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The Flight of Old 666 - One B17 in the Pacific

   You may have seen this before: pretty incredible. The story of "Old 666" has
    been on the Military Channel at least twice. There is a lot more to the story. Hope you
    get to see it sometime. The Japanese called it the "Ghost Ship". They had put several
    hundred rounds in it but it kept on flying. The ground crew said they had never seen
    a plane so shot up but could still fly. The 666 gunners did shoot several "zeros" down.












The 1944 Wartime Crash of a B17

Plane # 43-37763 - Crew #3712 ?Pilot: Frank B. Toftness


Prepared by the Families and Friends of the Crewmembers



Draft Dated: September 1, 2002



FOREWORD - March 2002


During World War II approximately 400,000 American military and merchant marines were killed.?Most of these individuals were reported Killed In Action, KIA, or Missing In Action, MIA.?Due to wartime censorship, very few family members know how their loved ones were killed or where they were missing in action.?Perhaps, the Crash of a B17 over the North Sea on July 21, 1944 is a typical example of what happened to these individuals and their families during and after the war.


There were nine crewmembers on the B17 when it was downed in 1944.?Seven were reported MIA and one reported as KIA.?The telegrams received by their “next of kin?were of the following impersonal form:









                         ULIO, THE ADJUTANT GENERAL


For the seven MIA the phase “killed in action?was replaced by “missing in action??The form letter that followed gave no additional information.? During the next several months, several family members of the crew, who had exchanged home addresses, started to communicate.?Some families were able to receive some of the details from the one crewmember that survived the crash.


It is over 57 years since the crash of the plane; however, many family members are still haunted by the fact that they do not know the details and location of the crash and what happened to the families of the crewmembers.?The search for these answers started on August 15, 2001.?After 5 months and 17 days, communication with all nine crewmembers?families was established.?This document is an attempt to consolidate and summarize the information that has been obtained during the last six months.?In most cases it was only necessary to transfer copies of Emails into this document.?As expected, after 57 years, some of the information is inconsistent.?


As a result of this search, our objective is to have a group memorial service for the crewmembers and their families at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Gerard O’Regan of County Cork, Ireland, founded the War Plane Research Group, which is a nonprofit group that specializesin the reconstruction and documentation of plane crashes during WW-II of both the German and Allied Forces.?/span> Gerard is 49 years old and a captain in the security forces of Henkel Chemical Corp. and conducts these searches, with the assistance of a few friends, as a hobby.?He is shown at Patsy Pines Grave, Winehester, VA Nov. 2000.? He starts every search by writing the Postmaster at the last known address of the crewmember.


The search of the crash of the B 17G Flying Fortress, was initiated by the family of the Plane’s Pilot, Frank Toftness, nephew Dick Toftness and his wife Donna Whitman.


At this point in time, the “family?has located relatives Jim Hendershot, nephew of Wilbur Hall  and daughter Judy, Ed Wilson, brother of George Wilson, Joy Carlson daughter of Frank Toftness, Louis Lenti son of Adoph Lenti, Lloyd Peacock and his wife and daughter Matha, John Stachowiak, Brother of Robert. Sandra Meredith, daughter of Robert Shearer and the wife of Harry Beasley, Barbara Scaggs/Beasley from Beverton, Oregon who is 86 years old.


In addition to the hard work of Gerard, Jim Hendershot devoted a significant amount of time and energy to make contact with the relatives of the crewmembers.?Prior to this search, Lou Lenti, son of Adolph Lenti, conducted an independent investigation.?During the past several years Ed Wilson has collected, from his older brothers and sisters, a large number of letters written by George to his mother and other family members while he served in the military.?Also, he has several letters, written after George’s death, between his mother, the U.S. military, and the relatives of other crewmembers.?We have incorporated a significant amount of this information into this document.

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Shown to the right is a photo of the plane and the crewmembers that George Wilson mailed home, prior to their flight to England. Jim Hendershot, from the names on the back of his photo, has identified the other crewmembers and their positions.  The name of the Training Aircraft shown is not known; or, it may have been FoxyLady or MissGI.  


B 17G -Crew #3712 - Taken in late April, 1944 Alexandria, Louisiana

Front Row ?Left to Right:  Frank Toftness, Pilot ?R. Blaner, Co-Pilot- Robert Stachowiak, Navigator, and Harry M. Beasley ?Bombardier

Back Row ?Left to Right:  Ray Orr- Engineer - Wilber Hall-Radio Op. ?Wayne Shrader, Armorer ?George Wilson, 1st Gunner - Lloyd Peacock 2nd Gunner - Adolph Lenti-3rd.Gunner

At the time of the crash on July 21, 1944, Lt. Robert Shearer had replaced Lt. R. Blanor, and Sgt. Shrader was not on the flight due to an ear infection.

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The reference number for the Plane is 43-37763.  Records indicate that that it was first delivered to Cheyenne Airfield on May 19th 1944, then to Kearney Airfield on June 2nd 1944. George Wilson wrote on May 29, "we were supposed to leave here a few days ago but we are getting our plane overhauled."  This may indicate why the new plane, that required repair, could have been named MissGI.  However, the name of the plane could have been the FoxyLady.

After departing Kearney AAFB and landed at Dow Field, Bangor Maine where they were equipped with rafts, Mae Wests, and other equipment. They departed Dow Field and stopped at Gander, New Foundland for refueling. Their departure for the British Isles had to be delayed because of bad weather. George Wilson wrote two letters home, from Newfoundland, dated June 5 and June 6.  The two letters were in the same envelope - on the outside of the envelope it indicated that it was censored and approved by Lt. Harry Beasley.  They subsequently left Gander and may have landed at Nutts Corner, adjacent to Belfast in Northern Ireland. George wrote on June 11 ?well here I am in England.

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On July 21, 1944, the crash occurred on their 7th mission, on the way to Wurzburg Germany. to bomb a Synthetic oil refinery. The plane took off on the daylight mission from Chelveston, England. The general weather over that part of England was as follows: At 7am on Friday 21st July 1944, the weather (from the Midlands to the south coast) was blowing from the east, bringing low cloud (below 1000feet) and light drizzle. The temperature was in the mid 50's deg F, wind 15-20knots. At 1300 GMT, the cloud had cleared to half cover with Cumulus cloud about 2000 feet, the temp - about 60deg F.

The wartime intelligence report on the loss of the plane and with the assistance of the Sgt Peacock is as follows:

This aircraft was hit by AA gunfire about ten minutes inside the enemy coast and was forced to turn back. It was plotted by air-sea rescue as being 65 miles off the English coast on a bearing of 120 degrees. It was given a heading to try to get to Woodbridge. Friendly fighters were following the aircraft and reported that some of the crew were bailing out. The fighters followed the parachutes down and radioed in the position reports on them. Later in the afternoon, one man a Sgt Peacock was brought to England after being picked up, he had been swimming naked in the North Sea for forty five minutes, and is now in the 91st American Hospital. Later in the day a body was found, that of Sgt George E Wilson. Sgt Peacock reported that the aircraft blew up shortly after he bailed out. So far as is known, he is the only survivor.

Peacock stated: ‘‘our aircraft was hit by flack and engines one and four were knocked out of commission. Three of the crewmembers bailed out of the plane. The three men were Sgt. Wilson, Sgt. Lenti and myself. The parachutes of Wilson and Lenti opened and they landed in the sea close to each other. I landed some distance from them and did not see them again. Friendly fighters followed us down and probably radioed our positions to Air-Sea Rescue, as shortly after two amphibious aircraft arrived over our position, but were unable to land because of the very rough seas. However, one of the planes dropped me a one-man life raft, but I was unable to inflate it as there was no Co2 cylinder in the raft. About 45 minutes after I had landed in the sea an Air-Sea Rescue launch arrived and I was taken aboard. The body of Sgt Wilson was picked up by the same launch, but there was no trace of Lenti or anyone else. Just prior to bailing out I glanced towards the forward of the ship, yelled to the radio operator to hurry and saw the pilot and co-pilot leaving their seats. Just as soon as I had left the ship, and passed the tail surfaces, the aircraft exploded and went down in a ball of fire. I watched the ship until it hit the water, and no one else got out of that ship except Wilson, Lenti and I. The engines one and four were knocked out over Germany, so we turned back, salvoed (dropped) our bombs, and we were making good progress until got over the Frisian Islands, where another barrage of flack was loosed at us, and that barrage knocked out number two engine, and that was the cause of us going down. We had an escort of friendly fighters all the way back from Germany, until our ship was hit over the Frisian Islands.''

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In the official "Summary of the Investigation" of the crash of the plane, dated 28 January 1949, stated: "The last known position of the subject aircraft was plotted as being 65 miles off the English coast on a bearing of 120 degrees, by Air-Sea Rescue. This point was further plotted on maps in this office is about 35 miles southwest of one of the Frisian Islands. The nearest land to the area of the crash is the English coastal towns of Suffolk."

Nick Sanchez, in a letter to Lou Lenti, indicated that he was in another damaged plane off Toftness Plane right wing as they were returning to England. The plane was heading straight for England and got shot up again over Dunkirk so that their airplane blew up over the channel. Only the waist gunner escaped.

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From B-17CombatCrewmen.Org 

The development of the B-17 Flying Fortress was unique to aviation history.  In 1933 the Boeing Company assumed the expense of the design, and production of  the bomber prototype that led to the B-17.  The first prototype flew on July 28, 1935.  By 1938 Boeing started delivering B-17s to the US Military.  The imminence of war brought numerous Fortress modifications, with the B- 17C as a result. Later, the D, E, F, and the B-17G appeared with the chin turret in large numbers. Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed Aircraft Companies built some 12,731 Fortresses before production ended in late 1944.

A total of 4,750 B-17's were lost on combat missions, more than any other type of aircraft. This was because the Fortress did so much of the fighting. Forts shot down an average of twenty-three fighters per thousand-plane raid, compared with eleven shot down by U S fighters. During the war, B-17's dropped a total of 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets. This compares with 452,508 tons dropped by B-24's and 436,544 tons dropped by all other US aircraft.

The B-17 Combat Crewmen & Wingmen organization is dedicated to preserving the memory of the gallant airmen, both living and dead, who served in the mighty Air War of WW-II and to the memory of their vehicle, the famous B-17 Flying Fortress. Known as "QUEEN OF THE SKIES", she earned the love and respect of all who flew, serviced, or just admired her, along with those who tried to destroy her in aerial combat. She stayed in the air and brought her crews home safely against all odds. We are proud to be a part of her great heritage.

The purpose and objectives of this organization are to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the B-17 Flying Fortress high altitude bomber and the heroic men who flew, serviced, or contributed in some manner to the epic role the Flying Fortress played in bringing World War II to a final conclusion. The Flying Fortress carved for itself an ever-deepening niche in the history of military aviation.

The many roles of the B-17 may never be completely recorded. Every man of the thousands who flew them, every man of the handful who still fly them, hold something of her great story in his memory. Most did not fly for pleasure, nor as their chosen vocation; the Fort was their transportation to places they never dreamed of seeing, let alone destroying. The Flying Fortress was a heavy bomber designed to destroy the places it visited. Destroy it did, and was often itself destroyed in the effort.

Like all machines, the B-17 is mute and the men who flew her, or flew in her must speak her for. When her name was a familiar term, she was regarded with admiration, or with dread, throughout the world. The organization was formed to perpetuate her glorious name and reputation. It is not our intention to take away any of the praise from the Liberator and her crews, she too earned a place of distinction in history, and we have the same respect for the gallant and courageous airmen who served with her. However, we have a romance with the Flying Fortress and many can recall seeing them make it back to base with tail sections gone, noses blown away, wings with large sections missing, and engines on one, or both sides not operating. Most of them did come home - some living long combat lives, many topping the one-hundred mission mark - "Nine-0-Nine" of the 91st, "Thunderbird" of the 303rd, and "Jamaica Ginger" of the 388th bomb group, to mention a few.

Today, only a small percent of the American people are old enough to remember the years from 1939 to 1945. The other know very little about the years, which are probably the most significant period in American history since 1776. They don't know of the events that plunged the world into war or the horrors endured by millions of people, soldiers, and civilians alike. Nor, do they know of the great accomplishments of American industry or the great victories achieved in the air, on the land, and on the sea by civilian soldiers and seamen who, only a few months earlier, had no military training and no intention of going to war. We want to help tell the story of the accomplishments of this nation, and other free people of the world during the period from 1941 to 1945.



On October 14, 1943, the air over Europe reached a critical turning point. On that Thursday, the United States Eighth Air Force mounted Mission No. 115 against the city of Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball bearing industry. Sixteen bomber groups from the 1st and 3rd Air divisions participate in the strike. In all 291 Boeing B-17 Flying took off from bases in England and headed east toward the border. As the bombers formed over the Channel, short-range British Supermarine fighters climbed to escort the heavies to the Continent. There Republic P-47 Thunderbolts took over, escorting the flying armada to the German border. But insufficient range prevented the Thunderbolts from keeping the bombers company all the way to the target. Turning somewhere around Aachen, just inside the German border, the P-47s left the unescorted bombers to a catastrophic fate.

Out of 291 bombers dispatched, 257 actually entered German airspace. Sixty were shot down, just over 20 percent of the total number. Two hundred twenty-nine B-17s reached Schweinfurt and dropped their bombs. Only 197 returned to England. Of those, five planes were abandoned or crashed on landing, while 17 others landed so damaged that they had to be written off. Altogether, 82 of the 291 original bombers that left England were lost, more than 28 percent of the entire force assigned to the raid.

Moreover, the Schweinfurt raid was the climax of a week of strikes against German industrial targets. Between October 8 and 14, 1943, the Eighth Air Force flew 1,342 heavy bomber sorties, losing a total of 152 bombers (11.3 percent), with another 6 percent receiving heavy damage. During the entire month of October, the Eighth lost a total of 214 heavy bombers, almost 10 percent of the total number dispatched. Lost and damaged planes constituted more than half the sorties flown during the month.

At that rate of attrition, an entirely new bomber force would be required every three months in order to maintain the Allied bomber offensive. After the prohibitive losses sustained in October 1943, the Eighth Air Force suspended deep bomber strikes into German territory. Two premises of daylight strategic bombing--that bombers would be able to get through enemy defenses and back without escorts, and that destroying the enemy's industrial base would cripple its war effort-appeared to be greatly mistaken.

American air leaders, recognizing the inability of unescorted heavy bombers to get through and bomb German industry without excessive losses, questioned the very foundation of American air strategy. But why did American air leaders initially believe their heavy bombers would always get through, and what were the consequences of the American strategic doctrine when applied in the skies over the Third Reich? How has American air doctrine changed as a result.

The airplane, initially used during World War I in a reconnaissance role to locate enemy troop and artillery movements and concentrations, evolved throughout the conflict to perform all of the roles identified with modern air power - including strategic bombing. Although it was an immature weapons system during the Great War, the airplane's enormous potential fueled the imaginations of interwar air theorists, foremost among them Italy's Giulio Douhet.

Assuming that population and industrial centers would be vulnerable to fleets of heavy bombers, Douhet advocated attacking an enemy nation's urban areas and factories with explosives, incendiaries and poisonous gas--with no distinction being made between combatant and noncombatant. Douhet believed that the impact of strategic bombing would simultaneously demoralize and enemy's civilian population and destroy its capacity to wage war.

During the 1920s, Douhet's theories and those of air power advocate Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell gained champions within the U.S. Army Air Corps, and strategic bombing doctrine began to be reflected in its field manuals. Chief among this new generation of bomber advocates in the late 1930s was the leader of the Army Corps, General Henry "Hap"  Arnold. As the commander in chief of American air service, Arnold surrounded himself bomber men," disciples of daylight strategic precision bombing. According to Arnold and his top commanders, the primary purpose of air power in Europe during coming conflicts would strategic bombing. bombing was the only major contribution the airmen could make to the war effort that was independent of the Army and Navy. If air power was to show its capabilities as an equal partner to ground and naval forces, it had to be done through the successes of strategic bombing.

Because of the prohibitive cost creating a bomber fleet on "Douhetian" scale in the fiscal environment, the U.S. Air Corps Tactical advocated only the precision bombing of an enemy nation's vital centers--its factories, sources, transportation and materials. Advocates believed goal could be achieved through use of the new, fast, long-range "precision bombers" coming service late in the 1930s, B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator Powered by four engines, the B-17s and B-24s were, at the time of their test in the mid-1930s, faster than most of the world's interceptors. "If the speed of the bomber was such make interception improbable, or at worst, infrequent, then provision need be made for fighters to accompany the bombers on their long range missions said one modern analyst of the 1930s air doctrine. Moreover, new heavy bombers flew above 20,000 feet, too high to be reached most ground-based anti-aircraft.

The Air Corps bomber men the American heavy bombers fly high and fast into territory, eluding interceptors and anti-aircraft defenses. Once above the target area, "self-defending" American bombers would utilize the world's sophisticated bombsight ?Norden - that allowed for such factors as speed, course, wind direction and distance to target. Under favorable conditions, trained aircrews were able to place payloads within a few hundred feet of their target from over 15,000 feet, prompting an Army Air spokesman to boast that aircrews could "drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 25,000 feet." But for the Norden bombsight to work well, American pilots had to deliver their payloads daylight hours, in good weather and in level flight.

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Additional Remarks on the B17 by Ed Wilson

The B17 aircraft was modified extensively during WWII.   In addition, the role of the crewmembers changed during the war.  For example,  in Alexandria, Louisiana the Toftess crew trained with 10 members including three gunners, armorer and radio operator.  Also, by the time the plane and crew flew its first mission in June 1944, German fighters were no longer a threat to the plane.  Lloyd Peacock told Lou Lenti that in the six missions they completed, no German fighters were encountered.  Therefore, the German antiaircraft flack was the major threat and was capable of downing planes flying at 25,000 feet.  Therefore, near the end of 1944 and early 1945, some B-17 flew missions without gunners with fighter support. Most of the crew were trained to do several different functions.  For example, George Wilson had gone to school to be the alternate radio operator in addition to being the first gunner.   

The B-17 was not a comfortable aircraft.  It was not pressurized and the temperature within the aircraft at high altitudes was well below freezing.   Flying above 20,000 feet, crew members were required to wear oxygen masks.  After a few 8 to 12 hour missions many crewmembers suffered from ear, throat and other medical problems in addition to the possibility of being wounded.  Hence, very few planes, with the same crew, completed 25 missions. 

Jim Herdershot pointed out that in the early days of the air war over Germany, if a B-17 went down and the crew members were captured all crew members under the rank of  sergeant were treated very poorly.  Therefore, by 1944 all of the crew members in a B17 were deservedly promoted to the rank of  Sergeant before they were sent into combat. This accounts for the fact that 20 year old George Wilson, who was in the service less than two years, was promoted so rapidly.   (Whereas, his younger brother, 23 year old Ed who was drafted  in 1955 with a BS in Engineering from UC Berkeley, with luck, good behavior and a bad attitude, managed to be promoted to PFC after spending 15 months in Korea after the war).    Fortress G-BEDF Sally B is the only airworthy B-17 in the UK, where she has flown regularly at airshows for over 23 years as a flying memorial to the USAF in Europe. Based at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford from where she is maintained and flown by a dedicated team of professional volunteers. Operated by B-17 Preservation Ltd, backed by one of the largest supporters clubs in the world, and painted in the colours of Memphis Belle for her leading role in the recent film of the same name, DeltaWeb are proud to welcome this famous aircraft and her loyal crew to our pages.         November 2002

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Cambridge American Cemetery in England

Wall at Cambridge American Cemetery Where the Seven MIA Crewmember are Listed

Ed at brother George’s grave at Cambridge American Cemetery on September 15, 2002

The Cambridge American Cemetery in England, located 60 miles north of London, is a very beautiful, peaceful place.  The grass appears to be trimmed or mowed ever few days. It is maintained by The American Battle Monuments Commission and is one of 14 cemetery memorials erected on foreign soil after World War II.

Most of the 3,812 Americans currently buried at Cambridge were crew-members of American aircraft. The Wall at the cemetery contains the names of 5,126 MIA including the seven names of George’s fellow crew-members. After the war in 1945 approximately 9,000 Americans had been buried at the cemetery.  In 1948, the next-of-kin  were given the option to move the remains of their loved ones to any military or private cemetery in the United States.  .

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B-17 in European Theatre - Last revised July 26, 1999

It was to be in the European theatre of operation that the B-17 Flying Fortress would acquire its reputation.

The Eighth Air Force was formed in Britain to carry out daylight bombing raids against German targets in Europe. These raids were to be carried out by unescorted Fortresses flying at high altitude in tight formations for protection against enemy fighters. The defensive firepower of the B-17 was thought to be sufficient to fend off Luftwaffe attacks. At the same time that the USAAF carried out its daylight attacks, the Royal Air Force was to fly coordinated nighttime raids.

The first Eighth Air Force units arrived in Britain on May 12, 1942. The first USAAF Flying Fortress (B-17E serial number 41-9085) arrived at Prestwick in Scotland on July 1, 1942. The first Flying Fortress raid over Europe was launched on August 17, 1942 by 18 B-17Es of the 97th Bombardment Group against railroad marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in France. Twelve planes made the actual attack and the remaining six flew a diversionary sweep up the coast. Brig Gen Ira Eaker flew along on this raid in B-17E 41-9023 "Yankee Doodle". The formation was escorted by Spitfires. No opposition was encountered from the Luftwaffe.

On August 19, twenty four Fortresses took part in an attack on the German airfield at Abbeville in support of the disastrous raid at Dieppe. All planes returned safely to base, but the landing force at Dieppe was decimated.

The next ten raids went fairly well, with only two planes being lost.

Deteriorating weather and the needs of the North African front caused a change in plans, and most of the Eighth Air Force B-17s had to be diverted to the fight against Rommel. The two most experienced bomber groups, the 97th and 301st were committed to *Operation Torch* as the nucleus of the newly-formed Twelfth Air Force. On September 20, 1942, General James Doolittle formed the nucleus of the 12th Air Force in England, and early in October the 97th, 99th, 301st, and 2nd Bombardment Groups were transferred to the new formation. The air war against the Germans in Europe had to be given a lower priority.

In October 1942, attention of the depleted 8th Bomber Command was concentrated against German submarine pens situated along the French coast. These pens were constructed of thick concrete and were highly resistant to bomb damage. The attacks against these pens were largely ineffectual. Many raids against the sub pens had to be scrubbed on account of bad weather, and those raids which were carried out were often inaccurate because of poor visibility over the target. The bombing campaign against the submarine pens was extremely costly in terms of lost airplanes and crews and had no real effect upon the German submarine campaign. It turned out that the submarine threat was best met at sea.

On January 3, 1943 the new bombing-on-the-leader technique was introduced. Instead of each plane dropping its bombs individually, all bombardiers released their bombs when the saw the bombs leave the bay of the lead aircraft. This technique usually resulted in better accuracy, since the most skilled bombardier was generally in the lead plane.

The successful completion of the North African campaign resulted in the resumption of the bomber offensive against the Germans in northern Europe. The first USAAF mission over Germany was a raid on January 27, 1943 against the U-boat construction yards at the port of Wilhelmshaven. It was carried out by a force of B-17Fs drawn from the 92st, 303rd, 305th, and 306th Bomb Groups.

March 18 saw first use of Automatic Flight Control Equipment (AFCE) in a raid on the Bremer Vulkan shipbuilding yards at Vegesack. AFCE was a system in which the Norden bombsight controlled the aircraft during the final bomb run via a link with the autopilot. Luftwaffe fighters put up strong opposition that day, but their attacks were relatively uncoordinated.

On April 17, 1943, the Focke-Wulf plant at Bremen was attacked by a force of 115 Fortresses. The Luftwaffe came out in full strength that day, and 16 B-17s did not return, the heaviest loss rate to date. After that date, German fighter attacks began to become increasingly more effective and better coordinated, and bomber losses frequently were over ten percent of the attacking force, especially whenever the Fortresses went beyond the limited radius of their fighter escorts. The German fighters began to attack the Fortress formations from the "twelve o'clock high" spot directly head-on. This innovation was supposedly introduced by Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Egon Mayer, who had noticed that the firepower from the B-17 was weak in the nose area, with there being significant blind spots that neither the nose guns nor the top-turret gunner could adequately cover from the front. Additional guns were hastily added to the nose in an attempt to beef up the forward firepower. However, the much-publicized vulnerability to frontal attacks was due more to the lack of armor that was properly positioned to protect the crew against gunfire coming from the front than it was due to the lack of enough front-firing guns. Another problem was the unfortunate tendency of the B-17 to catch fire when hit by flak or cannon fire, which was never really cured.

In June of 1943, the famous "Memphis Belle" (B-17F-10-BO serial number 41-24485 of the 324th Bombardment Squadron of the 91st Bombardment Group) became the first B-17 to complete its crew's quota of 25 missions. A film crew had gone along on the *Memphis Belle's* mission to Wilhelmshaven and this film was widely shown throughout the war. After the last mission, the *Memphis Belle* returned to the United States and carried out a morale-building tour selling US War Bonds.

The next phase of the air war against Germany was to be the destruction of its aviation industry. A critical part of the strategy was to be the elimination of the German ball-bearing industry, since just about any machine which had moving parts required ball-bearings. On July 24-31, 1943, the 8th Air Force attacked 16 major industrial targets in the greatest sustained air offensive to date. On August 17, 1943, a simultaneous attack was carried out on the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt factories at Regensburg. It was the deepest penetration into Germany to that date and was the largest force of B-17s yet dispatched. The losses were catastrophic--the 8th AF lost 60 aircraft out of a force of 376 bombers. The crews claimed 288 German fighters shot down, which was undoubtedly grossly exaggerated.

The Regensburg force went on to North Africa, and returned to England via the Focke Wulf works at Bordeaux. The total losses for the week were over hundred B-17s. Losses like this could clearly not be sustained--a couple of more weeks like this, and the 8th Air Force would be gone.

During August and September of 1943, the new B-17G began to arrive in England. The new chin turret helped meet the head-on attacks by the German fighters.

On September 6, a force of over 400 bombers hit the VKF ball-bearing works at Stuttgart. Weather prevented the attacking force from seeing the target, and bombs were released over the city in a haphazard fashion. A total of 45 bombers were lost to fighters and to accurate flak.

On October 14, 1943, Schweinfurt was visited again, and 60 Fortresses were lost out of a force of 291.

In late 1943, the appalling losses and the meager results that had been obtained led USAAF commanders to rethink the wisdom of continuing with the daylight bombing offensive. Winston Churchill was never a believer in precision daylight bombing and wanted the USAAF to go over to nighttime raids, as the RAF had done from the start. In spite of the attacks on the German aircraft industry, it seemed that the numbers of German fighters rising to meet the attacking Fortresses actually increased rather than decreased. The German aircraft industry was amazingly recuperative. An efficient German labor force, plus the forced labor of captives, was able quickly to repair the damage and to get the damaged facilities back in operation within a few days. In addition, a very effective decentralization program was carried out under the direction of Minister of Armaments Albert Speer.

It soon became apparent that without fighter escort, deep penetrations into Germany would have to be seriously curtailed, if not abandoned altogether. However, in spite of extreme losses, the B-17Fs were never turned back from a raid by enemy fighters or flak, although bad weather caused frequent mission cancellations and callbacks. During the latter weeks of 1943, the 8th Air Force restricted its missions to targets that were within the range of the escort fighters that were beginning to become available, and there were no penetrations into Germany.

In spite of the high losses, the decision was made to continue with the attacks on German industry. In late 1943, the US Strategic Air Forces were organized in Europe under the command of LtGen Carl Spaatz to carry out heavy bomber attacks from England and Italy and to coordinate their efforts with the night attacks of the RAF.

Effective fighter escort did not appear until late 1943 with the arrival of large numbers of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. These aircraft were able to escort the B-17 considerable distances into Germany. The North American P-51D Mustang was the most effective of all the escort fighters, and began to appear in the spring of 1944. It was able to escort the bombers all the way to Berlin.

During the winter in Europe, the weather is generally atrocious. In order to permit bombing during inclement or overcast conditions, a number of Fortresses were fitted with a British-devised radar installation known as H2S which scanned the grounds under the clouds and which could be read by a trained operator like a map. The American version of this device was known as H2X "Bombing Through Overcast" radar, and was installed in the fuselage belly in place of the ball turret. These planes acted as pathfinders, the remaining aircraft in the formation releasing their bombs on visual signals from the radar-equipped Fortresses. This equipment was used for the first time in a raid on the port at Emden.

On January 11, 1944, a 600-plane force of bombers were sent against German aircraft industry targets. Because of the weather, only 238 B-17s actually succeeding in reaching the target. Sixty B-17s were lost.

On February 20, 1944, five days of coordinated USAAF/RAF assaults on the German aircraft industry began, that historians later named "The Big Week". On that day, the first thousand-plane raid took place, with fighter plane factories at Brunswick, Oschersleben, Bernberg, and Leipzig being attacked. The cost of the "Big Week" was heavy, with 244 heavy bombers and 33 fighter planes being lost. However, these raids played an important role in helping to reduce the strength of the Luftwaffe, paving the way for the D-Day landings. The onset of bad weather brought an end to the "Big Week", which was merciful since crews were exhausted and losses had been high. Nevertheless, during this offensive, the back of the Luftwaffe was broken. After this date, the Luftwaffe was never able to throw up the same amount of strength that it had before, and was generally effective only on sporadic occasions or when targets of critical importance were being attacked.

The first B-17 raid on Berlin took place on March 4, 1944. P-51 Mustang fighters escorted the bombers all the way to Berlin and back. On March 6, 600 B-17s returned to Berlin. The Luftwaffe was out in force, and accounted for 69 B-17s and 11 fighter escorts.

In May of 1944, the priority shifted to oil. On May 12, 1944, attacks were begun on German oil-production facilities and synthetic oil-production centers. These attacks caused a sudden and catastrophic drop in German fuel and lubricant supplies. In only two months of attacks, German oil production was cut in half. Especially successful were the attacks on the stubborn oil production facility of Ploesti in Rumania, which had been so resistant to previous attacks. By the time that Ploesti was taken by the Russians, 90 percent of this Rumanian oil production facility had been destroyed. Destruction of the synthetic oil centers had the additional beneficial side effect of cutting the supplies of nitrogen and methanol, which essential in the manufacture of explosives. The postwar Strategic Bombing Survey judged that the oil offensive was the most effective of all the strategic bombing attacks in helping to shorten the war.

The B-17 was less widely used in the Mediterranean theatre. The brunt of the air war in the Mediterranean was borne by the B-24 Liberator, although a few B-17s groups were also involved. The four Bombardment Groups that had been diverted from the 8th Air Force to Africa participated in the Bizerta and Kasserine Pass battles in North Africa. 12th AF B-17s took part in the June 28 raid on Messina, the Sept 5 and 8 raids on Naples, and against the Wermacht counterattack at Salerno between Sept 13 and 18.

Advances up the Italian boot brought German targets within the range of B-17s based in the Mediterranean theatre. In November of 1943, the 15th Air Force was organized to carry out raids on Germany from bases in Italy. It resulted from a reorganization of Doolittle's 12th Air Force into the 15th Air Force with Doolittle in command, and the 9th Air Force with Lewis H. Brereton in command. It was hoped that the 15th AF stationed in the Mediterranean would be able to operate when the 8th was socked in by bad English weather. The 9th AF would later move to England to serve as a tactical unit to take part in the invasion of Europe. Once bases around Foggia in Italy became available, the 15th was able to reach targets in southern France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans, some of which were difficult to reach from England.

The 15th Air Force began its operations on November 2, 1943, attacking the Messerschmitt factory at Weiner-Neustadt in Austria. One of the important achievements of the 15th Air Force was the reduction of the oil fields at Ploesti in July-August 1944.

By early 1945, the Wermacht and the Luftwaffe had been reduced to near impotence by the lack of fuel and supplies, due in no small part to the strategic bombing offensive against Germany carried out by the Lancaster, Halifax, and Stirling bombers of the RAF and the B-24 and B-17 bombers of the USAAF. Due credit must be given to their crews who bravely went out day after day even in spite of appalling losses.


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  2. Famous Bombers of the Second World War, Volume One, William Green, Doubleday, 1959.

  3. Boeing Aircraft Since 1916, Peter M. Bowers, Naval Institute Press, 1989.

  4. United States Military Aircraft Since 1909, Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, Smithsonian, 1989.

  5. Boeing B-17E and F Flying Fortress, Charles D. Thompson, Profile Publications, 1966.

  6. American Combat Planes, Ray Wagner, Third Edition, Doubleday, 1982.

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