Military history


The B-17, for all her years, hasn’t fallen from her reputation as a machine that is beautiful in the air and graceful as a swallow in her flight. Nearly two decades ago her crews bestowed upon her the title of the Queen of all the bombers, and not an airplane since has intruded upon that accolade born of combat.

Alone in the high blue, the Fortress was a dream for her pilot to fly. She was famed for being as steady as a rock in the air, she was renowned for this steadiness which made her one of the most superb bombing machines ever built for war. The Boeing engineers have a saying, ‘‘If she looks good, she’ll fly good.” And the B-17 was a sweetheart to look at.

There is a vast difference, however, in a pilot’s concern with only his one airplane in the heavens, when he can slide off on a wing and trace a graceful line through a sky flecked deliciously with soft clouds, and maneuvering from twenty-five to thirty tons of bombing airplane in perfect step and timing with a mass of other B-17’s.

Quite another thing entirely, especially if the observer could feel all those rocks in the sky. And the sky sometimes is very hard. There’s turbulence, of course. Turbulence found in clouds which comes unexpectedly and almost always, if the clouds are high enough and thick enough and broad bellied at the bases, with shattering violence. No one ever wrote about trying to hold formations when the rain crashes down against the windshields and sometimes becomes sleet, and it freezes and it’s almost impossible to see, and everyone is scared, because just outside that line of vision there’s all hell waiting. A Fortress then isn’t a graceful thing sliding through the sky.

It’s a bomb—a bomb made up of metal that can slice like some enormous and terrible buzz saw through your own airplane. It has four whirling blades, it is explosive with fuel tanks and bomb loads and just the sheer explosiveness of impact in the air. The Fortress then is an enemy, and a pilot fights like all hell against his ship—and the others—to survive nothing more than formation.

Formation charges the air with snarling thunderbolts in the form of air energy. There’s normal turbulence to contend with, but the turbulence created by a bomber, and a stream of bombers, drives pilots crazy. There’s prop wash, the air screaming invisibly back from propellers. If you could see that air, there would be a whirling, corkscrewing funnel that strikes a trailing airplane with devastating effect. It’s air that doesn’t slide off a wing, it rolls and rotates and spins, and gives a pilot muscles he never thought he’d get just by driving a big airplane in a straight line through the sky.

Besides the prop wash there are wake turbulence and vortex effects. The air that streams off the wing tips of a bomber goes crazy. Like prop wash, it has a corkscrewing effect, only it’s more concentrated, and it’s worse. Then, of course, the whole airplane throws back a steady stream of air that’s been disturbed and shaken up and joggled. You don’t push thirty tons through the air at 150 to 200 miles per hour and not create an effect that pilots just don’t like.

All the rules of flying tell you to stay away from that air. Let the vortexes and the prop wash and the wake turbulence become great enough, and they’ll tear at an airplane with invisible fingers that can rip metal open and slam an airplane way up on its side and terrify the crew—especially the gunners in the back, who wonder just what the hell is going on now.

To lead a bomber formation takes great skill: the leader must think constantly of those behind him; he must be most considerate of their capabilities. A leader can ruin a formation with a simple error, and must be ever precise and gentle in his leadership.

Yet the lead bomber of a combat formation has one great advantage over all those Fortresses that follow. Despite his vulnerability in battle, despite the fact that he is sitting way out there by himself when the fighters come rolling in for their head-on attacks, the pilot doesn’t have to fight everybody else in the formation.

Ask any bomber pilot who has flown missions with a sky full of airplanes in front of him. The air isn’t soft; it’s hard and it’s stiff, and it’s savage. It doesn’t even flow in a stream. The other bombers have churned it into an impossible rapids in the sky, a tornado funnel that grabs hold and doesn’t easily let go. When the air is churned and whipped up like this, the Flying Fortress isn’t an indomitable war machine any longer. It’s a flimsy creature made out of balsa wood and tossed into rapids that rage and pound and thunder. The bombers don’t even fly any more. They bounce and flop around, they slide crazily, they are smashed under the nose, and they bob up and down like corks in a stormy sea.

The more they do this, the greater the danger of collision. It’s bad enough to fly an airplane when the air is violent. It is a full-time job and it takes constant attention to the controls, and a pilot literally works like hell. After an hour or two of fighting his airplane, a man gets tired, and he sometimes gets a little careless. That is a stupid thing to do, because when a pilot is mixed up in a sky full of airplanes, two machines sometimes try to occupy the same air space.

It doesn’t happen too often. When it does, the two bombers cease to exist as the Flying Fortresses they were just an instant before. There is a great blinding flash in the sky. The flash disappears quickly enough, although it is impressed deeply on the retinas of all the eyes watching the scene in stunned disbelief. Sometimes the blast doesn’t even create much smoke. But there is always the sight of a wing or two flip-flopping crazily in the sky, and a lot of wreckage, and fire, and sometimes in that brief but timeless moment the other crews can see a body twitching as it falls.

The blast also releases frenzied activity on the part of all the other pilots, because a shock wave rips out from that brilliant light. The shock wave is steel hard, and it throws Fortresses around like chips at sea. That means that more collision is breathtakingly imminent—unless the other pilots are really on their toes.

In all this crashing air the Fortress isn’t quite the same agile and lithe creature as the fighter airplane. In a fighter, you can flick the stick, and the response is immediate and effective, and the horizon whirls very satisfyingly. You don’t “flick” the Fortress, especially when you’re in that sky overflowing with other airplanes all around you—in front, in back, on top of you, below you, on all sides. You’re wing tip to wing tip, everything is pre-ordained. It’s height to height, speed to speed, turn to turn. A pilot pushes and pulls and heaves and strains. In short, he works.

Hollywood has managed to create some memorable impressions of bomber pilots. But they don’t really show the discomfort and the stinking sweat of the cockpit. How do you manage on a celluloid screen to show how damned uncomfortable an oxygen mask can be when a man wears it for hour after hour, when the sweat collects near his eyes, and stings, and he can’t wipe it away, because it was trouble enough to get that mask to fit properly to begin with? You get hotter and hotter, and there’s a cupful of sweat collected underneath your chin where the mask is full and round, and damn, but that itches! The sweat beads on your nose, and it collects on your upper lip, and it’s possible but not at all pleasant to try to wipe it off with your tongue when you’re flying that airplane and worrying about collisions and trying to stay in formation.

It’s cold in the high reaches where men have fought over Germany. But even when the needle drops far below zero, a man gets distressingly hot. The sun beats in at this high altitude with vicious intensity, and there’s no closing any curtains to grasp shade, because the pilot and the co-pilot and everybody else in the airplane need every inch of space through which they can look out. Bundled up in all his gear—the boots and gloves, the electric suit which grips a man’s shoulders like a vise, shoved into his mask and helmet—and wearing that tin hat over his head, a pilot sweats—and he can lose several pounds on just a single mission. Underneath the flying helmet and the steel helmet his hair is sloppy and caked and glistening with sweat, but he can’t do anything about it. It has to stay that way, even if he could wipe it off, because who wants to expose a head soaked in sweat when it’s thirty and forty and fifty below zero, and even lower!

From a distance, it doesn’t seem possible that the pilots are working so hard, that the physical labor is so constant, that the labor itself is nothing without skill and finesse and experience behind it. A mass of bombers in the high blue is majesty itself. The thunder booms in deep resonance from the very heavens; it is a rich cadence of machines marching off to war in a measured step all its own. There is procession among the clouds, and the bombers slide forward with ponderous and majestic grace.

It isn’t that way at all, of course. Listen to an explanation of the work given by a leader of a combat wing to his pilots who were soon to leave for Mission 115 on October 14. It is stripped of all but its essentials:

“There’s this business of relative speed. If you are behind anybody, you will have to pull a lot more speed than he does to catch him. If you are behind, you will have to go faster. Time once lost cannot be regained. Obviously, it means you will have to go faster. It does not mean he is trying to get away from you.

“Don’t worry if you have to fly a little faster. Use your manifold pressure, your extra rpm. The wing man is always indicating more than one hundred and fifty-five miles per hour, especially if the squadron leader does not stay in formation, and they are all jockeying, and the speed will vary from about 130 to 190 miles per hour. The element leader and squadron leader should stay in position; the second and third element leaders likewise. If your wing man falls back, let him fall back. He will have only one thing to do to catch up—open the throttle. The trouble is always after the target. You can help that sometimes by swinging beyond the rally point.”

The bomber box in the skies is not nearly so rigid as it seems. It is a creature of fluidity, naked to pilot error and turbulence and vortexes from other airplanes. It means constant attention to the rudder pedals, to the elevators and ailerons and the trim, and working always with a hand on the throttles. After a lot of experience of being kicked around the sky, a pilot learns the knack of his trade. It is the mark of finesse of the man who’s become skilled at wrestling a giant bomber through the storm of air that has become a very real and tangible enemy. He leaves the throttles of the two inboard engines strictly alone; he forces himself to forget that these even exist. They remain at constant revolutions per minute, and the pilot then concentrates his attention on the two outboard engines, and two is much better than four under these circumstances. By working the two throttles with the skill of a musician, he can juggle his machine with expert touches in its assigned slot, and he flies a better formation and is not so absolutely dog-tired by the time he reaches the target.

The business of rendezvous and assembly is wicked. The two following passages, taken from official histories, were recorded during critiques of Mission 115. They refer specifically—and again in basic and clinical terms—to assembly and formation. The first is from a captain, a pilot:

At the start of the assembly, we checked the clouds. As we had a few clouds about 15,000 feet and assembly was planned for 20,000 feet, we decided to rendezvous at 11,000 feet, giving you that much time to climb as individual groups. This is easier on the group. We rendezvoused at 11,000 feet from Bury to Swaifom to Wisback to Cambridge. We assembled as a combat wing until reaching the Division Assembly Line, making two turns of ninety degrees....The rendezvous was not at altitude. We had to give you thirty minutes to get a good combat wing formation. Sometimes we cannot do this, but this time we gave you time to go from 11,000 to 20,000 feet. You were to stay at that point until reaching the coast.

We always allow about a minute extra on each leg. That takes care of wind changes and will not affect your rendezvous with the Air Division. In a wing assembly, if you ever find yourself at a point one or one and a half minutes ahead of time, you can figure the leg was flown exactly as it was planned. You should always take this into consideration. You can lose one or one and a half minutes without interfering with the rendezvous.

The second excerpt is from remarks by Colonel Van DeVander, who commanded the 385th Group, which led a Combat Wing:

The radio contact was perfect, and that made a good mission. I always had perfect radio control We swung on the outside of the 94th Group and kept about 1,000 feet below them. We then climbed to 9,000 feet. Then they called us again. We had a little trouble because of a cloud layer; however, we made our times and course good. We were about two minutes early at the division assembly. We could see several groups. Groups began coming in ahead and forming wing assembly....

There was a layer of cirrus where we were to start climbing. We were in good formation. We started climbing early; then I went down to 19,000 feet. Some of the groups went right ahead into the cirrus. I thought they were abandoning the mission; however, we pulled back into fairly good assembly. By the time of reaching the French coast we were in good formation. The 94th Group was always tucked in well. We were on the inside at Turn One. At Turn Two, we decided to lose a little distance, as we were running close.

In these terms it is all the matter of a day’s work. But some of the airplanes that turned back over the Channel and aborted the mission did so because rendezvous and assembly and tired engines proved too much for their limited fuel consumption. Mission 115 was a raid that promised to be met with unrestrained fury by the Germans; it was not, however, a suicide attack or a strike on which we could afford to lose bombers we knew would not return. So some bombers with unhappy pilots were forced by fuel shortage to turn back and abort the mission. When they did so, it was only after the engineer stated flatly there would not be enough gasoline to complete the mission and return to England.

The attack, as can now be realized, involved far more than flying 460 miles from England and returning in a straight line. Instrument conditions take-offs and climb out, difficulties of rendezvous and assembly, maximum bomb loads, extra ammunition, the long distance of the raid, plus the necessity of turning after target and following a more circuitous route back to England—all these factors drained the limited fuel of the bombers.

Many of the B-17’s carried additional bomb loads. With some bomb-bay space taken up by auxiliary fuel tanks, the armament crews slung 1,000-pound bombs beneath the wings on external racks. This meant not only extra weight, but a penalty of drag that slowed down the bomber and demanded more power to keep up with the other Fortresses. Some pilots over the Channel still had sufficient fuel to reach the target and return, but only if they jettisoned the bombs hung from the external racks, and at the earliest possible opportunity.

Over the Channel, then, even as the bombers vibrated from the test firings of the heavy machine guns, several aircraft released the black shapes. They plummeted four miles through space, and then sent up their geysers, soundlessly from the Forts, to mark the point of impact.

Thus all the factors combined to write the story of the formations: weather, fuel, engines, propeller pitch, weights and bomb loads, rpm, fuel mixture, turbulence, turns in formation for assembly—they are all vital, and they inject doubt and com-promise into every mission.

A recording of the chatter of the pilots and the co-pilots, talking to one another, bitching and cursing, would quickly enough bring formation flying down from its lofty pedestal in the sky to its equivalent in labor and sweat and fear.

They bitch mostly about the prop wash and the wake turbulence, which make their airplanes jiggle constantly, and turn the entire formation into a thing that ripples through its length and breadth and height, that reacts without warning with a shuddering spasm, leaping from plane to plane, from squadron to group to wing to division.

Flying Fortresses at this stage of a mission are especially tricky to fly. They are heavily loaded and too often overloaded. Turbulent air and the slow speed of formations mean the constant fear of a stall, and this is murder.

“Just let the lead ship slow down,” explains Peaslee, who has flown all the positions in the formation, “and the effect is a chain reaction through the formation. If the first airplane loses speed, then the ships right behind must slow down to keep from running into him and chewing him up with their propellers. And the bombers behind them must slow down. The whole formation suffers a spasm that can shake it loose and jiggle the airplanes all over the sky. And more than one Flying Fortress has gone down over Germany, cut right in two, from the blades of another ship that for some reason or other—sometimes it can’t be helped—moved out of its slot and reared up.

“When these Forts are loaded to the limit, as our planes were, and they must slow down in the turbulence that shakes them up, they’re literally hanging on the edge of a stall. So the pilot has got to shove his throttles forward and get the most out of his propeller pitch, because if he slows down any more with all that turbulence raising hell with his lift, he is going to stall.

“The trouble is that he may need more air speed than the plane in front of him, and if he comes in too close, he doesn’t dare chop power, or he’s smack in the stall. So he must keep his throttles forward or, maybe if the wing suddenly gets thrown up high and he loses lift, he has to slam them forward even more. But then he’s too close to the ship in front, and he has to swing sharply to the right or to the left, or stick his nose down, or skid if possible—he has to do something; he can’t go forward, but he must move where another plane isn’t. In a sky filled with planes.

“And if this poor bastard can’t do this, then the other planes must get out of his way. Fast. Because with the bombers loaded the way they are with all their fuel and bombs, it’s doubtful if anybody is coming out of the collision that will result.

“Pretty soon the formation is all shot to hell. It’s ragged and the planes are bobbing and weaving and everyone is trying to get back again as fast as he can into a nice, tight defensive formation. If this happens over England, or well before the Germans show up, then things aren’t too bad. But if the Jerries ever catch sight of a formation like that, they go berserk and rip into the Forts with everything they have. That’s the basic key to their tactics—break up the formations. Our people knew it, too, and that’s why everyone stayed on their toes all the time.”

There’s one more man to talk about, the unlucky pilot who’s got to fly the worst spot of all—Ass End Charlie. This is the pilot in the Fortress that tails everyone; the very last ship in the formation. Not only does he—or the flight of three bombers— have to contend with all the miseries inflicted by wake turbulence, but he goes out of his mind just trying to stay in the right place in terms of speed. That man is the most overworked pilot on the whole mission.

He must—almost constantly—kick rudder back and forth, skidding to stay behind. His throttles are always being adjusted, and the wear on the engines is enough to make the crew chief weep. He skids and slips because he doesn’t want to run into the bomber directly ahead of him, and he’s even more frantic not to fall behind. He has a constant choice of staying in the worst heat of the frying pan, or falling back into where the fire blazes the hottest. If he falls back, he loses all the benefit of the bomber formation’s defensive fire screen, there is no protection of gun for mutual gun, and the fighters just love that.

“When you look back from a lead bomber and see the formations real tight and in the groove,” explains Peaslee, “it’s more than watching a tremendous feat being enacted. You know those men out there in all those bombers are in the groove and they’re ready to protect each other in the face of the most vicious and determined air opposition in the world.

“You know that the bombs are going to come out of airplanes all in the position where they belong, that they are going to fall in compact groups, and that if the lead bombardier has done his job well, absolute hell is going to erupt in the critical factories the Germans need so badly.

“And because it is all second nature to you by now, you do not think in detail of all that this requires. You accept the skill and the courage of these men, just as they accept them from you. It is a wonderful thing to experience the calm and deep confidence of the air crews, the trust these men have in one another.

“Not just the pilots, of course. When the Fortress vibrated from the gunners testing their weapons, I felt the vibration only subconsciously. It was nice to know that, headed for Schweinfurt as we were, there were no complaints over the interphone. This is one of those moments when silence is golden, for it means that everything is all right, that everything is working properly. It means that all the guns are firing cleanly and well, that there are no jams, that the top turret with its twin guns just behind me is swinging freely and the ball turret under the belly is ready for action.

“The operator of the ball turret deserves countless words of praise, and he rarely receives them. He rides for hours on end curled up in a three-foot ball of plexiglas and metal, with about half the inside space taken up by two machine guns, his ammunition, and the turret mechanism. He is wide open to attack, he hangs suspended in space, and it’s grim and lonely down there. I have never ridden in a ball, but I accept without question any complaints from that station.”

The interphone in Peaslee’s airplane, as in many others at that moment, comes suddenly to life, “Bogies at eight o’clock high.”

There they are, a long file of Thunderbolts to the right, trailing a silver vapor far behind them. The “little friends,” the most welcome companions in the sky to the bomber crews. And many a man in the Fortresses wonders to himself: how did they get here? There is only one way, of course, and it meant that those pilots, alone in heavy and high-performance fighters, had to climb in formation through more than six thousand feet of solid overcast. This is a magnificent feat, and it demands the very utmost in skill in a fighter which, given half the chance under blind-flying conditions, will drop off on a wing and spin crazily to earth. There are more occasions when this has happened than any pilot likes to remember. Such as the time when, caught in a violent and far-reaching storm, 22 out of 30 fighter planes, and their pilots, disappeared forever.

The heavy Thunderbolts are right on time, meeting exactly their scheduled rendezvous and altitude. Effortlessly they float past the bombers and swing out, far in front and to the flanks, loafing behind their giant engines. Peaslee sees, far ahead of the moving wall of bombers, a Channel sky quiet and peaceful, and nothing in sight over the occupied countries.

But there are black-crossed fighters out there waiting....

The colonel calls the lieutenant in the tail and asks for a reading on the rear formations. The evidence of skill is wrapped up neatly in the tight defensive boxes etched against the bright sky. The rear wing of the first division—Peaslee’s command—is in solid ranks, as is the following division. There is nothing to find fault with, and for this Peaslee is grateful. He is not alone in this feeling.

Even as the bombers cross the English coast, the enemy’s Radar Warning Service and the Radio Directional Finder Screen are in operation. The unseen tentacles of the locator system are plotting course and height and speed. No German yet knows the target, and because fighters are already taking off for interception, it is vital to determine this information. The B-17’s will fly over cities already struck—Zeebrugge, Flushing, Ypres, Woensdrecht, Antwerp, Bochum, Hamm, and others— and no German knows whether these cities will again be struck, or whether a city unvisited by the Fortresses will receive its first bombs today.

The European coast line moves beneath the B-17 formations, and the beaches stand out clear and sharp even from so many miles in the air. The fields are still green, and the peculiar mosaic pattern of farms stretches out into the distance as the Channel is left behind. From so high it is difficult to believe that this is a contest of war. Canals and roads bisect the land in neat squares and rectangles.

And then come the signs that destroy the illusion of peace. Sudden bright flashes on the earth, tiny splinters of red flame,—and seconds later there are black and white puffs in the sky, miles from the Fortresses, but the warnings of thicker flak to come later. Gradually the occupied countries pass beneath the bombers, and Germany moves into sight, far ahead of the lead plane. From the air it is impossible to note where one nation ends and another begins. Not until the industrial belts of Germany are clearly identified—with their heavier flak and the first approach of the black-crossed fighters—will there come that feeling of “invading” the enemy’s homeland.

The bombers thunder into Germany in precise formation, stacked into their defensive positions. Each combat box—a staggering of three squadrons—is so positioned that the formation has the maximum mutual protective fire of the bombers’ guns. From top to bottom a box stretches 750 feet. It is actually an intricate thing, the squadrons fitting into groups, the groups into wings, the wings into air divisions. The vertical wedge of a combat wing stretches 3,000 feet from top to bottom, and it is made up of three separate combat boxes: the lead combat box in the center, with one higher and one lower. No matter how a fighter plane comes in to attack, it must pass before the crisscrossing fire of the defending heavy machine guns.

The bombers approach the Ruhr Valley, and the formation with infinite care follows a course that leads them out of flak range to the south. The Germans on the ground behind their superb 88-mm. guns and their Grossbatterien of the Ruhr-Happy Valley, to the air crews—would like nothing better than the opportunity to pour a withering fire into the massed bombers. On the charts in front of the pilots the Ruhr is a blob of red arcs that scream of danger. The guns are the best in the world and the gunners know no peer, and the wreckage of American and British bombers scattered across the valley provides grim testimony to their quality.

The bombers flank the southern tip of the Ruhr, and the sky to the left no longer is clean. Perhaps a hundred rounds of flak erupt in the clean blue, and the dirty splotches drift behind the formations. The shells are not aimed at the bombers; trying for any targets, the Germans reach out—fortunately without any hits—for the Thunderbolt escort. The fighter pilots have strayed, and they know it only too well. They pour on the coal and streak across the sky, cutting over the Fortresses, ranging ahead once again.

Near Aachen, more than two hundred miles from England, the fighter formations begin to thin out. In twos and fours they bank their wings, and peel off to return. They no longer have fuel enough to continue.

Peaslee watches the last fighter swing closer. The pilot waggles his wings and turns to the west. Peaslee presses the button to his throat mike and broadcasts blind over the common radio channel: “Thanks, little friends.”

The colonel does not know it, but first blood has already been drawn.

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