Commentary: On this spot in the summer of 1942 history was made. For the United States Eighth Army Air Force had arrived in Britain.
Wartime archive narration: 17 August 1942, strategic airpower was born. At 15:26 hours the first daylight mission from a base in England was launched.
Commentary: The Americans had decided that they would do two things differently from British Bomber Command, who had already been attacking Germany for several years. First, they would attack only precision targets like factories or shipyards, rather than drop bombs on whole cities as the British were doing. Second, they would bomb not under cover of darkness but in broad daylight.
Wartime archive narration: Alarm sirens wail over the German fighter fields and pilots sprint for their planes.
Commentary: But the American approach was fraught with risk. Not least because during the day it was obviously much easier for German fighters to find and attack them. The American bombers, flying in rigid formation, could only rely on their machine gunners for defence.
Words of Bruno Rupp (German fighter pilot): I hit the belly of the plane and it exploded over me. It probably still had its entire bomb load on board. There were huge flames and it practically blew up in our faces. The wreckage was flying all around us.
Words of Joseph Hallock (American bomber crew): Some Focke-Wulfs showed up, armed with rockets, and I saw three B-17s in the different groups around us suddenly blow up and drop through the sky. Just simply blow up and drop through the sky. Nowadays, if you come across something awful happening, you almost think, ‘My God, it’s just like a movie,’ and that’s what I thought. I had a feeling that the planes weren’t really falling and burning, the men inside them weren’t really dying, and everything would turn out happily in the end. Then, very quietly through the interphone, our tail gunner said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’ve been hit.’1
Commentary: In 1943, a series of raids on the German ball bearing factories of Schweinfurt were to show just how dangerous the American strategy of daylight bombing could be.
Wartime archive narration: 180 forts on their way to Schweinfurt. Three months later 228 forts carried 500 tons of bombs to the same target.
Commentary: Though much of the German industrial capacity was destroyed, it was at a terrible cost to the Americans. On what became known as Black Thursday, the 14th October 1943, they lost more than 70 planes and around 650 men.
Professor Tami Biddle: Actually it’s pretty horrific because the Americans are now discovering, as the British had in 1940 and 1941, that in fact the bomber does not always get through. The losses were extremely high. The losses at Schweinfurt are quite staggering and it really forces the Americans to take a second look.
Wartime archive narration: A history of United States air power will always honour the bloody summer of 1943. Because of the very heavy losses in personnel and aircraft incurred during the Schweinfurt attacks, penetrations beyond the range of fighters was suspended.
Professor Tami Biddle: They decided that they would find a way to make escorts capable of flying with the bombers deep into Germany, defending them, and assisting them to attack targets so that they could have a level of survival amongst aircraft that could be sustainable over the long term. And this was the problem that everybody foresaw in the inter-war years, but couldn’t figure out how to solve. How do you build an airplane that’s fast enough, has long enough legs to keep up with the bombers. Stays with them, gets over the target, but then when it’s over the target can actually defend itself against a short range defender which is terribly agile, and terribly fast and terribly manoeuvrable? How do you get all that out of one airplane? Well, the solution proved to be self-sealing, droppable auxiliary tanks.
Commentary: American fighters were fitted with extra, external fuel tanks that allowed them to escort the bombers all the way to Germany and back again. Not only were the American bombers more protected than they had ever been before, the American fighters, during the spring and summer of 1944, managed to destroy huge numbers of the German interceptors that had been ordered to confront them.
Professor Tami Biddle: I think in so many ways the development of long range escort fighters really saves the combined bomber offensive. Because not only does it allow for the force on force battle with the Luftwaffe which makes D-Day possible, but it basically, over time, it eliminates the Luftwaffe.
Wartime archive narration: The bombs are away.
Commentary: What the victory of the American fighters help make possible, was ever larger and more devastating bombing raids on Germany. Raids that would reach their peak of destructiveness in 1945 and which have remained controversial ever since.
1 Originally published in the New Yorker Magazine on August 12, 1944 ['Life and Death Aboard a B-17, 1944', www.eyewitnesstohistory.com]