Bomber Battle: B-17 Flying Fortress vs. B-24 Liberator (Who Wins?)

An air-to-air left front view of a B-24 Liberator
June 26, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIB-17B-24BomberEuropean Theater

Bomber Battle: B-17 Flying Fortress vs. B-24 Liberator (Who Wins?)

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.

By December 1941, B-17s had been in service with U.S. Army bomber squadrons for more than four years. In September 1941, two squadrons of the 19th Bombardment Group were dispatched from Hamilton Field, Calif., to provide a heavy-bomber presence in the Philippines. Two months later the ground echelon of the 7th Bombardment Group set sail by ship to join the 19th. The first of the air element left California on December 6 and arrived in Hawaii in the midst of the Japanese attack.

Bombers Making Their Debut in the Philippines

Part of the 19th Bomb Group was destroyed at Clark Field on December 8, when Japanese bombers caught the planes on the ground in the midst of rearming for an attack on Formosa. Fortunately, part of the group had been moved south to a new airfield at Del Monte on Mindanao and would continue to fly from there for several weeks. Only a few Liberators were in the Far East serving as transports when the war broke out, and a few others would be sent to Australia in the opening weeks of the war.

It was in the Philippines and Java that U.S. heavy bombers made their combat debut. While the B-17s managed to hold their own in combat with the Japanese, design deficiencies, particularly in armament and armor, very quickly became apparent. In the confusion following the Japanese attack, the U.S. Army dispatched “Project X,” a complement of 80 heavy bombers, to reinforce Allied forces in Australia, with the goal of supporting the U.S. forces in the Philippines. Included in the 80 airplanes were 15 LB-30 bombers that had been repossessed from Britain, although only 12 actually reached Australia. The LB-30s did not fare very well in combat in Java (neither did the B-17s) in large measure due to the inexperience of the crews. Except for the 19th Bomb Group crews which were brought down to Darwin from Del Monte, few of the bomber pilots had more than a few hours of four-engine experience. Losses due to accident were as great as those from enemy action. As the numbers of LB-30s declined, the remainder joined the converted B-24As that were in the theater in transport duties, flying cargo to and evacuees from Java and Mindanao.

As combat-weary bomber crews began returning to the United States after the ill-fated Java campaign, they were called upon to give reports of their experiences. The returning pilots, most of whom had flown B-17s, reported that the B-17 had stood up better to Japanese fighters, though they evidently failed to take into consideration their own losses and the fact that several of the LB-30s were lost to ground attack and accident. The legend of the superiority of the Flying Fortress over the Liberator was born. Yet, ironically, within a year the vaunted B-17 would be on the way out of the war in the Pacific and the B-24 would be in.

The HALPRO Project

After the Java Campaign, B-17s remained as the only heavy bombers operating in what had become the Southwest Pacific Area of Operations, though a handful of LB-30s and B-24s served in the transport role. A few Liberators were involved in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, but it was in the Middle East that the Liberator returned to combat in the role for which it was intended, as a long-range bomber. The HALPRO Project, named for its commander, Colonel Harry Halvorsen, had originally been intended for duty in China, where the War Department had envisioned it as the nucleus of a heavy-bomber force equipped with B-24Ds that would begin a strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese homeland from bases in China. However, in the wake of the Doolittle Raid, Burma fell and a massive Japanese offensive in China led to the loss of the region from which the bombers were to operate. HALPRO was diverted to fly a single long-range mission against the oil-refinery complex at Ploesti, Romania, though plans still called for the squadron to continue on to China.

While the detachment was in the Middle East, the Germans went on the offensive in Africa, and the HALPRO force was ordered to remain in Palestine. Along with the HALPRO diversion, Tenth Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton was ordered to the Middle East from India with as many of his heavy bombers as he could muster. This was only a handful of battle-weary B-17s. The HALPRO squadron and Tenth Air Force B-17s went to Palestine where they were joined by more B-24s to make up the nucleus of what would become the Ninth Air Force Bomber Command.

Operating from Egypt and Palestine under the command of General Brereton, the B-24s of the HALPRO squadron and an advanced element of the 98th Bombardment Group began the American bombing effort against the German war machine. Attacks were aimed at the supply lines of the German Afrika Korps, particularly the ports and supply depots at Tobruk and Benghazi in Libya. The U.S. B-24s often operated in formation with RAF Liberator squadrons. As it turned out, the force mix of B-24s and B-17s was exactly reversed from that of the bomber forces in Java. By mid-October the American heavy bomber force in Palestine consisted of 53 B-24s and only 10 B-17s. The B-24s in Africa performed well as they went against German and Italian targets. Missions were flown at night and in daylight as the fledgling Ninth Air Force took advantage of the cloak of darkness on missions to the most heavily defended targets.

B-17s in Doolittle’s Twelfth

It was not until the late summer of 1942 that American heavy bombers began operations over Western Europe from bases in England. The first groups to arrive in England were B-17 groups, of which two would transfer to North Africa in the fall of 1942 to become the heavy bomber force of Jimmy Doolittle’s Twelfth Air Force. While U.S. Army Air Forces commanders in other theaters were not locked in to the daylight-bombing methodology, the leadership of the fledgling Eighth Air Force felt that it had a point to prove and all missions were planned for daylight operations.

The first B-17 missions were flown in September 1942 to Rouen, France. A little over a month later the pioneer Eighth Air Force B-17 groups were joined by the 93rd Bomb Group, the first U.S. Army B-24 group to see combat from English bases. The 93rd went on to rack up an impressive combat record, including the lowest loss rate of any of the heavy-bomber groups that entered combat with the Eighth Air Force in 1942. In fact, the loss rate per sortie for the 93rd Bomb Group was lower than that of all but three of the B-17 groups, two of which did not enter combat until mid-1944. The other did not enter combat until November 26, 1943, more than a year after the 93rd flew its first mission.

For several weeks the 93rd was the only B-24 group flying combat from English bases. But on November 7, 1942, the 44th Bomb Group, which was actually the oldest B-24 group in the Army, flew its first mission. After the 44th Bomb Group entered combat, it quickly achieved a reputation as a “hard luck” outfit, taking fairly heavy losses in comparison to the other groups, though they came about in ones and twos, and in one instance as the result of a midair collision. Shortly after the 44th entered combat, three squadrons of the veteran 93rd were sent south in support of the North African campaign while the fourth was placed on a special assignment. The departure of the 93rd left the 44th alone in the skies over Occupied Europe, and their smaller numbers led their peers in B-17s to take heavier note of their losses, just as had those who fought before them in Java, where the proportion of B-24s to B-17s was similar.

1943: Dark Days for Eighth Air Force B-17s

Flying Fortress crew members began saying that they didn’t need a fighter escort when the Liberators were along, because the German fighters would go after the smaller force of B-24s. Yet, in spite of the higher losses in the first few months of operations, the overall loss rate for the 44th Bomb Group was no higher than those of the B-17 groups. In fact, they were lower at 3.73 percent than nine of them and equal to two others, all but two of which entered combat after the 44th.

The summer and early fall of 1943 were dark days for the B-17s of the Eighth Air Force as they attempted deep-penetration raids into Germany without fighter escort. This is the period that is most often addressed by the TV documentaries and literature about the bombing campaign in Europe. The leadership of the Eighth was trying to prove that the prewar concept that the “bomber will always get through” was not ill-founded. The British, however, had decided to change tactics after early experiences against the Third Reich. Due to heavy losses, the RAF elected to discontinue daylight operations and turned entirely to night-bombing operations. British military aviation leaders suggested that the Americans do likewise, but the Eighth Air Force leadership insisted on continuing daylight operations.