Seattle, Washington State July 28, 1935

On this date in 1935 a prototype four-engine bomber took off from Seattle, Washing­ton’s Boeing Field on its first flight. The plane, known simply as Model 299 among Boeing employees, bristled with machine-gun mounts in its nose, sides, top, and tail. Dubbed the “Flying For­tress,” allegedly by a Seattle news reporter, the name was quickly adopted and trade­marked by Boeing. The U.S. Army Air Corps, whose request for a long-range, multi-engine bomber prompted Boeing to self-finance the proto­type air­craft, desig­nated the plane the B‑17. Military deliveries began in early 1937.

Prior to America’s entry into World War II, the B‑17 and its rival four-engine bomber, Consol­i­dated’s B‑24 Lib­er­ator, were tested by Royal Air Force crews in com­bat against the German Luft­waffe in the spring of 1941. Neither bomber received high marks in the tests they were put through. Though British air squad­rons even­tually flew newer models of both Amer­i­can-built bombers, they preferred their own four-engine Hand­ley Page Hali­fax, which made its oper­a­tional debut in March 1941, and the four-engine Avro Lan­caster, which entered combat twelve months later.

Stateside, B‑17s were inadvertently plunged into com­bat on Decem­ber 7, 1941, during the Japa­nese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. How­ever, it was in the Philip­pines and the Dutch East Indies in the early months of the war that a mixed force of B‑17s and B‑24s made its inten­tional com­bat debut. In the face of rapid Japa­nese terri­torial advances south­ward the war­birds with­drew to Aus­tra­lia. There they formed the nucleus of the U.S. Army Air Force’s Fifth Air Force that would help defeat the Japa­nese in the South­west Pacific. By the end of 1943, B‑17s in the Pacific Theater had been replaced by B‑24s.

Late in the summer of 1942 U.S. Eighth Air Force B‑17s launched daylight stra­te­gic bombing oper­a­tions over Nazi-occu­pied Europe from air bases in England. Their ini­tial tar­gets were rail­road mar­shaling yards in Rouen, 80 miles inland from the French Normandy coast. Escorted by short-range RAF Spit­fires, the first two For­tresses were lost on the Eighth’s tenth mis­sion. A year later, in August and Octo­ber 1943, the Eighth mounted aggres­sive unes­corted air assaults designed to cripple mili­tary produc­tion deep inside Nazi Germany. Targeted were Bavaria’s Messer­schmitt air­craft factory in Regens­burg and Schwein­furt’s ball-bearing com­plex (see photo essay below). The carnage inflicted by Luft­waffe inter­ceptor air­craft and lethal flax bat­teries resulted in the sus­pen­sion of deep pene­tra­tion stra­te­gic bombing mis­sions for five months until heavy bomber inven­tory and highly trained 10-man air­crews could be replenished and Allied long-range fighter support put in place.

By June 1944 the Allies’ fighter escort problem appeared solved with the intro­duc­tion of North Amer­i­can’s long-range P‑51 Mus­tangs. Eighth Air Force B‑17 for­ma­tions from England and Fifteenth Air Force B‑17 and B‑24 for­ma­tions from Italy con­tinued to smash Germany’s air­craft manu­fac­turing facil­i­ties, followed by oil and trans­por­ta­tion com­plexes. Allied ascen­dancy over the Luft­waffe’s fighter arm accel­er­ated succes­ses in the air and on the ground, pre­saging Germany’s uncon­di­tional surren­der in May 1945. B‑17 pro­duc­tion was sus­pended in favor of pro­ducing longer-range heavy bombers for the air cam­paign against the Japa­nese home islands. On August 6 and 9, 1945, two B‑29 Super­for­tresses, each carrying a city-killing atomic bomb, nudged Japan’s Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) to surren­der his country to the Allies three-and-a-half weeks later, on Septem­ber 2 in Tokyo Bay, ending a human tragedy that had made Boeing an airplane manufacturing legend.

The U.S. Eighth Air Force Schweinfurt-Regensburg Missions

Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid: B-17 participantSchweinfurt-Regensburg Raid: B-24 participant

Left: By the time the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 the Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tress was out­dated based as it was on 1920s-early 1930s tech­no­logy. Some 12,731 B‑17s were pro­duced between 1936 and 1945. First flown in com­bat by the Royal Air Force over Europe, the British found the B‑17’s per­for­mance dis­mal and pre­ferred flying the Con­sol­i­dated B‑24 Liber­ator. B‑17s flew with the U.S., British, and Soviet air forces. The German Luft­waffe even flew a dozen captured ones. Flying For­tresses were armed with thir­teen .50 cali­ber (12.7mm) M2 Browning machine guns in eight posi­tions. Depending on the dis­tance of the mission, a B‑17 could carry between 4,000 and 8,000 lb of bombs. More bombs were dropped by B‑17s than by any other U.S. air­craft in World War II. Of the 1.5 mil­lion metric tons of bombs dropped on Nazi Germany and its occupied terri­tories by U.S. aircraft, 640,000 tons were dropped from B‑17s. During the course of the war more than 5,000 B‑17s were shot down by German fighter planes or flak batteries.

Right: Rare color photo of a preproduction B‑24 proto­type wearing British rondelle. Six were sold to the UK directly as desig­nated LB‑30A. Far more B-24 Lib­er­ators were pro­duced (18,500 units) and were used more exten­sively than Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tresses, both in stra­te­gic bombing cam­paigns, on long-range anti-sub­marine patrols, and as trans­ports (C‑87s). In fact, only in the U.S. Eighth Air Force were B‑17s pre­dom­i­nant in num­ber. So many his­to­rians have focused on the war in Europe, devoting much paper and ink to the four-engine Boeing bomber, that the B‑17 is often thought to be the only Amer­i­can long-range bomber of the war until the much larger Boeing B‑29 Super­for­tress was put in service in May 1944. Iron­i­cally, the more modern B‑24 was designed to replace the B‑17, with vastly improved per­for­mance owing to a shoulder-mounted, low-drag, aero­dyna­mi­cally shaped wing (Davis wing) that afforded higher speeds, greater explo­sive pay­loads, and supe­rior oper­a­tional range. Con­versely, the B‑17’s large wing made the plane easier to fly and at higher alti­tudes than the B‑24, but it pro­duced con­sid­er­able drag, limiting its speed and severely reducing its oper­a­tional range. The B‑24 first flew on December 29, 1939, and entered service in 1941.

Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid: Schweinfurt under attack, August 17, 1943Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid: Regensburg under attack, August 17, 1943

Left: Smoke covers Schweinfurt’s manufac­turing cen­ter as B-17s from the 1st Bom­bard­ment Wing unload thou­sands of 500 lb bombs on August 17, 1943. The Schwein­furt-Regens­burg mis­sion entailed two large forces of U.S. Eighth Air Force bombers (361 bombers in 16 bomb groups) attacking sep­a­rate tar­gets simul­ta­neously, both in Bava­ria, which placed them outside the range of escorting Allied fighters. Their orders: cripple German fighter air­craft produc­tion. The never-before “double-strike mis­sion” in broad day­light into the heart of the Reich inflicted major damage on the Messer­schmitt facil­ity at Regens­burg but min­i­mal damage on Schwein­furt’s ball-bearing fac­tories, for a cata­stro­phic loss to the force: Over 40 per­cent of U.S. bombers were shot down, written off as beyond repair, aban­doned, or ditched in the Medi­ter­ra­nean. Along with these 147 lost-to-service B‑17s, the Eighth lost 565 highly trained air­men killed, taken pri­soner, interned in Switzer­land, or counted as missing. Little more than 11 per­cent of the bomber force returned to base un­scathed. On the flip side, the Germans lost 47 fighter air­craft and 16 expe­ri­enced pilots to frenzied air com­bat, plus 5 more to acci­dents. A second raid on Schwein­furt on Octo­ber 14 cost the Eighth 77 out of 351 B‑17s and B-24s lost, 138 battle damaged (17 beyond repair), roughly 590 crew­members killed and 65 taken prisoner, while pro­ducing mod­er­ate site damage. Sadly for Allied war planners, other Euro­pean firms stepped in with replace­ment ball bearings while the Germans drew from their reserves.

Right: B-17 bomber stream over Regensburg, August 17, 1943. The major Messer­schmitt air­craft factory at Regens­burg pro­duced over 300 Bf 109 fighters per month, or roughly a quarter of Germany’s fighter out­put in July 1943. The Regens­burg day­light raid by the Eighth Air Force’s 4th Bom­bard­ment Wing lasted 22 minutes. Mili­tary intel­li­gence later con­firmed that the Messer­schmitt com­plex suffered exten­sive damage, par­tic­u­larly to the com­pany’s new Me 262 jet fighter pro­duc­tion line, for a loss of 24 B‑17s.

The Air Force Story: Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid, August 17, 1943. Skip first minute

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