Aviation History

In 1945 twelve USAAF B-25 aircraft bombed a rocky outcrop in the Alps to cause a landslide to block a road. But the mountain resisted the onslaught of bombs and two Mitchells were shot down.

The mission was codenamed Operation Glass Knob. A colonel had come up with the idea of bombing the rocky outcrop of the mountain next to the main road in order to cause a landslide which would block the road.

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By late 1944, the Italian Campaign was secondary to the campaigns in France, and Allied forces were not strong enough to break the Germans’ mighty Gothic Line. These fortifications were supplied by rail through the Alps, with trains arriving hourly and delivering 600,000 tons of supplies a month, enough to keep the German Army going forever.

But, as told by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, in his book Gothic Line 1944–45, The USAAF starves out the German Army, in the bitter winter of 1944-45, the mighty Gothic Line would be defeated by American air power, in one of the most pivotal but least-known air campaigns of World War II. It would not be a direct assault; instead Operation Bingo would ruthlessly cut the Germans’ supply lines and leave them starved. However, it would not be easy. The rail routes were defended by a formidable array of heavy flak, and every raid was expected. Conditions were freezing, and even in electric flying suits, men suffered both hypoxia and frostbite.

On Feb. 13, 1945, 12 B-25 Mitchell bombers from the 486th Bomb Squadron headed for San Ambrogio, ten miles northwest of Verona, in the Brenner Pass. It was cold, but other than a ground haze the weather was clear.

The mission was codenamed Operation Glass Knob. A colonel had come up with the idea of bombing the rocky outcrop of the mountain next to the main road in order to cause a landslide which would block the road. The colonel flew on the mission as an observer in the lead ship.

The B-25s were loaded with 1,000lb bombs. Normally, after “Bombs Away,” someone would yell, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” and the formation would return to evasive action. But the colonel wanted to see the results of his plan, so the formation made a slow turn so that he could look back on his handiwork.

6Y, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” (the B-25 in the foreground portrayed in the artwork by Anastasios Polychronis featured in this article) was in the No 6 position off the right wing of 6A, “Sahara Sue II.” 6Y shuddered as it took a direct hit in the left engine. Pilot 1st Lieutenant Roman Figler told his co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant James O’Connor, to feather the prop. The grim reply was, “I can’t, the engine’s gone!”

Figler headed the aircraft toward home, but near Rovereto they were hit by another burst of flak on the right side which took out the hydraulics, causing the wheels and flaps to drop and the bomb bay doors to fall open.

With the extra drag, 6Y could not maintain altitude and was facing mountains higher than they could climb. The order was given to bail out. The crew was taken prisoner immediately upon landing.

6W, flying in the same box of six aircraft, was also hit and unable to return to base.

The mountain resisted the onslaught of bombs; the road remained open.

Gothic Line 1944–45, The USAAF starves out the German Army is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Anastasios Polychronis

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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