Cross Junction, VA
Painting - Oils On Portrait Canvas
This particular mission was flown by the brave airmen of the 387th Bomb Group. They flew without fighter escort, faced heavy anti-aircraft artillery, and despite grievous losses, pressed on and destroyed their target with pinpoint accuracy. Facing them in this combat were the staunch pilots of the Luftwaffe�s JG 11, who put up a vigorous and deadly defense over their homeland. On 16 December 1944, the Wehrmacht launched its greatest counter-offensive against its enemy in the west, making considerable progress with the aid of unfavorable flying weather for the Allies. It would not be until the night of the 22nd that weather conditions would finally clear so that the full might of the allied air arm could help to thwart Von Rundstedt�s offensive. As a means to this end, it was imperative that the main enemy lines of communication and supply to "The Bulge" be severed. A target of high priority in this category was the Railway Bridge at Mayen, Germany, one of the key bridges on the main double track railway from the German heartland to the Belgium bulge. The 344-foot span of this bridge carried the enemy lifeline across the deep ravine of the Nette River, and its destruction would sever the railway for a considerable period of time.
On the night of 22 December, the 387th Bomb Group based at Clastres, France, received operational orders to attack the Mayen bridge on the following morning. During the previous week, the Group had gone through numerous air raids, a strafing attack, and a number of alerts caused by the reported dropping of enemy parachutists, but had not been able to launch any retaliatory strikes due to inclement weather. Now had come the opportunity to play an important part in helping to stem the Nazi ground offensive. Bombs were loaded with expedience while the engineering, armament, bombsight, and communications personnel rigorously tested, and re-tested every component of the complex machinery which constituted the nerves and brawn of the B-26 Marauder. Every phase of preparation was handled with efficiency and dispatch, and take-off was safely accomplished exactly on schedule. In anticipation of cloud cover in the target area, the formation was dispatched under the leadership of two pathfinder planes. The fighter escort had not yet arrived at the rendezvous point when they reached it, and the formation leader decide to continue on course, relying on the fighters to overtake the formation later. The first box executed a turn at Bastonge in accordance with briefing instructions, taking up the proper heading toward the I.P., but (for some reason never discovered) the pathfinder leading the second box did not turn but continued on the same course. Now following courses seven degrees apart, the boxes diverged steadily, and five minutes after leaving Bastogne they were roughly five miles apart. The second box leader tried repeatedly to contact the pathfinder and elicit an explanation, but he could get no reply. This would have disastrous consequences for the 2nd (trailing) box of Marauders once near the target area. At 0940 hours approximately twelve miles east of Bastogne, fifteen to twenty five German Bf-109G-14 fighters of JG 11 hurtled in to attack the second box, two or three of them diving out of the sun, and the others rising to attack the formation from below. The pathfinder left the box at the outset, seeking to individually evade the fighter onslaught and was promptly shot down. The low-left flight of the second box bore the full weight of the Luftwaffe�s attack, losing the flight leader and 4 wingman to the furious assault. It is this "moment in time" I chose to portray for my painting "ACHTUNG! ZWEIMOTS". I had the good fortune to correspond with the leader of the high-right squadron, and pilot of the "SCREAMING EAGLE" (Photo at right) Colonel Walter C. Harkins. It is the action as seen from the vantage point of Harkin�s aircraft that the painting depicts. The combat reports stated that while emerging from cloud cover the second box of the 387th was suddenly intercepted by fighters. Four Bf-109�s standing out against the snowy landscape below, attacked the group�s low-left flight in climbing attacks from the rear. They concentrated on the trailing aircraft, one of those being "Mississippi Mudcat", on its 150th mission. She took hits on the right engine and tail gun position from the leading Messerschmitts, another�s fire set the left engine ablaze. The bomber�s wounded pilot, Lt. Staub, ordered the crew to bail out and he died in the crash of the stricken plane. In rapid succession more Bf-109�s of JG 11 appeared and quickly dispatched the remainder of the low-left flight. The 109�s were even observed to fly through their own anti-aircraft artillery to press home their attacks, some to within 40 yards of the Marauders. But this was not without cost to the Luftwaffe. Even in their death throes, many of the bomber�s gunners fought back and acquitted themselves well that day. The two Bf-109 G-14�s depicted in the painting did not survive the battle. The foreground Bf-109 is "Green-2" (a/c# 783923) flown by JG 11 Staff Lt. Joseph Heyer (b.5-4-24 Ballersdorf, Elsass). After scoring several hits on the bombers, Heyer�s aircraft took very accurate and intense fire from the dying gunners and was last seen impacting the quiet landscape below. He did not escape. The background Bf-109G-14 "White-19" (a/c# 785-132) is piloted by 5/JG 11 Unteroffizer Gregor Fahnrich (b. 20-9-20 Kutschkaw, Kreismeseritz) We see his aircraft already aflame after numerous hits to the engine compartment as he descends out of the fight. Fahnrich, who was severely wounded, attempted to bail out of his plane but failed in the attempt, dying in the crash and subsequent fire of his aircraft. He now rests in a military graveyard in the Kamberg area near Limburg on the Lahn (near Bad Durkheim in the Pfalz, 21 kilometers west of Ludwigshafen). Of the pilots of JG 11 involved in the Mayen battle. 3 died that day, and 4 others were seriously wounded. Hauptmann Hermann Wolf (Photo at right, front row, center) was a flight leader in JG 11 that day and recalled the following about the deadly engagement. "We in JG11 squadron started with 5 or 6 airplanes in the Breitschied area as there were not any more planes ready to fly. I do not remember what the other two squadrons were able to furnish to this mission. I also could no tell what other groups were able to add or if they were ordered into battle at all. After making the squadron assemble over Bonn, I was assigned to take the lead. We received information by the ground controllers that there were Marauders (Zwiemots or Two-Motors) in the area. On the flight into the area the group was being disbursed by bad weather with clouds broken and at several altitudes. It must have been in the area of Namur when we went through the cloud cover, suddenly we found 6 Marauders in shooting distance. If they ever saw us, they must have been as surprised as we were. At that point four of us were still in formation, and came instantly into firing range. My wingman and I Unteroffizer Steinberg shot down one Marauder each. We weren�t aware of any defensive fire directed at us although I know our subsequent group suffered heavily."
In the face of such determined attacks, the two embattled flights, although separated and without escorts of their own, maintained excellent formation. After performing many evasive turns they regained the briefed route and pressed on with unshaken determination to bomb the target. Their numbers were fewer now, and several carried dead and wounded aboard.
Meanwhile, the first box was commencing its run on the target. Visual conditions in the target area were excellent, and the pathfinder leading the box finally decided to abort, less than two minutes before bombs away. This left the lead bombardier very little time for accurate synchronization, and a cloud mass drifting across the target at the last moment rendered his task even more difficult. Under these adverse circumstances, he performed his sighting operation with remarkable skill; the flight�s bombs centered a few hundred feet northwest of the bridge, causing secondary explosions and other damage to enemy installations in the area.
Fifteen minutes later, the badly mauled second box, which was now missing all but one of its planes in the low-left flight, approached the target. After a 10 minute running gun battle with the Luftwaffe , and now starting to take heavy flak, the box was able to shake off the last enemy fighters just one minute before the bomb bay doors were opened. On entering the bomb run, the box leader and his bombardier realized that the approach was not being made on the briefed course. Despite the terrible ordeal they had just been through and the imminent danger of renewed fighter attacks, they decided to go around for a second run on the correct heading, in order to secure the most favorable possible conditions for accurate bombing. Equally determined to strike an effective blow, the leader of the second flight followed the lead flight around for the second run. After a wide turn, which brought the box back on to the briefed heading, the two flights made long, steady runs and dropped their bombs. The bombs of the lead flight centered 480 feet north of the Mean Point of Impact (MPI), with 100% of the bombs landing within a 1000-foot radius of the MPI, and the results were assessed as Excellent.
�It remained for the second and only remaining flight, in which all the aircraft were crippled to some extent, to go in and do the finest bombing of the day, as a fitting climax to the group's long struggle to reach the target. The flight�s bombs centered only 120 feet west of the MPI, with direct hits inflicted on the southwest central portion of the bridge span, for Superior Results. Col. Walter Harkins, pilot of "SCREAMING EAGLE" and his bombardier, Warren Butterfield received the Silver Star for putting their bombs directly on the bridge span (Mission Strike Photo, left).
The 23rd of December was the turning point of that critical period, when the full force of the allied war machine fell against the Germans. Although the Nazi offensive still carried weight over the next few days, the decisive blows struck on the 23rd bore full fruit as the month drew to a close. The Ardennes salient, cut off at the roots from the German Heartland, withered and died, and with it died the last best hope of Germany.
November 16th, 2012
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