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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Local paper headlines: “Laurel Flyer Drops Bombs from Thunderbolt Down Gun Turret of Nazi Tiger Tank”

Robert Campbell was a member of the 378th FS, 379th FG. The contemporary press reports may not be chock full of accurate detail, but they are entertaining! This was from the April 3 issue of the Marshalltown Times Republican:

Flying his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber, “Peg of My Heart,” Lt. Robert W. Campbell recently dropped a 500 pound bomb down an open gun turret of a Nazi Tiger tank during an attack in which his flight of three Thunderbolts destroyed 40 vehicles and six tanks near Bitburg, Germany. An account of some of the missions in which the flier has participated was sent to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Campbell of Laurel by a public relations officer of the Ninth Air Force.

“We were on an armed reconnaissance in the area,” the release said, quoting Lieutenant Campbell. “I spotted a convoy of 50 trucks and tanks dispersed in a woods alongside a road. Peeling off in a steep dive, I aimed for five tanks near the edge of the road. One of my bombs went right down the middle of an open gun turret of a Tiger tank. As the bomb exploded inside, the tank seemed to jump right into the air. When it landed it was a burning mass of twisted steel.”

“I gained altitude quickly and came in on the deck at over 300 miles an hour strafing. I must have got 11 trucks on that first strafing pass for I could see my tracers hitting at least 20 vehicles. I circled and came back in knocking out six more trucks. German soldiers were running like mad for open foxholes in the woods and alongside the road.

When we left, my flight had destroyed 40 vehicles and six tanks in the attack that lasted about 20 minutes,” said Lt. Campbell.

Robert Campbell (left) and Roy Christian horse around on a captured 88. Christian would be KIA by flak, but Campbell completed his tour.

In another mission, Lt. Campbell dived out of the sun in his rocket-carrying Thunderbolt at over 350 miles an hour to attack and destroy a two story house used by the Germans as a command post, west of Bitburg, Germany.

“The ground controller called and told me the house was being used as a German command post.” said Lieutenant Campbell. “I went down to look it over for a good steep approach. Circling back up into the clouds, I rolled over on my wing with the sun behind me and dived 3,000 feet and fired two rockets that exploded in the house.

“It seemed to crumble in two and began burning. I released another rocket into the two story structure for good measure.”

Lieutenant Campbell shot up five armored vehicles and three gun positions several miles from the command post with one strafing pass on his way back to the base.

Flying barely 50 feet off the ground over American infantrymen advancing near Echternach, Germany, recently, Lieutenant Campbell led a squadron of Thunderbolts in pumping .50 caliber bullets into the German defenses less than a mile away despite adverse weather conditions.

“That day the weather was poor as we came in low over the heads of our boys who were less than a mile away from forward German positions,” described Lieutenant Campbell. “As they saw us the boys waved and two Yanks threw their helmets into the air.

Heavy small arms fire greeted us as we began firing into the Jerry positions. We made another strafing run and then attacked an enemy-held town and 12 vehicles. Climbing back up into the overcast we headed home.”

Lieutenant Campbell remembers well one particular day last August when his group was attacking Brest harbor where German light naval ships were attempting to evacuate German soldiers from the city of Brest. While dive-bombing the ships, word was received at his base that the lieutenant had become the father of a baby boy.

“When I landed and they told me the good news, I practically fainted,” grinned the Laurel high school graduate who helped sink five merchantmen and damaged a German cruiser in the harbor.

 

This day, in 1944: “Memphis Rebel” crashes through a fuel dump – and Thurman Morrison survives

The above photo looks like a scene of tragedy – a wrecked P-47, flames, and firefighting foam everywhere. It very well could have been, except for luck and the rugged construction of the Thunderbolt.

On April 29, 1944, the 362nd group provided withdrawal escort for bombers returning from Berlin, on a mission led by Capt. Bill Flavin. The P-47s were each equipped with two 108-gallon pressed paper tanks. At this stage, the group had been flying two escort missions a day, and the P-47s were becoming mechanically worn. On take-off, Capt. Thurman Morrison’s P-47 “Memphis Rebel” failed to get airborne. “I recognized at the ‘go-no go’ point along the runway that he was not going to make it off the ground,” said Bob McKee, his wingman, who was also taking off at the time. “I clicked on my throttle’s water injection switch to give me extra power and eased off the PSP runway, to the right and over the sod area as I began to overrun Morrison’s aircraft.” McKee got off the ground in time to see Morrison’s plane skid into a gasoline dump containing 400,000 gallons of fuel, stored and camouflaged by the RAF right at the end of the runway. The dump erupted in a titanic fireball.

McKee’s plane was flipped onto its right side at 50 feet of altitude and very little speed, and only some frantic flying saved McKee from going in, too.

The non-flying personnel watching the take-off from “sweaters’ hill” “wrote him off as one dead fighter pilot,” said “Andy” Anderson, the 379th’s S-2. Even more shocking than this accident was Morrison’s appearance back at the operations tent later. “He walked in carrying his parachute, utterly unscathed,” Anderson said. “Memphis Rebel,” P-47D 42-75142, slid through a sheet of flame, then pivoted on its belly around 180 degrees, keeping its pilot safe until it emerged on the other side. “Two of the anti-aircraft GIs who dwelt in tents at the end of the runway had dashed to Capt. Morrison’s aid and, using a pickaxe, pried open his jammed canopy and dragged him out of the burning plane. Capt. Morrison. plane and all, had skidded right through the blazing inferno he had started, but he sat there, trapped in his cockpit, until the two brave GIs pried him out. You have to give credit to a couple of heroes there, to leap on to a burning airplane carrying a very volatile load of high-octane gasoline.”

 

That book on the 362nd I talk about? It’s coming this fall!

Now that I have a contract in hand, I can spill the beans: this fall, Casemate Publishers will be issuing my book “Thunderbolts Triumphant: the 362nd Fighter Group vs. Germany’s Wehrmacht.” It’ll be the first narrative history of the 362nd, and it’ll be very lavishly illustrated (150+ photos, color profiles, etc.). So, if you have any material you think might help the book (especially photos!) let me know -now’s the time!

I’ve been excerpting the manuscript here for a long time. The book will be shorter (and better written!) and a lot of nitty-gritty details, like aircraft serials, will be removed to an appendix at the back so the text is more readable.

I want to thank those of you who have helped with the over the years – I hope I can share the cover art with you all soon!

Today in 1944: the 362nd works over the west bank of the Rhine, and Gustave Plochere loses a month

The three squadrons of the 362nd Fighter Group each conducted armed reconnaissance missions in the areas around Trier, Saarbrucken, Sarrebourg and east toward the Rhine on October 2, 1944. Though weather was poor, 11 locomotives and 50 boxcars were located and destroyed, along with 40 trucks; four railroad yards and adjacent factories, bridges and roundhouses were shot up and bombed. The 377th knocked out four locomotives, 23 trucks and a tank, plus 18 light guns shot up, but they lost a pilot in the process. Lt. William Ort, flying “The Sooner,” P-47D-27 42-27363, spotted a German truck on a road near Puttlingen and dove to strafe it. “The instant he passed over the truck a streak of fire came from the plane,” reported Lt. Robert Berggren, who was orbiting with Blue Flight as Ort’s Yellow Flight was strafing. “He struck the trees of a forest bordering the road and crashed in flames. I saw no sign of enemy ground fire near his plane when he was on the pass,” leading Berggren to speculate he hit the truck or a nearby power line during his pullout. Ort was killed in the wreck of his plane.

 

 

Although there was no serious ground fire directed at Blue or Yellow Flights, both Red and Blue Flights were peppered by flak. One of the P-47s returned with three cylinders shot off its R-2800! The 378th tried to bomb an oil pipeline junction but missed; later, the squadron hit the Saarbrucken marshalling yard and destroyed numerous buildings, then strafed and destroyed two locomotives. On the way home, the 378th spotted a jet aircraft above Metz.

 

 

Some losses were not combat related. The 379th’s Gustave Plochere suffered an engine failure in P-47D 42-8399 and crashed into a field where a French farmer was working, hitting so hard his Thunderbolt broke in half. When the farmer, Marcel Jonoux, reached the plane, it was on fire. Plochere was slumped in the cockpit, a severe gash on his head. Jonoux cut the straps holding Plochere in the cockpit and summoned a friend to help pull the pilot to a wagon, which they took to Lavannes, arriving just as American troops marched into the town. Plochere came to in a British hospital, covered in a full-body cast; the crash had also broken his back. To this day, he has no memory from two weeks before the crash to two weeks afterward.

 

This day in 1944: The 362nd loses two without a German shot fired

The 377th and 378th Fighter Squadrons of the 362nd Fighter Group returned to the Saar on September 28, 1944, with the 377th scoring 22 locomotives and the 378th destroying six locomotives and 15 motor vehicles. The 378th’s first 16-plane mission bombed canal locks and strafed and destroyed a locomotive, and later bombed marshalling yards at Homburg, destroying two locomotives and damaging 25 cars, but Red Flight leader Capt. Leon Bilstin was killed. “His bombs hit the target and he pulled out low on the tracks going toward town,” reported Lt. Arthur Staples, Red Three on this mission. “There was a big explosion and flame on the tracks,” and Bilstin’s P-47D-28 42-28359 crashed on the yard, possibly a victim of his own bomb blast. During the squadron’s second mission, the 16 Thunderbolts strafed the marshalling yards at Saarlautern, destroying three cars and damaging 10 more. The 377th lost Lt. McElroy Nangle, who had been with the squadron just two days, in an accident when P-47D-28 42-28446 crashed during a local training flight.

 

This Day in 1944: the 362nd FG’s Housing Situation Takes a Turn for the Better

On September 23, 1944, the entire 362nd Fighter Group moved to A-79 near Prosnes, 11 miles east-southeast of Reims, traveling by convoy and, for some personnel, by C-47, one of which circled the Eiffel Tower as a treat for its passengers. The pilots also received a treat; thanks to Joe Laughlin’s personal intervention, all of the group pilots were allowed to live in the comfortable chateau near the field, “with a wine cellar, pheasants, rose garden and the works,” said Capt. Joe Hunter. Many of the pilots remembered those accommodations as the best they had during the war. Lt. John Hill referred to it as “the Park Avenue of all quarters.”

“It wasn’t as good as it sounds because we had our cots in halls and everywhere, but there was a good roof overhead,” said Tom Peyton. “What’s more, we had a single steel-matt runway.”

The 362nd’s Chateau at Reims

Col. Joe Laughlin (center) and other personnel at the chateau at Reims in late 1944.