The War’s Odd­est Dog­fight

Over the At­lantic in 1943, it was a bat­tle of the bombers.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY RICH TUTTLE

Two bombers went at it off the coast of Por­tu­gal.

ONE OF THE STRANGEST dog­fights— in­volv­ing three four-engine bombers— oc­curred in World War II. It hap­pened the morn­ing of Au­gust 17, 1943, when an Amer­i­can B-24D Lib­er­a­tor en­coun­tered a pair of Ger­man Focke-wulf Fw 200 Con­dors over the At­lantic Ocean, about 300 miles west of Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal. The Con­dors were fly­ing from Bordeaux in oc­cu­pied France to at­tack a Bri­tish con­voy sail­ing from Gi­bral­tar to Scot­land. The Lib­er­a­tor, at­tached to the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 480th An­tisub­ma­rine Group, was on the way from its base in French Morocco to pro­tect those Bri­tish ships.

The 480th had been fly­ing from Port Lyautey in Morocco against Ger­man U-boats for sev­eral months. Big, boxy, and all-busi­ness, the Lib­er­a­tor had the long range re­quired for anti-sub­ma­rine mis­sions. Mod­i­fied from its orig­i­nal heavy bomb­ing role, it be­came an Al­lied fa­vorite for sub-hunt­ing. These mis­sions were vi­tal to the Al­lied cause of blunt­ing U-boat at­tacks on con­voys shut­tling be­tween Bri­tain and Gi­bral­tar.

The 480th fought the sub­ma­rine war along with the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Com­mand and U.S. Navy pa­trol squadrons. When these air arms and the Royal Navy started sink­ing more U-boats in the Bay of Bis­cay, be­tween Spain and France, Ber­lin

trans­ferred some of the anti-con­voy work from U-boats to the Luft­waffe, in­creas­ing the chances that Al­lied air­planes would en­counter Ger­man ones.

The Lib­er­a­tors had their share of runins with Ger­man air­planes. From March through Oc­to­ber 1943, they shot down nine Ger­man air­craft, in­clud­ing five Con­dors, three Dornier fly­ing boats, and one Junkers Ju 88 multi-role com­bat air­plane; the 480th’s two squadrons lost three Lib­er­a­tors. The Lib­er­a­tor pi­lot, Hugh Maxwell Jr., now 98 and liv­ing in Al­ta­monte Springs, Florida, had been with the 480th since early March, and had fought an­other Con­dor about a month be­fore the Au­gust dog­fight. Fly­ing par­al­lel cour­ses, the two bombers fired at each other, and Maxwell’s gun­ners scored hits. The Con­dor was last seen div­ing into the clouds with one engine out.

On Au­gust 17, the Lib­er­a­tor’s base at Port Lyautey had bro­ken ra­dio si­lence to warn of the Con­dors’ ap­proach. Maxwell’s radar op­er­a­tor re­ported a pair of con­tacts 15 miles away, and his nav­i­ga­tor cal­cu­lated they would ar­rive over the con­voy at about the same time as the Lib­er­a­tor. That left Maxwell no choice but to en­gage.

The bat­tle was spec­tac­u­lar. He had never flown fight­ers— his ex­pe­ri­ence had been in B-18 and B-25 bombers—and he had never been in a dog­fight, so the com­bat that day was the ul­ti­mate on-the-job train­ing. He ini­ti­ated the fight by div­ing his 28-ton bomber out of the clouds at 1,000 feet on the tail of the lead Con­dor. He told his gun­ners to hold fire un­til they got within range. But the Con­dor “fired a sight­ing burst and started hit­ting me,” he says. “I shoved the throt­tles and prop pitch for­ward and closed as fast as I could, and I opened fire. They never came out of their div­ing turn, and went in on fire. But boy, they had done us dam­age.”

The sec­ond Con­dor, mean­while, was fir­ing at Maxwell from be­hind, and Maxwell’s gun­ners were re­turn­ing fire. But the Lib­er­a­tor had lost its num­ber-three and -four en­gines, and the right wing was full of holes and in flames. The bomber was es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to at­tack be­cause mod­i­fi­ca­tions for anti-sub­ma­rine work (en­abling the air­craft to carry more fuel and a max­i­mum load of depth charges) had re­quired re­mov­ing all the ar­mor plat­ing that pro­tected the crew. So when the Con­dor’s bul­lets struck, “all of us got hit by shrap­nel and our hy­draulic sys­tem was knocked out, our in­ter­com ra­dio sys­tem was knocked out, the whole in­stru­ment panel was knocked out,” Maxwell re­calls. For­tu­nately, one of the crew­men was able to jet­ti­son the depth charges.

“As I re­al­ized that our right wing would no longer fly and I couldn’t raise it, and was try­ing to hold left rud­der and aileron, my left foot kept slip­ping off the rud­der pedal,” says Maxwell. “I looked down and said, ‘Oh my God.’ My whole left leg and foot were cov­ered with blood, and there was a pool of blood and it was all over that rud­der pedal. And I knew I’d been hit in the left side with shrap­nel. But then I re­al­ized: It ain’t blood, it’s hy­draulic fluid.

“At no time did I feel heroic or any of that kind of stuff,” he says. “Hell, I was scared. I didn’t want to die, but I had to do what­ever I needed to do. The thing that sticks out in my mind the most was when I re­al­ized we were go­ing to be crash­ing into the At­lantic Ocean, and I thought we were goners. But in a last-minute des­per­ate ef­fort to avoid catas­tro­phe, I kicked in full right rud­der and threw the plane into a skid, and sure enough, in­stead of our cartwheel­ing and break­ing up and ex­plod­ing, the wa­ter put the fire out, and the air­plane broke in three pieces, but it didn’t ex­plode or burn.” Seven of the 10 crew mem­bers sur­vived.

The sec­ond Con­dor was seen mush­ing over the waves at low alti­tude with its num­ber-three engine out. The pi­lot was able to stay in the air; he made it back to Bordeaux, but his air­plane crashed and burned on land­ing, ac­cord­ing to one source. All crew mem­bers re­port­edly sur­vived.

Maxwell’s crew was quickly picked up by one of the con­voy’s es­corts, the Bri­tish de­stroyer High­lander. It also picked up “four sur­vivors from that lead Focke-wulf 200, two of whom died that night be­cause they were so badly burned,” Maxwell says. The events of the day amounted to “prob­a­bly my worst ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In a 1989 in­ter­view with the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in Lon­don, the High­lander’s cap­tain, Colin Wil­liam Mcmullen, de­scribed the dog­fight as “re­ally like a sort of Jules Verne scene, with these two enor­mous air­craft weav­ing about, shoot­ing at one an­other.” After res­cu­ing the Lib­er­a­tor crew, “who were ex­tremely an­gry at be­ing shot down,” Mcmullen said the ship “dashed off and found where the Focke-wulf had gone into the sea. And there were three Ger­mans swim­ming for Por­tu­gal, which was rather a long way away, and we picked up the Focke-wulf crew. And as they came on the up­per deck up the lad­der, [they] came face to face with the Amer­i­can crew. And it was only by great tact that we man­aged to pre­vent them con­tin­u­ing the en­gage­ment on our up­per deck.”

But, Maxwell says in an email, “There was no con­fronta­tion, other than what was done by tail gun­ner Mil­ton Brown. I would never have con­doned it, but Brownie snatched the epaulet off the shoul­der of the [Ger­man] pi­lot’s uni­form and later gave it to me.”

For his ac­tions that day, Maxwell was awarded the Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross, and the 480th ul­ti­mately won a Pres­i­den­tial Unit Ci­ta­tion. Maxwell went on to be­come a B-29 in­struc­tor pi­lot and fin­ished his ca­reer in Air Force in­tel­li­gence, re­tir­ing in 1969.

Pi­lot Hugh Maxwell (above, with his crew, stand­ing, far left; and right) named the B-24 The Ark be­cause “it had a lot of strange an­i­mals aboard and I hoped it would bring us through the del­uge.”

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