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Dogfight over Paris

Dogfight over Paris

 A souvenir from 1st Lieutenant Henry C. Woodrum, formerly with the 344th Bomb Group (M), 9th USAAF

“While flying my thirty-fifth mission, with the 344th Bomb Group to attack bridges across the Seine River near Paris on 28 May 1944, I was shot down by German flak. The following day I contacted members of the Resistance. They took good care of me and for five days I was hidden in a small tavern where I ate well and was treated royally as the guest of a fine couple, Carlos and Maria. They spoke excellent English, having spent many years in New York City where Carlos had led a rhumba band at the Waldorf-Astoria, and were glad to aid an American.

“On Thursday, 2nd June, I was moved to an apartment on the top floor of a building on the ruede Chantier in Versailles. There I was the guest of Charles and Delise. From their windows I could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance to the northeast. Less than four miles to the east I could see German aircraft taking off from Villacoublay aerodrome. At first there was only moderate activity, but on D-Day things really picked up, reaching a peak which was sustained for several days.

“Flights began arriving at dawn to refuel and fly shuttle runs to the invasion beachhead throughout the day. Often they returned individually, badly battered and damaged. Just before dark, they would refuel and fly to the more remote fields of eastern France to escape the night-bombing RAF. I was always amazed to witness their mass departures because they were so unorthodox compared with American techniques. “Their take-off procedure seemed to consist solely of a left climbing turn at maximum climb after gear-up. There was no regular interval between take-offs. Each plane departed when it was ready, started the left climbing turn and merged with the swirl of snarling aircraft.

“The first big mission departure I saw was on D-Day, before I learned of the Normandy landing a hundred miles or so to the west. It was about seven o’clock in the morning, and when I heard the sound of so many engines I pulled a chair over to the window and waited for something to happen. The revving of the engines continued, then suddenly a red-nosed Me 109 with red wingtips leapt up in a very steep angle, starting a left climbing turn. Others followed immediately, and with each new launch the stack grew higher and higher, forming one great, ever enlarging corkscrew-shaped spiral. When the last plane was airborne there must have been at least fifty fighters involved, and the whole shebang just seemed to collapse as the leader nosed his plane down, accelerating as the others tagged along in a sort of indiscriminate mass, behind, alongside, underneath and above him. Without an apparent pattern, they looked like a swarm of bees—either there was no precision or the utmost precision possible.

“I couldn’t tell which was the case, but they never flew it any other way. I watched them many times and never saw them have any trouble, but I couldn’t figure out how they could keep everyone in sight.

“That morning they headed westwards, and I wondered why such a large flight was in the area. It was far and away the largest I had seen, for most of the previous flights had been only small patrols.

“About two hours later, I heard several aircraft coming in from the west and looked out the living room window. The red-nosed Messerschmitt slanted hurriedly in, knifing down for a landing. There was a sense of urgency about it because he made no attempt to set up a preliminary pattern but maintained airspeed all the way through a long, straight-in approach. Before he touched down, out of sight behind the trees ringing the field, others flew in from the same direction. Several trailed smoke, one badly. Then another group came in, milling about over the field as they set up a landing priority. Some were Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. There must have been nearly a hundred fighters althogether. I remember counting more than sixty, and I missed several flights.

“Throughout the next half hour they continued to straggle in, revving their engines, jazzing them like kids in hot rods. The jazzing bit made me cringe. In B-26s we wanted power all the way in.

“Later, one of our own teams went into action. Charles learned that the marshalling yard was full of German tanks which were supposed to depart for Normandy that night. I wrote a note to an English agent who had contacted me, and he got the message off by portable radio units at about eight o’clock in the evening. Just before midnight it got results, for the RAF started a raid which lasted until one a.m. The marshalling yard was closer to our apartment than I had thought, and for the entire raid there were flashes from exploding bombs, crumbling buildings, the thudding wham of anti-aircraft batteries and the almost constant rocking of our building on its foundation. We finally went to bed about three a.m.

“The next morning I was still sleepy and stayed in bed, dozing until something awakened me. It as an unfamiliar sound, a sort of popping. Then came sounds I recognized—racing aircraft engines. I jumped out of bed and ran over to the window, dragging the sheet with me. Coming straight toward me at not more than fifty feet above the roof was an American P-51 Mustang, going flat out. Close behind it were five Fw 190s, sort of bunched together, flying like the bees again, and all of them were taking pot shots with their 20mm cannon at the poor old Yankee boy.

“I saw all this simultaneously, before the planes flashed by just over the rooftop. They were coming from the airfield towards the apartment, headed north-west. I could even see the pilot, tensely hunched over the controls. He was wearing a helmet and goggles and his chute straps showed plainly against the darker color of his A2 jacket; a patch of white scarf was visible at his throat. The checquered yellow, or maybe checquered yellow and white, nose of his plane was clear and distinct. The aircraft was unpainted, bright aluminum, and its marking—black letters and the national insignia—stood out. It had a bubble canopy, the first one I’d ever seen.

“As they passed overhead, I whirled and ran through the apartment, across the living room to the window at the balcony on the other side of the building. The fighters actually dipped lower going away, for our building stood on the side of a slope, and the terrain fell away toward the center of Versailles. They were soon out of sight, and I was sure the P-51 jockey was a goner. I turned away from the window and for the first time realized Delise was standing by my side and that I was wearing only a pair of shorts.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Albert, l’Américain?

“ ‘I think so, Delise, yes.’

“ ‘Ah . . . pas bon,’

“I went back into the bedroom and put on my pants and uppers. Then suddenly, Delise opened the door, shouting,

“ ‘Albert, ici, ici!’

“I followed her quickly into the living room and on to the tiny balcony. A couple of minutes had passed, with the battle unexpectedly continuing, but the tide had changed. Coming toward us from the south-west, still at roof-top level, were the six fighters, but leading the pack was a lonesome Fw 190, frantically trying to escape the P-51 pilot who was relentlessly hosing him with .50 caliber slugs in short, accurate bursts. Behind were the other four Jerries, holding their fire for fear of hitting the first Fw 190. Not more than 300 yards separated the first plane from the last.

“I began to really sweat out the American, though, because the Jerry was playing it cosy by heading straight for an anti-aircraft battery in a patch of woods. Sure enough, it opened fire. The Fw waggled his wing and the ground fire stopped, but the P-51 did the same thing and they didn’t shoot at him either. Its pilot continued firing, and the law of averages caught up with the German plane. It exploded in a great, angry, red and black and orange burst.

“The Mustang pilot flew through the debris, but he was again the hunted and being shot at, so he banked toward Villacoublay a mile or so away. As he started a low pass over the field, all the ack-ack in the base opened up, even on their own planes. The three on the left, nearest Paris, turned left to avoid the flak, but the other one was too far to the right and had to turn to the right to stay clear. The Mustang turned also, heading for the lone Fw which apparently lost sight of him momentarily. Within thirty seconds the Yank was sitting on his tail, taking pot shots at the Luftwaffe again. The two planes were now heading toward me, almost on the same track they had flown on their first pass over the house earlier. The other three were completing a wider turn and were grouped some distance behind, and even though no physical change had occurred, they didn’t seem to have the pouncing snarl or the look of the hunter so apparent in their first low-level pass. They straggled, trying to catch up, but they were too far back to save their buddy.

“Again I raced through the apartment to the other window. As the two planes came over, the thunder of their engines was punctuated by the short, ammo-saving bursts of the .50 calibers. Then, scraping over the rooftops, twisting and yawing, they crossed the city, and finally the Fw began to trail smoke. It nosed down into the horizon to merge with the red flame and black smoke-cloud of impact just west of town. (We learned later that the pilot got out alive but was badly injured.)

“The Yank racked the 51 around in a steep chandelle, right off the deck, almost reversing course. Two of the other 190s flashed past and pulled up also, but the third was a little further back and turned north, away from the tiger who continued his turn, diving a little now. With the height advantage for the first time, the Yank began firing on a dead pigeon. Smoke immediately trailed from the Fw, but the 51 pilot had to turn away as the other two planes closed in on him. The distressed Fw 190 limped away, trying to get back to Villacoublay, but crashed north of town several miles from the base. Now only two Germans were left, and the American had put a little distance between their planes and his.

“By this time I was absolutely going nuts. It was all I could to keep from shouting in English. Everybody else was excited too. People had come out on the rooftops of nearby apartments, and the balconies were full of men and women silently cheering for the crazy, lone American. I knew he would have a rough time from here on out. The last two wouldn’t give him any breaks. On the other hand, they were wary, which might be in his favor. They flew out of sight on the deck south-west of the city. It was quiet for a minute or two and the rooftop audience became restless, frustrated.

“They they returned, still on the deck, and the Yank was miraculously in the middle. They made a long pass across town while the Mustang closed to a range from which he couldn’t miss—I figured he was very low on ammunition. The 190 was trying to outrun him this time, but when he saw his nemisis so close behind, the pilot pulled up frantically. The .50s cut loose in a brief, shattering blast. The 190 nosed straight up and its engine died. As the prop windmilled almost to a stop, the plane began to stall about 1,000 to 1,500 feet off the deck, and the pilot bailed out, opening his parachute immediately. At first its slow, billowing trail made me think it would never open, but it blossomed full and white only a few feet above the trees between me and the Eiffel Tower, standing very tiny in the distance.

“Now the odds were even-up, and what had seemed an eternity to me had really happened in just a few minutes. I began to worry about other German fighters getting airborne to aid their shot-up air patrol, but they were either engaged elsewhere or were unable to fuel up, fearing attack from other aircraft.

“In the distance I could see the last two planes in another long, low arc. The American had started a gradual swing to the west, but he was not about to leave the deck. The Jerry was still behind him, but his guns were silent now, indicating he might also be low on ammunition. When they disappeared over the rim of the rolling hills west of the city the Mustang was taking evasive action, and I was sure the dogfight was almost over. The Jerry had the advantage and was sure to hold it. A moment later, a black, blotchy mushroom of smoke billowed upwards.

“I knew then that one hell of a good pilot had bought the farm. He had given it everything he had and reduced the odds from five to one to even before the end, and I wondered what he had thought when only that one Fw remained. Just a few pilots had ever shot down five German aircraft in one day.

“I noted the time and tried to fix the approximate location of the action and also made a mental note of the aircraft markings, determined to confirm the four victories if I ever got back to England. I just couldn’t forget the way the man had flown, dreaming up tactics as he went along, playing it by ear, only to have his luck run out a little too soon.

“The spectators on the rooftops felt as I did. They stood up slowly, gestured with their hands and went back inside. They seemed to feel a personal loss, almost as if they had been with the pilot themselves, pushing him on to victory with their will alone. They had prayed for his survival, now they prayed for his soul.

“Delise said nothing but went into the kitchen and returned with two glasses and a bottle of Armagnac. She filled the glasses, raised hers and said, ‘Le pilote Américain.’ Her voice was soft and her eyes brimmed.

“I nodded and we drank.

“I had a couple more—alone.

“I sat there thinking about the pilot and the action-packed few minutes just passed. Suddenly, after three weeks of almost no war at all, it was back with me again and then suddenly gone. All I could do was sit there and think.

“Twenty minutes later, Charles, Delise’s husband, came home. He was very excited and laughed as he asked if we’d seen the fight.

“ ‘Did you see the American kill those Germans?’

“ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘We saw. He got four of them. Four out of five.’

He looked at me and grinned, taking another sip of brandy, and suddenly I wanted to hit him, he looked so smug.

“ ‘Non. No, no! He got five. He got them all. I see . . . everything. Especially the last. It was magnificent.’

“He said this in a mixture of French and English, the way was always conversed. I wasn’t sure I understood. He launched into a stream of French I couldn’t understand, but it didn’t make any difference because I could tell he was certain the Yank had gotten all five. We had several more brandies before Charles calmed down enough to explain what had happened.

“ ‘Charles, how do you know he got them all?’

“ ‘Because I saw. Especially the second, third, and fifth, you know? The last was near me. I was at the garden. I have to rake—to hoe, you see? The last one he did not even shoot—much. They came near, so fast. There is this little hill, with woods. The planes almost skim the ground. The American goes zip, like so, around the hill once, and the German follows, but in a greater circle. It is like the cat and mouse. Then the second time the American plane slows—abruptly—its wheels drop out, you know? The German goes in, towards the American, now so much slower, and they are almost sideways, but he loses control of his machine. Only a kilometre or so from where I was standing he crashes into the woods. I jump up and down and wave my hoe and everybody does the same, but then the Germans come and we hide our smiles and I come home fast.’

“I thought about what must have happened. The American pilot was out of ammunition and had dropped his flaps and gear—everything—chopped his throttle, to slow down, forcing the German to turn in, risking a stall to make the German stall. The German didn’t have much choice. If he didn’t make one last try he would have wound up in front of the Mustang anyway—so he had made the try.

“Everybody I saw for the next few days talked about the dogfight. And coming so soon after D-Day, it gave all of us, me especially, a tremendous boost in morale.

“The plans to get me out of France by a night pick-up from a wheatfield didn’t materialize, and it was early September before I reached London. I reported the dogfight during my debriefing, but by that time I had forgotten a key factor—the aircraft marking, including the squadron code.

“Many years later, I spent several days in the Air Force Historical section at Maxwell Field, Alabama, trying to learn the name of the pilot by reading all operational reports submitted by Mustang pilots for the period. (Now I do not even remember the exact date.) I narrowed it down to twenty-one pilots. Several were killed on the missions involved and others had been killed later in Germany. One noted ‘confused fighting at house-top level in the Paris area’ but claimed no victories.

“As of now, the identity of the American pilot has never been verified, and it’s too bad. But there’s one thing I know. Even if I never find out who he was—it was the best damned dogfight I’ll ever see!”

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