Needless to say, the Swiss residents of Schaffhausen were not amused on April 1, 1944 — April fool’s Day — when approximately 60 tons of high explosive fell on their heads, literally.
The U.S. and Swiss governments were not happy either. Particularly the Swiss, who were doing all in their power not to be drawn into the Second World War.
The circumstances surrounding the accidental bombing were eerily similar to the problems experienced today. Despite high-tech tools such as GPS and other devices, accidental bombing continues to be a reality.
On that unlucky day, 438 B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eight Air Force lifted off from runways in England to bomb German chemical plants city of Ludwigshafen in southwestern Germany.
Among the bombers were three B-24 Liberators attached to the 392nd Bombardment Group, which would be led by a Pathfinder bomber equipped with air-to-ground radar developed by the British for night bombing by the Royal Air Force.
The United States was partial to the high-altitude precision bombing in daylight that was very often hampered in Western Europe by overcast skies, so they might as well have bombed at night. The Eighth Air Force, like the RAF, used Pathfinders to locate the target and signal the other bombers when to drop their loads.
But as the armada of heavy bombers crossed France into Germany, they encountered cloud cover extending upward to 20,000 feet. In those conditions, the radar-equipped Pathfinder was supposed to come to the rescue.
The problem was the radar malfunctioned, meaning the B-24s had to guesstimate whether they were targeting the right place, according to the memory of a squadron commander named in the 392nd’s website: not being able to see the ground, the lead navigator had only the pre-briefed estimates of wind speeds aloft to complete a dead-reckoning style of navigation.
Winds aloft can change hourly as low and high-pressure patterns migrate, thereby altering formations from their briefed route. The navigator could do little, not being aware of when the change was happening or by what degree.
In time the Pathfinder caught a glimpse of the ground through a clearing in the clouds.
U.S. policy at the time stipulated that if the primary target could not be seen, it was preferable to release their loads on another German city than haul bombs home.
So the Liberators released 1,184 hundred-pound bombs. But the 392nd was really 120 miles south of Ludwigshafen and, most importantly, fifty miles east of where they assumed they were.
Aware that U.S. and British air forces had mistakenly bombed Switzerland before, fortunately without inflicting much damage, the Swiss had learned to notice air raid warnings.
However, air raid warnings had been sounded numerous times in Schaffhausen without any follow-up attacks, so residents felt relatively secure, according to a Swiss newspaper. When the alarm sounded on April 1, most people ignored it and did not take cover.
The aftermath was devastating with large sections of the city devastated, 270 wounded, and 40 civilians killed.
When the B-24 crews landed eight hours later, news of the error had traveled. The commander of the 392nd verified after checking the bombardier’s and navigator’s logs that the bombing had occurred at the time bombs were released, and the target had not been positively recognized.
Now it was time for damage control of the diplomatic sort. The U.S. government provided an apology, paid 4 million dollars in damages, in addition to another $14.4 million following the war as compensation for all the accidental bombings of Switzerland.
The only person in the bomber crews that was disciplined, was the formation’s lead navigator. He was never permitted to lead again, The National Interest reported.
So the international apple cart would not be upset, and the two nations did not pursue the matter. Nevertheless, many Swiss were doubtful the bombing attacks were not deliberate, believing it was done with the purpose of pressuring them to cut ties with Germany.