Breaching Fortress Europe, 1942-43
War, no matter how it may be glorified, is unspeakably horrible in every form. The bomber simply adds to the extent of the horror, especially if not used with discretion; but when used with the proper degree of understanding, it becomes the most humane of all weapons.
• GEN. HENRY H. ARNOLD, JUNE 1943
I am concerned that you will not appreciate the tremendous damage that is being done to the German morale by these attacks through the overcast, since we cannot show you appreciable damage by photographs________________ Just imagine for yourself bombs hitting Wash
ington and the Pentagon Building through a thick snowstorm. What will it do? The German people cannot take that kind of terror much longer."
• LT. GEN. IRA C. EAKERTO ARNOLD, NOVEMBER 1943 17 August 1943
Thirteen minutes after the last of 139 B-17S from Eighth Air Force’s Fourth Bomb Wing had crossed the Dutch coast, the first German fighters appeared. Instantly, the bomber crews knew that their misgivings about the mission against the sprawling Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg were justified. The daylight raid would mark the deepest penetration into Germany yet for an American bomber force, and would occur in tandem with an assault by 222 B-17S of the First Bomb Wing against the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt, responsible for almost 50 percent of Germany’s output. Both the Regensburg and Schweinfurt formations would proceed to their targets largely unescorted despite sixteen squadrons of Spitfires and eighteen squadrons of P-47S that accompanied them across the English Channel, because no Allied fighter possessed the range to fly beyond the German frontier.
Eighth Air Force planners, though, had devised a scheme to get the bombers to their targets and back relatively unscathed. The Fourth Bomb Wing would depart for Regensburg fifteen minutes before the First Wing followed it for Schweinfurt, which would prevent German fighters from attacking both formations on the way to their targets. The Regensburg mission would initially draw the Germans’ attention, and by the time the First Wing’s bombers approached Schweinfurt, the German fighters would have landed to refuel and rearm, which would allow the Schweinfurt force to proceed to its target unhindered. In the meantime, after the Fourth Wing bombed the Messerschmitt complex at Regensburg, it would avoid further combat by flying south across the Mediterranean to land in North Africa. The Schweinfurt bombers would then battle the rearmed German fighters on the trip home to British bases. If everything worked as planned, the Germans would suffer major damage to two of their most important war-making facilities, and the American bombers would inflict that pain at minimal cost to the attacking force.1
Yet the plan that appeared so appealing on paper turned out to be lacking in practice. To succeed, it required near-perfect weather, crisp coordination between multiple layers of command, and zero mishaps as two large formations of heavy bombers took shape in the skies over East Anglia. Those demands were a lot to ask for from a bombing force that had never flown so far across hostile territory. Pre-mission briefers told crews to expect “negligible” opposition, but the airmen had routinely flown missions that summer that produced loss rates approaching 10 percent, and expected the worst. Their fears increased when dense fog shrouded their British bases that morning. “The mission itself started under a cloud of doubt and we didn’t know until the last minute whether it would be scrubbed or not,” Colonel Curtis LeMay, the Fourth Bomb Wing Commander, said afterward. “Finally, 26 minutes before the take off, we received word from Bomber Command that the mission would go on.”2
The delayed notification plus the thick fog produced a corresponding delay in getting the bombers airborne. LeMay had trained his crews extensively in instrument take-offs, but even he called the assembly of his seven groups of B-17S “miraculous” given that they had to climb through two dense layers of overcast.3 The formation finally departed for Regensburg ninety minutes behind the time originally scheduled. Meanwhile, LeMay’s counterpart commanding the First Bomb Wing, Brigadier General Robert Williams, did not receive the take-off order until almost an hour and a half after LeMay got the word—which resulted in a departure for Schweinfurt five hours later than the originally scheduled time and almost four hours after LeMay’s Fourth Wing had left. Rather than cancel the Schweinfurt part of the mission, the Commander of VIII Bomber Command, Brigadier General Frederick Anderson, determined that the importance of the targets justified the risks involved in dispatching the two bomb wings individually.4 As a result, almost three hundred Luftwaffe fighters were available to attack both formations for the duration of their time over the Reich.
Unlike the dismal weather in Britain, German skies were crystal clear, making them ideal for bombing—and for fighter assaults against the bombers. LeMay’s B-17S formed a stream fifteen miles long at staggered intervals from sixteen thousand to twenty thousand feet. A Messerschmitt Me-i 10 quickly positioned itself alongside the formation, out of range, and relayed information to waiting German fighters. Colonel Beirne Lay Jr., who flew as a copilot in the bomber stream’s last squadron, later wrote: “I had the lonesome foreboding that might come to the last man about to run a gauntlet lined with spiked clubs.’” An enormous aerial melee soon engulfed the bombers. Lay described what transpired:
Swinging their yellow noses around in a wide U-turn, the 12-ship squadron of Me-i09’s came in from 12 to 2 o’clock in pairs and in fours and the main event was on.
A shining silver object sailed past over our right wing. 1 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.
А в-17 turned gradually out of the formation to the right, maintaining altitude. In a split second, the в-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. …
1 watched a B-17 turn slowly out to the right with its cockpit a mass of flames. The copilot crawled out of his window, held on with one hand, reached back for his ‘chute, buckled it on, let go and was whisked back into the horizontal stabilizer. I believe the impact killed him. His ’chute didn’t open.6
The hellish fury continued incessantly for an hour and a half, and abated only after the German flak intensified as the bombers approached the target. Lay estimated that the formation had suffered more than two hundred individual fighter attacks, and took grim satisfaction in seeing a column of smoke rising from the Messerschmitt factory once the B-17S headed for the Alps.
The costs of the double strike on Regensburg and Schwein – furt were staggering. LeMay’s Fourth Wing lost 24 B-17S—each carrying ten men—and abandoned almost 60 of the aircraft that made it to North Africa because of heavy damage. Williams’s First Wing, which suffered through a barrage of fighters that met them on both the inbound and outbound legs to Schweinfurt, lost 36 bombers, with another 27 of those that made it back written off. All told, in terms of aircraft shot down, written off, and abandoned, the missions to Regensburg and Schweinfurt cost Eighth Air Force 147 bombers—40 percent of the attacking force.
For their efforts the American airmen shot down forty-eight German fighters (they claimed in excess of one hundred), with another twelve too damaged to fly again.7 The Messerschmitt complex at Regensburg, responsible for half of Germany’s fighter production, lost three weeks of output, or roughly one thousand Me-io9S. The attack on Schweinfurt achieved meager results. While damaging three of the five ball bearing factories, Williams’s bombers had little impact on the machine tools that produced the bearings. The Germans negated the destruction that had occurred by turning to reserve stocks and buying additional bearings from Sweden. s
Despite his heavy losses and the limited damage inflicted, Major General Ira Eaker, the Eighth Air Force Commander, still considered the industries in Regensburg and Schweinfurt worthy objectives for his bombers. The balding, forty-seven-year-old Eaker was fond of late-night poker games with his staff, but to him Regensburg and Schweinfurt were not gambles—they were exactly the types of targets that would hurt Germany’s war-making capability the most. Though a fighter pilot for most of his career, he was well-versed in the principles of high altitude, daylight, precision bombing and had graduated from the Air Corps Tactical School in 1936. Hap Arnold had chosen him as coauthor for two books promoting air power during the late 1930s, plus Arnold had also made him Chief of Air Corps Information. With a degree in journalism from Southern Cal, a charming smile, and a tremendous ability to convey his ideas (his promotion of the Rex intercept was just one example), Eaker had been an apt choice to help carve the American public’s image of air power. Arnold believed him well suited to lead Eighth Air Force after its initial commander, Tooey Spaatz, departed England in late 1942 to take a command in North Africa.
Eaker had previously led VIII Bomber Command, the bomber component of Eighth Air Force, and had no illusions about the challenges of serving as the Eighth’s overall commander in 1943. Bombers, as well as air crews, arrived slowly in Britain, but Eighth Air Force was, at the time, the only American combat unit capable of attacking Germany. Dismayed by the losses from Regensburg and Schweinfurt—German defenses had shot down 15 percent of his attacking force—and disappointed that he could not accompany his crews in the air (his knowledge of the Normandy invasion and the cracking of the German “enigma” codes prevented him from leading the Schweinfurt raid),9 he had no intention of slowing his air campaign’s momentum. He was convinced that the destruction of Germany’s vital centers would hasten the war’s end, and ultimately yield a victory less costly in Allied manpower than a war without strategic bombing. In the meantime he would continue his appeals for more bombers and crewmen while he continued his effort to deal a mortal blow to the Nazi war machine.