Dan Ford's books
For print editions of Dan's books, go here      For the e-books, go here


The Grim Reaper (Capt. Horner, aircraft

The 86th Squadron called themselves the Grim Reapers, and Captain Horner bore the emblem on the nose of his Douglas A-20. Here it is on February 14, 1943, with eight missions credited to the squadron leader and four to other crews.

"It Is Not a Pretty Sight"

Updated: One of the pleasures of putting stuff on the internet is that it can bring fresh information in its train. Most recently I heard from the granddaughter of Sgt Orel Edwards, died from wounds sustained in a bombing raid upon Youks-les-Bains in January 1943. She'd never known how he died, only the date and the fact that he was buried in Tunisia. Sixty-one years later she was able to fill the gap, and in return to provide me with the sergeant's first name. -- Dan Ford

(Chapter 2 of Glen Edwards: The Diary of a Bomber Pilot)

In its early weeks, Operation Torch paid off handsomely. The French were mostly sympathetic to the Allies, though they'd danced to the German tune since their homeland was overrun in June 1940. (The uneasy collaboration between a French police chief and his German overlords in Morocco was famously depicted by Claude Rains in the movie Casablanca.) Within days of contesting the landings, the French turned about and joined the Allied advance.

The target of Operation Torch was the little French colony of Tunisia, on a corner of the African coast just 100 miles from Sicily, forming a narrows that pinched the Mediterranean into western and eastern halves. After occupying Morocco and Algeria, the patchwork Allied army--U.S., British, and French--invaded Tunisia from the west, while the British 8th Army methodically worked its way through Libya on the east.

But the Germans and Italians poured reinforcements into Tunisia, stopping the threat twelve miles before it reached the ports of Bizerte and Tunis, then forcing the Allies back nearly to the Algerian border. Nevertheless, the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel now found himself between two armies, each larger and better supplied than his. The long-term implications were worse: many of Rommel's infantry replacements had been combed from the Russian front, weakening the German army in front of Stalingrad, and many of his airmen were instructors who'd have been better employed training a new generation of combat pilots.

En route to this great battle, the 47th Bomb Group flew down to Predannack in Cornwall, on Britain's southwest coast. Their next airfield would be Port Lyautey, on Africa's Atlantic shore. Between lay a flight of more than 1,200 miles over the ocean, with no landfall except Portugal--and that would mean internment for the rest of the war.

The flight was therefore reckoned as a combat mission, and their guns were armed. This led to the group's first fatalities. Some A-20s carried a fixed, rear-firing machinegun in each engine nacelle, which the rear gunner could trigger with a foot pedal, even while he was working the swivel-mounted gun.

December 2, 1942, Port Lyautey, French Morocco Got up this morning at 5 a.m., had breakfast, and out to the ships at 6:15. No trouble in starting the cold motors but soon discovered that my right engine was dropping in the neighborhood of 200 rpm on right magneto. My crew chief did a miraculous job of changing sparkplugs in about three-quarters of an hour so she ran okay after that.

Twenty-two ships were supposed to take off, with me flying on Colonel Terrell's wing. We got set to take off and discovered that there were just the two of us--while in the distance we saw a huge column of smoke and flame which turned out to be Major Fletcher's plane. Seems one of Captain Patterson's gunners accidentally stepped on the firing switch for the nacelle guns, thereby setting [Fletcher's plane] afire. On the way to the tanks said bullets killed four men--two of the Major's gunners who were cranking the ship, and Bearsell's two who were helping. Of course all personal belongings were lost.

Colonel Terrell and I took off and went on our way. About one and one-half hours out we flew into the soup which became exceedingly thick. Consequently lost the Colonel and proceeded merrily on my way. Broke out of the soup somewhat later and had good going all alone. Saw Lisbon on the way but outside of that only rather desolate coast. Upon leaving Portugal stepped the old baby up to 250 mph and really rolled. Hit the French Morocco coast about thirty miles north; followed same down to here and landed. Casablanca, home of the French Foreign Legion, is just over the hill. Very pooped: flew 8hr:30min today.

December 3, Port Lyautey By the gods, what weather! Comparable only to Phoenix, Arizona, in the winter. After cloudy, drizzly England, this is really heaven.

Jackson piled his plane up landing yesterday--blew a tire and consequently hit the mud. Sure bashed it in. His was the only mishap outside Major Fletcher's. Tough getting the darn thing this far and then bashing in the nose.

December 5, Casablanca Flew down here in forty-five minutes over some interesting territory. Seems the boys had quite a time taking this coast over. There were landing barges all along the beach. The French are still on this field but are all for us now.

December 6, Casablanca This field is quite a place. Used to be the main French air depot in Morocco. They have a whole pot full of P-36s plus a few bombers. The Germans had them all dismantled and wouldn't allow the French to fly just before we took over.

Our mess is set up outside, much the same as we had in Greensboro. The barracks aren't bad but these French outhouses really are filthy.

December 7, Casablanca Started pulling out the bomb bay tanks today so looks as if we may start operations before long.

Roby and I started for town this afternoon. On the way over in the jeep we passed several Arab farmers working the ground. Most amusing sight was a jackass hitched to the same plow with a camel. This sure is nice country. Looks a great deal like California, rolling hills, etc. Today was beautiful, just like one of those Arizona days. Nice warm sun, no wind, man alive! Makes a guy feel powerful healthy.

December 10, Oran, Algeria We went to Mediouna today. Were there for no more than two hours when we got word that six of the ships would pull out for Algiers. Captain Horner, Captain Miles, Stryson, Bensley, Andy, and myself were the chosen few. Trip up here was okay. Flew over plenty of good farm land and nice looking country. Couldn't go on to Algiers because our field is out of order, so will probably be here a few days.

December 11, Oran Discovered that my generators were not functioning and found a burned-out solenoid, so ventured over to La Senia to see if I could replace same. Dillon went along. We looked up J.P. Ford who is flying Spitfires and thereupon had a class reunion. J.P. was still slightly woozy from a party on the preceding night so after one glass of champagne he was off to the races. We consumed six quarts among four of us. The solenoid was not to be had, by the way.

The American fighter groups in North Africa were variously equipped with British Spitfires, Bell P-39 Airacobras, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, and Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. Of this assortment, only the "Spit" had proved itself equal to the Messerschmitt 109 that was Germany's leading fighter in 1942.

The six A-20s were bound over the Atlas Mountains to a muddy airfield at Youks-les-Bains, eighteen miles from the Kasserine Pass into Tunisia. Here the green crews would come under the tutelage of the 15th Bomb Squadron, commanded by Major Charles Kegelman, veterans of the 8th Air Force in Britain.

December 14, Youks-les-Bains Quite a time we had yesterday. Left Oran and landed at Algiers, were there about two hours and then pulled out for here. This is mighty rugged country--no roads or rivers to navigate by. Most of the valleys would make fine landing fields.

Kegelman's outfit is here with twelve ships, and we're working in with them. They've had twenty-four raids so far and lost only one ship. This morning Captain Horner and I took off for a raid on Sfax. Nine ships participated. Had an escort of ten P-40s and eight P-38s. Didn't encounter any enemy pursuit and only light flak over the target which was railroad yards. But now comes the sad part: my racks failed to release so I came home with three 500-pound bombs. Captain Horner came home with two.

Kegelman's boys each carry a bombardier and do most of the bombing from 8,000 feet, which was what we did today.

December 15, Youks-les-Bains Captain Miles went on a raid with Major Kegelman this morning but never did get to the target. Seems like they ran into a bunch of Messerschmitt 109s and did an immediate about face. Paul went on a mission also and dropped two of his bombs. That flight knocked hell out of a railroad bridge.

The drome is a dry lake. Don't need runways, but when it rains we can't operate because of mud. Very good place for disposition, not only of men but also of planes and equipment. The men all live in pup tents with slit trenches handy. (Thank the Lord for my air mattress.) Good for operations--about 150 miles from Tunis and other points of interest. If they had more squadrons like Kegelman's this bloody fray wouldn't last long.

December 16, Youks-les-Bains Anderson and Bensley got off this morning on a high level up near Bizerte. This afternoon Captain Horner, Captain Miles, and I flew fourth element in a twelve-ship formation on an 8,000-foot mission [to Massicault near Tunis]. Kegelman went into a slight dive and we had to indicate about 320 mph. 'Twas all the old baby could do to keep up. No flak or enemy planes encountered. Had a little better luck getting my bombs away this time--only one stuck to the racks.

December 17, Youks-les-Bains All of us went on a mission today. Captain Miles's flight ran into a slough of flak this morning but none of it connected. This afternoon we bombed an airdrome which was situated directly between Tunis and Bizerte. We expected to run into plenty of opposition but none presented itself so we peacefully bombed away. It seemed very peculiar to bomb from 8,000 feet--we seemed to be so detached from everything. Hard to realize just what kind of hell it must be, down there on the ground. Five-hundred-pounders make quite a roar when they burst.

If we had a couple groups operating like this outfit does--two missions a day--I figure the Jerries would soon be out of here.

The 15th Squadron had been rushed to Britain early in 1942, and there equipped with export versions of the Douglas A-20. (The Americans called this plane by its company designation of DB-7; to the British, it was the Boston III.) After seasoning by an RAF squadron, the 15th flew its "Independence Day" mission on July 4, 1942, sending six DB-7s to attack German airfields in Holland at haystack height. Three were shot down and Kegelman had a propeller shot away--"hit by ground fire," according to a wartime report, his plane "bounced off the field at 275 mph, rose again and shot two flak towers out of action, then flew home on one engine." After this near-disaster, the squadron got British Mark IX-E bombsights and flew as high as it could without oxygen.

At Youks, therefore, Edwards learned that the fence-jumping tactic he'd practiced so joyously in Oklahoma and North Carolina was now out of vogue, at least when flying twin-engined bombers against German guns. For this work, both sides had begun to use fighters equipped with bomb racks. A fighter was faster and cheaper, could operate out of rough airfields, and if intercepted could jettison its bombs and fight on more or less equal terms . . . and if it went down, only one man was lost.

Just as the 15th had been seasoned by the RAF, it now seasoned the 86th Squadron, beginning with Edwards and Captain Horner, who'd flown their first mission within twenty-four hours of their arrival.

These were the crucial weeks of Operation Torch. The Allies struggled to bring up enough men and weapons to finish the job in Tunisia; the Germans and Italians tried to push them back into Algeria. The flak was terrible: "It was generally agreed among airmen," wrote war correspondent Ernie Pyle, "that the bombing runup over Bizerte was one of the hottest spots in the world to fly through. It lasted less than a minute, but they had to fly straight and steady through an absolute cloudburst of noise and black smoke puffs . . . and after a few of these something began to jump inside them."

In his diaries, Edwards seldom referred to the black terror that must have wracked him on his missions over Tunisia. ("I was always afraid of dying," admitted the fighter pilot Chuck Yeager when he no longer had anything to prove. "Always.") Nonchalance in the face of danger was expected of a young man of his time and profession. It was okay to be scared on the ground, when German bombs were falling around him, and even to joke about it afterward. But not when he was flying his A-20. Edwards's plane was the "best in the west," and so was he.

December 18, Youks-les-Bains Spent our time digging a trench so that we may take a dive if the Jerries comes along. Went over to our P-38 squadron this afternoon and found [Lieutenant] John Goebel. Same old boy--has a great time flying those things. They sure give us good cover.

December 19, Youks-les-Bains Supposed to bomb a convoy today but didn't see any boats so ended up by bombing the railroad yards at Sfax again. Met a little flak but nothing to speak about. General Doolittle is expected in tomorrow. Hope he sees fit to get us a few supplies. I obtained thirteen eggs from an Arab for twenty-five francs, and let me tell you they sure taste good.

December 20, Youks-les-Bains Excessively dreary day--rain gently falling over all, and on top of that it is damn cold. The six of us have been confined to the tent all day with Bensley and I reading and the other four busily engaged in a bridge game.

The general didn't come in but some startling news did. To wit: All pilots making twenty-five operational missions over enemy territory will be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. At least the boys who do the work and come back are going to be recognized.

December 21, Youks-les-Bains A mission off, but had to return because of weather. The greater part of the day was spent in digging our slit trench deeper and playing bridge on the side. This afternoon we were peacefully reading books and a foursome playing bridge when the silence was broken by several bursts of ack-ack fire. We all hit the ditch and soon saw a Junkers 88 heading our way. He dove down from about 4,000 feet and started strafing. About this time all six of us were extremely displeased with our location and wishing our trench were very much deeper, or else that we were very much smaller. As one sergeant put it, you've never felt a thrill until you've heard a stick of bombs walking toward you. And walk they did, each one getting louder, the closest one landing about thirty yards away and shaking the ground a good bit. Four bombs were dropped, two of 500 lb. and two of 100 lb. One man was killed and one truck wrecked. The man who invented the slit trench was a genius I firmly believe.

December 22, Youks-les-Bains It seems there were three Junkers 88s which were subsequently knocked down by the P-38s. One of them crash landed and the crew was taken prisoner.

In the morning Paul and I went into town and had the most glorious bath--the first one in about three weeks. The bathhouse was one of the ancient Roman type with steps leading down into a sort of well. You turn on the water and three or four climb in.

December 25, Christmas Day, Youks-les-Bains This afternoon the weather became broken with occasional showers. What a muddy mess this place is. Fourteen men of the 97th came in on a transport bearing news that the rest of the 86th and 97th are on their way. This evening we are engaged in cooking omelets on our ingenious gasoline stove constructed out of gas cans. It heats up our little home no end.

December 26, Youks-les-Bains Damned Jerries got us up at 4 a.m. this morning but failed to drop any bombs. Sure be glad when the boys get here with the pup tents. I figure to head for the tall timber and dig in about six feet. It finally quit raining today and the sun came out nice and bright. A bomb dropped out of nowhere about 10 a.m. but failed to do any damage.

December 27, Youks-les-Bains The 97th came through on transports today headed for Thelepte [across the border in Tunisia]. Gloeckner was the only one of our outfit that got here but the rest are on the way. Tried to get off on a raid this afternoon but field still too soft. Only one Jerry came over today and didn't drop any bombs.

December 28, Youks-les-Bains Had a little dogfight over the field today. Three Messerschmitts came over and were tackled by one P-38. He got in a burst over the field but missed the Messerschmitt. However the P-38 soon caught the guy on the deck and blasted hell into him. Another P-38 accounted for [a second Messerschmitt] which is okay.

December 29, Youks-les-Bains Had a mission today. We were supposed to find a tank repair depot. Stooged around the target for fifteen minutes and then missed the damned thing. I led an element--sure felt good.

December 30, Youks-les-Bains We went over Gabes [a seaport near Tunisia's border with Libya] and bombed hell out of things. In the meantime we got hell shot out of us. No casualties however. This afternoon nine of our ships went back again and really got worked over. Stryson came back with his plane shot up more than somewhat and had to belly land it. One of the 15th Squadron gunners got shot up pretty badly. Seems the flak wasn't too bad but some Messerschmitts jumped them while the P-38s were engaged elsewhere. From the stories they sure had a hot time. Lost three P-38s on the morning raid and one other down towards Tripoli. [Lieutenant Virgil] Smith, our ace with six victories, was shot down.

Dave Bensley and I moved on over the hill today in a big hole.

January 1, 1943, Youks-les-Bains Didn't feel like writing last evening. Lost three DB-7s over Sousse and it is not a pretty sight watching a plane go down.

I have never felt quite so lonely in my life as when I discovered that my damned plane would not keep up with the formation. So I came breezing across the target about 100 yards behind the last of the formation . . . at which time the ack-ack had ceased firing at the formation and had concentrated on me. Talk about thick stuff. Reason for no speed: my radio hatch flew open. One DB-7 got a direct hit and went down without further ado. The other two were lost leading the 97th. Hope we've had all our bad luck for the duration.

January 2, Youks-les-Bains Goebel got on the tail of a Junkers 88 this morning and got a motor shot out of his brand new P-38. But they got the Junkers.

Again today we bombed Sousse but changed tactics slightly. Went in at 12,000 feet diving down and releasing at 10,000 going like hell. This afternoon I was indicating 350 mph at that altitude. B-25s and B-17s also bombed today. On our mission this afternoon the flak all hit behind us, but as Bensley said it looked just like a black cumulus to the rear. We sure killed a lot of Arabs--dropped bombs right in the middle of town.

January 4, Youks-les-Bains The 15th went home today. You never saw a happier bunch of boys. The ground echelon is still here but will probably leave as soon as our boys arrive.

This morning I obtained from the Arabs sixty eggs and a nice little knife. Pretty good deal.

continued in part 2