The Boeing B17 Flying Fortress was the main bomber used by the American Air Force in Europe during the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. The B17 crews flew thousands of missions over Germany and paid a high price for doing so.
After the carnage of World War One, many nations looked to a new form of military hardware that would ensure the horrors of trench warfare were never relived. By the 1930’s there was a general belief that the bomber would always get through and the devastation of Guernica by the German Condor Legion seemed to emphasise the sheer power bombers could have.
On August 8th, 1934, the American Army Air Corps put out a tender called ‘Proposal 32-26’ for a 250 mph bomber with a range of 2000 miles and an operating ceiling of 10,000 feet. An ailing Boeing Company, headed by Edward C Wells, took up the challenge. Wells used near enough all the spare capital Boeing had – and the manpower – to complete the task. The name of the project was Model 2-99.
In July 1935, Boeing Model 2-99 was rolled out. It was an all-metal four-engine bomber, weighing in at 15 tons. Its specifications were well above those laid down by the US Army Air Corps. The plane first flew in Seattle and one watching journalist is said to have commented that the plane, when in the air, was a flying fortress due to the number of machine guns it carried. The nickname stuck.
However, the Boeing 2-99 had competition for the contract. Martin’s B12 and the Douglas DB1 were rivals. On October 30th 1935, during evaluation exercises for the US Army Air Corps, the 2-99 crashed shortly after take-off killing its experienced two-man crew. The US Army Air Corps then disqualified the 2-99 and the twin-engine Douglas DB1 won. However, a small number of 2-99’s were ordered “for further evaluation” by the Air Force.
As the situation in Europe became more tense, the Douglas DB1 proved to be under-powered. By now Boeing had upgraded the 2-99 to the YB17 model. This had super-charged engines and had a flying ceiling of 30,000 feet – in excess of what the Douglas could do. As war approached in Europe, the American Army Air Corps only had 30 B17’s.
In 1941, as part of the Lend-Lease deal signed between F D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, B17’s were sent to Britain to help out Bomber Command. In total, 20 were sent to Britain. It had an inauspicious debut. The first one to fly to Britain crashed. On July 8th 1941, two B17’s went on a mission with the RAF to attack the naval base at Wilhelmshaven. During the flight, its guns froze and its bombs were dropped off target. The RAF responded to this by putting more armour on the plane, more weapons and keeping its flight path at a lower altitude.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, B17’s had already been sent there. Based at the Hickham Air Base, they were attacked while on the ground and 12 bombers were lost. However, the attack on Pearl Harbour pushed America into its full military production capability and Boeing was told to produce as many B17’s as was possible.
The US 8th Air Force was based in Britain. It was to be the main US input to the bombing of Nazi-occupied Europe. The RAF decided to attack Germany at night. This, they believed, would give their bombers greater protection against German fighter planes. The US 8th Air Force decided on daylight raids as they believed that this allowed for precision raids and precision bombing. Therefore, they reckoned, fewer raids would be needed in the long term for bombing to succeed.
The first full B17 mission against Germany took place in August 1942. The B17’s flew in a wedge formation that should have given them massive fire power against any attackers. However, German fighter pilots quickly learned that a frontal attack effectively neutralised the huge armaments of the B17’s that were primarily carried on the sides of the bombers.
In January 1943, the Casablanca war conference took place. At this meeting the ‘Casablanca Directive’ was issued by Roosevelt and Churchill. It was a decision to launch a bombing attack on Germany that would destroy Germany’s industrial base.
On August 17th 1943, B17’s attacked the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt. This was a very important target as 52% of all of Germany’s ball-bearings were produced there. It was also a massively defended factory. 211 B17’s took part in the raid – 60 planes were lost, a loss rate of just under 30%. In 1943, it was estimated that 1/3rd of all B17 crews would not survive the war and the huge losses sustained in daylight raids nearly caused an end to such raids. However, a study done by the 8th Air Force in 1943, also showed that over 50% of plane losses were as a result of B17’s leaving the protection of their formation. In 1944, a revised pattern of flying was introduced. B17’s had traditionally flown in wedges of 18. Now they were to fly in a pack of 36. There would be three flights of 12 B17’s tightly packed together, one on top of the other. This gave the flight of 36 huge firepower especially as the new Model G had been given more fire power including more machine guns at the front of the plane to fight off frontal assaults. The Model G now carried thirteen .50 calibre machine guns giving each plane a massively increased firing capacity. However, flying so tightly also led to collisions.
By 1944, the B17’s also had fighter protection in the shape of the awesome Mustang fighter. The Mustangs carried extra fuel tanks and could accompany the B17’s deep into Germany. With their increased fire power and their new bodyguards, the B17 could now concentrate on two primary targets – what was left of the Luftwaffe’s factories and Berlin itself.
In February 1944, the B17’s went all out to destroy the factories that kept the Luftwaffe flying. In February ‘Big Week’ took place. In all, 3,500 B17s were involved in bombing raids on factories in Germany. 244 planes were lost (about 7% of the planes taking part) in just a week but the back of the factories producing for the Luftwaffe had been fatally broken. While the Lutwaffe had planes, many were forced to stay on the ground as they had no parts to keep them airborne.
Berlin was the next target. This was probably the most defended city in the world at this time. The Luftwaffe had kept what reserves it had for planes to defend the city. On March 6th, 1944, in a massive raid on Berlin, 69 B17’s were lost – but the Luftwaffe lost 160 planes. Whereas the 8th Air Force could recover from these losses, the Luftwaffe could not. By the end of the war, The 8th Air Force and the RAF had destroyed 70% of Berlin.
After Berlin, the 8th Air Force turned its attention to Germany’s synthetic oil factories. Attacks on these factories started on May 12th. In just one month, the USAAF dropped 5000 tons of bombs on these factories. In August 1944, 26,000 tons were dropped and in November 1944, the attacks peaked at 35,000 tons. The attacks decimated the Germany military’s ability to move. The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s attempt to push back the advancing Allies in Europe, ended because of the lack of fuel to keep his tanks moving. Albert Speer, in his book “Inside the Third Reich” commented after the war that there were 300 King Tiger tanks at Munich rail station waiting to be moved to the front – but the Germans had neither the railways nor the fuel needed to move these tanks around; both targets of Allied bombing. However, the raids on the oil factories took their toll – 922 B17’s were lost in total with the loss of nearly 10,000 men killed, wounded or captured.
The bombing raids on Germany by the 8th Air Force and the RAF’s Bomber Command, took the heart out of Germany’s industrial production. By September 1944, Germany had lost 75% of its fuel production. Out of the 1.5 million tons of bombs dropped on Germany, the B17 dropped 500,000 tons. The 8th Air Force had fired 99 million rounds of ammunition during these flights and it is thought that 20,000 German planes were destroyed. In total, over 12,000 B17’s were built in the war and nearly 250,000 Americans experienced flying in them. 46,500 were either killed or wounded. However, the part played by the B17 in the European theatre of war was of great importance.