The story of this B-17F made bomber crews aware that the B-17 Flying Fortress could take far more than any designer could imagine on the drawing table. Snake Hips became a ruler to measure what a B-17 should be able to endure.
Assigned to the 327th Squadron 92nd Bomb Group, B-17F (42-31713) “Snake Hips” must be a contender for the most damaged B-17 ever. On Aug. 24, 1944, with of almost sixty missions behind, Snake Hips left Podington to hit the Germans at Merseburg. The formation approached the bomb run when they were bracketed by flak barrages. As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, the bomb doors had just opened when a burst entered the bay and detonated. None of the ten 500lb bombs exploded, but three of the weapons had been blown through the side of the B-17. Two rolled down the right wing before falling off. Five bombs were knocked from their shackles and came to rest on top of two unreleased bombs.
The radio room and right wing trailing spar were destroyed and the ball turret gunner killed by thumbnail sized shrapnel that entered his turret. Below the formation, Snake hips was nearly destroyed by bombs from the formation above. The pilot and co-pilot watched in disbelief as a bomb just missed their nose, a second fell between the left trailing wing and the horizontal stabilizer, and a third fell just behind that. The supercharger controls were damaged, and the B-17 descended through 14,000 feet, where the engines found the air sufficient and roared to full power. Assymetrical power settings achieved a see-saw course for home; because of severed flight control cables, turns were hard if not impossible.
Many flight instruments were useless, the landing gear had extended, and when the engineer entered the bomb bay to manually retract it he was pushed aside by a circular wind that was created by the huge four foot hole in the side of the plane. This rushing wind was responsible for venting the bomb bay and kept it from exploding. The bomb compartment was literally soaked with fuel leaking from the main tanks. The gear had jammed in the down position, and the engineer actually bent the crank trying to bring it up.
The crew would have to take their chances at 12,000 feet over Germany. If a fighter showed up, hopefully Ilk’ enemy pilot would take the sign of a gear down B-17 as a surrendering crew and leave it alone. The turned rudder pedals moved back and forth with tremendous violence, prompting the crew to keep their feet off for fear of a broken leg. The trim tabs could not be used. When the pilot turned the tab wheel, the cable just kept rolling out onto the flight deck.
When it came time to address the release of the bombs it was found the explosion severed all of the arming wires in the bomb hay. All of the bomb vanes were turning, and one weapon had reached fully-armed status.
The catwalk in the bomb bay was severed. Unable to reach the back of the bomb bay, the crewman charged with dis-arming the bombs had to call the radio operator to address the tail fuses. After the bombs had been made “safe,” the crewman re-entered the bomb bay minus a parachute and actually lifted one end of the bomb on top of the pile and gradually eased it backward until it slid out of the bomb hay. One by one, the five bombs were tossed out of the stricken B-17. Two remained in their shackles but would not release. A 20 inch screwdriver persuaded these two to fall, and the bomber, finding a new center of gravity, became increasingly difficult to handle.
As they passed the Dutch coast, the pilot asked the crew if they wanted to bail out rather than risk a North Sea ditching. They elected to stay and found a new problem. Number two engine failed owing to fuel starvation and the propeller would not feather. As they made the English coast a second engine reached fuel exhaustion, but an airfield was spotted. It was Woodbridge, a field built just for shot up airplanes. With an 8,000 foot runway it was perfect. The pilot instructed the crew to jump in their parachutes.
Because Snake Hips wanted to fly nose high the pilot made some check points and airport references for a skidding wide turn approach to the runway. The pilot and co-pilot smiled as they saw the runway come up from below their windscreen—they were lined up right on the center line! They let the bomber just sink onto the runway not touching a thing, since a very nice approach had been established. About 75 feet over the runway, air pressure changes brought the nose of the big bomber down through forty degrees of pitch before the men could completely recover. They felt a couple of bounces and a shudder and realized they were on the ground.
While they taxied in they found that there were no brakes and then were directed to a parking area by an RAF ramp worker. The poor soul had no idea that the B-17 could not stop, and as the crew pulled power and turned the mags to off, he fell to the ground as a spinning propeller churned just inches over his head.
Snake Hips was declared unrepairable the very next day. The story of this B-17 made bomber crews aware that the B-17 Flying Fortress could take far more than any designer could imagine on the drawing table. Snake Hips became a ruler to measure what a B-17 should be able to endure. She never flew again and was salvaged on Aug. 25, 1944.
Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force via American Air Museum in Britain IWM