On August 17, 1942, the 97th Bomb Group began the opening attack of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ (USAAF) strategic bombing campaign against Germany. The mission was a strike by 12 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses against the railroad marshaling yards at Rouen, 40 miles into France from the English Channel.
The 12 bombers were escorted by four squadrons of Supermarine Spitfire fighters of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The first plane off the ground was flown by Major Paul Tibbets, who three years later would pilot the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay on its historic mission against Hiroshima. Sitting across from Tibbets was Colonel Frank Armstrong, the 97th commander. Armstrong was to serve as the model for Colonel Frank Savage, the lead character played by Gregory Peck in the famous World War II film Twelve O’Clock High!
On hand for the launch of the mission was Maj. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the commander of the USAAF Eighth Air Force, the primary organizational element that would carry the air war to Germany. Riding along in one of the strike aircraft was Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker, commander of the Eighth Bomber Command, the bomber component of the Eighth Air Force bomber and fighter forces. Eaker had spent most of his career as a fighter pilot not as a bomber disciple. However, he was convinced that daylight strategic bombing could inflict catastrophic damage on the fighting capability and military production capacity of an enemy.
This first raid was moderately successful, if pitifully small. About half the bombs fell within the target area; some rolling stock was destroyed, about one third of the track lines were damaged, and there were no bomber losses. After the raid Spaatz wrote to General Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, ”It is my opinion and conviction that the B-17 is suitable as to speed, armament, armor, and bomb load.” Eaker was more questioning. He wrote, “It is too early in our experiments in actual operations to say that it can definitely make deep penetrations without fighter escort and without excessive losses.” These were prophetic words.
The buildup of the aircraft and trained crews in southern England for Eighth had been slow. There were fewer than 100 B-17s in England at the time of this August 1942 mission. Far less than 100 aircraft were mission capable. Under increasing pressure from top U.S. political and military leaders to take the war to Germany, to do something with all the men and machines allocated to it, it was inevitable that Eighth Air Force missions would start as soon as possible.
The Failure of Unescorted Daylight Precision Bombing Raids
The form of warfare embodied in this first mission was the air strategy that Arnold, Spaatz, and Eaker had helped develop—unescorted daylight precision bombing of enemy industrial and military targets. In writing to Arnold before this first mission, Eaker said, “The theory that daylight bombardment is feasible is about to be tested when men’s lives are put at stake.”
And tested it would be. As missions were pushed beyond the range of protecting British and American fighters, German fighters and air defense artillery destroyed American bombers at a great rate. By August 1943, a year after that initial raid, five times as many American bombers and airmen would be lost in attacks on two German industrial centers as had flown on that first mission. In the August 1943 dual raid on Regensburg and Schweinfurt, Colonel Curtis LeMay led 146 bombers against Regensburg while Brig. Gen. Robert Williams led 230 bombers against Schweinfurt. The bombers were escorted for parts of the missions by U.S. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, but because of their limited range they could only go as far the western German border.
The German defenders had great advantages. The Luftwaffe fighter force was up in strength and could fly multiple sorties from its nearby bases. Twenty-four bombers of the 146 dispatched, carrying 240 crew members, were lost from the Regensburg force. From the 230 dispatched to Schweinfurt, 36 failed to return to bases in England. Combined, the two forces lost 60 of 376 bombers for a loss rate of 16 percent. But this number only told part of the story. In fact, an additional 20 percent of the attacking bombers were permanently lost to operations as a result of battle damage. In all, the raids cost the Eighth Air Force 40 percent of the bomber force dispatched from England.
Mission results were spotty. At Regensburg the aircraft plant was put completely out of action, but only briefly. At Schweinfurt, ball bearing production dropped by 38 percent, but it quickly recovered. These combined missions demonstrated clearly that for the Eighth Air Force the cost was too high. Both the aircrews and the senior leadership saw that such loss rates could not be sustained over the long haul.
Why were loss rates so high? Some historians have argued that the losses experienced on raids like Regensburg-Schweinfurt demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that the concept of unescorted daylight precision bombing was a failed strategy. Could Army Air Forces’ planners and leaders not have foreseen that German fighters would inflict unacceptable and unsustainable losses to the bombers unless they were escorted by protecting fighters? Why wasn’t an effective escort fighter available before late 1943? Were Army Air Forces leaders blinded to the flaws in the bombing strategy they had developed?
A close look at the historical facts demonstrates that it was not ignorance, hubris, or a misplaced commitment to their own thinking that led them to conclude that in 1942 and through the fall of 1943 the concept of unescorted daylight precision bombing was sound. Rather, it was a cold logic based on what was known and knowable at the time. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to understand the context of the times in which the planners and leaders worked.
The U.S. concept of strategic bombardment derived from the theories of airpower thinkers like Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, who saw what even the primitive airpower of World War I could do. The resulting concepts were developed and refined at the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field in Alabama from 1926 until the beginning of the war in Europe. Although the ACTS taught these concepts to many airpower advocates, its doctrine lacked formal War Department approval. Accordingly, the spread of the doctrine was initially limited. The ACTS strategic bombing doctrine included the following components:
• The national objective of war is to break the enemy’s will to resist and force the enemy to submit to our will.
• The accomplishment of this goal requires offensive warfare.
• The special mission of air is the attack on the entire enemy national structure to dislocate its military, political, economic, and social activities.
• The disruption of the enemy’s industrial network is the real target because such a disruption might produce a collapse sufficient to induce surrender.
In 1935, the Army Air Corps took action to acquire a weapon system, although in small numbers, that enabled it to carry out its strategy—the four engine B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber. Its design was based on the technology then available, and it was initially sold as a weapon for coastal defense against naval threats. Fast for its time and well armed by contemporary standards, the B-17 was designed to fly in large numbers in a self-protecting formation for mutual defensive gunfire. Unaware of the British development of radar in 1935 as a means of detecting and tracking aircraft, the ACTS theorists believed, based on World War I and interwar experience, that bomber formations would reach their targets undetected or could fend off their attackers. They further expected to encounter the enemy only over the target, where the enemy would concentrate defenses rather than having to conduct a long-running battle to and from the objective.
Seeing the Need for a USAAF Escort Fighter
The state of prewar fighter and air defense technology supported these views. When strategic bombing theory was being developed at the ACTS, the leading edge fighter aircraft of the time had an externally braced single wing, a fixed landing gear, an open cockpit, short range, and light armament. These fighters could hardly keep up with a high-flying B-17 bomber in speed and took a long time to get to a bomber’s altitude. In fact, early versions of the Hawker Hurricane, the RAF’s first mono-winged fighter, were not fielded even in small numbers until mid-1938. To think in the early 1930s that the United States or any nation could within a few years develop a short-range, 380 mile-per-hour pursuit fighter with a closed cockpit, retractable landing gear, a cantilever wing, and internally mounted machine guns or cannons would have been extraordinary. But, that is exactly what happened.
Designing a rugged, fast, lightweight, highly maneuverable, and well-armed interceptor such as the Hurricane, the Spitfire, or the Messerschmitt Me-109 was one thing. Developing an effective long-range escort fighter was another matter. From 1935 to 1940, the design of an escort fighter that could fly fast enough to protect the bomber stream, had sufficient range to reach the target and return, and yet had good enough performance to fight successfully against enemy interceptors was judged by leading aeronautical engineers as not technically feasible. The extra fuel requirements alone seemed to make the escort heavier than the enemy’s interceptors, negatively impacting performance.