Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Cramsie Diary

Those who have read First To Fall realize that the diary entries written in the hand of Bill Cramsie were constructed from events, not copied from an actual diary. Ned Burr, who is the president of the alumni of the class of June 1943 and is himself mentioned in the book, wrote about the diaries in a recent correspondence: "I found [them] so realistic that it took me a while to realize that they were yours, not his." The evolution of the Cramsie diary is something that may be worth explaining. My initial drafts of First To Fall were written in a style not unlike most histories and biographies, very matter of fact. Though I was quite satisfied with the detail that was presented, the narrative lacked the emotion that I felt the story deserved. After much deliberation, I decided to hire a "Ghost Writer" to help me structure the story a bit differently. I won't go into the process here, but I was led by providence to a web site through which I met Alice McVeigh. Almost immediately, I knew that Alice was the right person to help me with the problem I was having. Little did I know that she was the granddaughter of General Maxwell D. Taylor, a West Point graduate, a West Point Superintendant and a figure who played prominently in the Normandy invasion of 1944 not to mention his extraordinary service for the following 20 years. That discovery left me with goose bumps.

Alice was the one who first suggested doing the book as a Cramsie diary. Because there is so much technical detail, I felt that sort of presentation might not work in all cases. What I ultimately decided to do was to have Alice take the personal aspects of my narrative and convert them to diary format. I then interleaved them with the technical aspects that were written from my perspective. The bulk of the diary entries were based on actual events that were gleaned from military records at West Point and at the Air Force Historical Research Agency. Thus, the story was able to be unfolded factually in both a personal and technical atmosphere. The use of different fonts for the two "voices" of Bill Cramsie and myself made the separation clear and actually helped to develop a "then and now" aspect that was an unexpected bonus.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bois des Huit Rues

The V-1 launch site at Bois des Huit Rues was well hidden within a patch of woods northwest of Morbecque and southwest of Hazebrouck in the Pas de Calais region of France perhaps better known to Americans as Flanders. The operational and personnel facilities were located within the wooded area itself, but the launch ramp was by necessity constructed at the edge of an open field to the north. The ruins of this site, designated site 623 by the German Luftwaffe, are still visible along a well posted walking path in what is now a state forest area.

The dark patch of green at the center of this satellite photo is Bois des Huit Rues
The site had been earmarked as a priority target in the Spring of 1944 and when the weather cleared on April 10th, after two weeks of inactivity, the 416th dispatched 36 A-20 bombers on a mission to destroy the secret facility. The weather forecast called for heavy overcast over the English Channel but clearing skies to the south over France. Official mission reports were conflicting in regard to the weather. The lead navigators of each of the two flights reported the results as a "bad miss" due to heavy cloud cover over the target. The 9th Air Force reports indicated, however, that weather was not a factor. Only recently, this conflicting information was resolved when a series of previously unpublished official photos included a photo from this mission. The cloud cover was very dense, as the navigators had reported, and the flights made three passes over the target before dropping their bombs. Some aircraft were unable to drop at all. The overall results were devastating for the 416th as the group lost three aircraft and two crews on that day.

Mission photo from April 10, 1944

Nine days later, the 416th returned to Bois des Huit Rues and destroyed the site. The aerial photo from that mission is revealing as the bomb craters from previous missions are clearly visible.

Mission photo from April 19, 1944

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Operation Crossbow

The V-1 "Buzz Bomb" or "Doodlebug" was still shrouded in mystery during the Fall of 1943 when 416th Bomb Group crews were training in the southeastern U.S. for low-level attack missions with their twin-engined A-20 Havoc light bombers. Nobody at that time, least of all the men of the 416th, could have envisioned the role that the V-1 would play in their future war effort. By the time men and planes had arrived and consolidated at Wethersfield RAF base northeast of London in January and February of 1944, the newly arrived 9th Air Force was learning about military targeting and political pressure.

British leaders had been briefed that a new secret weapon being deployed by the Germans along the Atlantic Wall could rain a virtually unstoppable assault of aerial bombs upon London and other British population centers. With the Battle of Britain and its savage bombings still searing their memories, the high command was determined to stop this threat before it could become operational. The code name for these secret weapon sites was NOBALL and every pilot in the British isles, knew that these sites were a priority target. That was about all that they knew about them. The air power resources at the disposal of the Allies in Britain in the months leading up to D-Day were hotly contested by three groups: the strategic planners, the tactical planners and the British homeland defense forces. The heavy bombers with deep penetrating capability into Germany were employed mainly by the strategic planners in their effort to disrupt the production of war materiel. American commanders wanted the medium and light bombers to concentrate on softening communications sites, marshalling yards, airfields and transportation lanes. The British wanted all of the air power directed at these new weapon sites to remove them as a threat to the population centers of the island. The campaign to do that was dubbed Operation Crossbow. Although some heavy bombers did attack Crossbow sites, the main weapon systems deployed against them were the B-26 Marauder, a medium bomber, and the A-20 Havoc, a light bomber. Not only did the British prevail in earmarking these units for Crossbow missions (much to the consternation of American field commanders) they also insisted that the missions be flown at relatively high altitudes since their early low-level missions in the Boston (RAF equivalent of the Havoc) sustained very high losses. Ironically, General Hap Arnold had already proven in carefully controlled tests that the Havoc was more effective against these sites at low level, but politics prevailed and the British had their way.

During the months of March through May of 1944, the vast majority of medium and light bomber missions out of England were directed at NOBALL sites. In retrospect, these missions were extremely costly. Not only did they claim the lives of many young airmen, they accomplished virtually nothing in the way of deterring V-1 deployment. After Allied raids on the V-1 sites started in the Fall of 1943, the Germans quickly abandoned plans to launch from the hardened Atlantic Wall sites and converted their operations to mobile launchers. The hardened sites were ringed with antiaircraft units and hasty repairs were done after bombing raids to give the illusion of continued operations. The Germans baited Allied intelligence and the air crews paid the price. It was a colossal ruse that the Allies did not recognize until after the invasion at Normandy. It was on one of these Crossbow missions, April 10, 1944, that Bill Cramsie and his crew lost their lives in an heroic but futile effort.