Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New Years Eve, December 31st 1944

December 1944. England was experiencing the worst winter in fifty-four years. Across the Channel, deep in the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge raged on. The American GI's now had the added problem of dealing with German soldiers posing as 'fake' GI's. Three Germans had already been captured and executed by a firing squad while fifteen more awaited the same fate.

The Eighth Air Force flew a mission on the 31st December and again on the 1st January, New Years Day, dropping leaflets in France, Germany and Belgium. Meanwhile, the American bombers of the Ninth Air Force were grounded by bad weather.
American GI's in the Ardennes
Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons
New Years Eve 1944 saw more than 900 B-17's launched against targets across Germany.
3rd Bomb Division crews returned to the oil production centres of Hamburg on a bombing mission but they suffered heavy losses. Having experienced particularly heavy flak, the bombers dropped their bombs and then headed for home, turning 180-degrees to head out across the North Sea. Having turned Northwest for England, they encountered a number of German fighters at 22,000 feet.

Captain Glenn Rojohn of the 100th Bomb Group - 'the Bloody Hundredth' -piloting The Little Skipper, saw the faces of some of the Luftwaffe pilots, they were so close. The group fought hard to remain in formation but then Captain Rojohn witnessed a B-17 up ahead burst into flames and plummet to earth. He felt an impact and his bomber shuddered. Losing altitude, he realised that he had collided with another aircraft.
B-17 Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons
Below him, a B-17 piloted by Lt. William G. McNab, in Nine Lives, must have drifted upward as his fuselage had hit the underneath of Rojohn's B-17. The result was that the top gun turret was now lodged in the belly of Rojohn's B-17 and Rojohn's ball turret was in the top of Mcnab's. Both aircraft were in almost perfect alignment, fused together, as one crewman later said, "like mating dragon flies."
B-17 Fools Rush In  on Hamburg mission
The lower bomber was in even more trouble as the fourth engine was on fire and flames were now spreading throughout the aircraft. Both B-17's were losing altitude quickly. Rojohn tried everything he could to break free but to no avail. Aware of the fire below him, Rojohn cut his engines and rang the bailout bell.

The ball turret, the gunners position hanging below the belly of the B-17, was considered to be the worst position - a death trap. Right now, the ball turret of the upper B-17 was lodged into the fuselage of the aircraft beneath it. Staff Sgt, Edward L. Woodall Jr was in that turret and he was aware of the collision. Realizing that all electrical and hydraulic power was gone, he reached for the hand-crank, released the clutch and cranked the turret and the guns until they were straight down. At that point he was then able to climb out and into the fuselage. It was then that he saw the ball turret of the other bomber protruding through the top of the fuselage.

Staff Sgt. Joseph Russo was hopelessly trapped, his turret jammed into the fuselage and despite the frantic efforts of the crew to free him, it would not budge. Unaware of the fact that his voice was going out over the intercom, Russo began reciting Hail Mary's.

From the cockpit of the upper B-17, Captain Rojohn and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William G. Leek Jr, were doing everything they could to prevent their B-17 from going into a spinning dive that would prevent the crew from bailing out. Rojohn motioned to turn left and they both hauled the plane back toward the German coast. Most of Rojohn's crew were now able to bail out.

The B-17 below them was fiercely ablaze and flames were now spreading upward, across Rojohn's wing. He could feel the heat already from his cockpit and heard the sound of .50 calibre ammunition going off in the flames. He ordered his co-pilot to bail but Leek knew that Rojohn needed his help to prevent the bombers from nosediving and so he refused the order.

Anti-aircraft gunners on the coastal island of Wangerooge had seen the collision and German soldiers had the two fused B-17's in sight.

A German battery captain wrote in his logbook at 12:47 p.m: "Two fortresses collided in a formation in the NE. The planes flew hooked together and flew 20 miles south. The two planes were unable to fight anymore. The crash could be awaited so I stopped firing at these two planes."

One of the crewmen who had bailed out watched as he glided down to earth while the bombers, trailing black smoke, fell to earth about three miles away, exploding upon impact, a fireball erupting.

Upon impact, the McNab plane underneath had exploded, propelling the upper B-17 upward and forward. Rojohn's plane hit the ground and slid along until the left wing hit a wooden building and the B-17 finally came to a halt. Still in their seats in the cockpit, Rojohn and Leek were stunned and shocked to survive this disaster. The nose of the Fortress was relatively intact but everything from the wings back was destroyed. Leek crawled out through a huge hole behind the cockpit, took out his cigarettes and was just about to light up when he noticed a young German soldier pointing a rifle at him. The soldier pulled the cigarette from Leeks mouth and signalled to the gasoline that was pouring from a ruptured fuel tank.
Captain Glenn Rojohn & crew
Of the crewmen that bailed from Rojohn's plane, only four survived. Four men from the other bomber, including ball turret gunner Woodall, also survived. All were taken prisoner.

Captain Rojohn won the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart that night. He once said, "In all fairness to my co-pilot, he's the reason I'm alive today." After the war, it would be a further 41 years before the two men would speak again. Rojohn finally traced his former co-pilot, speaking to Leek in 1986. A year later, they were finally reunited at the reunion of the 100th Bomb Group in Long Beach, California. Bill Leek passed away the following year. Captain Glenn Rojohn passed away in August 2003, the last of those surviving men from that terrible night in 1944.  R.I.P.

There were some seventy sites across East Anglia, England which became bases for USAAF's bombers during WW2. Each base was home to 2000-3000 airmen and ground crew, many of whom were volunteers. These sites became known as "The Fields of Little America."

Thorpe Abbotts Runway

Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower - Home to the 100th Bombardment Group in WW2
Now restored and a Museum.