NARRATIVE OF THE MISSION OF THE
91ST BOMB GROUP AGAINST A TARGET IN
GERMANY FLOWN BY
DAVID GASTON ALFORD
AS WING LEADER
and his subsequent experience in Holland and
Belgium in trying to get back to home base in
Mission Flown: February 4, 1944 from Bassingbourne AFB, England. Target: Rail Station in Frankfort, Germany.
This is a narrative of the mission of the 91st Bomb Group on 4 February 1944 against a target in Germany flown by David Gaston Alford as wing leader and his subsequent experience in Holland and Belgium in trying to get back to home base in England.
The following excerpt is from a book written by my Navigator on this mission, Dave Williams, who died of cancer in 1993. The title of his book is: "Colonel Dave and the Schroff Connection."
"On 4 February the 91st was designated to lead the lst BD as the vanguard of three Divisions scheduled to attack the marshalling yards in Frankfort, Germany. Because of the weather it was to be a Pathfinder mission using H2X, or 'Mickey" radar bombing equipment. Because of the primitive nature of this technology at that time, area bombing of the railroad years was selected as a tactical objective rather than the precision bombing of strategic targets.
"This was to be my second PFF mission and in the wee hours of the morning, Lt. Warren E. Bock and his crew flew Pathfinder B-17GHSS 23500 to Bassingbourne. They were designated to be the lead aircraft of the 91st which was leading the lst BD,. The Group Operations Officer of the 91st (L/Col. David Gaston Alford) replaced the PFF copilot and would act as airborne commander for the Division. As Group Navigator, I also joined the crew. There was not a lot of time for coordinating procedures with a crew we had never met, but it was agreed that the Mickey navigator would have primary responsibility if the land mass was completely covered with clouds. The Group Navigator would be responsible for navigation over England and forming up the groups, perform dead reckoning (DR) navigation, plot wind and maintain the detailed log over the European continent. If the weather should suddenly become clear, the Group Navigator would assume primary responsibility for navigation. The aircraft was to be aborted if the Mickey equipment was malfunctioning prior to penetration of enemy territory.
"One other standard procedure, that has not been previously mentioned was for the lead aircraft to have a qualified pilot in the tail gunner position to observe the status of the formation and advise the airborne commander flying in the copilot's seat. Lt. Roger Layn of the 322nd Sqdn. replaced Lt. Bock's tail gunner. Six months ago, Roger was flying with Lt. Jim Judy in "My Prayer" (B-17F 425712) on the first Schweinfurt mission, when they were attacked by ten fighters deep in Germany. A 20 millimeter shell severed a control cable and smashed the oxygen bottles between the top turret and the cockpit. The top turret operator, T/Sgt. Earl M. Cherry, was wounded by shrapnel but continued to fire his guns. He and Roger managed to extinguish fourteen separate fires. The remaining crew bailed out and these three men managed to fly their severely damaged aircraft a low level "legal buzzing" altitudes to an RAF airdrome in southeast England with bomb bay doors open, ball turret guns dragging and one flat tire. You could consider Roger to be a qualified combat pilot!
"On this mission of 4 February 1944 a total of 748 aircraft were launched of which twenty were shot down: eight from the 1st BD, ten from the 3rd BD and two from the smaller force of B-24s in the 2nd BD. The 91st lost two counting the one 482nd BG Pathfinder H17-G that we were flying. We were hit at 1205Z by flak in the target area and lost part of our oxygen equipment. As a result we had to lower our altitude from 25,000 to 22,000. The H2X equipment was malfunctioning but the Mickey operator was able to get a good enough return to make a bomb run on Frankfurt. Upon withdrawal, however, the Mickey equipment was performing poorly and radar fixes could not be obtained to determine our position. We were relying on DR and the winds turned out not to be as briefed.
"All three of the Divisions encountered the same conditions resulting in the lead and successive Divisions to be north of the course. In the Wiesbaden area my oxygen gauge was indicating zero and I was using a walk around bottle which was almost empty. We encountered continuous and intensive flak in the general area of Cologne at 1243Z and peeled our of the formation over Leverkusen r 12250ZZ in a diving turn to the right with two engines feathered, one on fire and a fire between the navigator's compartment and the pilot's instrument panel. Lt. Bock was severely injured in the upper left leg. There was a fire in the right wing with flames trailing all the way back to the tail section. Col. Alford executed the diving maneuver in an attempt to extinguish these flames and ordered the crew to bail out.
"Another view of the 'shoot-down' was related to me by one of our squadron navigators, Dikran Hazirjian, in a 1968 letter as follows: ". . . going through the last issue of the "Raged Irregulars" I spotted your name and it gave me a good feeling. Hell man, the last I saw of you was in the early afternoon of Feb. 4, 1944 about 27,000 ft. just going down. While you had your troubles, and I'm glad to finally hear you made it, that lead group all broke up and joined the low and high group to fly back home. . .I was the navigator in the lead of the high group. . .and won the prize to lead home. . .six months before that, you led the wing on August 17, 1943 (Schweinfurt #1) and I was in the deputy lead spot on your right wing. . .we lost our left wing man and as I remember we were the only two ships to make it back to Bassingbourne that day. . .Herk."
"Col. Alford described the incident in a 1977 letter as follows: "...My recollection is that somewhere near Cologne the plane was hit several times by ack-ack gun flak. . .the nose was on fire, 2 engines had been feathered, a third engine was on fire, there was a dangerous fire in the right wing and the plane had been hit several times. . .We left the formation. Lt. Bock had been hit...I thought he had received a stomach wound...he went into shock and shortly thereafter lost consciousness (I later observed that his oxygen line has been cut...) As we reached about 15,000 ft. Bock regained consciousness and was quite calm...I ordered everyone to bail out. . .Dave Williams helped to get Bock out of the plane for the jump. . .after all personnel were out. . .I found that my parachute had become completely unpacked and was spilled on the floor. . .I returned to the pilot's seat and proceeded to fly the airplane down. I broke out. . .somewhere around 3 or 4 thousand feet and found my windshield completely iced over. . .I opened the window on the left. . . .the right window was
not iced and through it I spotted the field in which I landed. This maneuver took a right turn, which I accomplished with the one remaining engine. I was very fortunate and God was flying with me..."
From another quote from his book he said..."The 91st had eleven alerts in December, flew ten, aborted one and one was scrubbed before takeoff. A mission was flown on Christmas Eve but not on Christmas Day."
The mission at the time was to bomb railroad yards at Frankfort, Germany. I was Operations Officer of the 91st Bomb Group, stationed at Bassingbourne, England, a member of the First Wing of the 1st Division, 8th Air Force. The composition of a Bomb Group should be explained. It is made up of four Bomb Squadrons, plus support squadrons. Each squadron had a normal compliment of 9 airplanes. The normal formation for a combat mission consisted of 18 to 21 planes with one to three spare planes in case the regular formation had to turn back (abort) for one reason or another. In a maximum effort a composite group might be made up of airplanes from 2 or 3 groups to make an additional combat group. In flight a group was made up of three units called "flights" of six planes each. There was a lead flight, or squadron, as they were sometimes referred to, a high flight and a low flight.
Since the 91st Bomb Group was scheduled to lead the wing on this particular mission I was scheduled to be the Wing Leader along with the Group Navigator, Dave Williams. In this particular instance, we had some airplanes in the theater, B-17s, equipped with the H2X Bomb Device which we commonly called the Pathfinder. These planes were all assigned to one particular group, the 482nd Bomb Group, and when we were scheduled to be the Wing Lead, they would send one airplane over to us. We would put our leader and our navigator on board and the rest of the crew would belong to the 482nd.
Lt. Warren Bock, now living in Houston, Texas was the pilot of the particular Pathfinder airplane that day. Capt. Williams (our navigator) and I boarded the Pathfinder and we proceeded on our way. There were no unusual occurrences until we got over enemy territory where we began to experience some fighter opposition and quite a bit of flak, which was normal. Our route was north of the Ruhr Valley and on down into Frankfort. Over the
target we did receive considerably more flak and a little bit more fighter opposition but we proceeded on and could see, after we got to the target area, visually, and proceeded to drop our bombs. There were 4 or 5 airplanes that did not release for one reason or another not known to me (probably some malfunction in the bomb devices). Consequently, we went over the target, turned around, and started back toward England, a course to the northwest.
We had problems with the radar equipment all the way to the target trying to navigate over an undercast and at the time we dropped our bombs the radar almost went out completely. However, after dropping our load, the pilot proceeded back toward England and selected a target of opportunity where we dropped the remainder of the bombs and continued on course. Unfortunately for us, with the equipment malfunctioning so much, we encountered a very strong northwest wind which blew us off course and we were not aware of it since our equipment just could not pick up definite checkpoints. We continued to get hit by flak very strongly when we were over the Ruhr Valley (in the vicinity of Cologne) and finally, our airplane got shot up so badly we had to leave the formation.
We had been flaked badly, had a fire in the nose and a fire in the right wing and this caused us to decide to leave the formation. We put the wheels down and entered the clouds around 25,000 ft. or thereabouts. About that time the pilot was hit; he went into a state of shock (or so it seemed to me) and shortly thereafter passed out completely. Sitting in the co-pilot's seat and observing him, I was not quite sure what was wrong. I thought he might be dead, but after the plane got down a few thousand feet, he revived and I determined that his oxygen line had been severed by the flak that came through into the cockpit and when he came to, he became very rational.
Flying in that same formation on that day was my cousin, Frank Alford, who had come to the European Theater of Operations in another group and I had managed to get him assigned by my group -- the 91st. I believe this
was the second mission he had flown with us and was in the formation just above my plane. Frank's airplane and crew on the first mission he flew was shot up very badly and their plane was landed, barely, on the English coast, way down from our base. I had already begun thinking about needing to write his parents, my aunt and uncle, to tell them what happened as far as I knew, etc. Since they did get back there was no necessity for the worry, and, irony of fate, when I went down there was Frank, sitting up above me in high flight, and he had the job of writing to tell MY parents what had happened on the mission. Things have a way of turning themselves around a bit. I am happy to report that Frank finished his 25 missions and came back to the USA safely.
Back to my adventure: as we left the formation it was quite evident that we needed to bail out so I ordered the crew to do so; we didn't know where we were but figured we were still over Germany as we had not been far from the target when the antiaircraft fire hit us. I requested Dave Williams to come help the pilot get out and he came up and did this. He, therefore, was the last one to jump. He asked me if I was going and I said, "Of course -- as soon as you get out!" Well, Dave jumped, and I then left the co-pilot's seat where I had been all the time, and started to go back to the bomb bay and got about half way when I saw my parachute was strewn out between the seats and in the aisle. Obviously there was no way in the world that I could bail out. Consequently, I crawled back into the pilot's seat and sat down in a pool of blood left there by Warren Bock and determined that I would have to fly the airplane down.
I said I flew the airplane, but this is not quite true. It glided down as two engines were out and I never did put the power on to the other two
engines. If I had known then what I discovered later I probably could have flown the plane back to England with the two engines provided I didn't get shot down by a bunch of fighters someplace because the fire in the wing, which looked about the size of a #2 washtub, apparently was a severed fuel line. The fuel had been set on fire by the supercharger and it was really burning more fuel than it was airplane. After landing the airplane the fire burned itself out as the fuel was exhausted; the plane did NOT explode as I had expected. Most of us had seen this situation in other airplanes that exploded in the air, so I figured the quickest way to salvation was to get that thing on the ground as soon as possible. I proceeded to do this and rode down through the clouds and broke out somewhere between 500 and 1000 feet. I was mostly over woods, but saw some houses and a few villages, etc. My windshield had iced over completely in the front, however, the windows on either side were clear. I spotted an open field out the right window, made a right turn, and bounced the airplane into the field which turned out to be a grain field of a dairy farm.
Finally, I came to rest without flipping the plane over (or anything else). This was a great bit of luck. I landed about 1:30 in the afternoon and when the plane stopped I jumped from the pilot's window to the ground and ran from the airplane believing that it would explode at any moment. En route, I threw away my flying helmet and goggles into a little pond because I know that this telltale evidence of who I was would have the Germans looking for me as smoke was spiraling so high into the air that the enemy couldn't help but locate the airplane. People had begun to gather when the plane came to a halt in the field, presumably the local farmers, so as I ran I tried to warn them to stay out of the way the best I could, that the plane might explode. When I got to the edge of the woods I jumped a fence.
I didn't have any idea of where I was going, but over the fence I went and unfortunately I landed in about 2 tons of cow manure. Although I didn't know it, I was in Holland and in dairy country and the custom in that part of the world, then and now, is to accumulate their cow manure in high piles along the fence lines and this is then used on the fields as fertilizer. Since the date was February 4th, leaves had accumulated on top of the pile so that I could not recognize it as a pile of manure and consequently, when I landed it was almost up to my knees. The constant rain, snow and winter weather kept the manure soft and I fell forward from the jump over the fence, and momentum put me over on my hands and the manure came up to my elbows! I paid little attention to my plight at that moment in the struggle to get into the forest. When I struggled free of the cow manure pile I began trotting down a dirt road, not knowing where I was going, just away from the airplane. None of the people observing the burning plane followed me as they were a lot more curious about the plane than they were about me!
Incidentally, the helmet and goggles I threw away in the pond were salvaged later by the man who owned the farm where I landed. His name was Mr. Overkamp, and he presented these items to me 35 years later when I visited him in Holland. Unfortunately, Mr. Oberkamp died in 1985.
I went down the dirt road for a way, smelling worse and worse, and finally came to a small stream or canal that passed underneath a bridge. I decided to go down and try to wash the manure off. Unfortunately, it was to no avail. I was completely covered with cow manure to the extent that I could not wash it off my flying clothes. My flying suit consisted of heavy winter gear, leather trousers and jacket, gloves and boots. I elected to abandon the entire outfit on the spot, which was a big mistake. Inside my trousers in
this flying suit was my escape kit which included a compass and some money, a map and other items that would have been valuable in trying to evade the enemy. Also it left me with only winter GI shirt, trousers, shoes (Lil' Abners), and a light leather (A2) jacket. For February in Holland the clothes were just not enough. During the next 3 or 4 hours I found that with only those clothes one could freeze to death!
Looking back up the road I could not see anyone following me so I went into some woods and stayed there for the next 3 or 4 hours. I finally saw and approached a farm house where I watched two men working some sugar beets for 30 minutes to an hour. I finally decided that I had to make a move of some kind. It was by then late afternoon and I was very, very cold. There was ice on the canals in the area and it appeared that it would begin snowing any minute . . . and so I decided to make a move.
I waded a canal, which was bout knee deep, and approached the men. One looked at me very suspiciously when I told him I was an American pilot and needed some help. I think the only thing he understood was "American." The second man was a very large man and he appeared to be mentally retarded and he was told by his companion to watch me. Since both men were working with pitchforks in the sugar beets, the retarded man picked up his pitchfork and pointed it at me. At this time I was sitting on a pile of beets and I really didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what country I was in, or whether the men were friends or enemies, so I reached around in back of me and grabbed a large sugar beet and waited to see what would happen. The other man went toward the house; I sat there for a few minutes glaring at my man with the pitchfork (still pointed toward me) when the other man returned and motioned for me to come into the house, which I did. The family there offered me some food and hot drink and still not knowing who I was, they motioned me to sit down and warm my feet. I took off my shoes and socks and put them near the stove to dry.
This family did not speak English and of course, I did not speak Dutch nor German. I still didn't know where I had landed, but about 30 minutes later a young man about 17 years of age came in with one of the younger children of the family. He was Willem van Uem and he had learned some English at school. When he began speaking English I knew that I was in a friendly country. He told me where I was, which was about 5 miles inside Holland from the German border and near a city called "Winterswijk." He had a map and showed me exactly where I was. He told me the Germans were searching for me because they had seen the smoke and found the airplane and knew there was a pilot somewhere in the area and that I must leave very quickly and try to get away from the family domicile because should I be captured in the house -- theirs, or any other -- the family involved in aiding and abetting me would be dealt with very severely by the Germans.
All this I understood very well. So, the family gave me an overcoat and a hat -- a felt hat -- and a pocket full of food which consisted of rye bread (very sustaining food) and sent me on my way. They pointed me toward the west and there I went. As I left it began to snow and it was almost dark (between sundown and night) when I headed west. Due to the exact location of the area where I had landed it was necessary for me to walk due west in order to avoid the German border as the area was somewhat of a pocket and east, north and south would take me into German.
So I started out using my very limited celestial navigation training in order to go west, keeping the north star on my right shoulder and the moon on my left. As it turned out when I finally topped two nights and two days later, I found that I actually had walked almost due west. During this period it snowed and sleeted most of the time. I waded several canals and the fields were wet so my feet were very wet and cold all the time and I
did not have enough warm clothes on to stay very warm except when I was moving. I would walk a while, get tired, sit down, usually with my back to a tree someplace -- it was too wet to lie down anywhere -- and when I could stand that no longer I'd get up and walk some more. Once in a while I'd doze off and get maybe 10 or 15 minutes sleep -- but not very much.
After the first night and part of the next day I stopped walking for a while. I was afraid to walk in the daytime anyway to any great degree. I found a barn that had been abandoned for the most part about a hundred yards from a farmhouse and it looked as though it was not in constant use, so I felt that I could safely stop for a time. The barn had a little bit of hay in the back and that's about all. At least it was dry on the inside so I gratefully entered and attempted to get some sleep. After about an hour or so a lady came into the barn. She had seen me but didn't know me -- in fact, had no idea who I was -- but there were a lot of fugitives in the countryside from time to time.
The people of Holland were very cautious but still desirous of helping anyone who needed help. I believe that after she looked at me and saw my shoes she thought that I was among the needy. She spoke to me in Dutch -- which, of course, I did not understand -- but she seemed to know what we were on the same side and after a short time left and went into the house and returned with a pair of black wooden shoes and I tried them on. Alas, they were much too small and although it would have been impossible for me to walk in them, I could at least stick my feet in them and keep my feet dry for a little while. This lady brought me a little bread and maybe some sandwiches. I've forgotten now ... a little something to eat, not much. Obviously, she didn't have much to give, but after feeding me what she could, she left me alone and no one else came around at all that day.
Just before dark that night I began walking again with the same routine, crossing the fields and canals, trying to steer a course due west the best that I could, staying off the roads and staying clear of any village that I might see. I also avoided farmhouses -- and tried to walk in the fields and in the woods. I walked all that night and the next day I holed up in the woods walking very little. Actually, it was very difficult to keep a straight course because the sky was overcast most of the time and I didn't have much sun to guide me. At night it was much easier with the stars as a guide as the clouds were broken most of the time I travelled. When dark approached that day I began heading (I hoped) west again and toward daylight, determined that I could go no further without help, warm clothes, food, etc.
I saw a farmhouse and approached it spotting a haystack where I stopped and laid down. This part of Holland stacks their hay in rounds with a roof on the top to keep it dry, the roof comes down as the hay is taken from the bottom but there is a small space between the hay and the roof so that's where I crawled to get out of the weather. After a short time I heard some noise in the barn which was attached to the house this being a standard dairy operation where the house was in the front and the barn in the back of the structure. I left my haystack and knocked on the door where I could hear the farmers working but received no response whatsoever and so I decided to move on.
I walked approximately another three-quarters of a mile, or maybe a mile, and came to another farmhouse. I walked into the yard and again heard a noise inside the barn. I again knocked on the door and a man opened the door and I tried to tell him who I was but he had no English but seemed to sense that I needed help. He asked me to come inside the barn with hand
gestures. I followed him through the barn where he had been milking and on into the house where he motioned me toward the stove. Again it was obvious to them that I needed to take my shoes and socks off to get warm and dry. They gave me a little bit of breakfast and some hot milk.
The man's name was Henk Gosselink and the family consisted of husband, wife and three children -- 2 boys and one little girl. After a short time he sent his sons off to the gamekeeper's house to ask him what to do. As in most areas they had their own dialect and this was true in this case. A literal interpretation of Mr. Gosselink's instructions to his sons was: "Tell him I have something in my house and I don't know what it is. Will you please come and look." Instructions in hand, the boys took off in search of the gamekeeper.
The gamekeeper in this instance was a man who watched after a large forest that belonged to the local Baron. This Baron was Dutch and was married to a German lady. They had two daughters who were adult but not married. We would call them "old maids. The difficulty of the prevailing "caste" system had prevented marriage for the girls as there were no prospects in that locale who would have been eligible to husband these daughters of the Baron. The Baron was a very loyal Dutchman and I later was billeted by the Dutch Underground on his property. The gamekeeper's job was to see after the forest, keep poachers out, see to the wild game and birds, and keep up the fences, etc. He also seemed to be a gentleman who helped others in trouble and seemed to know a bit about all things.
Consequently, Mr. Gosselink sent for him to help. The gamekeeper did not come, but instead, sent another man he knew to be connected with the Dutch Underground who code name was "Bos." He came quickly and talked to me at quite some length. His regular vocation was a school teacher and he was very fluent in English. Bos interrogated me to the extent he was satisfied I
was not a German spy trying to find out abut the local Underground. He said this was usual for the Germans -- to plant a spy -- so they had to be suspicious of all strangers. However, after he was satisfied that I was not Gestapo or German he said that the Underground would do their best to get me out and down to Spain as I had indicated to him was my desire.
After our visit he left and returned with the gamekeeper and another man who was introduced as Wim Spykerman" and appeared to be about 19 or 20 years old. They led me to a small cabin in the forest not too far from the Gosselink farm. The entire area was very near the town of Vorden where the post office, government offices, train station, etc. were located. The cabin had been built for a Dutchman who was in the army when the war broke out and was Commander (area commander) of that particular part of Holland. He was about 60 years old at the time and as soon as the Germans won the war with Holland they took the commander captive and loaded him onto a train to imprison him in Germany. With the help of the Dutch Underground the commander escaped from the train and found his way back to the Vorden area where they built him the cabin in the woods to hide him from the Germans. Thus, it was known as his cabin.
The commander had been relocated to insure his safety and since his cabin was available, the Underground elected to put me there. The cabin for the most part was straw with a wooden floor and a thatch roof -- a flat thatch roof. It contained a small wood-burning stove and a small bench to be used for a table and one chair and a bed built into one end of it. The size of the cabin was approximately 6 ft. by 5-1/2 ft. in height. Therefore, I was unable to stand up in the cabin without bending over (I was 6 ft. 1 in.). The bed had straw for a mattress with a cover over it and the very top item was a polar bear rug of some earlier vintage.
I was in the cabin for about 45 days or so, and it snowed every day I was there. The deep snow surrounding the cabin probably prevented curiosity seekers from finding my location. Spykerman (Spanhaak) was also in hiding from the Germans and had an assumed name (Spykerman) and a false ID card. He worked as a helper to the gamekeeper and he brought me food every day around noon. He would also bring me wood. One of the baron's daughters, Alexandria, whose father owned the land and who lived in the castle on the property, would bring me food at night.
Miss Alexandria was very educated as was her sister, and she would bring me books from the family library written in English. Every evening she would come and bring my food and talk for an hour or so. Then we would take a walk through the woods in the dark of the night. I judged her age to be 40 or 42 years and I presumed, had lived all her life in these woods. She certainly knew every little trail. As we walked she took the lead, walking in front of me and we would travel some mile or mile and a half, and I followed along behind her through the trails. We never got outside of the forest nor near any house. She knew that I needed to exercise every day because I could not leave the cabin, could not even stand erect inside the cabin, therefore, only slept and read her English books until she came each day.
One day it appeared that the Underground was about ready to move me to another location. The Underground was structured so that person A knew person B and person B knew person C, but person A did not know C. This was, of course, so that if any member was taken by the Germans he would be unable to give him any names -- just the one -- and thereby only one link in the chain would be missing. There was a man connected with the Underground between Vorden and Belgium someplace. I don't remember the name of the town, but the man lived near a railroad station and he had 2 British flyers who had