Colchester, 16 October 2019
Sometimes you need to get lucky.
So it was for the 10 men on board B-17F 42-5804, nicknamed Hell's Halo, on 11 January 1944 when they took part in a USAAF 8th Air force daylight mission to bomb the Focke-Wulf fighter assembly plant at Oschersleben in the heart of Germany.
On the face of it, as you can see from my latest picture (above), the day was not going well. The bomb wing had almost no American fighter escort over the target – with a notable exception that I'll come back to.
They were repeatedly attacked by hundreds of German fighters in the most ferocious, sustained onslaught since the notoriously disastrous second Schweinfurt raid the previous October.
Of the 177 B-17s that were sent to this primary target, 34 (almost a fifth) failed to return, with 122 men aboard killed and more than 200 becoming prisoners of war.
Hell's Halo was hit by cannon shells that wounded the pilot, Leroy Everett, and his co-pilot, Theodore Milton. Lt Col Milton was leading the whole operation.
The aircraft lost two of its four engines, and it is a tribute to the survivability of the Flying Fortress that it still made it back to England.
The wing was scattered on its return among a number of diversionary airfields by bad weather. Hell's Halo's home base of Bassingbourn, near Cambridge, was unattainable so they were sent instead to RAF Hethel, just south of Norwich in Norfolk.
It is said that despite his wounds, Milton insisted on waiting for all the other B-17s to land before his put down.
I have not seen a comprehensive account of the circumstances but the terse official record sums up what happened as "no brakes so crash landed" – and in spite of all this, luckily, all 10 on board returned to duty.
In a write-up on Milton's illustrious career that appeared in Air Force Magazine some years ago, his son, Theodore Ross Milton Jr., was quoted as saying that his recuperation from the mission had been "speeded by a friend who smuggled a bottle of Scotch to him at the hospital".
How did I come to feature this? By chance, really.
I have probably said before that often I carry pictures around in my mind's eye for some time before getting around to making them, and this is one such.
I was finally nudged into it by the shortening days and a Christmas cards order from a regular customer in Canada, who always asks if I have anything new that might interest him.
Just occasionally I do publish generic aircraft pictures in which the circumstances are anonymous. With this one, I might have got away with a viewer not being able to read the actual serial number and squadron code letters, but most Fortresses had some form of nose art – and anyway I prefer to depict real events when I can.
Casting around for a suitable candidate, I drew up a shortlist in the American Air Museum records and eventually settled on "Attacked by several enemy aircraft KO’d #2 & #3, no brakes to [sic] crash landed Hethel, Nfk. 10 RTD".
I can see from the Met Office archives that although it was fairly mild for the time of year, the forecast that Tuesday was for general rainfall spreading eastwards, preceded by snow in the East.
What I don't have are any eyewitness accounts of what the landing actually was like. Beyond feathering the number 2 and 3 engines, I don't have details of the damage. So that's artistic licence.
But I hope I have done justice to the heroism of this particular crew and, by extension, all those who flew from England with the US Army Air Corps in the Second World War.
As luck would have it, I happened to depict not only an aircraft on such a notorious mission, but the one with the mission commander on board, and on which everyone survived.
And – this is what I mentioned at the start – in selecting this operation I also stumbled across one of the most celebrated fighter pilot exploits of the war.
What was that? Watch this space: I feel another picture coming on.
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