A Flying Fortress at Kenley? "Thumper Again" and the Schweinfurt Raid

B-17F #42-5393, 360BS (PU-G), "Thumper Again", aka "Little Woman" and "Just for Laffs".
Courtesy of Michael Trent and 303rdbg.com
Left flap damage on B-17F "Thumper Again" inflicted during the Schweinfurt raid on 14/10/43.
Courtesy of Michael Trent and 303rdbg.com

Kenley was never set up to accommodate large aircraft but we know from the Station diary that there was the odd occasion when damaged bombers did land there in desperation as they limped home from raids over the Continent – for example, on the 25th February, 1944, a Flying Fortress and a Consolidated Liberator came in to Kenley. 

An earlier incident is said to have occurred on the 14th October 1943, when a 303rd Bomb Group B17F (42-5393) ‘Thumper Again’ limped into Kenley with most of the left main wing flap shot away after a costly raid on the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. It blew a tyre on landing and skidded into a truck.
However, I will sound a note of caution, because although “The B-17 Story” by Roger Anthony Freeman and David R. Osborne, states that they landed at Kenley, the incident does not appear in the RAF Kenley station diary.

The crew of “Thumper Again” on the 14th October, 1943, were:

  • Pilot: Colonel William Heller (flew 35+ missions and became an airline pilot post-war
  • Co-pilot: 1st Lieutenant John Coppom 
  • Navigator: Jim Zwayer 
  • Bombardier: 2nd Lieutenant John De Souso 
  • Flight Engineer / Top turret gunner: Tech Sergeant Bill Huston 
  • Radio Operator: Felix Spoerri 
  • Ball Turret Gunner: George Payne 
  • Waist Gunners: Leon Lanier, Melvin Schultz 
  • Tail Gunner: Tony Laurintis.

Colonel William Heller wrote an account of Mission #078 – the terrifying Schweinfurt raid – and the stopover at Kenley.

“We taxied out for takeoff in heavy rain limiting visibility so that we could not see the end of the runway, takeoff and climb were on instruments conditions until break out in the bright sunshine at seven thousand feet.As the formation proceeded into Germany, fighter attacks began that would continue in intensity for hours. The formation waded through literally clouds of flak.”

“When two engines began losing power, we were unable to stay in formation. We could not continue under the present conditions. Our only chance of survival was to salvo the bombs. We were then able to rejoin the formation. We flew over the target with open bomb bay doors so as not to attract any more fighters. Fighters and Forts were going down everywhere. The sky seemed full of chutes, some burning, some peacefully floating in the sky. I saw a Fort up ahead start to smoke—the next instant a sheet of flame, then nothing! I saw a Fortress fly upside down in a very slow roll, then dive to earth: ten chutes popped out, starting a journey to a prisoner of war camp. The crew continued to call out fighter attacks, followed by that comforting shudder of the fifty caliber guns firing. The fighters included twin engine and single engine planes.”

“Our left waist gunner Leo Lanier, Jr. and tail gunner Laurinites reported that the left horizontal stabilizer was badly shot up and the fabric was gone from the top of the flipper. There was a hole in the leading edge of the wing, inches from my head, the windshield glass was shot out. I didn’t notice the damage until sweat and the condensation from my oxygen mask started to freeze. The ball turret was inoperative, which the German’s noticed and gave their full attention. When we crossed the coastline, the “Jerry’s” left the bombers in relative peace. Still 35 degrees below zero, the crew finally stopped perspiring. Weather prevented the rendevous by British Spitfires over the channel but luckily the Germans didn’t know it.”

“Ahead, England was solid overcast: Not enough fuel to make an instrument let down, it was imperative that we leave the formation and to find a hole through which we could descend. Twenty minutes before the fuel would have been exhausted a small hole appeared and we were able to spiral down at a rate of descent that frosted the instrument panel. We found a small RAF field just outside of London. The RAF immediately gave us a clear runway. A doctor and a chaplain met us at the flight line. We needed neither, thank God, but these actions boosted our admiration of the RAF.”

“Women mechanics (WAAF) repaired the battle damage temporarily and provided fuel from their meager stores to get us back to base at Molesworth. Our RAF hosts served us tea and dinner and provided beds for us. Before going to bed the gunner’s cleaned and oiled their guns. By 9:00 p.m., after a good days work, I went to bed with a word of thanks to Our Lord for our preservation. I could not repress some bitterness for those in the United States who held up production of our escort fighters. The next day we departed the RAF base.”

The Heller crew’s problems didn’t end there, though. They took off from Kenley destined for their home base at Molesworth, but became lost in poor weather and damaged their aircraft landing at North Luffenham. “Thumper Again” returned to combat flying in January 1944, but was withdrawn from operations after seven more ‘trips’.

Three other B-17’s also landed at other airfields after the Schweinfurt raid:

  • #42-5360, 358BS (Lt. Hendry) – Landed at Biggin Hill
  • #42-3158, 427BS (Lt. Ness) – Landed at Northolt
  • #41-24416, 359BS (Lt. Phelps) – Landed at Kimbolton

They were the lucky ones: Across all the Groups that took part in the raid, 648 men were listed as as killed, wounded or missing, out of a total of 2,900 airmen who took part – a staggering 18% casualty rate. As a result of these heavy losses, daylight bombing against strategic targets deep into Germany was suspended for a short time, but the raid did cause a lot of damage and forced a re-organisation of the German ball-bearing industry.

Many thanks to Gary Moncur and the 303rd Bombardment Group website, for their permission to use these photographs and Heller’s account of 14/10/43.
Heller’s account of the Schweinfurt raid:
Thanks also to Tony Adams for research and Peter Allam for bringing “Thumper Again” to our attention in the first place.
Sources:

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