The B-17 Flying Fortress was supposed to be a war winning weapon, however, by the end of 1943, the American Eighth Air Force flying them was at breaking point.

German flak and fighters shot down B-17 Flying Fortresses in their hundreds, as the US strategic bombing doctrine came face to face with the realities of aerial warfare; something had to change. 

Just one year later, the Eighth Air Force were masters of the air over Europe, having dealt a killing blow to the German Luftwaffe. So how did they do it? IWM Curator Dr Hattie Hearn looks at the changes in leadership, tactics and technology that transformed the air war over Nazi occupied Europe.

The Eighth Air Force and 'Big Week'


Voice over - This is the B-17 flying fortress. It was supposed to be a war winning weapon. But by the end of 1943, the American 8th Air Force flying them was at breaking point. German flak and fighters shot down B-17s in their hundreds, as US Strategic bombing doctrine came face to face with the realities of aerial warfare. Something had to change and change they did. Just one year later, the 8th Air Force were masters of the air over Europe having dealt a killing blow the German Luftwaffe. So how did they do it?

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Dr Hattie Hearn - The popular belief in the US was that the war would be won by long-range heavy bomber aircraft fighting a strategic bombing war. This doctrine was advocated by a group of US Army officers known as the Bomber Mafia. They developed a strategy of high altitude, daylight, precision bombing to target industrial and military targets deep within enemy territory.

Voice over - The Eighth Air Force was activated in Savannah, Georgia, on the 28th January 1942 with a dual purpose. The first aim was to destroy the German Luftwaffe to gain air superiority over Europe. The second aim was to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war by bombing key strategic targets. Achieving both would make a cross-channel invasion of Northern France possible. In overall command of the Eighth was General Carl Spaatz, while Brigadier General Ira Eaker was given control of the Eighth Bomber Command.

But even as the Eighth carried out its first combat raids in July 1942 the Allies were yet to agree on a unified strategy. That was until the Casablanca Conference of January 1943. There the British and Americans decided on a Combined Bombing Offensive. The Eighth Air Force bombers would use precision bombing by day and the RAF would attack the same targets with area bombing at night, in what was described as a ‘round the clock’ bombing offensive.

Dr Hattie Hearn - While the Eighth flew its first missions, the east of England was being transformed into one gigantic aircraft carrier with the construction of Eighth Air Force bomber and fighter airfields. By the end of the war there would be approximately 100 Eighth Air Force bases in operation, each one housing an average of 3,000 Americans. Much of this construction work was undertaken by Aviation Engineering units made up of African American personnel. They used heavy machinery, like this US-built Clarkair CA1 bulldozer. For the towns and villages surrounding these new airfields, the sudden influx of Americans brought about huge social and cultural changes. It was a period that would become known as ‘the Friendly Invasion’.

Voice over - American leaders were excited to put their theories to the test. But their first year of bombing was not a success. The attempt at precision not only had little effect of German industry, but also made the B-17s easy targets for Luftwaffe fighters taking off from nearby airfields. Allied fighter escorts, mainly P-47 Thunderbolts and Spitfires, had limited range and could rarely accompany the bombers all the way to the target, leaving the B-17s and B-24s to the mercy of the Luftwaffe who attacked them head on. The losses were horrendous.

Dr Hattie Hearn - The Eighth’s darkest days came in October 1943, in what would come to be known as ‘Black Week’. Missions to Bremen, Anklam, Munster and Schweinfurt decimated the three air divisions of the Eighth Air Force over the course of a week. The 100th Bomn Group lost 12 out of 13 planes sent out to Munster on 10th October, while the 305th Bomg Group lost 13 B-17s on the Schweinfurt Raid on the 14th. Something had to change.

Voice over - This would arguably be the turning point in the air war over Europe, but it came at a heavy cost in the men and machines of the Eighth. During the course of the week, the Eighth Air Force had lost 148 bombers, nearly 13 percent of its attacking aircraft, and approximately 1,500 aircrew.

Dr Hattie Hearn - US airmen were required to fly 25 combat missions before they could return home. Most did not make it that far. This jacket belonged to Robert Neale Roberts, he served with the 91st Bomb Group, famous for suffering the highest losses of any Eighth Air Force bomb group. Incredibly, Roberts managed to fly two full combat tours over Nazi occupied Europe. This jacket would have sufficed in summer, but during the winter more protection was required against the elements. As well as the threat of enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire, airmen contested with temperatures as low as -50° Celsius. Frostbite was one of the most common injuries suffered by Eighth Air Force aircrew.

Voice over - The 8th Air Force had to change strategy. Long-range missions were suspended from late Oct 1943 until February 1944, partly due to poor winter weather. There were some things that the US air forces could not change. They could not call off their campaign, as air superiority had to be won to facilitate the ground invasion of Western Europe. Neither could they join the RAF in night-time bombing, as their aircraft and their crews had been trained for daytime flying.

But in the hiatus, American leadership took stock and began to adopt new tactics and technologies that would change the air war in Europe. First, a new aircraft arrived which would help to change the fortunes of the Eighth Air Force.

Dr Hattie Hearn - Above me is a North American P-51 Mustang – a game changer for the 8th Air Force. Mustang ace Brig. Gen. Thomas “Tommy” Hayes said that the Merlin-powered P-51 “had the three qualities you need most if you were going to escort bombers to Berlin – range, range and range.” The first units of Mustangs began arriving in November 1943. Under their sleek exterior, these Mustangs had a powerful Merlin engine, while under the wings they could carry huge drop tanks, giving them the range to fly to Berlin and back on their own fuel. Thanks to the Mustang, the bombers of the Eighth Air Force could now fly deep into Germany with a fighter escort all the way.

Voice over - The arrival of the Mustang coincided with a change in leadership. Eighth Air Force commander Ira Eaker was replaced by Jimmy Doolittle, the man famous for his raid on Tokyo. Eaker had shackled what little escort fighters he had to the American bombers, providing close support in formation. But Doolittle soon changed tactics. The Mustangs would now fly far ahead of the bomber streams, given free reign to attack Luftwaffe aircraft and strafe enemy positions on their way home. This change compounded already existing German problems.

Dr Hattie Hearn - German aircraft production had largely survived Allied bombing attempts and, in fact, was steadily increasing. But replacement pilots were harder to come by. Training time was slashed for Luftwaffe pilots in an attempt to keep up with losses, and a severe lack of fuel. In contrast, American pilots were being trained in greater numbers, 29,000 in 1944. They received around 3 times the number of hours of flight training compared to German pilots. Technologies like this Link Trainer allowed trainee pilots to practise flying using their using their instruments, rather than the view out of their cockpit. Thanks to American improvements and German deficiencies, new American pilots were of far higher quality than their German counterparts

Voice over - Alongside a steady stream of pilots, American industry was producing aircraft at a staggering rate. In Ford Motor Company’s giant Willow Run Factory, B-24 Liberators like this one rolled off the production line every hour. By February 1944, these changes in leadership, tactics and technology were ready to be put to the test.

On the night of the 19th of February 1944, the RAF began the Allies new bomber offensive - Operation Argument or ‘Big Week’. The following day the Eighth Air Force join the fight, with the 15th Air Force based in Italy to raid 12 different targets with 1,000 bombers and 700 escort fighters on that first day alone. In complete contrast to ‘black week’ the year before, the Americans lost only 21 bombers and 4 fighters on that first day.

Dr Hattie Hearn - For the rest of 'Big Week, British and American bombers hammered aircraft, engine, and ball-bearing plants. The impact of the bombing on German production was mixed and the Eighth didn’t come out unscathed – 200 USAAF heavy bombers were lost, with about 2,600 casualties. But in a span of a week, the Luftwaffe lost a third of its available fighting aircraft and by April, the Luftwaffe had lost more than 1,000 fighter pilots, many of them experienced aces. The Allies were becoming masters of the air and would soon have the air superiority they needed to launch Operation Overlord.

Voice over - Big week was just the beginning. Over the following months, Allied raids continued to force the Luftwaffe into combat. Heavily armed German fighters like BF110s and FW 190As were cut down by more manoeuvrable American fighters before they even reached the bombers. Those American Mustangs would then strafe enemy airfields and transport on their way home. 

The losses were high on both sides, but the Allies could replace them, the Germans could not. As the raids wore on and with air superiority almost achieved, the Allies could focus on tactical missions to support the upcoming Normandy landings which were achieved in June of 1944. The turnaround from the previous year was staggering.

The bold claims made by the Bomber Mafia before the Second World War never came to pass. Germany was not defeated by air power alone. But although the impact on Germany’s economy is still debated, the Eighth Air Force undoubtedly helped deal a killing blow to the Luftwaffe from which it could never recover. That success came at a cost. The Eighth suffered about half of the US Army Air Force's casualties in the Second World War, including 26,000 dead – more fatal casualties than the entire US Marine Corps.

Dr Hattie Hearn - While the Eighth Air Force’s doctrine of strategic precision bombing was aimed at avoiding civilian casualties, accuracy was low and collateral damage was inevitable. On many occasions, the Eighth joined the RAF in area-bombing city targets, with devastating results. 

This statue depicting Prometheus, the Greek God of Fire, was pulled from the ruins of Dresden, where British and American bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries in 1945. The attack created a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed up to 25,000 people. Over half a million German civilians were killed as a result of Allied bombing during the Second World War.

Voice over - The Eighth Air Force campaign is still considered controversial. Some argue that the myth that the war in Europe could be won by airpower alone led to needless military and civilian deaths. But while the Eighth Air Force was unable to deal a decisive blow to Germany, its relentless bombing campaign allowed the US to take the fight to Hitler long before American boots landed on continental Europe. The ‘Mighty Eighth’, as it became known, has gone down in history as the largest bomber armada ever to take to the skies. But it is the stories of the thousands of men and women involved in its operation that has left the most enduring legacy.

Masters of the Air: IWM Duxford

Promotional Still from Apple TV's Masters of the Air: Austin Butler as Gale Gleven standing in front of B-17 Flying Fortress
©Apple TV+

Delve deeper into the stories depicted in the hit Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air at IWM Duxford, which premieres on 26 January 2024.

Get up close to our B-17 bomber in the American Air Museum; the iconic plane seen in the show, and walk in the footsteps of the inspiring US Army Air Force 78th Fighter Group who were based at Duxford airfield. 

Find out more about Masters of the Air at IWM Duxford.  

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