James was a ‘togglier’ and gunner with the 398th Bomb Group, based at Nuthampstead, responsible for dropping his aircraft’s bombs. The USAAF had begun to use a method that relied on only one of the aircraft aiming its bombs. The other aircraft had ‘toggliers’: men who would ‘toggle’ the switch to release their aircraft’s bombs over the target. A togglier’s job may have been simpler than a bombardier’s, but it was just as dangerous. ‘I got hit on my left leg over Berlin. We came home a lot of times with 110 to 120 holes in the plane.’
Staff Sergeant Crouch was with the 398th BG one of the later B-17 Groups to arrive England and based at Nuthampstead from April 1944 to June 1945. His training in the USA had been thorough and wide-ranging. Initially a waist gunner he then spent a year as an instructor, first on armour and then on bombing techniques in Rapid City South Dakota.
Already crewed up when they went overseas Crouch flew 18 missions as waist gunner, then 11 more as a 'togglier'. When a gunner his pilot was Captain Frazier whose co-pilot was quite often the Group Commander Colonel Frank Hunter who always opted to fly on the toughest missions, a man greatly respected by Crouch. The togglier was effectively the bomb aimer and, as his position was in the nose of the plane, he was the most vulnerabe. His job to follow the lead bomber and drop over the target; if that failed - as it frequently did - they woulld seek out 'targets of opportunity'.
Describing the procedure for a mission Crouch relates that on such days they were woken any time from midnight to 2 am. followed by breakfast and specific briefings. The average length of a mission was eight hours during which time they had no food or drink except a few pieces of 'hard candy'; their next meal coming at 10 or 11 pm when they returned to base. In May 1944 he flew four missions in five days 'for two days I didn't see a bed'. Among the hazards experienced by aircrew were lack of sleep, the discomforts of flying at heights of over 10,000 ft which included lack of oxygen and freezing temperatures- sometimes 50 or 60 degrees below zero- , bulky and cumbersome layers of clothing and a state of constant tension. The planes would fly home with multiple holes as a result of flak, sometimes on two engines and once Crouch's aircraft even crossed the Channel on one engine.
His roughest mission was that of 2nd November 1944 when some 1100 heavy bombers escorted by 900 fighters (accounts vary) attacked the synthetic oil plant at Merseberg in Germany. 'They told us that the Lutwaffe was whipped......we flew through 29 minutes of flak and when we came out of there an estimated 600 fighters hit us.....they were just picking us off one by one....we came out of there all shot to pieces'. Crouch recalls that on that particular mission they melted three gun barrels by firing non-stop at the attacking fighters - instead of the recommended short bursts - who came at them from the rear. Their own aircraft was forced to fly at tree-top level and they eventually landed at an emergency airfield in England, the plane a complete write-off. On another mission two of the Group aircraft collided on the runway blowing both to pieces, chunks 'as big as a small car' hitting the other planes taking off. There were sadly colllisions mid-air due to miscalculations or change in weather conditions and on any mission there were always planes that didn't make the target because of technical problems.
Crouch emphasises the fact that every mission was rough on all the crews but when they did get back at night they would sit around and joke about it; 'the missions never got to bothering me until right toward the last......after the November 24th mission I would have quit'. A lot of men did break down and have to be stretchered off when the planes got back to base. His final mission was flown 24th December in support of the army trapped in the Ardennes and, shortly after the New Year, came orders to return home. Thereafter he was to spend 32 days in hospital at Miami Beach on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Another casualty of war but one who was to recover from his experiences and lead a full life.
Units served with
The 398th Bomb Group flew B-17 Flying Fortresses from Nuthampstead, Hertfordshire on strategic bombing raids over Germany. The Group switched focus in the days before D-Day, when they targeted enemy positions on the Cherbourg peninsula. When the Allied...