Reports of sightings of German rocket- and jet-powered fighters were widely circulated among Ninth Air Force combat groups, but until Feb. 6, 1945, none had been observed by medium bomber crews. On that day eye-witnesses aboard aircraft of the 323rd BG reported a single Me 262 that fortunately did not attack. The jet merely flew under the B-26 formation, which was in the process of attacking targets at Berg/Gladbach. Nobody knew the extent to which the Germans had been able to disperse jet fighter production, or how effective they would be in combat, but the threat they posed was taken very seriously.
As told by Jerry Scutts in his book B-26 Marauder Units of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, at that point of the war, in the air, that part of the Luftwaffe fighter force flying conventional fighters finally appeared to have been neutralized by its crippling losses firstly over the Ardennes, and then in the New Year’s Day attack on Allied airfields. Hitler now had little choice but to play his final card in the form of the jet interceptor. Only the Me 262 was a practical proposition in this respect, and although production had been given an eleventh hour priority in 1944, scant success had been achieved. Medium bombers were never a priority target for the German jets, but with the increase of Me 262 sorties more frequent sightings were reported.
By April 1945, so many tactical targets had been destroyed that as the Allied pincers closed, bomber crews began feeling that they were being sent on sorties that did little more than maintain the momentum — the aerial equivalent of ‘flogging a dead horse’, with questionable military value. Such a mission took place on Apr. 20.
A maximum effort to bomb the marshalling yards at Memmingen would not, in the view of some participating crews from the 323rd, 394th and 397th BGs, achieve a great deal at that stage of the war. Sending every airworthy B-26 off was particularly annoying for those crews not scheduled to fly that day, as in some instances they were obliged to take the only available aircraft. Borrowed machines, sometimes from other squadrons in the group, were often considered to be ‘suspect’, as units would naturally offer their ‘junk’ in the form of ‘near-hanger queens’ that could barely stagger into the air. Such was the experience of 1 Lt James Vining of the 455th BS/323rd BG, flying his 40th mission that day. What should have been a routine sortie was to prove to be more dramatic than anticipated.
At the controls of a 454th BS B-26F-1, Vining noted, with some irritation, that among the ship’s myriad defects was a malfunctioning bomb release. Despite her 50-mission bomb log, 42-96256, nicknamed the Ugly Duckling by another pilot, was not exactly the best Marauder Vining had ever flown. Engine problems also delayed his take-off by some 30 minutes, but the group assembled in good order and crossed the Rhine west of Stuttgart on course for Memmingen, which lay to the south. Despite problems with his aircraft, Vining recalled that the morning brief had included an assurance that German aerial resistance had collapsed. There would be flak — but then again, when had there ever not been?
The formation droned on towards Memmingen. Flak bursts told crews they were nearing their objective, and approaching the IP at Kempten, the bomber boxes opened out so that single flights could release their loads in trail. Suddenly, they were being attacked by enemy aircraft — jets!
Behind the bombers, Unteroffizier Eduard Schallmoser of Jagdverbande 44 (JV 44) briefly tested his cannon, only to find that they would not fire. A jammed round had silenced his guns. This momentarily distracted the German pilot, who was closing fast on his quarry. Suddenly, an awful banging and tearing sound, accompanied by pieces of flying metal, told Schallmoser that he had been hit.
In fact, the Me 262 had been going too fast to pull up, and had flown through the propeller arc of the B-26 (44-68109) piloted by flight leader Lt James M Hansen. Both aircraft headed for the ground, the jet being followed by fire from the bomber gunners.
Schallmoser bailed out of his stricken fighter, but Hansen was able to fly his aircraft back to base. On impact with the B-26, the Me 262 had so uniformly bent back the propeller blades of the starboard engine that no noticeable vibration was transmitted through the shaft. The Twin Wasp continued to run as though nothing had happened.
While Schallmoser was unconventionally depleting one Marauder flight, James Vining’s flight became the object of attention by other JV 44 aircraft. A flash of sunlight caught the jets as they swept in, cannon blazing. Vining thumbed the firing button and felt his quartet of package guns fire. Throughout the formation, pilots told their gunners to burn the barrels out of their weapons if necessary.
Eagerly the gunners responded to the surprise interception. Recalling the battle later, many men thought that the jets had not coordinated their attack very well, nor exploited their unquestioned performance edge. They also claimed that the barrage of fire from the massed ‘fifties had scored a number of hits on the Me 262s, despite their great speed. Having to slow down to about the same speed as their piston-engined quarry in order to sight and fire with any accuracy was one of the major drawbacks the jet pilots faced. For a few precious seconds the bomber gunners had their chance, and a number of Me 262s were indeed dam-aged in this running fight with Marauders.
James Vining had troubles of his own. Wounded in the right foot by an exploding cannon shell that wrecked his control pedestal and probably severed the throttle linkage to the starboard engine (which promptly went to idle rpm), he called the co-pilot to take over. 1Lt James Mulvill instantly mastered the situation, and with direction from Vining, he brought the ship under control and nursed it in for a commendably steady crash-landing at Uberherm — but for an unseen tank trap bordering the chosen field, he might have got away with it. The Marauder was totally wrecked in the ensuing crash, and it was later learned that the turret gunner, SSgt Charles Winger, had been killed.
Ignorant of the fact that it was JV 44 that attacked his formation that day, 1Lt Vining learned only years later that the jet unit crewed by the cream of the Luftwaffe’s remaining Experten had been responsible. In total, the 323rd had lost three B-26s to the jets, whilst another aircraft had to be written off as a result of the damage it received and a further ten had to have holes patched.
On Apr. 24, the afternoon target for 74 B-26s of the 322nd and 344th BGs, plus 41 A-20s of the 410th, was a depot at Schrobenhausen, located about 30 miles north west of Munich. Alerted to this threat, Oberst Gunther Lutzow led five Me 262s of JV 44 to intercept south of Monheim. This they duly did, but the Marauders called in a P-47 escort, and although fire was exchanged, and a number of bombers damaged, the jets , failed to shoot any of them down. It was during April that Generalleutnant Adolf Galland’s Me 262 was damaged by return fire from B-26s of the 17th CBW. Also hit by P-47s, when Galland’s battered Me 262 finally crash-landed, the wounds sustained by the CO of JV 44 in combat effectively put him out of the war – a considerable, albeit unrealized, coup for the B-26.
Although it was the fighter fire which had inflicted the real damage, Galland had also previously been hit by the bomber gunners.
Interrogated after the war the ex-General der Jagdflieger stated the B-26 was the one Allied aircraft he least liked to attack, even when flying an Me 262. He felt this was due both to the tight formations the Marauders flew and their heavy armament, which many German pilots were to grudgingly praise.
B-26 Marauder Units of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
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