Polebrook and
The Death of a Flying Fortress

Wally Hoffman  


© Copyright 2008 by Wally Hoffman 


Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


The picture is the Memorial to the memory of the 6,000 members of the 351st Bomb Group who dedicated their lives and time from 1943 to 1945 during WW II.  The monument is fittingly located at the end of what had been the main runway now silent from the roar and thunder of the Flying Fortresses so many years ago.

The Northamptorshire village of Polebrook lies in the valley of the river Neve close to the market village of Oundle. With one public House The King’s Arms.  The RAF on a part of the Rothschild Estate constructed the initial field at the top of Polebrook Hill in 1940.  The original flyingfortress operated by the RAF in 1942 flew out of this field.

In July 1942 the 97th Bomb Group began arriving, and made their first mission August 17, 1942 led by Major Paul Tibbets.  During April 1943 the advance elements of the 351st Bomb Group began arriving.  The 351st flew the first of its 320 missions on May 14, 1943, and its final mission on April 29, 1945.  During that period they dropped 20,778 tons of bombs, shot down 303 enemy fighters, and fired 2, 776,028 rounds of caliber 50 ammunition.  In addition to other awards including two Presidential Unit Citations, two Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded.
 One of the more famous celebrities stationed at Polebrook was former actor Clark Gable.  While attached to the 351st Bomb Group he made the film “Combat America” flying 6 combat missions.  This of course attracted a lot of dignitaries and news media to the field.
 The final accolade to the 351st Bomb Group is the only remaining B 17, which flew combat missions in WW II, is still flying and based in France with its initial combat markings.  It is the BMG-85VE-44-8846.  The IGN in France register it as “FBGSP”   

The Death of a Flying Fortress

There were two reasons we managed to survive those bombing trips over Germany in an “aluminum coffin”.

 The first was the plane; the B 17 Flying fortress. She became alive once the engines were started and with the crew settled into their positions the plane became a veritable part of us.  We knew full well the Fortress, if it had only a final gasp of breath and although being totally battered and bent with hardly anything left, would somehow get us home.

 You don’t fly a Fortress for months for years without becoming intimate with that gallant lady in the most respectful sense.  You know her sturdy construction, the manner in which she flies and every detail about her, as she sustains not only my life but also each life in my crew. You know that this lady would never give up without a valiant struggle.  With her engines shot out or burning, or with a wing cut to pieces and the vertical fin and rudder in shattered pieces, or with the oxygen system blazing she is somehow still going to fly. With their aircraft in such a state, the pilots, all too often smeared in blood with enemy steel in their bodies and with the control cables shot to ribbons struggled hand in hand with the gallant lady to survive.  Many times these bombers could well have been abandoned but still flew home with badly wounded crewmen who were not able to depart the plane. Which brings up the other reason we survived.

The second reason we managed to survive was the crew.  Ten men flew along with you who not only gave everything they had, but also dug deeper when the circumstances turned crucial. Once in the air there existed a total devotion to each other. Often, we could have abandoned a plane due to severe damage, but would still attempt to fly home if a badly injured crewman could not eject.  We pitied knowing a dysfunctional crew for often they would be able to survive only three or at the best four combat missions.

Whether due to flak or fighter fire when crewmembers were wounded some might well die, as there was no medical assistance until the plane landed back at base hours later. If the plane weren’t under current attack, crew members would immediately rip off their oxygen masks, and in the sub zero bitter cold rush to the aid of the injured crewman with the hope they could somehow keep him alive until we landed and thence to a hospital. Helping a wounded crewmember in the cold and thin air in a tossing plane was not easy neither physically or mentally.  To be able to give them morphine you had to put the morphine ampoule under your armpit in order to thaw it out, and then once inserted to keep your finger over the point of insertion for it would squirt back out because of the high altitude.  How do you keep from being sick looking at all the blood and gore from someone who is very close to you.  But you do the best you can.

There are also friends to far away in the formation to help using oxygen masks or morphine.  These are the events, which I guess, tried our souls the most.

We would watch helplessly as another Fortress in the same formation started to slip and slide out of the combat formation.  Flames pour from an engine on fire with the fuel streaming and burning as it engulfs the plane.  Soon she is falling off on her side as the Fortress picking up more speed, begins her death throes.  Then she begins to shudder as her nose pointed skyward. The plane hangs on the edge of a stall and buffets in warning of final disaster. The plane hangs almost on her nose, when the lift is almost gone and then as the last of the aerodynamics is gone.  The nose drops and slews to the side wallowing in a helpless skid.  The nose comes back up again, but the wings are almost vertical and she seems to groan and then quits. You can almost hear the groan as she falls back into a vertical spin to her death. The Fortress dies hard, as do the 10 men of the crew inside her.  This was their Fortress they made come alive, trying to hold on to that last thin thread keeping her in the air.

With tears in our eyes we watch and count the parachutes all the while loudly shouting, "Get Out—Get Out".  Those men were our friends, our buddies we drank and played poker with, sitting around in a BS session talking about the world of tomorrow.  We all knew all too well there was very little chance of tomorrow for any of us.  Some survived, and came home. But the question always remains: “Why Us”?  Why not them?

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