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.

On August 17, the Eighth Bomber Command mounted a massive effort with a split force of B-17s going against Regensburg and Schweinfurt. The 147 airplanes of the Regensburg force were to go on to North Africa. When they got there, 24 bombers were missing, 17 of which had been shot down. Of the 230 bombers that went to Schweinfurt, 36 failed to return—a total of 60 B-17s had been lost in one day. Previously, the highest single-day loss had been 26 airplanes—all B-17s—lost on June 26. The terrible losses of August 17 were repeated on October 14 when a 360-plane force of B-17s went back to Schweinfurt and 60 failed to return. Sixty B-24s were supposed to have gone to the target, but bad weather in their assembly area caused a mission scrub, though a small force from two groups went on to Germany to create a diversion for the B-17s. Losses in such numbers would be repeated among Eighth Air Force B-17 formations a couple of times in early 1944, though never to such a large extent among the B-24s that flew alongside them.

Throughout the summer of 1943, Eighth Air Force B-17 crews found themselves alone in the skies on the long—and treacherous—missions over Germany. In early June the two B-24 groups that made up the entire Liberator strength of the Eighth at the time were taken off operations. Rumors abounded, and many B-17 crew members who had bought the line that their airplanes were superior probably believed the B-24s were gone because they couldn’t “hack the mission.” They were probably ignorant of the fact that their own type had been withdrawn from combat duty in the Pacific because of its shorter range capability in comparison to the longer legged B-24s. It was that very factor that had led the chief planners at Army Air Forces Headquarters in Washington, DC, to conclude that the B-24 was the only type that could possibly fly what was to be the most dangerous and ambitious heavy-bomber mission of World War II.

During the first week of June 1943, the 389th Bomb Group arrived in England to bolster the two groups already there. Three weeks later, after several low-flying training missions over England, the three groups pulled up stakes for North Africa, leaving most of their ground echelons behind. They joined the two B-24 groups of the Ninth Air Force Bomber Command on a series of missions against targets along the Mediterranean, including Naples, Rome, and the German aircraft factories at Weiner-Neustadt in Austria.

However, the real reason the B-24s had gone to Africa was to attack the Ploesti, Romania, oil refineries in a daring low-level attack that put the crews in range of every weapon available to the German defenders, from 88mm antiaircraft guns to machine pistols, not to mention German and Romanian fighter aircraft. The August 1, 1943, mission to Ploesti cost the Eighth Air Force groups 30 B-24s out of 103 on the 171-plane mission, a loss rate just shy of 30 percent and considerably higher than the loss rates suffered by the B-17s on the Regensburg and Schweinfurt missions. Twenty-five other Liberators were lost from the two Ninth Air Force groups on the mission known as “Tidal Wave.”

Disparity in Publicity

No less than 51 Eighth Air Force B-24s were lost during the three months the three groups were in Africa, a loss of almost half of the airplanes in the groups. Ironically, the 44th sustained twice as many losses as the seemingly charmed 93rd. In proportion to their smaller numbers, the B-24 groups of the Eighth sustained even higher casualties during that summer and “Fall of Fortresses” than did their peers in the B-17 groups. The skies were extremely hazardous for both types, and the B-24s were getting their share of punishment from enemy fighters and flak.

What the B-24 groups were not getting was publicity. While the world knew all about the great air battles over Germany being fought by the B-17s, very little about the B-24s was making its way into newsprint.

Along with thousands of words telling how the brave boys in B-17s were going up against the Germans, pictures of battle-damaged airplanes began showing up in Stars & Stripes and U.S. newspapers that illustrated the “ruggedness” of the Flying Fortresses. Looking closely at these pictures, which have been republished in numerous books about the B-17 and the Eighth Air Force, one who is familiar with airplanes and aerodynamics sees that much of the damage is confined to structural areas of the airplane that are not necessary for flight. Many B-17 battle-damage pictures show holes in—and even sections gone from—the vertical stabilizer, otherwise known as the “tail,” an airfoil, the sole purpose of which is to keep the nose of the airplane tracking straight; however, there are pictures of B-24s maintaining formation with one of their twin vertical stabilizers shot completely away—and one famous Liberator suffered the loss of both when it was struck by a British Lancaster bomber, yet it returned to the United States for a War Bond Tour. The huge stabilizer of the B-17 presented a target for rounds that would miss the smaller tail of a B-24.

Wing Design—Which Model Has the Edge?

There is only one part of an airplane—any airplane—that is absolutely necessary for flight and that is the wing. This is one area in which the B-17 possessed something of an advantage over the B-24. The aerodynamics of the Flying Fortress stemmed from designs of the late 1920s and early 1930s, featuring a wide chord, the width of the wing from leading to trailing edge, and shorter span. The British slang “kite” is appropriate for the B-17, because the huge wing provided tremendous lift that did make for a stable bombing platform and, at least in the minds of B-17 fans, provided increased lift that was valuable in the event of a power loss on an engine. The B-24, on the other hand, incorporated a brand-new wing design that was on the very cutting edge of aviation technology in 1937. The long, narrow Davis Wing was what is known as a “high aspect ratio” wing, meaning that the span is proportionally much greater than the chord, a feature that provides significantly reduced drag and increased performance on heavier airplanes—which is why the B-24 was considerably faster than the B-17.

The strength of an airplane wing is in the spar, the piece of wood or metal around which the wing is constructed of ribs and stringers, then covered by a metal or fabric skin. If the spar on the wing of the B-24 was hit by flak or an explosive cannon round, it was likely to fail, sending the airplane into a spin toward the ground. However, if the spar on a B-17 was hit, the results were the same. As with the huge vertical stabilizer, the wider wing of the B-17 often resulted in hits in noncritical areas that missed the spar and would have passed harmlessly in space behind the slimmer wing of the B-24.

Part of the B-17 myth is its “rugged construction.” However, in the aviation world, “rugged” and “weight” are practically synonymous, and the fact is that the Liberator was considerably heavier than the B-17 in all models. The empty weight of an airplane is the sum of the weight of the components used in its construction—including the ribs, spars, stringers, and longerons that form the wings, the vertical and horizontal stabilizers, and the fuselage. If the B-17G was so much more “rugged” than the B-24J, why did it weigh 20 percent less standing empty? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that there was more dead space in the huge airfoils of the B-17 where hits could do little damage. The larger wings and vertical stabilizer of the B-17 could take hits that did only superficial damage because they missed crucial components that would cause structural failure if they were damaged.

Engine Power On Equal Measure

One area in which the B-17 and all models of the B-24 were completely equal was in the power of their engines. Both the Flying Fortress and the Liberator were equipped with engines that were flat-rated at 1,200 shaft horsepower each at takeoff—for a total of 4,800 hp on an airplane with all engines running. Yet, in spite of the heavier airframe of the B-24, it was considerably faster than comparable models of the B-17 and carried a similar payload over longer distances and a considerably larger one on shorter legs. By the end of the war, the Army had increased the gross weight of the B-17G to the point that it could carry a bomb load almost as great as that carried by the B-24J, but at a sacrifice in airspeed that made the Fortress more than 50 miles per hour slower at normal cruise speed. The one area in which the B-17 had better performance, at least in theory, was that the airplane’s lighter weight allowed it to operate at higher altitudes. This was only true with light payloads and reduced fuel, though.