Showing the skeptics that Europe can be bombed in daylight with no fighter protection, our flyers in Britain have made a big contribution to the war.

By Sgt. Jack Scott

YANK Staff Correspondent

BRITAIN [By Cable]—Along the flat outline of the sky, a wedge of geese appeared, and the Welsh farmer took off his old hat and flapped it toward the sky. The geese were Flying Fortresses. The farmer knew they couldn’t see him, for at that altitude the ground was only a crazy quilt far below, yet he always waved at the big American bombers. It was a gallant gesture to a gallant bunch.

The planes passing over his farm were returning to their home base after a raid on Germany that was more than an attack on the enemy; it was a celebration. This was the anniversary of the Eighth Air Force’s first year in the European Theater of Operations.

ira eaker eighth air force

Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker in England with the Eighth Air Force.

Just 12 months before, Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, then chief of the Bomber Command of the Eighth Air Force, led the first All-American heavy bomber raid against Rouen in occupied France. Today he is a major general and has succeeded Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, now in North Africa, as commander of the whole Eighth Air Force.

In the first year of operations, the Americans have convinced the British Air Ministry that our bombers can safely and effectively fly by day, while the British raid by night. This new round-the-clock tempo has been steeped up until now scarcely a day passes without the sullen sound of motors droning over the Channel. The big formations of Flying Fortresses have become as common a “skymark” as the British barrage balloons. That tempo was not reached easily or without cost. Many men who carried the big bombs to Germany and occupied Europe have not returned.

The Eighth Air Force’s first big test came on Nov 9, 1942, when the Fortresses were joined by Liberators in a formation of 100 bombers strong. Which attacked the enemy locomotive works at Lille in France. That raid provided some of the answers to a couple of important questions:

Could the Fortresses operate as fighter-bombers without any fighter escort? Could they hold their own against the armament of the Luftwaffe’s speedy fighters? They could and did, but it was a job.

In 82 missions completed in the first year of operations 419 American bombers have failed to return, well under the 5 percent that is considered a safe margin of loss. On the other side of the leger are the 1,728 enemy fighters definitely destroyed, 671 probably destroyed and 872 damaged. A total of 15,722 tons of bombs have been dropped on 53 different cities in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Norway with proven accuracy.

8th air force

B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 8th Air Force heading to a target

This arithmetic makes sense. The Eighth Air Force has demonstrated that its formations can penetrate Germany by day, that its combat crews can destroy their objectives by an accurate concentration of bombs from a high altitude and that they defend themselves against fighter opposition.

When the Forts began to claim enormous bags of enemy fighters on every mission, the British were inclined to doubt the figures, dividing them by three, since their system was to credit a gunner with a definite “kill” only when three men actually saw an enemy plane destroyed or shot down. It didn’t seem logical that Fortresses, which were primarily bombers, would be so successful as fighters, too. But today the British confirm the American figures.

In the year of operations there have been many developments in the Flying Fortresses. The original B-17C, a seven-gun model, has been withdrawn from operations over the continent. The Royal Air Force tested the ship over Brest, France, and in a running battle when the German pocket battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped up the English Channel. The B-17C’s lack of success was largely the fault of its armament: all seven guns were .30-caliber and there was no tail gun at all. Later the RAF used this model on Norwegian raids and then transferred it to the Coastal Command, where speed and heavy armament are not all-essential.

The lessons learned with the B-17C were used to develop the B-17E and later the B-17F, both wonderful ships with tremendous fire power and absolutely no blind spots. Many changes were included in these models—power turrets have been added, there are 13 guns instead of seven, and the engine and design have been modified.

B-17E Flying Fortress. The type Flown by Gilbert Erb over New Guinea

B-17E Flying Fortress.

Among other possible changes is the discarding of all the paint on the big bombers. Without the paint, the speed of the ship would be increased perhaps 10 to 15 miles an hour, and the bomber’s glitter in the sun would make it a difficult target for Jerry fighters.

The name “Fort” has taken on a special significance, and any great plane with a white star and four motors is immediately called a Flying Fortress—by everyone except the boys who fly them. But our Eighth Air Force is not made up entirely of Fortresses. On almost every raid there have been Liberators (Consolidated B-24s) and Marauders (Martin B-26s).


A B-24 Liberator bursts into flames after taking a hit from flak

At first the Eighth Air Force did not know exactly how to use the Marauder, nicknamed the “Flying Prostitute” because, with its short stubby wings, it has no visible means of support. The two-motored, heavily armed bomber was tried out in low-level attacks, but great losses in aircraft and crew proved that this was an error. Now the Flying Prostitute is used at a little higher level and with a new technique. She has lived through her experiment phase and is going places, four and five times a week.

b-26 marauder

A Martin B-26 Marauder flies over its target.

So are the men of the Eighth. Many of them have set new marks of courage. The story of S/Sgt. Maynard (Snuffy) Smith of Caro, Mich., the little ball turret gunner who was yanked off KP here to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from Secretary of War Stimson, was one of the most colorful episodes of the war. Snuffy doesn’t look like a hero but he behaved line one on the first raid last May.

maynard snuffy smith eighth air force MOH winner

Maynard “Snuffy” Smith received the Medal of Honor from Secretary of War Henry Stimson

Snuffy’s Fortress was heading out to sea after an attack on the U-boat base at Saint Nazaire, France, when it was engaged by a great number of Focke-Wulfs. There was an explosion inside the plane, and soon the radio control room and the tail section were blazing wildly. Snuffy wrapped his hands in a sweater, seized a fire extinguisher and dove into the flames.

He gave first aid to the wounded tail gunner, helped the left waist gunner to bail out and took time off to man the right and left waist guns against attacks by a swarm of Focke-Wulfs. When all the fire-extinguisher fluid was exhausted, Snuffy urinated on the fire and beat out the flames with his feet.

The crew of Old Bill, the Fortress piloted by Capt. William D. Whitson of Denton, Tex., are among the most decorated bunch of flyers in the Air Forces. They have won eight Silver Stars, Two DSCs and seven Purple Hearts. The crew of Shoot Luke, a Liberator, has earned four Silver Stars, five DFCs, Three DSCs, seven Purple Hearts and a pile of Air Medals.

Sam Junkin of Natchez, Miss, who served with the RAF and later became the first member of the Eighth Air Force to shoot down a Nazi plane, is another who has distinguished himself. But not all have coue out as lucky as Snuffy, Sam and the crews of Old Bill and Shoot Luke.

There were the Mathis brothers of San Angelo, Tex. Jack was killed while he was kneeling over the bombsight in the lead ship of a formation attacking shipyards at Vegesack, Germany. He died before his bombs hit the ground. Mark Mathis, avenging Jack’s death, took part in three raids against the enemy as bombardier on the same ship. He was reported missing after an attack on Kiel, his fourth mission.


A flying Fortress drones over the target, a synthetic rubber plant at Huls, Germany

Members of the ground crews, most of whose work goes unsung, have also won distinction. Pvt. Adam E. Gross of Chicago, Ill., was the first to volunteer to carry away a number of delayed-action bombs, dropped by the Luftwaffe on an American airfield in Britain. Pfc. Carmen D’Amanti rushed into a burning bomber on another field and pulled out a number of unconscious men, ignoring the danger of a probable gasoline explosion.

Facing death almost every day, as many of the Eighth Air Force do, they have become quite religious. Many who hadn’t been to church since their early teens now attend regularly. Others have acquired a sense of humor that seems typical of men in dangerous undertakings. They will joke about everything and everybody. Many a Fortress has gone out of its way to help out a sister ship, but when the men return, they kid each other. “We only wanted to save your bunch till pay day. You guys owe us too much money.”

Not all the power of the Eighth Air Force comes from bombers. The P-47 Thunderbolts are supplementing the British Spitfires as fighter escorts, meeting the Fortresses somewhere over the Channel and accompanying them across ad back. They are not, of course, able to follow the bombers on the deeper raids.


Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

When the first Thunderbolts arrived in this theater, they bore tags on their instrument panels reading, “Please do not fly this ship faster than 427 miles an hour.” That was no idle boast; the ships were that fast and faster, though just how fast nobody seems to know, or at any rate nobody is saying.

Many of the P-47 boys in the Eighth Air Force are veterans of the early campaigns in the Pacific, and they would rather fight the Japs, but to a man they call this the hottest aerial theater in the world. “You go out and you get it or you don’t” is the motto by which they live. They go out and they do come back. We have lost some P-47s, but the number is minor, and that record is to the credit not only of superior ships but of superior pilots.

Our pilots took the Thunderbolt when it was full of bugs, and they killed those bugs. They killed a few of themselves, too, but they developed the P-47 into one of the finest fighters of them all. In the comparatively short time it has been in action, the Thunderbolt has become a legend, and so have its pilots.

From the British, who have been fighting an air war for four years, has come recognition of the achievements of the Eighth Air Force. Compared with our British allies, we are still recruits in this business of bombing Europe but we are learning and learning the hard way.

The Eighth Air Force was too busy fighting to bother about celebrating its first anniversary with a arty. The flyers didn’t tell the pretty English girls what wonderful guys they were, they didn’t go out and quaff a lot of brew. They took a ride across to Germany and bombed hell out of several important targets. They destroyed more than 40 German fighter planes, and when they came down from upstairs, from the fatiguing 20,000-foot altitude and the 40-below-zero cold, they ate a hearty meal and went to bed. They were tired, and they celebrated by resting up for tomorrow’s raid.


A cluster of incendiary bombs spill out on the port of Hamburg now virtually destroyed


The target Hamburg smokes after planes of the Eighth Air Force give it a pounding

For More on the Eighth Air Force Check Out:

Blood and Fears: How America’s Bomber Boys of the 8th Air Force Saved World War II

Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany

The Boys In The B-17: 8Th Air Force Combat Stories Of WWII

For Related Articles See:


  • Bill Getz says:

    Sgt. Jack Scott was no doubt a part of the PR apparatus of the emerging U.S Air Force in emerging European skies. The article is partially revisionist history as it emerged. One example, although I was a lowly first lieutenant bomber pilot in early 1944, even I was aware the Brits gave up daylight bombing because of unacceptable losses. Enter bullnose Curt LeMay whose over-confidence in the ability of American bombers and the “miraculous” Norden bombsight would bring Germany to its knees precluding the necessity of an invasion. At lease that is my memory of what was happening. Early American daylight bombing was a disaster. Losses were staggering just as the Brits had experienced. No long range fighter protection was available. The P-47 did not have the range. The favorite joke at the time was the response to the question, “Did you have fighter escort on your bomber missions?” The response was, “Absolutely, we had fighter escort all the way. The American and British fighters would escort us to the European coast, then the Luftwaffe would escort us to the target and back to the coast where the American and Royal AF aircraft would pick us up and escort us to our base. Did we have fighter escort? You bet. All the way.”
    Bomber losses did not come under “reasonable control” until the introduction of the P-51, long-range escort fighter that could indeed escort the bombers “all the way” to most, not all, targets.
    For public morale, Sgt. Scott and others worked diligently to put the right spin on stories even if it meant bending the truth. Has much changed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Past and Present WWII History Posts