The monotonous drone of four Pratt & Whitney engines seemed to be omnipresent. It completely filled the inside of the BuNo 32022 (42-40282) PB4Y-1 Liberator. Indifferent to the noise, a VB-103 crew carefully combed the airspace around their aircraft.
Their commander, Lt. (jg) James H. Alexander, had led them on a number of combat missions over the Bay of Biscay and there were no indications that the September 4, 1943 sortie would be in any way different from the previous ones they had flown. The co-pilot, Lt. (jg) Paul B. Kinney, along with three other crewmembers, trained their binoculars on the surface of the sea in search of a familiar U-boat shape. At the same time the gunners eyeballed the skies for any air-to-air threat. They certainly had good reasons to be vigilant: two days before Lt. Keith W. Wickstrom’s crew did not return to their base at St. Eval, Cornwall. In his last message the radio operator reported that the aircraft was being attacked by several Ju 88s...
At the same time a package of six twin-engine Junkers Ju 88 heavy fighters of 13./KG 40 was on a combat air patrol over the Bay. The leader, Oblt. Hermann Horstmann, ordered his crews into a wide line abreast formation to maximize their search coverage. Soon they encountered some clouds and tightened the formation to allow the crews to keep an eye on one another and be able to call for help in case one of them had to ditch in the sea. That would be a hapless crew’s only chance of survival, albeit a rather small one. After two hours of fruitless search, Horstmann’s formation turned south towards the Spanish coast, where they would cross the routes used by allied aircraft and increase their chances of contact with the enemy. In a few minutes they broke out of the clouds and one of the navigators spotted a light-gray aircraft through his binoculars.
The Liberator’s crew proceeded to their waypoint positioned some 60 nm. north-west of Cape Finisterre. It turned out the area was completely free of cloud cover. The crew did not have to wait long for the Germans to appear. A tail gunner’s voice broke the silence on the intercom: “Two twin-engine bogeys, five o’clock!”. Three more aircraft were soon spotted and then one more, coming in from the right. The Germans were closing in on the bomber and setting up for an attack. It took the Americans only a short moment to recognize their adversaries: they were Ju 88Cs bristling with machine guns and cannons. Their gray paint scheme made them look like sharks circling their prey.
German crews spotted the Liberator flying at 2,000 m from a considerable distance. They enjoyed a 1,000 m altitude advantage, but the Liberator’s pilot lowered his aircraft’s nose even before the Junkers crews began their attack. The bombardier opened the bomb bay door and jettisoned the entire bomb load. Alexander leveled off at 200 m above the deck to protect the vulnerable belly of the aircraft. Although the situation looked rather bleak, the gunners set up for a fight. If they wanted to have their way with them, the Germans would have to pay dearly.
Oblt. Horstmann was the first to attack. His initial long burst partly missed the mark and caused water geysers to erupt around the Liberator. Some of the bullets, however, hit the aircraft’s tail and fuselage. Within minutes other crews followed their leader’s suit and began firing away at the four-engine giant. Burst after burst of bullets punched through the skins, tore at the flight control surfaces and raked the inside of the PB4Y. The bomber’s gunners were also doing a good job. Two of the Junkers received multiple hits, but the Germans were undeterred and pressed on their systematic, well-executed attacks. The swift Ju 88s kept popping up at different angles, firing with everything they had.
The situation on board the Liberator was becoming more and more dramatic. The starboard waist gunner station was taken out of action and the tail gunner’s turret was seriously damaged. 20 mm cannon shells tore through the cockpit and the front section of the fuselage wounding the copilot and the navigator, Ens. Donald L. Burnett. That was not the worst of it, though. One of the engines caught fire, followed moments later by another one. In spite of the damage the aircraft seemed to be controllable and James Alexander decided to nurse it back to the Spanish coast.
Noticing the bomber’s desperate attempts to break free, Lt. Gerhard Blenkenberg moved in to strike the decisive blow. Trying to make sure he would not miss, Blenkenberg waited until he was within 50 m of the bomber before he squeezed the trigger. At that very instant he flew into well-aimed fire from the Liberator’s gunners. Half-inch bullets walked up the Junkers’s fuselage and port engine, which exploded in a bright flash of burning fuel from a punctured fuel tank. The fiery torch missed the bomber by a few meters and seconds later hit the water. None of the Junkers crew had the slightest chance of survival.