Certainly the most celebrated B-17, the Memphis Belle, B-17F-10-BO 41- 24485, fought through 25 grueling missions over Europe. Hollywood director William Wyler documented one of the plane’s last missions in a color film that, together with the crew’s subsequent cross-country war bond tour, made Memphis Belle a household name. Today, the fabled aircraft resides at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.
They say it gets darkest before it becomes light, and that’s a good way to describe World War II for the Allies in 1942. Pearl Harbor had been attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into the conflict. Stunned by the attack, Americans began mobilizing for war. On Jan. 28, 1942, the Eighth Air Force was formed at Savannah, Georgia.
While mobilization was gaining momentum, the Axis were expanding their territory. In North Africa, the Germans and Italians forced the British out of Benghazi (January 21). On February 15, the Japanese captured Singapore, and two months afterward on April 9, the U.S. and Filipino armies on the Bataan Peninsula surrendered. Forces on Corregidor held out until May 6 when they, too, surrendered. It looked like the Axis were unstoppable. The outlook for the Allies was indeed dark.
But one victory led to another for the Allies, beginning with the May 4–8 Battle of the Coral Sea when the American aircraft carriers USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Lexington (CV-2) faced off in the first naval battle in which surface ships never fired at each other. All of the action took place between ship-launched American and Japanese aircraft. Although many consider the action a draw, the Battle of the Coral Sea put an end to Japanese plans for an invasion of Australia. The United States lost the carrier Lexington, the destroyer USS Sims (DD-409), and the oiler USS Neosho (AO-23), and the Japanese saw the light carrier Shoho, one transport, two destroyers, and a light cruiser sent to the bottom during the engagement. This battle was followed one month later on June 4 with the American victory over the Japanese during the Battle of Midway. The Japanese lost four aircraft carriers (Akagi , Hiryu, Kaga, and Soryu) and the cruiser Mikuma, while the United States lost only the USS Yorktown and the destroyer USS Hammann (DD-412).
On July 2, the first B-17 arrived in England, flown across the Atlantic Ocean under Operation Bolero. In this first stage of the American buildup of air groups, 119 B-17s (92nd, 97th, and 301st Bomb Groups), 164 P-38s (1st and 14th Fighter Groups), and 103 C-47s (60th and 64th Troop Carrier Groups) were flown across the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands more would follow. On August 17, 12 B-17s of the 97th Bomb Group, led by Gen. Ira C. Eaker in B-17E 41-9023 Yankee Doodle, attacked the railroad marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, France. By October 9, the Eighth Air Force was able to muster more than 100 heavy bombers for a raid on the industrial areas of Lille, France. The first P-47 Thunderbolts arrived in England on Christmas Eve 1942, ready to escort bombers across the channel and into Nazi-occupied territory.
The first Eighth Air Force raid inside Germany took place on Jan. 27, 1943, when fifty-five B-17s attacked the naval base at Wilhelmshaven. A combination of sixty-four B-17s and twenty-seven B-24s were launched on the raid, but the B-24s were unable to find the target because of weather, and only fifty-five of the B-17s were able to drop in the target area, with two of the B-17s dropping on Emden. Two Liberators and one Flying Fortress were lost on the raid.
On May 14, 1943, the Allies had driven Axis forces out of North Africa with the surrender of the Afrika Korps in Tunisia the day before. Also on May 14, the Eighth Air Force sent 198 bombers to attack the port city of Kiel. Three days later, the crew of the Memphis Belle were credited as having finished their combat tour of twenty-five missions. Simultaneously, on the night of May 16–17, British Bomber Command Lancasters from 617 Squadron carried out Operation Chastise, breaching Germany’s Möhne and Eder dams and flooding parts of the heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley.
In June, the 100th, 381st, and 384th Bomb Groups, all equipped with B-17s, joined the Eighth Air Force, flying their first mission on June 22. While three B-17 groups stood up, three groups of B-24s (44th Bomb Group, 93rd Bomb Group, and 389th Bomb Group) were sent to North Africa for the August 1 attack on the oil fields at Ploesti, Romania. The three bomb groups would return to England and the Eighth Air Force on Sept. 8, 1943.
August 1943 saw the Luftwaffe take a heavy toll on Eighth Air Force aircraft. On August 17, 315 bombers flew across Germany to attack the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt (230 B-17s from the 1st Combat Wing) and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 factory at Regensburg (4th Combat Wing). Losses amounted to 36 aircraft for the 1st Combat Wing and 24 for the 4th Combat Wing: a total of 60 bombers and more than 600 men on a single mission. The 1st and 4th Combat Wings also flew the Eighth Air Force’s first mission against V-weapon targets when 224 bombers were dispatched to hit Watten, France. More than 360 general-purpose 2,000-pound bombs were dropped on the site with a loss of 4 B-17s.
In September 1943, the first of many thousands of P-51 Mustangs arrived to escort Eighth Air Force bombers on missions. Later that month, the first blind bombing mission for the Eighth was flown on September 27, when 308 B-17s were dispatched to attack the port city of Emden. Two H2S radar-equipped pathfinder Flying Fortresses led the way, with 246 planes dropping their bombs on target.
The Eighth Air Force returned to attack the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt on October 14, losing sixty bombers in the process. Known as the “Second Battle of Schweinfurt,” the raids on the area’s ball bearing factories reduced output by 66 percent of prewar production levels and forced the Germans to distribute production sites. The following day, the Eighth’s first P-38 fighter group, the 55th Fighter Group, achieved operational status.
Three major raids in November saw the Eighth Air Force attack Wilhelmshaven and the heavy-water production plants and airfields in Norway. The raid on Wilhelmshaven on November 3 marked the Eighth’s first raid of more than five hundred bombers dispatched to attack the U-boat facilities in this port town. It was also the first time the Eighth’s Pathfinder Force used H2X radar to bomb a target.
In the final month of 1943, the Eighth Air Force’s strength grew, culminating in the December 13 attack on the port cities of Bremen, Hamburg, and Kiel. And on Christmas Eve, 670 bombers were dispatched to attack 23 V-weapons sites along the English Channel.
By the end of 1943, enough men and aircraft had arrived at Eighth Air Force bases to demonstrate that the principles of sustained strategic bombardment could be used to cripple the warfight capabilities of an antagonist nation.
I n 1942 and 1943, as the Army Air Forces took the fight deeper and deeper into Axis territory, German Bf 109s and Fw 190s were extracting a heavy price in men and aircraft on every raid. The Army Air Forces needed a fighter that could escort bombers to and from the target.
At this point in the war, the only Army Air Force fighters escorting the bombers were P-38 Lightnings and P-47 Thunderbolts. Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfires had been flying escort for the American daylight bombers while the American force was assembled, trained, and shipped to the United Kingdom; however, Spitfires had an extremely short range and were not suitable for escorting bombers to targets deep in Germany.
When the Thunderbolts joined the fray in May 1943, they were capable of escorting the bomber formations to most coastal targets in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and back—about 175 miles from base to target and return. In July 1943, Thunderbolts received 75-gallon drop tanks, which extended their escort radius to 230 miles. It was not until February 1944, when two 150-gallon wing tanks were added, that the P-47’s escort range was extended to 475 miles, enabling them to escort bomber formations as deep as the synthetic oil factories at Magdeburg, Germany. When not having to shepherd the bombers, P-47s could fly greater distances on fighter sweeps and were able to destroy a large number of aircraft as well as targets on the ground. North American P-51 Mustangs began flying escort duties beginning in January 1944. In March 1944, P-51s were equipped with two 108-gallon wing tanks, enabling them to escort bombers on 850-mile missions.
While the single-engine bomber escort was being sorted out in 1942–43, the Army Air Forces decided to experiment with upgunned B-17s and B-24s. The idea was to remove the bomb load, increase the number of guns and the amount of ammunition carried, and add additional armor plate. To the Germans, the bomber escorts would look like regular Flying Fortresses and Liberators, but as the Fw 190s and Bf 109s got closer, they’d be in for a surprise. The bomber escort B-17s and B-24s would, in theory, be flown at the front, sides, and rear of the formation, in the most vulnerable positions. These bombers could increase the firepower of the formation and reduce the effectiveness of the enemy’s fighters.
The first of the modified bomber escorts was Boeing–built Flying Fortress B-17F 41-24341. It was modified by Lockheed Aircraft at Burbank, California, with two power-operated twin 0.50-cal. waist gun mounts manufactured by United Shoe Machinery Corp., a twin 0.50-cal. machine-gun Bendix chin turret, and a Martin 250CE (two 0.50-cal. machine guns, cylindrical, electric) top turret added in the radio room to supplement the bomber’s existing Sperry top turret. Dubbed the XB-40, for a standard mission it was to carry eleven thousand rounds of ammunition with the capability to carry an additional six thousand-round overload if needed.
The XB-40 underwent tactical trials at the Army Air Forces Proving Ground Command, Eglin Army Air Field, Florida. In the final report, dated Dec. 5, 1942, the Proving Ground Command recommended the bomber for further development with the proviso that the waist positions be staggered and that additional armor plate be provided to protect the crew during frontal attacks. Flight testing showed that the fully loaded XB-40 cruised at the same speed as a fully loaded B-17F, although the XB-40’s rate of climb was 10 percent less. If the ball turret was retracted, the XB-40 was 4 miles per hour faster in cruise.
The recommendations from the Proving Ground Command led to a prototype program, designated the YB-40, with twenty Vega–built B-17Fs transferred to Douglas Aircraft’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, facility for modification. An additional four B-17s were converted to TB-40 trainer configuration. After modification, thirteen YB-40s departed the United States between May 8 and 18, 1943, for operations with the 92nd Bomb Group at Alconbury, England. Following local familiarization flights and more training, the YB-40s flew their first combat mission on May 29, 1943, to bomb the submarine base at Saint-Nazaire, France. Bombers on that mission dropped 277 bombs, each weighing 2,000 pounds, and covered 1,000 miles during six hours of flying time. Of the eight YB-40s dispatched, one aborted the mission because of mechanical failure, and only four were able to return to Alconbury; the remaining three ran short of fuel and landed at alternate fields. After this mission, a number of deficiencies in the YB-40’s armament were discovered, including the need to re-rig the ammunition feed chutes and to change the location of the ammunition feed booster motors and connections to make the guns more reliable. After these changes were incorporated, the YB-40s flew thirteen more missions.
Only one YB-40 was lost during combat trials with the 92nd Bomb Group. On the June 22 mission to bomb the synthetic rubber plants at Huls, Germany, YB-40 42-5737 Wango Wango was hit by antiaircraft, starting fires in the number one and four engines. The bomber lagged behind the formation and was finished off by Fw 190s near the Dutch border. Five of the crew bailed out shortly after the engine fires started, and the other men parachuted to safety before the plane went down. All ten crewmembers were taken prisoner.
After flying combat missions, it was determined that the heavily armed YB-40s were only 10 percent more effective than standard B-17s at combating enemy fighters, and that once the B-17 formation dropped its bombs and became lighter, the heavier YB-40s lagged behind. From the YB-40 program, the Bendix chin turret was recommended for installation on all future Flying Fortresses.
The last of the fourteen YB-40 missions was flown on July 28, 1943, to Kassel, Germany; the program was subsequently terminated and the bombers sent stateside. (Three YB-40s, including 42-5736 Tampa Tornado and 42-5741 Guardian Angel, were transferred to the 91st Bomb Group, and 42-5739 Lufkin Ruffian saw service with the 303rd, 379th, and the 384th Bomb Groups.)
While the XB-40 and YB-40 program was underway, a San Diego–built Consolidated B-24D Liberator, 41-11822, was converted to XB-41 bomber escort configuration. The modification included the addition of a Bendix chin turret, Motor Products tail turret, additional Martin upper turret, and power-operated United Shoe Machinery Corp. M5 waist gun mounts. The bomber had the capacity to carry fifteen thousand rounds of 0.50-cal. ammunition.
Once tested at the Proving Ground Command at Eglin Field, it was determined that the XB-41 was 15 miles per hour slower than a B-24D, had a greatly decreased rate of climb, a service ceiling of only 22,000 feet, and would not fly above 25,000 feet with the new ammunition load. Flying in formation with other B-24s, the XB-41 required 4 to 5 more inches of manifold pressure and an additional 150 propeller rpms to maintain position. The increased power settings consumed fuel at a greater rate, thus limiting the XB-41’s range. In addition, the XB-41’s center of gravity was dangerously aft—more than 37 percent of the mean aerodynamic chord—with anything greater than 35 percent considered extremely dangerous; this impacted the bomber’s flying characteristics and placed high negative loads on the tail surfaces. After concluding the tests, the Proving Ground Command recommended that development of the XB-41 be canceled.
With both the YB-40 and the XB-41 canceled, bomber crews would have to wait until the P-51 Mustang arrived in large numbers for long-range escorts capable of flying deep into the heart of Germany.