The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress: An icon of a generation
Once there were many, now there are few: Of the nearly 13,000 B-17 Flying Fortresses built perhaps 100 survive today and less than two dozen fly.
In 1944 and 1945 the B-17s filled the skies of Northern Europe in bomber streams thousands of planes strong and 100 miles end to end. Their white contrails painted the winter sky from England to Germany competing with God’s own clouds. The smoking ruins of Europe’s ancient cities gave ample evidence of their passage.
Between the World Wars, planners and visionaries of air warfare had determined that heavy bombers, bristling with machine guns, could fight their way to distant strategic targets, drop tons of high explosives from extreme high altitude and return safely to their base. From 1942 to 1945 the task fell to the Boeing B-17 bomber crews to prove or disprove the theorists.
The base was England and the target was Hitler’s German Reich. Russia’s Stalin was demanding a “second front” to relieve pressure on his beleaguered Red Army. Around-the-clock bombing of Nazi Germany by the British and American air forces would provide that “second front.”
The American Army Air Corps was prepared to expend vast quantities of blood and treasure to achieve victory and win the European war. Germany needed to stop the American attacks at all cost or watch the nation destroyed city by city, day by day. The coming air battle between the United States Air Force and Germany’s Luftwaffe would be a test of resources, will and courage.
There was plenty to go around on both sides.
First flown in 1935, the huge, four-engine B-17 bombers and their highly trained crews were America’s principal assets. Using the super secret Norden bomb sight, they had proven in the clear skies of Utah and California that they could drop their three tons of bombs from six miles up into the proverbial “pickle barrel.”
Now they would have an opportunity to ply their trade in the stormy skies of Northern Europe, opposed by deadly Messerschmitt and FockeWulf fighters and 100,000 Krupps flak cannon.
The Americans employed a second four-engine heavy bomber in Northern Europe, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. With its slender Davis wing, tricycle landing gear and roll up bomb bay doors, the B-24 could be considered a somewhat more modern design. The “Lib” was built in greater numbers than the B-17 and because of its superior range was widely used from bases in North Africa and the Pacific.
Generally unloved by its crews, the B-24 was hard to fly and could not sustain battle damage like the sweet flying and rugged B-17 “Fort.”
Gunners ordered from the B-17s to the B-24 had their own way of putting it: “If it ain’t a Boeing, I ain’t going.”
Daily, weather permitting, the American air crews would rise in the pre-dawn darkness from what was often a restless sleep to prepare for a long day of combat.
After hours of briefing and attention to a thousand details, the B-17s, normally numbering several hundred, would climb from their many airfields scattered around southern England and form up for battle.
Including the escorts, as many as 2,000 aircraft at a time were often forced to climb through heavy overcast. Avoiding collision was the first task of survival. Forming-up in defensive boxes, which could take hours, was absolutely essential if the B-17s were to have any chance of survival when confronted by the German fighters.
Cruising at over 150 mph at an altitude of about 30,000 feet, the B-17’s mounted up to thirteen .50 caliber machine guns each. They would fly in tight boxes of normally 10 airplanes where any plane under attack would receive the support of numerous comrades. A German fighter attacking a single B-17 in formation could expect to feel the collective firepower of a minimum of forty machine guns ” perhaps hundreds.
Early on, German pilots chose the head-on pass as the most effective attack. They would fly directly at an approaching B-17, closing at a speed exceeding 500 miles per hour. For a brief few seconds, the German flier would fire his machine guns and cannon directly into the B-17 cockpit, attempting to kill the American pilots and other crew members.
Running battles often lasted for hours and covered hundreds of miles of sky. If the German fighter pilots pressed their attacks, horrible things were sure to happen on both sides. A single hit from the German’s 20mm and 30mm cannons, even if not fatal, could pull a giant American bomber out of formation where it could more easily be finished off with additional attacks.
Imagine the American air crews sitting or standing virtually unprotected inside their giant aluminum tube, kept alive by oxygen masks and extremely heavy clothing in the 50-degree below zero environment six miles above the earth while German fighters fired bursts after bursts of cannon and machine gun fire into their aircraft.
Often B-17 crewman with severe wounds and facing a 4 or 5 hour return flight to
England were parachuted out of the aircraft to take their chances with the Germans on the ground. And a German pilot was aware that he could only hope to fly through the bomber formations a couple of times before his luck ran out and his fighter was shot full of holes by the B-17 gunners.
Were the attacks by German fighters not terrible enough, American aircraft were also forced to penetrate the walls of anti-aircraft fire. Flak was put up into the sky by tens of thousands of German heavy anti aircraft artillery pieces.
Early in the war Adolph Hitler, disillusioned by what he perceived as failure by his air force in earlier battles, decided unwisely that he would devote most of his Reich air defense resources to flak cannons rather than fighters. As the air war climaxed, American bombers were opposed by nearly a million German soldiers manning over 100,000 flak cannons. All of Germany’s military and industrial targets as well as her population centers were ringed by concentrations of flak guns.
Approaching their targets for about the last 10 miles, American crews were required to fly straight and level with no evasive maneuvers. This was to insure bombing accuracy and usually led the aircraft into a wall of flak “thick enough to walk on.” The only defense the B-17s had against flak was dumb luck.
Successfully parachuting from a crippled B-17 could be difficult or impossible. Many American crewmen did not wear their chutes, preferring to clip them on when required. Having lost a wing or tail, a wildly spinning B-17 was not a good place to chute-up and find an exit. Far too often, the American crewmen were simply vaporized along with their B-17 when the bomb load received a direct hit.
After parachuting to earth in one piece, American crewmen were still in mortal danger. In France, Partisan groups may rescue fliers and attempt to smuggle them back to England, but it was more likely they would be promptly captured by German forces. Immediate capture by the German military was the safest option for fliers shot down over Germany. German civilians would regularly abuse or even kill downed Allied fliers. Curiously, most German civilians felt absolutely no responsibility for the war and had no idea why the Americans were bombing them.
After the war, the American occupation forces identified and executed a number of German civilians who had murdered downed Allied fliers.
American B-17s and crews began arriving in England in 1942 and began a long period of buildup and training that continued through the summer of 1943. The Americans limited their early attacks mostly to targets in nearby France where allied fighter protection was readily available. But the air war was constantly evolving.
Early on, protection for the first part of the mission was often provided by British Spitfire fighters. With limited range they fell away early and hopefully were replaced by the American P-47 Thunderbolt or longer range P-38 Lightning. The P-47 could more than hold its own against the German fighters, but it was unable to accompany the bombers for more than a small part of the trip.
Often as not, just as the American escort fighters turned away for home the German fighters would make their appearance. To oppose a single attack, the Germans would likely have more than 200 day fighters available for combat.
In the late summer and fall of 1943, the deep penetration missions into Nazi Germany itself were to begin with disastrous results. American airmen could count their daily losses and conclude that they had little chance of surviving the required 25 missions.
This phase of the air war was to climax in the fall of 1943 with two maximum effort attacks on the German ball bearing industry at Schweinfurt. War planners in Washington had determined that without ball bearings, Germany’s war machine would grind to a halt. The chiefs of the American air forces felt it was absolutely necessary to demonstrate what their giant bombers could do despite not having the resources to do the job.
On October 14, 1943, a “maximum effort” by 228 B-17s was attacked again and again by German fighters going both to and from the target. The result was the disastrous loss of 62 heavy bombers and more than 600 crewmen dead, wounded or captured. One hundred thirty eight of the surviving bombers were damaged in varying degrees; hardly anyone returned unscathed.
The Eighth Air Force lost 138 heavy bombers in October alone, clearly not sustainable. Not enough heavy bombers and crews had yet arrived in England for the Americans to be able to endure heavy losses and still come back day after day to finish the job. Most important, the Eighth Air Force, which would eventually number more than 5,000 aircraft, was lacking fighters with the necessary range to accompany the bombers all the way to targets deep inside Germany and back to England.
America was soon to have such a weapon.
The North American P-51 Mustang fighter, powered with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, could not only hold its own in combat with any fighter in the world, but equipped with additional fuel tanks it could fly all the way into the furthest regions of Germany and back. Once available in sufficient numbers, the P-51 would sweep the skies of German fighters.
Soon the hunter became the hunted. It’s been stated that the first time Germany’s air chief, Herman Goring, saw P-51 Mustangs in the sky over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.
In a change of tactics, the new commander of the Eighth Air Force, General Jimmy Doolittle of the Tokyo Raid fame, cut the American fighters loose from the bomber formations to destroy the German air force wherever they could find it. Now German fighters trying to intercept the B-17s had to fight their way to the bomber formations, often outnumbered 10-1 by American fighters.
Soon, most experienced German pilots were dead and the poorly trained replacements were being mercilessly hunted on the ground and in the air.
From early 1944 on, with diversions to support the Normandy invasion and Battle of the Bulge, the now massive formations of American bombers, often numbering over a thousand planes, systematically destroyed target after target and city after city until by the time of its surrender. Hitler’s Germany was in ruins.
Flying a B-17 to attack a target in Germany was never safe, but by mid-1944 the odds of survival strongly favored the American attackers.
The fighting finally ended in May 1945, but debate over whether the incredible resources devoted to the bomber campaign had been worth it continues to this day. The coming of peace revealed a fearful toll.
Six thousand B-17s had been lost and 80,000 American airmen were killed, wounded or captured. More than 600,000 German civilians had been killed in the raids. In addition to railroads, factories and refineries, nearly all of Germany’s ancient cities and towns were in ruins.
Despite these terrible losses, German industry continued to produce the tools of war nearly to the very end. More than a million German soldiers and airmen had been employed in defending the Reich against B-17 attacks and Germany’s aircraft production had been diverted entirely to fighters. The inevitable result was a shortage of German manpower on all fronts and a loss of air superiority in Russia and elsewhere. These two factors alone were decisive to Allied victory.
When the fighting in Europe ended, American war planners decided not to transfer the B-17 units to the Pacific and most B-17s soon found their way back to the United States to be cut up for scrap. A few hundred survived as transports and corporate passenger carriers and three saw combat service in Israel’s war for independence.
Californians as late as the 1970s could occasionally see aging B-17s dropping fire retardant chemicals on wildfires.
The Boeing B-17 is likely the greatest and most famous airplane of all time. To my generation, raised on movies like Twelve O’clock High, the B-17 was as familiar as the Boeing 747 is today. In the 1950s and ’60s it was nearly impossible not to know men who had actually flown the great bombers. But now, nearly all the Flying
Fortresses are gone and surviving crewmember are fewer and fewer.
If you are fortunate enough to see ” or better yet visit ” one of these magnificent historic aircraft, take some time to think about all those individuals who served in the B-17s and the many thousands of brave B-17 crewmen whose young lives were so tragically cut short defending America.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User