Later in August, the Eighth Air Force flew its first combat mission. Flying B-17Es, the 97th Bomb Group struck rail targets at Rouen, France, without loss. It was an auspicious beginning to what would become one of the longest attritional campaigns in U.S. history. Here, a squadron of B-17s forms up over England in preparation for a mission in 1942.
Meanwhile, the build-up gained steam until Operation Torch derailed everything. This was the invasion of Northwest Africa by a combined Anglo-American force. To carry out this operation, the Allies needed every available plane to support it. The Eighth was stripped of most of its fighter units, including the 1st, 31st, and 52nd groups, and lost some of its B-17 outfits as well. Spaatz and Eaker protested to no avail. Eventually, the Eighth lost 1,250 aircraft and 30,000 men. The bombing campaign came to a crashing halt. In December, the Eighth lost its talented commander, General Spaatz to the Mediterranean theater as well. Ira Eaker took his place It would not be until the following January that the fledglings in England would commence large-scale bombing operations against Nazi-held Europe.
As the Americans arrived in England, then had their build-up derailed by Torch, Bomber Command's night raids began to cause substantial damage.
The 1943 campaign would soon begin, and with it would come die first major contributions by the USAAF and its new fleet of heavy bombers. Exactly how that effort would be carried out in cooperation with the RAF dominated top-level discussions for the remainder of 1942, and during the Churchill-Roosevelt meeting at Casablanca in January 1943.
The RAF wanted the Americans to join the night bombing effort. Convert the Eighth Air Force to nocturnal operations and the Allies could have a force of thousands hitting Germany by moonlight before the end of 1943. The USAAF recoiled at the idea. The entire structure of its strategic force had been predicated on daylight precision bombing. All the Stateside training was geared toward this effort. Switching to night operations would require a wholesale reconstruction of the strategic bomber force. Hap Arnold, commander of the mid-1943. To the USAAF's materials command, hanging gas tanks under a fighter was an anathema that would ruin the aircraft's manoeuvrability in combat.
It would take time to sort out the fuel tank issue and the tactics. In the meantime, the B-I 7 and B-24 crews paid the price. The 1943 campaign would prove once and for all that if the bombers were to survive deep penetration raids into Germany, the Mighty Eighth had to have fighters that could go the distance with them. Wartime experience proved Billy Mitchell right: fighter and bomber had to work together just like combined operations in ground warfare. The cost to learn that lesson envisioned two decades before by America's most famous airpower theorist would be dreadfully high.
The USAAF, could not let that happen. Yet, Churchill had already nearly sold Roosevelt on the idea of doing this.
During the Casablanca conference in January, he cabled Eaker and told him it was up to him to save the daylight bombing campaign. Eaker had majored in journalism in college. He sat down and drafted a tight, one-page summary for Churchill that outlined all the reasons why converting the Eighth Air Force to night operations would be folly. The final sentence captured the Prime Minister's imagination.
"If the RAF continues bombing at night and we bomb by day, we shall bomb them round the clock and the devil shall do the rest."
Both leaders loved the idea of "round the clock bombing." The British would batter the Germans at night while from dawn to sunset the Americans would rule the skies. Twenty-four seven, Germany would receive no respite from the aerial bombardment.
After Casablanca, Eaker and one of his subordinates, General Hansell, sat down with two RAF counterparts and drafted a detailed plan for the 1943 air campaign. Called the Combined Bomber Offensive, the document set seventeen key target types to be attacked and destroyed during the year. The top three included: 1) the German aircraft industry, 2) ball bearings factories, and 3) Germany's oil refining infrastructure. Harris and Bomber Command would still make destruction of German morale its key objective for the year.
For both sides, 1943 would be a pivotal period in the strategic air war. Of course, as with most wartime ventures, nothing went as planned.