The 362nd Fighter Group against Brest: Part 1

The battle to take Brest was a hotly-contested and, sadly, totally unneeded adjunct to the Normandy campaign. Planners saw the need to take the city and its ports, but there was no real way to displace the Germans before the Germans could sabotage the port facilities, especially as the Germans put up a stiff resistance. Instead, it turned into a grinding campaign that cost many lives, American, German and French, before the then-useless port fell into Allied hands. After this campaign, German-held ports were largely bypassed, so in a way the experience of Brest save many more lives over the summer and fall of 1944.

Four squadron-sized missions were flown against Brest on August 25 by the 362nd Fighter Group, two by the 377th Fighter Squadron. The principle target was the harbor, which could be used to evacuate German troops to Crozon. Col. Joseph Laughlin scored two hits on what was identified at the time as a German light cruiser during the 378th’s mission. The 378th’s 12 planes also hit another large ship in spite of intense flak. The 379th’s 16 planes in the morning mission bombed a collection of small boats in the harbor and managed to miss all of them, although they scored several near-misses. Later, as Laughlin led the 377th’s evening mission, he peeled off to bomb the cruiser again when it suddenly exploded with such force that Laughlin felt it at 8000 feet.

“As the flight dove down, I could see a blanket of white puffballs below and a blanket of black puffballs above,” said John Baloga. “They were exploding shells and sparks were flying from each burst. Those darn shells are programmed to explode at a specific height. The Germans were making us fly through them. Hot sharp steel was flying all over the sky. It was hellish.”

“As I came in line to dive, I saw the cruiser starting to smoke badly. Someone was calling over the radio that the cruiser was sinking. Thank You Lord! I immediately veered off from my dive. I saw that the other planes were forming up. This particular attack was written up in the papers and was noted on the BBC. Sinking a cruiser with a fighter-bomber was a big deal. Colonel Laughlin had given that cruiser its deathblow. I will always be grateful for that. I truly believe he saved my life. If he hadn’t sunk it, I would have been sunk because as Green 4, the last plane in the flight, I truly believe the enemy would have shot me down.”

The 377th went on to score two hits on another ship and near misses on other shipping in the harbor. In reality, the vessel that exploded and sank was probably either the wreck of the incomplete French battleship Clemenceau, which the Germans were planning to use to block the harbor, or a flak ship; no German cruisers were lost at Brest. Just the same Col. Laughlin’s Thunderbolt was adorned with the red silhouette of a warship bristling with guns for the rest of the war.

Four missions returned to Brest on August 26, with the 378th taking two of them. The 378th attacked the harbor again with 16 planes, scoring a hit on the stern of a freighter and strafing artillery positions and destroying two trucks. The other two squadrons gave one flight to each of four controllers, who directed them toward strong points, artillery positions or troop concentrations. Lt. Charles Freeman of the 377th was hit by flak and forced to bail out over friendly lines; severely wounded, he was evacuated to the U.S. but later died of his wounds. On the 378th’s second mission, the airfield at Crozon was bombed by 15 planes, with barracks and gun emplacements getting special attention. The squadron also set fire to two planes on the field and strafed other gun positions. The 379th destroyed a gun position with two direct hits, then strafed the remaining German defenders.

On August 27, the group sent five 16-plane missions to the Brest area, again teaming with ground controllers to strike specific targets. The 379th hit two gun positions during its first mission of the day, and one flight bombed a 10,000-ton transport but failed to hit it, so they dropped down and strafed it, making three passes and leaving it burning at the stern. Lt. Robert McKee of the 379th had his plane, P-47D 42-28463, damaged by flak and made a belly landing back at Rennes. In the afternoon, the squadron sent 16 more aircraft to the area, striking a gun position and several German strong points plus a truck towing a large anti-aircraft gun. They met with intense anti-aircraft fire, which damaged one plane and forced the pilot to belly in. During its first mission, the 378th dropped bombs on troop concentrations; during its second, it bombed and strafed pillboxes and gun positions, and strafed two minesweepers during their egress from the area. During the second mission, Capt. Harry Stroh of the 378th dropped down to take a closer look at the target. “I saw him go down to a couple hundred feet and fly over the area and then climb back up to 3000 feet,” said Lt. Wilbert Edwards, who was flying Yellow Three in Stroh’s Yellow Flight. “At that time I was right back of him with the flight and thought he was trying to get back into position, but instead he went down again. He flew pretty low right over the same area for about three-quarters of a mile and then started to pull up again when something struck his ship and caused an explosion. Immediately the plane went out of control and crashed about 300 yards from where it was first hit, and exploded.” In a freak accident, Stroh’s P-47D-20 42-76597 had been hit by an American artillery shell. To compound the tragedy, the shell had come from a gun belonging to the 8th Infantry Division, commanded by Stroh’s father.

In happier news, Lts. Robert Clees and Fred Ford returned, having evaded successfully. Maj. Tom Beeson took over command of the 377th from Maj. Liston, who was relieved because of physical exhaustion.

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