Military history



Even experienced veterans of strategic air warfare in the European Theater of Operations found it difficult to believe, in October, 1943, that only fourteen months had passed since the first American heavy bombers had ventured forth from British soil into the skies over German-dominated Europe.

At thirty-nine minutes past three o’clock in the afternoon of August 17, 1942, the last of 12 B-17E Flying Fortresses of Colonel Frank K. Armstrong’s 97th Bomb Group, first American heavy bomber unit to arrive in England, lifted from the main runway of the American airdrome at Grafton Underwood. The names of these giant four-engine raiders spoke of crew enthusiasm—Baby DollPeggy D., Big StuffButcher ShopYankee DoodleBerlin SleeperJohnny RebBirmingham BlitzkriegAlabama Exterminator.

The bombers assembled in tight formation, and in a steady climb wheeled for the English Channel, pointing their noses toward the target in France—the city of Rouen. Four Royal Air Force squadrons of Spitfire IX fighter planes flew close escort to the target area. Five Spitfire IX squadrons picked up the bombers as they left the smoking target, and escorted them back to England.

In that first attack by American heavy bombers in the European Theater of Operations, the tiny force dropped a total of 36,900 pounds of bombs from an altitude of 23,000 feet. Approximately half the bombs fell in the target area.

Anti-aircraft fire inflicted slight damage on two bombers. Three Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters attacked the formation, but failed to damage any of the B-17’s. The only casualties of the Flying Fortress debut over Europe occurred on the return flight from the target. A bombardier and navigator of one B-17 were slightly injured when a pigeon smashed itself against the plexiglas nose and showered the crewmen with flying particles.

The target—the Sotteville marshaling yard in Rouen, with its large locomotive depot and rolling-stock repair shops of the Buddicum concern—was not seriously damaged, and operations were affected only negligibly. The attack, however, was immeasurably more important in terms of policy decisions for the United States than it could possibly have been in respect to the bombed marshaling yard. For behind the 12 bombers as they droned over France lay a story of long debate and bitter controversy.

In this summer of 1942 the strategic and logistic plans of the Allies, most especially those concerning the proposed aerial bombardment by the Army Air Forces of occupied Europe and Germany, floundered in a state of extreme uncertainty. That Germany must be subjected at the earliest opportunity to the greatest possible weight of heavy aerial attack was beyond dispute. The question around which revolved the uncertainty of decision was to what extent the United States would commit its heavy bombardment strength to Europe at the expense of offensive operations in the Pacific, where the Japanese still enjoyed the heights of their overwhelming victories.

As part of the preparation for the invasion of Nazi-occupied France under the code name of BOLERO, the United States during the spring of 1942 committed its operational planning to building up a major heavy bombardment striking force in the British Isles, with the goal of eventually crippling the German war machine. On January 28, 1942, the Army Air Forces had activated the Eighth Air Force; three months later, in April, the Eighth was committed to BOLERO. One month later, in May, the paper plans assumed initial substance, when advance units of the fledgling air command—which was to become the most powerful striking force in the world—crossed the Atlantic and arrived in England. It was a harrowing transfer of air power to an advanced base, for the Flying Fortresses and the Liberators had to fight wild Atlantic storms, and more than a few bombers and their crews disappeared in the reaches of the angry ocean expanse.

The early life of the new command was essentially a frenzied nightmare of jumbled logistics and shortage of men and planes. Under the leadership of Major General Carl A. Spaatz, the Eighth was organized into bomber, fighter, composite (training), and service commands. General Spaatz’s headquarters for the Eighth Air Force was located in the suburbs of London, at Bushy Park, Teddington, and carried the coded designation of WIDEWING.

To Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker went all the headaches of the Eighth’s initial bomber force, the VIII Bomber Command. On April 15 General Eaker established his headquarters for the Bomber Command in a girls’ school (from which the students and other tenants had been hurriedly evacuated) at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, some thirty miles west of Lon-don. This headquarters became well known by its code name of PINETREE.

Easing the burden of Eaker’s problems was the superb cooperation offered by the British. The Royal Air Force Bomber Command was a combat-proved organization, and its growing strength and skill in air operations were beginning to exert a telling effect upon Germany’s industrial war machine.

While the forces under Eaker were still embryonic and struggling to gain some semblance of aircraft strength, the British were hammering with massive blows at Germany.

Those were the days when the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force was hurling massed waves of bombers at the industrial might of the Ruhr, and when the heavyweights of that command—the Stirlings, Halifaxes, and Lancasters—began to lift bomb tonnages well above a thousand to two thousand tons per raid. The Royal Air Force’s campaign of aerial attack against Germany was accomplished fact, as were the increasing number and violence of the raids against the enemy.

Early in 1942 British authorities began their build-up of the airdromes and installations that would house and maintain the many elements of the Eighth Air Force. If there were differences of opinion and at moments some bitter arguments, these arose more from the vexing problems created by the Americans’ constantly changing their plans than from any vacillation in operations on the part of the British.

To meet the requirements of its varied organizations, the Eighth Air Force received from the British a total of 127 airdromes and all other installations and facilities necessary to sustain the bombers, fighters, service, and maintenance units, and supporting organizations.

As for the growing pains of the VIII Bomber Command, they arose almost inevitably from the rapidly growing size and changing organization of the command. The British, however, managed the greater portion of the time to keep pace with the needs of the American units that flooded into England.

Originally the proposals set forth under mutual agreement stated that the VIII Bomber Command would take over from the Royal Air Force five areas in the region of East Anglia, northeast of London, with 15 airdromes contained within each area. In addition, the VIII would also assume tenancy of any satellite airfields that might be necessary to accommodate additional aircraft, personnel, and facilities for operations.

By May of 1942 the British and Americans were in agreement on the location of the bomber airdromes. Into the Huntingdon area and adjacent sections of East Anglia went the Army Air Forces heavy bombers, and the airdromes of Grafton Underwood, Thurleigh, Molesworth, Little Staughton, Kimbolton, Polebrook, Chelveston, and Podington became the “veterans” of VIII Bomber Command,

There is ample evidence of the outstanding cooperation afforded the American bombing organization by our British Allies. In General Eaker’s report of June 19, 1942, to General Spaatz, he wrote of the British that they had “cooperated 100 per cent in every regard. They have lent us personnel when we had none, and have furnished us clerical and administrative staffs; they have furnished us liaison officers for Intelligence, Operations, and Supply; they have furnished us transportation; they have housed and fed our people and they have answered promptly and willingly all our requisitions; in addition they have made available to us for study their most secret devices and documents. We are extremely proud of the relations we have been able to establish between our British Allies and ourselves...

As the VIII Bomber Command gained experience, it was eventually able to reduce its requirements from the 75 major airdromes originally authorized to 62 fields. Originally the United States bombing arm included three wings in East Anglia, the 1st Bombardment Wing under the command of Colonel Newton Longfellow, with headquarters at Brampton Grange; the 2d Bombardment Wing under Colonel James P. Hodges, at Old Catton; and the 3d Bombardment Wing, under Colonel Charles T. Phillips, at Elveden Hall. For smooth functioning in combat, the internal organization of the command was adapted as quickly as possible to the communications system of the Royal Air Force and finally the American Bomber Arm was permanently organized into bombardment wings. B-17 heavy bomber groups went, in this reorganization into the 1st and 4th Wings; B-24 heavy bomber groups into the 2d Wing; and the B-20 medium bombers into the 3d Wing.

No one in those days would have anticipated that Eaker’s disorganized bomber force would within the next thirty months expand and grow in power until it constituted fully half the anticipated combat group strength of the entire Army Air Forces.

The Rouen attack involved a total of 160 officers and enlisted men airborne. Two and a half years later a single mass bomber attack by the VIII would send—in heavy bombers alone—more than twenty-five thousand fighting men into the air over Germany.

As subsequent events proved with overwhelming impact, the original Allied planners who formulated the machinery to attack the German positions in Europe tended in the first place grossly to underestimate the fighting skill and capacity of the Germans, and, secondly, to overestimate in even more unrealistic fashion the fighting capacity of the Allied forces. It is difficult to accept the validity of the strategy established in April, 1942, under Operation ROUNDUP, which called for an Allied invasion across the English Channel in the spring of 1943-But even more bizarre was the conviction at that time that, if urgently required, the Allies could accelerate their invasion plans and—successfully—move up their proposed assault against the Continent to September, 1942. Despite its impressive code designation, this Project SLEDGEHAMMER would have been, we are aware today, doomed to murderous defeat at the hands of the more seasoned, better-organized, and better-equipped German defense forces.

By August, 1942, as a result of unremitted controversy at high levels as to the distribution of American bomber strength between the northern European, Pacific, and Mediterranean theaters, the plans for BOLERO were waxing uncertain. The invasion of North Africa in the autumn of 1942 had been decided upon in July, and this new venture, designated as TORCH, led to the further diversion of the air build-up that had been planned for BOLERO.

Thus the aspirations of the Army Air Forces for an early and growing assault against Germany, from their very inception, had to suffer from the more pressing demands of areas where sea and ground forces, as well as those of the air, were engaged or would be soon engaged with the enemy. Simultaneously with its series of disappointments, the Eighth Air Force watched its British contemporaries in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command accelerate their own powerful effort in the mass bombing of German cities. The Royal Air Force program was simplicity itself: hurl every possible ton of high explosives and incendiaries into Germany, and rip and burn the cities to the ground.

After the landings in Morocco and Algeria in November, 1942, the fighting in North Africa, which sorely taxed the already heavily strained American and British capabilities, forced the Allies to postpone indefinitely their plans for a strike across the Channel. As the North African campaigns progressed through the winter and into the spring of 1943, however, it seemed that the requirements of that theater would wane appreciably, to the benefit of BOLERO. The British in the Western Desert had at least swept the Germans from their main positions in that area, and the American and British forces moved slowly toward a meeting in Tunisia where the surviving German elements could be crushed and all of North Africa secured. By early spring, 1943, these objectives were in sight; BOLERO, however, suffered once again from demands of other theaters for air-power forces which the BOLERO planners had expected would be placed in their hands. Commanders in the Pacific Theater were up in full cry for air power. Fifteen bombardment groups that had originally been committed for assignment to BOLERO instead went the other way around the world, dispatched to the air forces fighting the Japanese.

As this internal struggle to obtain weapons and man power was fought in the high command and within the Army Air Forces, the master plan called CBO—Combined Bomber Offensive—went into higher gear. CBO was conceived early in the war, and received its official authorization at the Casablanca conference early in 1943, and as rapidly as possible it was implemented with the growing strength of the VIII Bomber Command into a functioning reality.

CBO is best defined as the combined effort on the part of the United States Army Air Forces and the Royal Air Force to prepare the way for the storming by invasion of Europe, with each air force operating on the basis of its own particular capabilities and concepts, the Royal Air Force with its operations at night in attacks against strategic areas, and the Army Air Forces striking at particular targets in daylight.

As it was planned and defined in early 1943, CBO specified a mission in which the Luftwaffe was to be engaged and destroyed in aerial battle, and through bombing, as a prerequisite to OVERLORD, the invasion by ground forces of the European continent.

By the end of June, 1943, the strength of the Eighth Air Force passed the 100,000 mark. During this same period VIII Bomber Command reached a strength level of 40,000 men, or nearly half of the entire Eighth Air Force. Its new commander, who took over from General Eaker, was Brigadier General Frederick L. Anderson, who had served as Deputy Director of Bombardment at Army Air Forces headquarters since January, 1942. Thirty-eight years of age, General Anderson, a West Point and Kelly Field graduate, had served five years in the Philippines and had later directed bombardier instruction at the Air Corps Tactical School.

By mid-1943 the organization of the combat bases in England had stabilized around a set pattern. The combat group of each base comprised the core of the installation, and around this central unit revolved the remainder of the base organization. Each combat group of heavy bombers was made up of three or four squadrons, averaging 1,000 men to each bomber group. To service each of these bases there were usually an ordnance company; quartermaster, signal, chemical warfare, and military police detachments; a service squadron, a detachment of the service group headquarters, and a headquarters squadron. In addition, there were units for finance, weather, gas defense, and other specialized services, and attached infantry. The service units added approximately five hundred men to the combat group, bringing the total strength at each base to an average of 2,000 men.

In September, 1943, just before Mission 115 against Schweinfurt, the VIII Bomber Command underwent command reorganization. The 1st and 2d Bombardment Wings were redesignated as the 1st and 2d Bombardment Divisions (H[1]), and the 4th Bombardment Wing was redesignated as the 3d Bombardment Division (H). The old 3d Bombardment Wing —made up of B-26 Marauder medium bombers—had been transferred in June to the VIII Air Support Command.

Under the new system, several bomber groups flew in combat under command of a wing, and several wings made up an air division. Each wing organization was identified only by its command status, and the personnel maintained their headquarters at a group airdrome.

By the close of September, 1943, there were active in the VIII Bomber Command these groups: the 100th, 381st, 384th, 385th, 388th, 390th, 482d, 389th, and 392d.

Each new bomber group airdrome assumed an appearance familiar from the other fields spread through the Command’s area. Great pains were taken in construction to assure the maximum benefit of camouflage, and the fields with their many installations blended skillfully into the surrounding countryside. A rule in construction was the widest possible dispersion of all major installations and facilities in order to reduce vulnerability to German air attack.

Bordering the runways were the repair and supply services; from two thousand feet to a mile from this area would be found the headquarters site, and here were the offices of administration and operations. Close to the living quarters, as a general rule, were the mess halls, post exchange, a large shower bathhouse, clubs for officers and enlisted men, and quartermaster supply warehouses*

From seven to eight housing sites, widely separated by a mile or more, contained the group and base personnel, and this dispersion, while promising greater protection from German bombs, was a curse on the men. The main form of transport was the bicycle, not because of a love for athletics; a bike was simply a necessity for getting around without long and wearying trudges, often in rain or fog, through the thick mud of the fields. Technical personnel had the choice of walking (or riding their bicycles) over a distance each day of up to nine or ten miles, simply to move between the areas where they worked, ate, and slept.

Each of these group airdromes was the scene of a constant influx of new strength, of more bombers; of construction work carried on at all hours; of steady toil by mechanics and ground crews modifying the bombers as fast as they arrived from the States; of endless training in the air and on the ground—a vast, churning activity heralding the build-up of strength to that point when an armada, in fact as well as description, could penetrate Germany’s skies and inflict punishing blows on the Reich’s war machine.

Behind this build-up of strength was a burning question of strategic import, the solution of which would decide beyond further readjustment of plans the logistics and strategy of BOLERO. Could the combined British and American heavy bomber forces strike the German industrial machine and the war economy so effectively that the planned cross-Channel invasion would be accomplished at appreciably less cost? The use of strategic air power to cripple the industrial strength of the enemy was in every respect, at that time, little more than a concept, and not a policy which had proven itself. Accordingly, it suffered sorely from continuing opposition from the more conventional planners, who held strongly to the role of air power subservient to the established needs of sea power and ground forces.

And, supposing that strategic air power could so weaken the German industrial and war machine as to make surface attack against the Continent possible without the frightful losses it would otherwise cost, could it accomplish this objective without stripping other combat theaters in the world of their critical air-power requirements? To win the battle over Europe while losing half the rest of the contested planet would indeed be a worthless venture.

There existed one great final question, which still had to be answered, presuming even that the first two were satisfactorily resolved. Could this promised ravaging of the German industrial complex and its military defense structure be achieved within a percentage of acceptable losses in combat? This was the greatest of the many unknowns at the time: assuming all else lay within the potential of the heavy bombers as a striking force, there hung over the entire campaign the threat of disastrous losses at the hands of a fighter defense system acknowledged to be the equal of any in the world. The Flying Fortress was an aerial porcupine of sorely questioned ability; no less so was its sister craft, the B-24 Liberator.

The British made no attempt to conceal their feelings about these two bombers; bluntly they informed the American commanders that their daylight attacks were doomed to catastrophic losses and defeat at the hands of the powerful German defense system. The Germans had tried daylight bombing against England, and been shattered in the attempt; later, the British had attacked European targets in daylight, and suffered appalling losses both from German fighters and from anti-aircraft. The same, they warned, would be the lot of the American heavy bombers.

It was difficult for the British to accept the defensive power that the B-17 promised. It featured extraordinary structural strength, and its ruggedness meant that the airplane would return from combat missions even when slashed to ribbons by enemy fire. Its one great fault lay in its susceptibility to fire; throughout the war there was a continuing attempt to reduce the inflammability of the Flying Fortress in respect to its fuel tanks,

In firepower, nothing like this airplane had ever before been seen. As many as thirteen .50-caliber machine guns, firing from hand-held gun positions plus power turrets, gave the B-17 an unprecedented field of defensive fire. The B-17F models mounted two to four machine guns in the nose, two guns in a power turret atop the fuselage directly behind the pilots’ compartment, a single machine gun farther aft that was operated from the radio room, two guns in a power-operated ball turret in the belly, a single gun firing from waist positions to the rear of the airplane, and two machine guns in the tail.

No matter what its position in the air, a fighter could be subjected to a withering blast of fire from the many guns of the bomber; often several gun positions could bring their weapons to bear on a single airplane. As the war progressed, improvements in the firepower arrangement were incorporated into the bombers; gun positions were modified for better field of fire, turrets were “cleaned up” and afforded the gunners better visibility, and a power-operated “chin turret,” mounted directly beneath the nose, gave better protection against the deadly frontal attack of German fighters.

Like its B-17 sister ship, the B-24 Liberator was a big, heavily-defended bomber. It lacked the total number of guns of the Fortress, but the B-24 nevertheless featured power turrets with two guns each in the nose, upper fuselage, belly, and tail, plus the two waist guns, for a total of ten .50-caliber weapons.

The Fortress was not only rugged and superb on the controls, but it was the steadiest flying platform ever built. This was of vital importance in maintaining tight defensive formations, where the crisscrossing field of defensive firepower, plus the controllability of the plane and its ability to absorb staggering punishment, often meant the difference between acceptable losses or an outfit’s being cut to pieces and scattered.

In these characteristics the Liberator was less richly endowed.

Faster than the B-17 and able to carry a heavier bomb load over a greater distance, it could not sustain the battle damage that the B-17 accepted and survived. Attempts to improve the defensive firepower and armor plating of the B-24 so overloaded the airplane that it assumed dangerous flying characteristics, and its stability was sorely compromised; the modifications were dropped. The B-24 was an excellent weapon, and because of its flight performance characteristics, it proved to be of outstanding success in the vast reaches of the Pacific Theater. Against the “big league” of German opposition, however, it was the B-17 Flying Fortress that ranked as the prime combatant.

Each airplane flew with a normal crew of 10 men; depending on the mission to be flown, this could vary from nine to r 1 crew members. Both machines had four radial engines, each of 1,200 horsepower; the B-17, fully loaded—thirty tons—had a speed of approximately one hundred and seventy miles per hour. The B-24 was slightly faster.

They were both able to operate at altitudes up to 27,000 feet in formation; what was a valuable weapon in the Pacific—height —became meaningless against the superb German fighters, which with no effort flew to 38,000 and 40,000 feet and streaked down, the sun behind them, to rip into the bombers.

With all its armor, guns, self-sealing tanks, and special equipment, the B-17 had a normal radius of action from England of 600 to 700 miles, carrying 5,000 pounds of bombs. For shorter missions the bomb load could be increased by several tons; over a radius of 700 miles, the bomb load had to be decreased. In this area the B-24 was a slightly better performer; it carried over the same range from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds more bombs than the B-17.

These are basically technical comparisons; it should be emphasized that despite any shortcomings, both the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator were the weapons that, eventually, with long-range fighter protection, penetrated to all points of Europe and inflicted grievous blows against the Germans. They were not always employed wisely, but that is the fault of the planner, and not the machine. Perhaps the best proof of the quality of these machines, besides their superb combat records, was that the best German aeronautical science could not produce an aircraft to rank with these great American bombers.

This, then, was the background out of which eventually developed the massive bombardment of Germany from the air. At this time the Royal Air Force had amassed a vast body of experience; but unhappily for the VIII Bomber Command, not even the constantly growing might and mounting successes of the British could provide the insight desperately required for the solution of the weighty problems of the Army Air Forces. The British technique for the use of long-range bombers was diametrically opposed to the American plan. Their selections of targets, their preference for lightly armed bombers, striking in nocturnal raids; the very bombs and methods of attack they employed, yielded little experience that the VIII Bomber Command could usefully apply to its own future role.

The British clearly preferred attack by the stars. They had whipped the German Air Force at its peak in daylight defense, and had demonstrated beyond all question the inability of the Luftwaffe to maintain daylight raids. The Germans had, however, proven themselves capable, even with a sorely weakened bomber force, of inflicting punishing damage and destruction upon England under the mantle of darkness. For these reasons, and because of their firm belief that daylight attacks were suicidal in the face of the vigorous and highly capable German fighter force, the British disdained the daylight bombing campaign.

The VIII’s hopes could not have been more different. Essentially the Army Air Forces program called for a sustained daylight bombing campaign, carried out with high precision, which, rather than attempting to destroy entire cities in saturation raids, would wreck carefully chosen industrial objectives. The VIII’s planners worried their hair gray trying to resolve the complex and interwoven factors of the excellent German anti-aircraft defense, the depth and efficiency of their own radar and fighter-control operations, and the known excellence of the Luftwaffe’s. Still unresolved was the crucial question of the ability of the American heavy bomber to enter German air territory without escort and defend itself against the superb German pilot and his airplane. The curse of it all was that the best-laid plans could be measured only through the sustained test of battle.

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