The following narrative concerns itself primarily with the operations of the 310th, 321st and 340th Medium Bombardment Groups, attached to the 12th Air Force, operating in the European Theater from August 1944 to VE Day.
These B-25 Mitchell Bombardment Groups were all previously cited as distinguished units for outstanding close support missions in North Africa, Sicily, South and Central Italy, in support of the British 8th and American 5th and 7th armies. These Groups inaugurated combat operations early in 1943 and had flown support for six Mediterranean amphibious operations.
In addition to their troop supply operations, the primary mission of the B-25 in the European Theater was a continued offensive against German communication and supply lines in the Northern Area. The main feeder artery from Central Europe supply sources to the Italian front was through the Brenner Pass. Due to the effective pinpoint bombing by the B-25, this type of aircraft was in continual demand for medium altitude daytime attacks on supply and ammunition dumps, railroad bridges and marshaling yards.
All during the winter months when ground operations were stagnated in the Po Valley, the mission of the Mitchell Bomber was to cut-off the supply lines supporting the German and Italian forces. These missions included all vital targets in Northern Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia. The high percentage of bombing accuracy maintained by these units resulted in flying sorties on highly strategic targets, which the higher flying heavy bombardment groups had not succeeded in knocking out.
The average bombing altitude of from 7,000 to 12,000 feet insured a high degree of accuracy, but similarly brought the B-25 into the deadly range of the highly respected and effective German 88 mm Cannon. Targets such as the marshaling yards at Rimini, Ferrara and the Bologna supply dump, were normally considered heavy bombardment targets due to the anti-aircraft gun concentrations in these areas. Targets of this type were assigned to the mediums only after several unsuccessful attempts at knocking out the objective by the heavy bombardment groups and always resulted in extremely heavy losses of aircraft and men.
In 1944 the Commanding General of the 15th Army Air Force stated "during the past year we have lost 2,057 heavy bombers and more than 20,570 men. When we remember that the combat strength of the 15th Army Air Force is about 20,000 men it can be seen than we lost 100% of our strength in one year. We take some consolation from the knowledge that these losses saved many thousands of ground soldiers from loss of life in their battles". The losses of the 12th Army Air Force was known to be in excess for the same period.
Targets in the Brenner Pass area ranged into Austria and were in most instances railroad bridges, tunnel entrances or replacement troop or supply concentrations. Typical Alpine Mission: Target the Marshaling yards out side of the city of Trento, The attack is planned so that the bomb drop can be made at high noon. This is essential because for effective visual bombing it is necessary to see the target and only during the noonday does the sunshine on the floor of the Brenner Pass because of the high mountains casting deep shadows during any other period of the day. The sortie would be accomplished at an attitude of from 1 to 300 feet above the mountain peaks, coming in over the pass, turning immediately on the IP and making the bomb run up the Brenner Pass. Naturally the German guns were moved from the floor of the valley to positions high on the mountain side. It has been known on occasions, on low attack runs, for German anti-aircraft guns to be shooting down at the medium bombers making their target run.
Another factor for consideration was that fighter escort was seldom afforded medium bombers due to commitments in supporting the heavy bombers. Likewise it was on rare occasions that medium bomber groups were afforded the luxury of anti-flak fighters assigned to attack enemy gun positions.
The Group's most spectacular operation during this period was a raid on the Galliate Bridge, during which a fierce barrage of anti-aircraft fire damaged 30 of the 44 participating B-25's. In spite of the ground operation every plane in he formation reached 100% accuracy, thereby insuring the establishment at that time of an all time Army Air Force accuracy mark.
Another unit citation won by the 340th Bombardment Group was for the sinking of the Italian cruiser Taranto at LaSpezia Harbor, 23 September 1944. This attack was accomplished without loss of aircraft despite a formidable concentration of anti-aircraft guns. The purpose of this attack was to frustrate the German attempt to move the Taranto into position to block the entrance of this vital harbour. The Allied Forces sank the Taranto in deep water thereby assuring the harbor's availability for future use.
The B-25's operated during the entire winter months of 1944 from the island of Corsica, from where the assault that opened the front in South France was conducted. B-25 units attacked the Nice beachhead defenses and ranged further Northward to batter German communications. On these assault operations, such as D-Day for South France, it was the B-25 units that were assigned the low level attack on enemy concentrations. In this type of operation it was not an unusual occurrence for bombs from the higher flying heavy bombers to rain down on the B-25 formation.
The first attempt to use radar "Shoram" by a B-25 Group was in early April of 1944. Bombing by this method limited the necessity for visual observation of the target and allowed for bombing though overcast and at later hours in the Brenner Pass area. The advantages and results were not compensated for the immediate increase in loss of aircraft due to the long bomb runs. All air crews without exception disliked the assignment of "Shoram" type missions to the mediums. It was during the period of the bomb run that an aircraft becomes a sitting duck target. A short bomb run was one of the strong points in reduced loss of aircraft and the inception of the "Shoram" system increased the bomb run from 2 minutes to 5 or more minutes. The period the bombay doors were open increased from 30 seconds to approximately 2 minutes.
Another type of mission assigned the medium bombers was low altitude fragmentation runs against troop concentrations throughout the Po Valley area. This type of bombing was accomplished at less than 500 feet using an echelon type formation rather than the standard box. If under attack from enemy fighter aircraft at this time the only defensive tactic was for aircraft to stay right on the deck. During a normal type of bomb operation at 9,000 feet the tight formation and fire power of the B-25 earned the respect of enemy aircraft.
In twenty months of combat operation, the 321st Bombardment Group maintained a record of destroying twenty enemy fighters for each of its bombers lost.
Another mission which shows the versatility of the B-25 bomber was the skip bomb type mission wherein the objective was a concealed tunnel entrance cutting into the Austrian Alps. This method of attack devised was to approach the target area below the level of the mountains, directly up the pass, making a diving site approach toward the tunnel entrance, opening the bombay doors and performing the bomb drop on the pullout. Release of the bombs in a maneuver of this type caused the aircraft to literally bounce from 500 to 1000 feet in defiance of gravity.
The composition of a B-25 Group consists of 4 squadrons each with approximately 15 assigned aircraft. A normal mission involving the entire Group consisted of 3 participating squadrons, each squadron providing 12 aircraft. The standard formation was boxes of 6 aircraft, in 2 "V" formations. Grouping of aircraft in this manner provided the most effective defense against enemy fighters by the concentration of firepower. This same box formation was held throughout the bombing run, 5 of the aircraft dropping off the lead ship. The lead aircraft in each box was generally the only aircraft containing a Bomb Sight and release of the bombs in the remaining 5 aircraft was either by visual toggling or radio signal release. The crew of each ship consisted of a Pilot, Co-Pilot, Bombardier, Engineer-Top Turret Gunner, Radio Operator-Waist Gunner and Tail Gunner. The lead ship in each formation carried as an additional crewmember, a Navigator. The last ship in the formation generally carried an additional crewmember of a Photographer.
The armament of a B-25J was 4 fixed 50 caliber machine guns firing forward, 1 flexible 50 in the nose, twin 50's in the top turret, 2 50's in the waist and twin 50's in the tail.
Incidentally, after the first usage of phosphorous bombs by the 340th Bomb Group, we were advised through the medium of 'Axis Sally' that this was considered a breach of the Geneva Conference and that all crewmembers participating in these raids, that were shot down, would be given the death penalty on capture. They also advised us that further retribution was in order and that they planned a raid on our air base located in Corsica. True to their promise this raid was accomplished on 13 May, 1944 at approximately 3 AM by German JU 88 bombers. Enemy aircraft shot down - 0: B-25's lost - 90% of strength. U.S. personnel lost and wounded - 50% of strength.
The average duration of missions from Corsica to the Brenner Pass Targets was approximately 3½ hours, the bomb load 5,000 lbs and more.
Ack-ack fire from ground installations was of two types - over target "barrage" - coming in and going out - "Tracking". A sudden stop in firing indicated enemy fighters closing in.
The phosphorous ships often served a dual purpose as chaff ships (silver tinsel that distorted enemy radar).
After Corsica the three groups of B-25'a were moved to the Adriatic side of Italy South of Rimini about 15 miles from the front lines in support of the British 8th Army. The 340th Bomb Group occupied a former German fighter strip at Miramar. The field was so close to the front that a British tank unit preparing for the push across the Po Valley jointly occupied it. At the beginning of the offensive the B-25's were called on for short antipersonnel missions on troop strong points. As the rout gained momentum, the B-25's joined the fighters in strafing roads used by evacuating troops. It was at this location that the B-25's finished the war in Europe.
To see some of Tom Hetzel's photos from 1943 - 1945, click here to go to the photo album.
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Last Updated 12/September/2012