Friday, 29 November 2013

The All American

The crippled All American in flight (Warbirds News)

Earlier this month, I had the great pleasure of guiding Barbara and John Kinnear from Santa Barbara, USA on a Blitz walk around Westminster and during the course of our walk, I discovered that Barbara's late father, the then Captain Richard E Evans had served in North Africa with the 346th Bomb Squadron, 99th Bombardment Group, 12th Air Force and had indeed served as the personal pilot of General Bernard Montgomery's B-17 Flying Fortress for some time during that campaign. That, as they say, is another story which will be covered in a forthcoming edition of this blog but as a result of the mutual interest that we both have in World War 2 history, Barbara recently sent me another story of a B-17 and how due to the skill of it's crew, the soundness of the aircraft's construction and no little measure of good fortune, this particular aircraft survived terrible damage and brought it's crew safely back to base. 

Sadly, the story that was emailed to Barbara had become something of an urban myth perhaps due to constant retelling but the essence of the story is true and this Thanksgiving Weekend seems an appropriate time to tell the accurate version of the story of the 'All American.'

The Boeing B-17 was a four engined heavy bomber originally designed in the mid 1930s and entering service with the US Army Air Corps in 1938. Entry into service was slow however, and by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, fewer than two hundred machines had been delivered, although much larger orders were pending. Despite it's name as the Flying Fortress, the early marks were not really adequately defended against determined fighter attack and it was not until the entry into service of the B-17E in early 1942 that introduced a new tail gun position, together with ventral and dorsal turrets that the B-17 began to positively bristle with armaments and could go onto the offensive in the European Theatre of Operations. 

The later B-17F introduced the 'chin' turret  and although these marks of the Fortress boasted no fewer than thirteen gun positions, the B-17 was no more capable of flying unescorted missions over German occupied Europe than the early British attempts in 1939. However, with fighter protection - at first provided by RAF Spitfires on shorter range missions and later by the superb P51 Mustang which had the range to fly to Berlin and back to Britain - the tight formations of B-17s enabled the Allies to bomb Germany around the clock, the RAF mainly by night and the USAAF by day. The B-17 could never carry as heavy a bomb load as it's British equivalent, the Lancaster but it had a higher altitude for bombing and operating by day enabled it's attacks to be carried out with greater accuracy, at least in theory.

The particular B-17 we are looking at today though, did not operate in the European Theatre but rather in North Africa, to be precise the bomber named 'All American' by it's crew was part of 414th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group of the 12th Air Force based at Biskra, Algeria and on February 1st 1943 was part of a raid on Tunis, which at that time was still in German hands, being used for the supply of Rommel's beleaguered Afrika Korps which was gradually being squeezed out of North Africa by the Allies.

Inspecting the damage after landing (Warbirds News)

The All American, under the command of Lieutenant Kendrick R Bragg Jnr. along with her squadron colleagues had already braved German fighters and flak before making a successful bombing run. Turning for base, the formation again came under attack, this time from two Bf109s, one of which attacked the lead aircraft, whilst the other concentrated it's attentions upon the All American. The first fighter was shot down by the bomber leader, whilst the second made a head on attack upon Bragg's aircraft. The German fighter was met with a withering barrage from the All American's guns and began to roll away from her intended prey. The gunfire from the B-17 must have killed the Messerschmitt's pilot and instead of rolling away from the bombers, the fighter collided with the Fortress with a sickening crunch, tearing a huge gash in the B-17's tail section and ripping off the port stabiliser before the fighter plummeted to the ground. Amazingly, nobody aboard the B-17 was hurt and after what must have seemed an eternity, the crew discovered that their bomber, though seriously wounded, was still flying and that the tail section had not fallen off.

The tail section was visibly moving and the crew, fearing that their aircraft could break up at any moment, donned their parachutes ready to escape. However, the wounded bomber managed to keep flying, at first closely escorted by her squadron colleagues and then, safely out of range of further German attack, limped on alone before managing to reach base at Biskra and landed safely, although perhaps not surprisingly without a tail wheel which had been disabled in the collision.

Apart from the skill and bravery displayed by the pilot and crew in nursing their crippled bomber back home, this story is also a testament to the strength and soundness of the design as well as to those who built the B-17 at Boeing in Seattle. 

I am indebted to Barbara Kinnear for making me aware of this story and also to the excellent Warbirds News website for helping to set the record straight.

Next month, I hope to tell the story of Monty's B-17, how he came to 'win' it and to tell something of the men who flew for him.

No comments:

Post a Comment