On my first mission, the airstrike against Schmalkeiden,
I encountered a minimum of anti-aircraft fire (flak) and a solitary enemy fighter attack
which was repelled. This experience left me with a confident feeling that
there was a chance to survive the required 35 missions. My optimism was
shattered when I flew my second mission on February ninth.
This time the target was an oil refinery at Lutzkendorf in eastern
Germany. In the briefing room the curtain was removed from the large
wall map showing a deep penetration flight into Germany of nine hours
duration. We were warned to expect heavy flak plus aggressive fighter
attacks. If shot down we were reminded to avoid capture by the now
increasingly enraged German civilians. Clear weather was predicted at
the target with a deterioration to heavy clouds on the return flight.
In the equipment room I checked out a parachute a flotation vest and,
for the first time, took an electrically heated suit which was of a
coveralls type and activated by plugging its cord into an electrical unit
in the cockpit. The choice of the suit was a mistake. When I tried to
use it in the severe cold at high altitude I found a problem with its
heat distribution which required me to frequently adjust its temperature.
Takeoff and Group assembly proceeded as briefed and we joined the long
stream of bombers heading toward Germany.The long flight to the target
area was uneventful. Our plane and the eleven others in the low squadron
of the Group maintained a good tight formation. Ahead of us I noted the
lead and high squadrons were also keeping a good formation. We reached
the Initial Point.
The bombing run began. As we closed in upon the target, bomb bay doors
open, we were suddenly engulfed in a barrage of black, hour-glass shaped,
bursts of heavy and accurate flak. A shell exploded near my right window
sending metal splinters through the plane's thin fuselage and into the
cockpit. My first reaction was that I must be wounded but there was no
pain, no sign of blood. I turned to look at Ralph and Peschan but
neither of them complained of wounds. It was a close call for the three
The flak continued during the course of the bombing run. It seemed as
though any second we'd be blown out of the sky. Finally, the plane gave
an upward lurch as the bombs were toggled out by Steve in the nose
compartment. This was followed by a yell over the intercom by Beran,
"Let's get the hell out of here." An outcry which he made thereafter on
every mission as the bombs fell away. It also meant he and Steve were
removing their masks and lighting cigarettes from which they would
alternately inhale smoke, then switch back to their masks to inhale
oxygen. This was their way of smoking in an unpressurized plane at an altitude of 25,000 feet, five miles
above the earth.
An overcast of heavy clouds developed and continued to drop lower on the
long, and what I felt was tediously slow and stressful, homeward flight.
When we crossed the English coastline the formation spread out due to the
clouds and fast approaching darkness and we soon found ourselves
separated from the other planes. Within minutes it became too dark to
use ground references to navigate. We were forced to fall back on "dead
reckoning", an inexact system wherein we followed a compass heading given us by
Beran based upon his best estimate of our present position in
relationship to the airfield at Glatton. As we flew this compass heading
which would in theory bring us to Glatton, each crew member was assigned
to a window as lookout for other planes, hopefully to give sufficient
warning against collision in the dark and plane-filled sky.
The flight continued for some time, altitude 1,000 feet. Then, we
glimpsed the dim outline of runway lights of an airfield below us. A
hurried discussion between the cockpit and the navigator. Yes, it was
agreed that we had flown sufficient time via "dead reckoning" to place us
over the Glatton airfield. We started to fly a counter-clockwise landing
pattern, landing gear down. Suddenly another B-17 loomed in front of us.
Ralph yanked back on the control column to avoid collision. I held my
breath, prepared for a fatal collision, it seemed there was no way to
avoid a crash. We missed but it had been very close.
We turned on a final approach to the runway. Too late to contact the
control tower now. The altitude gained during the effort to avoid
collision was making us come in too high, too fast and slightly to the
right of the runway. I hit the full flaps position just as Ralph chopped
the throttles all the way back to idle speed, we had to lose height and
speed otherwise we would overshoot the runway. The plane settled to the
runway, bounced, then stayed down in a full three-point stall. The end of the runway
was in sight. Full brakes applied with the hope we wouldn't nose over.
The plane stopped rolling at the very edge of the concrete. Ralph and I
were momentarily exhausted. We slumped on the dual control columns and
We started to taxi, looking for our parking hardstand. We saw other
B-17s parked adjacent to the taxi strip, but something was wrong. These
planes had the insignia of a triangle enclosing the letter "S" on the
high dorsal rudder rather than our own triangle "U". We'd landed at the
wrong airfield. This was Deenethorpe, home of the 401st Bomb Group.
In view of the weather conditions there was no question of a takeoff and
attempt to find Glatton that night. Before we left our plane I pocketed
several of the jagged-edged shell fragments lying on the cockpit floor.
After we were served dinner, a truck from Glatton picked us up.
The Lutzkendorf mission was an awakening for me. Enemy anti-aircraft
fire and the German Luftwaffe were not our only perils. Both the severe
English weather with resultant lack of visibility plus the crowded skies
were also our enemies. How to survive 33 more missions?
Note: The name Lutzkendorf no longer exists on a map of Germany,
The area is now known as Krumpa.
The author of "Lutzkendorf" is Ken Blakebrough. (story used here with his permission)
Ken lives in retirement in southern California. He is married to Arden Hume and has a son named David. His passions are tennis, history, and cruise ships. He is the author of the book "Fireball Outfit".