Rumor Doctor blog archive
Did U.S. bombers target a German town for killing downed airmen during World War II?
Published: September 1, 2011
For three bloody years, U.S. bomber crews based in England struck targets in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, waging a war of attrition best described by then Stars and Stripes correspondent Andy Rooney.
"The Eighth Air Force history is a story of men necessarily buried under the damnably cold heap of statistics the Allies are trying to pile higher than Axis statistics," Rooney wrote in 1943. "When the pile is higher the airmen can go home."
A reader asked The Rumor Doctor if it is true that aircrews would keep one bomb in reserve to drop on a certain German town while flying back to England after each mission.
"As the story goes, a B-17 crew that bailed out of their stricken craft was caught by locals in the nearby town of Speicher and were killed," a reader told The Rumor Doctor in an email. "Word of the atrocity reached the USAAF in England; word went around to bomber crews to save a bomb from their runs, and to drop it on the town during their return trip."
The "Save One For Speicher" legend originated during the war, Air Force officials said. The rumor was that German civilians had killed an airman with a pitchfork, but service historians could find no record of such an incident.
Historical records indicate Speicher was bombed just once during the war, Air Force officials said. At the time, the town had a population of about 3,000 and it was not near any large city or industrial area that the Allies would want to bomb.
There were incidents during the war in which Germans killed downed airmen, perhaps hundreds, but German military expert Dennis Showalter said he has never heard of bomber crews retaliating by bombing Speicher or any other German city.
Even if the bombers' return route took them over Speicher, it would have been difficult for bomber crews to strike an unassigned target without raising some questions at higher headquarters, said Showalter, a history professor at Colorado College.
Beyond that, it may not have been possible for the bombers at the time to keep a bomb in reserve, Showalter said in an email to The Rumor Doctor.
"I don't think a B-17 or B-24 could hold a bomb in reserve once the release toggle was pulled," he said. "One of the major concerns of aircrew was a 'hang-up:' a bomb that armed itself automatically on the release signal but failed to drop. So it seems that 'saving' one would be a high-risk option."
THE RUMOR DOCTOR'S DIAGNOSIS: This piece of war lore is fiction and it does a grave disservice to the brave men in the "Forts" and "Libs" who contributed so much to the victory in Europe. As Rooney wrote in 1943: "They are heroes who have performed deeds of a caliber which would, in ordinary times, make them national heroes. They are sergeant gunners and colonel observers."