The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flew in every combat zone during World War II, but its most significant service was over Europe. Along with the B-24 Liberator, the B-17 formed the backbone of the USAAF strategic bombing force, and it helped win the war by crippling Germany’s war industry.
The B-17’s design emphasized high altitude flight, speed, and heavy defensive armament in order to survive enemy defenses. Advanced turbosupercharged engines allowed it to fly up to about 30,000 feet with a combat load, while powered turrets and flexible guns covered all areas around the aircraft.
Although the B-17 prototype flew in 1935, only a relatively small number of B-17s were in service when the US entered the war in 1941. Production quickly increased, and three companies—Boeing, Lockheed-Vega, and Douglas—mass-produced Flying Fortresses by the thousands.
The B-17F was the fastest model and the primary heavy bomber early in the strategic bombing campaign.
On the morning of Apr. 17, 1943 8th Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress crews throughout eastern England were alerted for another strike, and a record 115 bombers were assembled for a raid on the Focke-Wulf plant at Bremen. For the first time two large-scale combat wings, with the 91st and 306th in the first wing and the 303rd and 305th Bomb Groups making up the second, were despatched. Each wing formation consisted of three group boxes of 18-21 aircraft, flown for mutual firepower and protection.
Raid on the Focke-Wulf plant at Bremen
Captain Robert K. Morgan, the pilot of the Memphis Belle (destined to become one of the most famous if not the most famous B-17s of the war) in the 91st Bomb Group, explains in Martin W. Bowman’s book On the Highways of the Skies The 8th Air Force in World War II:
“The Germans had got pretty hot on the B-17s. They started coming in from nose of the ships and we had only two .50 caliber guns, which wouldn’t go straight forward. We were working on the problem but hadn’t solved it and hadn’t put any more guns in. We found that by flying all four groups very close together we could get good fighter protection. This worked fine for a while. We would set one group at 22,000, one at 23.000, one at 24,000 and one at 25,000, always about 1000ft difference, on the same line with each other or behind each other.
“If the enemy attacked the middle Group the firepower of all the other Groups would be concentrated on the fighters. Trouble was, the Germans thought about things too. They worked out the best method of attacking our planes. They picked on the low front Group while all the back three Groups couldn’t help out. We solved that by moving the second group up in front, the first Group behind them. In other words, the lead Group was higher than the second was.
“The Bremen raid was about the most effective and successful raid we made from the standpoint of planning, efficiency, damage done and losses. We were briefed as well or better than for any other.
178 flak guns to be turned on B-17 bombers
The Germans had 178 flak guns to be turned on us. We went in from the southwest to the northeast on a heading so they could never get more than 72 guns on us. We found the plant and turned off to the right and made a complete turn and came out. That is the long and short way around but if we had come out the other way we would have had to run through the other 106 guns. We assembled over England below 5000ft and went out below 5000 until we got ready to turn and come in. we began to turn and climb and when we reached the German coast we had our altitude. We tried to make them think we were going to Wilhelmshaven and it seemed to work.”
Shortly after leaving the English coast, a German reconnaissance aircraft had spotted the mass of aircraft and the Americans’ approach was radioed to fighter controllers along the enemy coastline. The German defenses did not know where the bombers were headed but, just after the B-17s passed the Friesian Islands, Luftwaffe fighters were vectored towards them. Captain Robert K. Morgan again:
“The weather was pretty overcast below. It looked as though Wilhelmshaven was open and Bremen would be overcast, so I thought we might go back after Wilhelmshaven instead. But a few seconds later I found the target by flak. I looked over to the left and there was one black cloud sitting there and it was flak. I figured that must be Bremen. Sure enough, we could see Bremen when I turned.
Keeping B-17 Groups weaving
“We went in from the southwest to the northeast. German fighters could be seen coming up from the ground and I have never seen so many at one time. I had to forget about the fighters because we started the run. We were the high Group. We made the run. The flak was pretty bad, bursting all around us. The boys in the low Group really caught hell from it. The Germans had set up the barrage and it worked well. When we turned off the target the fighters began to hit us. They had 109s, 110s, 190s and Ju 88s. But we found out that if you keep your Groups weaving, when the attacks come, you can nose down and turn into the attack and they won’t hit you.”
S/Sgt Casimer A. Nastal, a waist gunner and at 19 the young member of the crew of the Memphis Belle who before joining up had a repairing washing machines, adds:
“At the target the flak started. It was bursting outside the waist windows. I could have reached out and grabbed it. I kept thinking: ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ The fighters came in hunches of 20 or 30. I saw two or three fighters hit by their own flak. It was so thick you could hardly see the ground. The Focke Wulfs were even bursting through our formation.”
Captain Robert K. Morgan concludes;
“We lost 16 bombers, all in the low Group. That was the greatest loss we had sustained to date. But the bombing was successful. There were three factories and two were completely destroyed and a third about 60% destroyed.”
Raid on the Focke-Wulf plant at Bremen featured in the movie Memphis Belle
Albert Speer, the German armaments minister, had already issued instructions for dispersed fighter production six months previously. As for the high losses on the Bremen raid, General Hansell at First Wing Headquarters was in no doubt as to the cause. On Apr. 23, 1943 he wrote in an Operation Report: “Most of our losses were the result of poor formation flying, which resulted in aircraft becoming separated and an easy prey to the fighters.”
Noteworthy, in the 1990 movie Memphis Belle starring Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, and Harry Connick Jr., along with the rest of the squadron, Belle is given the task of attacking a Focke-Wulf 190 manufacturing plant in Bremen to complete 25 missions, a prerequisite for the crew to complete their tour of duty.
On the Highways of the Skies The 8th Air Force in World War II is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Warner Bros