|Ill-Fated Mission To Ijmuiden
by Don Kochi
At an estate sale, a friend purchased an old suitcase crammed with various family papers mostly consisting of photographs along with dated letters, diaries, vintage travel brochures, and other related pieces of ephemera. Invited for a viewing, I immediately plucked out a WW2 German POW stalag Kriegsgefangenepost Postkarte (figure 1). The camp stationary (filled out in pencil) was generated from Stalag Luft III at Sagan-Silesia Bavaria and was unfortunately the only POW item to be found within the paper lot.
To present another Luft III camp mail would be a superfluous exercise, a topic already covered by Kurt Stauffer’s article, ‘A POSTAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN POWS IN STALAG LUFT III, 1942-1945’ (MPHS vol. 45, no. 4, FALL 2006) as well as his prior overall treatment, ‘CAPTURE MAIL OF AMERICAN POWS IN EUROPE DURING WWII’ (MPHS vol. 40, no. 3, SUMMER 2001). However, seen are some unique features to the postkarte coupled with the ‘shoot-down’ history behind the sender which makes for an intriguing war story worth relating.
The Stalag Luft III camp issued postcard was sent to a 2nd LT. US Army officer simply addressed: GENERAL POST OFFICE, U.S. ARMY, LONDON, ENGLAND. Obviously the POW sender did not have his address book with him inside a prisoner-of-war cage, but instead possessed great confidence that the card would eventually wend its way to the intended addressee as long as it was pointed towards the right direction. His faith was not misplaced. An ink-stamped ‘DIRECTORY SEARCHED 1st BPO’ (Base Post Office) with a penciled-in date of 10/11/43 (Oct. 11, 1943) and ‘466’ (not an APO but an USAAF station number) re-directed the card to ‘322 BM GP. 450 SQ.’. The addressee was a 2nd LT. Cecil M. Hall of the 322d BOMBARDMENT GROUP (M), 450th SQUADRON, undoubtedly a fellow squadron mate. The three different censor marks on the cover offer an interesting detail to this rather generic form postcard. Having gone through the German camp censor’s hands, evident by the rectangular stamped GEPRUFT-27 (Stalag Luft 3 was a central hub for German POW censors), it was also touched by the ROYAL CENSOR since it was addressed to and moved via British postal channels, and finally by the US ARMY BASE EXAMINER! Additionally, according to Kurt’s Sagan MPHS article, the prisoner had to submit his outgoing mail to an American ‘block censor’ or censorship committee (who did not use any sort of ‘censor-passed’ markings), before it was given to the Germans for their own censoring process and eventual forwarding. Definitely a well-read piece of mail! The sender, Lt. J.R. Hoel is shown on the cover with Gefangenennummer (POW serial number) 1370 and how he became a guest of the Reich makes for an interesting tale of survival.
MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida was the birthplace of the 322nd BOMBARDMENT GROUP (M). Activated on July 19, 1942, the BG table of organization listed four operational combat squadrons; 449th (PN), 450th (ER), 451st (SS) and the 452nd (DR), all flying the newly developed B-26 MARAUDER two-engine medium bomber. Built by the Glenn Martin Aircraft Company, the six-man crew airplane was a temperamental beast requiring a lot of runway space, plenty of engine revs to stay aloft, and landed at a frighteningly fast speed. These were only a few of its wicked flight characteristics along with its reputation for crashes which lent the craft a wide litany of well-earned monikers; “Widowmaker”, “Flying Coffin”, “Baltimore Whore”, “Martin Murderer”, “Flying Prostitute” (i.e., no visible means of support), “Flying Cigar”, et al. The bulk of the 322nd BG men were transported to the UK aboard the QUEEN ELIZABETH, reached Grenoch, Scotland on November 29, 1942 and shortly thereafter boarded a troop train for their first home, Rougham RAF Airdrome (USAAF station #468) in Bury St. Edmunds, England. Fourteen B-26s with their respective flight crews departed MacDill Field on February 6, 1943 arriving at the airdrome on March 8, 1943 after hop-scotching the ‘Southern Route’ transit fields and bases. The 322nd BG(M) represented the first operational B-26 unit in the European Theater.
After a series of low-level (on-the-deck) training flights, the group was assigned its debut combat mission targeting the power station and submarine pens at Ijmuiden, Holland. On May 14, 1943, loaded with 30-minute time delay British bombs, the B-26 Marauders attacked the target meeting heavy resistance with several sustaining AAA flak damages, however all made back to base with only one plane crash-landing nearby. Follow-up bomb damage assessment photographs revealed a functioning P.E.N. electricity generating plant still in complete service. HQ Intelligence surmised the Germans were able to quickly defuse and deactivate the time delayed explosives. Two days later on May 16, 1943, the 322nd BG’s commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Robert ‘Moose’ Stillman was ordered by higher USAAF command authority to conduct another bombing raid on the same target the following day. Alarmed the same objective was being re-targeted too soon, Lt. Col. Stillman lodged a protest with his superiors. Having led the first raid, he feared his B-26 crews would have to face an alerted and prepared enemy defense network ready and waiting. Although sympathetic with Stillman’s concerns, an adamant Brig. Gen. Newton Longfellow of VIIIth Bomber Command demanded a repeat performance of the bombing raid to commence as planned. In fact, the mission alert manifest literally stated ‘same route, same objective’. Not the type of officer who would ask his men to do something he wouldn’t do himself, the Colonel was once again determined to lead this second attack.
For the mission, armed with impact fused explosives, a flight of eleven B-26 Marauders from the 450th and 452nd Squadrons left the airdrome in the early morning hours of May 17, 1943. Flying in the 450th Squadron B-26, "Warchief" (aircraft serial number 41-18052 DR-N), 2nd LT. James Richard Hoel (US Army serial number X-XX9753), only 22 years-old and flying his first combat mission, sat in the combined seat of the plane’s bombardier and navigator.
In the naïve hope of flying undetected beneath the German radar umbrella, the mission was a planned for a low-level ‘Javelin’ flight formation. However shortly before making landfall, one B-26 experienced a generator mechanical failure and had to abort. Taught in primary flight school to gain altitude in case of an emergency landing or at the very least a safe bail-out cushion, the aborting craft broke the enemy radar beam perhaps alerting the Germans of the impending raid. Further misfortune ensued. A combination of a radio alert (warning of coastal enemy flak sites) from a passing friendly convoy and navigational error caused the flight of now ten B-26 Marauders to cross the Dutch coastline 25 miles south of their intended point of entry. Unfortunately, the deviated ingress route took them directly over the Rozenburg Islands in the Maas River Estuary, considered one of the most heavily defended areas in the Netherlands. Heavy AAA fire quickly shot down the 322nd BG CO’s lead aircraft at 11:51 hours. A minute and a mile later, Lt. Hoel’s bomber was shot down by flak and crashed into the Maas River. His recollection of the event was as follows, “I heard a loud bang and the plane actually broke in half as it went down in flames and crashed into the canal. If we hadn’t been flying over the canal, I’m sure we would have all been killed”. Despite the water landing, two of the enlisted crew positioned in the rear of his B-26 were killed instantly. The surviving four crewmembers including Hoel swam to the canal bank where they were met and captured by a posse of German soldiers. After the Wehrmacht officer-in-charge made the obligatory ‘for you, the war is over’ remark, the Americans were segregated and hustled off to Dulag Luft, the main Luftwaffe Aircrew interrogation center.
The rest of the flight suffered horrifically. In the wild melee of a scattering formation jinking desperately to evade flak, two B-26s collided mid-air and its subsequent aerial debris took down a third B-26. Completely lost and forty-five miles over Holland, the remaining flight of five B-26s mistakenly dropped their bombs on their assumed target which in reality was a gas work in the suburbs of Amsterdam. Their bad luck was further compounded as the egress route (a heading of 270 degrees) unknowingly took them directly over their actual mission target of Ijmuiden, now poised and bristling with its waiting flak batteries. Three more B-26 Marauders were shot down in quick succession either crashing or ditching at sea. A few minutes later, the last two bombers were downed by vectored German fighters from Woensdrecht and fell into the sea.
Lt. Col. Stillman’s premonition of a suicide mission tragically resulted in its predicted outcome. All ten attacking B-26 bombers were lost. The casualty rate was appalling. Out of the 60 total men; 34 were killed, 24 were taken POW (one died in captivity) and two crewmembers from one plane were recovered off a rubber life raft in the North Sea. The Group Commander, Group Executive Officer and both squadron leaders were all either killed or made prisoners. The disastrous nature of the doomed mission was sadly epitomized by the KIA deaths of a 450th Squadron pilot/co-pilot team of twin brothers.
After his routine interrogation, Lt. Hoel was placed in Stalag Luft III at Sagan. An earlier time before the Allied Air Campaign gained its peak momentum, it was a period when both American AAF (the minority of approximately 200 men) and British RAF with Commonwealth officers shared the North Compound. It was from this particular compound, the British escape committee started the ambitious project of constructing three simultaneous secret tunnels codenamed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Harry’. All prisoners were utilized in some manner of abetting ‘The Great Escape’, and Lt. Hoel was no exception. Employed as a ‘penguin’, he wore a make-shift brace or suspenders with attached pouches underneath his clothing, and dispersed Tom’s excavated sand around the stalag’s yard through his trouser’s legs. With the increased tempo in the Bombing Campaign and inevitable burgeoning of the American population, the Germans segregated them with their own (South) compound in the September of 1943. Lt. Hoel’s tunnel, Tom was discovered by German ferrets shortly before this separation.
The threatening Russian advance in the closing months of the war, pressured German camp officials to force a mass evacuation of the entire stalag in the dead of winter. Given very little notice and without adequate food and clothing, three large columns of weakened POWs were to depart the camp in staggered intervals. Lt. Hoel assigned to the first movement, recalls the misery of the vanguard party having to trail blaze a path through the fresh thick snow drifts. The men struggled to a temporary holding location at Stalag XIII-D Nuremberg-Langwasser (Oflag 73), a vast POW collection point before reaching their eventual destination near Munich at Stalag VII-A Moosburg, Germany. Final liberation came in the guise of the US 14th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army on April 29, 1945. Shuffled to Camp Lucky Strike on the French coast, the lucky Lieutenant boarded a Liberty ship for his blessed return home.
I found the former kriegie alive and well. Eighty-six years of age and still married after 63 years to his wife, Jean, I had on a few occasions spoken with him over the phone. Clear and sharp of mind, he verified and embellished further on the chain of events that led up to his final release at Moosburg. Somewhat a minor celebrity, there could be found several articles (on-line and in recent local and European newspapers) about Lt. Hoel with the reuniting of his engraved watch which he wore and lost on that fateful mission 60 years ago.
As for me, I could not help but ask his frame of mind on July 12, 1943 (i.e., “what the heck were you thinking?”), when he jotted on the reverse side of the Kriegsgefangenenpostkarte (figure 2): “DEAR CECIL-HOPE MY THINGS ARE BEING LOOKED AFTER OK. I HAVE A BLOUSE IN HOBSONS AND WOULD APPRECIATE IT IF YOU GOT IT FOR ME. WISH I COULD WRITE MORE, BUT CAN’T. THINGS GO WELL HERE. TELL CHARLEY HE CAN COLLECT 10 (pounds) FROM THE EX-ADJUTANT. GOOD LUCK AND SAY HELLO TO ALL. YOURS JIM”.
After a deep pause and with honest conviction, the WW2 Veteran told me, “I have absolutely no idea”!
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