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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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.

 

71 years ago: the 36d Fighter Group blunts the German attack on Bastogne

After a day off because of weather, each squadron in the 362nd Fighter Group flew four missions in support of III Corps on Dec. 29, 1944. After the 377th’s first mission of the day, Lt. William Davis spotted a large number of German armored vehicles. “When we went down lower for further identification, there were swarms of Tiger tanks and other vehicles,” recalled Maj. Loren Herway. “We called this into the controller, who was totally surprised and asked for a double verification. By the time we landed and taxied in, there was all kinds of buzzing activity in response to this sighting.” As a direct result, the 378th bombed a concentration of 35 to 40 vehicles hidden in the woods east of Hanaville, claiming seven tanks, six half tracks and three trucks destroyed, then strafed and knocked out 17 trucks near Wiltz. This was probably the 1st SS Panzer Division, which was moving into position to launch a final assault on Bastogne. Pilots reported the tanks were lined up two-abreast on the road, and that the crews were seen hurrying out of their vehicles before they could be destroyed by the P-47s. “It sticks in my memory that Willie’s eagle eye resulted in blunting the German surprise on Bastogne,” Herway said.

In its second mission of the day, the 378th bombed Chenogne and left it burning, then wiped out two gun positions. Its biggest haul came on the day’s third mission, when the squadron bombed tanks in the woods near Longvilly, destroying or damaging 25 along with six trucks, then returned to the area and strafed repeatedly,

70 Years Ago: the 362nd’s Billy Reed and his Close Call

Ten armed recces were flown on March 23 by the 362nd Fighter Group, most of them north of Frankfurt. The Germans continued their desperate evacuation of rail equipment, and two trains loaded with armored vehicles were strafed and heavily damaged by the 379th Fighter Squadron, which hit them with 260-pound fragmentation bombs. Yellow Flight of the 377th went after a small factory, attacking it with rockets. “As the second element of Yellow Flight started to go in on its run, the enemy started to put up a concentrated flak barrage of 20, 40 and 88mm,” said Lt. Crosby Noyes. In the process, “Lady Linda,” the P-47D-30 44-33234 of Lt. Billy Reed, was hit. “Following, I noticed his plane was smoking,” said Noyes.

“Something told me ‘I had it’ as soon as I was hit,” Reed wrote friend Henry Pochily in 1945. “I figured I could ride it across the Rhine at least, smoke or no smoke, but when she started spitting flames I changed my mind. I nearly clobbered myself good and proper getting out. The fact is I came darn near not getting out at all. I was plenty high when I started to get out, but I made two mistakes. First of all, I didn’t slow her up at all. Then I loosened the belt and stood up on the seat. It’s pretty breezy when you’re moving over 200 mph. I got my head and arms out and I was stuck. My goggles and mask blew off and I couldn’t get back in and I couldn’t get back out. It was a very demoralizing position, to say the least. I still don’t know whether I got back in or just rolled over and fell off the side. For a split second I sweated the tail. Then I pulled the joy cord and opened my eyes and saw the plane burning on the ground. The plane had been diving while I was trying to get out and I know I was under 1000 feet when I finally did get out. I floated only 30 seconds or so before I landed. The Jerries were waiting for me as if they were expecting me.” Reed was in captivity for a week before being liberated by the 4th Armored Division. Lt. William McKain was also hit and bellied in, but returned to the group safely.

The 378th sent out an 11-plane mission to the area, putting 22 bombs into rail targets and destroying four locomotives, four box cars and a flat car, a flak car and 15 passenger cars. A strafing pass added two light flak positions, two locomotives and a truck to the carnage. Near Wettlar, Lt. Milton Mannick gave chase to an Fw 190, damaging it but not bringing back conclusive evidence of a kill.

The next mission was another big one, let by Capt. Darwyn Shaver, striking a marshalling yard south of Schulctern. The toll was 20 box cars, a flak car and five locomotives destroyed by bombing and strafing. This was followed by the dispatch of 16 P-47s to rail targets near Breberan, where they dropped 27 general-purpose bombs and five napalm bombs. A total of 30 cars was destroyed, and half of them were loaded with armored vehicles. Strafing added a locomotive and 15 more boxcars to the tally. The next mission, to the same area, racked up eight flat cars, two trucks and a light flak position. Adding to the day’s tally was Capt. Kent Geyer, who shot down his second enemy plane.

 

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.

 

 

70 years ago: Joe Matte gets four for the 362nd FG

On August 20, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group launched six eight-plane missions to support ground forces around Dreux. During the 378th Fighter Squadron’s first mission of the day, Lt. Stanley Stepnitz’s P-47 was hit by flak and he bailed out. “I was flying Blue Three on a dive-bombing mission near Laval when I developed oil pressure trouble at 10,000 feet,” Stepnitz recalled. “When I looked it was at zero. I wanted to head for the channel to bail out; she started bucking a few minutes later and subsequently froze entirely. I glided down to 3000 feet, stalled it and jumped out. It was a delayed jump and I was only in the air a few seconds. Captain (Wilfred) Crutchfield came by and I threw my ripcord at him. I missed as I didn’t lead him enough. I saw my plane blazing in the woods toward which I was heading. I landed in the trees and fell on my back to the ground.” Stepnitz hid from German soldiers and French gendarmes, sometimes by climbing trees, before some French civilians helped him with clothes and a rendezvous with the French Underground, which delivered him back to American forces.

The 377th attacked a small town as ordered by the ground controller, then were vectored toward a group of tanks, which they strafed and bombed, killing six tanks. On the 378th’s second mission of the day, Lt. Joe Matte was flying as Firebrick Yellow Leader, which was acting as top cover for Red Flight. “We were vectored to Etampes, and then north to Paris. Red Flight shot up two trucks on the way to Paris at 1545. I was at 5000 feet covering Red Flight at 2000 feet and going down slowly, so I started to climb. Red three called eight (bogies) in to Red Leader and Red Leader acknowledged the call. Evidently, the planes, which were Bf 109s, did not see me as I climbed above them because every one of them was going after Red Flight. I tried to warn Red Leader but some controller cut me out on the R/T. Red Leader saw them in time to start turning to the left. The leader and his wingman wasted no time on Red One and Two, so I went down to break this attack up. The two Huns saw me and started to climb in a left turn with me in perfect position to shoot. As I fired at 200 yards, the No. 2 Hun went inside the turn of his leader. Every round seemed to hit him as he flipped to the right directly into his leader. Two explosions resulted and sent two Huns to earth. No one bailed out. I started another climbing turn to the left when I observed four Huns firing on another P-47, so I went down. The number two and three men broke to the right, the leader pulling up to the left in a steep climb. As he did a roll and ended up in my gunsight about 200 yards away, just a short burst blew him to pieces. I flew through the debris and picked up a little blood on my canopy.”

Matte looked to the left and saw a Bf 109 trying to make a deflection shot on him. “I pulled around straight into him, but I didn’t have enough time to shoot so I started to turning to the left with him. In three turns I was almost in position to shoot, so I fired a short burst behind him. This seemed to make him loosen up his turn so I easily pulled a deflection shot at him and let him have a short burst at 300 yards which cut off a part of his left wing. He flipped over on his back and bailed out immediately. The ship continued spinning upside down and one Bf 109 started after another P-47, so I started after him and he broke away to the right. I let him go so I could climb back for cover. My wingman was still with me at this time. As I reached 5000 feet, a 109 overshot me without firing, so I started after him in a slight dive. It was at this time that I spied 20 plus Fw 190s (from JG.26) coming down from approximately 10,000 feet. I then told my number two man (Lt. James W. Pettit) to wait until I gave the signal to break. I was chasing the 109 and was almost ready to fire when I looked around for my number two man and he wasn’t in sight. I looked too long for him, allowing the Fw 190s to catch me. When I hit 1000 feet, two Fw 190s were firing, one each from the left and the right. The third ship that fired on me shot above (me) but hit the prop and came above me, breaking to the left and up. I turned to the right and down, and as I made a 180-degree turn I saw two large explosions on the ground, but I can’t claim this to be the two 190s because I didn’t have time to look. I hit deck for home and managed to get away from the Fw 190s, but without my wingman.” Pettit, in P-47D-20 42-76469, had in fact been shot down; his Thunderbolt crashed near Poissy sur Seine, and the Germans buried the pilot nearby.

Lt. Howard Kelgard saw three Bf 109s make a pass at him and his wingman, then turn away with the P-47s in hot pursuit. “Two 109s broke away and up,” he said. “The other headed for the deck when he realized I had got on his tail. I fired a 30 degree deflection shot. He started violent evasive actions heading for Paris proper. I closed to 100 yards, giving a long burst and observing many strikes about the wings and fuselage. He continued on, but looked as though he was crippled. I expended my ammunition, then called to Red Four, who was right with me to take over, but his radio was faulty. Then I had to break away.”

Lt. Laurie Greenleaf was flying in the number four position in the cover flight. When the enemy planes were spotted, “We reversed our turn and started down to the left,” he reported. “I was about 200 yards behind my lead man (Lt. Gordon L. Struchen) and looking for enemy aircraft as we went down. The first Bf 109 I saw came by me about 25 yards off my right wing, bottom up, and at the same time I saw one high to the right. There were P-47s and Bf 109s going around in a Lufbery to the left. In the confusion I was uncertain which ship was my lead so I started to pull up and saw a ship which looked like his and was in the logical place for him to be. I started towards him and a Bf 109 came in on him firing and seemed to be getting strikes. I opened fire on the Bf 109 from about 1500 feet and 30 degrees. My bullets went behind at first, but I pulled my lead and got strikes around the cockpit and the Bf 109 broke left and seemed to glide. I broke with him and fired a short blast and he started to turn right. He at once broke left again in a near roll and I followed and fired a long burst at him at about 80 or 90 degrees. At first my bullets went behind him, but I pulled my lead up and saw strikes on both wings and either side of the cockpit. As he was in a vertical bank he then flipped to the right and started a long gliding left turn towards the ground with smoke pouring from the plane. I started to go in for another burst, but we were outnumbered and I thought I might be needed in the fight. I started back up looking for the others but could not see a single aircraft, friend or foe. I looked back at the ship I had hit and saw it had crashed to the ground and gone up in smoke.” The final Bf 109 fell to Maj. Richard Harbeson, the group executive officer. The leader of Matte’s flight went missing from this fight; Greenleaf heard Gordon Struchen, who was flying P-47D-22 42-26045, yell “They got me!” over the radio; Struchen bailed out but later returned, albeit injured. The victors was 44-kill ace Oblt. Wilhelm Hofmann of 8./JG 26 and 23-kill ace Leutnant Hans Prager of 7./JG 26. The victims came from 4./JG 77 and 5./JG 77.The 377th bombed two tanks later in the day.

Finally, late in the day, the 379th sent 12 planes to the bend in the Seine southwest of Rouen and dumped six-hour delay fuse bombs on three ferry landings to hamper German movements during hours of darkness. “I could see five or six planes on the bomb run at one time,” remembered Lt. Robert Searle. “(The leader) pulled out of the dive on a heading toward the base at Rennes and we all formed up and came home, most of us landing in the twilight. One of the most impressive things about the mission was the almost total lack of radio chatter, with most commands given by a dip of the wing as taught in training but seldom seen during the real thing.” Air and radio discipline aside, the delayed fuses made it impossible to gauge the success of the mission. The 378th caught a convoy of seven trucks in the open and destroyed them.

 

70 Years Ago: the 362nd Pursues the Fleeing Werhmacht

On July 28, 1944, the 362nd Fighter Group worked overtime to continue the momentum started by Operation Cobra three days earlier. The 378th Fighter Squadron was sent to the Domfront-Alencon-Laval area and attacked two railroad bridges, scoring 14 near-misses. The 379th Fighter Squadron bombed and strafed in the same area, claiming seven boxcars destroyed and 70 more damaged, along with a damaged locomotive. Another 378th mission saw Red Flight knock out two trucks and damage 10 more. Yellow Flight scored hits on two self-propelled guns and five trucks, and Blue Flight destroyed a pair of trucks and strafed a tank, an armored car and five trucks. The 377th Fighter Squadron flew an armed recce, strafing and destroying eight trucks and a staff car. The 378th returned again, flying a similar mission, destroying 10 trucks, an armored car and six tanks, but luck was not with was. Robert Piper of the 378th, on his first mission. Flying wing for Red Leader, Piper was about 200 yards behind him in P-47D 43-25592 when the lead’s bombs dropped on the road near Cherence-le-Heron. “Red Leader’s bombs exploded directly in front of Lt. Piper’s plane,” reported Lt. Stan Stepnitz, the No. 4 man in the flight. “The ship flew through the bomb blast and about a quarter of a mile beyond before it rolled over on its back and crashed to the ground.” Piper did not survive the impact.

As the Red Flight of the 378th was climbing after bombing a road junction, the flight’s leader, Capt. Richard Cline, saw two Bf 109s break through the overcast at about 3000 feet. “(They) saw our squadron and pulled back into the clouds,” Cline reported. “At that time, four Fw 190s broke through directly in front of us, three of which turned sharply to the right and pulled back into the clouds. The fourth, apparently the leader, remained slightly below the clouds at approximately 200 yards. I opened fire at 5 degrees deflection and observed strikes along the wing and canopy. The right gear was seen to come down as he pulled into the overcast. My No. 3 and I hosed the clouds where he was just disappearing. From the strikes observed, I believe the enemy aircraft to be seriously damaged.”

The 379th was next in the area, bombing an underpass and scoring six near misses. The 378th then launched a dive-bombing mission to the Brehal-Hombye-Villedieu area, cutting four rail junctions and destroying a tank and a command car. The 379th returned to this area later. Red flight scored six hits on a railroad junction, then destroyed two trucks and damaged 10 more by strafing; Yellow Flight scored four bomb hits on a weapons carrier and five trucks. Blue Flight knocked out two trucks and strafed a tank. A third mission by the 379th scored several hits on road junctions, knocked out a command car and strafed two Tiger tanks. Finally, the 377th flew another recce, destroying eight motorcycles, four trucks, five tanks and some horse-drawn artillery.

 

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