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Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

America's most famous WWII heavy bomber

by Jeff Ethell

Copyright 1994 by the Confederate Air Force and Jeff Ethell. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 19, Number 1, Spring, 1994 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

The Boeing Aircraft Company's B-17 Flying Fortress is, without much doubt, America's most famous military aircraft. Considered to be one of the major weapons of the Second World War, this four-engined bomber was held in very high esteem by Army Air Forces leaders. After the war, for example, General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz told AAF chief General Hap Arnold that "the B- 17 was the single weapon most responsible for the defeat of Germany."

Ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps in August 1934, the Model 299 flew for the first time on July 28, 1935, but was not designated B-17 until the following January. The aircraft was tested at Wright Field in flyoffs against the Martin 146 (an improved B-10) and the Douglas DB-1 (based on the DC-2 and later designated B-18). Without question the 250 mph Boeing, carrying eight 600 pound bombs, was far superior to the competition. But when the prototype Model 299 crashed because its controls were inadvertently locked on take-off, the B-18 won the Air Corps contract. Boeing was brought to the brink of financial disaster, with the loss of over $6 million. However an Army order for 13 test Y1B-17s kept the program and the company alive. The next major development, the Y1B-17A, incorporated turbo-super-chargers, giving excellent high altitude performance. There was a hint that the Air Corps dream of a long-range strategic bombardment capability might be fulfilled, but the aircraft was not presented in this way.

The B-17 was sold to Congress as the ultimate "defensive" weapon, reflecting the spirit of isolationist prewar years: the bomber would be flown to protect U.S. shores and overseas possessions from enemy fleets — in other words, this marvel of engineering would be an extended arm of coastal artillery. However, within the Air Corps a determined cadre of believers in the B-17 would begin to maneuver behind the scenes to get the superior aircraft ordered in quantity. In February and March 1938, within a year of their delivery, Y1B-17s attached to the 2nd Bomb Group made two goodwill flights to South America. Numerous records were broken, leading to a headline campaign to convince Congress and the public that the B-17 was worth having, and from that point on the Flying Fortress began to take its place in history. From one Y1B-17 built every two weeks in 1937, Fortress production jumped to a peak of 16 per day in April 1944. By the time it was all over 12,731 B-17s had been built.

The first combat mission flown by the Flying Fortress wasn't an American operation at all. RAF Bomber Command Lend-Lease B-17Cs attacked the German port of Wilhelmshaven on July 8, 1941, but subsequent missions left the British unimpressed and their Fortress Is were withdrawn from service. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Army Air Forces in Hawaii had 12 B-17s at Hickam Field and another 12 which were in the process of arriving from California. Several were destroyed by the end of the day.

At Clark Field near Manila, 16 of 35 Forts were destroyed in the initial Japanese attacks. On Dec 10, 1941, the remaining B-17s launched the first American bombing raid of the war by attacking Japanese shipping. But by the end of 1941 those left were so worn out they were flown back to Australia. Several new B-17Es were flown to Java to try to stop the Japanese push against the Dutch East Indies and several units continued to fly out of Australia but there were never a large number of B-17s in the Pacific.

The first B-17E assigned to the Eighth Air Force arrived in England on July 1, 1942, and the first mission was flown by the 97th Bomb Group to Rouen on Aug. 17 with Gen. Ira C. Eaker in the lead. In early November 1942 several groups of the Eighth's Forts were detached to North Africa following the Allied invasion, beginning a long history of the type in the Mediterranean. By mid 1942 the B-17F began to arrive in England and by 1943 it was the model responsible for facing the most ferocious Luftwaffe opposition of the war. The AAF was the Fort used to develop the technique of daylight precision bombing.

In September 1943 the Army Air Forces reached the peak of their B-17 inventory with 6,043, most serving in 33 groups overseas, compared to 45.5 groups of B-24 Liberators flying combat. The two aircraft would have a continual rivalry between their crews, particularly when they served in the same theater. When the Fifteenth Air Force was formed in Italy in late 1943, the AAF could hit Germany with B-17s and B-24s from both west and south, something which forced German production czar Albert Speer to disperse industry and move as much of it underground as possible.

Though AAF prewar planners had a great deal of faith in the self defensive armament of its bombers, in reality fighters and flak make daylight bombing prohibitive without fighter escort. After the Schweinfurt raid of Oct. 14, 1943, when 60 bombers failed to come home, the Eighth Air Force had to cease deep penetration missions until P-47s, P-38s and P-51s could escort them all the way to the target and back. Had it not been for these fighters and their pilots, the AAF Strategic bombing Offensive would have failed. The final Flying Fortress model, the F-17G, began to arrive in England in September 1943 and by the spring of 1944 it was the version most responsible for carrying the war to Germany from England and Italy. It was easily recognized by the addition of a chin turret below the nose. The Eighth Air Force had a peak strength of 2,370 B-17Gs by March 1945.

From 1942 to 1945 B-17s dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets compared to 452,508 tons from the B-24s. Though by comparison the B-17 was slower, could carry fewer bombs, had less range and was produced in fewer numbers, it could take more battle damage and made forced landing nearly effortless. The center of the AAF's public relations effort, the B-17's fame will forever be established in the American mind.

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