I know where this particular version of the Emperor's New Clothes begins - in a two story white stucco building outside of Montgomery, Alabama. I know when it began - in the wake of the combined tragedies of World War One and the Great Depression. And I know who its prophets were, men known for their ideological devotion as the “Bombing Mafia”. And I know when the denouement of this tale was reached, not in a child's harmless observation of an obvious truth, but between noon and three on the Thursday afternoon of 14 October, 1943, in a frozen bloodbath. It was the day some of the best brains in the United States military had a “come to Jesus moment” and were forced to face the results of their own hubris.
It was just after four in the morning when the lights were switched on in metal huts at 14 airfields across southern England, awakening any of the 2,900 young men who had been able to sleep. They had half an hour to wash up and dress before breakfast, and another hour to eat and then report for their briefings. It was in those chilly rooms they learned their assignment for this day, mission number 115, was to again attack the ball bearing plants in the southern German town of Schweinfurt.
In August of 1931 Austin Hall (above) on Maxwell Air Field, outside of Montgomery, was dedicated as home for the Air Corps Tactical School. Tasked with training the next generation of pilots and planners, and facing dwindling depression era budgets, the ACTS saw the salvation of their new service in technology. General Oscar Westover decreed, “Bombardment aviation has (the) defensive fire power...(to) effectively accomplish...its assigned mission without support.” Thus was born the Air Force's “father, son and holy ghost”: bombers will always get through, a well trained crew can “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet”, and pinpoint shock and awe bombing of the “industrial web” by itself would destroy an enemy's ability to and will resist. The temple where this faith was practiced was the Boeing B-17 bomber.
In the cold and damp the ten mechanics assigned to each bomber had been struggling through the night to prepare for the mission. All four 1,200 horse power Wright “Cyclone” turbo charged radial engines were serviced. The manual control services (there were no hydraulic assists) on each 74 foot long bomber were tested. The tanks in the 103 foot wings were filled with 100 octane aviation fuel. The armament team loaded and armed 3,880 pounds of bombs in the bomb bay, and loaded and checked the eleven .50 caliber machine guns that gave each “Flying Fortress” its nickname. Close to 55,000 pounds of weight now depressed the two rubber tires on the concrete. At about 7:30 that morning the flight crews arrived to bring the aluminum behemoth to life.
First introduced in 1936, the Boeing B-17 was the embodiment of General Westover's creed. The commander/pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit were backed up by the flight engineer, sitting directly behind them. He controlled the fuel mixture and monitored the performance of all four engines, as well as manning the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the electrically powered top turret. Below and behind him was the bomb bay. Forward and below the cockpit, crouched in the nose of the aircraft, worked the navigator and bombardier, who also manned a single .50 caliber machine gun each. Behind the bomb bay sat the radio operator, who also manned a single fifty caliber gun. Rear of the radio compartment was the new (in the “F” model B-17) electrical ball turret, which was lowered after take off. With his knees level with with his head, this gunner fired twin .50 caliber guns, as well as reporting on the bomb strikes. Behind him two waist gunners, each manned a single .50 caliber machine gun. And crouched on his knees, beneath the 19 foot high tail, was the rear gunner, firing twin 50. caliber machine guns.
The concept preached in the ACTS was that the a porcupine-like cone of fire around the bomber would destroy any attackers foolish enough to approach. But survival above 10,000 feet in the unpressurized plane required a heavy electrically heated suit plugged into the plane's electrical system, thick insulated boots and gloves, an oxygen mask and hose tied to a heavy tank, a bulletproof vest, a steel combat helmet and goggles to keep the crewman's eyes from freezing in the ten degrees below zero air . All guns not in power turrets had to be manhandled against a 150 mile wind howling across the aircraft. It was quickly apparent that no one, burdened in such bulky gear, could track a heavy machine gun in three dimensional space, fast enough to accurately shoot at a single engine fighter approaching at up to 500 miles an hour. German fighter pilots were terrified by the heavy tracer rounds reaching out for their planes, and sometimes they were killed. But they attacked anyway, and they were horribly effective.
In the three missions just prior to Black Thursday, the U.S. Eighth Air Force had lost 90 B-17's to enemy action and accidents - 900 highly trained crew killed or captured in just three missions. American production and population could quickly make good the losses. But survivors were already doubtful of living through the 25 combat missions of their tour of duty. And at 8:15, as the engines were started, there were few who did not dread what was coming. Four days earlier, the medical officer for one of the 17 groups taking part in mission 115 noted “moral is the lowest that has yet been observed.”
At 8:30 the 12 to 16 bombers in each squadron rolled forward, and followed the leader down their taxi ways. By nine each of the big bombers had powered its way into the sky, climbing to 7,000 feet, and then began flying six or seven loops, each 15 miles long by 5 miles wide, until a group of four squadrons (48 to 60 bombers in total ) would be staggered vertically and horizontally into a three dimensional combat box, 3,000 feet top to bottom, over a mile deep and half a mile wide and moving at 140 miles an hour. Each group then flew to an assembly point over southwest England, where the seven groups were formed into two wings. Then the complete formation the 350 bombers started the 25 minute climb to their operational altitude of 22,000 feet, while setting off for the Belgium coast. It was just about 11:15 in the morning.
The “experts” at ACTS had reduced the problem to numbers. At best a 600 pound bomb dug a crater 2 feet deep and nine feet wide, and was lethal out to 90 feet. And in prewar training each individual bomb, dropped from 23,000 feet at 160 miles an hour, had only about a 1% chance of landing within 100 feet of the aiming point. In essence, the United States Air Corp, using the most complex weapons system yet designed, was reduced to Napoleon's 300 year old strategy of maneuvering massed men to put the maximum metal in the general target area, and rely on the rule of averages to destroy the target. The prewar devotes at ACTS figured it would take at least 220 bombers to destroy any individual target. .
Joining the bomber formation over southern England were the “Little Friends”, British Spitfires, and American massive P-47 Thunderbolts (above) and the twin engine twin tailed P-38 fighters. Technological advances now allowed the fighters to match the bombers for altitude, and more than double their speed. But these escorts could only reach the German border at Aachen, before they had to turn back. By then 26 bombers had already aborted the mission because of mechanical problems. The remaining 250 B-17 bombers were now alone in the sky, surrounded by a swarm of 700 German fighters. It was about two in the afternoon.
Almost immediately, closing at 500 miles an hour, six waves of ME-109 (above) and FW 190 fighters swept toward the bombers, firing rockets, and with their machine guns and 20 millimeter cannons blazing. After the last wave hurtled through the lead formations, 37 Flying Forts had been shot down or forced to turn back for England. There are now fewer than 225 bombers to complete the mission..
The coordinated attacks continued for half an hour, coming at the bombers from all sides. Some multi-engine German aircraft even flew above the bomber stream, bombing the bombers. As the B-17's approached the target, the fighters pulled away and the ground based anti-aircraft guns around Schweinfurt began firing. Every black, blue and red puff and white star burst marked the center of thousands of shards of metal that sliced apart aluminum, ripping control and fuel lines and flesh. Between 2:40 and 2:57pm the bombers dropped their loads. As they pulled away, the fighters, which had landed and rearmed, returned.
It was now a vicious melee in the cold sky, as the German pilots, desperately defending their homes and families, formed up with any available formations to press their attacks. One surviving navigator recalled, “The fighters were unrelenting; it was simply murder.” The desperate situation for the bombers was made worse because fog in England had prevented the Little Friends from launching to protect the B-17's on their homeward leg. The mauling did not end until the bombers staggered over the English channel.
All five ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt had been damaged, and production was cut by 40%. Two hundred seventy-six civilians had been killed. In addition just under forty German fighters had been destroyed and another 20 damaged. However the factories were soon returned to full production, and dispersed across Germany to make them a less tempting target. And the cost to America had been staggering.
Only 33 bombers landed without damage. 77 B-17's were lost. Sixty had been shot down, one had ditched in the channel, and five had crash landed back in England. One hundred thirty-three planes were damaged, 12 so badly the had to be cannibalized to keep the others flying. Out of 290 crew members who had flown the mission, 59 had been killed and 65 survived to be taken prisoner. In addition a single P-47 fighter had been shot down.
The British Bomber Command called the second Schwienfurt raid “America’s Waterloo.” And General “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Eighth Air Force was forced to admit that his bombers had no clothes. For the rest of the war his “war winning” bombers were reduced to being sacrificial lambs, used as bait to draw German fighters up to defend their homeland, where they could be destroyed by the long delayed long range P-51 Mustang fighters, which Arnold finally began shipping to England two months after Black Thursday.
Like the pre-World War One theory that French spirit could over come German machine guns, that battleships would always fight off airplanes, and that armored nobility could never be defeated by common archers, the theory that bombers could win a war by themselves, was just another fantasy. And the American military has continued insisting that the Emperor has new clothes for at least another half a century, and maybe longer.
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