Bomber pilot survived attack by secret unit Mystery in the air: Ellis Woodward of Rodgers Forge didn't learn until 1993 just what had nearly destroyed the bomber he was flying in 1994 over Germany.

January 28, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson

SEPT. 12, 1944; thick dark, smoke plumed from the ruins of a Nazi ordnance depot in Magdeburg, Germany. At 26,000 feet, high above, the American Flying Fortresses turned for the long flight back to England.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, the Luftwaffe unleashed an aerial blitzkrieg. In just over a minute, 10 of the 12 B-17 bombers led by Capt. Ellis M. Woodward, of Rodgers Forge, went down, most of them in flames. A few parachutes bloomed as crewmen bailed out.

"There was only us and our right wingman left. Our plane was shot to hell but we made it back. We didn't know what hit us and for me it was a mystery for 49 years," said Mr. Woodward, 75, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting his badly damaged bomber back to base.

It was only in November 1993, Mr. Woodward said, that he learned that his squadron had been attacked by the Luftwaffe's secret weapon, the Storm Group, an elite volunteer pledged to destroy American bombers any way possible.

Former Capt. Werner Vorberg, a Storm Group pilot, wrote an article about the Storm Group and its mission in an article which was translated and reprinted in an 8th Air Force veterans news-letter.

Flying heavily armed and armored Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes, he said, the German pilots were sworn to attack only four-engine bombers at close range and to ram them in the air if gunfire failed to shoot them down.

The Storm Groups were formed to counter the intensified Allied bombing campaign. The Luftwaffe had realized that concentrating on the American escort fighters was allowing the heavy bombers to slip through to destroy German industry. The group that attacked Mr. Woodward's squadron was formed in August 1944, Captain Vorberg wrote.

Roy Holtman, 75, of Kensington, Conn., who was Mr. Woodward's wingman, pilot of the squadron's other surviving B-17 on the Magdeburg raid, said he knew nothing about their attackers until Mr. Woodward told him what he had learned.

"We really got hit. Within a minute everyone was gone; Woody and I were the only two left. I guess what saved us was that we were in front and they attacked from the rear. The first thing I knew about it was when all the guns opened fire," said Mr. Holtman, a retired businessman, who recalled Magdeburg as "the worst" of his 32 missions. It took place on his 24th birthday.

Mr. Woodward's plane was so heavily damaged that "he had only his engines left. I at least had my radio so we had to communicate by lamp flashes and he said, 'Stay with me.' I wasn't going to leave him," Mr. Holtman said.

Their old squadron commander, retired Air Force Col. Samuel Hale, of Bethesda, said he, too, was unaware of the Luftwaffe tactic until Mr. Woodward told him. "It was a real surprise to me," he said, "it's a story worth hearing."

Dr. Elizabeth Muenger, historian at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, said a computer search of archives there produced no information about the Storm Group.

Sgt. Barry Spink, of the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, said German war archives may contain information about the Storm Group. At the time, he said, American forces would have viewed the attacks as a "very aggressive fighter tactic to which we lost a lot of airplanes" rather than as a new concept.

Intelligence sources might have picked up information about the elite unit but its operational life was too brief for the information to have been helpful, he said.

The dearth of knowledge and his experience prompted Mr. Woodward to write a book about his wartime career and the attack from his perspective. He is seeking to have it published by Texas Tech University. "I don't know of anyone who was attacked by the Storm Group who has ever written about it," he said.

The Sept. 12 raid was the 15th of his eventual 30 missions and his first piloting a B-17. He had flown B-24 Liberators before and said a B-24 could not have survived the damage inflicted by the Storm Group.

Thick anti-aircraft fire hammered the bombers en route to Magdeburg and over the target and the crews were praying for an easier return flight. "We dropped our bombs and breathed a sigh of relief," Mr. Woodward said.

However, as the bombers turned for home, "the tail gunner shouted 'Fighters.' And as quickly as it had come, the attack was over and there were only two of us left in the air," he said. "We felt sure the German fighters were going to come back and finish us off."

Instead, he said, the fighters "broke off and dove down and away from our squadron. We couldn't understand why they did this, since we were like 'sitting ducks,' and this allowed us to limp back to England and return another day."

Fifteen days after his 861st Bombardment Squadron was shattered, Mr. Woodward said, Storm Group fliers hit the 445th Bombardment Group as it flew toward the city of Kassel.

The 445th took brutally heavy casualties: 25 bombers were shot down, five others crashed later and five made it to base.

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