14 October 1943: A large force of 8th Air Force heavy bombers and escorting fighters attack the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany, for the second time. Five bombardment groups sent 291 B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers on the raid.
60 B-17s were shot down by German fighters or anti-aircraft artillery (“flak”). Another 17 were so heavily damaged that they crashed on landing back at their bases, or were so severely damaged that they were beyond repair. 121 B-17s received lesser damage. 594 crewmen were listed as Missing In Action (presumably Killed In Action). 65 men were captured and held as Prisoners of War. Of the bombers that returned to England 5 crewmen were killed and 43 were wounded. B-17 gunners shot down 35 to 38 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulk Fw 190s. Another 20 fighters were damaged.
VIII Bomber Command Mission Number 113 was an attack by nearly 100 American heavy bombers on the Focke-Wulf Flugzeugbau AG aircraft factory at Marienburg, East Prussia (Malbork, Poland), where the Luftwaffe‘s Fw 190 fighter was being built. Early in the war, German fighter production had been dispersed and it was thought that Marienburg was beyond the range of Allied bombers.
The Fw 190 was the most effective of Germany’s fighters. More than 20,000 were built in 16 variants.
100 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were assigned to the target and 96 of these reached the plant. Between 1253 hours and 1302 hours, the B-17s arrived over the target in five waves at 11,000 to 13,000 feet (3,353 to 3,963 meters). They dropped 217.9 tons (197.7 metric tons) of bombs with a very high degree of accuracy.
During the mission, two B-17s were lost with 13 more damaged. Three airmen were wounded and 21 listed as Missing in Action. The bomber crews claimed 9 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed and 2 probably destroyed in air-to-air combat. Target assessment estimated that 15 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters were destroyed on the ground.
Casualties among the factory work force were high. Of 669 workers, 114 were killed and 76 injured.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, KCB, DSO, MC, Royal Air Force, described the Marienburg attack as the “. . . most perfect example in history of the accurate distribution of bombs over a target.”
5 October 1914: The first aerial combat between two airplanes took place during World War I over Jonchery, Reims, France.
A French Voisin III biplane of Escadrille VB24, flown by Sergeant Joseph Frantz with observer Corporal Louis Quénault, engaged a German Aviatik B.II flown by Oberleutnant Fritz von Zangen and Sergeant Wilhelm Schlichting of FFA 18.
The Voisin was armed with a Hotchkiss M1909 8mm machine gun. Corporal Quénault fired two 48-round magazines at the German airplane, whose crew returned fire with rifles. Quénault’s machine gun jammed and he continued to fire on the Aviatik with a rifle.
The German airplane crashed and von Zangen and Schlichting were killed.
This was the first air-to-air kill in the history of warfare.
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.
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 the 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.
Britain used a system of radar-directed ground control of its fighter squadrons. The result was that though 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.”
Royal Air Force aircraft:
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.