Just what were the missions the crew of the Memphis Belle flew?
What – and where – were the targets?
How were the details recorded – and what was the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ view?
The legends have it that the Memphis Belle arrived in England, flew 25 combat missions and the returned to the USA. If only it was that simple!
In order to document all the missions that either Robert Morgan or the Memphis Belle flew, it is necessary to look at a total of thirty-one raids that took place from November 1942, to May 1943. In order to show the full picture it is necessary to include every mission that the Memphis Belle or Bob Morgan flew, or was scheduled to fly but aborted for whatever reason.
The story told here comes from a number of Primary Source Records. The documentation recording the missions flown by the 91st BG is ‘inconsistent’. Much of what has been used is from official records, including the ‘Operations/Field’ orders telexed out to Colonel Stanley Wray from the 1st Combat Wing and his reply giving post mission analysis. Use has been made of crew post-mission Interrogation Reports where available, but there remains doubt when a Group Commander flew with a crew on early missions whether that was as co-pilot or as ‘superlunary crew’ with a co-pilot in place as has been recorded on later missions. Some use has been made of ‘unofficial’ paperwork such as personal diaries kept at the time.
Maps used to illustrate each mission fall into two categories. Firstly there are those where it has proved impossible to determine the actual route – they merely demonstrate the relationship of the target to England and Bassingbourn. The second category is the use of actual briefing documents. With these we can show the actual routes, including the turning or ‘way’ points (wp). North is broadly to the top of each map.
The formation plans are used where known. Unfortunately none have been located for the early missions, so the lists of aircraft known to have participated in each particular mission are almost certainly incomplete. Those lists have been generated from numerous contemporary sources.
The reader also needs to be aware of the apparent confusion when talking about the German Bf.109 fighter. This was the initial Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM – German Air Ministry) designation for the type, since the design was sent in by the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke company, – hence the letters ‘Bf’ – and used in all official German documents dealing with this aircraft. After the company was renamed Messerschmitt AG following the appointment of Willi Messerschmitt as Head of the Company in July 1938, all Messerschmitt aircraft could carry the ‘Me’ designation. However, the RLM and others kept using both designations, sometimes even on the same page! In both wartime and contemporary literature, both the ‘Bf’ and ‘Me’ prefixes are used, and both are considered valid and accurate. In this narrative we prefer to use the original ‘Bf’ prefix, which is regarded as being more historically correct, but in the contemporary records of the 91st Bomb Group and others we have preserved the original usage, for they were the ‘words of the time’.
Memphis Belle Mission #1
Morgan Mission #1
91 BG Mission #1
8 AF Mission #16
November 7th 1942.
Flt Time: 5hrs 30mins.
Target: Submarine Pens, Brest, France.
Operations Order # 52 for 91 BG, 301 BG, 306 BG. 4 Groups sent 68 aircraft, 34 effective. 91BG sent 7x322BS and 7x324BS, 8 were effective.
Takeoff time: 1030am.
Bombload: 10 x 500lb HE
Group Leader: Col Stanley Wray aboard 41-24503 Pandora’s Box.
Memphis Belle crew:
Pilot – Robert K Morgan
Co-pilot – James A Verinis
Bombardier – Vince Evans
Navigator – Charles Leighton
Top Turret/Engineer – Levi Dillon
Radio Operator – Robert Hanson
Waist Gunner – Charles Winchell
Waist Gunner – Harold Loch
Ball Turret – Cecil Scott
Tail Gunner – John Quinlan
The first mission for the 91st Bomb Group – and the first mission for the Memphis Belle – occurred on November 7th 1942. The route was to be from base to a waypoint 10 miles south of Bath in Somerset (wp1), keeping below 5,000ft, then climbing to 19,000ft over Falmouth in Cornwall (wp2) before setting course to target. The route back was maintaining altitude to a point half way across the Channel, then over Falmouth before returning to base. Each aircraft was to carry ten 500lb bombs. There was no fighter escort provided.
The official daily Group diary records the details: The 91st Group participated in its first operational mission against the enemy today. The target was Brest. Only two squadrons, the 322nd and 324th, furnished aircraft for this target. The 91st was one of three Groups to participate. Fourteen aircraft were dispatched. A briefing was held shortly before 5 am and the planes took off between ten-twenty and ten-thirty. Of the fourteen dispatched, six returned early because of gun and other mechanical failures. The results of the bombing were difficult to observe because of heavy broken cloud formations over the target. Eight aircraft dropped 80 x 500 lbs. GP bombs, and preliminary reports indicate that at least a good many of these were in the general vicinity of the aiming point. All aircraft returned to this base without loss and the Group was very fortunate in that no casualties were suffered. Several enemy aircraft were seen, some of which made desultory attacks upon the formation. Several of our aircraft suffered minor battle damage. Claims against enemy aircraft are one destroyed, two probably destroyed, and none damaged. This first operational sortie was flown by only two Squadrons. The 323rd and 401st flew a high altitude practice mission during the same period.
The 324th Bomb Squadron also kept a log: Target: Docks and Port area. Two A/C reported direct hits. (14 A/C took off including 7 from the 324th & 7 from the 322nd. 8 bombed target & 6 were abortive.
The other Groups participating were the 93rd BG, 301st BG and the 306th BG. Of the 68 aircraft that were scheduled to fly on this mission, only 34 proved to be effective. Eleven aircraft from the 91st were damaged by enemy fire.
First away was 41-24503 Pandora’s Box from the 324th BS, piloted by 1st Lt Duane L Jones. Flying in the co-pilot’s seat was Colonel Stanley Wray, who had insisted in leading his men into battle. Second to take off was the Memphis Belle.
Against the rules – but lucky for history, several crew members kept diaries – these provide a much more personal account of events than the cold reporting in the Group records.
James Verinis: Hardly got to bed when they got us up. We’re finally off on our first combat mission. We bomb Brest, in France, a submarine base. Started off with 14 ships but six dropped out half way across because of gun trouble. Made a turn after crossing the coast of France and ran into terrific anti-aircraft fire at out level, 20,000 feet. Three ships hit but none seriously damaged. Ours rocked a couple of times but came through without a scratch. Saw Focke-Wulf 190 go down in flames – shot down by the tail gunner of another ship. Most fighters sat in the distance, not daring to attack. Much damage to target but not completely destroyed. Home to base tired but happy.
Charles Leighton: The ack-ack that was meant for us burst mostly below and behind, so I didn’t see too much of it. The plane bounced a few times, but all in all the trip over the target was not too bad. A few fighters jumped us on the way back and our Group got three of them. I only saw one enemy aircraft and I couldn’t get a shot at it. Came back to base feeling happy and excited, feeling like we had won the war.
Winchell diary: Everyone was tense and very anxious to get going. No opposition until we reached the French coast and target. Flak was moderately heavy but there was no enemy fighters to speak of. During the run over the target everyone was keyed up, nervous and excited – our first taste of combat!
The ship, squadron and Group came through with no casualties – not a scratch on the “Belle”.
Morgan recalled this first mission later. We were tense, apprehensive. Wondering what it would be like. Then when it was over we were relieved because, well, not much happened. We didn’t meet the war on that mission. We were thinking ‘Gee, is it going to be this easy’.