The Kempten Raid
An officer “of no great consequence” proves his worth in a deadly mission over Germany
By John N. Strange
As published in THE AMERICAN LEGION March 1980 issue
No one in the squadron really knew John Egan; his name, yes . . . but little else. He never made much noise; he was unassuming, unobtrusive, and would probably have been branded by most of us as the silent type. I guess you could say, we rated him average, an
average officer and an average pilot. From our vantage point, he had never done anything truly outstanding, so in reality, we had no way of knowing the man or his potential. Right or wrong, we did not consider Egan to be an officer of great consequence . . . but time was to prove us wrong, very wrong.
Officially, Major John L. Egan was second in command to Lt. Col. Jay B. Smith, Commander of the 450th Bomb Squadron, 322d Bomb Group, Bomber Division, Ninth Air Force; he was the one who made the noise. When he fired a verbal salvo, everyone knew he meant what he said and said what he meant. I suppose it was because Smith was so much in the forefront of things that the lesser officers of his command seemed always to be hidden or lost in the background. He was a strict disciplinarian, a fine officer, and an excellent pilot.
One day, John Egan, suddenly and without warning, had the mantle of command thrust upon his shoulders. While leading a low-level strafing run through the railroad marshalling yards at Butzbach, Germany, Smith was shot down. Just as he was making his final let-down approach to commence his run, his plane, a B-26 Marauder, then at an altitude of about 150 feet, was hit by a vicious cross-fire from the ground. Twenty- and 40-millimeter cannon fire and the high-caliber machine gun fire criss-crossed the sky. Within seconds his plane rolled over on its back, hit the ground and burst into flames, skidding several hundred yards and breaking up as it went along. As I watched the holocaust, I was convinced in my own mind at least that no one could have survived; the superior seven, the nickname given to Smith’s crew, were undoubtedly gone.
Then it was our turn to make the run, but for us it was a bit easier. We knew the coverage and pattern of the cross-fire, so First Lt. Paul C. Humphreys, our pilot, slipped our B-26 to just a few feet off the deck and we flew safely beneath the cross-fire umbrella and went barreling through the yard, blazing away with all guns. Our airspeed was up to the red-line speed of 360 miles per hour as we made our run. As we approached the end of the yard, where the debris of Smith’s plane was still in flames, Humphreys climbed rapidly to escape any possible ground fire at the exit end of the marshalling yard. The other four ships of the flight followed our approach and flythrough procedures and safely made their strafing runs. Our jobs done, we headed for home base. The following day, the deaths of Smith’s crew were confirmed, but within the squadron, there was no time for prolonged mourning . . . the war would not await much more than a moment of silence in honor of the dead. With issuance of special orders, Major John L. Egan was named the new commander of the 450th. And so began the reign of Egan.
Things went along in a normal fashion for several weeks during which Egan took his turn along with the other squadron commanders in flying group lead or second-box lead, depending on the type mission being flown. During these weeks, we found out that John Egan could fly with the best of them; he was stable under stress and a real stickler for tight formation flying, especially when enemy fighters were about. As far as we could determine, he was an “ice water in his veins” kind of pilot, with but one thought in mind: “hit the target on the nose . . . leave ‘em smoking.”
On the ground, John Egan ran the squadron with the same caliber of competence with which he flew. But the full potential of John Egan, the test of the man, his nerves, and his courage, came with the Kempten Raid.
It all began as a result of several missions flown by a photo reconnaissance aircraft. Over a period of several days, the pilot had observed that from late afternoon until the early morning hours, numerous trains were hauling what appeared to be car after
car of damaged armored vehicles, particularly tanks, and always to the south. Northbound trains were filled with new and refurbished units. The trains were pouring in and out of the Redoubt Area of southern Germany in an almost continuous stream from dusk till dawn.
For months now, the Redoubt Area had been vaunted as the area from which Germany planned to continue the war. There had to be a sizable armament complex nearby. One lucky day (unlucky for the Germans), that same reconnaissance pilot, while circling near Kempten, took a picture at a sun angle that produced a reflection from what appeared to be the parallel tracks of a rail spur where there was no other evidence that a railroad even existed.
A second mission was flown with more extensive coverage and this time a number of close-up shots were taken from various vantage points and various sun angles. One of the photos showed tell-tale tank tracks along a nearby hard-surfaced road where mud from the tracks had dislodged and left behind its unmistakable footprint. The
secret was out. When Maj. Gen. Sam Anderson, commander of the Ninth Air Force, was briefed on the results of the photographic interpretations, he was jubilant. “Now that it’s been found, it’s up to us to destroy it.” General Anderson then named eleven bomb groups to do the job, six to hit the target on Day One and the remaining five to hit it on Day Two. One of the Groups selected for Day One was the 322d under the command of Col. John S. Samuel. “Colonel Sam” assigned the group lead to the 450th Bomb Squadron and thus
to John Egan.
By sundown, squadron alert lists had been posted on each squadron’s bulletin board naming those crews that would make the trip to Kempten. At the squadron briefing held on the morning of the raid, the importance of the target to the German war effort was clearly set forth, particularly if the Redoubt Area was to be used as the new warbase. Time sequencing of the groups over the target was such that the 322d was to be the fourth group to attack.
Weather reports were less than ideal, but favorable. Bombing altitude was set at 9,000 feet; the bombs were 500 pounders . . . eight of them in each plane’s bomb bay. Thirty-six planes of the 322d would make the strike from the standard two-box formation. The bomb run was to be visual. In the navigator’s briefing, we learned the full details of the flight plan. The route to target would carry us to a point near Luxembourg, to a point 20 miles southwest of Koblenz, across the Rhine at Mannheim, to a point near Augsburg, to Kaufbeuren (the IP, the point at which the bomb run was to begin), and finally to Kempten. The bomb run was scheduled to begin at 11:05 a.m. with a drop time scheduled for 11:10 a.m.
The briefing adjourned with the chaplain leading in prayer; he asked the Almighty to grant our safe return. Needless to say, he expressed our sentiments exactly. Things went well as we flew east; the sky was clear except for a light haze. We flew past our first check point near Luxembourg and wheeled on toward our second check point 20 miles southwest of Koblenz. As we neared the Koblenz check point, with the Rhine off in the distance, we saw a massive cloud-frontal system rising from its base at an altitude of a few thousand feet to its top at what appeared to be 15 or 20 thousand feet.
Knowing we would have to fly through it, Egan broke radio silence and called for dispersed formation among the six flights, three in the first box and three in the second. The wing flights off Egan’s lead moved left and right respectively until about 150 yards separated the flights. The comparable flights in the second box followed suit and assumed the same in-flight pattern. The lead bombers in each flight were then instructed to maintain flight plan headings and the individual planes in each of the dispersed flights were to maintain visual contact with their respective flight leader . . . that meant flying close formation within each of the six-ship flights and, in this case, because the cloud mass was so thick, it meant flying very close formation. Egan stated that he would announce course changes over the radio and give an execute command; all turns to be
shallow turns. He emphasized the necessity for all planes to turn in unison so that separation distances between flights would be maintained, otherwise mid-air collisions could occur and the whole venture end in tragedy.
We were flying off Major Egan’s left wing. Humphreys tucked our B-26
Marauder into the slot, close enough that, sitting in the nose, I saw Egan give “Hump” an approving nod. “All right, birds of the flock, let’s hang together.” With that admonishment from Egan, we headed into the massive cloud bank, a cumulostratus formation white to grayish in color and thick as soup. Visual contact, even among six-ship flight formations, was difficult to maintain and there were brief periods when thicker portions of the cloud mass denied us visual contact. Then there would be thin spots when the dispersion distances between flights and the overall formation alignments could be adjusted. The cloud mass was so confining and the uncertainties of flight locations and true map position added to our uneasiness.
Even in the thinned-out segments at our flying altitude, we never saw the ground beneath or the blue sky above. Gratefully though, there was almost no turbulence; had there been, our situation would have been even more perilous. Egan again broke radio silence: “Let’s try and get above it; on my command, commence a climb rate of 500 feet per minute. Execute!” We started up. We climbed to nearly 18,000 feet, but did not top out. We came back down to flight plan altitude, still hidden from the outside world. We had been in the cloud system now for well over 150 miles, with no signs of its thinning out. At this rate, a visual bomb run would be impossible.
There was no alternative; we must try to get below it and that was Egan’s next radio communication. By this time, we were about 30 minutes from the IP and desperately needed to see the ground; we needed a check on our position. By this time, unknown wind directions and velocities in such a massive frontal system could have
blown us 10 or 20 miles off course; we had no way of knowing.
Egan again pressed the radio mike button and announced a descent rate of 500 feet a minute and declared all flights were to hold the IP approach course until instructed otherwise.
We turned onto the IP approach course and started our descent. Finally, at about 5,000 feet, we caught our first glimpse of the ground. Visibility was poor, a light rain was falling and ground fog hovered here and there. Egan’s navigator, First Lt. Robert A. Stubblefield, hurriedly set about to try and get a visual fix as to our position; by now were at about 4,500 feet altitude. I was also busily trying to determine our position, feeling that in the present circumstances, two heads were better than one. As luck would have it, I had a visual fix in less than a minute. Before I could radio my fix, Stubblefield radioed his; it confirmed my own. We were about 10 miles southwest of our flight plan IP. Another five minutes of maintaining the IP approach heading and we would have smacked dead away into the foothills of the Alps. Thank the Lord, that five minutes never took place. We then started a wide-arc circling pattern to try and regoup (join-up) into an appropriate bombing formation. Egan radioed: “Flight leaders, report in sequence.” The
right- and left-wing flights reported that all was well and assumed their proper position.
Then came some alarming news: the number five and six flights reported that they were in sight of one another and circling, but were not in sight of the group. They further reported that they were at an altitude of 3,700 feet and barely able to see the ground.
On a transmitted count, Stubblefield took a radio bearing on their transmission and established that they were west and slight south of our position. On voice intercom to Egan, Stubblefield advised: “Sir, I think we had best give them a heading out of here.
They’re undoubtedly uncomfortable close to the foothills of the Alps and we can’t continue to circle and fiddle around here trying to effect a join-up.” From the tone of Flight Five’s transmission, Egan had already anticipated that such an action might be necessary; however, he felt more comfortable with Stubblefield’s confirmation regarding the order he was about to give.
Egan radioed: “Flights Five and Six, I’m sending you home; we’re about to commence our run and there’s insufficient fuel and time to try and effect a join-up. Flight Five is to assume lead responsibility and at the conclusion of this transmission, you will immediately assume a compass heading of 310 degrees, I repeat: 310 degrees; climb to an altitude of 8,000 feet and hold that altitude of 8,000 feet until you have exited the frontal system. At that time, you can establish a visual fix and set your own course for home base. You’re on your own . . . good luck! Please acknowledge.”
Flight Five’s lead pilot responded: “Message received. Wilco (will comply) and Out.” With Flights Five and Six now on their own, we set about the task at hand, namely, to reduce the armament depot at Kempten to a pile of rubble. Now 24 planes had to do the work of 36; the bombing had to be accurate and the formation according to the book even though we were a dozen planes short.
All this time, the German anti-aircraft defenses were undoubtedly stunned and confused. They were not firing at our formation. I’m sure they were convinced that the formation was lost in the foul weather and looking for a place to land. Egan ordered the odd flight from the second box to tack onto our formation to form a diamond-box formation and to bomb off the lead’s drop command. He joined up
and with all birds now in place, the run began.
About half way through the bomb run, the target came into view. The lead bombardier, First Lt. Charles J. Willey, had the target in his sight. Bomb-drop settings were made, bomb bay doors were opened, and when the Germans saw those doors opening, they realized we were not lost, but resolute in our determination to bomb the Kempten target. As quick as a flash, they commenced firing, however, they had a problem. The big guns, the 88s, were set for much higher altitudes where tracking rates were slower. Because we were so low, they couldn’t rack us; the big guns were useless.
The smaller caliber guns however (20 and 40 millimeter cannons) sprang into action along with the higher caliber machine guns. Suddenly, the sky was well-populated with sincere German greetings.
Tracer rounds were streaking through the formation like fireworks on the Fourth of July, but we were now near our drop point and had no choice but to maintain our course. It was one of those cases where you wanted to yell: “Every man for himself” . . . but you dare not do it. We were committed to the run, and it seemed as though it would never end . . . then came the welcomed cry: “Bombs Away.”
We watched the bombs drop earthward; in the 17 seconds it took the bombs to fall, we were doing a bit of evasive action trying to confuse the gun crews below and escape the rain of shells. But they were not easily discouraged or confused. The shock waves emanating from each exploding bomb below arrived at our altitude and, enhanced by the simultaneous detonation of neighboring bombs, the rocked the bombers in flight as though they were being taxied down the trail of a Wells Fargo stage. In fact, for a brief moment, we wondered if we might not commit the unpardonable sin and shoot ourselves down with bomb, building and trackage debris that was being hurled skyward. The Marauders shook and bounced around, but none fell. Egan yelled: “Let’s get out of here” and with that he turned the formation onto a northwesterly course leaving the target behind, a devastated, smoking, pile of rubble.
Egan came on the radio with a congratulatory word: “Gentlemen, well done . . . exceedingly well done! Flight leaders report missing birds or casualties.” The command was followed by silence . . . no missing birds, no casualties. Then Egan ordered the formation to again disperse and on command, commence a 500-fet-per-minute climb to our return-leg flight plan altitude. Egan reasoned the best way to leave Germany was inside the cloud, shielded from a possible challenge by German fighters.
As soon as we entered friendly territory, we started our letdown. Within 45 minutes after exiting the cloud, we were back to base. The two flights that had gotten separated from the formation had landed safely about half an hour before us.
Inspection of our plane, as well as most others in the formation, revealed that the Germans had not missed . . . they just didn’t hit us in the right places, but no one complained. We were proud of what we had done. We had flown an almost impossible mission. In the main, the mission’s success has to be credited to John Egan for
exceptional leadership during what could have been hours filled with panic and disaster.
He demonstrated superb flying skills, and directed by radio the passage of 24 planes through a weather system that appeared impenetrable to all except John Egan. The following day, aerial reconnaissance photographs revealed that our bombs had destroyed much of the target. General Anderson sent his personal congratulation: “I congratulate you and your group on the splendid job you did getting to and bombing the Kempten ordnance depot in
spite of very adverse weather conditions. A stereo pair (specialized photography) indicates 65 percent of the supplies in the area and 25 to 30 building were destroyed by your attack. The determination which caused you to overcome weather difficulties resulted in a very important contribution to the war effort . . .”
General Anderson then issued an official commendation in which he stated that of the six groups assigned to attack the armament facility at Kempten on Day One, only the 322nd reached the target.
Two months later, Egan, Stubblefield, and Willey were awarded
the Distinguished Flying Cross for the extraordinary leadership and flying skills which they exhibited in the accomplishment of the Kempten Raid.