To The Editor:
Seventy years ago, Aug. 17, 1943, the entire strength of the American heavy bomber forces in England set out to raid two vital industrial targets deep in southern Germany. The 8th Air Force (aka The Mighty 8th) sent 231 B-17s carrying 480 tons of bombs against the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt and 146 B-17s, carrying 307 tons of bombs, against the Messerschmitt 109 fighter factory in Regensburg.
The combined Schweinfuret-Regensburg bomber force required nearly 1 1/2 million gallons of fuel. It carried approximately 3 million rounds of .50-caliber ammunition for its 4,700 defensive machine guns. Each B-17 carried a crew of 10 — four officers and six enlisted men. The total Allied air effort consisted of 1,007 aircraft (667 American and 340 Royal Air Force). This included the B-17s, their escort fighters, and the bombers and fighters which would conduct diversionary raids.
The escort fighters assigned to protect the B-17s were American P-47s and British Spitfires. Their range was limited and they were not able to protect the bombers all the way to their targets. The erroneous assumption was that the heavily armed B-17 Flying Fortress could fight its way to and from the target without fighter protection. Also, early model B-17s were especially vulnerable to head-on, frontal attacks by German fighters.
Sixty B-17s, 16 percent of the total force, were lost over Europe or ditched and sank in the sea. Of the crew members, 102 were killed, 381 became prisoners of war (POW), 38 evaded capture and returned to England, 20 were interned in neutral countries and 60 were rescued from the sea. The 16 percent loss rate is significant from another point of view. A combat crew was required to complete 25 missions. Any loss rate of 4 percent or greater meant that, at least from a statistical standpoint, you were not going to make it.
This was just one raid on one day at a time when our bomber force in Europe was building up to a significant size. One can see that the commitment of people and materiel required to prevail in the air, on land and sea in World War II is staggering. Let us always remember the sacrifices of the men and women who made victory possible.
Source: “The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission” by Martin Middlebrook.