First Raid for the Mighty Eighth

A Royal Air Force Douglas A-20 Boston light bomber retracts its landing gear as it takes off from a base in England. British bombers participated with American planes in the first bombing mission for the U.S. Army Air Forces against German targets on the European continent.

Captain Charles Kegelman, commander of the first U.S. Army Air Forces bombing raid on targets in Nazi-occupied Europe, poses with other members of his crew in front of its Douglas A-20 Havoc light bomber. Royal Air Force A-20s accompanied the American planes on their first mission.

General Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz pins the Distinguished Service Cross on the chest of Captain Charles Kegelman, who led the first U.S. Army Air Forces bombing strike against Nazi-occupied Europe on July 4, 1942.

On the heels of the victory at Midway, the British, from Churchill on down, continued to press the Americans, including Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had assumed command of the European theater of operations, United States Army (ETOUSA), to do something. In North Africa, Afrika Korps commander Erwin Rommel threatened the Suez Canal, while across Egypt, the British and Australians barely hung on in front of Alexandria. On 2 July, the Nazi juggernaut smashed into Sevastopol, completing the conquest of the Crimea. German radio sneered at talk of an American airpower debut.

The Nazis seemed to have better intelligence than Washington. Hap Arnold, unfortunately, to placate the British Prime Minister, had told him on 30 May 1942, “We will be fighting with you on July 4th.” At the moment he made his rash promise, Arnold believed the 97th would have trained for a month over England and be ready to commence operations. Eaker and Spaatz had precious little with which to work. When word reached Eaker, he reportedly remarked, “Someone must have confused the 4th of July with April Fools’ Day.”

To fulfill their boss’s order, Spaatz and Eaker in desperation turned to the one unit actually on hand, the 15th Bombardment Squadron. It was not a heavy-bomber outfit. Far from it, the 15th, originally intended to employ night fighters, flew twin-engine Douglas A-20s, four-man light bombers that the British called Bostons. The aircraft used by the 15th actually belonged to the RAF and carried the British insignia. One crew from the unit, with Capt. Charles Kegelman as pilot, flying with the RAF 226 Squadron, had been, on 29 June, the first to bomb occupied Europe during a raid on a marshaling yard at Hazebrouck.

With the 15th was Bill Odell, a Chicago youth born in 1915, who entered the army under the Thomason Act, an officer program established at his college, Washington University in St. Louis. Odell and his fellow members of the 15th reached England in mid-May of 1942 and the crewmen were assigned to RAF outfits that flew Bostons. “These were front-line, operational units doing battle almost every day. Every day was packed with learning opportunities. Covered were the essentials to survival in combat; aircraft identification, communications procedures, ditching techniques, discussions of all phases of aircraft operation, and combat flying.”

Another member of the 15th was Marshal Draper, a bombardier. “The spirit [of the first Americans in England] was willing but the supplies were meager. The German submarine campaign was in full swing and confusion reigned. I had an abbreviated course in the Royal Air Force navigation system and did a little practice bombing.”

As 4 July approached, Odell kept his diary informed. On 2 July, while at Swanton he went off on another preparatory exercise “We’re practicing for a 4th of July show somewhere over Germany [occupied Europe] We expect to make an American low-level attack on fighter airdromes during daylight. General Spaatz and Eaker arrived and Keg talked to them. They wanted us to put on a ‘circus’ without fighter escort. Just shows how much our brass hats know or how they value the cost of mens’ lives.” The July 4th event brought out Spaatz, Eaker, and Eisenhower who met the crews going on the sortie. They shook hands with everyone. “It was obvious they had been told it was not going to be a ‘piece of cake.’ Their faces were somber, if not grim. Then to dinner and the food did some good.”

The planned U. S. Independence Day affair, endorsed by President Roosevelt as a highly appropriate date for actual entrance into the shooting war, met none of the concepts behind the Eighth Air Force. Instead of a huge armada of heavy bombers soaring far above the clouds, penetrating deep into enemy territory while relying on the precision of the Norden sight, a dozen Bostons, all of which belonged to the RAF, with six U. S. crews combined with an equal number of Britons, would raid four enemy airfields in Holland at low level. British bomber command had balked at a high-level excursion because the Spitfires ordinarily assigned to escort such raids were already committed to other operations. Civilian leaders may have relished the effort by the U. S. Air Corps, but the senior RAF people recognized the operation as more show biz than strategy.

Bombardier Draper recalled, “Our assigned target was De Kooy, a Luftwaffe base on the northern tip of Holland. The fight was led by an RAF pilot with Capt. Charles Kegelman and 2d Lt. F. A. Loehrle, both US pilots, flying the wings. I was the bombardier-navigator in Loehrle’s plane. Just before takeoff, the RAF officer who normally flew in this plane, handed me a one-inch by two-inch piece of armor plate and a steel infantryman’s hat and said, ‘Be sure you put the plate under your feet and wear the hat.’ I have been told that this practice was vigorously discouraged later because of the added weight in heavy bombers with a larger crew. Nevertheless it probably saved my life since I was the point man of our plane.

“The flight took off, formed up, and we headed east at a height of about fifty feet above the water toward Holland. About ten miles from the target we passed a couple of small boats that appeared to be fishing craft but were picket boats, called ‘squealers’ by the RAF, and whose function was to alert the shore-based antiaircraft defenses, as we soon discovered.

“A few moments later, we were approaching a seawall on the shore when heavy flak opened up. Tracers were going by and above the plane and on both sides of my head like flaming grapefruit. This kind of situation, like hanging, concentrates the mind wonderfully, and everything went into slow motion. I could not see why we weren’t getting hit but we cleared the seawall and I felt the plane lift as we let the bombs go. We immediately turned left and came face to face with a flak battery. [The German word for antiaircraft was Fliegerabwehrkanone which U. S. fliers shortened to flak. The British usually used “ack-ack”, a World War I term.] The four wing guns were firing but we were so close the fire was converging beyond the battery. I glanced at the air-speed indicator, which registered 285 mph, and suddenly realized the battery gunner was shooting directly at me. We were getting ripped right up the middle as we passed over, about two feet above the gunner’s head. We were fifteen feet off the ground at this point. That was my last memory of the attack.”

In his diary for 4 July, Odell scribbled, “Up at 5:15 and had a cup of coffee in the mess hall. Then to the operations room and turned in papers and got packet for combat flight (concentrated food, water purifier, compass, and French, Dutch, and German money). Had no trouble but was a bit anxious on the takeoff. After getting in the air, we settled down and flew right on the trees to the coast. When we went down on the water, felt a bit uneasy because there was a cloudless sky but no fighters appeared. Found land ahead and could spot the landmark of the lighthouse a long way off.” In the diary, Odell reports, “Swung over the edge of the coast even lower than the leader and stayed right on the grass. I opened the bomb doors, yelled to [bombardier Leslie] Birleson and then it started. I fired all the guns for all I was worth and Birly dropped the bombs. I saw the hangar but that wasn’t my dish. I saw Germans running all over the place but I put most of my shots over their heads.” Two gunners on RAF Bostons manned single, flexible machine guns from rear, upper, and lower positions. Affixed to the fuselage also were two pairs of .303-caliber machine guns located on the lower port and starboard sides of the ship. A pilot like Odell could fire all four in unison by depressing a single trigger on his control column.

As the raiders zoomed over the airfield, dumping bombs and spraying machine gun bullets, the defenders fired back. “Our bombs were okay,” Odell noted, “but I thought we would crash any moment for I never flew so reckless in my life. The next moment we were flashing past the coast and out to sea-the water behind us boiling from the bullets dropping into it all around. I kicked and pulled and jerked from side to side. Didn’t look at the air speed-was trying to miss the waves. Over the target we were doing 265 but shortly after I opened it up a bit.

“‘Digger’ [another pilot] claims he shot his guns into a formation of groups lined up for inspection. His bombs hit well before they should have. ‘Elkie’ was a bit behind but he got rid of his load. He got a broken radio antenna and a mashed-in wing edge. I picked up a hole just above the pilot’s step and a badly knocked-up bomb door. We zigged and zagged until three miles out, then closed up waiting for fighters. None came. We reached the coast and were the first home.

“All came back except Loehrle, Lynn, and a Britisher (Henning). Loehrle was hit by a heavy shell and hit the ground right in the middle of the airdrome. ‘He flew into a million pieces,’ one of the rear gunners said. And I owed him one pound ten shillings. I feel like a thief! Lynn was following before the flight hit the target but never came away from it. His wife is to have a baby in November. He really wasn’t cut out for this game. At breakfast he was salting his food, trying to hold the salt spoon steady, yet throwing salt all over his shoulders. I hope he didn’t crash. Henning was shot down by an ME 109 that took off just ahead of him. He tried to get it but it turned, got behind him and set one motor on fire. He crashed into the sea. Keg got his right prop and nose section shot off by heavy stuff right over the target. His wing dropped, hit the ground and he managed to right it and come home on one motor.”

While a gunner said he saw Loehrle’s bomber crash onto the tarmac, Draper, the bombardier on the fallen A-20, said, “I woke up lying on my back on the bottom of the North Sea in about twenty feet of water, very confused about where I was or what I was doing there. I thought I was dead and kept waiting in the gray gloom for something to happen. Then I sat up and saw my breath bubbling up through the water and finally realized I was submerged.

“When I surfaced I was opposite a small beach under the seawall and with the tail of the A-20 protruding from the water, which was all that was visible of the plane. Various subsequent reports had us crashing in flames, or disintegrating, but I saw no smoke or signs of fire associated with the plane and no debris. However, for me to be vectored nearly sideways to the plane, which appeared pointed to the west, I must have been subjected to very powerful force.

“I swam ashore, walked a few feet from the water’s edge, and sat down, overcome suddenly with an enormous fatigue. Somehow I had been taken right out of my parachute harness and flotation vest and my uniform was ripped to shreds. Also, I was bleeding from an assortment of places. A path led up from the beach to the seawall and I could see several soldiers at the top of the path but they made no effort to come down. So I sat and rested for a time. After a while, my mental tiles had clattered back into place, somewhat, and it occurred to me that I might be better off starting up the path than sitting on the beach bleeding like a stabbed hog. I got to my feet with some difficulty, trudged across the little beach and started up the rather steep path. To my astonishment, the soldiers came rushing down the path and grabbed me by the arms. They were mumbling ‘minen,’ ‘minen’ as if to excuse some perceived lack of hospitality in not coming to my aid. The beach had been mined, presumably by the Dutch before the Germans got there.

“The next thing I remember I was lying on a table in what appeared to be a first-aid room. The cast had changed from the Wehrmacht to three Luftwaffe types, one of whom was holding my eyelid up and looking at my eye with a little flashlight. He straightened up, turned off the flashlight and announced to the room at large, ‘Shock.’ Then he asked me, ‘Have you lost many blood?’ I corrected him, ‘That’s much blood. You mean much blood. I don’t know.’ “I was still functioning in an offset mode. I did notice that my clothes had been removed and I could see my shoes lying on another table. The rubber heels had been torn off-shoe heels were a common hiding place for escape materials. I thought that must have been a big disappointment. I was already acquiring a Kriegsgefangener [POW in German; shortened to “kriegie” by those who were incarcerated] mind-set.” In fact, Draper qualified as the very first U. S. Air Corps prisoner in Europe.

The 4 July event was celebrated in newspapers and Kegelman received a Distinguished Flying Cross. But, overall, the affair was a fiasco. The tactics had no relation to the concept of strategic bombing. The three Bostons shot down represented a 25 percent loss; an insupportable rate of casualties. The bodies of the other three men with Draper were recovered. Furthermore, most of the aircraft that made their way home needed considerable repairs from the shot and shell inflicted by flak gunners and enemy fighters. One researcher, George Pames, claims that Eisenhower was so dismayed he “never again permitted men of his command to engage in needless combat to satisfy American pride or produce media events for propaganda purposes.”

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