Birth of the Combined Bomber Offensive


In January 1943, Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston S. Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff met at Casablanca, French Morocco, to assess progress and define the war strategy for 1943 and be- yond. Of the many decisions they made there, one of the most important was to carry on a combined bomber offensive against Germany and occupied Europe. Affirming the assignment of daylight raids to the Americans and night raids to the British, the conferees encouraged the AAF and RAF forces to conduct around-the-clock bombing.

Although the combined bomber offensive did not begin until June 10, 1943, the U.S. forces were not idle. Between January and June, Eighth Air Force bombers extended their efforts into Germany proper, bombing U-boat facilities, testing the quality of the German opposition, and adjusting tactics and techniques.

During this period the Eighth Air Force faced a major problem-a shortage of combat aircraft. Not until March could the Eighth consistently put more than lOO bombers into the air. Finally, at the end of May, the United States dispatched a record force of279 bombers against enemy targets. Also, until the beginning of April, the 4th Fighter Group, flying P-47s, was the only U.S. fighter outfit available to escort the bomber formations. In April, two more P-47 groups became operational and began escorting bombers on a regular basis.

By June, the Eighth Air Force had gradually increased its strength. Realizing the futility of bombing submarine pens, the Americans turned their attention to the Luftwaffe and the Axis rail transportation system. AAF heavy bombers attacked the Erla aircraft and engine works at Antwerp and the Focke-Wulf factory at Bremen. They also bombed rail marshaling yards at Hamm, Rennes, and Rouen.

The German reaction to the U.S. attacks varied. Early in 1943, enemy fighter strength dropped because of urgent demands from the eastern and Mediterranean fronts. But by midyear, in response to Eighth Air Force missions into northwestern Germany, the Luftwaffe increased the number of fighters on the western front from 350 to almost 600.

Both sides experimented with tactics. The United States had developed the combat wing formation, which consisted of three combat boxes of eighteen to twenty-one aircraft each. Although the Eighth Air Force experienced problems with this formation, it was able by April to fly a fifty- four-plane formation in such away that any German fighter approaching from the front would meet a wall of machine gun fire. This formation was strong but not invulnerable. It was unwieldy and difficult to maintain. The upper and lower squadrons were still the most exposed, and enemy fighters concentrated on them. Thus the experimentation continued.

The Germans also were innovative and infinitely versatile in developing tactics for coordinated fighter attacks against U.S. bomber formations. They tried twin-engine fighters in the hope that the heavier firepower would be more effective. They used parachute mines and, by May, routine- ly dropped bombs on U.S. bomber formations. These last two tactics, although frightening, failed to destroy many aircraft or stop the bomber formations. The Germans increased the effectiveness of some of their fighters by adding to their armament and armor. They left the Me 109 roughly equivalent to the U.S. P-47 and they added armament to the FW 190 to make it more effective against the Allies' heavy bombers.

As the Luftwaffe fighter defense became more dangerous, most U.S. air power leaders acknowledged the need for a long-range fighter escort. VIII Bomber Command, however, clung to the belief that the self -defending bomber needed no escort. Nevertheless, in June, Arnold gave Maj. Gen. Barney Giles, the chief of the Air Staff, six months to develop a fighter that could protect the bombers all the way from the United Kingdom to Germany and back. Meanwhile, the bombers continued to fly missions, and the losses mounted.

Early in August, the Eighth Air Force finalized plans for its largest mission to date. The targets were the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft plants at Regensburg. By attacking these two critical industrial sites, the United States hoped to slow or even stop German aircraft production and thus help to achieve air superiority. The plan called for two waves of heavy bombers spaced a few minutes apart. The first wave would bomb Regensburg and fly on to North Africa, misleading the German fighter pilots who would expect the Americans to return to England. The second wave would attack Schweinfurt while the German fighters were on the ground refueling, thus achieving surprise and lowering U.S. losses.

On August 17, the Eighth Air Force launched more than 300 bombers in two waves. The first wave took off on schedule, but fog delayed the second wave's takeoff, destroying any chance for surprise. After the short-range Allied fighter escort turned back, the Luftwaffe rose to meet both waves of U.S. bombers, and a tremendous air battle ensued. For more than six hours, the German fighters slashed at the American bombers with machine guns, cannons, mortar rockets, and even bombs. Attacking en masse, they hit the bomber formations head-on. As the German fighters exhausted their fuel and ammunition, they landed and a fresh unit from the next base took off.

The U.S. losses were devastating. The Germans shot down 60 bombers and damaged approximately 130 others. A navigator in the second wave, wondering why so many haystacks were burning below, discovered that they were B-17s shot down by the enemy. Despite these losses, the Americans did a good job. At Regensburg, they covered the entire area with high explosives and incendiary bombs, damaging almost every important structure in the plant and destroying many finished single-engine fighters on the flight line. Schweinfurt suffered eighty high-explosive hits on the two main ball-bearing plants. As a result, their production decreased from 140 tons in July to a low of 50 tons in September. Perhaps even more important, the raid prodded the Germans to disperse the ball-bearing and aircraft industries, thus reducing their potential aircraft production by 50 percent. However, the cost to the Eighth Air Force was so great that the mission could only be considered a Pyrrhic victory.

For the next few weeks, the Eighth Air Force resumed the easier task of bombing airfields and aircraft factories in France, Belgium, and Holland. With fighter escort, the loss rate for the bombers dropped to barely 4 percent.

Then, on September 6, the Eighth Air Force raided Stuttgart, another target beyond fighter escort. Forty-five bombers and aircrews were lost. The next day, the Eighth dispatched 185 bombers, under heavy escort, to attack aircraft facilities in Belgium and Holland and the rocket site at Watten in France. Perhaps because of the excellent fighter escort, there was not a single loss.

As the weather cleared over Europe in early October, the American bombers returned in force. Within seven days, they flew four major missions against targets deep in Germany-Bremen, Anklam/Marienburg, Münster, and finally, on October 14, Schweinfurt. Once again at Schweinfurt the Eighth Air Force took a pounding. As soon as the P-47 escorts turned back, the Luftwaffe struck. Wave after wave of fighters attacked. First, the single-engine fighters flew in, firing machine guns and cannons. They were followed closely by large formations of twin-engine fighters, firing numerous rockets from projectors carried under the wings. The Germans attacked one formation at a time; firing from approximately 1,000 yards, the enemy lobbed rockets to break up the formation and finished off the stragglers and cripples with gunfire. The AAF bombers did a commendable job in hitting the targets, but suffered the loss of sixty B-17s and damage to another 138. These casualties were almost identical to those of the first Schweinfurt raid. The Americans faced a major crisis: in seven days they had lost 148 bombers, far above the 10 percent of the force that AAF leaders considered prohibitive to operations. The Allied air forces could not achieve air superiority until sufficient long-range escort became available.

As 1943 drew to a close, the buildup of heavy bombers and fighters continued in Britain. From mid year to the end of December, the total number of combat aircraft leaped from 1,260 to 4,242. Training programs had fallen behind schedule and difficulties were encountered with the buildup of service units, but the increased flow of men and aircraft showed U.S. determination to meet the heavy commitments for 1944. The fighter escort force showed definite improvement. The P-38 was proving its mettle, and wing tanks extended the range of the P-4 7. Most important, P-51s, designed primarily for long-range fighter escort, were arriving in significant numbers. The AAF appeared ready to take on the Luftwaffe for control of the skies over Europe.

With the experience of 1943 behind him, Arnold decided to reorganize the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Having secured Eisenhower's approval, Arnold established the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) in Europe, comprising the Eighth Air Force in Britain and the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean. Finally, Arnold made major changes in the commanders, transferring Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker from the Eighth Air Force to command the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, Maj. Gen. James H. Doolittle from the Fifteenth Air Force to command the new Eighth Air Force, and Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz from the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces to command the USSTAF.

Rested, replenished, and reorganized when 1944 began, the AAF prepared to renew its challenge to the Luftwaffe. Arnold ordered his air commanders to "Destroy the enemy air force wherever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories." Wresting the skies from the Luftwaffe would ensure the success of both the strategic bombardment campaign and the Allied invasion of northwest Europe that was planned for June.