Remembering Mission #222: Merseburg

Shown, above: Tom Madden (bottom row, second from right) recalls Mission #222.

Story by Andrew Cespedes, Intern, 390th Memorial Museum.

November 30, 1944 was a typical chilly English morning, but the day would prove unforgettable for the 390th Bomb Group. Mission #222 was a daring daylight raid on the city of Merseburg. The target was the Leuna Synthetic Oil Plant, one of the largest synthetic oil plants in Germany.


Merseburg’s Formidable Reputation

With an output of up to 50,000 tons of oil at its peak, Leuna was a key target for the American strategic bombing efforts (The Story of The 390th Bombardment Group, 63). The 390th flew eight missions to Merseburg and Leuna over the course of the war, with Mission #222 being the last.

Prior to Mission #222, Merseburg and Leuna earned a reputation as being a dangerous target. Waist gunner Tom Madden recalls, “The name ‘Merseburg’ sent cold chills down the spines of older and harder crews, but to us it didn’t impress much. It seemed just a dot on a map with a large flak circle surrounding it.” Tom Madden’s initial nonchalance would soon be amended; as the day wore on and the mission underway, it became clear to all crews involved that Merseburg and Leuna were much more than just a dot on the map. This article looks to provide insight into the brave men who flew this mission, and the dangers they faced while 20,000 feet in the sky fighting tyranny.

The Importance of Oil Production During WWII

Throughout World War II the Germans utilized a new style of warfare, Blitzkrieg. They relied heavily on synthetic oil to fuel their aircraft, panzers, and other machinery. By 1944 synthetic oil accounted for 92% of their aircraft fuel, and 57% of their entire oil supply (Puckett). As a result, the Allied Forces adopted a strategy aimed at destroying Germany’s ability to produce synthetic oil. It was speculated that without its oil industry, Germany’s ability to wage war would be greatly reduced, perhaps even ending the war. Leuna, one of the biggest synthetic oil plants in Germany, was key to Germany’s war efforts, and therefore a high priority target for the Americans.

Areas shown in red indicate the heavy FLAK zones surrounding Merseburg. Detail of map from the Mission Statistics Exhibit, 390th Memorial Museum.

By the fall of 1944, the Germans knew that Leuna was a popular target for the American bombers and, accordingly, did their best to protect it. The Germans dedicated the entire 14th Flak division, consisting of over 60,000 men and women, to protecting the Leuna Oil Plant (Boog, 321). Any American bomber attempting to target Leuna was met with heavy fire from Germany’s immense commitment of personnel and equipment, dedicated to shooting aircraft out of the sky. The Germans went even further in their protection of Leuna; they built fake oil plants complete with flak and searchlights of their own, meant to confuse American bombers and keep Leuna safe (Westerman, 220).

Before Mission #222, seven raids fell victim to the deception of mock plants. Unfortunately, more bombs were dropped on bogus plants than the actual oil plant (Westerman, 220). Heavy fortifications and German dedication to disguise resulted in Mission #222 being one of the most hazardous raids for the 390th. The United States’ strategy of daylight precision bombing raids, considered necessary to improve accuracy of the bombers, would compound this danger as German fighter pilots and FLAK were able to see incoming bombers.

November 30, 1944: Mission #222

On the day of the mission, by 0900 each aircraft was loaded up with 20-250lb M-57 bombs, adding up to a 5,000lb payload. It was time for the crews to take to the skies. Flying in the low element of Mission #222 Tom Madden’s aircraft, Sleepytime Gal, was almost lost as prior to reaching their target an aircraft from the element above began slowly descending right on top of them. This forced a rapid descent to avoid collision. With the crisis averted the entire group set their sights on Merseburg and their target, the Leuna Oil Plant. The 390th Bomb Group initially planned to start their bombing run to the southeast and fly northwest, staying over the target for as little time as possible.

But as they climbed to 26,700 feet they overshot their IP, the initial point at which they were supposed to turn and start their bomb run, and began their run too far to the southeast, exposing them to FLAK from the 86 guns stationed at the city of Zeitz (The Story of The 390th Bombardment Group, 65). The 390th’s bombing run was elongated and even more dangerous than before. Madden wrote, “We found the FLAK to be of the barrage and tracking type and was very intense and accurate. We were 17 minutes into the run, and the FLAK we experienced was red and of the 105mm type, the first time I’d seen that type. It turned bright daylight into midnight.”

Lt. Col. Louis W. Dolan, 3rd Division leader, shot down on Mission #222.

As FLAK surrounded the 390th, they bravely continued their run into the target and released their bomb load on Leuna. With their bombs falling on the target, the 390th began the flight home as FLAK continued to explode all around them. As they were pursued by the Germans, catastrophe struck the lead plane carrying 3rd division leader, Lt. Col. Louis Dolan. The aircraft suffered a direct hit and began to fall out of the sky.

Tom Madden’s plane was severely damaged, and the crew made an emergency landing in Belgium. 

Next, Madden’s plane was hit through the left wing, knocking out an engine and piercing holes in the fuel tank. The pilot, Paul Tracy, was able to find an RAF controlled field near Brussels, Belgium, and safely land the plane with the crew intact (390th Bomb Group, 34). In total the 390th lost seven crews on this daring raid but succeeded in bombing one of the German’s most important oil plants.

Mission #222 on November 30, 1944 was a dangerous but courageous daylight mission to the Leuna Oil Plant in Merseburg. Flown in part by the 390th Bomb Group, the mission was critical to slowing down the German war machine. Leuna was one of the largest oil plants under German control and a critical target. A combination of decoy plants and an entire German Flak Division dedicated to guarding Leuna, made mission #222 extremely dangerous. However, the bravery and heroism of the 390th Bomb Group, working in cooperation with other units, were able to achieve their objective and deal a substantive blow to the German oil industry.

Works Cited

390th Bomb Group. Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky, 1994.

Boog, Horst, Gerhard Krebs, and Detlef Vogel. Germany and the Second World War: Volume VII: The Strategic Air War in Europe and the War in the West and East Asia, 1943-1944/5. Oxford University Press, 2006,

Puckett, Michael E. “Strategic Energy Lessons: A Historical Perspective Applied to America’s Oil Source Issues.” Air Force Journal of Logistics, Winter 2008, p. 8+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 4 Oct. 2018.

The Story of The 390th Bombardment Group. Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky.

Westermann, Edward. “Hitting the Mark, but Missing the Target: Luftwaffe Deception Operations, 1939–1945.” War in History, vol. 10, no. 2, 2003, pp. 206-221. ProQuest Illustrata: Technology Collection,, doi:10.1191/0968344503wh273oa.

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