The Mighty Eighth

In the previous chapter it was noted that Bradley, with Lt Donald O. Jones and crew, had arrived at Old Buckenham on February 23, 1944. On March 4 they and the crew of Lt Fred G. Brady, Jr., of which more will be written, were assigned to the 733rd Bombardment Squadron (H), 453rd Bombardment Group (H), 2nd Combat Wing, 2nd Air Division, U.S. Eighth Air Force. They were among the first replacement crews assigned to the 453rd.

In order to understand the nature of Bradley's air force service and his role as a bombardier, it is necessary to understand the Army Air Force (AAF) and the planes it flew. Clearly the great industrial powers of the world were locked in deadly battles of a world-wide war that could be concluded only with the total defeat and unconditional surrender of one side or the other--that of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) or of the Allies. It was a war in which no quarter was to be given by either side.

It was recognized that the nature of warfare had changed since World War I and earlier wars. In the history of military conflict nations had always used the highest available technology. Now, in World War II, this would be demonstrated in ways never before possible. Unlike previous wars when massive land armies were thrown against each other, the machine would dominate the scene in this war. And behind these machines in each industrial nation there was a vast industrial complex and a whole populace prepared to support the war by keeping the factories humming. Only advanced industrial nations could undertake and sustain such a war. Germany demonstrated this when the nations of Europe fell to its Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe forces in the blitzkriegs of 1938-40. Industry and the machines it produced were the strength of each nation.

It was to this strength that the war planners of Great Britain and the United States turned their attention. The industrial base from which the Axis powers operated would have to be destroyed! How could this be done?--only by air and then only with huge numbers of long-range bombers carrying a great tonnage of bombs and crews determined to reach and bomb crucial targets. The bomber formations would be accompanied by fighter aircraft for defense and for direct attack upon enemy fighter forces and air bases.

This concept of defeating the enemy by destroying his industrial base was termed "strategic bombing" (as contrasted with "tactical" support of the ground armies in their battles.) Fortunately, in the 1930s Britain and America had developed the long-range bomber aircraft America had developed the B-17 Fortress and B-24 Liberator planes. Each country had an aircraft industry which could be expanded to supply the huge numbers of aircraft needed for global war.

But when the war came, the army of the United States did not have operational air forces ready for deployment. Its Army Air Corps (Army Air Force--AAF--after 1941) had to play "catch-up." Starting from rock bottom in July 1939 when the Corps had only some 1175 obsolete combat aircraft and only 17,000 men to service, maintain and fly them, the aircraft and related industries had to tool up and expand at a


phenomenal rate. It had to supply the aircraft needs of all of our military services--Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard--and later, large numbers of planes for our Allies, in particular, for Russia. See Dwight D. Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe.1

It was one thing to believe that through strategic bombing the enemy could be brought to final defeat--quite another thing to implement the plan to accomplish it and to do it before the enemy could prevail everywhere. Europe was already lost--only Britain remained as a place from which strategic bombing could be carried out. When Pearl Harbor was bombed the situation changed dramatically in all branches of the American military--land, sea and air. Hundreds of military bases and training camps were quickly set up for every conceivable personnel need. Ultimately, some 11,000,000 men and women were taken into service, both enlistees and draftees. Millions more took care of the "home front," manning the factories and the farms.

The AAF grew rapidly. Enlistees came in such large numbers that many were held in the Reserves until there were openings at the training camps. This was Bradley's experience. Bradley, Jones and crew became part of a huge operation. At its peak the air forces of the United States had a strength of some 2,400,000 men and women.

Leadership was an important factor in all that was undertaken and in all that was subsequently accomplished. America was fortunate to have great leaders at all levels: from the President and Commander-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the most distant infantry squad leader and bomber pilot. Leadership, courage when needed, and having the "right stuff"--these were the personal attributes that brought America the final victory. At the top levels of military command, the nation had General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander-Europe. For the AAF there was the incomparable General Henry "Hap" Arnold. He was a career airman who had first flown in 1911 and was chief of America's air forces throughout the war--1938 to 1946.

On January 28, 1942 the U.S. Eighth Air Force was activated at Savannah, Georgia as a strategic air force. General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, veteran combat pilot of World War I, was appointed its commanding officer. He took its first units to Britain in May 1942 and commanded it there from May 1942 to November 1942. After commanding Allied air operations in the Mediterranean theater (MTO) from November 30, 1942 to January 6, 1944, he returned to England as commander of all U.S. air forces in both the ETO and MTO. General Ira Eaker, long an army pilot, was Spaatz's deputy commander and commanded the Eighth when Spaatz was in the MTO. General James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle commanded the Eighth from January 6, 1944 until the German surrender in May 1945.

To understand the enormous task of bringing the Eighth Air Force to operational status in England, one needs to be informed of its organization and development and something of its early experiences. For this purpose, first see Fig. 8 which depicts its bomber, fighter, training and service commands--its air divisions, combat wings, groups and squadrons. All of this had to be assembled and transported to England--a task simple to present on a chart but terribly difficult to achieve in such a short time and in the face of competing demands in all branches of the armed forces in all theaters of war.

While the organization chart, as presented, is most often read from top down, for the purpose of this story it may best be read from bottom up. Thus the single


bomber is the first element to be noted. The reader needs to be mindful not only of the B-24 or B-17 aircraft which is represented but the ten-man crew that was to fly it. Twelve such aircraft comprised a standard squadron. Four squadrons comprised a bombardment group, (H) for heavy, such as the 453rd Bombardment Group (H) of which Bradley's 733rd Bombardment Squadron (H) was a part. Each group with a total complement of nearly 3,000 officers and men occupied a single airbase, as Station 144, Old Buckenham, the home of the 453rd Group. All of the Eighth Air Force bomber group airbases, finally 40 in number, along with the 27 fighter bases of VIII Fighter Command and 42 bomber, fighter and training airbases of the Royal Air Force (RAF) were crowded into the limited area of East Anglia a short distance northeast of London.

Three groups comprised a combat wing as, for example, the 389th, 445th, and 453rd Groups comprised the 2nd Combat Wing. Four or five combat wings comprised an air division, of which the Eighth had three. The 2nd Air Division, which flew the B-24 Liberator exclusively, had five combat wings--the 2nd, 14th, 20th, 95th, and 96th. Figs. 4 and 5 from Hoseason depict the Eighth Air Force deployment of its bomber and fighter groups as of December 1943 and July-August 1944 and the RAF airfields, as well. Note that the locations of air bases, combat wings and air divisions are shown. The air bases were scarcely five miles apart!

VIII Fighter Command was also a part of the organization plan. Known to the bomber crews as "Little Friends," the fighters flew escort with the bomber formations and fought off the attacks of German fighters. Later, they carried their attack against the enemy fighter bases and against fighter aircraft wherever they were to be found. A fighter group of VIII Fighter Command with its squadrons occupied a single air base. Five fighter groups comprised a fighter combat wing of an air division. In its final organization the 2nd Air Division, of which Bradley was a part, had 14 of the 40 bombardment groups and 5 of the 15 fighter groups that made up the Eighth Air Force.

In the spring of 1942 the fighter groups flew the British "Spitfire"--the legendary plane that outfought the Luftwaffe in the first days of the 1940 Battle of Britain. Later, the Lockheed P-38 "Lightning," the best American fighter plane at the time, arrived. In March 1943 the P-47 "Thunderbolt" equipment was added. Then, at a very crucial time in the final preparation for the great invasion of the continent, the P-51 "Mustang" entered the fray! The AAF brass and bomber designers and builders had long held the belief that the unescorted bomber could carry the war to the enemy and do so with "acceptable losses"--an interesting concept which, in practice, gave the bomber crew small comfort. The enemy soon inflicted such heavy losses upon the bomber formations that the brass abandoned this faulty concept.

The range of the fighter aircraft was a crucial matter. To increase range, additional fuel was provided in drop tanks. Production of the P-51 "Mustang" was speeded up as it was needed for deeper penetration of Germany. Fig. 9, "Increase in the Range of Fighter Cover," depicts the handicap of the Spitfire as an escort. Its maximum range was 175 miles, barely to the coast of the nearest parts of Belgium and of the Netherlands. That is compared with the range of the P-38, P-47 and finally, the P-51. Unbelievably, the P-51, powered by a Packard-built Martin engine, had a top speed of 437 mph at 25,000 feet, a service ceiling of 42,000 feet, and a range of 650 miles. After its arrival hundreds of bombers were then accompanied by hundreds of fighters and the course of the war was changed.2

The growth of the Eighth Air Force, or at times its lack of growth, is another important aspect of the story. On April 22, 1942 the first elements of what was to become "The Mighty Eighth" arrived in East Anglia. It was far from mighty at the time,


having only one light bombardment squadron in England, which arrived in May 1942, and no American heavy bomber unit arrived until June 1942. Despite its limited resources Generals Arnold and Spaatz were determined to get into the war. The first American bombing mission went on July 4, 1942, and that it was American Independence Day was surely a fact not lost on the participants! There were sufficient fireworks that day! Six bomber crews of the fledgling Eighth were dispatched in six Boston bombers borrowed from the RAF. The mission was a learning experience and a harbinger of things to come as one-third of the bombers dispatched failed to return. The crews of the two aircraft lost were missing in action--MIA, the first of what later became thousands of American airmen to be killed in action or to become prisoners of war.

The growth, both of combat units and of crews, was slow well into mid-1943. Operation TORCH, the invasion of North Africa in the MTO was one of the reasons. The immediate needs of that operation were met by formation there of the U.S. Twelfth Air Force in December 1942. For this new air force the Eighth gave up both B-17 and B-24 bomber groups and five of its six fighter groups. Most bombers were taken from B-24 groups of the 2nd Air Division. This continued through August 1943.

Despite these diversions of its bomber and fighter groups, the Eighth continued to grow. In May 1943, for the first time it dispatched 200 heavy bombers--its mission #56. By June 1943 the Eighth had 18 bomber groups in England.

Then things were again slowed down. In early June 1943 the three B-24 bomber groups of the 2nd Air Division--the 44th, 93rd and 389th--were sent to the Ninth Air Force in Libya. The 389th was newly operational and would soon get its baptism of fire. The Ninth Air Force had been assigned a most difficult mission--to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti in Rumania. This target was reported to be the source of 80% of Hitler's oil, but a long difficult flight from Libya. The Ninth provided two groups; the Eighth provided three. On August 1, 1943 the mission was undertaken and 170 bombers were dispatched (103 from the Eighth.) The result--one-third of the total attacking force never returned! 53 bombers and crews were lost--30 from the Eighth Air Force. There was very little damage to the target. It was the longest flying time of any mission of the war--over 14 hours airborne. Heroism of the air crews brought five Congressional Medals of Honor, several awarded posthumously--unprecedented for a single mission. Four went to personnel of the Eighth Air Force. Ramsay D. Potts, later to be CO of the 453rd Bombardment Group, of whom more will be written, flew this mission. It became one of the best chronicled of all AAF actions of World War II.3 The B-24 groups returned to their bases in England in late August 1943.

Following the Casablanca Conference of January 1943, Allied leaders had called for a Combined British-American Bomber Offensive (CBO) to destroy the GAF prior to the cross-channel invasion set for the spring of 1944. Related to this objective was the destruction of the especially vulnerable rubber and ball-bearing plants. This CBO plan began officially in June 1943 as Operation POINTBLANK. Fighter opposition proved formidable. Two missions of the Eighth Air Force confirm this and deserve special mention here: mission #84, August 17, 1943-the first attack upon the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, and mission #115, October 14, 1943, the return to Schweinfurt.

On the August 17 mission the largest bomber force ever, to that time, was dispatched--376 B-17s. Fighter groups dispatched 240 P-47 aircraft The Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg and the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt were the targets. The mission resulted in the loss of 60 B-17 aircraft--crew losses: 7 KIA, 21


WIA, and 552 MIA! The German fighters used for the first time their new 210 mm rocket launcher. It carried a 90-pound warhead at a pre-set range of between 600 and 1200 yards from the launch point. These, with the new heavier, beefed-up 30 mm cannon fitted to the Me 109 aircraft (three cannons and two machine guns), provided a brutal attack force. Despite the heavy losses, the raid dealt the GAF a serious set-back to its secret Me 262 jet fighter production and delayed work on it.4

Mission #115 on Thursday, October 14, 1943 was the climax of weeks of planning. The Eighth was scheduled to return to the heavily defended German ballbearing center at Schweinfurt. The Eighth dispatched 320 bombers, of which 229 bombed the target. An escort of 196 P-47s was provided. The escorting fighters could continue only 150 miles beyond the channel coast, the bombers continuing for 600 more miles without escort. Vicious and sustained GAF fighter attacks took their toll. The Me 110, Me 210 and Ju 88 aircraft lay off from the bomber formations and fired large twin rockets. Losses among the bombers was horrendous: again 60 B-17 aircraft and their 594 crewmen were lost Seven bombers that returned were damaged beyond repair: 138 others were seriously damaged with five crewmen killed in action and 40 wounded. Known in the history of the war as BLACK THURSDAY, it was the day of the most savage air battle of the war with Germany.5

During the first half of October 1943 the Eighth Air Force lost 166 heavy bombers on six missions, the equivalent of 3½ bomb groups--a loss rate that could not be sustained by any military force for any considerable length of time. Deep missions into Germany had to cease until long-range fighter escort could be provided.

As Freeman wrote in The Mighty Eighth, "There were good reasons why the Eighth Air Force did not return to Schweinfurt for over four months--the cost of such deep penetrations by daylight without fighter escort was too high. For the time being, the Eighth Air Force had lost air superiority over Germany. Fighter escort was clearly the answer. Fighter range would have to be extended beyond the capabilities then foreseen for the P-47. A few P-38s (the 55th Fighter Group) were already in the theater and became operational on October 15, 1943. With two 75-gallon wing tanks, these planes could achieve a maximum escort radius of 520 miles, and with two 108-gallon tanks, they could, by February 1944, go up to 585 miles. The P-51 Mustang which was eventually to solve the problem of long-range fighter escort, did not become available for combat until December 1943, and it was not until March 1944 that they were equipped with the extra fuel tanks that could take them as far as the bombers were likely to go."6 It was the Mustang that would enable the bombers to again make deep penetrations into Germany.

In November 1943 General "Hap" Arnold and his planners decided that it was necessary to create an additional heavy-bomber strategic air force. The war in Italy had progressed to a point that the Allies held airfields from which targets in Germany could be reached by long-range bombers. The U.S. Fifteenth Air Force was activated with 13 B-24 groups and two B-17 groups that were originally earmarked for the Eighth. See Fig. 10 for operating range of U.S. bombers.

While the Eighth did not receive these groups as planned, its striking power was on the rise. It was able to dispatch an increasing number of bombers and fighters. For its mission #169, flown on December 30, 1943, it sent 710 heavies from its 1st 2nd, and 3rd Air Divisions. 25 groups participated. Seven of these groups from the 2nd Air Division flew B-24 aircraft--168 bombers. Of the 710 aircraft dispatched, 658 were "effective," i.e., reached the target. The mission was to bomb Ludwigshafen, Germany.


Yes, the striking power of the Eighth was on the rise, but not without loss of men and machines. In his Mighty Eighth War Diary,7 Roger A. Freeman reported the results of mission #169 to Ludwigshafen: 23 aircraft lost (9 were B-24s), 5 damaged beyond repair, 117 damaged. The casualties were 11 airmen KIA, 19 WIA, and 200 MIA. Among those missing some were no doubt in German prisoner-of-war camps as were hundreds of their comrades. Freeman reports on a number of "incidents" which occurred on that mission: 1 B-17 crash-landed following take-off engine fire; 1 B-24 ditched in the English Channel--6 crew saved (one of the first B-24 ditchings); 2 additional planes ditched--only 4 men saved from one. On return, 1 B-17 crash-landed--4 crew were killed when bailing out too low; 4 additional bombers crash-landed, some with wounded aboard.

On this mission, the "Little Friends" were also involved, giving fighter support to the bomber formations. Twelve fighter groups put up 584 fighter planes. These were 79 P-38s, 463 P-47s and 42 P-51s on the mission. They were credited with 7 enemy aircraft destroyed. This, too, was accompanied by losses. Freeman reported: 13 fighter planes lost, 12 pilots missing. Two P-47s had collided over France and the pilots were killed. Two P-51s also were lost in collisions. Some fighters ran short of fuel; 2 aircraft crash-landed.

Despite heroic effort of the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, the objectives of POINTBLANK were not being fully realized. The success of this operation was crucial to resumption of the strategic bombing campaign and especially to the planning for the great invasion of the continent, then set to occur as Operation OVERLORD in May or June 1944. It was essential that the Allies have control of the air for such an amphibious landing to be successful. Time was running out. The Allied High Command took action, ordering maximum effort round-the-clock bomber and fighter attacks upon the German aircraft industry and upon its air depots, airfields, and its fighters. This was Operation ARGUMENT--and the week of February 19-25, 1944 became known as BIG WEEK.

Thanks principally to records summarized by Roger A. Freeman in Mighty Eighth War Diary,8 the story of BIG WEEK is told here: Maximum effort missions were flown by both the bomber and fighter groups of the Eighth Air Force on five days of that week. On the five missions a total of 3,721 bombers and 3,839 fighter aircraft were dispatched. Bomber losses were 114. Additionally, 21 bombers were damaged beyond repair, 1,032 were damaged to a lesser extent. Loss of airmen was severe: 88 American fliers KIA, 114 WIA and the staggering number of 1,554 crewmen MIA! The MIA were the equivalent of more than three bomber groups. How fortunate for the Eighth that replacement crews, including the Jones crew, were then arriving in great numbers!

The fighter groups performed magnificently to the extent of their range. There were 3,839 fighter aircraft dispatched--P-38s, P-47s, and P-51s. On average, for each of the five missions the number of fighters dispatched were P-38s--75, P-47s--608, P-51s--85, a total of 768 with each bomber mission. The "Little Friends" were up and along in great numbers; nevertheless, a large number of bombers were lost and/or damaged. Flak batteries defended the targets so important to the survival of the GAF and took a considerable toll. The fighter groups lost 33 aircraft, 8 were damaged beyond repair, 45 others were damaged to a lesser extent.


A further word about the selection of targets and the outcome--it was earlier stated that the Eighth was a strategic rather than a tactical air force. Yet as circumstances required, the force was sent on missions that were of a defensive nature and missions clearly tactical. For example--anti--submarine objectives became a part of early operations, essentially defensive in purpose. This was the direct result of heavy shipping losses of the Allies in early 1941 when U--boats were sinking ships faster than they could be replaced. The Eighth undertook long--distance unescorted flights to strike at U--boat bases, and suffered severe losses with little damage being done to the targets. This campaign continued during 1942 and until mid-year 1943. Railway marshalling yards, rail junctions, bridges and stations were always strategic targets in that their destruction contributed to the collapse of the German economy. However, in the pre-and post--invasion period, these kinds of targets were bombed in direct support of the invading armies and then were tactical targets. Other important strategic targets included rubber manufacturing plants. It was believed that Germany was largely dependent upon the synthetic rubber products of two plants. The ball-bearing industry operated in four principal locations in Germany. The Eighth undertook maximum effort missions against these targets, as the missions to Schweinfurt, and paid a very heavy price. Other strategic targets included oil, munitions, steel and motor transport.

Then again, there were additional defensive and tactical assignments for the Eighth. In the winter of 1943-44, the V-weapon sites became the targets of Operation CROSSBOW. As D-day for the amphibious invasion of France approached, the Eighth had indeed become the Mighty Eighth, with the air crews of 40 operational groups and 2,000 operational aircraft. The role of the bomber forces of Britain and of the U.S. was substantially changed. The Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) was terminated on April 1, 1944. The Eighth Air Force and the RAF Bomber Command came under General Eisenhower's control as Supreme Allied Commander. Thereafter, for a time, the larger part of the bombing mission of the Eighth became tactical in nature. Its operations were more often to prepare for or were in direct support of the invasion. Its strength was then so great that it could assume that tactical role, yet continue to carry out the strategic objectives. From then on the Eighth was engaged in missions against both types of targets and the distinctions were no longer as discern able or significant. In the end the devastation of the German economy was complete, its armies and air force defeated, and its unconditional surrender its last act


To this point, Eighth Air Force organization and something of its strategic role and operations have been described. The importance of the machine, in this case, the B-24 Consolidated "Liberator" long-range heavy bomber, has been emphasized. But this great machine and the formation and execution of its bombing missions, as such, have not been described. This is to follow. So on with the story.....

end of chapter dingbat


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