It’s November 1944 – six months after the Allies have invaded France and pushed the German forces back – and a detachment of British artillery men are dug in not far from the Belgian capital, Brussels. Then, suddenly, the soldiers see an American Flying Fortress apparently heading straight for them. Has the pilot lost his mind?
We’ll come back to that rogue Flying Fortress. But first let’s take a look at how aircraft shaped the Second World War. Of course, planes had first played a significant role during World War One. The military use of air power was in its infancy then, however; aerial warfare really came of age in WWII.
In particular, the Germans showed how air power could be effectively used as part of their blitzkrieg tactics. A notable example came when the Wehrmacht overwhelmed Belgium and France in 1940, as the key Battle of Sedan saw the German forces concentrate their air power to crush opposition.
The Battle of Sedan started on May 12, 1940. The inciting attack was part of the German plan to surround the French and British forces that were advancing eastward through northern France and Belgium. And the assault on the French city of Sedan would form one arm of the encirclement by cutting into the dense forests of the Ardennes and heading north towards the English Channel.
After taking Sedan without a fight, the Germans then faced the major obstacle of the Meuse River and the heavily defended area around it. These formidable French defenses were almost four miles deep. What’s more, there were in excess of 100 robustly built pillboxes sited on high ground overlooking the river valley.
It was at this point that the power of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, came into play. The Nazis proceeded to unleash the most powerful aerial bombing campaign seen in the world to date; in fact, the Luftwaffe would not mount such a large-scale air attack again in the remaining years of WWII.
Two German dive bomber squadrons attacked the French defenses no fewer than 300 times. During the entirety of the battle, nine detachments of bombers completed close to 4,000 missions. The initial attack from the air continued without respite for eight hours. And the screaming Junkers Ju 87 dive bombers – better known as Stukas – wreaked havoc.
These Stukas were formidable aerial war machines that had first seen action in 1937 in support of Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The planes stood out thanks to their angled wings and fixed undercarriages fitted with teardrop-shaped fairings. Subsequently, the aircraft became symbols of Nazi airpower.
To add to the terror that they induced, the Stukas possessed sirens on their undercarriages. The high-pitched screams that these devices generated as the planes dived into their bombing trajectories were part of the soundtrack of the German blitzkrieg. And in the early part of the war, the German blitzkrieg – or lightning attack – seemed unstoppable.
During the four-day Battle of Sedan, it was certainly true that the French defenses were completely unable to halt the rapid advance of the German army. And with the formidable support of the massed planes of the Luftwaffe, the Nazis swept aside the French troops. By midnight on the first day of the Sedan attack, the German infantry had advanced five miles through the French defenses, in fact.
The Germans subsequently defeated the French, who were forced to sign a humiliating armistice on June 22, 1940. Hitler insisted that the process should take place aboard the same railroad car where the Germans had signed their surrender at the end of WWI in 1918. Meanwhile, the British and other Allied troops escaped by the skin of their teeth back to England thanks to the Dunkirk evacuation.
With the Germans now in control of the French side of the English Channel, the next major battle of WWII was on the horizon. As it transpired, the conflict would be fought entirely in the air. And for the British, the fear of a German invasion was very real indeed.
Indeed, the British had every reason to fear Hitler’s next move. The Führer’s generals had already been planning Operation Sea Lion – a seaborne invasion of Britain across the English Channel. But Hitler insisted that there should be no invasion until the Germans had complete naval and air domination over the Channel and southern England.
In fact, the issue of air superiority was to dominate the immediate future in the shape of the Battle of Britain – or Luftschlacht um England, as the Germans called it. And some historians have dubbed this the first battle conducted wholly in our skies.
The conflict sprawled over the summer months from the beginning of July into the fall of 1940. Some historians see it as having actually lasted into the next year, as the battle morphed into the Blitz. In any case, this subsequent campaign saw the Germans try to bomb the British into submission with devastating aerial raids on major cities.
The Germans’ strategic aim in the Battle of Britain, though, was to either force the British into a negotiated peace or to pave the way for a cross-channel invasion. The Luftwaffe – under Hitler’s faithful sidekick Herman Göring – believed that the way to achieve this aim was to crush the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Fighter Command.
Meanwhile, it was Winston Churchill who gave the air conflict its name. In a speech to Parliament in June 1940, Churchill stated, “The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” And he was absolutely right.
In July and August 1940 the Luftwaffe concentrated on bombing military airfields in the south of England, especially along the Channel coast. And as August went on, German raids on British airbases and aircraft factories intensified. The Nazis were trying to destroy the RAF’s ability to fight back, and the British air force did indeed come near to breaking point.
But at least British airmen didn’t face the Nazi menace alone, as fighter pilots from a wide selection of nations joined in the air battle on the side of the British. They included fliers from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Czechoslovakia and France, with all playing a vital part in the conflict.
As August 1940 rolled over into September, however, things looked extremely grave for the British. The RAF had lost almost 300 fighter planes, and a further 171 had suffered serious damage. To counter that, only 269 replacement Spitfires and Hurricanes – the main fighter craft – were delivered.
What’s more, something like 120 RAF pilots were being lost each week – and there weren’t even 1,000 fliers available in total. As a consequence, the British were severely hampered by both a lack of planes and a shortage of trained pilots. Yet, somehow, they fought on against the might of Göring’s Luftwaffe.
And in spite of the intensity of the German raids, the scales began to tip in favor of the British and their allies. Even the best efforts of the Luftwaffe were not enough to halt British resistance. Hitler was now forced to recognize that the Luftwaffe’s concerted attempts to achieve air superiority had been a failure.
As a result, during September 1940 the Führer put Operation Sea Lion – the planned invasion of Britain – on hold. Daytime attacks on British targets subsequently tailed off. And although the Luftwaffe continued to bomb British cities by night, the threat of invasion had been thwarted. The Nazis had lost the Battle of Britain – their first real taste of defeat.
But now we should return to the start of our story, when British gunners stationed in Belgium in November 1944 spotted a Flying Fortress apparently heading straight for their position. The sight of this huge plane seemingly flying on a collision course would have been enough to frighten anyone.
It was certainly true that the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a formidable weapon of war. Boeing had started building these four-engined behemoths for the USAAC (United States Air Army Corp) in the 1930s. The B-17 went through a number of versions, too, but the standard model, the B-17G, was armed with 13 machine guns to repel enemy attacks.
The plane first saw service with the RAF and the U.S. Army in 1941 and had defensive guns mounted at the front, rear, flanks, top and belly. Subsequently, the B-17 also saw a tremendous amount of action in the European theater during WWII.
More than 1.6 million tons of bombs were dropped on Germany during the war, with Flying Fortresses having delivered more than 700,000 of those tons of explosives. As well as being deployed for strategic bombing, B-17s were also used in anti-submarine actions, as a transport craft and for search and rescue operations.
So seeing one of those aircraft heading straight towards you was no laughing matter. And as it approached, the B-17’s landing gear was in the down position. Thankfully, though, the plane missed the gunners and subsequently landed in an adjacent field just yards from where the British soldiers were.
As the aircraft taxied across the field, a wing dipped and caught on the turf, and the plane ultimately came to a standstill. Damage to one of the four propellers caused it to stop, although the others continued to spin. And the gunners then waited for the air crew to emerge from the Flying Fortress.
But no one exited the aircraft. After about 20 minutes, a British Army officer called Major John V. Crisp appeared on the scene. Nobody had emerged from the plane, so Crisp decided to investigate. Fearing possible booby traps, he cautiously climbed aboard the Flying Fortress.
Mysteriously, the plane was empty. The crew had apparently disappeared, although there were clear signs that people had been on the aircraft not long before. By a process of trial and error, then, Crisp eventually found the controls that stopped the engines. But how could this plane possibly have landed with no crew aboard?
In his 1968 book Flying Fortress, Edward Jablonski quoted from the account that Crisp had written of the incident. Crisp had explained, “I looked next at the navigator’s table. The aircraft log was open, and the last words were ‘Bad Flak.’” Evidently, then, the plane had come under enemy attack.
Crisp continued, “We now made a thorough search of the fuselage and found about a dozen parachutes neatly wrapped and ready for clipping on. This made the whereabouts of the crew even more mysterious.” The deserted aircraft seemed more and more like the Mary Celeste – the abandoned ship found in the North Atlantic in 1872.
Crisp went on with his description of what he’d seen. “The Sperry bombsight remained in the Perspex nose, quite undamaged, with its cover neatly folded beside it. Back on the navigator’s desk, there was the code book giving the colors and letters of the day for identification purposes. Various fur-lined flying jackets lay in the fuselage together with a few bars of chocolate – partly consumed, in some cases.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the military top brass soon took an interest in this highly mysterious incident. Officers from the VIII Air Force Service Command stationed at the Allies’ forward HQ in Belgium traveled to examine the Flying Fortress for themselves. And once on the scene, they quickly found and noted the plane’s serial number.
As soon as the investigators learned the Flying Fortress’ identifying details, however, they quickly cleared up the mystery of what had happened to the crew. The airmen were members of the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy), and all of them were now back at their base in England.
So, what had happened? Well, on November 21, 1944, the crew, led by Lieutenant Harold R. DeBolt, had set out with ten other planes on a bombing sortie to Germany. They were to strike a synthetic oil manufacturing facility in the German city of Merseburg.
In poor weather, DeBolt’s aircraft had become detached from its formation. German fighter planes then attacked the B-17, and it also ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire. A shell exploded near the Flying Fortress, damaging it. And although the plane subsequently dropped its bombs, two of the engines had stopped working. DeBolt and his crew now tried to nurse the aircraft back to England. But the B-17 rapidly lost altitude, and DeBolt ordered everyone to bail out. Thankfully, though, British soldiers found the airmen.
Incredibly, the plane had flown on until it landed near the British gunners. The chutes Major Crisp saw were clearly spares, and one of the malfunctioning engines must have kicked back into life. It’s a real tribute to the incredible engineering of the Flying Fortress, then, that the plane was able to land on its own. Unsurprisingly, the incident has since gone down in military history. And the forces’ newspaper, Stars and Stripes, has added to the mystique by dubbing the B-17 the “Phantom Fort.”