Bomber Command Raid on a German Town – Böblingen, 7 October 1943

I often write in this dialogue with you about the local history of Cambridgeshire, and frequently about the efforts during the Second World War which originated from the bases and airfields spread throughout southeast England.  However, this week I find myself in the small town of Böblingen, Baden-Wurttemburg, in southwest Germany. It is an ancient town which was accidentally bombed during the war, bombed and destroyed.  Here one sees the horrific reality of what 8th Air Force and Bomber Command’s strategic bombing wrought on the ground.  The level of destruction waves of heavy bombers were capable of achieving in an effort to destroy Germany’s military might is sobering.  This small town is but one example of millions of lives that were horrifically changed by the Second World War – and is not a judgment on guilt or innocence – but is simply what happened.

"Böblingen 01 1939-07-01" by Ansgar Walk - Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk.  The town on 1 July 1939.

“Böblingen 01 1939-07-01” by Ansgar Walk – Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk. The town on 1 July 1939.

On the night of 7 October 1943, 343 Avro Lancaster Bombers, launching from airfields in Cambridgeshire and beyond, formed up and began a major night raid on the military-industrial targets of Stuttgart.  It was overcast and dark, some of the aircraft from the 101st squadron were equipped with night-fighter jamming equipment (this was “CIGAR” first operational use in a combat mission). This allowed the bombers to conduct the raid with little resistance.  A diversionary raid on Munich further confused the German fighters and the bombers reached their targets relatively unhindered and dropped waves of ordnance, explosives followed by incendiary bombs, losing only four aircraft that night.  The mission was hailed as a success – for the industrial capacity of Stuttgart needed to be destroyed to slow the German war machine.

Things were very different in the sleepy town of Böblingen, 10 miles southwest of Stuttgart, where no military targets were located.  By mistake, one of the two pathfinders which dropped aerial markers to guide in the remaining bombers, marked Böblingen instead of the industrial facilities of Stuttgart.  Following the pathfinder’s lead, the Lancasters dropped 35 high-explosive bombs before over 400 incendiary bombs over the unsuspecting town.  The Schloβberg, church, and over 70% of the old town was destroyed.  1,735 people lost their homes, and most tragically, 44 people died including 24 women and children.  As I walked around the Schloβberg this week, which still is the central part of the rebuilt town, I found small intact pieces of the medieval castle which survived the night.  One can still see the black scorching on the medieval stones, which were burned permanently into the rock by the inferno caused by the incendiaries.  It isn’t hard to picture the horror of that night to the people of this small town, rushing about, seeking shelter and tending to the destruction.

"Zentrum von Böblingen nach dem Bombenangriff vom 7./8. Oktober 1943." Date 12 October 1943  Source Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk. Photograph by Ansgar Walk .

“Zentrum von Böblingen nach dem Bombenangriff vom 7./8. Oktober 1943.” Date 12 October 1943
Source Foto erstellt von Ansgar Walk. Photograph by Ansgar Walk . The shell of the nave of the protestant church can be seen in the center of the photo, where the remembrance memorial now stands.

A small piece of the Boblingen castle, completely destroyed on the night of 7 October 1943.  This piece of archway lies buried in the hillside. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

A small piece of the Boblingen castle, completely destroyed on the night of 7 October 1943. This piece of archway lies buried in the hillside. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

A medieval tower remained after the bombing of the castle.  It now is perched on the highstreet, between buildings from the 1950s and beyond.  A testament to the almost complete destruction of Boblingen's center. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

A medieval tower remained after the bombing of the castle. It now is perched on the highstreet, between buildings from the 1950s and beyond. A testament to the almost complete destruction of Boblingen’s center. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

On the back of the rebuilt protestant church, which was just a shell of stone after the night’s bombing, I found a small stone marker that commemorates the loss of that night – a phoenix flies up from the ashes – and the inscription reads: “Destroyed by bombs during the night of 7/8 October 1943, rebuilt 1949/1950 for the glory of God.”

The memorial stone on the rebuilt nave of the protestant church in Boblingen. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The memorial stone on the rebuilt nave of the protestant church in Boblingen. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

Sadly, another very similar event happened in 1944, when Böblingen was once again struck out of confusion by bombers seeking the heavy industry of Stuttgart.  More deaths, more destruction in this small town so desperately affected by the Second World War.

A check of the Statistisches Bundesamt, the Federal German Records Office, shows that in the last census before the war, Böblingen had a population in 1939 of 12,560.  In 1946, 10,809 people were counted in the town.  1,751 people had disappeared from the town.  Behind those numbers are enormous tragedies: lost civilians in the raids yes, but also lost soldiers, dispossessed families that left never to return, and even those murdered by the regime.  Time has passed now and I don’t seek to judge or to search for any more horror here. A tragedy has woven together with accidental targeting of an unimportant town, spurred by the deliberate bombing of military-industrial targets, the civilian losses, the impact of the war on these people, but also the crews of the four Lancasters which were lost that night, and the overall efforts of so many for so long during a dreadful time. The greater tragedy of the Second World War can best be found in seeking the personal stories, the human struggles of so many in the face of such horror over so long.

Writing to you from Böblingen, Germany.  Brandon.

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RAF Glatton and the 457th Bomb Group (Heavy)

Between Huntingdon and Peterborough, in the west of Cambridgeshire lies the small village of Conington. With its beautiful All Saints Church, first mentioned in Domesday Book and rebuilt in the early 16th Century, and remarkably beautiful cottages and homes perched on the edge of the fens, one can hardly imagine that 70 years ago this was the home of four squadrons of B-17 Flying Fortresses, roaring into the air almost daily for targets in Germany and Occupied Europe.

The Control Tower, now demolished, of RAF Glatton, taken on 31 March 1945. In the distance, to the left of the tower, a B-17 is visible on the taxiway. US Air Force Photograph, in the public domain.

The Control Tower, now demolished, of RAF Glatton, taken on 31 March 1945. In the distance, to the left of the tower, a B-17 is visible on the taxiway. US Air Force Photograph, in the public domain.

In the Second World War, Conington was located next to Royal Air Force Station Glatton, which was constructed to Class “A” standards by engineers to support heavy bombers in 1943 with the intent of being used by the U.S. Army Air Forces in the strategic bombing campaing. The 457th Bombardment Group (Heavy) arrived on 21 January 1944, consisting of the 748th, 749th, 750th and 751st Bombardment Squadrons. The recognizable tail code of the 457th was the “triangle U” painted on the vertical stabilizers of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses which operated from the air base. The 457th Bomb Group operated RAF Glatton from January 1944 until 20 April 1945, when it completed its 237th and last combat mission at the conclusion of the war.

Before June 1944, the 457th operated on attacking stategic targets in Germany – munitions factories, ball-bearing plants, marshalling yards and oil refineries. On D-Day, the 457th flew missions against Cherbourg Peninsula, attacking German positions off the east flank of American forces landing at Utah and Omaha beaches. By July 1944, the 457th had resumed strategic bombing and would continue to focus on German targets through April 1945.  However, the 457th provided aerial bombing support to the breakout from St. Lo in northern France, the British 1st Airborne’s landings at Arnhem in the Netherlands, and in support of embattled U.S. Army forces in the Battle of the Bulge.

At the conclusion of the War, the B-17s of the 457th Bomb Group returned to the United States and the airfield was used by No. 3 Group of the RAF Bomber Command flying B-24 Liberators and Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. By 1948, it was decided that the airfield was surplus and the land was returned to agricultural use and demilitarized.

The 457th Bomb Group (H) Memorial, dedicated to the men who flew from RAF Glatton during the Second World War. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The 457th Bomb Group (H) Memorial, dedicated to the men who flew from RAF Glatton during the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2014

A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War.  © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

The watertower of the former airfield of RAF Glatton, the only surviving structure from the Second World War. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015

The watertower of the former airfield of RAF Glatton, the only surviving structure from the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015

Today, one of the Class A runways remains in use as the “Peterborough Business Airport” which is a general aviation facility.  It is a testament to the strength of the runways built over 70 years ago that the field remains in limited and lighter use.  The only other structure from the Second World War is the watertower which stands near the 457th Bomb Group Memorial, off Great Ermine Street, near the village. In All Saints’ Church, Conington, is a memorial to the 457th Bomb Group which must be visited.

At the end of the Peterborough Business Airport's runway, still in use from the Second World War as a general aviation facility. A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War.  © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

At the end of the Peterborough Business Airport’s runway, still in use from the Second World War as a general aviation facility. A marker placed at the foot of the watertower, which is a moving remembrance to the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice flying from RAF Glatton in the Second World War. © cambridgemilitaryhistory.com, 2015.

To see RAF Glatton, travel up the A1(M) and exit at the B660, signposted to Conington.