First USAAC-RAF Joint Combat Mission, July 4th, 1942
In May of 1942, US General Hap Arnold promised Prime Minister Winston Churchill that American troops would be fighting with the British by July 4th. Fulfilling that promise fell to US Generals Carl Spatz, Ira Eaker and Dwight Eisenhower. Yet only two US outfits were in England – the 97th Bombardment Group and the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) – and neither was equipped with aircraft. The 15th‘s familiarity with Douglas A-20 Havocs and the presence of the same aircraft in British service, the DB-7 Boston III, secured them a place in Eighth Air Force history. Seven months earlier, members of the 15th had been dropping flour sack bombs on “enemy” troops as part the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers. Now, a month of training in British bombing methods was the plan to get the Eighth Air Force in the war with its first official combat mission.
Figure 1: A water cooled .30 cal M1917 is at the ready as a squadron of A-20’s makes a low pass during training at the 1941 Louisiana Maneuvers. Colonel Eisenhower (promoted afterwards) and General Patton ran divisions during the mock battle. U.S. Army Photo.
The mission briefing was given at 1800 hours on July 3rd at Swanton Morley, the home of RAF 226 Squadron. Twelve Douglas Boston DB-7 Boston III aircraft manned by six seasoned British crews and six newly trained American crews were to attack four German fighter bases in occupied Holland. Each of the targets was home to a combination of several squadrons of Bf-109’s, Fw-190’s and Bf-110’s. According to an RAF Intelligence Flight Lieutenant, speed, surprise and dawn darkness would be the keys to their success and survival.
Figure 2: Douglas DB-7 Boston III, AL775, in flight over the English countryside circa 1942. The RAF relied on three man crews whereas the US employed four man crews with the extra airman acting as the rear ventral “armament” gunner. IWM (CH 5618).
At 0515, in the mist filled darkness of July 4th, the crews waited in their aircraft for the green “go” flare. They had surrendered all identification (except dog tags), picked up escape kits, and donned yellow RAF Mae West life vests. They carried the following bomb loads:
LEAD AIRCRAFT: 2 x 500 lb. GP fused time delay of 11 seconds; 1 x 500 lb. GP fused time delay 30 minutes
AIRCRAFT NOS. TWO and THREE: 2 x 500 lb. GP fused time delay of 11 seconds; 2 Small Bomb Containers (SBC’s) of 8 x 30 pound incendiary
Figure 3: The 15th Bomb Squadron daily record showing the order of battle for the July 4th raid and the fickle hand of military fate grabbing a Boston at Molesworth just a few days earlier. HQ AFHRA, Maxwell AFB.
Just when the crews thought the mission might be scrubbed, a green flare shot out from the control tower. At 0700 hours the morning darkness was long gone. The commander of the 15th Bomb Squadron, Captain Charles Kegelman, was a skilled and trusted pilot revered by the US aircrews. He toggled open his mic to reassure his men.
“Not to worry boys. I do all my bombing in broad daylight.”
And indeed he did. On a sunny afternoon on June 29th, 1942, Captain Kegelman had piloted one of twelve RAF DB-7’s to bomb the Hazebroucke marshalling yards in Lille, Northern France. His was the first USAAC crew to bomb occupied Europe.
Figure 4: RAF DB-7 Bostons scream across the English Channel at whitecap level en route to targets in occupied Europe circa 1942. IWM (CH 7844).
The flight of twelve aircraft broke formation over the North Sea into four vics of three at a point where each vic would reach its target simultaneously. A German fishing smack acting as a seaborne outpost radioed the alarm to German flak defenses.
As the low flying raiders swept inland, barely clearing the thick rolls of barbed wire that ringed the Dutch coast, Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gunners raced to man their weapons. At 0758 hours the first vic of three aircraft reached its target in full daylight and now lacking the element of surprise.
Figure 5: Bombs Away! — The initial point of release for a 500 lb. bomb from an RAF Douglas DB-7 Boston circa 1942. From historyofwar.org (Rickard, J.).
TARGET #1: Fliegerhorst Katwijk (Valkenburg near The Hague); 0758 hours
PILOTS: Squadron Leader J.F. Castle, Z2258-A; Captain Martin Crabtree, AL670-D; Lieutenant Leo Hawel, Z2303-J.
All three aircraft came in low over The Hague for their bombing run on Katwijk. Lt. Hawel described flying so low as to see civilians having morning tea in some of the three story buildings. Such nap of the earth altitude forced Lt. Hawel to bank hard several times to avoid looming church spires. Luftwaffe flak units on The Hague rooftops were caught by surprise and thus failed to engage the Bostons.
Figure 6: Two cm (20mm) Oerlikon FLAK gunner on a roof top in The Hague. Church spires and steeples dot the background. Bundesarchiv.
S/L Castle led the attack on the camouflage painted hangars and barracks at Fliegerhorst Katwijk. He popped up to 100 feet but did not open his bomb bay doors. In the heat of the moment, S/L Castle moved his lever from “closed” to “neutral” rather than from “neutral” to “open.” The vic had to be content with machine gunning the aerodrome and bringing all their bombs home. After action reports recorded dorsal .303 strafing from aircraft Nos. 2 and 3 setting an aircraft on fire, probably a Bf-109.
Figure 7: Fliegerhorst Katwijk (Valkenburg) with JU-52 transports circa 1940. S/L Castle’s vic strafed the aerodrome on July 4th, 1942. Bundesarchiv.
TARGET #2: Fliegerhorst Haamstede; 0759 hours
PILOTS: Flight Lieutenant A. Wheeler, Z2197-H; Pilot Officer A. Eltringham, W8371-F; Captain William Odell, AL746-M.
Figure 8: Haamstede Aerodrome showing the real to the left and the decoy to the right in 1942. FLAK emplacements peppered the sand dunes. Air Ministry map.
Being the lead aircraft, Flt. Lt. Wheeler caught the enemy flat footed and in the open. He engaged his four nose mounted .303’s to strafe 160 enemy soldiers on parade in flying kit and combat gear. Flt. Lt. Wheeler released his time delayed 500 pounders on a fuel dump and administration building. One 500 pounder skidded in and demolished a two story headquarters building.
P/O Eltringham planted his bombs in a large maintenance hangar and camouflaged buildings near a field. An unofficial after action report indicated P/O Eltringham fired at a pair of HE-111 bombers parked on the tarmac with uncertain effect.
Figure 9: Fliegerhorst Haamstede as seen nestled between sand dunes in an RAF reconnaissance photo from 1941. A decoy airfield was constructed in the top center of the photo. See http://www.forgottenairfields.com.
Being the last in the formation, Captain Odell’s aircraft shrugged off several 20mm flak hits including one that passed through his cockpit. Captain Odell’s bombardier, Lt. Birleson dropped their payload of 500 pounders and incendiaries over a line of aircraft revetments and barracks. Streaks of tracers fell short as the last of three RAF Bostons skittered away over the sunlit water back to base.
Figure 10: Mission Success: Bombardier Lt. Leslie Birleson wearing an A-2, RAF Mae West and holding an escape kit tells an RAF navigator of heavy ground fire at Haamstede which damaged his Boston. The two port .303 machine guns are just visible, center right. Collection of author.
TARGET #3: Fliegerhorst De Kooy; 0801 hours
PILOTS: Squadron Leader Kennedy, Z2234-X; Captain Charles Kegelman, AL750-Z; Lt. Frederick Loehrl, AL677-P.
Fliegerhorst De Kooy was located inland on the South East edge of the Den Helder peninsula. As air raid sirens wailed all over this strategic naval chokepoint, three miles of flak batteries along the coast and canals waited in readiness for any sign of the 300 MPH hedge hopping Bostons.
Figure 11: Fliegerhorst De Kooy circa May-June 1940 showing the Germans in residence. A floating barracks barge sits on the Noordhollands Canal. Afgestoft 401. Bundesarchiv.
S/L Kennedy led the attack as he steadied in on his bomb run despite multiple flak bursts. He and his rear gunner strafed the hangars. But while dodging the web of tracer fire at high speed, S/L Kennedy overshot the aerodrome and dropped his bombs near a 250 ton trawler in the sea water of the Balgzand.
Figure 12: One of De Kooy’s 2 cm Oerlikon FLAK cannons being inspected. Most likely Flakstelle Balgzand WN 102A. See www.626-squadron.co.uk and www.zzairwar.nl. Notice the floating barge (the same one in Figure 11) on the Noordhollands Canal.
Turning into attack, Captain Kegelman skimmed the ground as flak impacts forced his Boston to tilt then drop hard. The rear fuselage oil canned on the tarmac as the starboard propeller sheared its spindle and flew into space. Oblivious to the lacing crossfire of murderous 20mm rounds, Kegelman goosed the remaining engine to full throttle, shut down his bad engine, and pulled hard stick to gain altitude and control.
Figure 13: “First Mission” by Nixon Galloway shows Kegelman’s Boston bounce on the tarmac with Lt. Loehrl just behind pushing through withering flak. Collection of author.
On one engine, Captain Kegelman cleared the aerodrome, silenced a flak tower to the south near Julianadorp with his nose guns, and salvoed his bombs into the sea on his way back to Swanton Morley – with a belly full of Dutch dirt.
Figure 14: Lucky to be alive — Kegelman’s Z for Zebra back at base sans propeller and wingtip. Remarque by Nixon Galloway, 1994. Collection of author.
Lt. Fred A. Loehrl was mere seconds behind Kegelman and flew full force into the zeroed flak barrage put up by the units around the field. Lt. Loehrl dropped his incendiary payload along two rows of camouflaged hangars housing Bf-110’s and at least one larger mine-laying Heinkel 111 bomber. Hit by murderous flak, Lt. Loehrl’s Boston caught fire then crashed just past the Balgzand canal into the shallow seawater. Miraculously, the bombardier, Lt. Marshall Draper, was thrown clear of the shattered nose section, and survived to become the first 8th Air Force POW. Lt. Fred A. Loehrl was never found.
Figure 15: One Happy Crew; L. to R. — Sergeant B.B. Cunningham, radio gunner; Sergeant R.L. Golay, armament gunner; Second Lieutenant M. Dorton, bombardier, and Major Charles Kegelman, pilot. Newly promoted Major Kegelman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on July 4th. Roger Freeman Collection. FRE 915. American Air Museum in Britain.
TARGET #4: Fliegerhorst Bergen Alkmaar; 0802 hours
PILOTS: Flight Lieutenant Yates-Earl, AL679-Y; Pilot Officer Charles Henning, Z2213-U; Lieutenant William Lynn, AL741-V.
Figure 16: Bf-109’s ready for flight at Bergen circa May 1940. Note Uffz. Erwin Grutz’s “White 6” 109 in the center. Bundesarchiv.
At Fliegerhorst Bergen, just like De Kooy, the flak units were in a high state of alert and waiting for the flight of Bostons. As the three aircraft separated for their bomb runs, Lt. Lynn’s Boston was mortally struck by intense flak. His plane faltered, flipped up on one wing, then levelled out and exploded on the northwest corner of the airfield.
At 100 feet altitude, Flt. Lt. Yates-Earl laid his bombs along the edge of the runway and an area thought to conceal a fuel dump. Flying behind Flt. Lt. Yates-Earl, P/O Henning dropped his payload and hosed the field in front of him spraying a Bf-109 beginning its take-off run.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the Bf-109F4Z (White 6) belonging to Uffz. Erwin Grütz of 10./JG 1 was hit by 500 pound bomb shrapnel and perhaps Henning’s nose mounted .303’s. Unable to control his aircraft, Uffz. Grutz crashed into a cement walled barracks and died in the impact. A post raid recollection, perhaps apocryphal, suggests Grutz was found in his cockpit in only his underwear.
Figure 17: Fliegerhorst Bergen: Final resting place of Uffz. E. Grutz and his Bf-109f4z, White 6. From GLORY: The largest archive of WWII German images.
With incendiary fires brewing up on the north side of the aerodrome, Flt. Lt. Yates-Earl looked back toward his wingman and saw an Fw-190 rolling down the runway. He broke radio silence to tell P/O Henning that a snapper was on his tail. Whether Uffz. Hans Rathenow saw Grutz’s final fate is unclear. In any event, Rathenow succeeded in getting his Fw-190A airborne despite the burning incendiaries on the runway.
Figure 18: Two Fw-190A’s of 10./JG1 at Bergen Alkmaar, May 1942. To the right, the “White 12” of Uffz. Johannes Rathenow. To the left, clearly visible, are the 190’s wing root 20mm cannon ports. Bundesarchiv.
With Lt. Lynn’s Boston already down, Rathenow began his hot pursuit of P/O Henning’s DB-7 over the North Sea. While agile and fast for a bomber, the Boston was no match for a 190 in the open. With two MG 131’s in the nose and four 20mm cannon in the wings roots and outer wings, Rathenow’s Fw-190 had more than enough lethal firepower to dispatch the twin engine bomber. Fifteen miles off of Callantsoog, Rathenow caught up with Z2213 MQ-U and downed her in the cold sea. The RAF airmen were never found. They were P/O Charles M. Henning, Sgt. Percey J. Voysey and Sgt. Herbert T. Willig. In lasting tribute, the names of these brave airmen can be found inscribed on the Runnymede Memorial.
Figure 19: RAF 226 Squadron Operations Record Book Form 541 detailing the aircraft, aircrews and “after action report” of the raid. Courtesy Phil Hunt of RAF 5131 (BD) Squadron.
Despite some success and the bravery of the RAF and USAAC aircrews, the loss of eleven men (three out of twelve aircraft – two US, one British) was considered unacceptable. General Eisenhower was dismayed by the news of the loss. Far too high a price had been paid in a costly gesture to sustain national prestige and bolster morale on the home front. General Eisenhower was mindful moving forward that American aircrews would not engage in needless combat to satisfy American pride or produce media events for propaganda use.
Figure 20: Colonel Leo Hawel, Jr. and Colonel William Odell — The two surviving Fourth of July, 1942, USAAC pilots at the last reunion of the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) at the US Air Force Academy, 1994. Collection of author.
The men of the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) for their fearlessness, intrepid spirit, and unwavering patriotism on July 4th and beyond.
Leo Hawel, Jr. and Bill Odell for their generosity and unfettered access to their personal recollections, photos and journals.
Phil Hunt of RAF 5131 (BD) Squadron for his superlative RAF 226 Squadron research, insight & kindness. Find him on Twitter @RAF_EOD for his personal account of 5131 Squadron and its fine work making the harmful harmless since 1939.
See also the following well-researched sites: http://www.forgottenairfields.com, www.zzairwarnl.com, historyofwar.org, wingstovictory.nl and www.626-squadron.co.uk for more and varied information.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The son of a World War Two US Marine, Chad Ehler is an avid military historian and researcher. He studied national security and military affairs at UC Berkeley and constitutional law and jurisprudence at Santa Clara University. His latest novel set in England and France during the Battle of Britain, 1940, was published in 2016 by London-based Endeavour Press, Ltd. You can find him on Twitter @ghqhomeforces, www.ghqhomeforces.com, or on Fidalgo Island, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
NB: An abbreviated version of this article can also be found on Historynet.com albeit without the photos.