Harry Herbert Crosby, Group Navigator, 100th Bomb Group (1919-2010) and “The Bloody Hundredth”

Two hours later, our formation together, we made a dogleg as we crossed the coast.  The Colonel came on intercom.

“Crosby, look at your 100th”

I stood up in my compartment and looked out the celestial dome.  There as high group of the wing behind us, were the Square D’s.  All the other groups were in tight formation, but the 100th was all over the sky.

The command pilot came back on, “That’s why all the other groups like to fly with the 100th.  The Luftwaffe go to them instead of us.”

The above is an extract from Harry Herbert Crosby’s book On A Wing And A Prayer, who was one of the original crew who was with the 100th when they were formed in 1942 in the USA.

The 100th, or “The Bloody Hundredth” as they were known, are often thought of as a problem group of the 8th Air Force, chiefly due to the heavy losses they sustained and reports of ill-discipline.  During 1943 and 44, each time the 100th lost aircraft, they lost big.

They were formed in the United States in 1942 and arrived at RAF Podington on 2 June 1943, before transferring to their permanent base at Thorpe Abbotts. The first few months of the 8th’s involvement in the air war consisted of small (in comparison to RAF raids) missions to targets in the North of France.  As more aircraft and aircrews arrived from the United States, the missions went deeper into enemy territory, for a longer duration, and losses began to mount.

On one particular mission on 17 August 1943, the infamous “Regensburg Raid”, the 100th lost 9 of 21 crews.  Harry Crosby flew as Lead Navigator for the Group on this day.  Then during “Black Week” in October 1943, the Group was devastated. They lost 7 of 21 aircraft over Bremen on the 8th, with no losses on the 9th over Marienburg, but plenty of flak damage.  On the 10th they lost an incredible 12 of 13 aircraft – all they could put in the air – that they sent to Munster.  To conclude the week, the Group could only put 8 aircraft in the air, tagged onto aircraft from two other Groups, to go to Schweinfurt on the 14th.

Harry Crosby flew on the Bremen mission on the 8th October and barely made it back.  His pilot Everett Blakely, made a crash landing at RAF Ludham – a disused fighter base – and the aircraft was written off.  Over 1200 holes were counted in the aircraft.

The Black Week missions nearly saw off the last of the original 100th Bomb Group crews who had made the trip over from the USA earlier that year.  There were only a handful of the originals left. Two highly respected Squadron Commanders went down on those days as well – Major Bucky Cleven on the 8th and Major Bucky Egan on the 10th, which was a huge blow to the morale of the Group.

After the ordeal on the 8th on the Bremen mission, Crosby was immediately sent on R&R and made a phone call back to base on the 10th to get the news, in code, as to how the Group had done over Munster.

The weatherman breaks the code.  “Egan’s gone.  Your old crew is gone.  The whole Group is gone. The only one who came back was the new crew on the 418th.  They call him Rosie.”

Crosby’s original crew, led by John Brady went down over Munster and this was Crosby’s last mission with the Blakely crew. The loss of Bucky Cleven and Bucky Egan during Black Week hit the Group hard.  It cut the heart right out of the 100th.  These two men were the epitome of what it was to be a US pilot at that time.  They walked with swagger – they were influential and much respected.  Every pilot in the group wanted to be like the two Buckys.

Crosby speculates in his book that whilst these men were considered heroes to the men of 100th, they did not provide the type of leadership the Group needed at the time. The generally accepted theory as to why the 100th consistently lost heavily is that their formation work was not as tight as other groups – and often this is put down to the leadership of the Group. In the early days, under the Command of “Chick” Harding the group was very much out of favour with General Curtis LeMay, head of the 8th Air Force.  The Group’s formations were loose, losses were occasionally heavy, and there were more fights with the local population than occurred in other Groups.

There is another story that tries to explain the 100th’s losses, now infamous amongst historians, that of the “Wheels Down Incident”.  On a mission in mid 1943 it has been said that the Knox crew, having suffered heavy damage, turned and tried to make for home.  As enemy fighters converged and the pilot saw getting back was unlikely, he lowered the aircraft’s wheels – a generally accepted sign of surrender – and ordered the crew to bail out. Unknown to the pilot, the aircraft’s intercom was inoperative and the gunners didn’t realise the aircraft’s wheels were down and they should bail out.  As the German fighters formatted on the B-17, assuming they were safe and waiting for the crew to bail out, several were destroyed by the gunners. The story continues that in future, German fighter pilots deliberately sought out the “Square D” on the tail to enact revenge on the 100th.  There is plenty of debate as to the accuracy of this story.

Curtis LeMay called the Group Commander Chick Harding after Black Week, to discuss the immediate future of the Group, but Harding refused to stand the 100th down – “The 100th never goes off Ops.” LeMay stated after the War that one of the biggest mistakes of his career was not doing anything about the leadership of the 100th.  Harding eventually left the Group on 7 March 1944 (a day after the 100th had lost 15 of 35 planes over Berlin) to return to the US due to extreme ill health.

For the next two months, excluding one week in April 1944, the Group was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Bennett.  Bennett had been with the Group as Squadron Commander of the 349th Squadron since late 1943 and he is given much credit by Crosby;

“After Bennett implemented a shakeup with two new squadron commanders, a new Air Exec, Ground Exec, S-2 and a new adjutant, you knew this guy meant business. The group flew better formations; we flew, flew and flew. More of us survived and got to go home. For that, I give a great deal of credit to one man, Lt Col John Bennett”.

It seemed Bennett was the kind of leader that had been missing during the dark days in 1943.

From this point on, the 100th grew in stature, they no longer lost as heavily or as regularly as they previously did – although there were still many losses and tough missions.  The strict leadership and discipline continued under Tom Jeffrey, the next Group CO.

As for Crosby, he became Group Navigator and was a Major when the war ended.  He did not remain in the military for long after the war.  “Croz “ and many of his 100th colleagues became very anti-war in later life. It is clear that he was a very modest man, he often recounts in his book, his extreme good fortune in making rendezvous and getting the formation to the right place and the right time, but one feels there must have been more than just luck playing it’s part. As for the Bloody Hundredth, they still exist in the form of the 100th Aerial Refuelling Wing at RAF Mildenhall – and their KC-135s still bear the infamous Square D on their tails.

Harry Crosby died on 28 July 2010, aged 91.  If you only read one book a year, get hold of a copy of On A Wing and a Prayer and keep his memory, and the spirit of the 100th alive.

Many thanks must go to the Official Site of the 100th Bomb Group (Heavy) – http://www.100thbg.com/, whose website the above illustrations have come from.  There is a wealth of information on the site as well as hundreds more photographs, so if this era interests you, please visit the site.