Silencing “Slender Bertha:” the 377th FS vs. the gun that nearly killed Patton

As Third Army pushed its way across France, Gen. George S. Patton established his headquarters in the city of Nancy. Patton moved into a villa in the city, and his other senior officers established residences in other nearby grand houses.

 

German intelligence deduced this and, to disrupt the command of the army, it moved a 28cm railroad gun into place in the railway tunnel at Teterchen. The Germans made 22 of these guns, nicknamed Schlanke Bertha(“Slender Bertha”); they could throw a 255kg high-explosive projectile up to 39 miles. The weapon had to be aimed by using curves in the track to point the barrel at the target, then adjusting the size of the explosive charge and the barrel angle.

 

The guns started tossing rounds into Nancy on Oct. 5, but the first significant barrage took place in the early morning of Oct. 11. A dozen shells were fired at the city, one destroying a theatre just 50 meters from the command post of XII Corps.

 

Orders were issued to the flash and sound teams of the 7th, 14th and 286th Field Artillery Observation Battalions to detect the source of the shells through their sophisticated microphones and electronic ranging equipment.

 

Their efforts resulted in the silencing of other railroad guns, but the gun shelling Nancy remained undetected. On October 24, the Germans fired another 16 shells into the city, and one of them struck the house directly across the street from Patton’s residence. Patton himself helped to dig out two of the victims, and while he was doing so two more shells landed nearby, pelting Patton and his officers with flying debris. In letters home, Patton confessed that he had never been more frightened in his entire career than he had been that night.

 

By October 27, using sound-ranging analysis, intercepted wireless traffic, aerial reconnaissance and French civilian reports, Third Army intelligence concluded that the gun’s most likely hiding place was the tunnel at Teterchen. Orders went out to the XIX Tactical Air Command to bomb the tunnel, and the task was assigned to the 362nd Fighter Group.

 

The 377th Fighter Squadron drew the mission, scheduled for October 27. Bad weather pushed the mission back to the morning of Oct. 28. Four flights of four  P-47s took off for what the squadron’s journal called “another one of the bad-weather missions.” The group encountered no flak en route; upon reaching the area, the controller, Ripsaw One, directed them to the target.

 

“We could see the tunnel through about 8/10th clouds at 300 feet,” the squadron journal reported. “Red One and Two went down first while the rest of the squadron orbited above the cloud. We had 500-pounders with four-second delay fuses, so Red One and Two buzzbombed the west end of the first section of the tunnel, all four bombs entering the tunnel and exploding. The smoke poured out of a ventilator on top of the hill and out of the east end of the tunnel.

 

“As Red Three and Four came in to bomb the east end, One and Two strafed three flak cars and an ammunition car that was firing on the second element, silencing the guns and setting two on fire. All other flak positions in the vicinity, about four of which were firing at the time, ceased fire when the flak cars were strafed. Meanwhile Yellow flight came under the overcast by elements and bombed the tunnel, getting good hits on the entrance and inside.

 

“Red first element and Yellow first element then went to work on the locomotives in a marshalling yard just east of the tunnel, strafing 13 locomotives, about 15 cars, and a roundhouse. At this time Red leader was hit by flak and headed home. Yellow leader took over but had to head out immediately due to lack of gas. Red and Yellow flights had done the work on the tunnel, so Blue flight brought their bombs home. Red Leader and Red two came out on the deck with only one gun position firing at them, and that firing into one of their own towns. Uneventful return to base.”

 

The 377th caught the 28cm gun inside the tunnel and dumped two tons of bombs at each end. Of the eight bombs, seven actually entered the tunnel, damaging the gun and killing a dozen of its crew. On November 27, when the 95th Infantry Division occupied Teterchen, a corps artillery unit visiting the scene interviewed the Hargarten station master. He told them the killing bomb was skipped into the tunnel, where it burst just back of the gun, buckling the carriages and killing 12 of the men.

 

The group journal recorded this mission nonchalantly as “another tunnel-busting trip,” but Nancy was never shelled by the Germans again.

 

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