Thursday, April 23, 2015

Early Boeing B-17 Raids I

Early in 1943, the Boeing B-17E began to be replaced by the B-17F.
In February 1942, just as Sir Arthur Harris took over Bomber Command, the advance wave of what would become a flood of hundreds of thousands of officers and airmen arrived in England from the United States. The Americans had arrived.

That advanced echelon included the commander of the recently activated Eighth Air Force, Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz. A Mitchellite to the core, Spaatz appeared at Bomber Commands headquarters at High Wycombe on February 23, 1942. He and Harris hit it off at once. They were kindred souls with unshakable faith in the ability of airpower to win the war, though they differed in the details. Thanks to the RAF s earlier hard knocks, Bomber Command would stick to night attacks for die majority of the war. Spaatz believed that the latest-generation B - I 7 had all the defensive armament needed to conduct long-range missions in the teeth of Luftwaffe fighter interception. If flown in close, mutually protective formations, a B-I7 group could field all-round defense with literally hundreds of deadly .50-caliber machine guns.

Through the spring, aircraft and men trickled in from the United States. It was not an impressive force at first, and on the streets of London there was much gossip about the big-talking Americans who had yet to actually measure up to their own words.

The measuring up would take time. First, the USAAF had to learn hard lessons of its own.

That summer, the first of the heavy bomb groups arrived in Great Britain. The 97th earned that honor, setting up operations at RAF Polebrook. Flying the new B-I7E, the 97th lacked training, experience and tactical knowledge. Some of the navigators didn't know how to navigate. Some of the radio operators couldn't even read or send Morse code. Few of the men had ever conducted flights over 20,000 feet. In fact, most had never even strapped on their oxygen masks.

And yet, the 97th would serve as the seed unit for what would become the most massive air effort ever put forth by the United States. Everything has a start point, no matter how successful or not. For the Mighty Eighth, it began on August 17, 1942, when the 97th carried out a twelve-plane raid against a railroad marshalling yard at Rouen, France. Over a hundred Royal Air Force Spitfires provided heavy escort force for the bombers. Experience had shown the Luftwaffe s fighter units in France, which included the elite Jagdgeschwader 26, could be deadly effective adversaries in their new Focke-Wulf 190 "Butcher Birds."

Flying in a B-17 named Yankee Doodle on that first mission was Gen. Ira Eaker, head of VIII Bomber Command. He'd come along to see for himself how the 97th would fare. The co-pilot of Butcher Bird, the lead aircraft that day was Maj. Paul Tibbets. In 1945, Tibbets would pilot the Enola Gay over Hiroshima and his crew would drop the first atomic bomb used in battle.

The raid succeeded beyond all expectations. The dozen Forts dropped almost 40,000 pounds of British-built bombs on the target area. Post-strike reconnaissance showed an impressive, tight pattern to the destruction wrought on the ground. The Norden bombsight appeared to be a wonder device after all. Nothing the British could do at night matched this level of accuracy.

What's more, not a single B-17 went down. All the crews returned safely to England, and there was much revelry that evening at Polebrook. There wouldn't be many good days ahead like this one. In fact, two missions later, a Messerschmitt made a pass at Tibbetts' B-17. A 20 mm cannon shell exploded in the cockpit, which wounded him with shrapnel and nearly took his co-pilot's left hand off.

Still, the Rouen raid served as a good beginning for the nascent Eighth Air Force. It also made excellent propaganda and quieted the British down for awhile. To counter that English attitude, Spaatz took to carrying recon photos of strike damage in his pocket. He'd pull them out and show the results of precision bombing to anyone who wanted to take a look.

Elated at the results, Spaatz and Eaker set about laying the foundations for the massive force they hoped to field against Germany. Through the summer and fall, new bomb groups reached England, including the 303rd and 93rd. The 1st Fighter Group and its P-38s flew across the Atlantic to join VITT Fighter Command. In time, the 31st, 52nd, and 4th Fighter Groups would form the initial core of the available escort force.

Through the rest of the fall, the Eighth Air Force devoted most of its energy against U-boat targets in support of the campaign in the North Atlantic. These deeply unpopular missions contributed little to the Allied cause. By this time, the U-boat pens in the French ports like St. Nazaire had been reinforced with a twenty foot concrete roof. The bombs the B-17s did get on these targets exploded harmlessly on the surface of these massive structures. Worse, the missions exposed the B-17 crews to heavy fighter and anti-aircraft attack. For the men who laid their lives on the line daily to carry out these sorties, such a ridiculous target selection frustrated and demoralized them.

No comments:

Post a Comment