Overview of the Kassel Mission
BY GEORGE COLLAR
The 445th Bomb Group was almost wiped out, and I went down on my twenty-ninth mission, during the infamous Kassel raid of September 27, 1944.
It started out uneventfully enough, with 39 planes scheduled to take off from our group. By the time we got into Germany there had been four aborts, so eventually 35 planes dropped their bombs. The weather over the continent was not very good, with a thick undercast, cloud base about 3,000 feet and tops 6-7000 feet. It was planned to drop the bombs through the clouds using the PFF in the lead ship.
The 445th was leading the 2nd Combat Wing, the other groups in the wing being the 389th and the 453rd. The lead ship was that of Capt. John Chilton, with Maj. Donald McCoy as command pilot. Deputy lead was Capt. Web Uebelhoer, with Capt. Jim Graham as deputy command pilot. I happened to be flying with Lt. James Schaen in the 702nd BS; we were in the high right squadron.
We were approaching the I.P. in a south easterly direction, where we were supposed to make a slight left turn in an east-southeasterly direction toward Kassel, but for some reason the lead ship turned almost directly east, a mistake which would take us past the target city of Kassel, too far to the north. The only explanation was that the radar man had made a grievous error.
Practically every navigator in our group picked up on this mistake almost instantly, but it was too late for the lead ship to correct to the right, as he would have run into the stream of bombers coming up from the rear. In hindsight we can say that the correct thing to do would have been to make a 360 turn to the left and come in on the rear of the second division, but Major McCoy decided to continue on east and bomb the city of Gottin-gen, about 50 miles away. As a result we lost our fighter escort, and flew alone to our own destruction.
Some of the pilots contacted the lead ship to report the error, but the only signal they received was "Keep it tight-Keep it together".
We carried on east, and finally dropped our bombs at Gottingen. We then made a turn to the south, and in the vicinity of Eisenach, we made a right turn to proceed west. By this time we were probably a hundred miles behind the rest of the division.
Just as we made the turn, we were attacked from the rear by between 100 and 150 German fighters. They attacked us line abreast in three waves. Most of these fighters were specially adapted FW-190s equipped with extra armor, and both 20 and 30mm cannons. They were accompanied by a smaller number of ME-109s.
The battle probably lasted only a few minutes, but it was a horrendous attack, as the FW-190 assault fighters passed through the bomber formations with 20 and 30mm cannons blazing, and the 50 cal. machine guns of the B-24s responding. The skies were full of bright flashes from the exploding shells.
When the smoke of this great battle had cleared, 25 of our bombers had crashed into German soil. Two of our planes crash-landed in occupied France. One had crashed near Brussels, Belgium. Two made it across the Channel to make forced landings at the emergency strip at Mansion. One crashed near the base in Norfolk. Only four were able to land at Tibenham.
Of the 238 men aboard the 25 bombers which went down in Germany, 115 were KIA or subsequently died of injuries. One was killed in the plane which crashed in Norfolk and one was killed in the crash in Belgium, for a total of 117. Another American killed that day was Lt. Leo Lamb of the 361st FG, who belatedly came to our rescue.
During the battle the German Air Force lost 29 planes, with 18 German pilots KIA. And it is true that five American airmen were murdered that day near the village of Nentershausen. [Note: seven more were murdered in other areas.] The killers were apprehended after the war and brought to justice at a war crimes trial.
One would have thought that with a battle of this magnitude, more would have been writ-ten about it. [As of 1996,] aside from a paragraph in Roger Freeman's book The Mighty Eighth that stated this was the greatest single loss of any group in the Eighth Air Force, it received no other publicity. This is understandable, since this had been a failed raid, and a big defeat for our side. It is possible that everyone was trying to forget it But it was certainly not forgotten by those who survived it, nor by anyone who happened to be at Tibenham that day, nor by the next of kin of those who perished.
In 1986, Lt. Col. John Woolnough, a former B-24 pilot, founder of the 8th Air Force Historical Society and editor of the Eighth Air Force News, devoted two issues of that publication to the Kassel Mission, and Bill Dewey, a pilot who survived the raid, subsequently organized the establishment of the non-profit, tax exempt group known as The Kassel Mission Memorial Association (KMMA). KMMA produced a book entitled The Kassel Mission Reports (available in pdf format in our PX), based on the material previously printed in the 8th AF News. In conjunction with our former enemies, KMMA established a historic memorial monument, dedicated on August 1,1990, on a plot of ground donated by the government of the state of Hesse, Germany on the precise spot where the lead ship of Captain Chilton crashed at Bad Hersfeld.*