Above: U.S. Army Air Forces Consolidated B-24 Liberator of the 7th Bomb Group attacking a bridge of the Moulmein-Ye rail line some 56 km (35 mi) south of Moulmein on 27 January 1945 (National Archives ARC Identifier 292589), and Gus Potthoff‘s painting of a B-24 dive-bombing the ‘Kwai’ bridges.
12 April 2012 [Updated 15 September 2019] | Columbus, Indiana, USA. A polished Consolidated B-24J Liberator sits inside a Fantasy of Flight hangar in central Florida. The venerable bomber served in the skies of the China-India-Burma theatre during World War II.
The aeroplane is a Consolidated B-24J Liberator, which was designated as Liberator Mk VI by the Royal Air Force (RAF) upon acceptance from the U.S. Government under terms of Lend-Lease, one of 1,278 delivered to the RAF and Coastal Command. Officials at Fantasy of Flight believe it was is believed ferried in August 1944 to No. 215 Squadron, RAF, at Kolar, India. If true, the aircraft would have likely participated in longrange operations into Burma in efforts to destroy the infamous Siam-Burma railway bridges.
Far below, Gustav Potthoff witnessed Carl’s attacks on the bridges from the perspective of the ground. These men know the true story of the building and bombings of the Burma-Thailand Railway (Burma-Siam Railway) bridges. Their first-hand accounts differ considerably from that of the largely inaccurate 1957 Academy Award-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
One of the U.S. Army Air Forces Liberators that flew in the region and attacked the structures had Carl Fritsche, an Ohioan, at the controls. Carl Fritsche arrived in India via stops in Cairo and British ‘Palestine’, which is present day Israel. He began flying with the 10th Air Force’s 7th Bombardment Group. Carl piloted a B-24 he named ‘The Crusader’. The name and painting applied to the airplane came from an image inside Jerusalem’s All Nations Church. In addition to attacking shipping and dropping supplies to frontline units, Carl and his squadron mates regularly attacked the Burma-Thailand Railway (Burma-Siam Railway). They also ‘dive-bombed’ the bridges over the Mae Klong (commonly referred to as ‘Kwai’) River.
During the early months of World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army captured Dutch and British colonies. The ensnared populations essentially became mistreated and malnourished slaves. They consisted of Dutch Commonwealth, Dutch, British, British Commonwealth, Indian, Americans and others. Whether ill, injured or healthy, thousands involuntarily went to work on construction projects.
One major Japanese undertaking was the building of the Burma-Siam Railway to supply their troops in Burma. Two groups, one based in Siam and the other in Burma, worked from opposite ends. The result was a railway and 2 particularly notable bridges over the Mae Klong River. The first trestle was a temporary wooden bridge. The second was a steel and concrete structure.
During the railway’s construction some 13,000 prisoners died. Approximately 80,000 to 100,000 civilians from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, as well as conscripts from Siam (Thailand) and Burma, also expired in the course of the construction. Understandably, the railway’s unofficial name became the ‘Death Railroad’.
One of the laboring prisoners of war was Gustav Potthoff. Mr. Potthoff was born in the Netherlands East Indies. (The country is now Indonesia.) In 1941, he enlisted in a Royal Netherlands East Indies Army tank battalion at Bandoeng, Java. Mr. Potthoff saw many people die and personally experienced the brutality of his Imperial Japanese Army captors and Korean guards. At least 69 Allied prisoners were beaten to death by these overseeers.
Gus credits the Lord, his ‘Higher Power’, angels and spirits for enabling him to survive the horrendous ordeal. One night, when he was near death and crawling in the dirt, Gus saw an angelic vision and was ‘told’ to consume granules, which were dropped during the preparation of a meal, of hot spices on the ground; It was just enough to keep him alive.
According to Gus, in 1942 the wooden bridge first came under aerial attack, and afterward he and his oppressed colleagues had to build an additional trestle. It too became a target of American B-24 Liberators, and the center span suffered damage. The wooden structure no longer exists, but most of the other remains and is in use.
In a video, Mr. Fritsche explains that the bomber pilots would employ their B-24s as dive-bombers, an unusual and not recommended role for large and heavy aircraft. Carl and his fellow pilots, when attacking bridges, would often begin a dive at an altitude ranging from 1,800 to 1,500 feet. Each released their bomb loads (usually 4 500-pound bombs) from 100 to 50 feet. The ‘bomb sights’ were a row of rivets along the top of the forward fuselage, and the aiming points were the abutments supporting the tracks.
Of the 688 bridges along the course of the railroad, the B-24 ‘drivers’ could put 30-40 out of use per day. Carl indicates that if the merciless Japanese knew an attack was pending, they would march prisoners out onto the structures in an attempt to deter the Liberators from their tasks. However, the B-24s would bomb without hesitation. After the raids the enemy would repeatedly send prisoners to repair any damage.
In total, Captain Carl Fritsche accumulated 486 combat hours over the course of 59 missions. Carl’s interesting tale is on the DVD Carl Fritsche’s Story: From the Holy Land to India to the Kwai River in a B-24 Liberator. Christ the King Church in Columbus, Ohio, was the setting for this lecture and recording. Carl H. Fritsche died on 21 August 2006.
Gus’ story, Lest We Forget: A Survivor’s Story, is a product of WFYI and the Atturbury-Bakalar Air Museum. The museum sells this video. Those interested in buying a copy should telephone (812) 372-4356. The Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum also maintains a Web page that relates some of Gus’ story. He passed away on 22 December 2016.
Fantasy of Flight is in Polk City, Fla. The complex is north of Interstate 4 at 1400 Broadway Boulevard Southeast. Fantasy of Flight’s telephone number is (863) 984-3500.
*Author’s note: Airforce Magazine (2016 Vol. 39/No. 4), a publication of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Association, informed (page 72) readers that the organization’s Port Hardy, British Columbia, 101 Squadron had produced a plaque titled ‘The Final Raid’ for donation to the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in response to an online Globe and Mail article related to Roy Borthwick. Roy was a young pilot from North Vancouver who ‘was responsible for the final destruction of the infamous Bridge across the River Kwai – the bridge made famous in the 50’s Hollywood movie. Hollywood isn’t always known for getting the story right. . . .’ Borthwick, an RCAF flight lieutenant at the time, was posted with No. 159 Squadron, Royal Air Force, near Calcutta, India. Canadians were interspersed amongst the B-24 Liberator crews, and on 24 June 1945 Borthwick ‘succeeded in making five passes along the river, each time dropping a 1,000-pound bomb. The bombs smacked into the muddy water before exploding 11 seconds later. One of them, likely the first, destroyed a span of the steel-and-concrete railway bridge’.
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Gustav Potthoff for his cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article. God bless you, Gus.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Tenth Air Force
215 Squadron Details of Raids
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
No. 215 Squadron
No. 215 Squadron RAF
RAF Coastal Command
RCAF bomber pilot destroyed the real bridge over the River Kwai
Smith, Mark. Sgt. Arthur David Harding (1357558) 215 Squadron South East Asia Command