B-17s of the 305th Bomb Group fly over Schweinfurt IWM
Share this

Black Thursday: The Second Schweinfurt Raid

On Thursday 14 October 1943, B-17 Flying Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force amassed for an all-out air offensive on the production plants of Schweinfurt. The long-range penetration into Germany would become a pivotal moment in the American strategic bombing campaign, earning the nickname "Black Thursday", and coming at a tremendous human cost to the Eighth Force, which was already reeling from huge losses over the preceding days.

It was the week that felt like it would never end for 305th Bomb Group Waist Gunner Thomas Therrien and 351st Pilot David Palmer. In the span of only a few days, their units had suffered unprecedented losses in raids on Bremen, Anklam, and Munster, as part of the Eighth Air Force’s Combined Bomber Offensive. On 14th October, the bomber crews of the Eighth Air Force were once again called into action. Their target was the ball bearing factories of Schweinfurt. By destroying these important production plants, it was hoped that Germany's industrial strength would be severely hampered. For both Therrien and Palmer, Schweinfurt would be their 25th, and final mission. Complete this raid and they’d have earned the right to return home to the United States – the stakes couldn’t be higher.

In briefing rooms up and down the east of England, the announcement of Schweinfurt as the day’s target elicited a chorus of groans from the assembled crews. In August the Eighth Air Force had launched an ambitious attempt to cripple the German aircraft industry with a double-strike mission on Schweinfurt and Regensburg. This long-range raid had disastrous results: sixty bombers were lost and many more suffered irreparable damage. It had taken three months to return the Eighth Air Force to a strength capable of returning to Schweinfurt. This time, the entire force – 291 B-17 Flying Fortresses – would be sent to the city.

The crew of The Duchess pose in front of their B-17 IWM

Having taken off from Polebrook, Lt David Palmer settled in for the long journey to the target. Aged just twenty, Palmer was one of the youngest pilots in his squadron. During the five months he had been co-piloting “The Duchess”, he’d taken part in the Eighth’s farthest mission to date – a diversionary raid on Anklam - and flew with film star Clark Gable. In his pocket he kept five dimes, given to him by his High School sweetheart as a lucky charm to help bring him home to Seattle.

< The crew of The Duchess

Elsewhere in the formation, 21-year-old Thomas Therrien, a native of Brockton, Massachusetts, scoured the skies for enemy aircraft. Therrien was part of the 305th Bomb Group based at Chelveston and was a member of the crew led by pilot Neal Fisher. 

Located deep in the heart of Germany, the target was well beyond the range of escort fighters. Spitfires and P-47s equipped with drop tanks would escort the bombers halfway to the target, but from then on, the bombers would have to fend for themselves. Therrien gripped his waist gun as the Spitfires wagged their wings and headed for home, having reached the end of their range. 

Almost as soon as the escort aircraft left, Luftwaffe single-engine fighters swooped in on the bombers, firing head-on. The first wave was swiftly followed by an attack from Ju-88 fighters, firing 20cm rockets from outside of the defensive range of the B-17s. The bombers, now scattered, were easy prey for the marauding Luftwaffe, who launched continuous attacks all the way to the target. 


Once over Schweinfurt, flak took the place of the fighters, barraging the B-17s as they crossed over the city. Now on the bomb run, David Palmer struggled to keep “The Duchess” straight and level as flak burst around him. The bomber lurched as a shell ripped through engine number three, knocking it out of action. Finally, the mauled aircraft received the signal to drop its bomb load and turned for the long journey back to England, as enemy fighters continued to torment the battle-worn B-17s. 

Bombsight photo of Schweinfurt UPL 32153

< A bombsight photograph of Schweinfurt. The mission target was the city's ball bearing plants, which were producing nearly two-thirds of Germany's ball bearings. 

Therrien’s B-17 was lagging dangerously behind the rest of the 305th formation as it made its way to the German border. In the belly of the bomber, Therrien began firing as the call of “Bogies!” blared out over the intercom, crimson tracers dancing across the sky. Cannon fire pierced through the thin aluminium of the B-17, knocking out the intercom system and wounding Thomas Therrien’s fellow waist gunner, Loren Fink. As the B-17 heaved and groaned under the barrage, the order to bail out was passed down the fuselage. Therrien helped Fink and the wounded radio operator out of the waist door before preparing to jump. At that moment the plane lurched under another torrent of bullets and Therrien was pushed back into the aircraft. Re-emerging at the door, he was struck by a 20mm shell, which killed him before he could jump. Four members of the crew died, while the remaining six were taken as Prisoners of War. Thomas Therrien is buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium. 

The Schweinfurt Raid was lauded as a success by USAAF planners, but intelligence would show that its impact on German industry was minimal. In all, the Eighth Air Force lost sixty B-17s, with a further seventeen no longer airworthy. Worse still, 600 men had been killed, wounded, or missing in action, totaling almost 20 percent of those who took part in the mission. The raid has strategic implications far beyond the loss of men and machines. The danger of flying unescorted missions deep into enemy territory had been proven to be unsustainable, and for the remainder of 1943, USAAF planners would restrict raids to France, the European coastline, and the Ruhr Valley. “Black Thursday” signaled a turning point in Eighth Air Force doctrine and the flawed belief that a mass formation of bombers could defend itself against enemy fighters. It was an important lesson and one that was learned at the cost of men like Thomas Therrien, who were victims of attacks by enemy fighters.

For David Palmer, touching down at Polebrook brought an end to five months of combat flying. Speaking to his hometown newspaper on his return to the States, he called Schweinfurt the most memorable of his 25 missions, “It was plenty hot, and don’t let anyone tell you those German fighters aren’t good. They’re too darn good.”  Palmer was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his action at Schweinfurt, but it was his lucky charm that he valued most, “I still have the five American dimes I’ve carried with me on every raid. I’m going to keep them for the rest of my life.”

Personnel of the 305th Bomb Group examine a flag captured by US infantry in Schweinfurt FRE 1115

At Chelveston, the ground crew of the 305th waited in nervous anticipation for the return of the group’s bombers. Three B-17s touched down on the runway, before the sky fell eerily silent. Thirteen aircraft had failed to return, with a loss of 130 men – the highest casualty rates of any bomb group in that action. 

< In April 1945 the 305th were given the Nazi flag that flew above the city when it was captured by the US 42nd Infantry Division.