio operator, Tech. Sgt. Lawrence J. Brandenburg, engaged it with the radio compartment gun and set the German on fire. The Fw-190 went into a dive and exploded a few hundred yards below the bomber. Gunner Brandenburg’s victory was the last excitement for the day, and the bomber eventually touched down safely at Bassingbourn.
Following its success over France, No. 337’s crew was allowed to get a bit of extra sleep before the mission scheduled for the next day. The target was a factory on the outskirts of Antwerp. Since it was a short run across the Channel to the target, the briefing was not until 0700 with takeoff at 1230. Soon after the American bombers crossed over to the Continent, approximately 75 Germans attacked the formation. Much of their attention was focused on the lead bombers from the 306th Group.
The Germans struck head-on with the intent of breaking up the formation and disrupting the bomb run. Four 306th bombers were rapidly brought down, and as the surviving bombers tried to reorganize, the group drifted to the right, flying 1,000 feet below the 91st as the two groups began their bomb runs. The result was a disaster. All but one of the 306th bombardiers missed the target, and because they had positioned themselves below the 91st, the Ragged Irregulars had to delay dropping their own bombs for three to five seconds. That meant most of the 91st’s bombs missed their mark, as did those of the two other groups that followed. Soon, tons of bombs were unintentionally falling on areas heavily populated by civilians. Mortsel was particularly hard hit, 943 civilians being killed and 1,300 wounded.
Lindsey and his veteran crew probably had little idea of the unintentional suffering in Mortsel as they were being briefed for the April 17 mission to Bremen. The 1st Bomb Wing was sending 115 B-17s to complete the destruction of the port city begun on earlier raids. Lindsey’s Short Snorter III was one of 32 B-17s put up by the 91st that day.
As soon as the 91st passed over the East Frisian Islands, they started to fly through dense clouds of flak that followed them until they were attacked by German fighters, which repeatedly hit the formation all the way to the target. Between passes by Me-109s and Fw-190s, Me-110s stood out beyond the range of the bombers’ machine guns and lobbed 20mm and 30mm cannon shells into the densely packed American formation.
Short Snorter III made it through the fighter attacks and flak over the target without being hit. On the way back to the coast, however, the bomber was badly damaged by enemy fighters. At about 1326, as the aircraft passed three miles east of Emden, No. 337 took direct flak hits that knocked out the No. 3 engine and set the No. 4 engine afire. Almost immediately after pilot Lindsey feathered the No. 3 engine, another anti-aircraft shell burst in the cockpit, killing both Lindsey and Slivkoff. The German gunners now clearly had the range, and additional flak was soon smashing into the battered bomber. Short Snorter III began to lose altitude, circling slowly downward in the direction of Norden and the North Sea.
The bombardier, 2nd Lt. Albert Dobsa, had been hit in the stomach by one of the flak bursts, but, sensing there was bad trouble, he struggled up to the cockpit to see what was wrong. The sight of the two dead pilots and other motionless bodies farther back in the plane convinced him it was time to bail out. He went back into the nose to alert the navigator, Lieutenant Rocco Maiorca, who he found standing above the nose hatch, hesitating to jump. Dobsa pushed him out and dropped through after him.
The wounded bombardier came down in shallow water and was captured as soon as he made his way to shore. Maiorca bobbed around in the frigid waters off the Frisian Islands before he too made it to shore, where he was quickly taken into custody. There were no other survivors.
The April 17 mission to Bremen was only the 32nd mission for the group; there would be 308 others, during which time the Ragged Irregulars would suffer the highest loss rate of any bomb group in the Eighth Air Force. Of all the missions, including the Schweinfurt raid four months later, the trip to Bremen was the worst. Five of the six B-17s lost that day belonged to the 401st.
Credited cumulatively with only 17 missions, the three Short Snorters might seem an unlucky bunch, but the losses among the crews of all three aircraft were typical of those suffered during the early days of the Eighth Air Force. Of the 56 crewmen who flew at least one mission on the three bombers, 28 were killed and another two taken prisoner. Three crewmen who flew in the aircraft were subsequently killed in action in other planes; 14 were shot down and became POWs. One crewman was so badly wounded he had to transfer to ground duties. Thus, there were 86 percent casualties among those who flew in the Short Snorters. Perhaps not wanting to further tempt fate, following the loss of No. 337, the 91st Bomb Group would never again name a bomber Short Snorter.
Lowell Getz is a historian specializing in the 401st. For further reading, see Stormy Weather: A B-17, by George Birdsong
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.