In 1943, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took his radio audience along on a RAF bombing mission to Berlin.
- By Mark Bernstein
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
NASM (SI NEG. #85-18328)
(Page 3 of 5)
Preparing for takeoff, Murrow and D for Dog’s crew pulled on parachutes and Mae West vests. Parachutes were an uncertain asset. For all its strengths, the Lancaster was a difficult aircraft to get out of in a crisis—only about one in six crewmen shot down reached the ground alive. As D for Dog’s crew waited to board, a small station wagon drew up delivering for each man a thermos of coffee, chewing gum, an orange, and a square of chocolate. With that, the aircraft took off into what Murrow in his broadcast would term a “dead, silent, and expectant” sky.
In the broadcast, Murrow introduced the crew by their first names only. The Lancaster had a high cockpit, 19 feet above the ground. Jock, the pilot, sat there, with the flight engineer at his side. The navigator—on D for Dog, his name was Dave—sat behind the pilot at a small curtained-off table lit by a pinpoint lamp; Titch, the wireless operator, was backed against the main spar. His dispatches would be few and brief: German radio-interception equipment was so sensitive, according to Neillands, it could pick up the sounds of radio sets in England warming up prior to takeoff. Farther back were Boz, the bomb aimer; Wally, the mid-upper gunner; and Jack, the tail gunner. The rear gunner, Neillands writes, had the worst job: “stuck on his own at the far end of a vibrating fuselage; sucking on an oxygen line; particularly vulnerable to aircraft coming from astern.” D for Dog’s crew members were likely young: Most bomber personnel were between 19 and 22. All were volunteers.
Early in the war, the pilot was thought to be the key to success, but experience taught that crews survived only as a team. Perhaps reflecting this, Murrow would broadcast that as the flight advanced toward Germany, “Jack in the rear turret, Wally, the mid-upper gunner, Titch, the wireless operator—all seemed somehow to draw closer to Jock in the cockpit. It was as though each man’s shoulder was against the others’.”
In 1943, bombers left England with fighter cover but arrived at many targets unescorted. Not until spring 1944 did the United Kingdom get the North American P-51B Mustang, which had the range to escort bombers all the way to Berlin. After the fighters accompanying the December 2 mission turned back, Murrow reported, “Jock looked up at a vapor trail curling across above us, remarking in a conversational tone that from the look of it he thought there was a fighter up there.”
The German night fighters were the striking arm of an integrated air defense system of radar, searchlights, and anti-aircraft guns. Allied aircrews developed considerable respect for their foe. Once, after the German Focke-Wulf fighter was introduced, a poster was hung in a crew room picturing a bomber pilot asking, rhetorically, “Who’s afraid of the new Focke-Wulf?” Someone pinned paper to the poster and, not rhetorically, every member of the unit signed.
When D for Dog reached Germany, Murrow began to see flak explode. It looked, he reported, “like a cigarette lighter in a dark room—one that won’t light. Sparks but no flame.” The flak most feared came from the German 88-mm gun. This versatile weapon, highly potent against tanks in land combat, could send a shell five miles high in seven seconds. When Murrow asked the pilot to estimate how close the flak bursts were to the aircraft, he responded, “Not very close. When they’re really near, you can smell ’em.”
Murrow’s own apprehension rose: Thirty miles from Berlin, he later broadcast, “D-Dog seemed to be standing still, the four propellers thrashing the air. But we didn’t seem to be closing in.” Cloud cover was “ten tenths”—complete. Instantly, the dirty gray clouds turned white; the aircraft was caught in the gleam of searchlights. Describing the vulnerability of being in a dark aircraft cast against suddenly gleaming clouds, Murrow reported: “D-Dog seemed like a black bug on a white sheet.” The pilot wore gloves with the fingers cut off; Murrow saw his fingernails turn white as he gripped the wheel. Sensing danger, the pilot whipped the aircraft into a climbing turn that dropped Murrow to his knees. Some pilots, Max Hastings notes, banked cautiously for fear of losing a wing; “[o]thers—the ones who lived—recognized that the danger of a wing collapsing was nothing as that of a fighter’s cannon.”
Jock and Boz, the bomb aimer, considered the target, wreathed with smoke. Murrow described the exchange: “Boz said he liked the two green flares on the ground almost dead ahead.” Soon thereafter, “there was a gentle, upward thrust under my feet, and Boz said: ‘Cookie gone’… and D-Dog seemed lighter and easier to handle.”