Today in War – The Eighth Air Force
Posted by Nick Milne on August 17, 2010
[Note: I'm changing the naming protocol on these to make them more accessible to those following along using feed readers that only note a new post's title, and also because the date on which they're being posted should be reasonably obvious.]
Yesterday I noted a site that’s keeping track of the day-by-day developments that marked the war in the air over Great Britain in 1940. Today I’d like to remind you (as if you didn’t know) that the Battle of Britain, though deservedly emblematic of the Second World War in general, was not the only theatre of air operations.
It was on August 17th, 1942 that the U.S. Eighth Air Force, one of the most vast and well-run organizations of this type ever to exist, began regular combat operations over occupied Europe. In co-operation with the RAF, thousands of American planes began to systematically bring the war back home for the Nazi forces stationed across the continent – sometimes even within the borders of Germany itself – and the bag was opened on this day by a small squadron of B-17s (the legendary “flying fortresses”) of the 97th, which bombed a railyard in Rouen. By 1944, American bombs would be falling on Berlin itself, commingled at last with the British explosives that had been raining down since 1941. The sheer number of American planes in the air, coupled with the unmatched competence of the men flying and servicing them, ensured that air superiority over Europe was very quickly achieved. As marvelous a fighting force as the Luftwaffe constituted, there’s only so much you can do.
Still, they didn’t go quietly. Bombing runs – even in aircraft as robust and awesome as those of the B-17 line – were no picnic, and Allied losses were heavy. Some days were such slaughters that their very names have become bywords – Black Thursday, for one; Bloody Munster, for another. The events of August 17th, 1943 seemed to inaugurate the lot, though, and the casualties sustained in this day’s infamous raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg would be eclipsed only by a second attempt on the same targets (the “Black Thursday” noted above) a few months later.
Schweinfurt was something of a plum for the strategists of the Allied bomber commands. Tough to handle, to be sure – far over the line, defended by an appalling carpet of flak batteries and some mightily tough interceptor squadrons – but the prize was always tempting: in Schweinfurt could be found concentrated nearly all significant ball-bearing production for Hitler’s war machine (then, as now, ball bearings were of immense importance across a broad spectrum of both military and civilian industry).
This particular raid was planned specifically as an anniversary celebration of the deployment I noted above, and, naturally, a lot was riding on it both concretely and in the abstract. Nearly four hundred planes from sixteen different bomber groups were dispatched to do the job; one force was to proceed to Regensburg in a bid to destroy the enormous aircraft production facilities located there, while the other was to tackle Schweinfurt head-on. It was hoped that, by dividing their forces in this manner, the bomber groups would split the coverage of the Luftwaffe interceptors and ultimately lessen the resistance experienced by both flights.
As is often the case, though, things didn’t work out as had been intended. Bad weather delayed the takeoff of the Schweinfurt group significantly, and the Regensburg group went on ahead even though the simultaneous nature of the proposed attack was key. Escort fighters missed their rendezvous, German interceptors were unusually thick en route to the target, and by the time the bombs had been dropped and the Regensburg group landed in Africa, some twenty-four bombers had been destroyed or forced down.
What happened over Schweinfurt was worse. The biggest problem is that the attempt to divide Luftwaffe interception capability was doomed from the very start, as those fighters that had engaged the Regensburg group were refueled, rearmed and redispatched before the Schweinfurt group even hit the scene. To make matters worse, the joint RAF and USAAF escort squadrons sent along with the Schweinfurt group were so low on fuel by the time their presence mattered that they were unable to engage the interceptors in any meaningful sense and were forced to abandon the fight almost as it had begun. The bombers pushed on alone.
At its most intense, the Luftwaffe interception amounted to over three hundred planes attacking the bomber group at once. Twenty-two bombers were shot down before they even reached the target, and a respite only came when the interceptors, having run out of ammunition, landed to refit and attack the bombers again on the way out. Several more bombers were lost to flak fire during the bombing run itself, and another ten or so were shot down as the bomber group was re-engaged by the Luftwaffe while attempting to make its escape. Over sixty bombers were lost across both raids that day – a record that would not be beaten until Schweinfurt II later that year.
Flak fire. Fuel restrictions. Sparse escort capabilities. Luftwaffe fighters – some of them with air-to-air rockets. The B-17s of the USAAF were subjected to an endless array of brutal punishment throughout the war, but, you know, they could take it. Holy crap, could they ever:
That calamitous AA strike was sustained over Cologne. The pilot brought the fortress safely back to England.
They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.