Do Numbers Matter? The B-17 and Preparing for World War II


2013-04-28 By Robbin Laird

The great thing about history is we know the outcome.  Or I could put that more correctly, we think we know the outcome and we can debate how we got there or we can debate what it means, or whether history is prologue.

With regard to the B-17, we know that by the end of the war built many.

According to Boeing:

Boeing plants built a total of 6,981 B-17s in various models, and another 5,745 were built under a nationwide collaborative effort by Douglas and Lockheed (Vega).

In part, so many were built because many were destroyed in combat. 

The destruction was due to enemy fire, operational challenges (such as fratricide) and the absence of effective fighter support for a long period into the conflict.

But the numbers prior to the war were less than modest.  And here there is clearly a lesson to be learned.

If you don’t have enough of an aircraft, several consequences follow.

  • One will not understand what that aircraft is capable of doing;
  • One will not shape the con-ops for the aircraft, and the pilots will not be able to demonstrate to combatant commanders what the plane can do;
  • And without a con-ops shaping effort, one will not learn what else one needs to work most effectively with the airplane.

In effect, the B-17 was an experimental aircraft going into the war. 

The aircraft was procured in small numbers and was surpassed in numbers by a significantly inferior aircraft, the B-18.

It should not be forgotten that warriors are not stupid, when they see a superior product and they are flying in an inferior one, they are clearly aware of it.

MacArthur and his family and his staff left the Philippines for Australia aboard a B-17

For example, after Pearl Harbor, the B-18 was pressed into service as a major asset in Hawaii “We were told that there were three B-18s flyable and we would take off and find the Jap fleet.  I was scared.  I thought of my slim chances of coming out of this flight alive should we run into some Jap fighters.  Hell! They’d blow us right out of the sky in the these very vulnerable B-18s.” [ref] Comment from then Private Schaeffer as quoted in Gene Eric Salecker, Fortress Against the Sun (Combined Publishing, 2001), p. 54. [/ref]

By building so few bombers, the bomber advocates versus the fighter advocates ended up making a strategic error of the first order. 

The bomber advocates argued for a bomber – the B-17 – which could be heavily fortified and manned by many guns – and by flying in formations could defeat enemy bombers.  This may have made sense in the abstract but led to a major success story for the Luftwaffe when this theory met reality.

Indeed, one could argue that this con-ops failure was a major cause of the death of some many airmen from the 8th Air Force.  The enemy is always a problem, but not deploying your asset correctly should not be the real cause of wholesale destruction.

Eventually, the P-51 showed up and the package of P-51s and the B-17 proved a very lethal mix for the Germans.

The Pacific theater provides another example of what NOT having a plane in numbers can lead to. 

As the Japanese prepared to attack Pearl Harbor, U.S. Army leaders knew that the Philippines was a high threat target for the Japanese.

As a result, virtually the entire B-17 force was deployed to the Philippines to protect it and to be available for its defense.

Arnold and Marshall sent the B-17 to the Philippines for the long-range defense of the US forces in the Philippines.

To bolster the air arm in the Philippines, in July, 1941 Major General Henry ‘Hap’ H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, proposed reinforcing the Philippine Army Air Corps by sending four heavy bombardment groups and 2 pursuit squadrons to the Philippines. General George C. Marshall, United States Army Chief of Staff, echoed this concern when on 1 December he stated, “We must get every B-17 to the Philippines as soon as possible.”

However, by the time hostilities broke out in December 1941, only 107 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and 35 B-17 bombers were in place in the Philippines. [ref] [/ref]

What was missing as well was any real knowledge of how to use the B-17.

In the absence of relevant training and exercises the B-17s ended up being useless in the defense of the Philippines.  Chief of Staff of the Army Marshall claimed that if Japan attacked, the U.S. would use its bombers to bomb Japan.  In November 1941, General Marshall stated that he was confident that the B-17s in the Philippines could easily fend of any Japanese attack and set “the paper cities of Japan” ablaze.

Nice idea but no exercises had trained the Army Air Corps to prepare for such an eventuality.

Meanwhile, Major General Brereton, the newly designated Air Commander of the Philippine Air Forces had a different view. With only one airfield he believed the B-17s were extremely vulnerable to elimination by attack from the air. Which of course turned out to be the case.

Amazingly, in spite of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the B-17s were caught on the ground a day later and in a 45 minute attack Clark Field was ruble.

Then we come to General MacArthur who was a real problem. He seemed little or no understanding of what to use his 35 B-17s for operationally.

MacArthur as Army Chief of Staff clearly considered the Army Air Corps as an extension of the ground forces and as a fairly limited coastal defense force. He was at the forefront of resisting the formation of an independent air arm and forcefully underscored that aviation could not independently influence the outcome of war.

His incorrect views created an operational reality.

When his chance came to use the B-17s to strike Japanese airpower on Formosa, with the Zeros on the ground for a long time in Formosa of several hours of fog, he failed to do so.

The one mission which the B-17s could have done, namely to bomb the Japanese aircraft on the ground in Formosa, was not done.

Would MacArthur have changed his views if there were enough B-17s in the fleet to demonstrate the “theory” of strategic bombing or of having an “independent effect”?  We will never know.

But he did use the plane to leave for Australia.

But we do know that the aircraft was procured as an experiment and was considered by many to be just that and not an essential element of the American warfighting capabilities.

In other words, it is nice to have some F-22s, F-35s and B-2s but you better get enough of them out there for Combatant Commanders to understand what to do with them and to reshape the con-ops of their forces.  And to then to buy enough of them to shape in real life the effects which these systems can have.

And would be useful to determine what else you might want to have based on operational experience rather than deciding on the basis of PowerPoint briefing slides and word tank debates.

Photo Credit:

For a Special Report which draws together the B-17 pieces see the following: