Key Point: Each side has airtight arguments for why its bomber was better.
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One of the most frequently discussed arguments to come out of World War II is which was the “better” bomber, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress or the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The argument began in bars and service clubs, where crew members from the two types met while off duty during the war, and has continued ever since.
This is particularly true of veterans who flew in England where B-17s predominated within the Eighth Air Force, and where large numbers of war correspondents reported on the air war over Germany as it was being fought by the crews of the Flying Fortresses in the summer of 1943. It was among the Eighth Air Force B-17 and B-24 crews that the arguments were strongest, and it is among those veterans that they have continued, as a general public consensus has developed that the B-17 was the best bomber ever built.
Since the war, the argument that the B-17 was the better bomber of the two has often been perpetuated by aviation authors and historians whose personal knowledge of airplanes and aviation in general consists only of what they have read or been told. Few writers have ever used statistics or aircraft performance to prove their point, but have relied primarily on what they have learned from advocates who are on one side or the other of the argument. Many B-17 aficionados rely on emotion to attempt to strengthen their position. They point to photographs of B-17s that returned to base with large holes put there by flak or fighters. Former B-17 crew members who survived a combat tour stress that because the Old Fort brought them home, it has to be the best. Similarly, B-24 vets say the same thing about their airplane. Children and grandchildren of B-17 veterans point to comments made by former Stars & Stripes reporter and modern TV personality Andy Rooney, to the effect that if he had to go into combat, he would have preferred to be in a B-17. Rooney has never really said why he believes this. He flew a couple of missions in B-17s and another in a B-26, but never flew a mission in a B-24, though he did spend some time with the 44th Bomb Group. The combat records of both aircraft do exist, and they indicate that the views put forth by B-17 advocates may indeed fall well within the category of wishful thinking.
Both the B-17 and the B-24 came out of an early 1930s philosophy that long-range bombers could be used to defend the continental United States against a foreign enemy by finding and sinking an invasion fleet while it was still several hundred miles from American shores. This was the argument put forth by those who supported Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell and was a widely held view among the officers of the Army Air Corps, though future events would later prove it to have been unfounded.
The original intent of the Army Air Corps was to develop a land-based, long-range heavy bomber that would have relegated the B-17 to the category of a medium bomber. Senior Air Corps strategists wanted a long-range bomber with a 5,000-mile range, a concept that led to the design and development of the B-15 and then to the even more ambitious B-19. However, both types were underpowered and the Army realized that the power plants then available were not adequate to power the type of airplane they really wanted.
Project A: the “Multi-Engine” Bomber
As a compromise, the Army elected to put forth a proposal for a less ambitious project and set forth the design requirements that eventually led to both the B-17 and B-24, as well as the more powerful Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The ultimate goal was finally achieved with the advent of the long-range B-36, though that airplane did not enter service until several years after the war.
The proposal—known as Project A—specified only that the airplane would be a “multi-engine” bomber. With the exception of Boeing, all of the competing manufacturers assumed the Army was looking for a twin-engine airplane and designed their entries accordingly. Boeing, however, elected to increase power with two additional engines and thus came up with a design that would increase both range and payload beyond those then possible with two engines. The Boeing prototype first flew in 1935, and deliveries were begun in early 1937. The performance of the new B-17 allowed a combat radius of no more than a thousand miles, however, and the Army began considering other alternatives to extend the striking range of its heavy-bomber fleet. A proposed 1,500-mile combat radius would lead to the development of the B-29 and the B-32 which followed, but it also caused the Army to take a closer look at a new design put forth by Ruben Fleet’s company, Consolidated Aircraft.
In January 1939, prompted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Army Air Corps Commander General Henry “Hap” Arnold published a requirement for a four-engine bomber with a 3,000-mile range, a top airspeed in excess of 300 miles per hour, and a service ceiling of 35,000 feet. Drawing upon experience from other designs and their own background with long-range flying boats, Consolidated had a prototype of a 1937 design flying by the end of the year. Recognizing the possibilities afforded by the new design, the Army contracted for seven YB-24 prototypes for test purposes and 36 B-24As for operational use before the first airplane even flew.
Changing the Role of the B24A
By the time the new airplane entered production, war had broken out in Europe and the United States had begun supplying airplanes and other military hardware to the British and French. France was lacking in long-range bombing capabilities, and the United States agreed to provide a number of the new bombers, which had been given the nickname “Liberator,” allegedly by Winston Churchill.
The fall of France led to the cancellation of deliveries of all airplanes destined for France, and the Liberators, which had been designated as LB-30s, were diverted for British use. Because of their longer range, General George Brett recommended, in the fall of 1941, that several B-24s be redirected to British forces in North Africa from those scheduled to go to England. As the war intensified, the U.S. Army elected to change the role of the B-24A, and most were converted to long-range transports while a few were equipped with cameras for reconnaissance. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caught one of the converted Liberators on the ground at Hickam Field on December 7, 1941.
Prior to America’s entry into the war, both the Flying Fortress and the new Liberator were tested in combat by the Royal Air Force. In the spring of 1941, the U.S. Army sent 20 B-17Cs to England for use by the RAF to test their combat capabilities. Although the RAF crewmen praised the Flying Fortress for its ability to take hits from enemy fire, the test turned out to be a dismal failure for the much-publicized bomber. Mechanical problems plagued the Boeing bombers, and their daylight high-altitude bombing accuracy turned out to be much less than advertised. The test came to a dubious end after three of the 20 airplanes were lost to enemy action, five were destroyed in accidents, and the rest were grounded due to mechanical failure. In 39 sorties, only 18 Flying Fortresses managed to actually bomb a target. Only two bombs were believed to have actually hit the targets they were aimed at—and not a single German fighter had fallen to the Fortresses’ guns.
After the B-17s proved ineffective in British hands, the Army Air Corps sought to determine why. Initially, the British were impressed with the Fort’s ability to withstand gunfire, but that early confidence quickly faded as the desired results were not achieved. U.S. military leaders blamed the failure on the British having elected to use the airplane to bomb from very high altitudes, which led to unforeseen problems: frozen guns, frosted-over windshields, and oxygen failure. At high altitude the airplane lacked the speed and firepower to deal with enemy attack. Ironically, the RAF chose to operate the airplane under exactly the same conditions that many U.S. Army Air Corps officers were claiming was possible with the B-17, even though the U.S. training curriculum called for operations at considerably lower altitudes.
The RAF’s Preferences
The British were also given B-24s to try out, and while the results from the U.S. viewpoint were less than hoped for, the RAF did prefer the Liberator over the Fortress because of its heavier payload capabilities. The main problems with the tests of the Liberator were that necessary modifications for the kind of war being fought in Europe took longer than expected, while the British preferred to use the high-capacity Liberators in the transport role. The report of the RAF crews who flew both the American-designed Flying Fortress and Liberator was that they might be suitable for a war in the Pacific where missions would be flown over open expanses of ocean, but they were too poorly armed for daylight operations into Germany. They reported that the planes might be useful as night bombers.