In July 1935, the Boeing Company rolled out an aircraft inspired by the ‘Art Deco’ period of the time. With its aluminium skin polished until it glowed and bristling with turrets and guns, a reporter on hand to record the event described it as a ‘flying fortress’. It was a name that stuck.
The Flying Fortress had been designed while America was still suffering the effects of the Great Depression. However, the US Army Air Corps had recognised the future importance of strategic air bombing and it signed a contract with Boeing in 1937 for 39 B-17Bs.
The timing was just right. Hitler had stoked up the Nazi movement in Germany, and the Japanese were unleashing their forces on China. Boeing had to work quickly to deliver an operational, four-engine strategic bomber, the like of which had never been seen before.
The Flying Fortress was designed as a high-altitude bomber capable of cruising at over 200 miles per hour with a ‘useful’ bomb load. After years of development (and a number of accidents), the first B-17B was delivered to the US Army Air Corps a month before Germany invaded Poland.
President Roosevelt and his administration were soon under pressure to remain neutral, but he decided to assist the Allies by selling American aircraft on a ‘cash and carry’ basis. Britain promptly requested 20 B-17s, and Boeing duly delivered an improved version of the B-17B – the B-17C – which now possessed a top speed of 323 miles per hour.
RAF 90 Squadron based at RAF West Raynham, Norfolk, was the first British outfit to receive the new B-17C (subsequently named Fortress 1 by the RAF). Boeing believed its aircraft were to be used as trainers, but the RAF had other ideas and immediately camouflaged the natural aluminium.
90 Squadron’s crews were hand-picked. No individual was older than 24 and each had to pass a decompression test to an altitude of 35,000ft. On 8th July, 1941, after weeks of preparation, a trial raid took place on Wilhelmshaven. It led to the stark realisation that high-altitude bombing wasn’t going to be easy.
Engine troubles, frozen machine guns and long condensation trails (making them easy to spot for German flak crews) conspired to make the raid a failure. Nevertheless, the RAF persisted with further missions, and despite significant difficulties, soon came to realise that the B-17 could withstand significant battle damage.
20 missions were carried out before the RAF dispersed the Fortress 1s to the Middle East and RAF Coastal Command. But the failure of the B-17C in combat had left the US Army Air Corps and Boeing alarmed. Numerous modifications were discussed before a day of ‘infamy’ changed everything.
After Japanese fighters scythed through the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour, the US was forced into the war. It was immediately apparent that Boeing would have to improve the B-17 quickly and to deliver large numbers in the fastest possible time. To do this it needed the assistance of its two main rivals.
Blueprints, tooling and technical experts were sent from Boeing to the Lockheed Vega and Douglas Aircraft corporations. The fevered production of the new B-17E began in earnest. Almost one year on from its failed introduction to combat with the RAF, the B-17 was all set to be aimed at the enemy by the American air force itself.
Despite the actions of the Japanese, the US and British governments agreed that Germany posed the biggest threat. It was from British shores that offensive operations would take place. The US Army Air Forces despatched its first B-17E-equipped bomb group in July 1942. The English region of East Anglia was on its way to becoming an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’.
After flying just a handful of missions in the European theatre, the B-17E was subsequently replaced by the B-17F, the first truly combat-ready Flying Fortress. It boasted thousands of internal changes and was divided into five sections: a nose compartment, cockpit, bomb bay, radio room and rear compartment. A crew of ten could fly, navigate, bomb and shoot from a variety of positions. The crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, engineer (who doubled as a top turret gunner), radio operator (also a gunner), ball turret gunner (sitting in a ‘foetal’ position in a moveable ball beneath the fuselage), two waist gunners and a tail gunner.
The Mighty Eighth
By the summer of 1943, some 600 US B-17Fs had arrived in Britain. However, combat losses began to mount at an alarming rate, and in one week alone, the 8th Air Force (the principal US heavy bomber force in Britain) lost 128 aircraft. If these losses were to be lessened, a much-improved B-17 was needed.
The B-17G was the ultimate Flying Fortress and the last production model. It boasted extra armour, guns and ammunition. It was also capable of carrying a 20,000lb bomb load using its bomb bay and external racks fitted under the wings. These improvements allowed the 8th Air Force to jointly overcome Germany’s Luftwaffe, giving the Allied air forces air superiority. It also meant a land-based invasion was able to take place.
By the time of D-Day in June 1944, the US high command had determined that bomber crews now had a much better chance of survival. Combat crews who had once flown 25 missions were now being asked to fly 30. This figure was then increased to 35. At the same time, crew numbers were reduced from 10 to 9 and then 8, when two gunners were removed from the crew. Such was the confidence in Allied air superiority that new B-17Gs were arriving from the United States without camouflage paint.
By the end of World War Two, 12,731 Flying Fortresses had been built. They’d flown some 291,000 missions and dropped over 640,000 tons of bombs during their service. Sadly, flying the B-17 through Nazi Europe’s embattled skies had also cost the lives of over 45,000 crewmen.
About the Author
Paul Bingley has worked in the aviation industry for over 25 years. He is also a freelance writer specialising in modern and historic aviation. When he is not writing, he can be found conducting tours of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. He also updates a Twitter account commemorating the 70th anniversary of the opening of RAF Ridgewell, a wartime heavy bomber airfield used by both the RAF and 8th Air Force. Find out more at @RAF_Ridgewell
Top Photo: Wikimedia
The Bombing War radically overhauls our understanding of the War. It is the first book to examine seriously not just the most well-known parts of the campaign, but the significance of bombing on many other fronts – the German use of bombers on the Eastern Front for example (as well as much newly discovered material on the more familiar ‘Blitz’ on Britain), or the Allied campaigns against Italian cities.
The result is the author’s masterpiece – a rich, gripping, picture of the Second World War and the terrible military, technological and ethical issues that relentlessly drove all its participants into an abyss.