18 March 1945, 0300: The morning started early at the Great Ashfield air field. Wake up at 3 a.m., crew mission briefing, chow line, flight line for pre-flight and weapons checks, take off. It would be the biggest mission of the year for the 8th Air Force (AF). Fourteen thousand American flyers at 61 air fields across the English countryside would participate, but they had no way to know that March 18 would mark a turning point in aviation history.
For Lt. Tommy Bell it would be his 29th combat mission. Like hundreds of Ole Miss students who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tommy had made the transition from Rebel to Yank in short order. Two years of stateside flight training earned him his flight wings and an assignment to fly B-17Gs for the 8th AF’s 385th Bomber Group. Lt. Bell and crew arrived in England in October 1944 and flew their first combat missions a month later.
The 8th AF was created in 1942 to prosecute the air war in western Europe. Its workhorse was the B-17 ‘Flying Fortress.’ As the name implies, it was designed to defend itself. The B-17 cruised at 170 mph, carried 8,000 pounds of bombs, flew with a 10 man crew, and had machine guns bristling from every angle. Alas, the concept of a “self-protected bomber” turned out to be flawed and the 8th AF suffered devastating losses in 1942 – up to 25 percent on some missions. At the war’s start, America’s air warfare doctrine was mostly theory with little real world experience to validate the concepts. To help morale, a tour of duty was set at 25 combat missions. The first to reach that milestone was the Memphis Belle in May 1943. The survivability of bombers and crews was greatly enhanced with the arrival in late 1943 of P-51 Mustang long range fighters to provide escort and support. As survivability improved, the tour of duty was extended to 30 and then 35 combat missions.
18 March 1945, 0330: Groans filled the briefing hut when the target was announced – Berlin. Berlin and its vicinity brought back searing memories to the veteran flyers, including Lt. Bell. Berlin was a tough target, but nearby Merseburg was the most feared target of all.
Tommy Bell sure didn’t forget – his third combat mission on November 30, 1944 was over Merseburg and he remembered it like it was yesterday. The Leuna synthetic oil plant on the outskirts of Merseburg refined crucial fuel for Germany’s panzers and planes. Fuel was already in short supply in late 1944 – knock out the Leuna plant and the German war machine would grind to a crawl. It was defended by the 14th Flak Division with 600 radar-directed 88 mm guns and 28,000 troops. The flak guns fired 17-pound grenades that exploded at altitudes of 12,000 to 15,000 feet. The flak field created by this defense was the densest in the world and it was deadly effective. In the month of November alone, the 8th AF lost 75 B-17s attacking the Leuna plant. One of those was Lt. Bell’s. Boom… boom… boom – the flak blackened the sky and tore into Bell’s B-17G as it crossed the target. Severe damage rendered the B-17G incapable of making it back to England. Falling behind the bomber formation and losing altitude, the crew faced a difficult choice – parachute out or attempt an emergency landing – both in German occupied territory. They chose the latter and Tommy brought the faltering B-17G down in a hay field. Fortune was with them – the underground resistance found the crew before the German patrols did. With the help of the resistance, some horse drawn wagons, and a box car, Tommy Bell and his crew made its way to friendly lines where a plane ferried them back across the channel.
If there was one lesson to learn in the 8th AF it was to put negative thoughts and memories aside and focus on the task at hand.
18 March 1945, 0700: Engines at full throttle 1,329 bombers and 700 fighters initiated liftoff from 61 air fields, the largest air armada since Christmas Eve of the Battle of the Bulge – first rally point the English Channel – assemble in box type formations – on to Berlin. What made the day historically significant waited ahead in the German sky. The Messerschmitt ME-262 jet fighter was the fastest plane in existence with a top speed of 540 mph, a full 100 mph faster than its counterpart, the Mustang P-51. The ME 262 jet had caused havoc with Allied planes for the past six months but it was only two or three at a time.
As the bombers neared Berlin, 36 ME-262s flashed out of the clouds attacking in a phalanx formation. Each ME-262 was armed with 24 rack-mounted R4M air-to-air rockets. This first large scale use of jets in combat had devastating impact – firing rockets in unison, the ME-262s knocked out 13 bombers and six fighters in a matter of minutes, with the loss of just three of their jets. It was a superior weapon system used with stunning effectiveness. For the flyers who had been more concerned with flak, it was a frightening sight. The jet fighter rocket attack on 18 March offered a glimpse of the future of air warfare, but it was too little too late to turn the tide of the air war in Europe. The superior numbers of Allied pilots, bombers, fighters and fuel supplies would prevail.
Bell flew his 35th and final combat mission on April 4,1945 over the submarine pens at Kiel. The Germans surrendered a month later on May 8. The 8th AF was deactivated in the late summer of 1945. In three years of combat the 8th AF had accomplished its mission but with terrible sacrifice: 4,456 bombers lost with 43,742 pilots and crew members killed or missing in action.
So what does a 23-year-old, card-carrying, dues-paid-in-full member of America’s Greatest Generation do when World War II is over? Bell kept flying in the Air Force and then the Air Guard – 26 years in all, retiring as lieutenant colonel. While flying stateside, he took classes to complete his undergraduate degree and then earned a law degree, both from Ole Miss. In 1957 Bell joined three other World War II vets in building the law firm Daniel, Coker, Horton and Bell – a firm in operation today.
Bell passed away in 1990. His widow, Barbara Trapp Bell, resides at The Orchard in Ridgeland.
By Ashby Foote | Published: Northside Sun | April 2014