The B-17 may have first seen combat in American colours in the Pacific, but it would earn its enduring fame with the Eighth Air Force, based in England and fighting over Hitler’s Europe. The story of the B-17 would become the story of the daylight bombing offensive over Germany.
Work on building up the Eighth Air Force began soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the Second World War. The Eighth Air Force was officially activated on 2 January 1942, following on 3 February by the first three B-17 units – the 97th, 301st and 303rd Bombardment Groups. The first American personnel arrived in February 1942. This advance guard of the massive mighty Eighth contained seven men, amongst them Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker, the new commander of VIII Bomber Command.
The first aircraft would not arrive until July. The B-17 was one of a number of aircraft types that were flown across the Atlantic as part of Operation Bolero. Their route passed through Labrador, Greenland and Iceland, before reaching Prestwick, in northern Scotland. On 1 July 1942 one B-17E, Jarring Jenny, became the first of the heavy bombers to reach Prestwick. After that the build up was reasonably rapid (although seemed slow to many on the ground at the time). On 17 July the 97th Bombardment Group became the first B-17 group to be completed in England, and exactly one month later the B-17 flew its first combat mission.
This was a raid on the railway marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, flown by 18 aircraft, escorted by RAF Spitfires. Twelve B-17s attacked the primary target, causing some damage to the marshalling yards, and shooting down one Fw 190 (for the loss of two Spitfires). Messages of congratulations rolled in from Britain and American sources, including “Bomber” Harris, but despite this there were still doubts about the American plans for a largely unescorted daylight bombing campaign.
The Eighth Air Force’s early missions were generally on a small scale, and were normally escorted by fighters, often RAF Spitfires. July and August passed without any aircraft being lost, but on 6 September two B-17s were lost during a raid on the Avions Potez factory at Meaulte. Part of this mission had been flown without fighter escort, after the fighters and bombers failed to meet up on time.
The first really big raid came on 9 October, when 108 bombers (including a number of Liberators) attacked the Railway works at Fives-Lille. Only 69 aircraft reached the target, and of those two were lost. The Germans adopted a tactic of ignoring the fighter escort and attacking the bombers directly. This raid saw one of the most extreme examples of over-reporting of victories. American gunners claimed 56 aircraft destroyed, 26 probably destroyed and 20 damaged. Sadly the real figures were much less impressive – only one German fighter had been shot down.
Over reporting was common on both sides, and was perhaps at its hardest to compensate for during bomber missions over enemy territory where running battles could take place over many miles, with dozens of gunners each claiming the same victories. In this case the figure of 56 aircraft destroyed was reduced to 21 after the raid, still a very encouraging rate of success and one that seemed to support the idea that the B-17 could defend itself in the skies over Europe. The Luftwaffe would not be able to afford to lose ten fighters for each bomber destroyed. Of course it had not lost ten fighters for every bomber.
After a second large mission on 21 October 1942, against the U-boat pens at Lorient, two of the most experienced B-17 units were transferred to North Africa, to take part in Operation Torch. At least partly to protect the inexperienced units left in England against over-heavy losses, over the next few months the Eighth Air Force concentrated on shallow penetration raids, often against German U-boat pens. These were rarely that effective, as the concrete pens were very hard to damage with conventional bombs.
This period also saw the German fighters begin to make head-on attacks against the B-17s. These involved a great deal of skill and nerve on the part of the fighter pilot, but it had three big advantages. First, a frontal attack was more likely to do critical damage to a bomber, hitting the pilot’s cockpit. Second, the bomber pilot would be more likely to take evasive action, breaking up the defensive formations that were at the heart of the American plan. Finally, the B-17 was virtually defenceless against frontal assaults, with a single machine gun in the nose. The more modern B-17Fs also carried two cheek guns, but they couldn’t fire straight forward until bulged gun positions were added later in the production run.
A worrying indication of things to come came on 20 December when 101 bombers were sent against the Luftwaffe servicing facilities at Romilly-sur-Seine, beyond the range at which Allied fighters could provide an escort. Six B-17s were lost and thirty one more damaged. Only three German fighters were shot down, although more were written off while landing. This was against a target only 100 miles inside enemy territory.
The Eighth Air Force responded by introducing the Box formation. To maximise the defensive firepower of the B-17 the aircraft flew in staggered three-bomber formations, with the squadrons staggered within the group. This required a change in bombing tactics, from the individual bomb aiming that had been standard practise (and could be seen as a crucial component of a precision bombing campaign), to a system where each group was led by a lead bombardier and dropped their bombs at the same moment, while staying in formation.
The first real test of this new policy came on 3 January 1943 during an attack on St. Nazaire. The results were mixed. Of the 107 bombers dispatched, 7 were lost, but the bombing itself was much more accurate. 1943 promised to be a very expensive year.
The first attack on a German target was made on 27 January 1943 when 63 bombers attacked the U-boat construction yards at Vegesack, on the Weser River 30 miles from the coast. Although the raid itself was a failure (clouds obscured both the main and secondary targets), only one B-17 was lost and seven German fighters shot down. Things did not go so well on the next raid in Germany, against the notorious Hamm marshalling yards in the Ruhr. Five B-17s were lost during raid.
Casualties were now beginning to mount as the Eighth Air Force finally began the main offensive against Germany. Some attacks were successful. A large attack o the synthetic rubber plant at Hüls, knocked the plant out of action for one month, and reduced production for another four, although at cost of 16 aircraft lost out of 235 sent on the mission.
The concept of unescorted daylight bombing was about to suffer a near-fatal blow. On 17 August the Eighth Air Force launched a massive attack on the aircraft factory at Regensburg and the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt. The idea was for both attacks to be made at the same time to prevent the German fighters from concentrating on one target, but unfortunately the Schweinfurt force was delayed by three and a half hours by poor weather over England. The Germans had time to deal with each force in turn, destroyed 24 aircraft from the Regensburg attack and 37 from the Schweinfurt force. The Eighth Air Force returned to Schweinfurt again on 14 October, losing another 45 aircraft. These three raids alone had cost the Eighth Air Force 121 B-17s. The ball bearing factory itself suffered no more than minor damage.
The fundamental problem was that the heavy bomber was very vulnerable to fighter attack. Attacks outside the range of fighter cover were too costly for the bomber campaign to achieve its targets. The answer would prove to be the long range escort fighter. The first aircraft with the required range was the P-38 Lightning, which began to appear in small numbers late in 1943, but it was the appearance of the Merlin powered P-51 Mustang at just about the same time (but as yet without the range to reach far into Germany) that began to change the balance of power in the skies over Europe.
The P-51 first appeared over Berlin in March 1944, escorting the first B-17 raid on the German capital. This saw a small number of aircraft from the 95th and 100th Bomb Groups reach Berlin on 4 March, dropping 67 tons of bombs. They were followed on 6 March by 730 heavy bombers, escorted by 800 fighters. Despite this massive escort, the Eighth Air Force still lost 69 bombers, but the German fighter units were now beginning to suffer heavy and unsustainable losses themselves. 2,200 German fighter pilots were lost in the first five months of 1944, and by the end of the year the Luftwaffe had lost 21,000 aircrew. By the end of the year the B-17 was able to operate in relative safety over the Reich.
The fighting over Europe had disproved the original theory behind the production of the B-17. The heavily armed bomber would not always get through and could not defend itself against determined attacks (the RAF night bombing campaign suffered similar heavy casualties). However, the well escorted heavy bomber could and did get through. The fighter escorts of 1944, especially the Mustang, allowed the B-17 crews to carry out their own mission without suffering from the cripplingly high casualty rates of 1943.