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.

Converted to Transport Use

Another use of the Liberator that proved extremely valuable to the war effort was as a long-range transport. Stripped of guns, armor, and other equipment, the transport version of the B-24 could carry a 10,000-pound payload up to 1,000 miles, or 6,000 pounds over 3,300 miles. Most of the original B-24s delivered to the Army Air Corps were converted into transports, as were about half the LB-30s that were repossessed from the British. In 1942, Ford Motor Company began converting B-24Ds into the C-87 transport on the assembly lines at the Willow Run Plant in Michigan for a burgeoning military airline that was soon operating the converted Liberators throughout the world. In early 1943, a squadron of C-87s was sent to India’s Assam Valley for operations across the Himalayan Hump into China. The Liberator also played the major role in the antisubmarine Battle of the Atlantic, becoming a weapon greatly feared by German U-boat crews.

While the Liberator proved to be an extremely versatile airplane, the Flying Fortress was also used for other roles, though in much more limited fashion than its sister bomber. In the Pacific, both B-17s and B-24s were converted for transport use after they were replaced in combat units. The Fifth Air Force converted a B-17 into an executive transport for General MacArthur’s personal use. The Eighth Air Force used B-17s as weather-reconnaissance aircraft, while their most prolific noncombat role was as lifeboat-carrying search and rescue (SAR) aircraft with the Air Transport Command. It was as an SAR airplane that several B-17s survived the war, while all but a handful of B-24s were scrapped.

In the final analysis, there is no real way to determine if either the B-24 or the B-17 was truly superior. But, the record of the two types indicates that, of the two, the Liberator design was more versatile and considerably more advanced than that of the Flying Fortress. The combat records of both types contradict the assertions that aircrews flying B-17s were “safer” than those in B-24s. The argument as to which was the best can never be settled. As long as there are still two surviving heavy-bomber veterans, one from each type, the B-17 veteran will believe his airplane was best, while the B-24 vet will know better.

This article by Sam McGowan originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: An air-to-air left front view of a B-24 Liberator "Diamond Lil" aircraft flying in an air show held during the Air Force Association's "Gathering of Eagles," Las Vegas, Nevada. 27 April 1986. U.S. Air Force/Mike Haggerty.