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Masters Of The Air: The Bloody Hundredth And The Mission To Munster

Between the 8th and 14th October 1943, the 8th United States Army Air Force would be pushed to the breaking point. Deep penetration raids in the face of a determined and aggressive Luftwaffe with little to no fighter escort would see the ranks of VIII Bomber Command decimated by a skilful and aggressive Luftwaffe. 


On the heels of the punishing Bremen raid on October 8, 1943, and the gruelling Marienburg mission on October 9, the Eighth Air Force received yet another mission order for the following day. Their destination: Munster. The men were fatigued, their ranks significantly thinned due to the losses suffered in the previous two raids. Nevertheless, they gathered early on the morning of the 10th for a pre-flight briefing, unaware of the surprise that awaited them.



Map used by a member of the 100th BG on the Bremen mission

 

On that fateful morning, the Mighty Eighth's crews were taken aback when they learned their target for the day: Munster's city centre. Up until this point, the Eighth Air Force had prided itself on avoiding civilian populations as targets. Their operations focused on precision strikes against industrial and military installations, such as ball-bearing factories and fighter-assembly plants. However, October 10 marked a departure from their usual strategy.

 

At Station 139, Thorpe Abbotts, the early morning of October 10, 1943, commenced with a mission briefing for the 100th Bomb Group. Senior officers and intelligence briefers stood before assembled pilots and navigators, gathered around a map meticulously marked with pins and lines denoting the route and target. Seated airmen, clad in flight gear to ward off the chill of late autumn in England, listened intently.



Station 139 - Thorpe Abbotts

 

Using long pointers, intelligence officers highlighted the target and outlined the mission's specifics. Waypoints along the route were identified, along with expected arrival times and headings to and from the target. Weather conditions were detailed on a separate blackboard nearby. After traversing the English Channel and veering over the Baltic, the bombers were to head into Germany, then slightly south to confound German radar controllers before turning northeast toward Munster to initiate their bomb run.



Assigned routes for the 3rd, 1st and 2nd Bomb Divisions on the 10th October 1943

 

The briefing encompassed reconnaissance photos of the target and rendezvous times for supporting fighter aircraft tasked with defending the bombers against Luftwaffe attacks. The formidable strength of Nazi Germany's air defences in 1943 was emphasised; every mission of the 8th Air Force encountered substantial opposition, ranging from 50 to 100 fighters or more.

 

The G2 intelligence officer delivered a sobering report, estimating approximately 245 single-engine and 290 twin-engine fighter planes defending the target area. These included well-known types such as the Messerschmitt Me 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, as well as twin-engine aircraft potentially armed with air-to-air rockets like the Messerschmitt Me 110s, Me 210s, and Junkers Ju-88s.

 

In an attempt to divide German fighter defences, a diversionary raid involving B-24 Liberators was planned to target another city. The crews were assured that this diversion would likely draw away a significant portion of enemy fighters. To escort the bombers, the 8th Air Force's P-47 Thunderbolts had been tasked to relay both to and from the target, providing continuous protection. 

 

During the briefing at Horham, home of the 95th Bomb Group, the briefing officer relayed a significant change in tactics. He announced, "Today will be different—very different from all previous military and industrial targets attacked by the Eighth Air Force. Today, you will strike the heart of the city, the homes of its working population." The aiming point, he explained, would be the steps of the medieval cathedral.

 

According to the plan, the B-17s would arrive over their target at noon, precisely when Sunday mass concluded at the cathedral. This news was met with shock and discomfort by many in the briefing rooms across East Anglia. John Keema, a bombardier with the 390th Bomb Group, reflected, "That really didn't sit well with the crews. It was a totally different concept from what we were always taught. I wondered, 'What the hell are we doing?'" Ellis Scripture, lead navigator in the 95th Bomb Group and a deeply religious man, expressed his reservations and reluctance to fly this mission. He approached his commanding officer, Colonel John Gerhart, who responded firmly, "Look, Captain, this is war—spelled W-A-R. We're in an all-out fight; the Germans have been killing innocent people all over Europe for years. We're here to beat the hell out of them... and we're going to do it." Faced with the threat of court-martial if he refused to fly, Scripture reluctantly agreed.

 

95th Bomb Group Lead Navigator, Captain Ellis Scripture



Others had different reactions than Keema and Scripture. Major John Eagan of the 100th Bomb Group was elated upon hearing the order. When he learned of the target, he found himself cheering. He recalled, "Others who had lost close friends in the past few raids joined in the cheering because here was a chance to strike back at the Germans, the instigators of race hatred and minority oppression. It was a mission to avenge the loss of a comrade." The comrade was Major Gale Buck Cleven of the 350th Bomb Squadron of the 100th Bomb Group who had been lost two days earlier on the mission to Bremen.

 


The Eighth Air Force cited the large presence of German rail workers in Munster as the reason for targeting the city, given its significance as a major rail hub. However, the choice of the cathedral steps as the aiming point at noon on a Sunday remained unexplained. Regardless of their personal feelings about the target, the bomber crews boarded their aircraft and embarked on their third mission in as many days.

 

For the Munster raid, the 8th Air Force assembled a formidable force comprising 274 B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 3rd and 1st Bomb Divisions. Additionally, 216 P-47 Thunderbolts were assigned to provide escort. With such a substantial fighter presence, the flight crews harboured optimism that the fighters would effectively fend off Luftwaffe attacks and potentially achieve significant victories. However, the looming certainty of interception by the German Luftwaffe persisted, leaving the crucial question of whether the American fighters could intercept them in time.

 

Despite the considerable number of fighters assigned to support the raid, logistical constraints dictated that they would need to trade-off due to fuel limitations. Consequently, at any given point along the route, only one or two Fighter Groups would be available to escort the bombers. The sizeable diversionary raid conducted by the B-24 Liberators was expected to draw away a portion of the enemy forces, potentially levelling the playing field for American fighter pilots. The planners anticipated heavy flak over the centre of Münster, acknowledging that most losses would likely occur over the target area due to anti-aircraft fire.

 

The newest crew of the 100th Bomb Group, piloted by Robert "Rosie" Rosenthal and Winifred T. "Pappy" Lewis, comprised ten men, including themselves. Considered inexperienced or "green," they had recently joined the group as replacements for losses suffered during the previous mission against Schweinfurt on the 17th August 1943.

 

For Rosenthal and Lewis, the Münster raid marked only their third mission since arriving in England. Their previous two raids, targeting Bremen on October 8th and Marienburg on October 9th, had been flown over consecutive days. Thus, the morning of October 10th found them embarking on their third consecutive mission, signifying a challenging start to what promised to be a perilous tour of duty. 

 

Lt. "Rosie" Rosenthal and Lt. "Pappy" Lewis, along with their crew, found themselves flying the B-17F Flying Fortress "Royal Flush" for the Münster raid. Their usual aircraft, "Rosie's Riveters," had sustained damage during their first mission to Bremen on October 8, and was currently undergoing repairs. Having flown "Royal Flush" the day before to Marienburg, and returning without any issues, they trusted the aircraft's reliability despite it not being their usual plane.



B-17F 42-6087 Royal Flush 


Prior to reaching the Dutch coast, several bombers from the three groups of the 13th CBW aborted the mission due to engine problems and other issues, not unexpected given the consecutive mission days. Those planes and crews that turned back were fortunate. Within the 100th BG, 20 bombers set out, 18 from the 100th and 2 aircraft from the 390th BG, but seven aborted, leaving 13 B-17s to press on toward Munster.

 

The expectation that a significant portion of the Luftwaffe's fighters would engage the diversionary raid by the USAAF's B-24s proved futile. Due to weather complications and other issues, the diversionary mission was either abandoned or significantly reduced. Records suggest that approximately 39 B-24s may have taken off to bomb Coesfeld, Germany, but potentially turned back prematurely, as evidenced by the absence of casualties among the B-24 groups.

 

Consequently, the German radar operators and air defence controllers directed their full attention to the primary attack, a single bomber stream heading directly toward Munster. Meanwhile, adverse weather conditions kept much of the scheduled fighter escort grounded. Despite this, the 13th CBW bombers proceeded with, unaware of the limited fighter escort availability. As they flew into Germany, oblivious to the unfolding circumstances, the looming disaster became increasingly apparent.

 

Flying at the rear of the 13th CBW formation, the 100th BG was positioned in the most vulnerable position. Unaware of the mission's numerous setbacks, the bomber force continued its journey toward the Dutch coast and beyond.

 

Across north western Germany, German Luftwaffe fighter controllers mobilised their forces. Pilots prepared their planes meticulously, ensuring full fuel tanks, loaded rockets, and ammunition for every gun. As the bombers crossed the Dutch coast, German planes took off in droves, ascending to altitude and forming up for the impending attack.

 

The Luftwaffe's arsenal included Fw 190s, Bf 110s, Bf 109s, Me 210s, and Ju 88s, many equipped with the latest air-to-air rockets designed specifically for targeting American bomber formations. Single-engine fighters were outfitted with additional heavy cannon and machine-gun pods under the wings, enhancing their firepower against the bombers.



Messerschmitt Bf 109G6 6.JG11 Yellow 1 Hermann Hintzen 15th Aug 1943 01


Leading the 3rd Bomb Division's 13th Combat Bomb Wing was John K. Gerhart, commanding officer of the 95th BG in B-17 ‘The Zoot Suiters’. Behind Gerhart's 95th BG followed the 390th BG and the 100th BG, led by Major Eagan and John Brady flying in the B-17 "Mademoiselle Zig-Zag." 

 

As the B-17s neared the Ruhr, the lead units of the 3rd Air Division, specifically the 13th Combat Wing, witnessed a daunting sight: 200 - 250 German aircraft had amassed to intercept the American heavy bombers. Rodney Snow, a member of the 95th Bomb Group, vividly recalled, "The enemy fighters were concentrated in numbers beyond anything we had encountered during my crew's 20 previous missions." Waves of German aircraft conducted head-on attacks, first targeting the low group in the formation, the 100th Bomb Group. These enemy planes flew so close that American airmen could see scarves around the enemy pilots' necks.

 

Despite the B-17s' defensive fire, it appeared ineffectual against the relentless enemy onslaught. Captain Frank Murphy, a member of the 100th Bomb Group, recounted, "The fighters approached at astonishing closing speeds, showing complete disregard for the defensive gunfire from our aircraft. Their wingtips sparkled as they fired, and exploding cannon shells tore through our formation." Enemy aircraft repeatedly attacked the 100th's formation, resulting in smoking B-17s marked with the distinctive "Square D" on their tails plummeting earthward, their crews struggling to escape doomed planes.

 

Major John Eagan, the 100th's commanding pilot, who had earlier expressed enthusiasm for the Munster mission, now admitted, "It was evident that we were in serious trouble." Lieutenant John Brady, piloting the aircraft Eagan was on, found it increasingly difficult to keep the plane airborne. In a moment of decision, Eagan and Brady headed toward the bomb bay to bail out. Eagan recounted their debate, saying, "We argued about who should jump first. I told Brady to go ahead as I was the senior man, but he insisted I go first since it was his crew. Just then, a row of neat, evenly spaced holes appeared just below our feet along the entire length of the bomb bay door. I said, 'I'll see you later, Brady,' and I jumped, pulling the ripcord as I passed the ball turret." The 100th Bomb Group was suffering severe losses, and the entire 3rd Air Division was enduring a brutal onslaught even before reaching the target.

 

Approaching Munster's city centre, the anti-aircraft defences unleashed a barrage of heavy flak. Most of the enemy fighters veered away as the flak homed in on the B-17s' altitude and range. Nevertheless, accurate enemy fire took a heavy toll on the bombers. Although not as intense as the flak over Bremen, Munster's anti-aircraft fire initially seemed more precise. Holes appeared in aircraft throughout the formation as the heavy bombers opened their bomb bay doors.

 

With no enemy fighters in the vicinity, Sgt. Loren Darling, a waist gunner aboard "Royal Flush," navigated the open bomb bay using the narrow catwalk to check on pilots "Rosie" Rosenthal and "Pappy" Lewis. Peering up into the cockpit from behind, he surveyed the sky through the windshield. Ahead, he spotted the other two B-17s from the 100th BG, "Shackrat" and "Forever Yours II." Suddenly, both aircraft were struck by direct hits from flak. Recollecting the moment later, he lamented how swiftly they turned into balls of black dust. Despite their bomb bay doors being open, prepared to release twelve 500-pound high-explosive bombs, they were lost in an instant. With each plane carrying ten men, he doubted there were any survivors from either.

 

The lead B-17 “The Zoot Suiters” of the 95th Bomb Group was the first to release their bombs over the target, followed by John Keema's 390th Bomb Group, while the battered remnants of the 100th Bomb Group brought up the rear of the 13th Combat Wing formation. Only six of the 13 B-17s that had initially formed the 100th's group remained.



B-17F 42-30235 'The Zoot Suiters' of the 95th Bomb Group

 

The attack inflicted severe damage on Munster's city centre, causing extensive destruction to the cathedral and igniting fires that continued to burn for days after the raid. Civilian casualties were estimated to exceed 700.

 

As the B-17s turned homeward, they faced another onslaught from Luftwaffe fighters determined to finish off what remained of the 13th Combat Wing. 

 

Upon departing Münster, Rosenthal and Lewis sought to reconnect with other bombers from the 13th CBW for mutual protection. However, by the time they completed their bombing run, "Royal Flush" had fallen approximately 15 minutes behind the leading bombers. Despite spotting formations a few minutes ahead, the speed discrepancy meant they were already between 15 and 50 miles away, out of sight and impossible to catch up with due to the loss of two engines. Scanning the skies, they found no other aircraft, as if the skies had suddenly cleared.

 

Rejoining the 13th CBW wouldn't have provided much protection, as German fighters resumed their attacks on the formation, resulting in numerous casualties. The 390th BG lost eight aircraft, nearly half of its group, and the 95th BG lost five. The rest of the 3rd BD suffered an additional four losses, with most surviving planes heavily damaged.

 

Facing dozens of attacking Luftwaffe fighters alone, "Royal Flush" became an easy target, trailing black smoke and losing altitude steadily. Rosenthal and Lewis initiated defensive manoeuvres, violently banking the B-17 to evade attackers, catching the Germans off guard. Despite the severe manoeuvres making it difficult for waist gunners to maintain position, they fired back as the Germans attacked from behind.

 

Sgt. Bill DeBlasio, the tail gunner, emerged as a hero that day, shooting down multiple fighters in the intense battle. Despite the lack of official recognition for his actions, his account left little doubt about his bravery. As German fighters pressed on, undeterred by initial losses, "Royal Flush" continued to dodge attacks, gradually losing altitude due to engine damage.

 

Despite the relentless assault, the crew's resilience and DeBlasio's accurate shooting likely saved "Royal Flush." The German planes eventually broke off the attack due to fuel constraints, leaving the B-17 battered but still airborne. The crew discarded excess weight to reduce descent rate and made it back to England, although the situation remained desperate.

 

Upon landing at Thorpe Abbotts, the crew received medical attention, and Sgt. DeBlasio recounted the end of the mission, highlighting the physical and emotional toll of the harrowing ordeal. Sergeants Shaffer and Darling, the two waist gunners, were awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for their bravery and injuries sustained during the mission.

 

Relentless attacks continued until the Dutch border, where P-47s from the 56th Fighter Group intercepted and escorted the B-17s the rest of the way home. The 13th Combat Wing had suffered devastating losses, with 25 of its 30 bombers lost on that fateful day. The hardest-hit units were the lead 95th Bomb Group, which lost five of its 17 aircraft, and the 390th Bomb Group, which lost eight of its 17. However, the losses incurred by the "Bloody Hundredth" were the most profound. Of the 13 aircraft that had departed from Thorpe Abbotts that morning, only Rosie”s plane and crew made it home. Rosenthal hurriedly headed for debriefing, asking another officer who hadn't flown that day, "Are they all this brutal?" As the sole surviving pilot from the 100th's sortie, Rosenthal reported the day's events to the 3rd Air Division's headquarters the following day. Lieutenant William Goldenberg of the 388th Bomb Group remembered, "The room fell utterly silent for a good half-minute... You could have heard a pin drop."

 

October 10 left an indelible mark on all who participated. The Munster raid concluded the bloodiest three days in the history of the Eighth Air Force up to that point. Eighty-eight B-17s had been lost in those three days, along with nearly 900 men. Weather conditions and attrition forced the Eighth to stand down for the next four days, and when they resumed their missions on October 14, they faced an even graver challenge than Munster. Ahead of them, the men of the Mighty Eighth were about to confront the German city of Schweinfurt for a second time, and the deadliest day for the 8th Air Force in 1943….

 

 



 Century Coffee is our tribute to the brave men of the 100th Bomb Group and the mighty Boeing B17 Flying Fortresses they flew from Station 139 - Thorpe Abbotts. Every bag purchased directly supports the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Thorpe Abbotts.






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