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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, June 2, 2019

All American

Ralph Burbridge was 21 in 1940, at this age he could finally make his own life choices, and his first one was to join the USAAF. On December 7th 1941 he was still undergoing training when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Once he had graduated as a bombardier, he was stationed on the Pacific coast ready to attack any Japanese shipping, and otherwise support the US Navy. The victory at Midway soon removed that threat, and the mass of the USAAF bombing wings were turned against the other Axis member, Germany.

On 17th August 1942 twelve B-17's, escorted by four squadrons of Spitfires were sent to bomb the marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville. This attack would have far reaching consequences. The first flight of six planes was led by Butcher Shop, flown by Major Paul W. Tibbets Jr., a name you may have heard of before. He would, three years later, drop Little Boy at Hiroshima. On his right wing was the All American, with Lt Burbridge as its bombardier. The twelve B-17's took off about 1530, and arrived, without incident over their target about 1830. From an altitude of 23,000ft the USAAF was about to put their vaunted day-light bombing accuracy ideas to the test in combat. General Eaker in Yankee Doodle, the lead ship of the second group, watched the bombing which he later described:

'As each plane’s bomb load reached its mark, a lofty, mushroom-like pall of smoke and dirt rose sluggishly into the air and clearly identified the point of impact. The tallest of these giant mushrooms was within the central target area; two appeared to engulf the roundhouse while four were well spaced among the tracks of the marshalling yard. The bombing, I thought, was especially good.'
Rouen-Sotteville marshalling yards in July 1944.
Despite all the advantages, the bombing accuracy was just as bad as before. Less than 50% of the bombs landed within the target area, the others killed 52 Frenchmen and wounded 120 more. Only one of the aim points was hit, the rest of the bombs were scattered within 1,500ft radius. For the second aim point the grouping was out to 2,000ft radius. Only 10 of the 24 tracks in the marshalling yards were hit, as well a locomotive workshop and two storage sheds. As these were mostly 600lb bombs, the damage would have been minimal. This was a lesson learned by the British during the Luftwaffe's best efforts. This raid was hailed as a great success and vindication of the USAAF's policies.

Lt Burbridge's squadron (the 414th) was soon sent to North Africa. To get there the planes were stripped of everything, including guns, and had extra fuel tanks installed. A long flight, very low to the water and under the Germans radar then followed to get to Gibraltar. Low on fuel, with tired pilots, it can't have been fun landing at Gibraltar airfield. They did come under some light AA fire from the Spanish during this flight. Then from Gibraltar the B-17's flew to Biskra, North Africa. Once there the planes were re-equipped and began to launch raids on the Germans.
During one of these raids, on 1st February 1943, the incident happened that catapulted All American into the limelight. The target was the Tunis dock area, as they approached the target, they came under extremely dense AA fire which was soon made worse by German fighters attacking them through the flak! After their payload had been dropped, the bombers turned for safety, when Lt Burbridge spotted two more German fighters climbing to attack them.

One fighter made a head on pass on the lead bomber, the other came straight in against All American, who was flying to the left of the lead plane. At this time the B-17's only had the cheek guns, one a .50 and the other a .30. Lt Burbridge was on the .30 and began to fire at the approaching fighter, while the navigator began to shoot at the plane attacking the lead B-17.
The combined firepower sent the first fighter down with a trail of smoke. Meanwhile Lt Burbridge began to fire at his target. Lt Burbridge would later say that the worst thing about the job was firing his machine gun. Often the hot casings would fall in the tops of their boots and burn them through their flight suits. You couldn't stop firing because your life, and the lives of you squadron were on the line, so you just had to endure the pain and keep firing.

At 300 yards distance the German pilot stopped firing, and began to roll away, to pass underneath All American. At the apex of the roll one of the many machine guns firing at the plane must have hit something critical, the pilot or a control surface, as the fighter never completed its manoeuvrer to pass beneath the B-17. Instead it skimmed along the top of the All American, Lt Burbridge heard the swoosh as it passed, and it crashed through the tail section ripping the left tail plane off. The entire plane juddered, and there was an almighty WHOOMP.
All American, still flying.
Miraculously All American was still flyable, albeit loosing speed. The rest of the bomber formation, having seen what had happened, moved into a tight formation round the crippled plane, and reduced speed, escorting their damaged friend. Once over friendly lines the rest of the squadron sped up and returned to base. All American had lost so much speed that it took her so long to return to base, most of the ground crew thought she had been shot down. Not one of the B-17's crew had been injured in the entire flight.
All American on the ground.
There is an alternative version of the story, an example of which can be found here. Which is largely made up.

Ralph Burbridge would go on to fly a total of 52 missions, two more than required. On these he had many near misses including one time when a German fighter attacked and its 7.92mm bullets hit an ammunition box and began an ammo fire. Luckily the navigator had the presence of mind and time enough to pitch the burning container over the side. After his tour of duty was complete Lt Burbridge became an instructor for the rest of the war. He died aged 93 in 2013.

Image credits:
airandspace.si.edu, www.aviation-history.com and warfarehistorynetwork.com