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Bombing runs over Germany

By Steve Ranson Nevada News Group
Many B-17 bombers during World War II, such as the Sentimental Journey, distinguished themselves with artwork and the name of the plane
Steve Ranson / NNG

B-17 bombardier completed 32 missions during World War II

Thirty-two missions over hostile  territory in less than six months.

Daylight bombing runs targeted Limborg, Koln, Dresden, Berlin, Leipzig — to name a few of the German cities receiving the brunt of allied bombs. Togglier Sheldon Beigel or “Shel” carried out missions over Germany as a crew member on a B-17G during the wind down of World War II against the Nazis.

One of the workhorses of the U.S. Army Air Force, the B-17G heavy bomber with its additional armament conducted scores of missions against the enemy’s industrial complex and military targets to break the spirt of the German people and destroy Adolph Hitler’s army. The “G” model had more features than the earlier planes. The bombers had additional firepower in addition to a remotely operated chin turret that provided the plane with 13 50-caliber machine guns. The majority of the B-17s flying in combat were either the F or G models.

DETAILS OF SERVICE

Beigel’s memory of his time stationed in the quaint countryside of England from 1944-1945 is sharp. The 95-year-old Massachusetts native remembers details of his military service overseas in the during World War II, explaining how his unit became the model for the 1949 movie, “Twelve O’clock High.” While the movie epitomized Hollywood, the B-17s and their crews mirrored the real conflict of life and death.

 “As a bombardier, I sat up front,” said the tech sergeant, who flew 32 combat missions for the 369th Bombardment Squadron, which was part of the 306th Bombardment Group based at Royal Air Force (RAF) Thurleigh 45 miles north of London.

Included in the 32 bombing runs were three special missions completed in early May before Germany surrendered. After completing a five-week bombardier school, Beigel flew missions from December 1944 to May 7, 1945, one day before fighting officially ended in Europe. As a newly minted togglier who armed and dropped bombs, Shel often flew with 1st Lt. Robert H. Wood’s crew before the pilot left for the 364th Fighter Group, 1st Scouting Force in Feb. 23, 1945.

During the winter months and into early spring, the crew faced frigid temperatures that plunged to minus 30, even minus 40 below zero. The freezing temperatures and the lack of oxygen at 25,000 feet required personal survival skills and support from their equipment.

In the B-17 configuration, a bombardier who sat in the front and a navigator squeezed inside a bubble under the pilot and co-pilot and served as the eyes for oncoming aircraft and for initiating crucial bomb drops over strategic targets. They both had access to mounted machine guns since they were flying in the “G” model. The space allowed little room for two grown men who would squeeze in the tiny space for hours. Bombardiers, as a whole, struggled to keep their composure even with the impending threat of German planes flying toward them with machine guns engaged. Shel said the German planes would line up straight and head toward their B-17G Flying Fortress.

“We had puny 30-caliber machine guns with very little ammunition,” he said, describing what B-17s mounted to defend themselves. “The Germans came down straight to the aircraft they selected. Ammunition was very limited because of the weight.”

All guns were mounted and could either be used for firing or removed for secure storage of service. The only machine gun capable of rotating 360 degree was mounted in the belly turret position and could move 360 degrees. The top turret could spin 360 degrees, but it could not fire in the direction of the bomber’s tail.

B-17’s LIMITATIONS

Beigel admits, though, the four-engine B-17Gs with 10 airmen had limitations … doing the most with the least assets. Because of the tight space, the normal crewman  stood no taller than 5-foot-7 inches and weighed between 165 to 175 pounds. The men aboard each Flying Fortress had very little room to maneuver. The available room on the aircraft dictated the space limitation.

“We were responsible for our area,” described Sheldon, who grew up on his family’s dairy farm as a child. “If you needed to shoot, you shoot.”

Each mission’s success depended on the bombardier’s ability to make good use of time, but Beigel said other factors figured into his duties aboard the B-17. As a bombardier, he took into consideration the weather, the time to drop the bombs and the positions of other U.S.  planes when flying information.

Each bombing mission required meticulous planning and preparation. Before flying across over the North Sea into Germany, the crew rose in the middle of the night at 3 a.m. and once showered and dressed, they attended a briefing to review their charts and listen to intelligence reports, and once the briefing ended, the men headed toward the field to their bombers. Sometimes, Beigel said breakfast would either be chowed down before or after the briefing.

Shel said the B-17s took off from Thurleigh shortly between 8 to 9 a.m. — sometimes much earlier — and returned in early to late afternoon depending on the distance of the mission and enemy resistance. Beigel’s decisions became an important part of the crew’s mission: He was tasked with dropping bombs accurately on targets inside Germany. Many dangerous daylight bombing runs zeroed in on the factories  and critical cities such as Limborg, Dresden and the capital Berlin twice — once on Feb. 3, 1945, and the second time more than two months later on April 23. 

PERILS OF THE MISSION

Beigel told students at Reno’s Truckee Meadows Community College in 2019 about the perils of his two missions against the German capital as allies advanced from the west and the Soviet Red Army pushed toward Berlin from the east.

“War is work, sweat, and death — it stinks,” he said.

Beigel also recounted his missions to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum: “Bombing Dresden (Feb. 1, 1945). Couldn’t see to drop bombs due to heavy rising smoke. Lost both wingmen planes to ME 109s. Cologne was difficult target as well. Best experience was bombing Berlin on two different missions. I also recall the extreme cold during the Battle of the Bulge and bringing us down 20, 000 feet to get under the cloud coverage to strike as the German armor below.”

Beigel said the key toward flying to a target and returning to Thurleigh — whether it was skill or luck —  depended on the missions and support. He said formations protected the B-17s flying into Germany. Formations and the number of planes varied — some missions requiring as little as 200 planes, others requiring upward to 1,000.

“We had some distance between the airplanes,” he recalled. “We had to have the wingtips pretty tucked to each other with very little space.”

  Formations improved over the months. In early 1943, the planes flew in a wedge formation with squadrons flying above the cloud layer and by the end of 1943, the B-17s relied more on fighter escort and radar. Essentially, the formations enabled the massing of aircraft for their bombing runs and provided better group defense. Twelve aircraft squadrons flew in three squadron groups, and each group spread out over 4-mile intervals. This was the formation the B-17s used from Beigel’s arrival in England to war’s end.

“I flew as many as 10 missions in 10 days,” Beigel said. “I’m the last standing member of my crew. Nobody’s left. I could tell you stories, and there’s nobody to say yes or no.”

The bombers also flew over the enemy territory by carpet bombing their targets. Beigel and other crewmen knew it was kill or be killed on each mission.

“The Nazis tried to kill me, and I did everything to where they couldn’t,” Beigel said. “I evidently succeeded killing them because I am sitting here. The plane is a war machine, and if I weren’t flying, it would’ve been someone else.”

After the war ended in Europe, Shel and other airmen received orders to return home, but before they did, they wanted to check out their work over their targets. Beigel marveled at  their efficiency.

“We all piled into an airplane and flew over Germany,” he recalled. “We couldn’t believe our own accuracy.”

On each of his 32 missions, Beigel made split-second decisions on which targets to bomb, which not to bomb.

‘We droned on at 180 miles per hour, and we only had one shot at it,” he said. “I flew many combat missions in this airplane.”

CLOSE CALL

During the 29th mission, Beigel’s crew faced a close call. Their B-17 crashed on a plowed field in occupied France after the Germans shot it down. In addition to Beigel, two pilots and navigator suffered injuries. He told the Reno college students he relied on his childhood tracking skills. Shel told his men not to step in the peaks of the furrowed earth.

 “Instead they should step over the peaks and proceed diagonally across the rows toward the bushes. That way, the Germans couldn’t track them easily,” he said. “They made it to the brush and hid there waiting.”

Luckily for the crew, British — not German — soldiers arrived at their site, but they had to convince the Brits they were allies. Instead of being dressed in Army Air Force uniforms, Shel’s crew wore their flyer’s overalls for the mission. Beigel relied on his wit by using his Massachusetts’ accent to call out American terms.

“We’re all yanks — we’re all yanks,” Sheldon hollered.

Convinced, the Brits rescued the crew, who returned to Thurleigh.

Although he earned a number of medals during his military service, the crash always triggers his thoughts on one of his most prestigious awards. Beigel received the French Legion D’Honneur in 2015 from the French Consulate General in San Francisco. Established during Napoleon’s rule in 1802, the French Legion D’Honneur is the country’s highest award for either military or civil conduct.

LOVE FOR THE B-17

Beigel retains an immense love for the B-17. He saw “Sentimental Journey” at the Minden (Nevada) Airport in early September 2019 and reminisced of his time aboard a Flying Fortress. The “Sentimental Journey” built in 1944 is one of only 10 B-17Gs that is still flying.

In February 2020 at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, Beigel sat in his wheelchair in front of the wreckage of an B-17, staring at the fuselage of the “Swamp Ghost,” which crashed in 1942.

“It’s a shame to see her this way. You promise me you will fix her up,” he said to a member of the restoration team.

Even with the passing decades, the memories of more than 75 years ago are still fresh for Beigel who still admires the role the B-17 played in World War II.

Editor’s note — World War II and Korean War veterans visited Pearl Harbor earlier this year as part of Honor Flight Nevada’s first trip to Hawaii. The end of World War II in both Europe and the Pacific occurred 75 years ago beginning with Victory Europe Day in May, followed by the Japanese unconditional surrender in August and the Instrument of Surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

Sources:

Truckee Meadows Community College

American Air Museum

Reno Veterans Affairs Living History

Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum

Commemorative Air Force Museum: Mesa, Arizona

Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum