Remembering the B-17: Does Washington Ever Change?


2013-04-15 Robbin Laird

My family and I will be participating in an event honoring the B-17 crews this summer in France.

In preparing for the event and my presentation on the B-17, I have had the chance to read through many books, and diaries of participants or analysts of the B-17, in the Pacific and in Europe.

The crew we are honoring were forced down in France during a July 4, 1943 bombing raid on France. 

What I have been working on is recovering the sense of what 1943 felt like for a bomber crew flying that year.

We know the end of the war, and something of its history.  The men flying the plane on that day in 1943 knew neither.

(For a brochure announcing the event see the following: B17 Returns to France).

The Role of the B-17

In effect, the B-17 was the American response to the U-Boat assault on the Atlantic bridge.  While the U-boats attacked the American resupply of the allies in the United Kingdom, the Flying Fortress took the fight deep into Nazi Germany and also attacked Nazi forces in occupied Europe.

1943 was a tough year for the Flying Fortress.  Formations of bombers operated deep in Nazi territory without fighter escorts.  Until the P-51 “Mustang” showed up later in the war, brave bomber crews operating in daylight worked in formations to fight off the Luftwaffe on the way to bombing runs and on the way back.

The bombing of Nazi forces and the support structures throughout Europe was intensified throughout Europe.  The Flying Fortress were frequent visitors to France and part of the effort to destroy forward deployed Nazi forces arrayed against the allies operating at sea and from England.

B-17s Flying a Mission Over France. Credit: US National Archives

As one Fortress gunner described the bombing run against Le Bourget on August 16, 1943, “Soon after daylight the formation was crossing the gray-green water of the English Channel. My anxiety and tension mounted, as I knew we would face the fierce German fighters, for on this clear day we would invade the lair of Goering’s best. The veterans had made certain we knew what usually happened to new crews on their first meeting with Jerry. They were not expected to come back — it was as simple as that.”

A Busy Day for the Mighty 8th: July 4, 1943

One such crew, which did not come back from their mission that day, is being honored in a ceremony in Noirmoutier Island, France.  On July 4, 1943, a crew of 10 men crash-landed during a mission against Nazi forces in France.  The men were captured and, as was the Nazi way, they were not protected by the Geneva Convention but moved into camps designed for all who opposed the Third Reich.

And the report that day on the bombing activities of the 8th Air Force:

8th Bomber Command Mission 71: 192 B-17s are dispatched against aircraft factories at Le Mans and Nanes, France; 166 make a very effective attack; US claims 52-14-22 Luftwaffe aircraft; US loses 7 with 1 damaged beyond repair and 53 others damaged; casualties are 1 KIA, 9 WIA and 70 MIA.

83 other B-17s are dispatched against submarine yards at La Pallice, France; 71 hit the target between 1201 and 1204 local; US claims 0-1-0 Luftwaffe aircraft; US loses 1 and 1 is damaged; casualties are 10 MIA.  Bombing is extremely accurate.

B-17 Operations

The aircraft was rugged, well fortified and able to land in some cases with three engines or less.

Battle damage photos are truly amazing of planes coming back with major parts of the aircraft missing.

But it was designed to operate as a fleet and in formation flying to provide for the ability to protect and defend the planes engaged in the mission.

Operating as a fleet was always challenging.  De-confliction of airspace was a basic problem, which was difficult to manage

  • There were mid-air collisions;
  • There was fratricide by fire when B-17 gunners were attacking enemy fighters;
  • This was severely aggravated by low visibility conditions or night operations;
  • Pilots detested the severe risks of collisions or mishaps because B-17 formations were not really suitable for night flights; [ref] John Comer, Combat Crew: The Story of 25 Combat Missions Over Europe From the Daily Journal of a B-17 Gunner (p. 216). John Comer. Kindle Edition. (2012-01-05). [/ref]
  • Enemy fighters aimed to create havoc in the fleet formations;
  • The high-low stacks within the formation meant that the high stack especially suffered from dealing with very low temperatures, but coping with cold was a core problem facing crews throughout missions.

The plane and the fleet evolved its concepts of operations over time, dependent on operational geography and the impact of dealing with the reactive enemy.

And in this case the Japanese and Germans learned from each other with regard to what worked and what did not against B-17 formations.

Among the various concepts of operations evident in B-17 actions were the following:

  • Daylight Strategic Precision Bombing from the UK;
  • Bombing Deep Within Germany for Strategic Effect;
  • Tactical Bombing Support for Preparation for D-Day;
  • When Italian Bases were Established Targeted Fuel Facilities Supporting the German War Machine;
  • Shuttle bombing missions to support Soviet tactical operations, on the way back, and strategic targets on the way to Russia.

Not surprisingly, the B-17 evolved over time to correct deficiencies and to add capabilities as the Luftwaffe changed tactics to attack the heavy bomber formations.

This is the normal path for combat airpower is to evolve over time, to overcome problems or to work more effectively in concepts of operations, and war is an interactive deadly game which requires technical adaptation.

The Coming of the B-17

In the rearview mirror, building the B-17 seemed a slam-dunk.

But in neither Inside the Beltway nor inside the battle of the services was the B-17 a certainty.

If one goes back in history, one discovers that the B-17 almost did not happen. 

And interestingly, the confluence of two decisions made without any reference to one another would have a decisive effect on the war.  

In Berlin, Hitler decided against building a medium bomber in the mid-1930s or for that matter building a new variant of the U-boat which could really operate like a submarine.  And on the U.S. side, the Army Air Corps stumbled forward by barely funding the B-17 as a prototype plane.

The United States in the 1930s was much like now. Even more so than now, the US was a reluctant investor in new military technologies.

Past is prologue for many decision-makers and funders of military equipment; but the future is always coming and requires change.

There was no separate Air Force, but the air element was part of the Army and of increasing interest to the Navy for coastal defense missions.  The Army Air Corps later the Army Air Force held a competition for a new bomber in 1934, but the baseline bomber of the day was a two engine plane which was designed more or less for ground support, and certainly not for long distance bombing.

When the Army Air Corps held a competition for a bomber, the B-17 lost among many other things because it was in the words of a senior Department of War official “too much of a plane for one man to handle.”

Nonetheless, the B-17 won the initial fly off and based on its initial performance, the Army Air Corps ordered 65 even before the competition was over.

But on the second flight the plane crashed and the B-17 was formally excluded from competition because it had crashed (due to pilot error)

October 30, 1935; B-17 crashes on take-off from Wright Field, Ohio, due to locked control surfaces, killing early military aviator and test pilot Maj. Ployer Peter Hill. 


The Douglas B-18 Bolo was the eventual winner, and the Army ordered 133 of these less capable planes.

But several leaders in the Army Air Corps believed in the plane and found a way to at least keep the plane in play. The Statute that shaped the way for the procurement of aircraft was the Air Corps Act of 1926. The Act provided for competition among designs and encouraged aircraft development.  It also permitted the Secretary of War to buy experimental aircraft at his discretion and without competition and to award it to the lowest responsible bidder in a competition.

The Act also established policy for different types of contracts, including making cost-plus percentage of cost contracts illegal. It encouraged the use of cost-plus incentive type contracts in order to accommodated design changes. [ref] Major Nannette Benitez, World War II Production: Why Were the B-17 and B-24 Produced in Parallel?  Air Command and Staff College, March 1997. [/ref]

But when some leaders of the Army Air Corps wished to surge production, but they were blocked.  In the face of congressional criticism, Air Corps officers felt it was “impractical” to do so unless the Secretary of War was personally willing to “accept the responsibility to Congress” for decreasing the total number of aircraft in the 1938 budget.  Estimates for the four-engine bombers were thus deferred until fiscal year 1939.

As a consequence the B-17 units, considered vital to the nation’s defense, were not procured until the crisis had already arrived. [ref] Irving Brinton Helley, Jr. Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces (Washington DC: Center for Military History, 1989). [/ref]

And the War Department insisted on B-18s Versus B-17s. B-18s were underpowered and inadequately armed and were replaced as the fortunes of war determined the outcome – B-17s and B-24s were the wartime bombers

“The B-18 was, as a practical matter, obsolete when it left the assembly line.”

But it was cheaper!

But keeping the B-17 as an experimental airplane meant that it was not being built in operational meaningful numbers.

And the effect was stark at the beginning of the war.  As Doug Birkey, of the Air Force Association has written:

As the ARCADIA Conference drew to a close, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the dispatch of American heavy bombers to England on January 13, 1942.30 Executing this order was far from simple because there simply were not any bombers or crews to deploy. The AAF was husbanding an extremely limited supply of aircraft between world-wide operational requirements and training efforts in the United States. As Hap Arnold remarked, “We were dispersing our military power even before we really had it.” The situation was so bleak that future strategic bombardment icon Curtis LeMay only had three B-17s to train thirty-five crews. He had to establish round-the-clock flight operations for his airmen. [ref]Douglas A. Birkey, Aiming for Strategic Effect: The Evolution of the Army Air Force’s Strategic Bombardment Campaigns of World War II, April 2013[/ref]

Who was responsible for not moving forward with the B-17? 

The evidence available indicates that the failure of the air arm to present its best case to Congress arose in part from the position of the Air Corps within the War Department.

“…It was repeatedly asserted that advances in air strength were desirable but not advisable if such gains could only be made at the expense of other arms and services. [ref] Irving Brinton Helley, Jr. Buying Aircraft: Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces (Washington DC: Center for Military History, 1989)[/ref]

And there was always the dominant Army opinion that only ground forces won wars.

Although opinion in the Army Air Corps placed special stress on strategic bombardment as the prime mission of an air force, the dominant view in the War Department General Staff was officially stated as late as October 1938 in these terms: “the Infantry Division continues to be the basic combat element by which battles are won, the necessary enemy field forces destroyed, and captured territory held.”

There were significant doctrinal differences beyond a ground-centric focus.

First, there were bomber versus fighter advocates.  E.g. Chennault insisted on the priority of pursuit over bombardment. In 1938, “The War Department decided that the funds earmarked for the purchase of the first 67 B-17s could buy as many as 300 attack aircraft…. Consequently, the purchase of B-17Cs, already on order, was postponed beyond June 1940.” [ref]Bernard C. Nalty, The US Army Air Forces in World War II (Honolulu, Hawaii, University Press of the Pacific, 2005[/ref]

In turn, this led in part to downplaying how the two capabilities might be effective combined elements for operations.

This also meant that the B-17 would fly without long distance fighter escort until the P-51 showed up later in the war, and this would create a very destructive situation for the bomber crews.

And then there was the Navy.  The USN saw bombers as useful for coastal defense but not for maritime operations. CNO Admiral King argued that the Navy was responsible for all air operations out of sight of land.

And not to be outdone, there were even journalist critics who understood combat better than the men doing it.  Upon observing an initial bombing run in August 1942, the air correspondent for the Sunday Times, Peter Masefield, wrote that “American heavy bombers are fine flying machines, but they are not suited for bombing in Europe.  Their bombs and bomb loads are too small, their armor and armament are low.”  Not content with this, he went on to advise the American leaders that their planes were better suited for ASW duty. [ref] Martin Bowman, B-17 Flying Fortress Units of the 8th Air Force (Osprey Publishing, 2000) [/ref]

Leadership in spite of such challenges was crucial.

There were the “few great captains. [ref]DeWitt S. Copp, A Few Great Captains (McLean Va: EPM Publications, 1980[/ref]”

There were the farsighted leaders like General George Marshall (who visited the Boeing plant in 1938 and was deeply impressed with the plane) and there was the commitment of industry.  The Boeing leadership team literally bet the future of the company on the plane and literally the test pilots and engineers bet their lives.

Does any of this sound familiar? 

It certainly does not seem like a Star Wars moment where you have entered a time warp “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

For my baseline brief on the B-17 see the following: