The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress dropped more bombs than any other US aircraft in the Second World War. A lot of these aircraft flew out of bases in England, as part of the USAAF’s daylight strategic bombing campaign, alongside the B-24. The B-17 was known as a hardy, reliable aircraft, yet in the first year of their campaign over Germany, only 36% completed their required tour of 25 missions. What made the raids of the Eighth Air Force so dangerous? In this episode of Duxford in Depth we take a look inside the fuselage and cockpit and hear from two veteran B-17 crew.
Inside the B-17
Emily Charles (EC): "The aircraft behind me is arguably the most famous American bomber of all time, the B-17 Flying Fortress. At the height of activity in 1944 about half a million American servicemen were serving in Britain, their job was to man and maintain the large fleets of aircraft needed to attack German cities and weaken Germany's ability to fight.
"The B-17 Flying Fortress was the mainstay of this campaign. From 1942 vast fleets of B-17s like this one were flown from East Anglia to bomb industrial military and economic targets in German occupied Europe. The aircraft was rugged and reliable and captured the public's imagination as a symbol of American air power. But war in the air over Germany was brutal and many aircraft and crew were lost in the process.
"Every job done inside a B-17 was done in remarkably hostile conditions. During the first year of the US Army Air Force's campaign over Germany, only 36% of bomber crewmen made it through their required tour of 25 missions.
"The B-17 was developed by Boeing in the 1930s and its name, the flying fortress, came from a journalist of the Seattle times who marvelled at the number of guns fitted to the aircraft. A single B-17 cost around $250,000 to produce in 1945, which is equivalent to about $2.6 million today, but the B-17 could be manufactured quickly and in large numbers and around 12,700 B-17s were built, a large number of which was sent to serve with the UK. Though around 5,000 of these aircraft were lost in accidents or shot down America's ability to mass produce equipment for the war ultimately proved a vital part of the allies' victory."
Newsreel: "The American Eighth Air Force is contributing more and more to the Allies round-the-clock air offensive particularly with its heavily armed Flying Fortresses. The four-engine bombers of the United States Air Force are preparing deadly blows at the heart nerve centres and head of Nazi Germany. These are official pictures of some recent raids, daylight precision bombing which is severing the arteries of the German nation at war.
EC: "The basic purpose of the B-17 is straightforward: to cause destruction by transporting and dropping high explosives over enemy targets. The B-17 was considered cutting-edge technology by the US Army Air Forces. It could carry two tons of bombs and was heavily armed to fend off an enemy attack in the process. When paired with the Norden bomb site, a tool which promised unprecedented accuracy in aerial bombardment, one senior officer of the Air Force at the time described it as 'the best bombardment aircraft in existence'.
"The potential of the B-17 so excited the USAAF it shaped their approach to air combat and convinced them to adopt a doctrine of high altitude precision bombing, intended to maximise devastation while limiting collateral damage. But in operational circumstances, particularly the stormy weather of north West Europe, the B-17 was unable to deliver
this promise and wartime technology was never accurate enough to avoid indiscriminate damage.
"A standard heavy bomber crew was 10 men; it would have been a pilot and co-pilot up in the cockpit behind me; beneath them in the nose the bombardier and the navigator; then just behind them the flight engineer, then the radio operator in the room just behind me; and then four gunners: two waist gunners here on the left and right; a gunner in the tail; and one in the ball turret just behind me.
"Flying in a B-17 was frightening. Every job in a B-17 was carried out under hostile dangerous conditions. The aircraft's fuselage was not pressurised so you were literally exposed to the elements and these windows would not have been here while flying at high altitude. Because of this the crew needed to wear oxygen so they could breathe and in addition to the freezing cold the aircraft's fuselage is made of very thin metal which offers little in the way of protection to enemy flak and fighter fire. Bomber crews faced these conditions for up to 10 hours, where they faced the freezing cold, enemy fire, and lack of oxygen."
Newsreel: "It takes all of a pilot's strength to keep a 30-ton Fortress in tight formation, but the formation is the bomber's best defence against enemy fighters. The planes are deployed to uncover every gun, arranged to overcome the danger of gunners firing into friendly ships. arranged so concentrated cones of fire from the calibre 50 machine guns cover the sky for a thousand yards in every direction."
James Hubbell: "There was another boy in our crew in the tail and I flew one mission back there, just to see what was like. I didn't ever want to go back there again. It was really... You're out there by yourself, you know, in the tail, and you could see this shooter up in the ground firing at you, and aiming at you, and you think you're going to get it right between the eyes, but fortunately I didn't get hit. It was rough.
"We called our plane a Rough Deal because we thought every everyone was a rough affair, by that I mean we were shot at a lot, you know. Fortunately I got through it, I don't know, I went to church! Well I got through it somehow..."
EC: "One of the stories showcased here in the American Air Museum is that of Joseph Warren Roundhill. JW was a waist gunner with the 379th Bomb Group who served in B-17 Flying Fortresses like this one. He was a right waist gunner, so would have served here, and Doc (Charles Noonan) his crewmate, a left-waist gunner stood here. Doc was 26 and a veteran of just three missions.
"A few days later Doc and JW flew their second mission together. It was over Schweinfurt, a target that been notorious in 1943 for the huge number of losses of aircraft over it. And again over the target they stood back to back in an attempt to keep safe when suddenly a flak shell exploded outside their window, which struck Doc, killing him instantly."
Joseph Warren Roundhill: "One of the anti-aircraft shells exploded outside of Doc's window and would you believe it one piece entered under the arm and this piece came through got him right in the heart. Well Doc is.. he slides down my back, we're still standing back to back. He slides down my back and I look at his face and his mask, and blood starts coming..."
EC: "JW ultimately went on to fly 32 missions inside a B-17 Flying Fortress. He had the list of his missions and the targets he flew to painted on the back of his jacket which is on display right here in the American Air Museum.
"The B-17's counterpart the B-24 Liberator was often described as the box the B-17 was delivered in and those smaller numbers of B-24s served here in the UK. They were capable of flying faster and carrying a greater bomb load, but ultimately the argument of which is best came down to personal preference and only a relatively small number of airmen got the chance to fly both aircraft.
"Flight engineer Bill Tombs, another story told in the American Air Museum, described feeling safer in the B-24 than the B-17 even though he described the B-24 as an ugly plane. At the end of the Second World War there was little use for the huge fleets of B-17s that had been made for, or survived, America's bombing offensives. The war had seen the introduction of more advanced bombers like the B-29 Super Fortress, which would take its place.
"After returning their crews home, thousands of B-17s were retired and sold for scrap and less than 50 complete airframes survived today. This B-17 never saw service during the war but it's possibly the most well-travelled aircraft of its type. It was produced for the USAAF in May 1945 at the very end of the Second World War. Almost immediately it became surplus to requirements and was placed into storage.
"But in 1947 this aircraft was sold to the Spanish industrialist Andres Soriano, the businessman behind San Miguel lager, when he used it as his personal transport. The brewery's logo was painted on the nose of the aircraft and the spartan wartime features were stripped out and replaced with luxuries including a comfortable seven-seat flight lounge, a buffet area complete with refrigerator, and an office.
"Then in 1949 the aircraft was sold on to the Assemblies of God, a group of Christian missionaries who used this B-17 to share biblical teachings around the world. And in 1952 this aircraft changed hands again, this time moving to France to serve with the Institute Geography Nationale where it was flown on aerial surveys to map France and her overseas territories.
"After 20 years in France this B-17 was finally grounded in 1972 before the next step of its life began in May 1975. A company called Euroworld purchased this aircraft and brought it here to Duxford it arrived alongside another B-17 which would go on to become Duxford's own Sally B. But for three years this aircraft was cannibalised to maintain Sally B, that was before IWM purchased her in 1978 and this aircraft formally entered our collection.
"IWM undertook years of extensive conservation work to return this B-17 to its original wartime configuration and that was before it found its permanent, and indeed longest home, right here inside the American Air Museum where it's been since 1997."