B-17 in European Theatre

Last revised July 26, 1999

It was to be in the European theatre of operation that the B-17 Flying Fortress would acquire its reputation.

The Eighth Air Force was formed in Britain to carry out daylight bombing raids against German targets in Europe. These raids were to be carried out by unescorted Fortresses flying at high altitude in tight formations for protection against enemy fighters. The defensive firepower of the B-17 was thought to be sufficient to fend off Luftwaffe attacks. At the same time that the USAAF carried out its daylight attacks, the Royal Air Force was to fly coordinated nighttime raids.

The first Eighth Air Force units arrived in Britain on May 12, 1942. The first USAAF Flying Fortress (B-17E serial number 41-9085) arrived at Prestwick in Scotland on July 1, 1942. The first Flying Fortress raid over Europe was launched on August 17, 1942 by 18 B-17Es of the 97th Bombardment Group against railroad marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in France. Twelve planes made the actual attack and the remaining six flew a diversionary sweep up the coast. Brig Gen Ira Eaker flew along on this raid in B-17E 41-9023 "Yankee Doodle". The formation was escorted by Spitfires. No opposition was encountered from the Luftwaffe.

On August 19, twenty four Fortresses took part in an attack on the German airfield at Abbeville in support of the disastrous raid at Dieppe. All planes returned safely to base, but the landing force at Dieppe was decimated.

The next ten raids went fairly well, with only two planes being lost.

Deteriorating weather and the needs of the North African front caused a change in plans, and most of the Eighth Air Force B-17s had to be diverted to the fight against Rommel. The two most experienced bomber groups, the 97th and 301st were committed to *Operation Torch* as the nucleus of the newly-formed Twelfth Air Force. On September 20, 1942, General James Doolittle formed the nucleus of the 12th Air Force in England, and early in October the 97th, 99th, 301st, and 2nd Bombardment Groups were transferred to the new formation. The air war against the Germans in Europe had to be given a lower priority.

In October 1942, attention of the depleted 8th Bomber Command was concentrated against German submarine pens situated along the French coast. These pens were constructed of thick concrete and were highly resistant to bomb damage. The attacks against these pens were largely ineffectual. Many raids against the sub pens had to be scrubbed on account of bad weather, and those raids which were carried out were often inaccurate because of poor visibility over the target. The bombing campaign against the submarine pens was extremely costly in terms of lost airplanes and crews and had no real effect upon the German submarine campaign. It turned out that the submarine threat was best met at sea.

On January 3, 1943 the new bombing-on-the-leader technique was introduced. Instead of each plane dropping its bombs individually, all bombardiers released their bombs when the saw the bombs leave the bay of the lead aircraft. This technique usually resulted in better accuracy, since the most skilled bombardier was generally in the lead plane.

The successful completion of the North African campaign resulted in the resumption of the bomber offensive against the Germans in northern Europe. The first USAAF mission over Germany was a raid on January 27, 1943 against the U-boat construction yards at the port of Wilhelmshaven. It was carried out by a force of B-17Fs drawn from the 92st, 303rd, 305th, and 306th Bomb Groups.

March 18 saw first use of Automatic Flight Control Equipment (AFCE) in a raid on the Bremer Vulkan shipbuilding yards at Vegesack. AFCE was a system in which the Norden bombsight controlled the aircraft during the final bomb run via a link with the autopilot. Luftwaffe fighters put up strong opposition that day, but their attacks were relatively uncoordinated.

On April 17, 1943, the Focke-Wulf plant at Bremen was attacked by a force of 115 Fortresses. The Luftwaffe came out in full strength that day, and 16 B-17s did not return, the heaviest loss rate to date. After that date, German fighter attacks began to become increasingly more effective and better coordinated, and bomber losses frequently were over ten percent of the attacking force, especially whenever the Fortresses went beyond the limited radius of their fighter escorts. The German fighters began to attack the Fortress formations from the "twelve o'clock high" spot directly head-on. This innovation was supposedly introduced by Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Egon Mayer, who had noticed that the firepower from the B-17 was weak in the nose area, with there being significant blind spots that neither the nose guns nor the top-turret gunner could adequately cover from the front. Additional guns were hastily added to the nose in an attempt to beef up the forward firepower. However, the much-publicized vulnerability to frontal attacks was due more to the lack of armor that was properly positioned to protect the crew against gunfire coming from the front than it was due to the lack of enough front-firing guns. Another problem was the unfortunate tendency of the B-17 to catch fire when hit by flak or cannon fire, which was never really cured.

In June of 1943, the famous "Memphis Belle" (B-17F-10-BO serial number 41-24485 of the 324th Bombardment Squadron of the 91st Bombardment Group) became the first B-17 to complete its crew's quota of 25 missions. A film crew had gone along on the *Memphis Belle's* mission to Wilhelmshaven and this film was widely shown throughout the war. After the last mission, the *Memphis Belle* returned to the United States and carried out a morale-building tour selling US War Bonds.

The next phase of the air war against Germany was to be the destruction of its aviation industry. A critical part of the strategy was to be the elimination of the German ball-bearing industry, since just about any machine which had moving parts required ball-bearings. On July 24-31, 1943, the 8th Air Force attacked 16 major industrial targets in the greatest sustained air offensive to date. On August 17, 1943, a simultaneous attack was carried out on the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt factories at Regensburg. It was the deepest penetration into Germany to that date and was the largest force of B-17s yet dispatched. The losses were catastrophic--the 8th AF lost 60 aircraft out of a force of 376 bombers. The crews claimed 288 German fighters shot down, which was undoubtedly grossly exaggerated.

The Regensburg force went on to North Africa, and returned to England via the Focke Wulf works at Bordeaux. The total losses for the week were over hundred B-17s. Losses like this could clearly not be sustained--a couple of more weeks like this, and the 8th Air Force would be gone.

During August and September of 1943, the new B-17G began to arrive in England. The new chin turret helped meet the head-on attacks by the German fighters.

On September 6, a force of over 400 bombers hit the VKF ball-bearing works at Stuttgart. Weather prevented the attacking force from seeing the target, and bombs were released over the city in a haphazard fashion. A total of 45 bombers were lost to fighters and to accurate flak.

On October 14, 1943, Schweinfurt was visited again, and 60 Fortresses were lost out of a force of 291.

In late 1943, the appalling losses and the meager results that had been obtained led USAAF commanders to rethink the wisdom of continuing with the daylight bombing offensive. Winston Churchill was never a believer in precision daylight bombing and wanted the USAAF to go over to nighttime raids, as the RAF had done from the start. In spite of the attacks on the German aircraft industry, it seemed that the numbers of German fighters rising to meet the attacking Fortresses actually increased rather than decreased. The German aircraft industry was amazingly recuperative. An efficient German labor force, plus the forced labor of captives, was able quickly to repair the damage and to get the damaged facilities back in operation within a few days. In addition, a very effective decentralization program was carried out under the direction of Minister of Armaments Albert Speer.

It soon became apparent that without fighter escort, deep penetrations into Germany would have to be seriously curtailed, if not abandoned altogether. However, in spite of extreme losses, the B-17Fs were never turned back from a raid by enemy fighters or flak, although bad weather caused frequent mission cancellations and callbacks. During the latter weeks of 1943, the 8th Air Force restricted its missions to targets that were within the range of the escort fighters that were beginning to become available, and there were no penetrations into Germany.

In spite of the high losses, the decision was made to continue with the attacks on German industry. In late 1943, the US Strategic Air Forces were organized in Europe under the command of LtGen Carl Spaatz to carry out heavy bomber attacks from England and Italy and to coordinate their efforts with the night attacks of the RAF.

Effective fighter escort did not appear until late 1943 with the arrival of large numbers of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. These aircraft were able to escort the B-17 considerable distances into Germany. The North American P-51D Mustang was the most effective of all the escort fighters, and began to appear in the spring of 1944. It was able to escort the bombers all the way to Berlin.

During the winter in Europe, the weather is generally atrocious. In order to permit bombing during inclement or overcast conditions, a number of Fortresses were fitted with a British-devised radar installation known as H2S which scanned the grounds under the clouds and which could be read by a trained operator like a map. The American version of this device was known as H2X "Bombing Through Overcast" radar, and was installed in the fuselage belly in place of the ball turret. These planes acted as pathfinders, the remaining aircraft in the formation releasing their bombs on visual signals from the radar-equipped Fortresses. This equipment was used for the first time in a raid on the port at Emden.

On January 11, 1944, a 600-plane force of bombers were sent against German aircraft industry targets. Because of the weather, only 238 B-17s actually succeeding in reaching the target. Sixty B-17s were lost.

On February 20, 1944, five days of coordinated USAAF/RAF assaults on the German aircraft industry began, that historians later named "The Big Week". On that day, the first thousand-plane raid took place, with fighter plane factories at Brunswick, Oschersleben, Bernberg, and Leipzig being attacked. The cost of the "Big Week" was heavy, with 244 heavy bombers and 33 fighter planes being lost. However, these raids played an important role in helping to reduce the strength of the Luftwaffe, paving the way for the D-Day landings. The onset of bad weather brought an end to the "Big Week", which was merciful since crews were exhausted and losses had been high. Nevertheless, during this offensive, the back of the Luftwaffe was broken. After this date, the Luftwaffe was never able to throw up the same amount of strength that it had before, and was generally effective only on sporadic occasions or when targets of critical importance were being attacked.

The first B-17 raid on Berlin took place on March 4, 1944. P-51 Mustang fighters escorted the bombers all the way to Berlin and back. On March 6, 600 B-17s returned to Berlin. The Luftwaffe was out in force, and accounted for 69 B-17s and 11 fighter escorts.

In May of 1944, the priority shifted to oil. On May 12, 1944, attacks were begun on German oil-production facilities and synthetic oil-production centers. These attacks caused a sudden and catastrophic drop in German fuel and lubricant supplies. In only two months of attacks, German oil production was cut in half. Especially successful were the attacks on the stubborn oil production facility of Ploesti in Rumania, which had been so resistant to previous attacks. By the time that Ploesti was taken by the Russians, 90 percent of this Rumanian oil production facility had been destroyed. Destruction of the synthetic oil centers had the additional beneficial side effect of cutting the supplies of nitrogen and methanol, which essential in the manufacture of explosives. The postwar Strategic Bombing Survey judged that the oil offensive was the most effective of all the strategic bombing attacks in helping to shorten the war.

The B-17 was less widely used in the Mediterranean theatre. The brunt of the air war in the Mediterranean was borne by the B-24 Liberator, although a few B-17s groups were also involved. The four Bombardment Groups that had been diverted from the 8th Air Force to Africa participated in the Bizerta and Kasserine Pass battles in North Africa. 12th AF B-17s took part in the June 28 raid on Messina, the Sept 5 and 8 raids on Naples, and against the Wermacht counterattack at Salerno between Sept 13 and 18.

Advances up the Italian boot brought German targets within the range of B-17s based in the Mediterranean theatre. In November of 1943, the 15th Air Force was organized to carry out raids on Germany from bases in Italy. It resulted from a reorganization of Doolittle's 12th Air Force into the 15th Air Force with Doolittle in command, and the 9th Air Force with Lewis H. Brereton in command. It was hoped that the 15th AF stationed in the Mediterranean would be able to operate when the 8th was socked in by bad English weather. The 9th AF would later move to England to serve as a tactical unit to take part in the invasion of Europe. Once bases around Foggia in Italy became available, the 15th was able to reach targets in southern France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans, some of which were difficult to reach from England.

The 15th Air Force began its operations on November 2, 1943, attacking the Messerschmitt factory at Weiner-Neustadt in Austria. One of the important achievements of the 15th Air Force was the reduction of the oil fields at Ploesti in July-August 1944.

By early 1945, the Wermacht and the Luftwaffe had been reduced to near impotence by the lack of fuel and supplies, due in no small part to the strategic bombing offensive against Germany carried out by the Lancaster, Halifax, and Stirling bombers of the RAF and the B-24 and B-17 bombers of the USAAF. Due credit must be given to their crews who bravely went out day after day even in spite of appalling losses.


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