THE BOMBING OF SWITZERLAND

by Col. Myron Keilman

© Copyright 392nd Bomb Group Memorial Association 2017 - All rights reserved

Freiburg, Germany, is a fortunate city. On two occasions communities of Switzerland were mistaken for Freiburg and bombed.

On 5 September 1943, with the latest model B-24s (H models with nose turrets), the 392nd Bombardment Group went into combat operations. Its four squadrons were well trained for their precision bombing missions; however, it as faced with the same persistent enemy of precision bombing that all other Eighth Airforce B-l7 and B-24 groups had to contend with - namely, the weather. Nazi fighters and anti-aircraft artillery (flak or ack-ack) never turned back any Eighth Air Force attack but the weather did, and worse.

Aerial navigating at 20,000 to 30,000 feet altitude through cirrus clouds or above cloud covered terrain to and from industrial targets of Nazi Germany was risky and often a futile effort. Without the aid of long range radio navigation equipment (LORAN) or terrain scanning radar to "see" through the clouds, it wasn't unusual for the big formations of 100 to 300 airplanes to be blown off course and into heavy flak defended areas; be unable to see the assigned target; bomb the wrong target; bomb some unidentified target (city) as a last resort; or salvo their bombs "safe" into the English Channel when they were recalled because of weather and no target of opportunity or of last resort could be found. 1 April 1944 I was one of those days for the 392nd Bombardment Group.

Briefing for twenty-four combat crews was held at 0445 hours. The target: Ludwigshafen chemical works. A' PFF (pathfinder) airplane assigned from 2nd Air Division Headquarters, with radar navigation equipment, would lead the group. A 392nd Command Pilot and a well-experienced dead-reckoning navigator would augment the PFF crew. I don't recall who the command pilot was but the navigator was Captain Koch, 576th Squadron Navigator. Take-off was started at 0645. After assembly over the 14th Combat Wing's radio becaon, the 392nd and the 44th headed for Ludwigshafen. Over the continent the group I encountered a weather front with tops at 21,000 feet. As the formations departed the English coast, the Mickey set (radar) malfunctioned, but the command pilot chose to continue on with the mission. Without visual reference with the terrain, the lead navigator had to rely solely upon prebriefed estimates of winds aloft to carry out his dead-reckoning type of navigation. Of course, winds aloft can change by the hour as high and low air pressure patterns move, thus blowing the airplane formations from their briefed route. The navigator was helpless in knowing when and how much change was occurring.

Viewing the route flown versus the briefed route, one can see that there must have been quite a change in both the direction and velocity of the winds aloft. The formations were blown some 120 miles to the right of course and 50 miles further in distance.

In retrospect, it is quite obvious that when the formations arrived over some broken clouds at about the time their arrival in the target area was due and a target of opportunity was sighted, the command pilot gave the order to bomb, and 22 airplanes dropped 1184 100-pound bombs.

After "bombs away" and the formation was heading home, the command pilot held a critique with the navigator and bombardier as to what community they had bombed. Their best estimate - according to time and distance flown and the forested terrain (Black Forest) - it was Freiburg, Germany; thus the radio operator sent back his strike report to that effect to 2nd Air Division command post. With this in mind and no further visible landmarks to change their opinion, they made their way back to the British Isles and their base at Wendung, Norfolk County. The formation landed at 1445 hours - a long eight hour mission.

Within hours, word filtered down through operation channels that Switzerland had been bombed. Our group commander, Col. "Bull" Rendle, spent the rest of the night on the telephone. Scrutinizing the navigator's and bombardier's logs confirmed the time that the community of Schaffenhausen was bombed coincided with the time our bombs were released - and the target not positively identified. Thus it was concluded that the 392nd Bombardment Group bombed Switzerland on 1 April 1944.

Bombing Swiss territory was very serious as the United States certainly wanted to be a friend of Switzerland. Through diplomatic channels, sincere apologies were made; reparations would be paid for loss of lives and for damage done by 1184 100-pound bombs; and disciplinary action would be taken to prevent another occurrence.

What was the disciplinary action? The lead navigator, Captain C. H. Koch, was rebuked and never again allowed to perform the function of lead navigator. As a personal friend, I really felt sorry for Captain Koch. He had flown as my navigator on numerous eight and ten-hour ocean patrol missions between Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands in 1942. He was as highly qualified and as competent an aerial navigator as there was in the US Army Air Force. When the radar set malfunctioned that day, the odds were against precision navigation and the command pilot should have recalled (aborted) the mission.

By March 1945, the war was going well for the Allies. Great preparations were in progress for crossing the Rhine and driving on to Berlin. Eighth Air Force prime targets were railroad marshalling yards, petroleum plants, and armament factories. Every bombardment group was equipped with radar airplanes to lead their formations. The German Luftwaffe was all but "dead" and posed little threat to our immense streams of bomber formations. So secure was the air supremacy that when the weather over England was bad at assembly altitudes of 10,000 to 14,000 feet, our bombers would fly to designated radio beacons in France for assembling. This worked out fine, and on the fateful day of 4 March 1945 our 2nd Air Division assembled near Paris.

I was leading the 392nd with two ten-airplane squadrons in a new radar (H2X) equipped B-24J, No. 454. Our target was a heavy tank depot at Aschaffenburg, southeast of Frankfurt.

As the Division bomber stream of probably fifteen groups (360 airplanes) flew eastward, a great wall of strato-cumulus clouds confronted us. On command radio channel, I could plainly hear our division command pilot talkung to the weather scouts in the target area. To this day, I can still hear the weather scouts reporting that the clouds were solid from 30,000 feet to ground level, but on we flew.

Very soon the formations ahead began disappearing from view as the clouds engulfed them. I was holding my two squadrons in tight against the 44th Bomb Group and was able to keep them in view as we penetrated the weather. My high squadron was holding perfect formation on me. If the visibility didn't get any worse, we would be able to complete the mission as our radar was "mapping" or "painting" the terrain beautifully.

Flying formation in cirrus clouds isn't bad except that propeller turbulence condenses the moisture-laden air into thick cumulus type clouds with extremely low visibility. If the airplanes are able to keep tight formation, they get through the clouds fine. Once you get out of position and lose sight of the leader, there's no way to get back together until an area of clear weather is reached. I experienced a similar condition on 3 March 1944, the first Eighth Air Force mission to Berlin. We were holding formation real well in cirrus clouds when the division leader "chickened out" just north of Hamburg and gave the recall.

With the radar (called Mickey) operator confirming that the division bomber stream was on course and not apt to run into a flak-defended area, I felt we were doing fine. Then at the turning point south of Stuttgart, came the recall. I announced it over the interphone and asked the flight engineer to fire the recall color flares to inform all airplane commanders.

As the 44th started their turn toward home, we followed but soon lost them from sight. I left my seat and went to the Mickey operator's position and conferred with him as to a possible target of opportunity. His map showed Pforzheim, Germany, to be such a target. It was plainly visible on the radarscope, and we were at optimum distance and position to make a good bombing run. I gave the order to attack Pforzheim, and the lead crew pilot, Captain Proppers, initiated the bombing run. When I returned to my seat, the second squadron was missing. There was no way for me to know where they were. I did know that they lost us in the turn as we had lost the 44th. I just hoped they wouldn't wander into a flak-defended area enroute back to Wendling.

My lead squadron made a good radar bombing run on Pforzheim and returned to England without incident at 1320 hours. Shortly after landing, our second squadron returned without apparent difficulty. At their debriefing, the lead crew explained how they got on the outside of the turn and lost us in the cirrus clouds and heavy contrails; that upon breaking out of the clouds they came upon what they believed to be Freiburg, Germany, and bombed it as a target of opportunity. The debriefing was hardly finished when Col. Lorin Johnson, our group commander, was called to the telephone and a long conflab took place. Zurich, Switzerland, had been bombed. It was only a matter of checking bomb release time with the time of the bombing to confirm that it was the 392nd high squadron that had dropped the bombs on Zurich. Yes, it was a sham. The good U.S. ambassador had just recently attended memorial service and visited the reconstruction projects of the previous bombing. Indeed, he was chagrined and embarrassed. "Disciplinary action must be taken.

Everybody became involved. General Eisenhower and General Spaatz at Supreme Allied Headquarters, General Doolittle at Eighth Air Force, General Kepner at 2nd Air Division, General Leon Johnson at 14th Wing, and, of course, Col. Lorin Johnson of the 392nd. What should be done and to whom should it be done. The pros and cons went down through channels, and then back up and then back down for several days. Finally the decision: "The officers of the lead crew (pilot, bombardier, and navigator) will be court-martialed for gross negligence in the bombing of a Neutral Nation."

I was the lead crew squadron commander,and this lead crew pilot, Lt. Sincocks, I personally admired. To me it was perfectly understandable how they got separated from their radar-equipped leader; how, in the clouds, they could have easily been blown to the left off course; how with poor visibility and scattered to broken clouds they could have mistaken Zurich for Freiburg. It seemed to me that the command pilot leading the division who "chickened out" after leading us into the clouds, held quite a bit of responsibility for the disaster. Even I could be responsible in some way, but to court-martial three fine, skilled aviators was questionable.

The court-martial was held at 2nd Air Division Headquarters in Ketteringham Hall, just southwest of Norwich. I was called to testify on behalf of the three accused officers. I did the best I could. I remember that Col. Jimmy Stewart was the president of the court. Col. Chavez, U.S. Senator from New Mexico, was the legal officer. The trial lasted for most of two days. My officers were acquitted.