Issue 8 – Boeing B-17

ac008-b17-1Rolling Thunder – Welcome to my first issue of Aviation Classics as editor. Firstly, I would like to record my thanks to Jarrod Cotter for his work in creating and editing this superb magazine, he is a remarkable man and a great aviation historian. He is also a good friend. Jarrod has moved on to take over the reins at Aeroplane and everyone on Aviation Classics wishes him the very best of luck with his new endeavour. Cheers, buddy.

For my first topic, the story of the B-17 Flying Fortress is revealed here in detail. It is an amazing tale of genius, tragedy, determination and courage. The story proves that this is no longer merely an aeroplane, it has transcended to become an icon. During World War Two in the occupied countries of Europe, the massed formations of B-17s passing overhead on their way to strike targets became a symbol that they were not alone, that one day the oppression they were suffering would end.

To the crews of those bombers, the B-17 was the aircraft that would get them home when all seemed lost, its ability to absorb damage became legendary. Wally Hoffman, an 8th Air Force B-17 pilot is recorded as saying, “The plane can be cut and slashed almost to pieces by enemy fire and bring its crew home.” To many, the cartoon on this page, created by Lt. Col. C. Ross Greening while a prisoner-of-war in Stalag Luft I at Barth in Germany between 1944 and 1945, captures the essence of the Flying Fortress; heavily armed with defensive weapons, built to absorb enemy fire, and able to deliver its deadly load with impunity.

The truth behind the cartoon is recorded on these pages. It took a great deal of operational experience and many lives to establish the B-17’s wartime reputation. At one time, the aircraft and the daylight bombing policy it was designed to implement were both considered doomed to failure. Why the B-17 and the policy did not fail is largely due to the inventiveness and determination of the people who designed, built, planned for and operated this aircraft. It is to those people that this issue is respectfully dedicated.

The flying characteristics are another factor that endeared it to the crews, flying for many hours in close formation would have been incredibly fatiguing in a less well-mannered machine. The best quote I have heard on the subject was from Colonel Robert K Morgan, the pilot of the ‘Memphis Belle’ who simply said, “She was a Stradivarius of an airplane…” I can do naught but agree.

298_946490192In putting together this issue, I have tried to follow Jarrod’s excellent lead of mixing history with incident, the well known with the unusual. I hope that you will feel that I have succeeded in this, and that there are a few surprises held in these pages even if you know the aircraft well. I certainly learned a great deal that is new to me, and thank all the historians and contributors for their sterling efforts. To sum up this aircraft, and this issue, I will leave the last word to General Carl Spaatz, the Commander of the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe in 1944:

“Without the B-17, we might have lost the war.”

Tim Callaway


6 Rolling Thunder
8 Shaping the bombers
10 The Boeing XB-15
12 In the beginning
16 The early years
20 The Boeing B-17 ‘Fortress’ in RAF service – Part one
26 The B-17E – A Flying Fortress at last
32 The B-17F – A matter of defence
42 Thorpe Abbotts – Memorial to the many
46 The thoroughbred emerges – The B-17G
52 Inside the B-17
64 Maintaining an aluminium mountain
69 Little Friends
74 The longest mission
80 Felix Fortresses
84 100 Air Refuelling Wing
90 The Boeing B-17 ‘Fortress’ in RAF service – Part two
94 KG200
98 Sally B – The flying memorial
102 Tough!
105 Project Aphrodite
109 PB-1s – The Navy and Coast Guard
113 Oddball B-17s
118 Israeli B-17s
120 Postwar workhorses
126 Survivors


Shaping the bombers

298_468586678Britain and the United States had different approaches to the same problem, which resulted in very different aircraft. Francois Prins explains…

During World War One Germany used Zeppelin airships and later Gotha aircraft to drop bombs on targets in Britain. These attacks included the serious bombing of coastal towns and London itself. War had been brought to civilians who were far removed from the battlefields. It was the Gotha raids on London that spurred the government of the day to improve aerial defences of the capital and to retaliate in some manner. Work was quickly completed on suitable long-range bombers but before the newly-formed Royal Air Force could take the war to the heart of Germany the Armistice was signed and peace returned.

In the years of peace during the 1920s there was no urgent requirement for new long-range bombers, but light bombers were introduced to quell any skirmishes that arose in the British Empire, these were mainly in the Middle East and on the Indian frontier. Only when peace appeared to be threatened in Europe by Germany did Britain take heed and rush to have new aircraft – fighters and bombers – of a modern type designed and built. What was sanctioned for the RAF were light and medium bombers nothing that could be classed as a heavy strategic bomber was considered even though designers provided plans for such types.

Across the Atlantic the United States had been left on its own to pursue its own agenda in aircraft design. Even though the Wright brothers gave the world powered flight in 1903 the US had not capitalised on the invention and had to make do with French and British aircraft during World War One. After the war they developed their own types but concentrated on civil transports and neglected their armed forces. Bomber aircraft were simply not considered important despite the urging of some senior officers, the most vociferous being General William Mitchell who was eventually court-martialled for his outspokenness.

After the Armistice, Germany had been banned from developing anything but light sporting and small commercial aircraft. However, they were looking to establish an armed air force and German designers were at work outside Germany producing potential war machines. By the end of the 1920s the Allies had lost interest in Germany and chose to ignore or were largely unaware of what was going on in that country.

Consequently, when the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, took office he immediately began to build up the armed forces as he had promised. All three services were the subject of improvement with the Luftwaffe gaining new aircraft. It was a time of rapid expansion with fighters and medium bombers being given priority. Hitler did not require a long-range strategic bomber at the time, there were plans for heavy bombers but that was for the future. For the present it made sense to concentrate on aircraft that could reach most of Europe with a reasonable bomb load. England was never in Hitler’s scheme of things in the 1930s and North America was well out of range of any Luftwaffe’s aircraft.

Spurred on by the events in Europe Britain began to re-arm and indeed started to do so before Germany got fully into its stride of building up an arms base. Work was already in hand by Handley Page, Vickers and Armstrong Whitworth who all produced medium or heavy bombers by the middle to late1930s. Fairey designed and fielded the Battle light bomber which was a capable aircraft but woefully underpowered, as was discovered when it went into combat. Waiting to emerge in the really heavy bomber stakes was the Short Stirling, the RAF’s first four-engined heavy bomber, which would go into service before the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster but would suffer due to its limited operational service ceiling.

The United States realised that their air force was outdated and their fighters, or ‘pursuit ships’ owed more to aircraft from World War One than anything in Europe. It was not the aircraft designers and manufacturers who were at fault but those in command who were behind the times. Not helping was the severe depression of the 1930s, purse strings were pulled tight and existing aircraft designs had to suffice in the US Army Air Corps (USAAC). With a new president in the White House and a plan for investment in the country, matters took a turn for the better.

To get the country moving again American industry had to be encouraged and modern equipment for the armed forces became a priority. By 1934, it was quite obvious that the Martin B-10 twin-engined bomber was quite outmoded and in desperate need of replacement. An open competition to US aircraft manufacturers was announced for a multi-engined replacement to the Martin B-10. Proposals were submitted and in May 1934, Boeing and Martin were chosen to build what were to be the first four-engined bombers to be ordered by the USAAC.

In the event the Boeing XB-15 was shown to be the superior proposal and the Martin was cancelled. However, the XB-15 was massive and took time to come to fruition. In the meantime, Boeing fielded their Model 299 which was also entered for the bomber competition and made rapid progress in construction. It first flew on 28 July 1935, two years before the XB-15. The aircraft was heavily armed and intended to defend the fortress US against any enemy invasion.

The idea was that the aircraft would attack the enemy fleet long before it could get within striking distance of the US mainland. Given the job description and the fact that it carried so many guns it was not long before the name ‘Flying Fortress’ was coined by the press of the day and adopted as the official name for the Boeing B-17. However, Congress did not want to spend any money on buying the aircraft and only a handful were ordered at first; then Hitler invaded Poland and the USA realised that war could be a reality. Re-armament went into top gear with the B-17 being ordered in larger quantities.

Britain had gone to war and initially attacked German targets by day but the losses incurred were unacceptable. RAF Bomber Command switched to night operations which saw a drop in the number of aircraft lost on missions. This decision was to shape both the future of the aircraft and the service. Early in the war, Britain carried out some 15 months of negotiations with the USA for the B-17. Finally in 1941 20 B-17Ds – known as the Fortress I in the RAF – were ferried across to be modified for Bomber Command. They were issued to No 90 Squadron at West Raynham in May 1941 and commenced operations on 8 July, when three Fortresses bombed Wilhelmshaven from high altitude. Further missions followed against various targets in Germany and the occupied countries, all were flown in daylight and were not that successful. Bomber Command withdrew the surviving Fortress Is from Europe and deployed four to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the first of the B-17s belonging to the US Army Air Force (USAAF) arrived in Britain on 1 July 1942. The Americans had their own ideas on how to mount raids against the enemy and refused to take on board the experience from Bomber Command of nearly three years of operations. It was agreed that the USAAF Eighth Air Force and the RAF would wage a day and night offensive against German targets; the US by day and the British by night. On 17 August the USAAF carried out its first raid when 18 B-17Es attacked railway yards and coastal targets in France. Most of 1942 was spent in training and other raids into German-held territory but it was not until January 1943 that American bombers flew against targets in Germany itself.

At first the USAAF operated their bomber streams in loose Vee formations at varying heights, but this proved to be vulnerable to enemy fighter attacks as not all the guns of the bombers could be brought to bear for fear of hitting other aircraft in the formation. The formations were tightened and this improved firepower but made it difficult for the aircraft to manoeuvre quickly to avoid enemy fighters. Aircraft formations continued to be changed and improved to enable all guns a clear field of fire. Losses were still high despite the changes to tactics and it was not until the long-range P-47 and P-51 escort fighters came into service towards the end of 1943 that matters improved dramatically.

There is little doubt that the bombing of enemy targets by the RAF and the USAAF had a deciding effect on the outcome of the war. While it was not strategic bombing as we know it now, the continuous attacks did have a devastating effect on the enemy. For example, by the last year of the war Germany had little or no fuel for vehicles and aircraft and raw materials in general were in short supply.

The lessons learned from the Allied bombing campaign in Europe, and to an extent in the Far East would shape the postwar role of the bomber that has continued to evolve right up to the present day.

buynowThe B-17G – The thoroughbred emerges

298_169705626The last mass produced version of the B-17 Flying Fortress was produced in more numbers than all the other versions put together. Of the 12,731 B-17s built, two thirds of them, 8760 were B-17Gs. The vulnerabilities of earlier models had been dealt with and the true thoroughbred had arrived.

As has already been discussed, the main identifying feature of the B-17G, the twin .50 cal Bendix nose turret, had already been introduced on the last 86 B-17Fs to be built. This had been a feature of the failed ‘Fortress Fighter’, the YB-40 project and had been adopted for use on the bomber version to overcome the early types’ vulnerability to head-on attacks. As production of the B-17G continued, further changes were made to the defensive armament positions throughout the aircraft.

The first of these changes to be introduced was that the waist gun windows were staggered, the starboard window being placed forward of the port. Experience had shown that the waist gunners were continually interfering with one another while operating their guns, making the waist occasionally seem like a wrestling match when the formation came under heavy attack.

The windows were now fully enclosed with a proper flexible mount for the gun in the centre at the bottom, which increased crew comfort enormously. The howling, freezing gale blowing in through the waist windows was no longer a feature of rear B-17 crew life. The mount was also fitted with a coiled spring device called an equilibrator, which balanced the gun at the mount, reducing the effort required to haul the manually aimed gun about in combat, and therefore crew fatigue.

The nose cheek gun positions were also modified and standardised during production, so the port gun mount was now in the front window, and the starboard gun was in the second window. This reversed the positions of the late model B-17Fs, as experience showed that the navigator was better placed to operate the starboard gun when required. The Sperry A-1 upper turret also got a new plexiglass dome, higher and less cluttered with framing, so the flight engineer gunner now had a far better view.

Lastly, a new tail gun turret was at last devised to replace the uncomfortable and limited stinger position that had been a feature of all B-17s from the E onward. Introduced on the block 80 aircraft at Boeing, the twin .50 cal machine guns were finally in a proper turret mount for better traverse and elevation. The gunner had a larger plexiglass housing around him with less framing that gave him a far better view and a reflector gunsight replaced the earlier ‘ring and bead’ type. This modification had been worked out at the United Airlines Modification Centre in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and gave rise to the new turret being known as the ‘Cheyenne tail’. Aside from aircraft being built with the new turret fitted, modification teams also upgraded aircraft in the field from kits.

The B-17G had the same R-1820-97 as had been fitted to the F model, but the new aircraft had a service ceiling of about 2000 feet less than the earlier model, even though an improved version of the General Electric turbosupercharger was fitted which gave the type a service ceiling of 35,600 feet (10,851 m). These new turbosuperchargers were controlled electrically rather than hydraulically as had been the case. The G’s rate of climb suffered too; it took the G 11 minutes longer to reach 20,000 feet than it had the F. The extra weight of the new turret and other additions to the defensive armament was taking its toll on performance. The undercarriage had also been strengthened, because the gross weight of the B-17G was now an extraordinary 9000lb (4082kg) greater than the F model, at 65,500lb (29,710kg).

Interestingly, partly because of the weight issue, and partly because the formations of B-17s were now so large, leaving such massive condensation trails in their wake that they could be seen from 200 miles away, it was decided to leave the aircraft unpainted from January 1944 onwards. The paint weighed about 80lb (36kg), but more importantly the matt finish increased surface drag and slowed the aircraft down. Commanders in the field were given the choice to remove the paint from their existing aircraft as they came up for maintenance or repair, or to patch the paint, whichever was deemed easier and faster to get the aircraft back on the line.

Consequently, the formations of the 8th Air Force began to be made up of a mixture of bright silver new natural metal aircraft, newly camouflage painted aircraft and patched and faded camouflaged aircraft. The veteran aircraft would be quickly spotted in any formation, and this led to a kind of reverse snobbery, as the hardy survivors of the grindingly long bombing campaign really did look the part.
New looking aircraft and people in new uniforms were regarded with suspicion as being untried. The first thing a new officer did to his peaked cap was to remove the wire stiffener and roll the cap up to give it a look called the ‘50 mission crush’. Wearing headphones over it or stuffing the cap into any handy container on the aircraft for 50 missions would certainly cause it to wear and become misshapen, which was the look the wearer was trying to achieve. New was bad, raunchy and lived in was good, because it had survived.

Smaller internal changes included upgraded and improved cockpit instrumentation and a more powerful engine fire extinguisher system. The number of B-17s who had last been seen turning for home with an engine on fire was a matter of concern. The engines were positioned forward of their oil and fuel tanks, so any uncontrolled fire could conceivably burn back through and ignite or explode the tanks. Either way, this would cause the loss of the wing and therefore the aircraft, so the new extinguisher system was capable of multiple discharges in the event of a serious fire. Since the oil system had proved vulnerable to combat damage, an emergency oil system for feathering the propellers was introduced. A number of B-17s had returned home with missing ‘run-away’ propellers that had torn themselves off the airframe because the oil system was shot out and the pilots couldn’t feather them. This was a dangerous situation for a number of reasons.

The over-speeding propeller of the shut down engine might break off and come through the fuselage like a bandsaw, as happened on a number of occasions, or the engine might seize, leaving the aircraft with a huge amount of drag on one side. If it was the outer engine and the inner was also damaged, the pilots may not have enough control authority to overcome the drag, and lose control. The new emergency oil system at least gave the aircrew a backup to prevent these disasters.

Like many other wartime aircraft at that time, the modifications the airframe was capable of taking without becoming overweight had about reached a peak. The G was to be the masterpiece, the truly combat capable version of the Flying Fortress, but it was also to be the limit of the types’ adaptability. The B-17G was to be used almost exclusively by the US Air Forces operating over Europe, where its inherent strength and heavy defensive firepower were put to best use against strong opposition.

The first B-17Gs began to roll off the production lines in late August 1943, and the last Boeing built example was delivered on 13 April 1945, meaning that the three production lines had produced 8760 aircraft in only 20 months, an average of about 14 aircraft a day. Considering how complex the B-17 was, this is a remarkable achievement by any standards. The first B-17G was handed over to the USAAF on 4 September 1943 and began to reach front line units later that month.

The 8th Air Force was now the largest of the US Air Forces, and was penetrating deeper into enemy held territory than ever before. Due to the poor weather in Europe in winter, a number of aircraft in each group had been modified to become ‘pathfinders’. These were specially equipped B-17s or B-24s fitted with a number of the radio and radar navigation aids that the British Bomber Command were using at night. Gee was a navigation aid and Oboe was a system that allowed an aircraft to drop markers on a target by receiving triangulated radio signals from transmitters in England. The range of both of these systems was limited, both by German jamming and by the curvature of the earth. An advanced version of the British H2S airborne radar, termed H2X and codenamed ‘Mickey Mouse’, was fitted to a number of B-17s. The radome containing the radar antenna was fitted instead of either the ball or nose turret to a number of aircraft, but 12 late production B-17Fs were modified in the field to have a retractable radome behind and below the nose turret, giving the aircraft a distinctly double chinned look.

The radar was fitted to enable pathfinder aircraft to identify targets even through the thick cloud of the European winter, then to mark them with parachute flares or other devices to allow the rest of the formation to bomb on their marker. This system was not ideal, as the whole point of the B-17 as a weapon system was to bomb pinpoint targets accurately, but it did allow the offensive to continue while the weather would otherwise have made it impossible, and some remarkable results were achieved with it.

Despite the weather, there was no slackening of the pace of operations for the rapidly growing 8th Air Force. More airfields were being built, and more units were arriving, including the 401st Bomb Group, the first to be completely equipped with the B-17G, who took up residence at Deenethorpe on 3 November 1943. This unit was to achieve the second best rating for bombing accuracy in the 8th Air Force in its brief history, as it was deactivated shortly after the end of the war.

The number of fighter units was also growing, so fighter escort became the norm even for deep penetrations, when the bomber force would be met at various stages of the route by different units who had flown directly to the rendezvous points to conserve fuel and extend their range to the maximum. This changed again from November 1943 with the introduction of the 357th Fighter Group and their new fighter, the P-51B Mustang. As more of these superb fighters arrived in theatre, long range escort too and from the target became possible, and the concept of a daylight bombing force able to roam at will across enemy territory became a terrifyingly powerful reality.

The B-17s continued to suffer sometimes heavy losses despite all these improvements, particularly to flak and to the ever present, or so it seemed, Luftwaffe fighters. The Luftwaffe had introduced new weapons to combat the massive force of armoured and heavily armed bombers facing them. Large air launched unguided rockets with fragmentation warheads were carried by Me 110 and FW 190 fighters, and were intended to break up the tight bomber formations rather than shoot down individual aircraft, although they frequently did so.

The deployment of these rockets required the attacking fighter to fly straight and level toward the B-17 formation while delivering them, and in the face of a determined fighter escort, this was nigh on suicidal. Heavy cannon were experimented with, including a massive 50mm cannon, but the additional armament made the heavy fighter versions of such aircraft as the Bf109 and the FW190 relatively sluggish and slow to manoeuvre, and again they fell prey to the fighter escort. Armoured versions of the FW190 armed with additional under-wing cannon packs or unguided rockets began to make an appearance, as did a whole new generation of aircraft, the first rocket and jet powered fighters.

The Me163 rocket powered fighter was a point defence interceptor armed with two 30mm cannon. Small and fast, the aircraft made an agile opponent, difficult to see but armed with a heavy punch. The first German jet fighter was the Me262, a twin engined fighter armed with four 30mm cannon in a close grouping in the nose and unguided R4M rockets under the wings. The firepower of this aircraft, coupled with its great speed, made it horribly effective against the bomber formations. Only a short burst of a few rounds could rip the wing off a B-17, even with its upgraded armour. Fortunately for the American aircrews, the Me262 suffered from engine problems and were only ever available in small numbers toward the end of the war.

The late model P-51 Mustangs were so fast they could even catch the jet if they had the advantage of height, and several were shot down by the escorts. Despite the overwhelming numbers they were facing on a daily basis, the Luftwaffe fighter pilots fought like lions, regularly diving in to attack formations where they were outnumbered not tens, but hundreds to one. No one in the 8th Air Force had cause to doubt their bravery, but towards the end there was a tragic element to that courage, as there is nothing so brave as a man defending his home, even though he knows his cause is lost.

In the midst of all these developments, the hard working B-17 crews had a never ending stream of missions to complete. In the early part of 1944 there was an all out offensive against the German aircraft industry. The aim was to cripple German fighter production, prior to the much anticipated invasion of the continent, and to draw the Luftwaffe into a series of decisive battles in defence of the vital factories to finally establish Allied air superiority over Europe.

Officially termed ‘Operation Argument’, but more commonly called ‘Big Week’, the massive raids took place between 20 and 25 February 1944. Many of the targets were in cities far from the UK, so the raids were split between the 8th Air Force, who flew over 3000 sorties that week, and the newly formed 15th Air Force based around Foggia in Italy, who flew over 500 more. Aircraft factories and their airfields and heavy industrial plants in Leipzig, Brunswick, Gotha, Regensburg, Schweinfurt, Augsburg, Stuttgart in Germany and Steyr in Austria were all attacked, including the ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, infamous since the heavy losses of the attack in October the previous year. The difference between the first raid and the ‘Big Week’ raids was a simple one. Numbers.

Imagine dawn on 20 February 1944, living in East Anglia. Snow showers have left a sprinkling across the fenland counties during the night, and it is bitterly cold under dark leaden, heavy clouds. The light north-easterly breeze has a real chill in it with the promise of more snow. Steadily, a rumbling grows, increasing in depth and volume until everything seems to be shaking in its strident thunder. The sky seems darker still as a shroud of aluminium is steadily unveiled across it.

Four thousand Wright Cyclones bellow insistently across the land. The ‘Mighty Eighth’ are going to war. 1000 bombers are airborne in 16 combat wings aiming for 12 separate targets in Germany, and this is just the first raid of the week, all the raids despatched were of this magnitude. On this first raid, only 21 bombers were lost out of the entire force, partly due to the German fighter force being confused by the multiple large raids and only successfully intercepting one of them in large numbers, and partly due to the sheer scale of the raid. It was also the only time three Congressional Medal of Honours were awarded to UK based aircrew in a single day.

1st Lt William R Lawley of the 305th BG brought his crippled B-17 back, despite being severely wounded in the face and his co-pilot killed. He landed the aircraft at Redhill, with two engines out and another on fire, to successfully save his seven wounded crewmen who could not parachute to safety. On board a 351st BG B-17, a cannon shell exploded in the cockpit, killing the co-pilot and rendering the pilot unconscious. The aircraft began to fly erratically, so the bombardier ordered the crew to bale out and jumped himself. Ball turret gunner and flight engineer Sgt Archie Mathies and navigator Walter Truemper regained control, and with the rest of the crew set course for England, despite neither Mathies nor Truemper having any real flying experience. The cold blasting air in the shattered cockpit meant that the crew had to take it in turns to keep the aircraft straight and level, no-one could stand the numbing airflow for long. On arriving over Polebrook, the rest of the crew were ordered to bale out, and the two men tried to land to save the wounded pilots life. They were talked down on the radio twice, but both times were too high and had to abort. Sadly, on the third attempt, the aircraft stalled and crashed, and the brave Mathies and Truemper were killed. The unconscious pilot was recovered alive from the wreckage, but died later of his wounds.

Tales of extraordinary heroism like these were happening every day among the B-17 crews, this is simply how life was for them. Their utter determination to succeed, regardless of odds or wounds, is what makes up a large part of the B-17 legend. It was the quality of the people as much as the machine that made the daylight bombing campaign both possible and ultimately successful.

‘Big Week’ cost the 8th Air Force 97 B-17s and 40 B-24s, with another 23 aircraft having to be written off and scrapped due to the nature of the damage inflicted on them. The 15th Air Force lost 90 aircraft on their raids, the numbers being exacerbated by the fact that damaged aircraft had to negotiate the Alps to return to their bases in southern Italy. Although these numbers seem high, in terms of the size of the raids, losses were extremely light. The best example is the second raid on Schweinfurt; the first raid on 17 August 1943 had cost the 8th Air Force nearly one third of the attacking force, on the ‘Big Week’ raid, this fell to under seven percent.

A great deal of damage was done to the German aircraft industry, but this was to recover by dispersing the factories, many to underground and secret sites. The Luftwaffe pilots were feeling the attrition effects of fighting a war on three fronts, and never again really challenged the bomber raids in the way they had in 1943. The twin-engined fighter units had suffered horrendous casualties to the Allied fighter escorts, and were withdrawn from the air defence role completely. Air superiority was now with the Allies, and the Luftwaffe was never to regain it.

The 8th Air Force, now with 30 heavy bombardment groups and the largest US Air Force by far, began to roam at will over Germany, trying to force the remaining Luftwaffe fighters up to fight. The first raid on Berlin took place on 4 March 1944. 730 heavy bombers, mostly B-17s, were escorted by 800 fighters. Although 69 B-17s were lost, it was a strike against the German capital in daylight. It is said that the leader of the German fighter forces, Major General Adolf Galland was outside the Air Ministry building when the air raid sirens sounded. He looked up, and saw single engined fighters escorting the bombers over Berlin, and knew they must have come from England. He turned to his companion and said, “That’s it, we’ve lost the war.”

Sadly, it was to take over another year of fighting and many more lives before that statement became true. The CBO finished on 1 April 1944, and the Allied Air Forces went over to sorties aimed at preparing the way for the invasion of the continent in June. The strategic bombing campaign continued, but the priority of targets had changed. Many B-17s would be lost, but never in the numbers that had stricken the 8th Air Force previously.

The end was in sight, and when it came the massive B-17 force was to almost completely disappear within a year. The B-17G was produced in greater numbers than any other model, right up to the end of the war, but it was already rendered obsolete by aircraft like the B-29. Small numbers of the aircraft ended up in secondary roles, but many were scrapped, or put out into the desert airfields to await disposal. A sad end for a strong and reliable machine. However, some were to survive, some in very unusual ways, as will be discussed in the next articles.