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The Luftwaffe Almost Downs Jimmy Doolittle

On Nov. 5, 1942, as the Torch convoy steamed through a gale, Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff prepared to leave their headquarters in London for Gibraltar to be closer to the Allied amphibious landing operation of French Northwest Africa, scheduled for Nov. 8. Six B-17s converted for passenger use were assigned to take them on the 1,200-mile, eight-hour flight.

“I took Lohr’s place in the copilot’s seat and realized we were in real trouble. . . .”

– Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle, commanding officer 12th Air Force

Among the members of Eisenhower’s staff was Brig. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, hero of the Doolittle Raid on Japan earlier that April. Doolittle’s B-17 pilot was Lt. John C. Summers, and the co-pilot was Lt. Thomas F. Lohr. In addition to Doolittle, passengers included assistant chief of staff Brig. Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer (later Army Chief of Staff, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Supreme Allied Commander, NATO), adjutant general Col. T. J. Davis, public relations officer Maj. Joe Phillips (a former editor of Newsweek), political advisor Freeman Matthews, and W. H. B. Mack of the British Foreign Office.

Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle

Then-Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle was almost shot down after the unescorted B-17 he was traveling in was jumped by German Ju-88s over the Bay of Biscay. U.S. Air Force photo

Weather that morning was foul. Despite flight conditions judged marginal, the decision was made to proceed. Trouble began for Doolittle even before take off. As Summers began taxiing his B-17 into position, the pilot discovered that his airplane’s brakes had failed. “Hit the wobble pump,” he shouted to Lohr. The copilot desperately began working the emergency hydraulic pump in an effort to inject fluid into the brake lines. Slowly, with a terrifying inevitability, Summers’ B-17 rolled toward the other five B-17s idling in the flight line, with everyone except Summers and Lohr unaware of the impending catastrophe. Unless his plane’s brakes were restored, Summers’ B-17 would crash into the other bombers, bursting tanks full of aviation gasoline and igniting a gigantic fireball that would at the very least cripple Torch’s high command at the worst possible moment.

Just before impact Lohr managed to inject enough hydraulic fluid into the left brake line. Summers slammed on that brake pedal and horsed the roughly 20-ton bomber away from the flight line and into the mud bordering the access runway, where it stopped. Disaster averted, the other five B-17s lifted off.

Repairs took all day. On the morning of Nov. 6, Summers’ B-17 soared into the air without incident. In their conversion for passenger use the six bombers had been stripped of most of their defensive armament, leaving them only four machine guns: one each in the nose and rear-facing radio compartment, and twin mounts in the top and ball turrets. Also, the abbreviated aircrews contained no gunners. The flight path called for them to fly over the Bay of Biscay and hopefully well away from Luftwaffe patrols. Summers’ B-17 had been uneventfully flying for about four hours when the pilot saw four twin-engine Ju-88 fighter-bombers approaching.

The Ju-88s split into two two-plane elements and took up flanking positions straddling the bomber, apparently to size up their quarry before they attacked. Lemnitzer manned the radio compartment’s machine gun and commenced firing. Summers, meanwhile, firewalled the throttles and put the four-engine bomber into a dive, intending a high-speed run just above the waves. As the Ju-88s made a head-on attack, Summers kicked the B-17 into a skid that threw off their aim.

But with the second pass bullets ripped into the number-three engine and cockpit. Alerted by Summers, Doolittle helped pull a badly wounded Lohr into the passenger compartment. As others applied first aid, Doolittle took Lohr’s place in the copilot seat. Though an expert pilot, Doolittle had never before flown a B-17. While Summers wrestled to keep the B-17 flying, Doolittle worked to feather the propeller of the damaged engine to reduce drag and further damage.


Three Ju-88s in flight. Four Ju-88 fighter-bombers attacked Brig. Gen. Doolittle’s unescorted B-17 while it was in enroute to Gibralter. Bundesarchive photo

The Ju-88s made a few more passes, with Lemnitzer returning fire. Then, running low on fuel and with one Ju-88 trailing smoke, the enemy aircraft broke away and headed home.

Doolittle noted in his pilot logbook the fact that in his first combat mission as commander of the 12th Air Force he had logged two hours of B-17 copilot combat time.

Summers got his damaged B-17 to Gibraltar, and later that evening Doolittle noted in his pilot logbook the fact that in his first combat mission as commander of the 12th Air Force he had logged two hours of B-17 copilot combat time.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

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    Robert F. Dorr

    This is a terrific piece of history by a terrific writer. In my book “MiSSION TO BERLIN,” most of which takes place after Doolittle became commander of the Eighth Air Force, it’s mentioned that during his time in the Mediterranean Theater, Doolittle was aboard an American bomber over Rome. Doolittle wanted to accompany his men during their “MISSION TO BERLIN,” but his bosses forbade it. Had he journeyed to Berlin, Doolittle would have become the only Allied pilot to bomb all three Axis capitals.