Target Germany

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LUFTWAFFE OVER LILLE THE FIRST CLIMAX of the VIII Bomber Command’s offensive against Nazi-dominated Europe came on October 9 when 108 heavy bombers—including, for the first time, the slab- sided Liberators—were dispatched against the steelworks and locomotive factories in the great French industrial city of Lille. The choice of Lille as a target was dictated by several considerations :weather, accessibility (which made fighter cover relatively easy), the enemy’s acute shortage of rail transport, and the fact that the great Fives-Lille steel company was a made-to-order target for high-altitude precision bombing. For an aerial force that had begun operations barely seven weeks before with twelve planes, it was an amazing effort. The combat crews them­selves were impressed and excited by the size of the show. Pilots in wing ships, squinting up at the convoys of protecting Spitfires, shoved their propellers close behind the wing of their flight leader. Waist gunners, peering through their sun­glasses, nudged each other at the sight of more planes than they had ever seen in the skies before. There was an electric atmosphere about that mission. Even the ground crews felt it as they sprawled beside their bicycles on the empty airdromes, chewing blades of grass, “sweating out” the mission. It was a sense of growing strength, of greater strength to come. Aircrews and ground crews alike would have stared in disbelief had anyone told them the truth—which was that for the next six mortal months the Lille mission was to remain the high-water mark, in terms of numbers, of the daylight bombing offensive. For that reason—and many others— Lille was a landmark. It was more than just Operation 54, more than just another raid. At Lille, in fact, the word “raid” for the first time became inade­quate. Lille was an air battle, the first head-on collision between the American spearhead and the massed strength of the Luftwaffe. Judged by ground force or even naval stan­dards, the actual numbers engaged in combat were small—a thousand American airmen, per­haps, plus a few score British fighter pilots against an undetermined number of Germans in the air and on the ground. But the combat personnel on both sides represented the apex of avast pyramid of national strength. Behind the planes and the fighting airmen were ranged the opposing ground organizations, behind that the industrial capacity of the warring nations and even the peoples’ will to win. In avery literal sense, the fighting strength of Germany and the United States first clashed in the cold thin air four miles above Lille. And the sparks flew. As one navi­gator succinctly put it, “Lille was our first real brawl.” As was to be expected in an initial operation of this size, mistakes were made. Abortives ran high. Traffic control over the target was bad some of the planes never got the target in their sights. The unfortunate bombardiers who had to jettison their loads in the Channel on the way back were derisively christened “chandeliers” atone Fortress station. Sixty-nine aircraft bombed the primary tar­gets, inflicting considerable damage. Flak was not severe, although one excited crew member, on his maiden mission, described it as “the worst flak I’ve ever seen!” But attacks by enemy fighters were unprecedented in ferocity and dur­ation. Four bombers went down—one Liberator with its No. 4 engine blazing and three Fortresses, two of which fell into the Channel. At the subsequent interrogation no less than two hundred and forty-two encounters with enemy fighters were reported. The early claims were forty-eight destroyed, thirty-eight probably destroyed, and nineteen damaged. Later on, Intelligence Officers, striving to eliminate all pos­sible duplication, reduced the official total first to twenty-five certains, thirty-eight probables, and forty-four damaged, finally to twenty-one, twenty-one, and fifteen. Even reduced, these claims indicated such a 35
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