Reflections on the B-17 and the End of the War: The Perspective of a B-17 Co Pilot


2013-10-03 Hubert Stephenson was the co-pilot of the B-17 which was forced to crash land on July 4, 1943 in France.

We participated in this summer’s ceremony to honor the crew and to place a monument in the local area in their honor.

A ceremony was held on Noirmoutier island, France, at the end of June 2013 at the scene of B-17 raid, and the rescue of downed crewmen after a raid against Nazi air and maritime facilities in this part of France.

For the crew that would fly on July 4, 1943, their training saved their lives.

Hubert Stephenson in 1942.
Hubert Stephenson in 1942.

As one of the participants in the ceremony, the brother of the co-pilot of the plane crewed by the “Battling Bastards,” commented that if his brother were at the ceremony he would have highlighted the skill and courage of the pilot who landed the Flying Fortress with only one engine operating into the water at low tide.

Gordon Stephenson has shared with us some reflections of his brother on that day and on the plane which he flew.

Hubert Stephenson provided the following remembrance of what happened on July 4, 1943:

16 of us had taken off for Nantes, France.  The aircraft factory was our target there.  We did hit the target area.  We were under attack most all of the way to the target and again after the target, far out over the water in the Bay of Biscay.  

I believe our first hit was from flak, in guess which engine, number 3 (editor’s note: earlier Stephenson highlighted the continuing problems with this engine on previous flights). 

Another engine failed and we probably took a 20 MM in another engine.  We had dropped bombs at 27,500.  At 18,000 feet and about 250 to 300 miles from Lands End in England, far out over the water, with one engine remaining, and plenty of fighters to keep us company, we made a decision. 

We were all alone.  

We let our sheels down and headed for the coast.  We made it to within about a quarter mile of the Isle of Noirmoutier. 

One waste gunner had had his parachute destroyed on his back.  No one was hurt at this point, however.  

When we landed, wheels down, the bombardier sailed through the plexiglas nose of the plane.  He had remained in the nose trying to destroy his Norden Sight instead of preparing to crash land in the radio area, as the other crew members had.  

Another shot of B-17s over France. In preparing for a B-17 ceremony in France, it seems that the greatest generation had its own problems. And those problems do not seem all that different facing those who wish to procure the right systems for the challenges of the 21st not the 20th century. Credit Photo: US National Archives
B-17s over France. Credit Photo: US National Archives

His forehead was torn open, but he later recovered all right. 

We had not idea how long the plane would float, so we all got in to the water as quickly as possible.  We were strafed in the water by a German fighter, and the tail gunner’s leg was broken. 

No problems otherwise. 

The Goons were waiting for us on the shore.  They laid down a bracket of machine gun fire so that we had a choice of swimming to shore or back to England.  

For us the war was over. 

In addition the specific insights on his last flight, the co-pilot provided his view of the B-17.

The B-17 was truly a Flying Fortress.  Consider the raid in which we had some 75 holes shot into the plane. It flew and had no problems flying.  Consider that we carried 13 50-caliber guns. 

In addition, we carried two 2,000 or 10 500-pound bombs. 

We would carry this armament 1,000 or more miles, as they did late in the war.  

Hubert Stephenson and his daughter Linda Nayler as seen in December 2004.
Hubert Stephenson and his daughter Linda Nayler as seen in December 2004.

Add to this load, the necessary fuel to support four engines.  It was a slow plane, compared to modern aircraft.  Its cruising speed was only 160 miles per hour. 

But we drove our plane some 300 miles per hour, one time. 

It was not the easiest plane to fly, in that everything had to be done by manpower.  There were no power rudders or power elevators, and so on. 

Still, if the plane was trimmed any way near correctly, it would fly alone.  The automatic pilot (AFC) did a beautiful job on cross-country.  Of course, the AFC could not be used in formation flying by wingmen. 

It was a wonderful plane.

Hubert Stephenson wrote a diary during his time at the prisoner of war camp at Mooseberg where he was moved towards the end of the war.

Hubert Stephenson’s daughter Linda, readers from that diary notations made shortly before and during the troops liberation by the US Army in May 1945.

The audio file can be downloaded here:

Stephenson Diary Excerpts

For Gordon Stephenson’s look back at growing up with his brother see the following:

For Don Bohler’s look at the event and beyond within France:

For the article, The B-17 Comes Back to France published in Front Line Defence see the following:

And for our Special Report on the B-17 and Its Continuing Legacy please see the following:

Don Bohler provided this contribution as well to our wrap up of the B-17 story:

The other day, I took a look at the beach area at La Cantine, La Gueriniere using Google Earth.  The outline of the Battling Bastards is clearly visible in the water.

The B-17 offshore as viewed by Google Earth. Credit: Google Earth

For an interesting diary of a B-17 pilot see the following:

What follows is the complete combat diary of a pilot, Captain William H. Arthur, who flew 35 missions over continental Europe with the 91st Bomb Group during July-October 1944.