Bad Weather Solo Missions
Solo (Single Plane) Missions of WWII
During the fall and winter of 1944-1945, an unusual and dangerous event occurred with the bomber crews of the 15th Air Force, the 304th Bomb Wing and its four Bomb Groups. Because of bad weather both over the bomb target and also at the operating fields in Italy, the usual American practice of flying in formation had to be halted except on clear weather days which were few and far between.
As a result of these unfavorable weather conditions, certain crews were selected to fly bad weather missions at night and in daylight as solo, single plane missions to keep the German military and civilian population on edge during this period.
In order to accomplish this new bombing directive, the selected crew had to receive about six weeks of new training to fly at night and in bad weather conditions expected on these missions ? that is extreme turbulence, lack of navigation aids, and icing problems.
My crew of Chuck Culpepper, pilot; Bob Brown, co-pilot; Bill Owen , bombardier and myself, Reid Waltman were selected from the 758th Bomb Squadron and 459th Bomb Group to fly these missions and as such, started training for night flying in October, 1944. As noted in my letters home during this period, I wondered why we were scheduled to fly a formation combat mission and whether we flew one or not, we were then scheduled for night practice missions.
I wish to stress that we were not told why we were flying night practice missions nor were we volunteers for this duty ? we were just ordered to practice. I found out later that one of the criteria that caused us to be selected was our skill in returning solo from ten formation combat missions in a row due to having one or more engines shot out over the target by German flak and thus not being able to keep up with the formation after bombing the target. Very little information has been written about these solo bad weather combat missions. Lyle McCarty, Editor of the 459th Bomb Group History Book ?Coffee Tower? has the best description which is reproduced below. The 455th Bomb Group History Book ?Flight of the Vulgar Vultures? has a few scant mentions of these missions also reproduced in the following accounts.
Having flown six of these bad weather missions, using Mickey radar or Pathfinder methods, I am taking this opportunity to describe several of these unusual missions.
Shooting at a Star
On November 24, 1944, our crew was finally told why we had been practicing night flying for the past six weeks. We were called for briefing at 10:00 PM on the night of November 24th to fly the first night bombing raid. At this briefing, we were told we were to bomb the Munich West Germany Marshalling (railroad) yard at night and in bad weather with cloud cover the entire way. We were to be given a brand new Mickey (radar) ship and have a radar navigator (operator) as well as myself as navigator. This briefing also went into great detail about the German night fighters that we might encounter on these type of missions.
We were told that the Germans might employ twin engine ME 210 night fighters which had a single search light in the nose of the plane to illuminate our American bomber. Also 2-single engine enemy fighters might be accompanying the ME 210 to add fire power to their night fighters intercept.
All went well with our takeoff and climb directly to our bombing altitude of 22,000 feet. Our plane was completely blacked out with covering material placed over all the windows. On this mission, I was navigating by dead reckoning through the dense and very bumpy clouds on the flight deck with the Mickey operator near me in the radio man position. We communicated regularly on our progress and I had a good fix on our positions (knowing we were to cross the Alp Mountains and approach the Munich, Germany, target from the south).
From our position, I knew we had crossed over the Alps and was plotting our course to the IP (initial point) for the turn to the bomb run on the Munich Main Marshalling Railroad yard. At that moment, the whole ship shuttered with the recoil of the rear turret gunner firing his twin 50 caliber machine guns. The rear gunner came on the intercom and shouted in an excited voice ?I see a light! I see a light!? and fired his guns again. We were sure we were being attacked by an ME 210 night fighter with his searchlight providing the light the rear gunner was seeing.
I pulled off enough window covering to look outside and to my astonishment could see the ground and lights on the ground. We obviously were no longer in ?full cloud cover? and had broken out in the clear after we traveled north of the Alp Mountains. I also realized what the tail gunner had seen and what he was doing. He was shooting at a Bright Star! Hurriedly, I got on the intercom to the pilot and the gunner to advise them of the situation and for the gunner to stop firing his guns.
At that moment, approximately 600 German searchlights came on searching for us. I have never seen so many searchlights in my entire life, all now focusing on finding us ? a single lone B-24 close to a bomb run. I was able to spot our IP in the clear and between the Mickey operator and myself were able to guide the bombardier to our target. We were pinned several times by searchlights but clever maneuvering by our pilot, we were able to avoid the lights and still stay on our bomb run. With ?Bombs Away?, we made a radical right turn and sped south to cloud cover and the long silent cloud enclosed trip back to base.
There is no way to describe how scared we all were to break out in the clear and have those searchlights chasing us all over the sky. Although we had been briefed on permission to abort the mission if we did not have full cloud cover, we made the quick decision to complete the mission and leave the area as soon as possible.
I know we hit the target but whether our bomb load contributed to the overall war effort I will never know. I know we stirred up a hornets nest with those searchlights coming on and searching the sky for us. Perhaps that was the whole idea of sending us on these dangerous and challenging missions.
Our briefing indicated that another crew and plane from each of the other 3 Bomb Groups were to have been sent up to the same target at different time intervals. With 20 odd Bomb Groups in the 15th AF sending up solo planes we might have had a number of planes flying through that bad weather and at night. That alone is a scary thought ? running into your own sides planes in the dark.
Needless to say, we were very happy to land safely at our airfield, Giulia Field, but a very low overcast cloud cover making our approach very hazardous, since the elevated Spur of the Italian Boot was cloud covered and had to be avoided on our approach to home base. However, we had completed our first bad weather night mission and had bombed the target, IN THE CLEAR too.
Our fifth bad weather mission turned out to be in daylight. The briefing said we were to go all the way to Osweicim, Poland to bomb the oil refinery and marshalling yard there while other B-24?s on solo missions were to bomb nearby Blechhammer, German oil refineries. Again, we were told the clouds would be up to 25,000 feet all the way to the target. None of these missions were easy and this one was no exception with the bad weather, violent turbulence, and icing conditions. We took off alone on December 12, 1944 and flew in the clouds at 22,000 feet until we were about one hour from the target (overall flying time was to be 8 hours