‘This is all we can do for you now’: How Czech Sabotage Saved a B-17 Crew
“The ‘Tondelayo’ was being knocked about the sky … climbing, diving and making corkscrew patterns in a crazy choreography designed to unsettle the fighters, who were pressing in from all sides,” wrote Elmer “Benny” Bendiner, Tondelayo’s bombardier, in a wartime postscript titled “The Fall of Fortresses.”
It was July 30, 1943, and the target of the 379th Bomb Group was the Nazi aero engine shops located in the central German town of Kassel.
With casualty rates hovering around 30 percent, surviving the mandatory 25 missions as a crewman of a B-17 — dubbed the “Flying Coffin” — often came down to luck.
Aeronautical advancements allowed a B-17 to fly at altitudes of approximately 35,000 feet for up to 2,800 miles, all while carrying a hefty bomb payload supplemented by 10 .50-caliber machine guns. The bomber, however, flew at a modest speed of just 150 mph, which left crews immensely vulnerable when flying through swarms of the 400 mph-capable Messerschmitt and Focke- Wulf-190s.
Until the 1944 introduction of the P-51 Mustang to the air war over Europe, the B-17′s impressive distance capabilities meant daylight bombing runs over Nazi-occupied Europe would have to be done without fighter escorts, leaving inexperienced B-17 crews to fend for themselves against seasoned Luftwaffe pilots.
The Kassel raid was no exception. The Tondelayo and its crew weathered near constant attacks from Luftwaffe fighters, with Messerschmitt and Focke- Wulf-190s hedge-hopping from station to station to refuel all along the B-17s flight path — easy actions with nary an Allied fighter in sight.
From the skies, German fighters spit the Tondelayo with 20 mm explosive shells. From below, anti-aircraft flak peppered the flying coffin.
“I was undeniably alive in battle. … This was not the war of boredom and vermin we had read about in the tales of our fathers' agony. This was a frenzy in which I heaved and sweated but could not stop because, shamefully, my guts loved what my head hated,” Bendiner noted about the constant proximity to death. “I exulted in that parade of Fortresses forming for battle. I confess this as an act of treason against the intellect, because I have seen dead men washed out of their turrets with a hose. But if one wants an intellectual view of war, one must ask someone who has not seen it."
Throughout the war, B-17 crews became used to the all too frequent scene of adjacent bombers being hit and hurtling towards the earth. For the men of the Tondelayo, July 30 seemed like it would yield much of the same. But on that particular raid, the Tondelayo was afforded remarkable luck in the form of Czech sabotage.
Despite losing both of the bomber’s waist gunners, the Tondelayo’s armorers, upon successfully returning home to England, discovered 11 unexploded 20 mm shells housed in the bomber’s gas tank.
Such placement of explosives would normally spell out certain death for all onboard, except for a “highly personal miracle,” Bendiner recalled.
In looking at the shells, the armorers found no explosives. Instead, the shells were “clean as a whistle and as harmless.” One shell, however, wasn’t quite empty.
Inside the munition was “a carefully rolled piece of paper” written in Czech, Bendiner wrote.
“This is all we can do for you now,” the message read.
Ultimately, the Tondelayo’s luck would run out before the crew could retire from combat. She now sits somewhere on the bottom of the English Channel, a relic of sacrifice and sabotage.