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B-17 in Combat

The venerable B-17 is one of the most recognized airplanes in aviation history. The plane was made famous through its reputation as a tough and dependable aircraft, as well as its portrayal in movies made during and about World War II.

When World War II erupted in Europe during September 1939, the Air Corps was nowhere near ready for combat. Procurement of the B-17 — the vital cog in the airmen’s view of airpower — was deliberately suppressed by the Army hierarchy, with significant ill effects. By Pearl Harbor, two years later, there were still only 200. It would not be until 1944 that the Fortresses were available in sufficient numbers to make a decisive impact in the bombing campaign against Germany. Besides the B-17, the Consolidated B-24, which first flew in December 1939, would comprise the backbone of the bomber force until 1944.

In the early days of World War II, the USAAF was fighting not just to survive the dangerous and lethal skies over Europe, but to validate its air power doctrine that unescorted, precision daylight bombing could be decisive. Contrary to the British philosophy of saturation bombing of the German cities, USAAF leaders believed precision attacks against selected industrial targets would be the best use of the bomber. According to the USAAF Committee of Operations Analysts, "It is better to cause a high degree of destruction in a few essential industries ... than to cause a small degree in many."

The first time the B-17 saw combat was at the hands of the RAF in early 1941. These early B-17 missions were completed with anything but sterling results. Despite neutrality at the time, the supply of war equipment to Britain was under the lend-lease agreementand the availability of the B-17 was both appealing and requested by the RAF. With the Lend-Lease agreement came the understanding that the RAF would use the B-17, as it was intended, as a high altitude day-light precision bomber. The USAAF would have preferred not to have the RAF test its concept of high altitude bombing with the B-17, but with war on everybody’s mind, many factions in the US administration were anxious to bring the US aircraft industry into the spotlight. Consequently, no sooner had the first Fortresses arrived than pressure was placed on the RAF Bomber Command to commit the aircraft to battle action.

By the end of the third week in May 1941, 14 of the 20 Fortresses had reached Britain and five of these had been modified and delivered to the RAF’s No.90 Squadron. Both the US and British governments were eager to see the new Fortresses in action. Averell Harriman, the US Ambassador, explained to the British that the question of usingthe B-17 operationally had become a political question of some importance. The B-17 was now ushered into combat.

Contrails formed behind the aircraft at certain unpredictable levels in the upper atmosphere. These contrails immediately gave away the position and direction of a bomber to any hostile interceptor and the Fortress had to either climb higher or descend to avoid the contrail level. The inability to avoid the trail was the reason for the failure of a prestigious raid on Berlin by three Fortresses on July 23, 1941.

Overall, during combat the bomber formations suffered significant losses and put into question the daylight precision bombing concept for the RAF. On ensuing missions, various mechanical and environmental difficulties continued and bombs were usually dropped wide of the assigned aiming points. Through all this the RAF crews also noted, with extreme emphasis, that the Fortress did not have adequate armor to protect the crew.

On Oct. 14 1943, 8th Air Force launched what became one of the most infamous battles of World War II. By the end of the day, the attack that came to be known as "Black Thursday," Mission 115 to Schweinfurt, saw the loss of more than six hundred Airmen who were killed or captured, the loss of 60 B-17s, and the future of the American daylight bomber offensive in doubt. Such extraordinarily high losses of Airmen and aircraft during the second Schweinfurt mission ultimately gave pause to the United States Army Air Force's decade old doctrine that believed unescorted bombers could attack strategic targets and make it home safely.

Realizing they could not sustain such heavy losses, the USAAF leadership put the bombing campaign on hold to review its strategy. As a result of this reevaluation, USAAF leadership placed a higher emphasis on long-range fighter escorts. They worked with the Pentagon to alter aircraft production priorities and put the production of fighters ahead of bombers. Within a few months, 8th Air Force restarted the daylight bombing campaign. This time the bombers had "little buddies" along for the whole mission and could bomb their targets much more effectively with much fewer losses.

By the end of World War II, the Flying Fortresses had dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs on Nazi Germany, accounting for nearly half the total tonnage dropped. The B-17 was loved by crews for its superior survivability and has achieved an almost mythic status among aviation enthusiasts.

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Page last modified: 10-08-2018 02:01:08 ZULU