On January 27, 1943, Eighth Air Force attacked Germany for the first time. Fifty-eight B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators hit the port of Wilhelmshaven.
During the next seven months, the bombers ventured progressively deeper over the enemy homeland and in progressively greater force. These raids took the bombers far beyond the reach of US and British fighters. The bombers had only the concentrated crossfire of their .50-caliber machine guns to ward off attacks from German fighters.
The Luftwaffe slowly came to realize that these daylight attacks, if left unchecked, would undermine Germany’s capacity to prosecute the war. German fighter units were pulled back from the battle fronts. During the first half of 1943, the day fighter force in Germany and the western occupied territories rose from 635 aircraft to more than 800.
German fighters initially found themselves short on firepower when engaging the sturdy, well-armored heavy bombers. When Luftwaffe officers examined wrecked B-17s and B-24s, they discovered that it took at least twenty hits with 20-mm shells fired from the rear to bring them down. Armament experts, after analyzing combat camera footage, learned that pilots of average ability hit the bombers with only about two percent of the rounds they fired. To obtain twenty hits, the average pilot had to aim 1,000 20-mm rounds at the bomber. The best German fighter, the FW-190, carried only 500 rounds.
Of course, the straight-shooting Luftwaffe “experts” (fighter pilots with more than twenty-five kills; the Luftwaffe did not use the term “ace”) got a much higher percentage of their rounds on the target. But even they had problems when attacking formations of heavy bombers. Maj. Anton Hackl, who ended the war with 192 credited victories, explained: “If one came in from the rear, there was a long period, closing from 1,000 meters to our firing range of 400 meters, when the bombers were firing at us but we could not fire at them. This was a very dangerous time, and we lost a lot of aircraft trying to attack that way.”
Meet Them Head-On
One solution was to attack the heavy bombers head-on. When the bomber was hit from that direction, its armor gave little protection, and four or five 20-mm hits were enough to knock down the plane. Moreover, the bombers had fewer guns firing forward, and the high closing speed gave them little chance to engage the fighters.
The combined closing speed of nearly 500 mph allowed German pilots time for only a half-second burst of fire, commencing at 500 yards [see illustration above], but if it was accurate, it was sufficient.
Major Hackl asserted, “The head-on attack was the only way to knock down the [heavy] bombers. One accurate half-second burst from head-on and a victory was guaranteed.”
TSgt. William Murphy, a B-24 top-turret gunner with the 44th Bomb Group, described the difficulty of engaging German fighters making head-on attacks: “The only ones we ever got were those who made a bad pass and mushed off their speed as they tried to break away early or pull round on to us; if they did that, we stood a chance. But the experienced guys knew better than that, and they kept going straight through our formation, giving an extremely difficult target.”
The head-on attack required skillful flying and accurate shooting. The best pilots amassed high victory totals using such tactics, but those of average or below average ability achieved little. The bottom line, from the German point of view, was that the Luftwaffe was shooting down an insufficient number of heavy bombers to halt the daylight raids. The Germans explored several ways to increase their fighters’ effectiveness, but, before they took effect, the attackers made one deep penetration too many.
On August 17, 1943, Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, commanding general of Eighth Air Force, launched his most ambitious operation up to that time—a twin strike on the Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensburg and the ball-bearing production center at Schweinfurt, both in southern Germany. Regensburg, the more distant target, was 430 miles inside occupied Europe.
Under the original plan, the two raiding forces, with a combined total of 376 Flying Fortresses, were to make the initial penetration flying as one compact force. South of Frankfurt, two bomb divisions with 230 aircraft were to split away, attack the Schweinfurt plant, and return to England. The remaining division of 146 B-17s would head straight to Regensburg. After bombing, that force would continue south over Austria and Italy and land at bases in Algeria.
Dawn on August 17 found the airfields of eastern England covered with thick clouds, which were forecast to thin as the day progressed. Had the raiding forces taken off early that morning as planned, they would have risked collisions during formation assembly, so the attack was rescheduled. The takeoff of the Regensburg force was delayed by one and a half hours (the maximum acceptable, if the bombers were to reach the unfamiliar airfields in Algeria before dusk). The takeoff of the Schweinfurt attack force was delayed five hours.
Divide and Be Conquered
The change of plan meant that the two attack forces would penetrate enemy airspace separately. German fighters, rather than being divided to go against the two attacking forces, could concentrate on each force sequentially. Each group of bombers would have to face the full wrath of the defenses.
At 10:05 a.m., the leading elements of the Regensburg attack force crossed the Dutch coast, accompanied by a couple of dozen P-47 Thunderbolts. Three Luftwaffe groups with about sixty fighters moved into position to engage the intruders. The Thunderbolts broke up the attack of one group, but the small force of escorts could not cover every part of the bomber formation. The other two German units, I Group of Fighter Squadron 26 with FW-190s and III Group with Messerschmitt Bf-109s, got through to deliver head-on attacks on the bombers.
By the end of the encounter, four B-17s had been shot down and several others damaged, some so severely that they were forced to break formation and turn for home. Two more bombers fell to flak. As the B-17s neared the German frontier, the Thunderbolts reached the limit of their radius of action and turned back. From then on, the bombers were on their own.
The next action opened as the bombers passed Wiesbaden. Fighter Group 50 sent twenty-five Messerschmitt Bf-109s into action, backed by a score of Bf-109s and FW-190s flown by instructors from fighter training units in the area. These made head-on attacks, then turned around and attacked the bombers from the rear. Much of the subsequent action took place around the US 100th Bomb Group at the rear of the formation. Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, a staff officer from Hq. Eighth Air Force, flew as copilot in one of the group’s B-17s to gain firsthand combat experience.
That he certainly did. “Swinging their yellow noses around in a wide U-turn,” he wrote, “a twelve-ship squadron of Me-109s came in from twelve to two o’clock in pairs and in fours, and the main event was on. A shining silver object sailed over our right wing. I recognized it as a main exit door. Seconds later, a dark object came hurtling through the formation, barely missing several props. It was a man, clasping his knees to his head, revolving like a diver in a triple somersault. I didn’t see his chute open.
“A B-17 turned gradually out of the formation to the right, maintaining altitude. In a split second, the B-17 completely disappeared in a brilliant explosion, from which the only remains were four small balls of fire, the fuel tanks, which were quickly consumed as they fell earthward. Our airplane was endangered by falling debris.
Emergency hatches, exit doors, prematurely opened parachutes, bodies, and assorted fragments of B-17s and Hun fighters breezed past us in the slipstream.
“I watched two fighters explode not far beneath, disappearing in sheets of orange flame, B-17s dropping out in every state of distress, from engines on fire to control surfaces shot away, friendly and enemy parachutes floating down and, on the green carpet far beneath us, numerous funeral pyres of smoke from fallen aircraft, marking our trail.”
Nine B-17s, six from the embattled 100th Bomb Group, fell during the action.
Over Regensburg the raiders found cloud-free skies and visibility of more than twenty-five miles, perfect weather for an attack. The three batteries of 88-mm guns positioned around the target did their best to disrupt the bomb runs, but the leading bomb groups laid their patterns of bombs accurately. Then, as always happened during a large attack on a single target, dust and smoke from the explosions and fires obscured the aiming points, and subsequent bombing was less accurate.
After bombing the target, the B-17s continued south. Two damaged bombers left the formation and headed for neutral Switzerland. Seven more damaged planes went down on the way to Algeria.
Of the 146 heavy bombers that had set out for Regensburg, seven turned back, and 139 crossed the Dutch coast. Twenty-four of these were lost.
The Schweinfurt raiding force, comprising 230 B-17s, launched its attack later in the day. It too suffered heavily from the German fighters and flak, losing thirty-six bombers.
Thus, of the 376 B-17 Flying Fortresses that set out from England to bomb the two important targets, sixty were destroyed. That was not the final cost. When the Regensburg force returned to England a week later, attacking an airfield near Bordeaux on the way, it was without another fifty-five aircraft, which had been damaged beyond immediate repair, and three more were lost during the return flight. In the short term, the twin attacks and that on the French airfield deprived Eighth Air Force of 118 bombers—nearly one-third of the force committed on August 17.
Despite bomber crew reports to the contrary, their return fire did not inflict serious losses on the German fighters. The Luftwaffe lost only twenty-seven fighters during the two great air battles.
In the weeks that followed, the large-scale introduction of two weapons brought about a formidable increase in the firepower of German home defense fighters. The first was the Mk. 108 cannon, a 30-mm weapon that fired eleven-ounce, high-explosive incendiary rounds at a rate of more than 600 per minute; on average, three such hits were sufficient to down a heavy bomber.
The second “new” weapon was the 21-cm rocket, a German Army infantry weapon adapted for air-to-air use. Mounted in a tube that also served as the launcher, the 248-pound, spin-stabilized weapon carried a ninety-pound warhead powerful enough to destroy any bomber within thirty yards of the point of detonation. The missile was time-fuzed to explode at a preset flight distance, however, so the target’s range had to be judged within fine limits before launch.
New Bf-109s were fitted with a 30-mm cannon firing through the propeller hub. These and the FW-190s were modified to carry one rocket launcher under each wing. In another move to buttress the fighter defenses, Destroyer Squadron 26 was reformed as a home defense unit with a nominal strength of eighty “bomber-destroyers.” The unit’s formidable twin-engine Bf-110s and Me-410s carried a forward-firing armament of four 20-mm cannon, two 30-mm cannon, and four 21-cm rocket launchers.
In action, the 21-cm rocket proved relatively inaccurate. It downed few bombers, but it often damaged planes sufficiently to force them out of formation so that other fighters could finish them off.
Eighth Air Force’s heavy bombers resumed attacks on Germany on September 6, 1943, when 338 Flying Fortresses set out for Stuttgart. German fighter forces again reacted vigorously and effectively, and on this occasion the raiders had to contend with poor weather. The primary targets were blanketed by clouds, and the aircraft bombed “targets of opportunity” on the way home. The September 6 attack cost forty-five bombers.
Turning the Tide
On September 27, 1943, 305 B-17s set out for the German port of Emden. This raid was a milestone, marking the first attack against Germany in which the bombers enjoyed fighter cover all the way to the target. This protection was provided by Thunderbolts fitted with new seventy-five-gallon and 108-gallon drop tanks. The raiders lost only seven bombers. The escorts shot down about twenty German fighters, losing only one of their own. Five days later, Eighth Air Force executed a similar, 349-bomber attack on Emden, losing only two.
On October 4, a force of 155 B-17 bombers set out to attack Frankfurt am Main. More than 200 Thunderbolts escorted the raiders along much of the route, and only eight bombers were lost. Near Cologne, the 56th Fighter Group caught a group of about forty Bf-110s about to launch rockets into the rear bomb group and shot down about fifteen without a single loss to themselves.
From that point on, the unwieldy twin-engine bomber-destroyers were restricted to operations east of the Bremen-Kassel-Frankfurt line to keep them out of reach of the Allied fighter escorts.
During the second week in October, the heavy bombers launched a series of deep-penetration attacks. On October 8, a total of 389 American B-17 and B-24 bombers, escorted by 274 P-47 fighters, attacked Bremen, with a loss of thirty-one bombers and three fighters. The next day, 368 bombers set out on the deepest penetration yet, hitting Danzig, Gdynia, and other sites along the Baltic coast. Twenty-eight bombers were lost. On October 10, a group of 313 bombers took off to attack Münster, with the resulting loss of thirty planes. Bomber losses during these actions were in each case less than ten percent of the force committed, a rate considered “acceptable” in this campaign of attrition.
The stage was set for the next deep-penetration attack, launched against Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943. After the earlier raid, the name “Schweinfurt” could strike fear into the bomber crews. At the end of the mission briefing for the 385th Bomb Group at Great Ashfield, England, Col. Elliot Vandevanter concluded, “This is a tough job, and I know you can do it. Good luck, good bombing, and good hunting.” At this, someone at the back of the room quipped, “And good-bye!” The comment drew a round of nervous guffaws from the crews.
A force of 291 Flying Fortresses set out for the ball-bearing production center. The defending fighters held back until the leading bombers had crossed the German border and the escorting Thunderbolts turned back for home. Making the most of its new weaponry, the Luftwaffe struck in a manner “unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed,” in the words of US official historians.
Nevertheless, a powerful raiding force got through. All three of the ball-bearing plants that were attacked suffered heavy damage. During the return flight, however, the bombers again came under sustained attack from German fighters, many of which were going into action a second time that day.
Schweinfurt lived up to its grim reputation as a target. Sixty B-17s were shot down, five more crashed or crash-landed in England, and twelve others were damaged beyond repair. The guns of the bombers and the escorting Thunderbolts destroyed thirty-eight German fighters and damaged twenty more.
Both sides drew significant lessons from the October battles. To the Luftwaffe, the outcome of the air combat seemed to confirm the effectiveness of its new tactics and weapons. In the short term, the twin-engine bomber-destroyer seemed to offer the best counter to bomber formations venturing beyond the range of their escorts.
Plans were laid to build a fleet of “superdestroyers” fitted with heavy caliber cannon. The Bf-110 had been tested with a modified 3.7-cm antiaircraft gun mounted under the fuselage, firing ten-ounce shells at a rate of about eighty per minute. The ultimate system, fitted internally in the Me-410, was the 5-cm tank gun modified for airborne use. Called the BK 5, the single-shot weapon could fire three rounds in four seconds, and a hit with the 3.5-pound high-explosive shell offered a good chance of a kill. The two high-velocity weapons were accurate beyond 800 yards, allowing the “superdestroyers” to sit behind the US formation outside the range of defensive fire and knock down bombers at will.
From the operations in October 1943, Eighth Air Force learned the hard way that defensive crossfire from a formation of heavy bombers could not prevent heavy aircraft losses during deep-penetration attacks. Its solution was to give highest priority to the expansion of the fighter force and the deployment of long-range escort fighters—in particular, the superb P-51B Mustang—to provide full-route protection to targets anywhere in Germany.
The rest is history. The US long-range escorts “got there first with the most.” From the spring of 1944 onward, over the length and breadth of Germany, they fought a running battle of attrition that crippled the defending German fighter force and wiped out many of its sanctuaries.
By the time the “superdestroyers” were ready to begin operations, there remained no part of Germany in which they could operate safely. Their crews fought bravely to defend their homes and loved ones, but to no avail. Confronted by packs of marauding escorts, the twin-engine bomber-destroyer units simply melted away, like snowmen in the spring sunshine.
Alfred Price flew with the Royal Air Force for sixteen years. He has published some three dozen books, including Instruments of Darkness, The History of US Electronic Warfare (two volumes), and Air Battle Central Europe. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “To War in a Warthog” in the August 1993 issue.