August 1942 saw the commencement of operations of what was to become the biggest daylight bombing force ever assembled. The Eighth Air Force of the United States Army Air Force (as it was then) came to be known as “The Mighty Eighth” and with good reason. Steve Smith takes a brief look back for AeroResource.
The Force itself has it’s origins way back in January 1942 under the Command of Carl Spaatz. The Eighth consisted of three units; VIII Bomber Command, VIII Fighter Command and VIII Air Support Command, which flew B-26s and C-47s. They provided troop carrier and reconnaissance aircraft, until being merged into VIII Bomber Command in late 1943.
The US mission was to engage in daylight bombing operations over Europe. Daylight bombing offered the Americans the advantages of being able to place bombs accurately, hopefully minimising civilian casualties in the affected areas (particularly an issue when bombing France, Belgium or Holland). Furthermore the US had to make every bomb count as the bomb loads of their heavy bombers, the B-17 and B-24, was about half that of the RAF four-engined heavy bombers. The drawbacks of daylight bombing were obvious.
There was great scepticism amongst the British hierarchy about how the US would be able to sustain a daylight bombing campaign against a fearsome and battle hardened Luftwaffe and RAF chiefs tried to convince their US counterparts to join them in night-time area bombing operations. RAF Bomber Command already had attempted a similar day-light campaign earlier in the war.
Early RAF raids in daylight, are best described as hap-hazard. Crews were in-experienced, aircraft were far inferior to the four-engined bombers that appeared later in the war and bomb loads were insignificant. Even within the daylight hours, bombing results were poor, navigation often left much to be desired and losses were heavy.
At the time, RAF raids comprised of obsolete Handley Page Hampdens, Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, Avro Manchesters and the slighty more advanced, Vickers Wellington. In 1940 it would be a good two years until the first of the “Heavies”, the Shorts Stirling arrived in large enough numbers to take the workload off these older aircraft (although 7 Squadron were operating Stirlings from early 1941).
Aircraft such as the Hampden and Whitley were easy prey for the established and blooded veterans of the Luftwaffe fighter squadrons, who had been developing their offensive skills since way back in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939. At the time the bombers were afforded no or very limited fighter support. The short range of the Spitfire effectively allowed the Luftwaffe to sit back, just out of range of the fighters until they had to turn for home, whereupon they began their attack.
The US similarly, had no aircraft at the time capable or escorting heavy bombers for long distances in large enough numbers. So the scene was set for the US to prove that this kind of operation was sustainable. Their idea was to ensure the bomber aircraft were so heavily armed, that it would be suicide for the enemy to attack. The B-17E carried no less than 11 machine guns in eight positions around the aircraft. The first raid for The Mighty Eighth took place on 17 August 1942. 18 B-17Es from 97th Bomb Group left RAF Polebrook. Six carried out a diversionary exercise whilst the remaining 12 went on to hit a marshalling yard at Rouen/Sotteville. They were over the target between 1739 to 1745, with two aircraft suffering damage. One damaged enemy fighter was claimed.
The first of many losses for the Eighth took place on 6 September 1942. 52 aircraft were dispatched to the Potez aircraft plant at Meaulte, France with two B-17s failing to return.
To supplement the 1st Combat Wing of the Eighth, the 2nd Combat Wing were established, flying the B-24 Liberator. They entered the fray on 10 September 1942 to bomb a railroad at Lille, along with 84 B-17s. Seven B-24s aborted and one aircraft of 24 was lost. Later, the 3rd Combat Wing, also flying B-17s would be formed.
The US Bombers were escorted by P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts (as well as limited numbers of US Supermarine Spitfires and RAF fighters). The P-38 had the range, but was in short supply, expensive and difficult to maintain whilst the P-47 didn’t have the range to escort the bomber formations all the way to the target. Attempts were made to increase range by fitting the P-47s with papier mache under-wing tanks. Unfortunately, the P-47 had to drop the tanks before they could engage in combat and consequently the Luftwaffe developed tactics to lure the P-47s into combat, to force them to drop their tanks, so that they would still have to turn for home early.
The heavy bombers, despite their armament were still juicy targets for the Me-109 and FW190. Losses mounted amongst the 8th with fighters being strategically placed along the route into Germany to hassle the B-17s and B-24s all the way to the target and right back to the allied fighter curtain. Bomber tactics evolved over time and the formations were improved. A complex “box” system was developed, designed to focus as many guns as possible onto an enemy aircraft flying through the formation. This perhaps explains the very high numbers of destroyed enemy fighters, where it is thought ten times as many were claimed than were brought down. Often this is put down to brash young American’s looking to add to their individual tally, but in such a box formation it is highly likely that ten or more gunners from various aircraft were firing at the same enemy fighter as it went down – hence impossible to tell exactly whom got the kill.
The box formations gave rise to the infamous “Tail End Charlie” position. The formations were stacked with a middle, high and low squadron. Generally the heaviest losses occurred to the aircraft flying in the low squadron of the last group and this position was often referred to as “Purple Heart Corner”. The Luftwaffe would concentrate their attacks on this area, as being at the extreme rear of the formation, there would be less American guns trained on them.
Losses continued to be heavy, even with the improved formation work. 16 of 115 were lost over Bremen on 17 April 1943 and 22 of 76 over Kiel on 13 June 1943, but the biggest shock was yet to come. On 17 August 1943, exactly one year after the first 18 bomber raid, 376 B-17s were split into two forces and bombed Regensburg and Schweinfurt. 60 were shot down, with 168 more being damaged. 60 of 291 were lost over Schweinfurt again, on 14 October 1943. The formations of B-17s were highly vulnerable to attacks from head-on and the dreaded “Twelve O’Clock High” call had many a pilot and co-pliot gripping the control column, powerless to do anything to halt the Me-109s and FW-190s flying head-on aiming towards the cockpit.
Once the German fighters had bided their time and seen off the bomber escort, their most successful tactic was to form several aircraft, line abreast in front of the formations of American aircraft before attacking head on, at high speed and then diving away through the formation and re-grouping to begin the attack again. Various other tactics were used, such as rocket attacks, bombs on parachutes being dropped into formations and then detonated, as well as rumours of captured B-17s being flown by German crews in amongst the formations and causing havoc in a variety of ways.
The solution to the fighter escort problem arrived in 1943, but only by late 1943 was it present in sufficient numbers to affect the overall position. The solution was the P-51 Mustang. The Mustang had the range, the firepower and the ability to take the battle to the Luftwaffe, by escorting bombers all the way to the target and back. The Me-262 was superior to the P-51 when it started appearing amongst the bomber formations in 1944, but it was not available in sufficient numbers, and the pilots flying them were often inexperienced. The B-17 design varied over time, with the eventual B-17G having a two gun turret beneath the nose (known as the Chin Turret), at last allowing the bomber crews some defence against the head on attacks. Early aircraft were modified with a single machine gun mounted through the plexiglas nose, firing forwards, but this weakened the nose structure substantially and was discontinued.
Over the course of 1944 the power of the Luftwaffe declined as aircraft were destroyed, production was slowed and experienced pilots were killed or captured which allowed the USAAF and RAF greater freedom to operate over Europe as well as giving them capacity to increase fleet sizes to mount bigger and bigger raids. Air dominance over Europe was slowly being achieved, through a variety of means. As the RAF and USAAF fighter squadrons moved into captured bases in France, post D-Day, this allowed them greater freedom to operate “Rhubarb” missions, seeking out targets of opportunity, particularly at their home airfields. The Luftwaffe were now up against it in the air and on the ground. So, the Americans had proven that long-range and sustained daytime bomber offensive operations could be achieved, but only with sufficient fighter escort to get the bombers to the target and back, combined with a crumbling Luftwaffe. Seventy years on, large scale bomber offensives such as that conducted over Europe, have not and will never be matched, and hopefully nor will the huge loss of life associated with them.