The USAAF went all-out to destroy the Tempelhof rail marshalling yards in the centre of Berlin on Feb. 3, 1945 – it was believed that the German Sixth Panzer Army was passing through them on its way to the Eastern Front.
A total of 937 B-17s were sent to destroy the target with an escort of 575 North American P-51 Mustangs. Arriving in waves throughout the late morning and into the early afternoon, the bombers did their work well, shattering a large area and starting a fire that lasted four days.
As told by Dan Sharp in his book Spitfires Over Berlin, among the P-51s which escorted the B-17s were squadrons of the 55th Fighter Group, the ‘Double Nickel’, led by the unit’s flamboyant executive officer Lieutenant Colonel Elwyn C Righetti.
With fuel still in their tanks and the bombers well protected by others, Righetti decided his men could conduct a ground sweep on the way home to Station 159 – the 55th’s base at Wormingford in Essex. Strafing was his speciality and he organised two flights before setting out to look for targets.
His men were all members of the 343rd Fighter Squadron: 1st Lieutenant Bernard H Howes, 22, from Brockton, Massachusetts, was flying P-51K CY-C 44-63745 ‘My Li’l Honey’, 2nd Lt Patrick L Moore from Griffin, Indiana, flew P-51D CY-Y 44-14235 `Lil Jan’ and 2nd Lt Richard G Gibbs, from Nantucket, also in Massachusetts, flew P-51D CY-Q 44-14175 ‘Cherry’. `
Eager El’ Righetti himself, from San Luis Obispo, California, flew P-51D CL-M 44-72227 ‘Katydid’.
At about 12.30pm, near Boizenburg, Germany, the Americans spotted two locomotives and dropped down through a low layer of cloud to attack. What happened next was a remarkable free-for-all as the Mustangs vied with one another over a fresh set of targets that suddenly presented themselves.
A formation of Mistel combinations, each a fighter fixed atop a Junkers Ju 88, appeared flying at low level beneath the clouds.
Howes reported: “I was flying White 3 on the mission of February 3. At about 1230 we dropped to the deck to strafe. On pulling up from the first pass on a locomotive I sighted a formation of three pick-a-backs, Fw 190s on Ju 88s, in string formation at about 400ft.
“I turned into the second combo with my wingman Lt Moore behind me. I fired a short burst from 90° at about 350 yards, observing a few strikes on the 190. As I fired on this, the 190 on the third unit was released.
“The prop was windmilling, and on release the 190 seemed to nose up for a minute and then, apparently out of control, the nose went down and it headed for the ground. I claim this Fw 190 as destroyed. As soon as the 190 was released, the 88 turned sharply left. I followed, firing a short burst but observed no strikes. I fell outside the turn and lost sight of the 88 momentarily.
“My wingman behind me was in position and shot the 88 down. When I looked back I saw it crash into the ground. On pulling up I saw the first unit I had fired at about 300 yards in front of me. There were flames coming out of the 190, so I went after it again. I started firing and the combo turned into me, dropping to the deck.
“As I fired, another large burst of flame came from the 190. On making a second pass, the right engine of the 88 burst into flames, and I saw them both crash into the ground. From this entire encounter I claim two Fw 190s and one Ju 88 destroyed. Ammunition expended: 1440 rounds.”
The aircraft attacked by Howes are clearly visible on his gun camera footage.
Righetti reported: “Near Boizenburg on the Elbe River I located a small hole in the unbroken overcast. Through the hole I could see two locomotives and called them in and started down.
“Visibility was about two miles and scattered fuzz on the overcast ran down in some places to 500 to 600ft. I rolled out of my turn and started my final approach to the locos about four miles off. I had already assigned the locos and parts of the train to the flight. We were echeloned to the right with my position on the extreme left.
“At a distance of two miles from the train I spotted three piggy-back aircraft at 10.30 to me, at our same altitude of about 600ft, heading almost directly at us, and half a mile off. I mistakenly identified them as buzz bomb equipped He 111s and broke off rapidly, left and up, in a 200° chandelle, positioning myself on the tail of the middle one.
“I started firing two short bursts at 600 yards and missed. I swung into trail and closed to point blank range, firing a long burst, I saw many excellent strikes on the fuselage and empennage of the large aircraft and scattered strikes and a small fire on the fighter.
“Both aircraft, still fastened together, went into a steep dive straight ahead. I was about to overrun them and did not see them crash, but a few seconds later I saw a large explosion and spotted considerable burning wreckage.
“I still did not know what we were attacking; I turned slightly to port for another look. As I closed, and before I could open fire, I discovered that the buzz bomb was actually a Focke-Wulf 190 fastened atop the heavy twin-engined aircraft. As I was closing to fire, the heavy aircraft seemed to be jettisoned, went into a shallow diving turn to the left, and crashed and burned in a small hamlet.
“Apparently it carried no bombs, for the gasoline thrown from its tanks burned for some time, and I did not observe any unusually large explosion. The Fw 190, relieved of its load, snapped to the right and then began a wild evasive action, I drove up to 200 yards directly in trail, firing intermittently, and secured excellent strikes along the fuselage, wing roots, canopy, and induced good fire.
“Jerry went out of control and crashed straight ahead. At this time I noticed a few tracers too close and coming behind. I broke sharply left and up into a low cloud. I don’t know who or what was firing at me, but it might have been the third Fw 190, having jettisoned its bomber.”
Gibbs was also attacking the Mistel combinations. He reported: “I was flying Tudor White 2 on the mission of February 3, 1945. We were on the deck and about to strafe a loco in the vicinity of Boizenburg, when Tudor Leader Lt Col Righetti called in a gaggle of three Fw 190-bomber combos, flying a sloppy `V’ formation at about 600ft. We attacked from a level turn port stern.
“Lt Col Righetti took the middle combo of the three, and I took the third and last one of this gaggle. I started firing on the Ju 88 at about 45° from about 800 yards, closing to about 300 yards with a two-second burst. I observed many strikes on the left wing root of the Ju 88, where , it began to burn.
“After a short dive the Fw 190 was released. The 190 appeared rather unstable in the air, but managed to conduct violent evasive action during the ensuing combat. I fired a short burst from astern, beginning at about 200 yards and closing to zero yards. I saw strikes all over the aircraft and observed parts of the cowling and canopy fly off.
“There was also a fire in or around the cockpit. I then overran the enemy aircraft and skidded out to the right. As I looked back I saw where the 190 had crashed into the ground.”
As stated by Howes, Moore also claimed a Ju 88.
There had been three Ju 88s and three fighters but the four US pilots claimed one Ju 88 each and a total of five Fw 190s – two for Howes, two for Righetti and one for Gibbs. In the confusion of combat, it was difficult to decide who had destroyed what.
In fact, German records show that at least two of the combinations were Mistel 1s, with Messerschmitt Bf 109s mounted atop Ju 88s rather than Fw 190s. The Ju 88 pilots were Feldwebel Willi Kollhoff, Oberfahnrich Franz Pietschmann and Feldwebel Fritz Lorbach of 6./ KG 200, based at Kolberg but on their way to Tirstrup in Denmark.
Lorbach managed to put his Ju 88 down safely in the woods, albeit with the left engine on fire. Pietschmann was killed when his Ju 88 dived into the ground and Kollhoff was injured after he made a forced landing and was strafed by a P-51. His gunner, who also survived the landing, was killed. All three of the fighter pilots were shot down and killed.
The three combinations shot down on Feb. 3 had been on their way to participate in Unternehmen Drachenhohle, or Operation Dragon’s Lair, a plan devised by Hermann Goring with the goal of attacking the Royal Navy’s home fleet at Scapa Flow and inflicting a high-profile Pearl Harbor-style blow against the British.
The genesis of the Mistel, however, came about three years earlier in 1942, when work was carried out in Germany to enable a glider to carry a full military load by launching it into the air using a smaller powered aircraft mounted on its back.
This combination was eventually to become known as the Mistel (mistletoe), since the powered aircraft could be given an extended range using fuel drawn from the glider below – like mistletoe drawing sap from its host tree.
The upper portion was to be a Bf 109E fighter, the lower a DFS 230 glider. Both were piloted.
In June 1943, it was decided that this technology could be used for launching a `grossbombe’, or large bomb, at a ground target. The Bf 109 would still be the upper portion, now a 109F, but the lower would be a ‘war weary’ unmanned Junkers Ju 88A-4 filled with 3.5 tons of explosives.
The Bf 109 pilot would control the whole Mistel up to its arrival over the target, whereupon the Ju 88 would be aimed and an autopilot unit within it activated. The Bf 109 would separate from the Ju 88 by firing explosive bolts and then peel away as the bomb flew down to its target.
The Ju 88’s high-explosive warhead was a huge hollow charge with a plunder detonator at its tip which was fitted in place of the aircraft’s cockpit. They were to be used against high-value targets such as capital ships, power stations and bridges.
When a Ju 88 was converted for Mistel use, its crew compartment was removed at the aft bulkhead. Four quick-release bolts were then fitted which allowed the compartment to be re-attached for training or for ferrying the combination around. The warheads were moved separately by road or rail for safety.
The Mistels being flown on Feb. 3, 1945, therefore, had their crew compartments in place complete with working controls, rather than warheads.
Spitfires Over Berlin is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here along with many other beautiful aviation books. Save 10% on all books with exclusive promotional code ‘AVGEEK10’!
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and GoodFon.com
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