Boats, Boats Boats!
D-Day from the tail of a B-17.
by Randy Wilson
Copyright © 2004 by the Commemorative Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.
The Allied invasion of Europe, D-Day, 6 June, 1944 was the largest combined-forces operations of the Second World War. The numbers alone are staggering, involving hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen involved, nearly 6,000 ships and landing craft, and over 14,000 sorties flown by Allied bombers, fighters and reconnaissance planes on that day alone. It could not fail, or the Allies might lose the war.
The planners of D-Day knew that the only hope for a successful invasion at Normandy was to deceive Hitler into believing that a second, larger landing would take place elsewhere on the French coast. An elaborate deception plan was devised which included everything from phantom armies in England to “ghost” invasion fleets which appeared on the German coastal radars well to the north of the actual invasion beaches and then suddenly vanished at dawn. All of this was wrapped in a heavy veil of secrecy to protect the men who would have to go ashore at Normandy and those who would support them from the air and sea. Many of the secret plans and operations of D-Day remained classified for 20 to 30 years, and some even longer. One would think that now, nearly 60 years after D-Day, everything that happened that day and every secret must be know and published, but the following story illustrates that some puzzles still exist.
Col Bruce Wallace joined the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) in 1990, when CAF Headquarters was in the process of moving to our present home in Midland, where he lives. Even before joining and having the honorary rank of CAF Colonel, Wallace was Colonel Wallace to most of his friends, having retired from the Army infantry as a colonel in 1979 after a distinguished career. However, on D-Day, Wallace was a young staff sergeant in the USAAF, serving as a B-17 tail-gunner in the 325th Bomb Squadron, 92nd Bomb Group of the Eight Air Force based at Podington Air Base, England.
While not an official oral history, Wallace was kind enough to share his memories of D-Day, when his group flew two missions in support of the invasion, and parts of his story do question what is known and what may still be hidden in “the fog of war” about that day.
To Brest with Rocket Bombs
The first mission the 92nd BG flew on D-Day was against the German U-boat pens at Brest, France, about 200 miles west and south of the Normandy beaches. In the briefing for this mission, the crews were told they would attack the thick reinforced-concrete U-boat pen roofs with a new and secret type of bomb – a rocket bomb which could penetrate up to 20 feet into the pens before exploding. Because of the rocket bombs’ size, only two could be carried by each B-17 and had to be mounted one under each wing. Wallace remembers seeing these long, slender bombs as the crews manned their planes. He points out that it was still pitch dark but that the distinctive size and shape of the bombs were unlike any other bomb he saw before or after this mission.
Once airborne, the planes flew southwest over the English Channel and circled around to attack Brest from the southeast, striking the target shortly after sunup. From his tail-gunner’s position, Wallace saw that the rocket bombs had blown huge craters in and collapsed one or more of the U-boat pen roofs. Anti-aircraft fire was heavy after they left the target but all of the planes made it safely back to England. When asked if he saw anything of the invasion on the return flight, all Wallace said was “Boat, boats, boats!”
What is puzzling about this account is that Brest is not listed as a target on D-Day for the Eight Air Force heavy bombers in published histories, and while there was an American rocket bomb very similar to the weapon Wallace described, called the “Disney” bomb, it was not used operationally until Feb. 10, 1945, based again on published histories. Interestingly, however, it was then first dropped by B-17s of the same 92nd BG. When this was pointed out, Wallace was certain that his group had carried rocket bombs on June 6, 1944, and that he never saw the weapon again. When shown a photo of a “Disney” bomb, he said that it was very similar to the bombs they carried that morning.
Could Wallace have somehow confused the dates on which his group used the rocket bombs? What makes that unlikely is that his B-17 was shot down on a raid over Berlin on Feb. 3, 1945, a week before the documented first use of the weapon, and he was captured by the Germans but then escaped. Upon his return to England, his escape and events related to it prevented his further combat over Europe. He is certain that his group attacked Brest on their first mission of D-Day.
The “Disney” rocket bomb was developed by Capt. Edward Terrell of the Royal Navy and was designed to attack exactly the type of target described by Wallace. It weighed 4,500 pounds and had a rocket motor in its tail which ignited at 5,000 feet to accelerate the bomb to 2400 feet per second on impact, giving it deep penetration before exploding. Because it was 14 feet long, no British bomber could carry the weapon, and the bombs were mounted under the wings of B-17s, just as Wallace described. An attack on the U-boat pens at Brest on D-Day would certainly make sense, as the German submarines could have played havoc with the thousands of ships and smaller craft supporting the invasion, both that day and for the weeks ahead.
Could the 92nd BG have used an early, secret version of the rocket bomb on D-Day? As noted at the beginning of this article, the Allies certainly developed and used a variety of special weapons and tactics to support the invasion, both in the air and on the beaches themselves. Was this mission a casualty of secrecy and the passage of time, or is there another explanation for Wallace’s memories. Perhaps the answer lies with one of our readers. If you can shed any light on this seeming puzzle, please write us.
Over Normandy in the Afternoon
When the men of the 92nd had debriefed from the mission to Brest and finished lunch, they found their B-17s being readied for another mission, this time in direct support of the Allied forces ashore at Normandy. Their target was German infantry and tanks close behind the invasion beaches. Wallace remembers the briefer saying they would be attacking a Panzer division that was once part of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s famed Africa Korps in North Africa. On D-Day, Rommel commanded Army Group B and was overall commander of the German forces defending Normandy. The 21st Panzer division was located just south of Caen, behind the eastern landing beaches and had originally been the 5th Light Division, part of the Africa Korps. This unit may have been the target mentioned in the briefing.
Taking off about 1:30 p.m., the bombers flew lower than on longer missions, below 12,000 feet, as the crews did not have to wear their oxygen masks. When asked about their route, Wallace said they crossed the coast of Normandy over Omaha beach at Pointe Du Hoc, where the 2nd Ranger Battalion had scaled the 100-foot cliffs to silence German artillery positions earlier that day. Soon after crossing inland and somewhere a few miles behind the beaches, they attacked their target with a type of bomb that was once again, unfamiliar to him.
In the briefing, the crews had been told these bombs would detonate before striking the ground, spewing out fragments that would be deadly to any troops or equipment not protected by armor. Wallace said these were called “butterfly” bombs and that they were British weapons. “Butterfly bomb” was the British nickname for the German SD 2 fragmentation bomb which was dropped in clusters and may have been a generic term for anti-personnel cluster bombs. As on the first mission that day, Wallace was able to observe the effect of the bombs as they struck, saying they shredded trees and kicked up clouds of dust and dirt around each detonation and seemed quite effective. Two B-17s were lost on the mission but the rest returned safely after a relatively short flight back to England.
While surviving D-Day, Wallace, his planes and fellow crewmembers did not escape damage and injury on other missions, as seen in the photo of his B-17 after being hit by flak in both the nose and tail. As mentioned above, on his last mission, he was shot down over Germany in early February 1945 and eight of the ten men in his crew were lost. Lest we forget.
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