True Warriors: The U.S. Eighth Air Force Was Really Number One

True Warriors: The U.S. Eighth Air Force Was Really Number One

The Eighth Air Force served in combat longer than any other U.S. Army unit in the European Theater.

Key Point: After more than two years of aerial bombardment of targets throughout Germany and Occupied Europe, the Eighth Air Force had come to symbolize heavy bombing.

When World War II in Europe came to an end, the Eighth Air Force was the most famous unit in the U.S. Army Air Forces and, until the massive Boeing B-29 Superfortress raids against Japan in the spring of 1945, it was the most powerful.

After more than two years of aerial bombardment of targets throughout Germany and Occupied Europe, the Eighth Air Force had come to symbolize heavy bombing. While the Eighth is known as the heavy bombardment outfit, it did not start out that way. When it was first established on January 2, 1942, the unit that became famous as the Eighth Air Force was actually designated as the Fifth Air Force. However, this number had already been reserved for an Air Corps unit in the Southwest Pacific, so the designation was subsequently changed to the Eighth.

Nor was the Eighth conceived to be solely dedicated to aerial bombardment; its original mission was tactical. It came into existence to serve as an air element to support Operation Gymnast, the planned invasion of Northwest Africa that was scheduled to take place later in the year.

On January 28, 1942, Eighth Air Force Headquarters was activated at Savannah Army Airfield, Ga., under the command of Colonel Asa N. Duncan. Over the next several weeks the Eighth underwent several changes. Gymnast was canceled due to the emergency situation in the Pacific, eliminating the need for the new unit as it had originally been conceived and leaving it without a mission. One Army plan called for the establishment of an Army Air Force in Great Britain. On March 31, Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz, commander of the Army Air Force Combat Command, proposed that the taskless Eighth Air Force be made available for duty in England and that he be chosen to command it. General Ira Eaker had already gone to England with an Army Air Forces advance party, and Spaatz decided that it would pave the way for his new command.

With the change in task, the size and makeup of the Eighth changed as well. Previously, Colonel Duncan had requested the assignment to England of three heavy bomber groups, two groups of medium bombers, and three fighter groups. The reorganization for the new mission increased the planned size to 23 heavy, three medium, and five light bomber groups, along with four groups of dive-bombers and 13 fighter groups. Two troop carrier groups would also be added. The dive-bomber groups would never materialize, and the light bombers would become part of a new organization when they finally arrived in England.

In April Duncan, who had been promoted to brigadier general, was made subordinate to Spaatz, and the headquarters was split into two echelons. Administrative functions remained in Savannah while operations moved to Bolling Field on the outskirts of Washington, DC, near Spaatz’s headquarters. General Spaatz took formal command on May 5, and preparations began to move the Eighth to England.

Shortly after Spaatz assumed command, an advance echelon left for England, where it joined Eaker’s organization, which had been redesignated as the Army Air Forces British Isles. Other Eighth headquarters personnel followed over the next few weeks. In mid-April Eaker took over a girls’ school at High Wycombe for his headquarters.

Eaker’s role was to prepare the way for the arrival of the Eighth Air Force staff, so in the interim his organization was redesignated as Detachment Headquarters, Eighth Air Force. Eaker’s staff worked diligently to develop a plan of action for the combat units when they arrived in England, with particular emphasis on bombardment. They borrowed heavily on the experiences of the British and closely followed the lines of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command in developing the organization. When Spaatz arrived in England, Eaker became commander of VIII Bomber Command and Brigadier General Frank O’D. Hunter was placed in command of VIII Fighter Command.

The movement of the combat units to England was delayed by the Battle of Midway when the 97th Bomb Group and some fighter groups were sent to the West Coast. When the battle concluded, the combat units began their move, with the 97th Bombardment Group and the 14th Fighter Group the first to go. The first Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses arrived in England on July 1, followed by Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters. Several fighter groups that had been equipped with Bell P-39 Airacobras left their airplanes behind and were equipped with Supermarine Spitfires when they arrived overseas. The Eagle Squadrons, three Royal Air Force fighter units made up of American volunteers flying Spitfires, transferred into the U.S. Army and joined VIII Fighter Command as the 4th Fighter Group later in the year.

Interestingly, the first Eighth Air Force unit to fly a combat mission wasn’t a B-17 outfit, nor had it been intended as a bombardment group. In May 1942, the 15th Bombardment Squadron deployed to England as an independent squadron to fly Douglas A-20 Bostons as night fighters. When they got there the squadron’s crews learned that the British weren’t using their DB-7 Bostons in that role, so they began training for light attack missions with RAF 226 Squadron.

By the end of June several crews were considered combat-ready, and Spaatz decided to put them into action. The first mission was set for the Fourth of July; six U.S. Army crews were assigned to fly six RAF Bostons on a low-level mission with six RAF crews against German airfields in Holland. The results were less than spectacular. Four crews failed to find the targets, two airplanes were shot down, and a third was badly damaged. An RAF Boston was also lost.

One of the American pilots, Captain Charles C. Kegelman, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for attacking a German flak tower with only one operating engine. The 15th Bomb Squadron soon received its own Bostons and for several weeks was the only Eighth Air Force bomber unit flying combat missions.

Spaatz Wired an Exaggerated Account to Washington That the Bombing “Far Exceeded” any Previous Bombing by British or German Planes in Accuracy.

After a weather cancellation on August 10, the 97th Bomb Group flew its first mission on August 17, 1942. Twelve B-17s attacked a railroad marshaling yard at Rouen, France, while six others made a diversionary sweep along the French coast. General Spaatz watched the bombers take off and General Eaker flew as a passenger in the lead airplane. Escorted by RAF Spitfires, the B-17s set out across the English Channel under generally clear skies. All 12 airplanes dropped their bombs, and about half fell in the general vicinity of the target. One of the aiming points was hit, while the second was missed by about half a mile.

Spaatz wired Washington that the bombing “far exceeded” any previous bombing by British or German planes in accuracy. He claimed that the results “justified” American faith in “daylight precision bombing” and optimistically asserted that the mission proved that “the bombers could get through.” His claims were a bit of an exaggeration—only three German fighters had actually attacked the formation, while several others observed from afar. Damage from antiaircraft fire had been “slight.”

The first fighter attacks came on August 21, when the bombers arrived over the coast of Holland without a fighter escort due to a communications foul-up. Even though a recall message was sent out, German fighters intercepted the bombers. Surprisingly, in spite of attacks by more than 40 Luftwaffe fighters, only one of the B-17s suffered serious damage and the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Donald Walter, who died of wounds, became the Eighth’s first heavy bomber combat casualty. The gunners claimed scores of German fighters, but the final number was determined to have been two shot down, five probables, and six damaged.

The 97th Bomb Group was alone in the daylight heavy bomber role until September 5, when the formation of 37 B-17s including 12 from the newly arrived 301st BG on Mission Number Nine joined in. Another group, the 92nd, made its first contribution to the bombing campaign the following day, when 14 group airplanes joined 27 from the 97th on a mission to Meaulte. Thirteen 301st BG Flying Fortresses attacked the airfield at St. Omer while an even dozen 15th Bomb Squadron Bostons attacked Abbeville. Two B-17s were shot down, the first Eighth Air Force heavy bombers lost in combat.

On October 2, 37 B-17s went back to Meaulte, this time encountering large numbers of German fighters, but all of the bombers made it home. The B-17 gunners put in so many claims that they had to be interrogated twice. The final results were listed as four destroyed, five probables, and one damaged. More than 400 escorting Allied fighters failed to keep enemy fighters away from the bombers.

On October 9, the Eighth Air Force flew its first truly large-scale mission to Lille. The mission consisted of 108 heavy bombers, including two dozen Consolidated B-24 Liberators from the 93rd Bombardment Group on their inaugural mission. The B-17-equipped 306th Bombardment Group was also on its first mission. German opposition was fierce, as it was their first real effort against the bombers. The Luftwaffe ignored the British and American fighters and went straight for the bombers, shooting down three B-17s and one B-24. Four B-17s suffered heavy damage, while another 32 B-17s and 10 B-24s received slight damage.