Schweinfurt One: sixty B-17s downed, 559 airmen killed

I am sure that most people would understand the difference between “hot courage” and “cold courage”. During a robbery, the person who suddenly confronts the would-be robber and tries, as the English say, to “have a go” is showing hot courage. The same would be true of the person who tries to drag an unconscious victim out of a burning car crash. In the context of war, it may be the man who solves the sudden problem of an enemy tank by jumping onto the top of it and throwing a hand grenade in through the hatch.
All of these acts show great heroism, but as far as I am concerned, “cold courage” takes it all into a different dimension. “Cold courage” is the person who faces a painful terminal disease without losing his dignity. “Cold courage” is the person who sets off to walk along a highwire stretched hundreds of feet off the ground between two skyscrapers. “Cold courage” is the fireman who looks up at that staircase in the North or South Tower, and starts climbing, because he knows that it is his duty to try and save people, even if it may be at the expense of his own life. In the context of war, “cold courage” is the man who sits on his bunk for a whole afternoon, waiting for the chance to get into a bomber at nine o’clock and then fly off into the night skies over Germany, not only risking death, but knowing that, statistically, death is a very likely outcome. The only thing more difficult than doing this as far as I’m concerned, would be the chance to fly over Germany in broad daylight, when you have the opportunity to see exactly what is happening to everybody else, and may well happen to you.
Early on in the Second World War, the RAF tried to place their tiny bombs accurately on exclusively military targets during the hours of daylight when, theoretically, it should have been relatively easy to do so. The only problem was that the German fighters of the day were all easily capable of shooting down these poorly armed bombers without any real problems. Between May 10th-May 28th 1940, losses of the Bristol Blenheim bomber, for example, were almost unbelievable. (Search for “Known Individual Aircraft Records”)

bristol-blenheim-xxxxx

For that reason, the RAF soon turned to night bombing. Equally swiftly, they found that it was virtually impossible to hit relatively small military targets with any accuracy at night. They would be better employed in bombing the areas of the city around the enemy factories, in an effort to kill or injure the workers who worked there. This new tactic carried out the directive that had been agreed on at the Casablanca Conference.

“Your Primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

When the United States came into the war in Europe, effectively in 1942, their bombers were equipped with the famous Norden bombsight, which was supposedly capable of dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet up. Putting their faith into the bombing accuracy achievable with their marvellous bombsight, the Eighth Air Force ignored British advice that, because of the very high standards of Luftwaffe fighter pilots, bombing at night was the only sustainable method of carrying on the struggle against the Germans. The Americans, therefore, persisted with their daylight raids.

B-17G%20Flying%20FortresszzzzzzzzAfter a few months of daylight bombing, much of it over France rather than the Reich itself, the idea was mooted that enormous and significant damage could be inflicted by bombing the German factories which produced ball-bearings, as they were vitally important to the entire German war machine. Virtually every single military vehicle and aircraft depended on them. The Mighty Eighth, therefore, exactly a year to the day after their first gentle raid, Mission 1 on August 17, 1942 against the Sotteville Marshalling Yard at Rouen in France, decided to attack these important factories . This would be Mission 84, scheduled for August 17, 1943, a complex two-pronged attack on the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft works at Regensburg. The raid would be the furthest penetration into German territory to date, some 800 miles from the coast. What happened is the most wonderful example of “cold courage” that anybody could wish to meet.
The greatest problem for the Eighth Air Force was that none of their own fighters, nor those of the RAF, had anywhere near the range required to escort the slow, heavily laden B-17s to their targets. The main defensive tactic, therefore, was to form up the Flying Fortress bombers into huge boxes, where, theoretically, every single aircraft could protect, and could be protected by, all the other aircraft.

1157x829xBoeing-B-17E-Flying-Fortresses-form-up-over-England-1942_jpg_pagespeed_ic_CkVpDznVhI

This procedure took a very long time to organise with hundreds of bombers to be fitted into the formation. And this was the first problem: all this activity was completely visible to the German radar. I can remember my own father telling me how he had watched these brave young men get ready to go into battle…

“ On a number of occasions, Fred had stood on a long forgotten airfield in East Anglia and watched the American Eighth Air Force prepare to depart on a daylight raid over Germany. Their B-17 Flying Fortresses would circle seemingly for hours over their bases, as they slowly and precisely formed up into their famous defensive boxes, intricate arrangements of, perhaps, up to a thousand heavily armed bombers whose almost countless machine guns, in theory, were capable of offering covering fire to all of their fellow aircraft. Once the B-17s were ready, it was as if somebody blew a bugle unheard far below on the ground and all the bombers would then suddenly set off to war, tracing their gleaming contrails across the blue sky, eastwards in the sunshine towards the Third Reich.”

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The Eighth Air Force raid caused a 34 per cent loss of production at Schweinfurt but this was soon made up for by surplus supplies of ball bearings from all over Germany. The industry’s infrastructure, while vulnerable to a sustained campaign, was not vulnerable to destruction by a single raid.
The Nazi Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer , later wrote that the Eighth Air Force’s major error was to attempt a second attack on Regensburg at the same time as the main attack on Schweinfurt, and not to continue with further raids on Schweinfurt after the first one.
Some of the B-17s were over Germany for a period in excess of two hours with no fighter protection whatsoever, and the Luftwaffe were quick to take advantage of the situation. Given the fact that they had picked them up on radar over East Anglia, the Germans were able to call up extra fighters from all of their bases, stretching from southern France to Norway in the north. Many fighters were able to expend their ammunition in massed attacks on the American bombers, land again for fresh supplies of fuel and weapons and then rejoin the battle.

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The German fighters were well aware of the B-17s’ inadequate forward armament and their vulnerability to head-on attack. Against the 0.50 calibre Browning machine guns of the Flying Fortresses, the German fighters were all equipped with cannon which fired explosive shells. In theory, just one hit could bring down a bomber. Much longer ranged than the machine guns, this enabled the Germans to fly well out of the range of the B-17s’ machine guns and fire off short bursts of cannon shells at intervals. Some fighters carried sophisticated rocket weapons, including mortars propelled by rockets, all of them capable of wiping out a B-17 in just one shot.

rocket tubes

Tales are also told of the Germans using either obsolete combat aircraft or training aircraft to fly high above the American formation and drop air-to-air bombs.
This account from  Archie J.Old Junior, a thirty seven year old Texan,  is quoted in “The Mighty Eighth” by Gerald Astor

“The fighters were all over us. They really got interested in me. German fighters came up from every point of the compass after our fighters turned around. (Just before the German frontier). And they were already throwing flak at us when we were five to ten minutes away from the target.” (Some thirty or forty miles)

In “Eighth Air Force”, Donald L.Miller describes pretty much the same situation, once the P-47s had been forced to turn back…

“…a hailstorm of fighter assaults that continued almost all the way to the target. (Beirne Lay, Jr) wrote, “I knew that I was going to die, and so were a lot of others.”

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Overall, American casualties were way beyond the sustainable. For Bomber Command that most basic of figures had been set at 4%. On this raid 230 bombers had taken part, and sixty of these were destroyed. A tiny number finished up in Switzerland, and “thanks to the luck and the skill of the RAF Air-Sea rescue teams”, everybody who went into the icy waters of the North Sea (yes, even in August) was rescued. Five hundred and fifty two men were killed in the air, and seven poor souls made it back home, but, alas, were to succumb to their injuries. Twenty one men were badly wounded.
Beyond the sixty B-17s shot down, between 55-95 further aircraft were badly damaged. Of these, many were too severely damaged ever to be repaired.

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Of the fighter escort, two P-47s of the 56th Fighter Group were destroyed and so too were two Spitfires from the RAF. The fighters claimed more than 30 kills, but the gunners on the B-17s were very optimistic with their claim of 288 German fighters destroyed. After the war, Luftwaffe records showed just 27 aircraft had been lost.
The very biggest problem of daylight raids by the Eighth Air Force deep into enemy territory was the lack of adequate long-range fighter escort. Some of the Schweinfurt Flying Fortresses were over German-occupied territory for three hours and thirty minutes. Of this period of time, there was no fighter support whatsoever for two hours and ten minutes, which included all of the time spent over Germany itself.

By one of those extraordinary coincidences which are sometimes thrown up, the night of August 17th-18th 1943, saw the British RAF engaged in “Operation Hydra”, which turned out to be one of the more significant raids of the war. Using 324 Avro Lancasters, 218 Handley Page Halifaxes and 54 Short Stirlings, attacks were made on the V-Weapon rocket testing grounds at Peenemünde in the Baltic to the east of Denmark.

Clearly, rocket weapons of the calibre of the V-1 and the V-2 quite simply had to be destroyed, certainly with the Allies envisaging a landing on the coast of France within less than a year.

Indeed, the bomber crews were actually told at their briefings that unless they were successful that particular night, they would be going back to Peenemünde again on the 18th, the 19th, the 20th, and, indeed, they would keep returning until the target was completely destroyed. This certainly concentrated their minds enormously, and, with  operations directed for the first time by a “Master Bomber”, namely  Group Captain John Searby, the Commanding Officer of 83 Squadron, they achieved great success.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, himself said that the raid had cost the German efforts “six to eight weeks”, a figure agreed by the RAF who wrote in their official history that the attack “may well have caused a delay of two months.”

Although there were those who judged that the raid was “not effective”, an important figure, Chief Engineer Walther, was killed, but most significantly perhaps, so too was the hugely influential Doctor Walter Thiel who had provided the key ideas for the A4 rocket engine, later used to power the horrendous V-2 and indeed, in its developed form, NASA’s rockets into space.
The protection of the darkness was obvious in the casualty figures. Bomber Command lost 6.7% of their bombers and a total of 215 men were killed out of an approximate total of just over four thousand participants. Focke-Wulf Fw 190 night fighters claimed 29 of the 40 bombers shot down. Coincidentally again, the German night forces had employed for the first time ever, three twin engined Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with the deadly combination of radar and Schräge Musik upward firing cannons.

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To make their night fighters even more formidable, the Luftwaffe taught  all their crews exactly where a Lancaster’s most vulnerable spots were…the enormous fuel tanks.

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In another blog post, I will look at what the Eighth Air Force did next after the Schweinfurt raid, and their continuing “cold courage”, as they regrouped their strength after what must surely be considered, despite the immense resolution and extraordinary bravery of the Americans, one of the great catastrophes of the Allied air war.

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12 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

12 responses to “Schweinfurt One: sixty B-17s downed, 559 airmen killed

  1. Pingback: Schweinfurt Two: sixty B-17s downed, 650 airmen killed | John Knifton

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on Lest We Forget and commented:
    From a newly found blogger…

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    I think you may want to read this blog from the start in your spare times.

    https://rcaf403squadron.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/some-random-pictures-of-403-erks-doing-engine-swaps-2/#comment-5152

    Bonne lecture!

  4. Very thorough post. The air war in Europe was very different from the one in the Pacific

  5. “By one of those extraordinary coincidences which are sometimes thrown up, the night of August 17th-18th 1943, saw the British RAF engaged in “Operation Hydra”, which turned out to be one of the more significant raids of the war.” It might be worthwhile for someone to look into the mission coordination between the RAF and USAAF. Round the clock bombing, especially of vital German targets, had to put a great deal of stress upon Germany’s capability to defend itself. I wonder if there are any English-language sources covering the whole of Germany’s air defense organization.

    • Not that I have come across so far. I get the impression that lots of the detailed Luftwaffe records from the time were simply destroyed at the end of the war, which was a great pity, because of all their armed forces, the Navy and the Air Force seem to me to have been the least toxic. Thanks very much, by the way, for your kind words.

  6. Pierre Lagacé

    John,

    Did I send you a personal email asking for your personal home address?
    Senior moments…?
    My WWII veteran wants to share something.
    He did 33 ops with 425 Alouettes squadron.

  7. Chris W

    John,

    A very interesting, though harrowing, read. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the Hamburg and Dresden firestorm raids, particularly that latter which even now is very contentious but discussion of which seems to generate more heat than light.

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