Review: Mission to Berlin

Mission to Berlin is an amazing account of American heroism in the last months of World War II, when American airpower reigned supreme. Germany was beaten but still capable of a vicious defense of its capital, Berlin.  The very scale of the attack defies belief, with more than 1,000 bombers and several hundred fighters launching from Allied bases to attempt to crush the life from the heart of Nazi Germany. Each of the bombers carried a crew of ten (later nine) young men, each one hoping to survive enough missions to be returned, alive and unwounded, to the United States. Not all would be so lucky.

This mission, famous for its target, size, results and losses, took place on Feb. 3, 1945, and author Bob Dorr gives a minute-by-minute account of its progress, from pre-takeoff drills to the final landing. This well paced, gripping narrative, provides the skeleton of the book, a gripping portrait of many of the fliers participating. In his customary style, Dorr uses first person interviews and letters to lend immediacy to his tale. Then he fleshes the absorbing human story out with a comprehensive worldview of the mission, placing it in context with the progress of the war and with the great personalities involved.

In many ways this is a technical order on the operations of a B-17 crew, as Dorr intersperses his human tales with detailed descriptions of how each man functioned at his particular job. There are some surprises here, as we learn that contrary to most accounts, the belly gunner’s position did not suffer the most casualties in combat. More important, we gain a clear concept of what the duties and the techniques were of each man’s crew position on the aircraft. This is done in a fascinating narrative style, one that puts you in the left seat for take-off, in the rotating belly turret in flight, handling the Norden bomb sight on the run in, and man-handling the big .50-caliber machine guns to ward off the still tenacious German fighters. One fact that struck me as something I should have realized before, but had not, was that on board every aircraft the navigators were going through the same tedious drill with their maps, drift-meters, manual computers and other elements to chart the course of their particular aircraft. They were doing it even though they were part of a huge procession of aircraft, formed up over England and led by the top navigators in the units. And it was not busy work. Each navigator had to be prepared to take the B-17 home on its own if it suffered damage and was forced to drop out of the formation.

Dorr’s fascinating tale will be read at different levels, depending upon the knowledge of the reader. For some one just beginning to have an interest in World War II bombing operations, the author’s overall picture of the powerful event will lure the reader into reading more, and the author provides an excellent bibliography for that purpose. The knowledgeable reader will savor Mission to Berlin for its intimate detail and the rarely seen level of information about aerial warfare in both large and small scale. And for the expert, the person every author dreads, sitting there reading, waiting to pounce on each and every error, Dorr will offer a genuine challenge – he makes no mistakes.

But for everyone, Dorr’s method of bringing the reader into the life of the crews is the best reason to read the book. The author brings you inside the courageously painted aircraft, with their sometimes patriotic (“Hitler’s Hoe-Doe”) or sometimes romantic (“Maude and Maria”) names, and makes you understand the feeling of family and unity that binds the crews together. But be warned – there is a cost to this, as sometimes the very crew with whom you feel the greatest sympathy is taken from you, as it was in the skies over Germany, by a burst of flak that leaves nothing but flaming debris in its wake.

As I devoured the book, I recognized that Dorr had crafted four books into one unique package. The first of these recognizes that it is the last year of the war, that if the crew survives just a few months, it will have lived, and not died, in World War II, but that combat is just as dangerous as it ever was. The second book tells us how the air war affected the very young (late teens and early twenties) men who had been tending cows or driving trucks the year before and were now flying four-engine aircraft and shooting huge machine guns. The third book, and the one that experts will avidly dissect, takes the reader back in time to discuss the technical development of the aircraft, flying techniques, defensive measures and other details of both the American and the German forces. The final book will be seen only by the philosophical reader, who will be forced to wonder how it was that in 1945 the United States, just emerging from a depression, could afford to send perhaps sixteen hundred aircraft with thousands of young airmen into combat on a single mission, when today, after decades of sumptuary wealth, we have trouble funding our forces.

The late Stephen Ambrose popularized the technique of using accounts of personal experiences to tell the story of combat. He has been imitated by many since, often with mixed results. Dorr’s book is a model of how to use these personal recollections in an expert manner, integrating them into a broader and more purposeful narrative. He can do this only because of the broad base of his knowledge and the depth of his research.

This is a memorable book, one that you will want to have in your library, and one that you can give as a gift with pride.

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