Tag Archives: Air Combat

17 August 1943

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortresses of the 1st Bombardment Wing (Heavy) over Schweinfurt, Germany, 17 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

17 August 1943: Mission No. 84. One year after the Eighth Air Force first attacked occupied Europe with its B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers, a mass attack of 376 B-17s attacked the Messerschmitt Bf-109 factory at Regensburg, Germany, and the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt.

Over Germany for over two hours without fighter escort, 60 bombers were shot down and as many as 95, though they made it to bases in Allied territory, were so badly damaged that they never flew again. 55 air crews (552 men) were listed as missing in action.

Of the 146 B-17s of the 4th Bombardment Wing which attacked Regensburg, 126 dropped their bombs, totaling 298.75 tons (271.02 Metric tons), destroying the factory and seriously slowing the production of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. After the attack, the 4th Bomb Wing headed for bases in North Africa. 122 B-17s landed there, half of them damaged.

The 1st Bombardment Wing (Heavy) sent 230 B-17s to Schweinfurt. Weather delays caused the planned diversion of two separate attacks to be unsuccessful. Cloud buildup over the Continent forced the bombers to fly at 17,000 feet (5,182 meters), nearly 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) lower than planned, increasing their vulnerability. Just 183 bombers made it to the target and dropped 424.3 tons (383.9 Metric tons) on the five factories in the target area. Then they headed back to their bases in England, under fighter attack most of the way. The 1st Bombardment Wing lost 36 bombers.

Though the raid did cut production of ball bearings as much as 34%, the losses were quickly made up from stockpiles. The two attacking forces succeeded in shooting down 25–27 German fighters.

A B-17 Flying Fortress, its right wing shot off and the left outboard engine on fire, goes down over Europe. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 July 1940

The Battle of Britain begins.

“The Few.” Royal Air Force pilots run to their fighters to defend England from attacking German Luftwaffe bombers during the Battle of Britain. (Imperial War Museum)

Before Germany could mount Operation Sea Lion, a cross-channel invasion of the British Isles, it needed to have complete air superiority over the invasion fleet. Because of the Luftwaffe‘s greater numbers and modern aircraft, German military leadership believed this could best be accomplished by defeating the Royal Air Force in air-to-air combat.

The Royal Air Force had been conserving their limited numbers of pilots and aircraft up to this point in the war. Germany’s plan was to send its bombers against targets that the R.A.F. would be forced to defend. The escorting Messerschmitt Bf 109s (also referred to as Me 109) would then shoot down the Boulton Paul Defiants and Bristol Blenheims. But the Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires were up to the task. While the Hurricanes went after the Luftwaffe’s Dornier 17 and Heinkel He 111 bombers, the Spitfires engaged their Bf 109 fighter escorts.

Contrails over London during the Battle of Britain, 10 July–31 October 1940.
Contrails over London during the Battle of Britain, 10 July–31 October 1940.

Britain used a system of radar-directed ground control of its fighter squadrons. The result was that, although both sides lost about the same number of aircraft, the Battle of Britain was a decisive victory for Great Britain. Germany was forced to give up on its plans for an invasion of England.

During a speech the House of Commons, 20 August 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the pilots of Fighter Command when he said,

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Ever since, the Royal Air Force has been known as “The Few.”

Luftwaffe aircraft:

A flight of Dornier Do 17 bombers, circa 1940. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
A flight of Dornier Do 17 bombers, circa 1940. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
Heinkel He 111 bomber. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
Heinkel He 111 bomber. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
A flight of Messerchmitt me 109s carry external fuel tanks to extend their range and time over target. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
A flight of Messerchmitt Bf 109s carry external fuel tanks to extend their range and time over target. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine heavy fighter, circa 1942. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine heavy fighter, circa 1942. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Royal Air Force aircraft:

Supermarine Spitfire fighters of No. 610 Squadron, RAF Biggin Hill, during the Battle of Britain. (Imperial War Museum)
Supermarine Spitfire fighters of No. 610 Squadron, RAF Biggin Hill, during the Battle of Britain. (Imperial War Museum)
Hawker Hurrican Mk.I P3408 (VY-K) of No. 85 Squadron, Church Fenton, Yorkshire, October 1940. (B.V. Daventry, RAF official photographer. Imperial War Museum CH 1501)
Hawker Hurricane Mk.I P3408 (VY-K) of No. 85 Squadron, RAF Church Fenton, Yorkshire, October 1940. Flying the same type, also with the identification letters VY-K, Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, DFC, was shot down by a Do 17 named Gustav Marie, over the English Channel, 10 July 1940. After the war, Townsend became good friends with the bomber’s gunner, Werner Borner. (Mr. B.J. Daventry, RAF official photographer. Imperial War Museum CH 1501)

Highly recommended: Duel of Eagles, by Group Captain Peter Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, Royal Air Force. Cassell Publishers Limited, 1970 and Castle Books, 2003.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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13 June 1943

USAAF Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress with left outboard engine on fire and right wing shot off, out of control and going down over Europe, World War II. (U.S. Air Force)

13 June 1943: On Mission Number 63, 76 Eighth Air Force B-17F Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers of the 4th Bombardment Wing were sent to attack the U-boat pens at Kiel, Germany.

German submarine attacks on transatlantic convoy were a major threat to the Allies. Destruction of the submarine bases and repair facilities was therefore a very high priority for the Eighth Air Force. These were often very heavily reinforced concrete bunkers where submarines could be serviced and repaired, safe from air attack.

60 bombers made it to the target but were met with the heaviest fighter attacks to that point of the war. 22 B-17s were shot down. Of those that returned to England, 24 were damaged, 1 so badly that it was beyond repair.

3 airmen were killed, 20 wounded and 213 were listed as Missing In Action.

Before the war, it was thought that the defensive machine guns of the Flying Fortress would be able to protect it against enemy fighters, but losses like those suffered in this raid proved the necessity for escorting fighters to defend the bomber formations.

NOTE: A very detailed analysis of this mission, “USAAF Mission #63: Bremen and Keil” by Andreas Zapf can be found at

http://www.andreaszapf.de/blog-chronicles-media/USAAF-Mission-63-Bremen-and-Kiel.pdf 

U-boat pen
U-boat pen

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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9 June 1943

Memphis Belle over England, heading home, 9 June 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

9 June 1943: After completing 25 combat missions over Western Europe from its base at Air Force Station 121 (RAF Bassingbourne, Cambridgeshire, England), Memphis Belle, a U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress, serial number 41-24485, assigned to the 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), 324th Bomb Squadron (Heavy), was flown home by Captain Robert K. Morgan and Captain James A. Verinis.

The daylight bombing campaign of Nazi-occupied Europe was very dangerous with high losses in both airmen and aircraft. For a bomber crew, 25 combat missions was a complete tour, and they were sent on to other assignments. Memphis Belle was only the second B-17 to survive 25 missions, so it was withdrawn from combat and sent back to the United States for a publicity tour.

Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-22485, Memphis Belle, in flight over England, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-22485, Memphis Belle, in flight over England, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Miss Margaret Polk
Miss Margaret Polk

The B-17’s name was a reference to Captain Morgan’s girlfriend, Miss Margaret Polk, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. The artwork painted on the airplane’s nose was a “Petty Girl” based on the work of pin-up artist George Petty of Esquire magazine. (Morgan named his next airplane—a B-29 Superfortress—Dauntless Dotty after his wife, Dorothy Morgan. With it, he led the first B-29 bombing mission against Tokyo, Japan, in 1944. It was also decorated with a Petty Girl.)

Memphis Belle and her crew were the subject of a 45-minute documentary, “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” directed by William Wyler and released in April 1944. It was filmed in combat aboard Memphis Belle and several other B-17s. The United States Library of Congress named it for preservation as a culturally significant film.

After the war, Memphis Belle was put on display in the city of Memphis. For decades it suffered from time, weather and neglect. The Air Force finally took the bomber back and placed it in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where it has been undergoing a total restoration for the last several years.

Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, the Memphis Belle, under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. Museum staff tried to save the original markings on the bomber.(U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, Memphis Belle, under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. Museum staff have tried to preserve the original markings on the bomber. The “Petty Girl” on the right side of the airplane is in red. (U.S. Air Force)

The Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber operated by a flight crew of ten. It was 74 feet, 9 inches (22.784 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9-3/8 inches (31.633 meters) and an overall height of 19 feet, 1 inch (5.187 meters). Its empty weight was 34,000 pounds (15,422 kilograms), 40,437 pounds (18,342 kilograms) loaded, and the maximum takeoff weight was 56,500 pounds (25,628 kilograms).

The B-17F was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liters) Wright Cyclone C9GC (R-1820-97) nine-cylinder radial engines with turbochargers, rated at 1,000 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,200 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. for takeoff. War Emergency Power was 1,380 horsepower. The Cyclones turned three-bladed, constant-speed, Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic propellers with a diameter of 11 feet, 7 inches (3.835 meters) though a 0.5625:1 gear reduction. The R-1820-97 engine is 47.80 inches (1.214 meters) long and 55.10 inches (1.399 meters) in diameter. It weighs 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms).

The B-17F had a cruising speed of 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). The maximum speed was 299 miles per hour (481 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), though with War Emergency Power, the bomber could reach 325 miles per hour (523 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet for short periods. The service ceiling was 37,500 feet (11,430 meters).

With a normal fuel load of 2,520 gallons (9,540 liters) the B-17F had a maximum range of 2,880 miles (4,635 kilometers). Carrying a 6,000 pound (2,722 kilogram) bomb load, the range was 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers).

The forward fuselage of Memphis Belle under restoration at the national Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton Ohio. The "Petty Girl" on the right side of the airplane is in red. (U.S. Air Force)
The forward fuselage of Memphis Belle under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton Ohio. The pilots’ instrument panel is in the foreground. The “Petty Girl” on the left side of the airplane is in blue. (U.S. Air Force)

The B-17F Flying Fortress was armed with up to 13 air-cooled Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns. Power turrets mounting two guns each were located at the dorsal and ventral positions. A pair of machine guns were mounted in the tail, and single guns on flexible mounts were placed in the nose, radio compartment, and right and left waist positions.

The maximum bomb load was 20,800 pounds over very short ranges. Normally, 4,000–6,000 pounds (1,815–2,722 kilograms) were carried. The internal bomb bay could be loaded with a maximum of eight 1,600 pound (725.75 kilogram) bombs. Two external bomb racks mounted under the wings between the fuselage and the inboard engines could carry one 4,000 pound (1,814.4 kilogram) bomb, each, though this option was rarely used.

The B-17 Flying Fortress first flew in 1935, and was in production from 1937 to 1945. 12,731 B-17s were built by Boeing, Douglas Aircraft Company and Lockheed-Vega. (The Manufacturer Codes, -BO, -DL and -VE, follow the Block Number in each airplane’s type designation.) 3,405 of the total were B-17Fs, with 2,000 built by Boeing, 605 by Douglas and 500 by Lockheed-Vega.

Only three B-17F Flying Fortresses remain in existence. Memphis belle is scheduled to go on public display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on 17 May 2018, 75 years after it flew its final combat mission.

Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, Memphis Belle, under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, Memphis Belle, under restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)

Memphis Belle ® is a Registered Trademark of the United States Air Force.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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20 April 1941

Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St. John “Pat” Pattle, Officer Commanding No. 33 Squadron, Royal Air Force, and the Squadron Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant George Rumsey, standing by a Hawker Hurricane at Larissa, Thessaly, Greece, March–April 1941. (IWM)

20 April 1941: Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, DFC and Bar, Royal Air Force, commanding No. 33 Squadron, was killed in action during the Battle of Athens, when his Hawker Hurricane fighter was shot down by two or more Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters. Pattle’s airplane crashed into the sea near the Port of Piraeus, southwest of Athens.

Messerschmitt Bf 110 twin-engine heavy fighter, circa 1942. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Squadron Leader Pattle may have been the highest-scoring Allied fighter ace of World War II. The exact number of enemy aircraft destroyed cannot be determined precisely because records were lost or destroyed during the Battle of Greece. The last officially acknowleded score was 23 airplanes shot down, mentioned in The London Gazette with the notice of the award of a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross. It is widely acknowledged that he shot down many more, and on at least two occasions, shot down five enemy airplanes in one day. Authors who have researched Pattle’s combat record believe that he shot down at least 50, and possibly as many as 60 aircraft.

For comparison, Air Vice Marshal James Edgar (“Johnnie”) Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO and Two Bars, DFC and Bar, is officially credited by the Royal Air Force with shooting down 34 enemy airplanes. Colonel Francis Stanley (“Gabby”) Gabreski, United States Air Force, was credited with 28 kills during World War II. In the Pacific Theater of Operations, Major Richard Ira Bong is officially credited with 40 enemy airplanes shot down.

Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle was born at Butterworth, Cape Province, South Africa, 23 July 1914. He was the son of Sergeant-Major William John Pattle, British Army, and Edith Brailsford Pattle. After failing to be accepted by the South African Air Force, at the age of 21 years, he traveled to Britain to apply to the Royal Air Force. He was offered a short-service commission and sent to flight school.

Pattle was commissioned as an Acting Pilot Officer on probation, effective 24 August 1936. He trained as a fighter pilot in the Gloster Gauntlet, and was rated exceptional. He was then assigned to No. 80 Squadron, which was equipped with the newer Gloster Gladiator. He was confirmed in the rank of Pilot Officer 29 June 1937.

Prototype Gloster Gladiator in flight, now marked K5200.

No. 80 Squadron was sent to Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. With the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on the Axis powers, Pattle and his unit were soon in combat with the Regia Aeronautica (the Italian Royal Air Force) across North Africa. He shot down his first enemy airplanes, a Breda Ba.65 and a Fiat CR.42, on 4 August 1940. Unfortunaely, Pattle was also shot down and he had to walk across the Libyan desert to friendly lines.

Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar

Pattle was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, 3 September 1940. He is credited with having shot down at least 15 Italian airplanes with the Gladiator.

In February 1941, No. 80 Squadron began flying the Hawker Hurricane. This was a huge technological advance over the Gladiator, and the Hurricane’s eight .303-caliber machine guns doubled the firepower of the biplane.  The squadron was sent to Greece, where it would engage the Luftwaffe.

Flight Lieutenant Pattle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, 11 February 1941. The following month, 12 March 1941, Pat Pattle was promoted to Acting Squadron Leader, and given command of No. 33 Squadron at Larissa, Thessaly, Greece. Squadron Leader Pattle was awarded a Bar to his DFC (a second award), 18 March 1941.

Pilots of No. 33 Squadron, Royal Air Force, with a Hawker Hurricane Mk.I fighter, V7419. Pattle is in the first row, seated, fifth from left. (Imperial War Museum)

The Hawker Hurricane Mk. I was 31 feet, 5 inches (9.576 meters) long with a wingspan of 40 feet, 0 inches (12.192 meters), and overall height of 10 feet, 6 inches (3.200 meters). Its empty weight was 5,234 pounds (2,374 kilograms) and maximum gross weight was 6,793 pounds (3,081 kilograms).

The Mk.I’s engine was a liquid-cooled, supercharged, 27.01 liter (1,648.96 cubic inches) Rolls-Royce R.M.1.S. Merlin Mk.III single-overhead-cam 60° V-12, rated at 990 horsepower at 2,600 r.p.m. at 12,250 feet (3,734 meters), and 1,030 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m., at 10,250 feet (3,124 meters), using 87 octane aviation gasoline. The Merlin III drove the propeller through a 0.477:1 gear reduction ratio. It weighed 1,375 pounds (624 kilograms).

The fixed-pitch propeller was soon replaced with a three-bladed, two-pitch propeller, and then a three-bladed constant-speed propeller. Speed trials of a Mk.I equipped with a 10 foot, 9 inch (3.277 meters) diameter Rotol constant-speed propeller achieved a maximum True Air Speed in level flight of 316 miles per hour (509 kilometers per hour) at 17,500 feet (5,334 meters). The service ceiling was 32,250 feet (9,830 meters). The Mk.I’s range was 600 miles (966 kilometers) at 175 miles per hour (282 kilometers per hour).

The Hurricane Mk.I could climb to 20,000 feet in 9.7 minutes.

The fighter was armed with eight Browning .303 Mark II machine guns mounted in the wings, with 334 rounds of ammunition per gun.

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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