A Diversion from Strategy and an Experiment in Bombardment


During the final six months of 1944, Eighth Air Force devoted most of its resources to crippling German resistance to the Allied advance across western Europe. Public outcry, however, forced the diversion of some heavy bombers on missions to end the lethal barrage of German V-I "buzz bombs" and V-2 rockets raining on Great Britain and Allied- occupied Europe. During this period, the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces also participated in a shuttle bombing experiment involving the use of bases in the Soviet Union.

Operation Crossbow

In the predawn hours of June 13, 1944, a jet-propelled German missile, designated the V-I, left a launching pad in the Pas de Calais area of France and sputtered across the English Channel, landing near the center of London. Within twenty-four hours, the Germans launched almost 300 of these flying buzz bombs against the United Kingdom. The Allies react- ed, under the operational name of Crossbow, by attacking the launching sites with fighter-bombers. Later, in addition to using fighter patrols, radar-controlled antiaircraft guns, and barrage balloons, the British re- quested the use of heavy bombers to destroy the launch sites. Spaatz objected to the diversion of his heavy bombers away from the strategic mission, but in response to British losses Eisenhower ordered Spaatz to attack the launch sites.

In September 1944, the problem worsened because the Germans began launching the V-2, a rocket-powered ballistic missile that flew at almost 4,000 miles per hour and descended without a warning noise. The Allies responded by bombing not only the launching sites but also the support installations. Regrettably, these bombing attacks were largely ineffective and the German "vengeance" weapons were not neutralized until the Allied ground armies overran the launch sites. The raids cost the lives of more than 700 Allied airmen and destroyed at least 154 aircraft. 

Shuttle Bombing

The idea of shuttle bombing, aircraft taking off from a base in one country, bombing a target, and flying on to a base in a second country-appealed to U.S. airmen as early as 1942. They theorized that if the United States acquired bases in the Soviet Union, then the AAF could attack Germany from different directions, have a choice of exit routes, and force the Germans to disperse their fighter defenses. After months of negotiations between Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the U. S .ambassador, Averill Harriman, Stalin authorized the led groups of B-17s and P-51s use of bases at Mirgorod, Piryatin, and in a shuttle mission between Poltava, located east of the Dnieper Italy and the Soviet base River and southeast of Kiev. at Poltava.

On June 2, 1944, Eaker, commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, led four groups of B-17 s and a reinforced group of P- 51 s from bases in Italy on a bombing mission to Debrecen, Hungary. After success- fully bombing the marshaling yards there, the Americans flew on and land- ed at Poltava. On June 6, flying from Poltava, the heavies struck an airfield at Galatz, Romania. Five days later, the Americans returned to Italy.

The Eighth Air Force flew its first shuttle mission out of England on June 21, 1944. A force of 114 B-17s, escorted by 70 P-51 s, bombed a synthetic oil plant south of Berlin and proceeded to the Soviet bases. Undetected by the Americans, a German aircraft followed them to Poltava, and the pilot reported the location to his superiors. Later that night, the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed the Poltava airfield. The Eighth Air Force lost 43 B-17s and 15 P-5Is. The enemy also set off U.S. ammunition dumps and ignited 450,000 gallons of gasoline. Elated by that success, the Germans returned the next night to bomb the other shuttle sites.

In the aftermath of the Poltava disaster, the Soviets refused to allow AAF night fighters to defend the bomber bases, insisting that air defense was their responsibility. Realizing that the Soviets could not adequately protect the heavy bombers from night raids, the Americans abandoned plans to permanently station three heavy bomber groups on Soviet airfields. To keep the project alive, the AAF next shuttled P-38 and P-51 fighters to the Soviet Union, but after balancing losses and battle damage against the value of the targets, U.S. military leaders at the Soviet bases discontinued the fighter-bomber operations. Although the heavy bombers flew a few more shuttle missions, logistical problems and growing Soviet intransigence forced the cancellation of shuttle bombing in late 1944.