70 years ago: Col. Joe sinks a Battleship

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 troops to Crozon. Col 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 the incomplete French battleship Clemenceau, which the Germans were planning to use to block the harbor.

Laughlin and Chodor

Laughlin added the “cruiser” to his scoreboard – it’s right next to John Chodor’s knee in the above photograph – and it was officially recorded as a cruiser for many years. The reasons seem obvious – as the allies were liberating France, it would have seemed a bit unseemly to celebrate the destruction of one of their battleships. But that was indeed what it was; no German cruisers were in Brest at the time, and there were few of them anyway. The Clemenceau had been damaged recently by a Lancaster raid (the RAF still claims its destruction), and would certainly never be useful to the Germans as anything but a hulk to prevent the allies from using Brest.

 

 

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