A Brief History
On August 17, 1943, the U.S. 8th Air Force, the main American unit of heavy bombers stationed in England, launched 376 B-17 bombers against Schweinfurt and Regensburg in Germany, a raid that came to symbolize the dangers of unescorted bombing.
The ambitious plan was to attack Regensburg with 146 and Schweinfurt with 230 B-17s. The bombers were only escorted part of the way because the British Spitfires and American P-47 Thunderbolt fighters lacked the ability to cover the range. The escorting Spitfires could only accompany the bombers as far Antwerp, and the Thunderbolts could barely reach the far side of Belgium. The flight over the target areas in Germany would be unescorted on the approach and on the egress, leaving the heavily-armed Flying Fortresses to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, the Germans, who did not appreciate being bombed, had their anti-aircraft guns pointed skyward and about 400 fighter planes ready to intercept the bombers. The British knew the dangers of day attacks and thus normally chose to bomb at night. The Americans did not heed the warnings and, in a cocky move, insisted on daylight “precision” bombing with their world’s best Norden bombsight.
The idea was to hurt the German aircraft industry and production of other military equipment (such as tanks and motor vehicles) by attacking ball bearing production at Schweinfurt and airplane production at Regensburg. The attack on Regensburg was successful, with the Messerschmitt plant being severely damaged. Results at Schweinfurt were not good at all.
The Allies lost a total of 65 airplanes in this twin raid – 60 bombers and 5 fighters, and as many as a staggering 95 other planes were damaged, many of them would never be airworthy again. 552 bomber crewman were either killed or captured. The Germans only lost 25 to 27 fighters, despite bomber crews’ claims to have shot down just over 200!
Incredibly, the 8th Air Force did not learn from this experience and mounted another large B-17 raid (291 bombers) on Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943. This time they lost another 60 bombers! After this catastrophic loss, a pause in daylight bombing raids into Germany was implemented that lasted 5 months. When one considers that the U.S. expected its bomber crews to fly 25 combat missions before being rotated out, at the rate of losing a fifth or sixth of their bombers during each raid, they all would have been dead well before coming close to 25 missions. (British standards were 30 missions, and the U.S. later increased the number of missions after the introduction of long-range P-51 escorts that had drop tanks carrying extra fuel.)
In a sense the adage “the bomber will always get through” was substantiated by the fact that most of the bombers did indeed reach their target and manage to drop bombs (not all that accurately on Schweinfurt), but the rosy expectations of the U.S. planners that the mighty Flying Fortresses would be able fight their way to and from their targets proved incorrect. In war, lessons are often learned the hard way. Unfortunately, it is often the troops who pay the highest price with their lives.
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