What do you think your odds of surviving are if you are shot down at 24,000 feet? If you said slim to none, you’d be right. And during World War II there were unimaginable personnel and aircraft losses from being shot down.
An example of this type of catastrophe was during the raid on the German city of Leipzig. On the night of February 19 and into the early morning of February 20, 1944, approximately 420 airmen were killed, and 131 more allied soldiers became prisoners of war when seventy-nine powerful bombers failed to come back from the raid on the German industrial city.
At that time, it was deemed to be the Allied Forces most damaging raid of World War II, by far.
Leipzig was the target of the bomber group because of the plant that was manufacturing the famous Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes. The attack was a full-scale effort to obliterate the Luftwaffe factory that was manufacturing the deadly Messerschmitts.
It seemed that the Nazi fighter pilots and the anti-aircraft guns knew that Leipzig was the intended target; the Allied bomber group flew straight into a trap. The Luftwaffe was waiting to ambush the Allies as soon as they crossed the English Channel.
The bomber group was exposed to continuous strikes by night fighters and severe explosions (flak) from the artillery cannons below, until only the bombers that were left flying fought and scratched their way home by way of the North Sea, which was relatively safe and secure.
The combined attacks on Schweinfurt and Regensburg in August 1943 resulted in an extraordinary cost in equipment and personnel to the US Air Force. The US lost 60 B-17 bombers and 55 air squads, in addition to another 95 aircraft being damaged, never to be airworthy again.
The loss of the aircrews totaled 552 men, half of whom died and half became prisoners of war and another twenty were confined in Switzerland.
The Allies also lost 2 British Spitfires and 3 American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes, in addition to the bomber force. Aboard the bombers that made it safely back to the Allied air force base, seven crew members were dead, and another 21 were wounded.
The Allies declared that 318 German aircraft were shot down; while the Luftwaffe reported that they only lost 27 fighters.
Although Allied losses were grave, they succeeded in inflicting much destruction on their targets; the ball bearing factory and the Messerschmitt plant. The Germans quickly overcame their losses at these facilities; whereas they reported an immediate 34% decline in production, by allocating the production to other plants in Germany.
The extraordinary losses, especially the loss of life during the raid caused the Allied commanders to re-evaluate the practicality of long-range, daylight bombing raids on Germany without escorts.
After the second raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg on October 14, 1943, suffered twenty percent casualties, these types of daylight assaults would be temporarily halted.
Here are some of the stories of the fortunate survivors that fell to earth in the spinning-out-of-control wreckage of their bombers.
Gerald Duval and John Wells
John Wells and Gerald Duval were both gunners on a B-24 bomber. They were part of the US 459th Bomber Group. In April of 1944, their B-24 was attacked by German Messerschmitt fighters during their mission to Steyr, Austria.
The bomber was seriously damaged. Suddenly, the bomber went into a spin; the pilot had been killed and several other members of the crew dead or injured. Wells and Duval were trapped – by centrifugal force and couldn’t get to their parachutes to bail out.
The plane crashed from an altitude of 24,000 feet. Wells and Duval were rescued by a comrade who had bailed out of the plane. Astonishingly both survived the wreckage, though badly injured.
Duval’s book “Wings and Barbed Wire” describes the incident better and the book is available through 1stbooks.com.
Edmund Shibble was assigned to a B-17 bomber as a gunner in the ball turret. His ‘Flying Fortress’ was part of the US Air Force 447th Bomber Group.
The Bomber Group was flying in formation on a mission to Koblenz, Germany when one of the aircraft above was hit, and it plummeted down, striking Shibble’s B-17 and ripping it apart.
Shibble was still in this ball turret as the bomber plunged 23,000 feet to come to a sickening crash;
Unbelievably, Shibble survived the plunge to what he thought was sure death – his back was broken, but he survived!
Joe Jones was a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber that was part of the US Air Force 385th Bomber Group. They were on a bombing raid to Belgium in March 1945, when his ‘Flying Fortress’ collided with another aircraft.
As the B-17 bomber broke apart, Jones was trapped in the tail section. Jones awaited his fate, as what was left of the ‘Fortress’ plummeted 13,500 feet.
Jones was unconscious when he was extracted from the wreckage; he woke up in a British field hospital a few days later.
William Stannard was enlisted in the British Bomber Group as a tail gunner in a British Ventura bomber. In May of 1943, while on a bombing mission to Holland, the aircraft was hit by enemy gunfire and it broke into pieces.
By some aviational quirk of fate, the detached tail section glided to the grounds of a large estate where Stannard was pulled alive from his piece of the wreckage.
In November of 1943, tail gunner Eugene Moran’s B-17 was hit by enemy fire on a mission to Bremen, Germany. The enemy fire shot several holes in his parachute; consequently, S/Sgt.
Moran couldn’t bail out. He rode the tail section all the way down where his free fall was broken a bit when he crashed into some trees.
He had to spend four months in a German hospital, but miraculously he survived.
Erwin KoszyczarekIn was the tail gunner on a B-17 bomber. In February of 1945, over Graz, Austria, two B-17 bombers crashed into one another.
S/Sgt. Erwin Koszyczarekln was still in the gunnery section of the tail that fell 28,000 feet. He emerged from the tail section wreckage unhurt and was taken prisoner for the duration of the war.
Federico Gonzales was a pilot of a B-17 that was part of the US Air Force 398th Bomber Group. In January of 1945, on a mission over Dusseldorf, Germany, one of the B-17’s wings was shot off.
The bomber was spinning so hard that Gonzales couldn’t bail out and fell 27,000 feet. He was pulled from the wreckage alive; everyone else in the bomber was killed.
Merle Hasenfratz was the tail gunner on a B-24 bomber that was part of the US Air Force 392nd Bomber Group. In April of 1944, the aircraft was cut almost in two when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire while on a mission flying over Leipheim, Germany.
Three crew members, including Hasenfratz, were trapped in the tail section. Hasenfratz was the only survivor as they fell 18,000 feet to the ground. He had injuries to his legs and one eye from shrapnel wounds.
Sgt. Ogwyn George was the tail gunner of a British Sunderland flying boat. In April of 1940, the Sunderland was flying near Sylling, Norway when it was shot down by German fighters.
Trapped in his turret, he survived a fall of 1,000 meters when he landed in a snowbank. His fall was observed by three Norwegians, and they rescued him alive from the snowbank.
Olen Cooper Bryant
Bryant was the crew navigator on a B-24 bomber. The bomber was part of the UD Air Force 485th Bomber Group on a mission to Regensburg, Germany, in February of 1945. His B-24 aircraft was hit in the #3 engine by anti-aircraft fire on the return trip from the target.
The B-24 veered to the left and smashed into another B-24 in the formation. At this point in their mission, they were flying at an altitude of 17,000 feet. Bryant fell into the mountains near Chiusaforte, Italy; an estimated 10,000 feet. He landed in deep snow. His fall had been observed by two gunners, who had already parachuted to safety.
They dragged him down the mountainside in a crude stretcher made from one of their parachutes. Bryant suffered neck, back, pelvic, and facial injuries, but miraculously he survived.
In December of 1944 Arthur Frechette was the navigator of a B-17 bomber that went down on a mission to Castelfranco, Veneto, Italy. The B-17 was part of the US Air Force 301st Bomber Group. Frechette’s ‘Flying Fortress’ was hit by anti-aircraft flak at 25,000 feet.
As the aircraft began spinning during its descent, Frechette couldn’t bail out, and when the ship exploded, he was blown out of the aircraft. The explosion knocked him unconscious. Just as he regained consciousness, while he was free-falling, he tried to open his parachute, but before the chute could open he suddenly landed on a snowy slope.
He saw smoke from the wrecked B-17. Although badly injured, Frechette crawled toward the smoke. It was near the wreckage where he was found by a German soldier from the anti-aircraft flak battery that shot them down.
Flight Lieutenant Thomas Patrick “Paddy” McGarry was a navigator on a bomber from the 35 Squadron Halifax. In January of 1944, the bomber was attacked by Messerschmitt night fighters on a mission to Germany.
At a location approximately halfway between Hamburg and Magdeburg, the bomber took several serious hits and was on fire. The pilot ordered everyone to bail out. The plane was at an altitude of 13,000 feet when the order was given. McGarry jumped, pulled his ripcord, and suddenly he was falling through thin air.
Miraculously, he fell into a thickly wooded area where the branches of the fir trees cushioned his fall. The fall happened on a Monday night; he was in the woods and did not awaken until Wednesday morning. He believed the only reason he survived was because the weather was so warm.
Amazingly, six days later, on the following Sunday, after days in the woods and crawling to a road about a mile from where he landed in the trees; McGarry was finally discovered and got the help he needed to survive.