Savannah, Georgia January 28, 1942

On this date in 1942 the fledgling U.S. Eighth Air Force was activated at Savan­nah Air Force Base in Georgia. Second-in-com­mand Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker was sent to Eng­land to form and orga­nize its bomber com­mand, the VIII Bomber Com­mand. An advanced detach­ment was estab­lished at RAF Bomber Com­mand Head­quarters in South­east England. For nearly two years Eaker’s name was syn­on­y­mous with the Eighth Air Force. He became the arch­i­tect of a stra­tegic bombing force that ulti­mately num­bered 40 groups of 60 heavy bombers each, sup­ported by a sub­or­dinate fighter command of 1,500 air­craft, the VIII Fighter Command.

The Eighth Air Force operated over Northern Europe, carrying out day­light “pre­ci­sion” bombings of enemy targets in occupied France and the Low Coun­tries and in Nazi Germany. Regu­lar com­bat opera­tions by VIII Bomber Com­mand began on August 17, 1942, when twelve B‑17 Flying For­tresses attacked rail­road yards at Rouen in North­western France, roughly 40 miles inland from the English Chan­nel. (That first day­light sortie was only par­tially suc­cess­ful: half the bombs fell within the rail yard, but many fell out­side the aiming point, killing 52 civil­ians and wounding 120.) In late Febru­ary 1944 VIII Bomber Com­mand and Ninth Air Force were brought under con­trol of a cen­tral­ized head­quarters. That same week, “Big Week” (Febru­ary 20–25, 1944), over 1,000 B‑17s and B‑24 Lib­er­ators and over 800 fighters of the Eighth Air Force targeted the German air­craft indus­try. Their raids in Febru­ary and March 1944 caused so much damage that the Germans were compelled to disperse aircraft manufacturing eastward, to safer parts of the Reich.

Less than a week after “Big Week,” the Eighth Air Force sent over 700 heavy bombers, accom­pa­nied by 800 escort fighters, to hit targets in Berlin, dropping the first American bombs on Adolf Hitler’s capital.

Begin­ning on May 13, 1944, the Eighth Air Force began striking at oil in­dustry tar­gets when 9,000 bombers, escorted by almost 9,000 fighters, pounded targets in the Leip­zig area and in Czecho­slo­va­kia. (The Fif­teenth Air Force, based briefly in North Africa, then in Italy, hit oil industry facil­i­ties in Yugo­sla­via, Roma­nia, and North­eastern Italy.) By the end of 1944 only 3 out of 91 refineries in the Reich were still working nor­mally, 29 were partially func­tional, and the remain­der were com­pletely de­stroyed. All these raids, how­ever, exacted a heavy price. Half of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ casual­ties in World War II were suffered by the Eighth Air Force, which counted over 47,000 casu­al­ties, with more than 26,000 dead, from among the 350,000 Americans who served in the Eighth Air Force.

U.S. Eighth Air Force Heavy Bombers and Fighter Escorts

Aircraft of U.S. Eighth Air Force: Boeing B-17E Flying FortressAircraft of U.S. Eighth Air Force: Consolidated B-24D Liberators

Left: Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress in flight. A total of 12,731 Flying For­tresses were built between 1935 and 1945. B‑17s flew with the U.S., British, and Soviet air forces. The German Luft­waffe even flew a dozen captured ones. B‑17s 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.

Right: Consolidated B-24D Liberators of the 93rd Bomb Group in flight for­ma­tion. A total of 18,482 B‑24 Liberators were built by September 1945. The B‑24 was armed with ten .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns in four turrets and two waist posi­tions. Depending on the dis­tance of the mission, the B‑24 could carry between 5,000 and 8,000 lb of bombs. It was faster, had longer range, and could carry a ton more bombs than the B‑17, but Libe­rators formed only about one-third of the heavy bomber strength of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. Flying from bases in England, thousands of B‑24s dropped hundreds of thou­sands of tons of high-explo­sive and incen­diary bombs on Ger­man mili­tary and indus­trial targets. Liberators were also credited in full or in part with 93 U‑boat sinkings.

Aircraft of U.S. Eighth Air Force: Republic P-47 ThunderboltAircraft of U.S. Eighth Air Force: North American P-51 Mustangs

Left: The first U.S. fighter plane that would be used most exten­sively over the skies of Europe was the Republic P‑47 Thunder­bolt in 1943. Nick­named “the Jug” because of its profile to a milk bottle of the time, it was joined in the sky in 1944 by the North American P‑51 Mustang. Republic built 15,660 P‑47 Thunder­bolts. The fighter was heavily armed with eight .50 caliber machine guns, four per wing. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R‑2800 Double Wasp engine, it was very effective as a short-to-medium range escort fighter in high-alti­tude air-to-air combat. The P‑47s of the 56th Fighter Group had more air-to-air kills than any other fighter group in the Eighth Air Force, and recorded the second-highest number of air-to-air kills of any USAAF fighter group. The 56th also claimed 311 enemy fighters destroyed on the ground.

Right: “The Bottisham Four,” a famous photo showing four U.S. Army Air Forces North American P‑51 Mustang fighters from the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, from RAF Bottis­ham, Cambridge­shire, in flight on July 26, 1944. North American built more than 15,000 of these P‑51s. Powered by a Packard V‑1650‑7 liquid-cooled super­charged V‑12, 1,490‑hp engine (a license-built version of the British Rolls-Royce Merlin 66 engine), the P‑51 was armed with six .50 caliber machine guns, bombs, and rockets. Con­ceived orig­i­nally as a dive bomber, the P‑51 Mustang was perhaps the finest Amer­ican fighter plane of World War II. With an external drop tank attached to its belly, it became a long-range fighter escort. The Royal Air Force also flew squa­drons of P‑51 long-range fighters, which along with their iconic Super­marine Spit­fires provided escort for Eighth Air Force bomber forma­tions over Europe. As many as 1,000 fighters accompanied up­wards of 2,000 four-engine bombers on a single mission to multiple targets in the last year of the war.

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