In early 1942, the U.S. Eighth Air Force arrived in England firmly entrenched in the belief that continuous and accurate daylight precision bombing was the only way to decisively crush German industrial capacity. U.S. Army Air Forces commanders recognized that these daylight operations were high-risk affairs but were confident that large formations of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, equipped with the remarkably accurate Norden bombsight, would reap more rewards than the nighttime area bombing strategy adopted by the British.
As the American daylight campaign gained momentum, the Luftwaffe reorganized and deployed well over 600 fighters in depth along the routes regularly traveled by the bomber streams. Luftwaffe pilots, having studied the B-17s, began to engage the bombers from head on rather than persevere with rear attacks against which the Fortresses had impressive armaments. It was a radical departure from the conventional tactics of the time, but it worked.
The Sheer Folly of Daylight Bombing Raids
The belief that B-17s flying in tight, self-defending combat box formations could survive without fighter protection was quickly shown to be sheer folly. With bomber groups disintegrating at an alarming rate in the face of determined fighter attacks, even devoted advocates recognized that daylight bombing was at the crossroads.
In response to this growing Luftwaffe menace, the Combined Chiefs of Staff initiated a directive code-named Pointblank, which made the destruction of the German fighter arm a top priority. In conjunction with its British allies, the Eighth Air Force was to now focus its efforts on undermining Luftwaffe fighter strength in the air by targeting its production and supporting industries on the ground. Despite the ongoing problem of inadequate fighter protection, an intense short-term offensive dubbed Blitz Week was launched.
Massive formations of B-17s were committed to a five-day period of daylight missions against high-priority industrial targets inside Germany. Expectations had been high, but on each successive mission fewer aircraft were coming back. When the raids finally concluded, a staggering 87 bombers had been shot down and nearly 50 others badly damaged or written off. The sacrifices of Blitz Week had made little impression on German fighter capacity, but the crippling losses had shaken the Eighth Air Force to the core and pushed the aircrews to breaking point.
With the future of daylight operations now in serious doubt, American bomber commanders were desperate to deliver something bigger, something more dramatic to shore up wavering support in London and Washington. Refusing to take a backward step, the Eighth Air Force planning staff laid the groundwork for the largest, most daring raid yet contemplated by the USAAF in Europe. In an incredibly ambitious undertaking, the 4th Bombardment Wing would attack the major Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensburg followed minutes later by an even larger raid by the 1st Bombardment Wing against the ball bearing facilities in the picturesque town of Schweinfurt.
Plans Made for a Simultaneous Attack on Two Targets
Intricate planning aimed at coordinating the timing of the two formations to ensure the raids occurred simultaneously. With so much at stake, little was being left to chance. The toughest opposition was expected between the coast and approximately halfway to their respective targets. From this point on, little fighter opposition was anticipated. In truth, no one really knew what the bombers would confront in the heart of the Reich. No one had been there in daylight.
To minimize the exposure to fighters, the Regensburg force would not return the way it came as the Germans would expect, but instead fly on to bases in North Africa. These planes were expected to take the brunt of the German fighter defenses on the journey in, allowing the Schweinfurt groups following close behind to slip through while the fighters were on the ground refueling. Their hardest fighting would be during the journey home. It was hoped that each bombardment wing would have to face the full might of the Luftwaffe only once.
The risks involved with these concurrent raids were enormous, but comments by Major Lewis P. Lyle probably encapsulated the views of most senior officers within the Eight Air Force at that time. He noted, “It was obvious we had problems [and] that we might have to give up daylight bombing. We just had to pull off a big one. It was going to be a put-up or shut-up job [and] Germany was the place it had to be done.”
The final draft of what was to be the first real test of the deep penetration daylight theory was completed by August 2, 1943, and reluctantly approved at Eighth Air Force headquarters by its commander, Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker. While the soft-spoken Texan recognized the immeasurable importance of the targets, he bitterly opposed the raids, believing his battered forces were not yet ready for a two-pronged operation of such magnitude. The powers in Washington, however, were impatient to step up the strategic bombing campaign and made it clear to General Eaker that the mission would proceed as soon as weather conditions were suitable.
A Break in the Weather Sets the Plan in Motion
Days of heavy clouds and fog over the targets frustrated American plans, but finally, on August 16, meteorologists reported a weather window of opportunity for the following day. Without hesitation, the wheels were set in motion. Airfields came alive during the afternoon and evening as industrious ground crews loaded bombs, filled fuel tanks, and ran up engines at the dispersals. The crews had known for days that something big was in the wind, and the sudden activity around their aircraft was a sure sign that they would be going the following morning—but where?
On August 17, most of those scheduled to fly the two missions were awakened at 2 am for breakfast before heading to their respective briefings. An officer with the 100th Bomb Group recalled that inside the briefing tent “everybody had been chatting away and horsing about a little as usual, but when they pulled the curtain back and revealed that route with the line going out so deep into Germany … there was dead silence for a moment…. We all knew there were going to be a few of us [not] coming back.”
When the destination was announced to the enlisted men, an NCO from the 384th Bomb Group remembered, “A moan went up. Some men stood, cursed, and expressed their bitter dissatisfaction—too deep, so many miles without fighter protection! It was sheer fear that gripped us.”
In some cases, the outburst of rage was so extreme that it took over five minutes to settle the men down. The Regensburg crews, despite their misgivings, recognized that a Messerschmitt plant manufacturing over 300 Me-109 fighters per month was a worthwhile target. Those bound for Schweinfurt, however, took a great deal of convincing that ball bearing factories, although vital to practically all of Germany’s fighting machines, warranted such a dangerous mission.
The details of supporting diversionary raids came as cold comfort to the crews. Their gnawing anxiety arose from the heavy concentration of German fighters they were certain to encounter. They were expected to fly deeper into Germany than anyone had ever gone before in broad daylight and, with the mental scars of Blitz Week still raw, many were convinced they would never make it back.
An Immediate Breakdown in Flight Coordination
With final preparations completed, the mission should have begun at 5:45 am, but most of the airfields were socked in by thick, unbroken cloud cover leading to a 90-minute delay.
Faced with the almost immediate breakdown in the flight coordination, the air force commanders agonized over what they should do. The aircraft of Colonel Curtis LeMay’s 4th Wing would need every hour of daylight and every gallon of fuel to reach North Africa by nightfall. Waiting was not an option. Finally, the 4th Wing, in spite of the fog and clouds, was ordered into the air. LeMay had rigorously trained his pilots in instrument takeoffs. They didn’t like them, but it paid off when at 6:21 am the B-17s began climbing away into the dismal gloom, 90 minutes behind schedule.
The success of the operation hinged on the two missions entering Germany simultaneously to disperse the German fighter strength and confuse the fighter controllers. With fog persisting over the inland airfields, the bombers destined for Schweinfurt would be delayed indefinitely. It was now likely that they would be fighting major air battles on their way in and out.
In a further disruption, the time gap between the two forces was insufficient for the escort fighters to land and refuel. In a hastily revised schedule, the aircraft allocated to this duty were divided between the bombing wings. It was a decision that not only diluted their effectiveness, but also denied both forces the full benefits of the available fighter protection.
In war, when a plan begins to sour it is often at the beginning, and so it would be again. Hundreds of vapor trails were etched across the now clear blue sky as the formations of the 4th Bombardment Wing crossed the Belgian coast near Antwerp. With a fighter escort of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts taking them two-thirds of the way, the bombers had 425 hostile miles of flying ahead of them before reaching Regensburg.