Posted by: blogengeezer | February 19, 2012


B-17 in 1943
An amazing story of survival. Pictures on
This story, as posted here, was also posted on several other accounts, including magazines. Received repeatedly in emails from wing nuts over the years, I re-posted it as received. It is in dispute, possibly even a fabrication, as noted in comments.
A mid-air collision on February 1, 1943, between a B-17 and a German fighter over the Tunis dock area, became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of World War II. An enemy fighter attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of control, probably with a wounded pilot then continued its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a Fortress named All American, piloted by Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron. When it struck, the fighter broke apart, but left some pieces in the B-17.
The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left elevator were completely torn away. The two right engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder had been damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely through, connected only at two small parts of the frame. The radios, electrical and oxygen systems were damaged. There was also a hole in the top that was over 16 feet long and 4 feet wide at its widest and the split in the fuselage went all the way to the top gunners turret.

Although the tail actually bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned and all the control cables were severed, except one single elevator cable still worked, and the aircraft still flew – miraculously! The tail gunner was trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail to the rest of the plane.
The waist and tail gunners used parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping off and the two sides of the fuselage from splitting apart. While the crew was trying to keep the bomber from coming apart, the pilot continued on his bomb run and released his bombs over the target.
When the bomb bay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so great that it blew one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section. It took several minutes and four crew members to pass him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the forward part of the plane. When they tried to do the same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so hard that it began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so he went back to his position.

The turn back toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting off. They actually covered almost 70 miles to make the turn home. The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing altitude and speed and was soon alone in the sky. For a brief time, two more Me-109 German fighters attacked the All American. Despite the extensive damage, all of the machine gunners were able to respond to these attacks and soon drove off the fighters. The two waist gunners stood up with their heads sticking out through the hole in the top of the fuselage to aim and fire their machine guns. The tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts because the recoil was actually causing the plane to turn.

Allied P-51 fighters intercepted the All American as it crossed over the Channel and took one of the pictures shown. They also radioed to the base describing that the empennage was waving like a fish tail and that the plane would not make it and to send out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed out. The fighters stayed with the Fortress taking hand signals from Lt. Bragg and relaying them to the base. Lt. Bragg signaled that 5 parachutes and the spare had been “used” so five of the crew could not bail out. He made the decision that if they could not bail out safely, then he would stay with the plane and land it.

Two and a half hours after being hit, the aircraft made its final turn to line up with the runway while it was still over 40 miles away. It descended into an emergency landing and a normal roll-out on its landing gear.
When the ambulance pulled alongside, it was waved off because not a single member of the crew had been injured. No one could believe that the aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The Fortress sat placidly until the crew all exited through the door in the fuselage and the tail gunner had climbed down a ladder, at which time the entire rear section of the aircraft collapsed onto the ground. The rugged old bird had done its job.


  1. This article is full of untruths that defame the story of this great plane and her great crew. The first paragraph is a correct account by crewmen aboard but some one who does not where Tunis is and does not know airplanes has added the Flight to England from Tunis on two engines no less and losing altitude. The All American B 17 was based in Algeria for the operations of Feb 1943 and made it back to that base. Your article claims a plane whose cruising speed with 4 engines was 182 MPH made a flight of more than 1200 miles in two and half hours to a base in England.
    There were no P-51 escorting bombers in Feb as they were introduced in the summer of 1943. They could not take that photo as the article claims. So all the details about communications and relaying messages through a P- 51 cannot be true. Tunis is in Tunisia by the way.
    In early 1943 the escort fighters in N. Africa were P-38s and sometimes there were none at all.
    If you are really interested in honoring our great veterans please correct these outright fabrications in your article which distract from the tough life and death reality they faced.

    Get the facts

  2. This is my uncle’s plane and this is a fictionalized and embellished story with several incorrect facts.

    Ralph Burbridge, bombardier on the All American, still alive as of this date, recently set the record straight with Ralph Nichols of The Waterland blog.

    See the story here:

    • Dear sir: Thank you for clearing this up, I had done enough research to know that there were many errors in that story and am glad for the sake of history and honor that the matter has been addressed.

      I would very much like to inquire of you or Mr. Burbridge concerning the following, I am a friend doing research for the son of a bombardier who was lost by crash in this mission. The name of the bombardier was Lt. Alfred D. Blair and he was with the 97th bombardment group, 340th squadron. He had a nickname of “Jobby”. Lt. Blair was in a B-17 piloted by Major Robert Coulter and I believe this plane was flying nose ahead of the plane Mr. Ralph Burbridge was on. My information reveals that an enemy plane struck Major Coulters B-17 and the plane crashed. Lt. Alfred D. Blair, bombardier, Ralph Birk, navigator and Seargeant Knight, tailgunner were the only three to survive. Lt. Blair and Ralph Birk were Pow’s at Stalag Luft 111, Mr. Blair passed away in 1999.

      Any info would be appreciated or link to other source. I also lost a father as KIA for this great country and express my sincere Thanks and gratitude for the service given our country by Mr. Burbridge. Thank you, Kelly Livingston @

  3. I was a personal friend of Ralph Burbridge, bombardier on the All-American, for over 40 years. We talked many times about the incident described in your article. Several times we saw your post, purportedly giving an accurate account of a truly great WWII story. Each time, Ralph was outraged at the outright lies and fabrication in your account, which he figured you dreamt up for purposes of self-enhancement. The true story is readily available, and you should retract the lie you have written, which is better-suited to the realm of fictional movies.

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