(Hey guys, I have a new book coming out!!! This one is a badass history of World War II, covering a few people I’ve talked about before on the site (the chapters themselves were completely re-written) but also covering tons of awesome WWII tales I haven’t told yet. It’s due out on March 1, but you can pre-order it here or pretty much anywhere you like to buy books. I really hope you’ll check it out, and thanks as always for your mind-blowing support… it’s a totally insane to think that ten years ago I was just some anonymous jerk at a desk job and today I’m promoting the imminent release of my sixth full-length published book. I really couldn’t have done it without your help, so thank you.
Anyway, here’s one of my favorite chapters from the new book!)
“Bandits, incoming, three o’clock high!” The sudden thumping of twelve machine guns all blasting at once jolted the 15-ton, four-engine aircraft, but United States Army Air Force Lieutenant William R. Lawley, Jr., held her steady. The loud, rumbling propellers roared as he pushed open the throttle and smashed through a thick black cloud of anti-aircraft smoke at nearly three hundred miles an hour, all the while keeping in tight formation with hundreds of other gigantic explosives-filled aircraft that were roughly the same size as those 737s airliners you take to see your grandma during Spring Break.
Overhead, a pair of Nazi Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes screamed by, ripping off thousands of rounds from twin-linked machine guns and heavy 20mm autocannons. White tracer fire from armor-piercing rounds whizzed past the cockpit, while other bullets punched holes through the sides of the plane with the unsettling ping of steel on steel. Black puffs of enemy artillery popped up all around Lawley’s massive aircraft craft, each one representing ship-incinerating surface-to-air artillery shell bursting into a fearsome-looking cloud of screaming-hot shrapnel. The enemy fighters screamed past at speeds of over four hundred miles an hour, passing so close to Lawley’s windshield that if he wasn’t so busy trying to keep his crew alive he probably could have told you the color of the pilots’ eyes. As the gray Nazi fighters dove down towards another squadron of American bombers below, Lawley’s starboard waist gunner zeroed in on them with his .50-caliber machine gun with a quick burst of tracer fire, but had to release the trigger as a pair of American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes dropped in to chase them.
It was February 20th, 1944, the first day of “Big Week,” and Lieutenant Lawley’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was at the head of a formation of one thousand bombers sent to flatten Germany’s production and aircraft manufacturing facilities into smoldering rubble. For some strange reason, the Germans were really making things difficult for them.
Still reeling from their grinding defeat at the Battle of Kursk, in early 1944 Nazi Germany was being forced back all along the Eastern Front. Ok, cool, this was great and all, but total victory over Hitler’s goose-stepping minions was going to require a war on two fronts to be successful, which meant at some point there would have to be a joint American-British full-scale invasion of Europe through France to squeeze out Hitler’s forces. Easier said than done: Hitler had spent the last four years turning the entire French coastline into his so-called “Fortress Europe,” bristling with cannons and aircraft from Calais to the Pyrenees. Much like the Luftwaffe needed to take out England’s air defenses to mount a successful invasion if the British Isles, now the Allies needed to plaster the German war effort with a few million tons of high-explosives and grind it into ash before attempting a full-blown attack into France.
The not-so-cleverly-nicknamed “Big Week” was the Allied plan to spend seven days ruthlessly air-mailing explosives to enemy aircraft production facilities deep behind enemy lines. Day and night, wave after wave of American B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, and British Lancasters blasted shipyards, railroad junctions, power plants, airfields, steel production facilities, dams, and military bases relentlessly, igniting everything from ball bearing plants to oil refineries up into towering explosive fireballs and making it really really hard for anyone in Germany to build a working fighter plane.
These gigantic Bomber raids were nothing new for Lieutenant Lawley. A 23 year-old Alabama boy, this veteran pilot had already flown nine missions over Germany in the last year, running a brutal gauntlet of anti-aircraft cannons and enemy fighter planes every single time. This was his tenth mission, but the first at the controls of a brand-new B-17, nicknamed Cabin in the Sky III because the first two Cabin in the Sky aircraft under Lawley’s command had already been blown up. Cabin was named after a musical that is significant because it marked the first on-screen appearance of the moonwalk that Michael Jackson made so famous in the 80s, a fact that contributes very little to World War II history but is cool nonetheless.
The target was an aircraft production plant deep in the German city of Leipzig, a hardened enemy fortress city just a two-hour drive from downtown Berlin. The Nazis, fighting on their own turf, were determined to use everything they had to stop Lawley and his buddies from their mission.
Flying Fortress wasn’t just a clever name for the Boeing B-17 bomber. This airborne behemoth was a four-engine, 15-ton armored tank with wings and enough machine guns to carve a small mountain into something resembling a giant chunk of Swiss cheese. It had a crew of ten – the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bombardier and radioman all worked together to bring the plane into position and release the bombs, and then there were four guys assigned as machine gunners. The ball turret gunner sat in the “suicide seat”, a small, cramped little circular dome popping out from under the airplane that looked like those plastic balls you see at a McDonald’s PlayPalace except it sported twin .50-caliber machine guns and swiveled a full 360 degrees in a circle. The tail gunner wedged himself into a tiny little compartment in the back of the aircraft and was responsible for taking out enemy fighters that dropped in behind the B-17. There were also two machine gunners in the waist of the plane, each manning a gun facing a different side. Add that in with a top-mounted double-machine-gun turret for the flight engineer and a front-facing double-MG turret sticking out below the cockpit for the bombardier and pack it into an armored hull capable of withstanding extreme punishment from enemy aircraft and you’ve got, well, a flying fortress.
Over four hundred of these aircraft blackened the sky above Leipzig as the B-17s of the American Eighth Air Force made their attack run. Peering through their mostly-accurate state-of-the-art Norden bombsights and updating their calculations, bombardiers zeroed in on their targets and let fly, releasing thousands of pounds of high explosives plummeting five miles to earth to explode in a carpet of flame and shrapnel. In his rumbling cockpit, braving temperatures running in the negative-fifty degrees Fahrenheit, Lieutenant Lawley breathed oxygen through a gas mask because this was back before cool things like pressurized, heated aircraft. Holding the plane perfectly steady to give his bombardier a stable firing platform was risky because it made Lawley’s plane a pretty cherry target for German ground gunners, but that’s one of the risks you take.
Bomb explosions rippled the German countryside like a handful of rocks thrown into a lake, each pop representing a leveled building or factory, but on Cabin in the Sky there was a problem – the bomb doors didn’t open. Ice from the extreme cold temperatures of the high altitude had frozen the bomb racks in place, and they didn’t deploy with the rest of the American planes. So as the rest of the B-17s accelerated forward, relieved of their heavy bomb loads, Cabin in the Sky lagged slightly behind. Lawley opened the throttle to try and compensate.
Suddenly voices on Cabin in the Sky’s intercom called out another finger four formation of Focke-Wulfs, this time diving down from behind. With the sun at their backs, blinding the tail gunner, the Focke-Wulfs ignored the deadly clouds of flak ripping apart the sky around them and hurtled straight into the B-17 formation. Their 20mm cannons struck home at one of Lawley’s wingmen, catching her engines on fire and ungracefully dropping her out of the sky like a brick, trailing a black cloud of smoke and flame.
Another flak explosion hit even closer, rocking Cabin in the Sky and peppering one of the engines with shards of metal, causing it to burst into flames. Lawley ordered the copilot to shut it down and kept moving.
More calls came in. Six o’clock low. Three o’clock level. The Nazis were everywhere, attacking from seemingly every direction at once. The B-17s stuck close together like a herd of bison, knowing that the only way to survive was to stay close and lay down heavy fields of machine gun fire.
As his gunners fired in every direction, Lawley looked through his cockpit window to see a fleet of twenty or so 190s drop down in front of him, pick out targets, and open fire. With a deafening crash, a 20mm high explosive autocannon shell bust through the front window of Cabin in the Sky, exploding in the cockpit. Everything went black.
Lawley snapped awake seconds later, his ears ringing like he’d been inside a church bell when it went off. Alarms were going off all across his console, which was now decorated with shards of shrapnel sticking out of it from every direction. His right arm was shattered. Through blurry vision, Lawley saw his co-pilot slumped over dead, his body laying on the control stick pushing it forward. The plane was in a steep dive, made all the worse by the fact that it still had loaded bomb racks. The pilot-side window was smashed, and broken glass had gone into Lawley’s face, arms, and side. The windshield was so smeared with blood and oil that you could barely see out of it. Another engine was one fire.
Amazingly, Lieutenant William Lawley didn’t panic.
He did his job.
Determined to keep his plane and his crew alive, the veteran USAAF pilot reached out with his shattered right arm, grabbed his dead co-pilot, and somehow pulled him back off the controls. Then, with just his left hand, he manually fought a 15-ton bomber aircraft out of a ninety-degree nose-first dive at 12,000 feet, leveled it off, and shut down the second burning engine. Looking up, he saw the Focke-Wulf pilots circling around for another pass, so this grim warrior made an evasive turn, dove the plane down into the cloud cover, and accelerated out of there as fast as he could.
Other B-17s in the formation had radioed Cabin in the Sky as Killed in Action, but somehow William Lawley managed to evade the enemy fighters and get the heck out of Leipzig. He flew across Germany, dodging enemy AA positions, then flew in low over the French countryside and ordered the surviving eight members of his crew to grab parachutes and bail out.
It was then that he learned all eight crewmen were wounded in the attack, and that two of them were hurt so bad they couldn’t possibly go skydiving right now.
Lawley said ok. I’m going to get us home then.
Nobody jumped out of the plane.
The bombardier eventually got the racks unstuck and released his bombs over an unimportant part of the French countryside, but before long another squadron of Me-109 fighters picked up the wounded B-17 on radar and came swooping in for the kill. With his guys running to their guns to bark .50-caliber machine gun fire, Lawley hammered the stick of his crippled plane, dodging and evading with one arm and somehow eluding enemy fighters one more time. In the process, however, he had to use more fuel than he’d have liked, and one of the two remaining engines was now almost completely out of gas.
Once the coast was clear and the Messerschmitt fighter planes were gone, Lawley leveled off the plane and promptly passed out from loss of blood.
This was the days before autopilot, and Lawley was the only guy who knew how to fly the plane. Luckily his navigator figured out what was up and woke him up pretty much right away.
Cabin in the Sky somehow reached the English Channel against all odds, received emergency landing permission from a Canadian fighter base on the English coast and, just in case you’re wondering how the heck this could possibly get any worse, when William Lawley hit the button to drop his landing gear wheels… you guessed it… they didn’t deploy.
So, limping in in with three burned-out engines, “feathering” his only working one by pumping it off-and-on with small amounts of gas, half blinded by broken glass, exhausted from loss of blood, and with no landing gear, eight wounded crew members, and one good arm, Lieutenant William Lawley attempted to crash land a 15-ton Flying Fortress on a grass airfield about the size of a soccer pitch.
He came in hard on his belly, sliding across the airfield, finally coming to a rest just outside the Canadian barracks. Every member of his crew survived.
Lawley would walk out of the wreckage, spend a few weeks in the hospital, and make a full recovery.
He’d successfully pilot four more bombing missions before the war was over.
The wreckage of Lawley's aircraft after landing.