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Brennan's Circus


All photographs, images and text on this website page copyright Michael Beech

It was nearing noon and the formations of high flying American bombers filled the sky over Germany. Allied daylight bombing raids were still the norm and Germany was at the peak of her defensive airpower. Attrition among the unescorted and highly exposed bomber squadrons was severe whenever they raided deep into Germany during daylight. Now this raid, the infamous and historic bombing raid later known as “Black Thursday,” against the Schweinfurt ball bearing works was underway. It would be the most costly in American lives and aircraft during the war.

Long before the target appeared, hundreds of fighters swarmed up from the German airstrips and engaged the American bombers with 6 waves of head-on attack. On each of their devastating passes the fighters scored crippling hits on many of the bombers. Some of the B-17’s were engulfed in flame, rolled over, and spun to the ground 4 or 5 miles below. Others lost wings, broke apart, and plummeted like stones, their crews trapped by the g-forces inside their madly whirling and burning aircraft. Many more lost engines and crewmen, jettisoned their bomb loads, and turned back.

Just 10 minutes short of their target the Flying Fortress, affectionately named by her crew “Brennan’s Circus,” was among those hard hit during the head-on straffing attacks by German fighter planes. An engine erupted into flames, control surfaces were riddled and the bomb bay door mechanism was damaged and stuck shut. Unable to dump the bombs to lighten her load, the Fort fell slowly behind the rest of the bomber formation and began to lose altitude. Isolated, crippled and unprotected, “Brennan’s Circus” quickly became easy prey for the German Folke-Wulf 190 and ME fighter planes that swarmed in for the kill.

The pilot of the Fortress, 21-year-old Lt. Joseph X. Brennan, realizing the peril of the situation and hoping to extinguish the engine fire, dipped his left wing and rolled the plane into a desperate dive. “We were far behind the rest of the formation by then, and the fighters were making terrific passes at us. We were [at] 25,000 feet when I swung her over and let her go,” Lt. Brennan reported. Sensing an easy victim, the German fighters followed her down.

In a steep descent, circling to keep the fighters off their tail, and with the props running away, Lt. Brennan and his co-pilot Lt. White watched as the airspeed indicator recorded a terrifying speed in excess of 350 mph. They spiraled down and the machine-gunners fought to fend off the relentless fighter attacks. S/Sgt Roy E. King, from his highly vulnerable tail gunner position, knocked down two of the pursuers before exhausting his ammunition. The combined efforts of the 5 gunners aft, resulted in the destruction of 5 of the German fighters (officially credited with 4 kills plus 1 damaged). The crew reported that throughout the battle bullets were going through the plane from every direction leaving ragged fifty-cent sized holes by the hundreds. The din from the guns, the impacts, and the whistling of the freezing wind through holes and ports was mind and body numbing.

In the bomb bay a desperate and heroic effort was underway to open the massive doors and release the bombs from the plummeting plane. With the bombs still aboard and one engine gone, there was no hope of staying in the air, much less of pulling out of the dive. The tortured bomber vibrated, shrieked, and moaned in protest against the severe abuse as it plunged earthward. Racing against time the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Joseph Genone, cranked the bay doors open by hand and released the bomb load. Almost simultaneously the engine fire went out and, relieved of its massive burden of bombs, the stricken plane began to respond to its controls.

Miraculously the wings stayed on and Lt. Brennan was able to pull the battered plane out of its near runaway dive as it reached 5000 feet. At about that time a second engine coughed, belched smoke and clattered to a stop. The co-pilot, 1st Lt. Gordon White, quickly feathered the prop. The now grim faced pilots fought to keep the struggling ship aloft and under control.

When he felt the plane flying level again, the radio operator, T/Sgt Willard R. Wetzel (flying his 25th and final mission), became worried and opened the radio room door. Discovering the bomb bay doors open with nobody around, he was terrified that he might not have heard the order to bail-out. Thinking he was now alone in a plane with nobody at the controls, he said he, “turned to ice.” Frantically, he tried to contact the pilot. After a long anxious moment the pilot’s voice came back, “Stick with us.” All the confused and frightened crewmen were glad to hear the calm, reassuring response from their pilot.

To shake off the neverending assaults by German fighters, Lt. Brennan chose to dive the plane again, not leveling it off until within 100 feet of the ground. The two waist-gunners scrambled to lift the helpless ball-turret gunner, S/Sgt Norbert P. Loupe, from where he hung upside down and terrified in his gun-turret under the plane. Pale as a ghost, he scrambled out of the cramped compartment where, moments before, the ground had rushed up to race by just yards below his face.

The ground-hugging tactic eventually worked and the German fighters, unable to make easy strafing runs against the low-flying aircraft, departed to seek other prey. The navigator, 2nd Lt. Verne D. Viterbo, and the radioman managed to acquire a radio fix and give the pilot a direct course for England.

For 375 heroic and terrifying miles across Germany, Holland and Belgium, Lt. Joseph Brennan willed the crippled Fortress to fly at housetop level—between trees, smokestacks and buildings—knocking down antennas and phone lines and clipping tree-tops. Sometimes as close as 15 feet from the ground they lurched and swerved their way toward the coast, often leaving a stupendous trail of dust and leaves swirling in their wake. Machine gun and small arms fire erupted from the ground and riddled the “Circus” with hundreds of bullet holes as they howled over enemy positions. Civilians waved and made “V” for victory signs with their arms. The two waist-gunners, S/Sgt. Denver A. Nowlin and S/Sgt. Severin H. Rodeschin, sat on ammunition boxes for protection against bullets from below and amused themselves by watching the countryside sweep by, reading street signs and waving back to the startled people in the streets and fields, many of whom had dived for cover in ditches and behind walls.

As they approached the German coastal defenses, the small arms and machine-gun fire from the ground became intense, damaging a third engine and adding “five hundred or a thousand” bullet holes to the many hundreds already suffered by the Fort. With two props feathered and the remaining two engines thundering at maximum power—one of them now trailing dense black smoke—the “Circus” rocketed out to sea. The icy, but welcome water of the English Channel was just 50 feet below and the pilot ordered the ship lightened; machine guns, ammunition, parachutes, and everything moveable went out the doors. The top-turret gunner, T/Sgt. Norman W. Nelson, hurried down from his position high atop the plane.

Radioman Willard Wetzel began sending urgent SOS signals and Lt. Brennan told the crew to assemble at the radio room to prepare to ditch. Finally, barely 10 miles from England and safety, the damaged engine sputtered and died. Moments later, with only one engine running and her control surfaces shot to pieces, the doomed Fort reached stall speed and pan-caked into the icy water of the North Sea. “It was some landing,” exclaimed S/Sgt Norbert Loupe, the ball turret gunner. “We came in as smoothly as if we were on a runway.” Before leaving the plane, Radioman Wetzel even paused long enough to remove a small window and tuck it in his jacket as a memento.

The plane began immediately to break up and less than three minutes later all that remained of “Brennan’s Circus” were two tiny dinghies, each holding 5 cold, wet, and badly shaken airmen. They were rescued soon afterward, reaching England and safety before nightfall.

S/Sgt Denver Nowlin later wrote home that he, “Wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience, wouldn’t do it again for two.”

(All of Brennan's crew survived the war and returned home safe with the exception of Lt. Viturbo, Navigator, who was shot down again with a different crew, captured and spent the remainder of the war in a Stalag. He was released and returned home after the war's end.)


During this, the second Schweinfurt bombing raid, 659 airmen (out of 2900) did not return; 65 were captured and 594 were Missing-In-Action. 5 more returned dead in their planes along with 43 wounded. 60 planes were lost, plus 17 more that crashed on landing and at least 121 more were damaged.

The 305th Bomb Group lost 13 of 16 planes within just minutes (87% of their airmen).

Air superiority was lost in this raid and the USAAF did not attempt a deep penetration bomb raid again for 4 months.

The raid was the basis for the fictional movie "12 O'Clock High." In the movie, the planes of the 94th Bombardment Group (Brennan's group) can be spotted by the "A" in a white square on their tail.

The amazing escape and epic low level flying performance of Brennan's Circus was featured in the book "Black Thursday." During this raid the unidentified objects, called then "Foo Fighters," were reported.

“Brennan’s Circus” was a B-17F-100-BO Flying Fortress, SN 42-30383 assigned to the 8th Air Corp, 94th Bombardment Group, 332nd Bomb Squadron (Heavy), based in Bury St. Edmunds, England. The Group Commander was Colonel Frederick W. Castle, who later was awarded thel Congressional Medal of Honor (Posthumous).

The above description of the Schweinfurt Raid was compiled and written by me from various sources including newspaper articles, press releases, and letters from crew members. Any additional information about this plane, her crew, her unit and her missions will be appreciated. Please contact me at Many more details, original documents and photos concerning this plane and crew are in my possession. The tall man in the rear in the crew photo was my father, S/Sgt Denver Nowlin, waist-gunner. I was born 2 months after Brennan's Circus was shot down. My parents later divorced and my name was changed when my mother re-mairried.

Michael Beech

Brennan's Circus 9/14/1943

Brennan's Circus returning home from a mission on 9/14/1943, just one month before she was shot down during the second Schweinfurt raid. One of the gunners can be seen in the starboard waist gun door. Note the flak damage to the fusilage.

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Brennan's Circus B17 & Crew 1943

  Anaglyph Glasses       Brennan's Circus & Crew, anaglyph view.

2D to 3D Conversion of this, and the following Cross-view and Parallel view, Copyright © Michael Beech. Colorization by David Richardson.

Cross-View:   BrennansCircus & Crew, X-View Parallel View:   Brennan's Circus & Crew

The Second Schweinfurt Bombing Raid, October 14, 1943