Tag Archives: VIII Bomber Command

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 VIII Bomber Command Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers of the 4th Bombardment Wing were sent to attack the U-boat pens at Kiel, Germany.

An Allied merchant convoy formed up to cross the Atlantic Ocean, 1942. (Naval Supply Corps Newsletter/Library of Congress)

German submarine attacks on transatlantic convoys were a major threat to the Allies. England was dependent on North America for food, fuel, munitions and weapons. Destruction of the submarine bases and repair facilities was therefore a very high priority for VIII Bomber Command. These were often very heavily reinforced concrete bunkers where submarines could be serviced and repaired, safe from air attack.

The “Kilian” base at Kiel was for the protection of up to 12 newly-built U-boats. Each bay was 138 meters (453 feet) long and could house two submarines, end-to-end. The roof was 4.8 meters (15 feet, 9 inches) of reinforced concrete, and the walls were 3.3 meters (10 feet, 10 inches) thick.

U-Boot Typ VII C im Bunkerdock. (L.-G. Buchheim © Buchheim Stiftung)

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

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 May 1943

The crew of the Memphis Belle after their 25th mission: (left to right) Technical Sergeant Harold Loch, Top Turret Gunner/Engineer; Staff Sergeant Cecil Scott, Ball Turret Gunner; Technical Sergeant Robert Hanson, Radio Operator; Captain James Verinis, Co-pilot; Captain Robert Morgan, Aircraft Commander/Pilot; Captain Charles Leighton, Navigator; Staff Sergeant John Quinlan, Tail Gunner; Staff Sergeant Casimer Nastal, Waist Gunner; Captain Vincent Evans, Bombardier; Staff Sergeant Clarence Winchell Waist Gunner. (U.S. Air Force photograph)

17 May 1943: The flight crew of the B-17 Memphis Belle completed their combat tour of 25 bombing missions over Western Europe with an attack on the massive Kéroman Submarine Base at Lorient, France.¹ The bomber was a U.S. Army Air Force Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress, serial number 41-24485, assigned to the 324th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), VIII Bomber Command, based at Air Force Station 121 (RAF Bassingbourne, Cambridgeshire, England). The aircraft commander was Captain Robert Knight Morgan, Air Corps, United States Army.

The daylight bombing campaign of Nazi-occupied Europe was extremely dangerous with high losses in both airmen and aircraft. For a bomber crew, 25 combat missions was a complete tour, and they were sent back to the United States for rest and retraining before going 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.

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. ² (Morgan named his next airplane—a B-29 Superfortress—Dauntless Dotty, after his wife, Dorothy Grace Johnson 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.

B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485 (c/n 3190) was built by the Boeing Aircraft Company at its Plant 2 in Seattle, Washington, during the summer of 1942. It was the 195th airplane in the B-17F series, and one of the third production block. Flown by a Boeing pilot named Johnston, the new bomber made its first flight, 1 hour, 40 minutes, on 13 August 1942. Maintenance records indicate, “1st flight OK.”

The B-17 was flown to Bangor, Maine and on 31 August 1942 was assigned to the 324th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), then preparing to deploy overseas.

2nd Lieutenant Morgan first flew 41-24485 on 3 September, and logged nearly 50 hours over the next three weeks. The squadron flew across the North Atlantic Ocean, and 41-24485 arrived at its permanent station, Bassingbourne, on 26 October 1942.

Following its twenty-fifth combat mission, Memphis Belle was flown back to the United States on 9 June 1943.

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, Dayton, Ohio, where it has been undergoing a total restoration for the last several years.

Survivors. The crew of the Memphis belle after their 25th combat mission, 17 May 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Survivors. The crew of the Memphis Belle after their 25th combat mission, 17 May 1943. (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, 8.90 inches (22.781 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9.375 inches (31.633 meters) and an overall height of 19 feet, 1.00 inch (5.187 meters). The wings have 3½° angle of incidence and 4½° dihedral. The leading edge is swept aft 8¾°. The total wing area is 1,426 square feet (132.48 square meters). The horizontal stabilizer has a span of 43 feet (13.106 meters) with 0° incidence and dihedral. Its total area, including elevators, is 331.1 square feet (12.18 square meters).

The B-17F had an approximate empty weight of 36,135 pounds (16,391 kilograms), 40,437 pounds (18,342 kilograms) basic, and the maximum takeoff weight was 65,000 pounds (29,484 kilograms).

The B-17F was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liters) Wright Cyclone G666A (R-1820-65) ³ nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.70:1. The engines were equipped with remote General Electric  turbochargers capable of 24,000 r.p.m. The R-1820-65 was 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. The engine could produce 1,380 horsepower at War Emergency Power. 100-octane aviation gasoline was required. 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-1820-65 engine is 3 feet, 11.59 inches (1.209 meters) long and 4 feet, 7.12 inches (1.400 meters) in diameter. It weighs 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms).

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

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).

The original “Petty Girl” pin-up nose art of the B-17 bomber, “Memphis Belle,” during restoration.

With a normal fuel load of 1,725 gallons (6,530 liters) the B-17F had a maximum range of 3,070 miles (4,941 kilometers). Two “Tokyo tanks” could be installed in the bomb bay, increasing capacity by 820 gallons (3,104 liters). Carrying a 6,000 pound (2,722 kilogram) bomb load, the range was 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers).

The Memphis Belle was armed with 13 Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns for defense against enemy fighters. Power turrets mounting two guns each were located at the dorsal and ventral positions. Four machine guns were mounted in the nose, 1 in the radio compartment, 2 in the waist and 2 in the tail.

The maximum bomb load of the B-17F was 20,800 pounds (9434.7 kilograms) over very short ranges. Normally, 4,000–6,000 pounds (1,815–2,722 kilograms) of high explosive bombs 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 was in production from 1936 to 1945. 12,731 B-17s were built by Boeing, Douglas Aircraft Company and Lockheed-Vega. (The manufacturer codes -BO, -DL and -VE follows 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.

Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, Memphis Belle, flies home from England, 9 June 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

Only three B-17F Flying Fortresses, including Memphis Belle, remain in existence. The completely restored bomber goes on public display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, today, 17 May 2018.

Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, “Memphis Belle,” photographed 14 March 2018 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)

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

¹ VIII Bomber Command Mission No. 58

² The nose art was painted by Corporal Anthony L. Starcer.

³ Later production B-17F and B-17G bombers were equipped with Wright Cyclone C9GC (R-1820-97) engines.

Boeing B-17F-10-BO Flying Fortress 41-24485, “Memphis Belle,” photographed 14 March 2018 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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4 May 1943

The crew of The 8 Ball Mk II, a Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress, serial number 41-24635, 359th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), following an attack against Antwerp, Belgium, 5 April 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
The 8 Ball MkII #41-24635 (359BS) BN-O
102nd PBCW Lead.  Aircraft Commander/Pilot Captain William R. Calhoun, Jr. / Co-Pilot Lieutenant Colonel William A. Hatcher, commander, 351st Bombardment Group. Left to Right: Staff Sergeant Willam C. Mulgrew, Ball Turret Gunner; Staff Sergeant Richard C. Fortunak, Left Waist Gunner; Technical Sergeant Roman R. Zaorski, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner; Staff Sergeant Murel A. Murphy, Right Waist Gunner; Captain Robert J. Yonkman, Bombardier; Lieutenant Colonel William A. Hatcher, Co-Pilot; Captain William R. Calhoun, Aircraft Commander/Pilot; 1st Lieutenant Joseph M. Strickland, Navigator; Technical Sergeant Charles R. Terry, Radio Operator; Staff Sergeant Willard W. Stephen, Tail Gunner; Captain Clark Gable, Top Gunner. (U.S. Air Force)

4 May 1943: VIII Bomber Command Mission No. 54 was an attack on the Ford and General Motors assembly plants at Antwerp, Belgium. 79 B-17s of the 1st Bombardment Wing were assigned, with another 33 bombers staging a diversion off the coast. Each B-17 was loaded with five 1,000-pound (453.6-kilogram) high explosive bombs. Between 1839–1843 hours, 65 B-17s had reached the target and dropped 161.5 tons (146.5 metric tons) of bombs from an altitude of 23,500 feet (7,163 meters). Results were considered very good.

Sixteen B-17s were damaged by anti-aircraft artillery and German fighters, with 3 American airmen wounded. Gunners on board the bombers claimed ten enemy fighters destroyed and one damaged. They expended 21,907 rounds of .50-caliber machine gun ammunition. The total duration of the mission was 4 hours, 30 minutes.

The lead ship of a composite group made up from squadrons from the 91st, 303rd and 305th Bombardment Groups, was Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress 41-24635. It had been named The 8 Ball Mk. II by its crew, led by Captain William R. Calhoun, Jr. (Captain Calhoun’s first The 8 Ball, 41-24581, had been damaged beyond repair, 20 December 1942.)

The The 8 Ball Mk. II was assigned to the 359th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), at RAF Polebrook (Air Force Station 110), in Northamptonshire, England.

For Mission No. 54, Captain Calhoun was the aircraft commander while Lieutenant Colonel W.A. Hatcher, the newly-assigned commander of the 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy), flew as co-pilot.

Strike photo, General Motors plant, Antwerp, Belgium. (U.S. Air Force)
Strike photo, General Motors plant, Antwerp, Belgium. (U.S. Air Force)

After the mission, Captain Calhoun said, “It was a good mission as far as I am concerned. My bombardier, Captain Robert Yonkman, told me that the bombing was really something.”

Lieutenant Colonel Hatcher said, “It was my second raid and it was a hell of a lot better than the first one which was Bremen. They tell me that the bombing was perfect. I am learning a lot each time.”

The 8 Ball Mk II was slightly damaged on this mission. Navigator 1st Lieutenant Joseph Strickland reported, “A 20 mm shell cut my flying boot almost in half. . . I believe it was as good bombing as we have done. Never saw so many fighters in my life. Both ours and the Germans.”

Captain William C. Calhoun, Jr. and Captain Glark Gable after the mission to Antwerp, 4 May 1943. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain William R. Calhoun, Jr. and Captain Clark Gable after the mission to Antwerp, 4 May 1943. At the age of 23 years, Captain Calhoun was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. The silver oaks leaves, insignia of his new rank, were pinned on by Captain Gable. (U.S. Air Force)

Also on board The 8 Ball Mk II was Captain William Clark Gable, Air Corps, United States Army. After his wife, Carole Lombard, had been killed in an airliner crash, 16 January 1942, the world-famous movie actor enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, intending to become an aerial gunner on a bomber. Soon after enlisting, though, he was sent to Officer Candidate School and after graduating was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark Gable
Mr. and Mrs. Clark Gable

Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces, assigned Lieutenant Gable to make a recruiting film about gunners in combat. Gable was then sent to aerial gunnery school and following that, to photography training. He was placed in command of a 6-man film unit and assigned to the 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy) as they went through training and were sent on to the 8th Air Force England.

Lieutenant Clark Gable with a belt of linked .50-caliber machine gun cartridges.
Lieutenant Clark Gable with a belt of linked .50-caliber machine gun cartridges.

Clark Gable, now a captain, wanted to film aboard a bomber with a highly experienced combat crew, so both he and his group commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hatcher, flew with Captain Calhoun’s crew.

The mission of 4 May 1943 was Gable’s first combat mission. As a qualified gunner he manned a Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine gun.

Gable’s recruiting film was completed several months later. It was titled, “Combat America.”

Captain Clark Gable manning a .50-caliber Browing machine gun in the waist of a B-17 bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
Captain Clark Gable manning a Browning Machine Gun, Caliber .50, AN-M2, in the waist of a B-17 bomber. (U.S. Air Force)
Poster for Gable's production, "Combat America."
Poster for Gable’s production, “Combat America.”

Colonel William Rodwell Calhoun, Jr., United States Air Force, was born at Birmingham, Alabama, 10 November 1919. He was the son of William R. Calhoun, a proof reader, and Mabel Lee Ferguson Calhoun.  He graduated from Howard University, Birmingham, Alabama (now, Samford University) in 1941 with an A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) degree.

William Calhoun entered the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet at Montgomery, Alabama, 26 August 1941. At that time, Calhoun was 5’7″ inches (170 centimeters) tall and weighed 136 pounds (61.7 kilograms). He trained as a pilot at Brooks Army Airfield, Texas, as a member of Class 41-I. Calhoun completed flight training and was commissioned a second lieutenant, 12 December 1941. He was promoted to first lieutenant, 1 February 1942.

Lieutenant Calhoun was assigned to the 359th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. He was promoted to captain, 22 September 1942. He and his crew arrived at Station 107 (RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, England) 20 October 1942 aboard their Boeing B-17F-25-BO Flying Fortress, 41-24581, The 8 Ball.

The 8 Ball, Boeing B-17F-5-BO Flying Fortress 41-24581 (303rdbg.com)
The 8 Ball, Boeing B-17F-25-BO Flying Fortress 41-24581, BN-O (U.S. Air Force via 303rdbg.com)

Two months later, 20 December 1942, during a bombing mission to Ronilly-sur-Seine, France, The 8 Ball was heavily damaged. Arriving over England, Captain Calhoun ordered the crew to bail out, then he and co-pilot Major Eugene Romig crash landed the bomber at RAF Bovington, Hertfordshire. The airplane was damaged beyond repair.

Captain Calhoun commanded the 359th Bombardment Squadron from 6 March to 22 November 1943. He was promoted to major, 5 June 1943. He was next assigned as Director of Operations and Executive Officer of the 41st Combat Bombardment Wing (Heavy).

Major Calhoun completed his 25-mission combat tour on 19 August 1943. He then volunteered for a second tour. His final combat mission of World War II, his 32nd, took place 28 July 1944.

Calhoun was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 28 December 1943, at the age of 23 years. The silver oak leaves, insignia of his new rank, were pinned on by Captain Gable. He remained at the 41st Bombardment Wing until 23 December 1944.

Major William R. Calhoun checks a repair on his B-17F bomber, The 8 Ball. (Planet News Ltd.)
Major William R. Calhoun checks a repair on his B-17F bomber, The 8 Ball. (Planet News Ltd.)

Following World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Calhoun commanded the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron and the 374th Troop Carrier Group. On 5 December 1948, while flying a Douglas C-54 Skymaster from Okinawa to Spokane, Washington, Calhoun was forced to ditch the airplane in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii, when two of the airplane’s engines failed. 33 of the 37 on board the transport survived. Colonel Calhoun and his crew spent 40 hours in two life rafts before being rescued by the U.S. Navy escort carrier, USS Rendova (CVE-114).

Colonel Calhoun married Dondena Hardin, 17 November 1950. They had two children, but divorced in 1974. Colonel Calhoun married his second wife, Virginia Ruth Smith, 14 May 1983.

Colonel Calhoun served as deputy commander of the 11th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and commander, 26th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy). He was then assigned as Director of Operations 19th Air Division; Director of Operations Eighth Air Force; and served in the Directorate of Operations, United States Air Force.

Colonel Calhoun was the base commander of Larson Air Force Base, Moses Lake, Washington, and vice commander of the 4170th Strategic Wing. He next commanded the 4128th Strategic Wing, later redesignated the 461st Bombardment Wing (Heavy), at Amarillo, Texas, followed by the 379th Bombardment Wing (Heavy).

Colonel William R. Calhoun, Jr., U.S. Air Force, commanding the 461st Bombardment Wing, circa 1963. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel William R. Calhoun, Jr., U.S. Air Force, commanding the 461st Bombardment Wing (Heavy), circa 1963. (U.S. Air Force)

During his career with the United States Air Force, Colonel Calhoun was awarded the Silver Star with oak leaf cluster (two awards); the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters (four awards); The Air Medal with four oaks leaf clusters (five awards); The Purple Heart; the Presidential Unit Citation; and the Croix de Guerre.

Colonel William R. Calhoun, Jr., United States Air Force, died at Fort Worth, Texas, 20 March 1991 at the age of 72 years. He was buried at Greenwood Memorial Park in Fort Worth.

The bomber flown by Colonel Calhoun 4 May 1943, Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress 41-24635, The 8 Ball Mk. II, was scrapped 8 February 1945.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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9 October 1943

In this iconic World War II photograph, a Douglas-built B-17F-50-DL Flying Fortress, 42-3352, “Virgin’s Delight,” of the 410th Bomb Squadron, 94th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 8th Air Force, is over the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter factory, Marienburg, East Prussia, 9 October 1943. The aircraft commander was Lieutenant R.E. Le Pore. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

A captured Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
A captured Focke-Wulf Fw 190 G-3 fighter, DN+FP, W.Nr. 160016, in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
Focke-Wulf Fw 190 G-3 DN+FP, W.Nr. 160016, in flight near Wright Field, Ohio, May 1946. (U.S. Air Force)
Focke-Wulf Fw 190 G-3 DN+FP, W.Nr. 160016, from above and behind. (U.S. Air Force)

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.

This strike photo was taken from B-17 42-30353 ("Ten Knights in a Bar Room") of the 95th Bombardment Group (Heavy). (U.S. Air Force)
This strike photo was taken from Boeing B-17F-100-BO Flying Fortress 42-30353 (“Ten Knights in a Bar Room”) of the 95th Bombardment Group (Heavy). (U.S. Air Force)

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.”

Damage assessment photograph
Reconnaissance photograph taken by a de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito PR flown by Squadron Leader R.A. Lenton and Pilot Officer Heney of No. 540 Squadron, R.A.F., 10 October 1943, showing results of the previous day’s attack. (Royal Air Force)
The target area as it appears today. (Google Maps)
"Instrument workers line up aerial cameras at Benson, Oxfordshire, before installing them in a De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark IX: (left to right) two Type F.24 (14-inch lens) vertical cameras, one F.24 (14-inch lens) oblique camera, two Type F.52 (36-inch lens) 'split pair' vertical cameras." (Imperial War Museum CH-18399)
“Instrument workers line up aerial cameras at Benson, Oxfordshire, before installing them in a De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark IX: (left to right) two Type F.24 (14-inch lens) vertical cameras, one F.24 (14-inch lens) oblique camera, two Type F.52 (36-inch lens) ‘split pair’ vertical cameras.” (Imperial War Museum CH-18399)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 August 1942

A flight of Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers forms up over England, 1942. “Yankee Doodle,” 41-9023, is just to the left of center. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker (Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE)

17 August 1942: Mission No. 1. The United States VIII Bomber Command made its first heavy bomber attack on Nazi-occupied Europe when eighteen Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress four-engine bombers of the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at RAF Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England, headed for the railroad marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, France. This was the largest and most active railroad yard in northern France.

The group began takeoffs at 1530 hours. It was escorted by several squadrons of Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire fighters.

While six B-17s flew along the French coast as a diversion, twelve bombers flew to Rouen and were over the target from 1739 to 1746. From an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,010 meters), they dropped 39,000 pounds (17,690 kilograms) of general purpose bombs.

Accuracy was good. One of the aim points, the locomotive shops, was destroyed by a direct hit. The overall results were moderate.

Rouen-Sotteville target assesment photograph. (U.S. Air Force)
Rouen-Sotteville target assessment photograph. (U.S. Air Force)

All of the bombers returned to their base, with the first landing at 1900. Two B-17s had been damaged. American gunners claimed damage to one Luftwaffe airplane.

brigadier General Ira C. Eaker commanded the raid from this Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, 41-9023, Yankee Doodle, here being serviced between missions. (U.S. Air Force)
Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker commanded Mission No. 1 from this Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, 41-9023, Yankee Doodle, shown here being serviced between missions. This bomber survived the War. (U.S. Air Force)

The raid was commanded by Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker aboard Yankee Doodle, B-17E 41-9023, leading the second flight of six B-17s. The 97th Bombardment Group Commander, Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., flew as the co-pilot of the lead ship, Butcher Shop, B-17E 41-2578, with pilot Major Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. Tibbets was in command of the 97th’s 340th Bombardment Squadron. (He would later command the 509th Composite Group and fly the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.)

Colonel Frank A. Armstrong in the pilot's position of a Boeing B-17 (Imperial War Museum, Roger Freeman Collection, Object Number FRE 890)
Colonel Frank Alton Armstrong, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army, commanding the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), in the pilot’s position of a Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress. (Imperial War Museum)

The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress was a major redesign. A new aft fuselage was used, incorporating larger vertical and horizontal stabilizers. A tail turret was added. A power-operated gun turret was added at dorsal and ventral positions.

The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber operated by a flight crew of ten. It was 73 feet, 10 inches (22.504 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9-3/8 inches (31.633 meters) and an overall height of 19 feet, 2 inch (5.842 meters). Its empty weight was 32,350 pounds (14,674 kilograms), 40,260 pounds (18,262 kilograms) gross weight, and the maximum takeoff weight was 53,000 pounds (24,040 kilograms).

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2587, 97th Bombardment Group, photographed 17 August 1942. (Imperial War Museum, Roger Freeman Collection, Object Number FRE 4053)
Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, 97th Bombardment Group, photographed 17 August 1942. (Imperial War Museum)

The B-17E was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liters) Wright Cyclone G666A (R-1820-65) nine-cylinder radial engines with turbochargers, producing 1,200 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. for takeoff and 1,000 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at Sea Level. 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-1820-65 was 47.59 inches (1.209 meters) long and 55.12 inches (1.400 meters) in diameter. It weighed 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms). 8,422 of these engines were produced by Wright Aeronautical Division and its licensees between February 1940 and August 1942.

The B-17E had a cruise speed of 195 miles per hour (314 kilometers per hour). Its maximum speed was 318 miles per hour (512 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The service ceiling was 36,600 feet (11,156 meters).

With a normal fuel load of 2,490 gallons (9,426 liters) the B-17E had a maximum range of 3,300 miles (5,311 kilometers). Carrying a 4,000 pound (1,814 kilogram) bomb load, the range was 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers).

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, lead ship on the 17 August 1942 air raid on Rouen-Sotteville, France. By the end of the war, this airplane was the oldest, longest-serving B-17E in the USAAF.
Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, the lead ship on the 17 August 1942 air raid on Rouen-Sotteville, France, flown by Major Paul W. Tibbets, photographed at RAF Bovingdon, 1943. By the end of the war, this airplane was the oldest, longest-serving B-17E in the USAAF. (Imperial War Museum)

The B-17E Flying Fortress was armed with one .30-caliber Browning M2 Aircraft Machine Gun and eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns. The .30 was mounted in the nose.  Power turrets mounting two .50-caliber guns, each, were located at the dorsal and ventral positions. (The first 112 B-17Es were built with a remotely-operated turret in the belly position, sighted by a periscope. A manned ball turret replaced this.) Two machine guns were in a tail turret, and one on each side at the waist.

The maximum bomb load of the B-17E was 20,800 pounds (9,435 kilograms) over very short distances. 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 1,000 pound (454 kilogram) or four 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bombs.

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. 512 of the total were B-17Es. The last one was completed 28 May 1942. Production shifted to the further-improved B-17F.

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2509, flying over the Florida Keys, circa 1942. (United States Air Force via Getty Images)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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