Text: Richard Plos
Illustration: Piotr Forkasiewicz
The raid on Berlin on February 3, 1945, was the largest ever carried out by the 8th Air Force on the German capital during World War II. Some 1,500 bombers participated, their target were trains moving the Wehrmacht’s 6 Panzer Army to the Eastern Front. Among the bomber escorts were fighters from the “Double Nickel”, as was the 55th FG nicknamed, under the command of Lt. Col. Elwyn Righetti. On the return, Righetti left some of the fighters with the bombers, while the others were given permission to disembark and look for targets on the ground. The weather, however, was unfavorable, low clouds and ground haze making it difficult to search for these. “Near Boizenburg on the Elbe River, I located a small, clear hole in the otherwise unbroken undercast. In this hole there were two locomotives.
I called them in and started down, needing only one ninety-degree turn to starboard to set me up in firing position,” Righetti said later. Visibility under the low cloud layer was poor, and in places the base dropped below 500 ft. As Righetti was giving instructions to three other pilots to attack the locomotives, he saw strange objects passing below him on the left. A trio of Mistel “flying bombs” were trying to slip at a low-level! The machines that met the four American fighters that day were training versions of this strange bombing “creature”: one Mistel S1, combining a Ju 88A and a Bf 109F, and two Mistels S2, combining a Ju 88 and an Fw 190A. Righetti, flying his famous “Katydid” (CL-M; 44-14223), attacked the Mistel S1 with his wingman 2/Lt. Richard Gibbs in a Mustang named “Cherry” (CY-Q; 44-14175). The leader of the second pair was 1/Lt Bernard Howes, who was backed up by 1/Lt. Patrick Moore on P-51D “Lil Jan” (CY-Y; 44-14235). They swooped down on one of the Mistels S2.
“I broke rapidly left and up in a 200-degree chandelle, positioning myself on the tail of the middle one. I started firing at 500 to 600 yards, 30 degrees angle off, and missed two short bursts. As I swung into trail and closed to point-blank range firing a long burst, I saw many excellent strikes on the fuselage and empennage of the large aircraft and scattered strikes and a small fire on the fighter.” The two-aircraft combination went into a steep dive and Righetti overrun it, losing it from sight. “I did not actually see them crash, but five or ten seconds later I observed a large explosion and spotted considerable burning wreckage. Still not realizing just what we were attacking, but feeling that I had destroyed one complete unit, I turned slightly port for another,” he said.
The comparison of the reports shows that Righetti’s second target was the Mistel, which at that moment had already been attacked by Howes. The latter stated that after several hits the Fw 190 broke away from the bomber, it went into climb and then crashed. Howes lost sight of Ju 88 but it was hit by Moore. “As I was closing to fire, the heavy aircraft seemed to be jettisoned, went into a shallow diving turn to the left, and crashed and burned in a small hamlet,” reported Righetti and testified more or less Howes’ words. Righetti then focused on the detached Fw 190, which he fired at from the rear. “Jerry went out of control and crashed straight ahead. At this point I noticed a few tracers too close and coming from behind.” The shots were likely fired by Howes, who was targeting the same Focke-Wulf as Righetti. Not surprisingly, after the action, American fighters claimed a total of four Ju 88s and even five Fw 190s! In any case, Howes also pounced on the last Mistel. After two attacks, he set the Fw 190 on fire, then the Ju 88, and both exploded on impact.
As these were training Mistels, there were pilots on board the Ju 88s. According to German records, these were Fw. Willi Kollhoff, Ofhr. Franz Pietschmann and Fw. Fritz Lorbach. All from the 6th/KG 200. Pietschmann was shot down and died, Lorbach managed to land the burning aircraft in the woods and miraculously survived, the emergency landing saved Kollhoff’s life as well. On the other hand, all three fighter pilots perished.
Elwyn Righetti was hit by flak on April 17 while strafing the Riesa-Canitz airfield south of Dresden. After an emergency landing, he reported that he was fine except for a broken nose. And that was the last news of him. What happened then remains a mystery to this day...