The B-17 in Europe

by Rocky Fox, May 3, 2001

Perhaps no aircraft during World War II defines the air war in Europe more than the B-17. The "Flying Fortress" as it was known with its ten man crew, long range capability and massive bomb load brought devastation upon Europe and helped swing the tide of war. This paper will examine the development of the B- 17, the crew, and most importantly the missions, two successes and two failures.

The birth of the B-17 can be traced all the way back to World War I. The infective ground and sea campaigns of the "Great War" left military strategists searching for a way to leap frog the main front and destroy the war making ability and resources of the front line army. Following the end of the war strategic bombing became a developing strategy in air warfare. It was believed that with long range strategic bombing, planes could destroy the means of production, and break the civilians willingness to sustain the war effort. This in turn would directly affect the front line army and make it either unwilling or unable to continue fighting. Yet following the losses incurred by the "Great War" the American public grew isolationist and the development or talk of such weapons was put on the back burner.

Finally in 1934 the Army Air Corps invited manufactures to compete for a long- range bomber contract. The specifications made included the ability to reach Alaska, Hawaii or Panama, a 200mph rate of speed and a payload of 2,000lbs (1). On July 16,1935 the Boeing aircraft company unveiled its Model 299 (renamed X- 13372) with a 3000 mile range, 2000 payload, and reaching 220 mph. The Boeing Company was awarded a contract by the Army Air Corp and they soon began on the "first" B-17, the Y1B-17. Continual tinkering and improvements including changing the four engines from Pratt and Whitney Hornet to Wright Cyclone to Moss-General Electric improved the B-17 through the years. The first models including the Y1B-17, Y1B-17A, B-17B, B-17C, and B-17D were basically the same plane with minor adjustments. These planes were built in small numbers with no major production. The first five models totaled only 123 planes.

This all changed with the B-17E. The lend-lease agreement between the United States and the British helped with the development of the B-17. The British using the earlier B-17 models in real combat situations gave the Boeing company recommendation, which were incorporated in the B-17E. Improvements included a top rotating turret, a bottom, ball turret and a tail gunner. The B-17E with its added armaments, increased range (3,300 miles), increased speed (318 mph) was battle ready and the production numbers were increased to 512. Slight modifications were made with the B-17F (4,420 miles range, 325 mph,) but production was increased to 2,300 by Boeing, 605 by Douglas Aircraft, and 500 by Vega (Lockheed). The last model B-17G (3,750 miles range, 302 mph) with production by Boeing of 4,035, Douglas Aircraft produced 2,395 and Vega produced 2,250. The last three models are the most important and relevant to World War II and this paper. The development and modification of the B-17 from 1935 to 1945 showed the industrial power of the United States and the commitment by the Army Air Corp to strategic bombing as a military tactic.

More important the physical makeup of the B-17 was the men that flew and defended it. The "flying fortress" was made up of a ten-man crew each with specific assignments, positions, and responsibilities. A brief description of each crewmembers responsibilities will demonstrate the capabilities and power the B-17 posed. The Pilot whose average age was 21 was both the handler of the bomber and the crew. He was in charge of getting the bomber and the crew to the target and returning it home safely. The Co-Pilot was a specific requirement on all US Army medium and heavy bombers. The rigors of flying in close formation for long periods of time made a second pilot necessary. On many occasions one pilot would become battle causality and the second pilot would land the plane. The bombardier was the man who armed and dropped the bombs on the target using his Norton bombsight. On missions the lead plane and the lead bombardier would drop his bombs and the rest of the formation would follow suit. The bombardier also manned a .50 caliber in the nose of the plane. The navigator was in charge of determining the position of the aircraft in relation to the target and to the base. The navigator used four different forms of navigation; pilotage (visual reference to the ground), dead reckoning (keeping account of heading speed and last know position), and radio and celestial (astronomical). The navigator also manned a .50 caliber machine gun in the nose of the plane. The first four men, all in the front of the plane, were officers with the last six being enlisted men. The flight engineer was responsible for servicing the plane while in the air or if I landed away from the base. He had a wide knowledge of the B-17 and in some emergency cases flight engineers landed B- 17's. However, more importantly the flight engineer manned the top turret .50- caliber machine gun. From the top turret the flight engineer could survey 360 degrees around the top of the plane surveying for enemy fighters. The Radio Operator located in the middle of the plane survived many roles. The radio operated handled communications between their B-17 and the rest of the formation. He also manned a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the top of the plane. The radio operator was also trained as the first aid man of the crew. The radioman also triggered a camera that would take picture in ten second intervals of the bombs hitting the target, which could be used later at headquarters. The Waist gunners (right and left) manned .50 caliber machine guns along the side if the bomber. They protected lateral field of approach by enemy fighter. Waist gunners received the most causalities on B-17's because they were the most exposed of any crewmember. The ball gunner, normally a shorter man, filled the ball turret underneath the B-17. The turret gave him complete view of the underbelly of the B-17 and he had movement of the turret with foot pedals. Incorporated in the later models of the B-17 the turret provided excellent defensive positioning. Although considered the worst place to be on a B17 statistically it was the safest (2). The ball turret was scrapped in later models of the B-17 to save weight but only once enemy fighters were less frequent. The tail gunner manned the most important defensive position. The tail was the most frequent place of attack by enemy fighters and therefore the tail gunner need to be skilled in fighting of the enemy.

These ten men with their electrically heated suited communicated on an intercom and operated as unit in defending and achieving the mission of the B-17. More than the plane, it was the men of the B-17 that made it a success. The ability of the pilots to steer the plane, the ability of the bombardier to drop the bombs with the help of the navigator and radio operator, and the gunners defending the plane, all ten men made for a successful mission.

With the background of the B-17 understood we must now examine the missions of the B-17 in Europe. One unsuccessful mission and one successful mission will illustrate the weakness and the power of the B-17. Much of 1942 was spent training and preparing the Army Air Force and in initial limited operations. However in 1943 repeated attempts were made to use strategic bombing to bring Nazi Germany to its knees. The British used nighttime "carpet" bombing, while the Americans used daylight "precision" bombing.

One of the most disastrous attempts to use B-17's and daylight precision bombing occurred on August 17, 1943. The 8th Air Force launched a double- pronged attack on the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg in South Bavaria and simultaneously hitting the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt (3). The mission included 376 "flying fortresses," of which 315 dropped their bombs. This attack marked the deepest penetration into Germany some 500 miles into the heart of Europe. The Allies had no effective long-range fighter to protect the bombers, so the bombers went unescorted defended only by the guns, which they possessed. Delayed from their bases in England because of weather the B-17's were attacked with a ferocity never seen before. The weather delay meant that the rendezvous that was planned for over the English Channel never happened and the planes became spread out and easier to pick off.

The Nazi's threw everything they had at the oncoming bombers. Everything from fighters, 20mm cannons, rockets, even bombers dropping bombs from above on the B-17's were used. It was said, "The flak was so thick you could walk on it. (4)" The Luftwaffe (German Air force) used many tactics in their fight against the B-17's at Regensburg and Schweinfurt. Attacking out of the sun in some cases the fighters where hard to pick up for the gunners on the B-17's. A major shortcoming of the B-17's on this raid was weak frontal armaments. Manned with only a .30 machine gun in the nose the bombers were severally out gunned. A tactic that was especially effective at Schweinfurt was the joint concentrated attack by numerous fighters on specific groups. These groups, in their "combat box", of three to twelve planes would be pickoff one by one as the rest of the planes went on to the target. The 100th bomb group returned only two of the nineteen bombers it sent up on August 17, and became known as the "bloody 100th. (5)" The total loss of planes number sixty B-17's. This equates to the loss of 600 men on one bombing run and does not include the causalities suffered by the planes that returned. Not only were the losses huge but the raid was also not totally effective. Only 40% of the ball bearing capabilities were destroyed. The Allies had bad information which failed to show that Schweinfurt, although a major part of the ball bearing production of Germany was not the sole place of production as the Allies believed. The ineffectiveness of the August 17 raid was followed by another raid on Schweinfurt three months later on October 17, 1943. This raid was just as ineffective, producing similar losses and became known as "Blood Thursday." These two ineffective raids brought outrage by the American public and lead to the Army Air Crop reviewing the idea of daylight precision bombing. Daylight bombing was halted until February of 1944.

The earlier raids of 1943 proved that unescorted B-17, with all the firepower they posed, was still vulnerable to Germany fighters. The B-17G, with a chin turret in the front that posed two .50 caliber machine guns, began showing up in the sky over Europe in 1944 and most importantly the P51 Mustang was developed. The P51 Mustang, a long-range fighter, began escorting B-17's from England to their targets and back in 1944. One mission that was deemed a success in 1944 was the raid on Berlin on March 6, 1944. This was the first time that massive amounts of B-17's were sent to bomb, the "Big B," Berlin (6). Escorted by the P51 and British Thunderbolts the B-17's suffered fewer losses than they had during the raids of August and October 1943. Not only were losses less but also the impact of the actual raid was double. This first raid on Berlin served as both a military and a political victory. Not only were vital military targets including military factories hit but also, the psychological damage of the raid may have been even greater. The fact that the German capital was not invincible brought doubt into the minds of the German people, just as the Dolittle raid's had done in Japan. Although British bombers had hit Berlin in 1940 nothing compared to the six hundred heavy bombers that hit the Nazi capital on March 6. This first major raid on the capital would be one of many raids on the Nazi capital that would continue until the end of the war. At times one thousand plane raids would be launched on the devastated city. It was said, "Germany built a fortress but the forgot to put a roof on it. (7)" This victory over Berlin in March of 1944 marked a dramatic turn in the air war. The supped up B-17 with long-range fighter escort could now effectively hit German targets without the major losses that had been experienced earlier in the war. The B-17 in its many different forms had its trials and tribulations during the course of the air war in Europe. The B-17 was not the fastest or the biggest plane of the war but it seems it has a special place in World War II lore. The power and punishment the B-17 was able to bring upon its enemy, along with the punishment that was inflicted upon the planes and the crews has ensure its place in history. The B-17 was a vital tool in the air war. Not only did it destroy the cities and factories of Germany but it also destroyed the Luftwaffe itself (8). By the time the Allies landed at Normandy air superiority was in the hands of the Allies. This air superiority made the ground campaign possible and successful. It would be foolish to say the B-17 won the war in Europe. But what can be said is that the B-17 as a weapon helped swing the tide of war in the favor of the allies. This "flying fortress" for all its shortcomings and all its innovations was truly a revolutionary weapon that changed not only World War II but also the face of war forever.


Boeing Company Website. April 29, 2001.

Freeman, A. Roger. B-17: Fortress at War. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.

Jablonski, Edward. Flying Fortress. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1965.

Smoler, Fredrick. "B-17," American Heritage Journal. May/June 1999, Volume 50, Issue 3, pg. 60.

Wilmot, H.P. B-17 Flying Fortress. Secaucus, NJ: Bison Boos, 1980.


1. Freeman, pg. 24

2. Freeman, pg. 65

3. Wilmot, pg. 21

4. Jablonski, pg. 73

5. Wilmot, pg. 37

6. Jablonski, pg. 223

7. Jablonski, pg. 128

8. Freeman, pg. 112

revised 5/3/01 by Rocky Fox for the WWII Timeline