During WW2, the Bomb Groups assigned to the 8th United States Army Air Force (USAAF) would become the defining Bomb Groups of the entire war. The B-17's and B-24's at their home fields of East Anglia, England, would epitomize the contrast between the home front and the deadly air battles fought almost daily above the skies of Europe.
Of these groups, some would become infamous in their battles with the Luftwaffe - the 100th Bomb Group more than most...
Activated on 1st June, 1942, it's personnel moved to England in May and June of the following year, initially to Podington then to their permanent wartime home of Station 139 at Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk. Coming under the command of the 4th Bombardment Wing. From their arrival until the 21st June all personnel were engaged in the last elements of training before being declared operational.
Their first credited mission was flown on the 25th June against the submarine pens and facility's in Bremen, Germany. This baptism by fire would see the group lose 3 aircraft and 30 men due to a combination of bad weather, inexperience and heavy fighter opposition from the Luftwaffe.
Missions would continue apace throughout the rest of June and July 1943, as the 8th AAF grew in strength and experience while facing an enemy ever-growing in experience and determination to defend their homeland.
The skill and courage of the crews would be put to the ultimate test on the 17th August 1943.
Mission 84, was a 'double-strike' mission designed to hit two targets simultaneously in an attempt to split the Luftwaffe fighter response and minimise their ability to engage the bomber formations.
The Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg and the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt were the designated targets. The 4th Bombardment Wing was assigned the targets at Regensburg. They would face the full force of the Luftwaffe en route to the target, bomb and then carry on to desert air strips in North Africa. The 1st Bombardment Wing would, in theory, face little opposition on the way to Schweinfurt but would be expected to fight their way home.
The morning of the 17th dawned with a heavy blanket of fog covering the Midlands and East Anglia. Departing in the poor weather, the 4th Bombardment Wing under the leadership of Colonel Curtis LeMay the 146 aircraft were underway to Regensburg. However the poor weather persisted in the Midlands delaying the 1st Bombardment Wing for a further 3 hours.
Crossing the coast at 10.00, they were set upon by the Luftwaffe in a series of attacks lasting 90 minutes. By the time the Wing landed in North Africa the 100th BG had lost 9 aircraft of the 21 assigned to the raid and 90 men, either killed or captured.
This was without doubt one of the most brutal air battles fought by the 8th AAF to this point in the war. The brutality is hard to comprehend, however this extract from the personal report of Lt Col Bernie Lay Jr, dated 25 August 1943 paints a vivid picture of the horrors experienced that day;
On we flew through the strewn wake of a desperate air battle, where disintegrating aircraft were commonplace and 60 chutes in the air at one time were hardly worth a second look. I watched a B-17 turn slowly to the right with its cockpit a mass of flames. The copilot crawled out of his window, held on with one hand, reached back for his chute, buckled it on, let go and was whisked back into the horizontal stabilizer. I believe the impact killed him. His chute didn’t open.
Continuing into the late summer and autumn of 1943, the 100th BG now forming part of the 13th Combat Bombardment Wing of the 3rd Bombardment Division would continue to mount raids against the enemy as part of the 8th AAF's efforts to smash the Nazi industrial war machine.
The next major offensive would be launched in October 1943. From the 8-14 October, the 8th AAF would fly maximum effort raids against targets in Germany. Black-Week as it would be known by the crews would see major losses for the 100th BG.
The opening raid flown against Bremen on the 8th October would see 7 aircraft lost to flak and fighters. Reeling from these losses, the group would go on to experience a mauling rarely seen in the skies above Europe.
The target on the 10th October was Münster. Of the 13 aircraft and crews assigned to the raid, only one would return to Thorpe Abbotts.
The escorting fighters failed to rendezvous with the formation due to poor weather in England. This gave the Luftwaffe the opportunity to engage the combat wing unopposed.
Beginning at 14.53 the attacks began, FW 190's and ME-109's charging in for head on attacks, breaking off merely 50 yards from their targets had a devastating effect.
B-17 'Royal Flush' piloted by Robert 'Rosie' Rosenthal, despite having 1 engine shot out, having a rocket pass through the right wing, narrowly missing the fuel tank and with 3 wounded crew on board made it back to Thorpe Abbotts on 2 remaining engines.
Black Week would see the loss of 19 aircraft and crews from the 100th BG.
As the war continued and the Allied Air Forces conducted round the clock bombing of the enemy's infrastructure the 100th would continue to fly and fight in the skies above Europe, all the while working toward the goal of destroying the Luftwaffe as a prelude to the invasion of Europe that was planned for 1944.
With the advent of the desperately needed P-51 Mustang, the crews on the heavy bombers now had escort fighters that could remain with their formations all the way to the target and home again.
The 6th March, 1944 and the mission to Berlin would see the 100th earn it's moniker 'The Bloody Hundredth'.
36 bombers departed Thorpe Abbotts on the morning of 6th March, 1944 to attack industrial areas in the Berlin suburbs. The 1st Air Division was in the lead followed by the 3rd and the B-24 Liberators of the 2nd Air Division making up the rear of the 60 mile long formation. 6 aircraft would return for various reasons prior to crossing into enemy territory.
The 1st Air Division was engaged by the Luftwaffe over Dummer Lake, a well known landmark for the crews of the 8th AAF. During this engagement, Luftwaffe Ground Controllers noted a Combat Wing in the middle of the bomber stream was unguarded. Directing it's force against this element the 13th Combat Wing were savaged. When it was over the 100th BG had lost 15 of their 30 aircraft.
The 100th Bomb Group would go on to fly other high loss missions throughout 1944, however it must be noted that they did not suffer the highest overall loss rate of an 8th AAF Group during WW2.
Today their memory is preserved both in the US and UK, by the excellent work carried out by the 100th Bomb Group Foundation and the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum.
The original Control Tower at Thorpe Abbotts, England.
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