Special Report

B-17s and a Big Week of Bombing

★ Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress ★ The Boeing B-17 flew with nine or ten crewmen, depending on the year of the war, and each had a one in four chance of completing his 25 required missions. The strategic bombers flew some of the most hazardous missions of the war, hitting heavily defended German oil refineries, munitions plants, and transportation hubs. The most succinct compliment was paid to the four-engine Boeing by General Carl Spaatz, who, as the commander of U.S. Strategic Forces in Europe in 1944, knew what he was talking about. “Without the B-17,” he said, “we might have lost the war.” (CREDIT?)
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By 1944, the Luftwaffe was struggling to survive. In a single week that February, the Allies sought to hasten the end. Operation Argument, better known as “The Big Week,” was a series of Royal Air Force and U.S. bombing raids on aviation factories; on several raids, more than 1,000 bombers were sent against the targets. The raids were also intended to bait German fighters into the air, where nearly 900 P-47s and P-51s engaged them. One B-17 gunner reported, “The Luftwaffe had all their planes up but their trainers.”

The Luftwaffe lost a third of its remaining single-engine fighters that month, and 18 percent of its pilots. But the bait suffered as well. In more than 3,000 sorties, 247 B-17s were lost, despite the bomber’s almost uncanny ability to withstand damage and bring airmen home.

Hundreds of crewmen have recounted harrowing flights back in airplanes with major parts missing and pieces blown off. B-17 tail gunner Casimer Piatek recorded one attack—by a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter—in his diary after a 1943 mission to bomb German shipyards. “The very next thing I knew I was hung to the top of the tail position and we were in a very steep dive. We dove from 23,000 feet to about 12,000 feet. I took a look at [waist gunner] Ryan and his face was one mess of blood. Then I went to the radio room and saw Gentry lying on the floor with damn near half his side blown out…. I looked out the radio hatch and saw about six feet of our horizontal stabilizer missing.” The bomber struggled back across the English Channel, and the pilot put it down at a British fighter field. The injured men were transported to the hospital.

B-17 crews loved the bomber: “Steady as a battleship,” one RAF pilot broadcast after a mission.

The Bureau of Motion Pictures at the U.S. Office of War Information produced a 10-minute film about the B-17 Flying Fortress in 1942, with the dramatic narration typical of the department’s products during the war. This excerpt opens with footage that appears to have been shot from the ball turret, and watching the airplane’s vertical stabilizer in the frame is mesmerizing. It’s also interesting to learn, as the 10 airmen board, how the crew is organized.

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About Richard P. Hallion

Dr. Richard P. Hallion is an aerospace historian who writes and consults widely on aviation and aerospace matters. He formerly served as a founding curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and as The Air Force Historian, and is on the Board of Trustees of Florida Polytechnic University.

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