Although Bomber Command had no use for the Fortress as a standard night bomber following the early war experiences with Fortress Mk. Is, the B-17G nevertheless was to play a vital role in the RAF’s night bombing offensive against Nazi Germany. This involved some Mk. IIIs being converted for Radio Counter Measures (RCM) work, later called Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), to fly with the RAF’s specialist 100 Group. Their role was to combat German defences, particularly radar, to protect the RAF’s Main Force of Lancaster and Halifax bombers. The Fortresses intended for this tasking were seconded to Scottish Aviation Ltd at Prestwick for conversion.
Most were fitted with a prominent radome under the forward fuselage for H2S radar equipment, replacing the standard Bendix chin turret of the B-17G. H2S was used as a ground mapping radar by the RAF as an aid to night area bombing, and was also fitted to Main Force Lancaster and Halifax bombers. There were many other alterations made to the Fortresses, including the installation of various jamming equipment. Indeed, it appears that no two aircraft were the same in their equipment fits. In addition, the RAF also received 14 specially converted B-17Fs directly from Eighth Air Force stocks for ECM work (additional to the aforementioned Mk. II/B-17F airframes), which are sometimes called Fortress Mk. IIIA (serials SR376-SR389). The Eighth Air Force was additionally involved in this form of clandestine and highly secret electronic warfare, and there was considerable collaboration between the RAF and USAAF on this tasking.
Two 100 Group squadrons flew the Fortress Mk. III on Electronic warfare operations. The first of these, 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron (code letters BU), was based at RAF Oulton from May 1944. Its Fortresses were joined by those of 223 Squadron (code 6G), a Consolidated Liberator unit at Oulton, late in the war; the latter unit flew its first RCM Fortress sorties in April 1945. The Fortress Mk. IIIs of these two squadrons flew in support of Main Force bomber operations with RCM, as well as `Window’ (chaff-dropping), support. A Fortress training unit, 1969 Flight, was also stationed at Oulton.
Involvement in the clandestine RCM war was no guarantee of safety for the Fortresses, however, and several were shot down by German defences. A particularly costly occasion was the night of March 14-15, 1945. Bomber Command’s targets that night included oil facilities in the Lützkendorf area, as part of the significant oil/gasoline bombing campaign. 214 Squadron provided jamming support, but its aircraft appear to have become detached from the Main Force bombers, allowing Luftwaffe night fighters the opportunity to make several successful attacks. It was also costly for 214 Squadron itself and two of its Fortress Mk. IIIs, HB802 and HB799 (one published source claims HB779). Both were attacked by aircraft of NJG 6, the two Fortresses probably successfully fired upon by the radio/radar operator of the Junkers Ju 88G-6 night fighter coded 2Z+MF of Hauptmann Martin Becker, Kommandeur of IV./NJG 6. Crew members of HB802 baled out before the Fortress crashed, but the pilot of HB799 managed to bring his crippled Fortress in for a crash-landing at Bassingbourn after the remaining nine crew members bailed out over German-held territory.
The conclusion of World War Two in Europe was the end of the road for many of 100 Group’s special Fortresses, and a number were put out to pasture at 51 Maintenance Unit, RAF Lichfield (Fradley). Most of the RAF’s Fortresses (except for the Mk. I examples) were supplied under Lend-Lease arrangements with the Americans, who did not require their return, so many were simply scrapped. However, some examples did soldier on into the early post-war era and the commencement of the Cold War. The need for ECM work did not stop with the end of World War Two, and several Fortress Mk. IIIs served with the Radio Warfare Establishment at RAF Watton in the months following the end of the war.
U.S. Navy and Coast Guard
During the last year of World War II and shortly thereafter, the United States Navy (USN) acquired 48 ex-USAAF B-17s for patrol and air-sea rescue work. The first two ex-USAAF B-17s, a B-17F (later modified to B-17G standard) and a B-17G were obtained by the Navy for various development programs. At first, these aircraft operated under their original USAAF designations, but on 31 July 1945 they were assigned the naval aircraft designation PB-1, a designation which had originally been used in 1925 for the Boeing Model 50 experimental flying boat.
Thirty-two B-17Gs were used by the Navy under the designation PB-1W, the suffix -W indicating an airborne early warning role. A large radome for an S-band AN/APS-20 search radar was fitted underneath the fuselage and additional internal fuel tanks were added for longer range, with the provision for additional underwing fuel tanks. Originally, the B-17 was also chosen because of its heavy defensive armament, but this was later removed. These aircraft were painted dark blue, the standard Navy paint scheme which had been adopted in late 1944. PB-1Ws continued in USN service until 1955, gradually being phased out in favor of the Lockheed WV-2 (known in the USAF as the EC-121, a designation adopted by the USN in 1962), a military version of the Lockheed 1049 Constellation commercial airliner.
In July 1945, 16 B-17s were transferred to the Coast Guard via the Navy; these aircraft were initially assigned U.S. Navy Bureau Numbers (BuNo), but were delivered to the Coast Guard designated as PB-1Gs beginning in July 1946. Coast Guard PB-1Gs were stationed at a number of bases in the U.S. and Newfoundland, with five at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, two at CGAS San Francisco, two at NAS Argentia, Newfoundland, one at CGAS Kodiak, Alaska, and one in Washington state. They were used primarily in the “Dumbo” air-sea rescue role, but were also used for iceberg patrol duties and for photo mapping. The Coast Guard PB-1Gs served throughout the 1950s, the last example not being withdrawn from service until 14 October 1959.
B-17s were used by the CIA front companies Civil Air Transport, Air America and Intermountain Aviation for special missions. These included B-17G 44-85531, registered as N809Z. These aircraft were primarily used for agent drop missions over the People’s Republic of China, flying from Taiwan, with Taiwanese crews. Four B-17s were shot down in these operations.
In 1957 the surviving B-17s had been stripped of all weapons and painted black. One of these Taiwan-based B-17s was flown to Clark Air Base in the Philippines in mid-September, assigned for covert missions into Tibet.
On 28 May 1962, N809Z, piloted by Connie Seigrist and Douglas Price, flew Major James Smith, USAF and Lieutenant Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR to the abandoned Soviet arctic ice station NP 8, as Operation Coldfeet. Smith and LeSchack parachuted from the B-17 and searched the station for several days. On 1 June, Seigrist and Price returned and picked up Smith and LeSchack using a Fulton Skyhook system installed on the B-17. N809Z was used to perform a Skyhook pick up in the James Bond movie Thunderball in 1965. This aircraft, now restored to its original B-17G configuration, is on display in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.