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B17’s Over Berlin

B-17’s Over Berlin: Personal Stories from the 95th Bomb Group by Ian Hawkins (424pp)

Personal accounts of the men who served in the USAAF’s 95th Bomb Group, based in East Anglia, UK, during WW2. By skilful selection of personal accounts, Hawkins reveals what it was like to be several miles above Germany, freezing cold and being shot at, as well as how the air bases affected life in Norfolk and Suffolk, and how the men and planes were moved from the US to the UK. There are accounts from ground crews, and from men who were shot down and who evaded the Germans or were captured.  Particularly memorable, apart from the high loss rate on some bad missions, are the frequent losses from causes other than enemy action. Take-off crashes and mid-air collisions while forming up were a daily occurrence. One young man had both feet amputated because of frostbite, just because the electric heating of his flying boots failed at altitude.  Crew losses in the USAAF air war were in the tens of thousands. Many of these brave young men now lie in the American cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge.

Crews often fought gun battles with German fighter planes, and shot down many of them.

This is an excellent book which paints a remarkably complete picture of the 95th Bomb group operations.

I found that it whetted my appetite for a work describing the American air war in WW2 in strategic terms, and for comparisons with the British effort.  The B-17 was designed to fly in defensible formations, and had larger caliber guns than British bombers, more guns, and more gunners. American bombers sometimes returned with the floors covered in thousands of spent shell cases, while British bombers might not fire a single shot.  Despite this, the USAAF  bombers required fighter escort to make their missions survivable.  Lancaster pilots often struggled to pull their plane out of a high-speed dive, wheras no B-17 pilot in Hawkins’ book mentions this.  There are many accounts of all ten crew baling out of a stricken B-17, but few of all 7 crewmen bailing out of a Lancaster, where the narrow escape hatches were a cause of complaint.  The B-17 had an autopilot which was of great help during a bail-out.  Mainly because of its heavy armament, the B-17’s bomb load was no greater than that of the smaller and lighter two-engined DH Mosquito, and much less than the maximum load of a Lancaster.

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