World War II (1942-1945)
On January 4, 1944, the B-24s and B-17s based in England flew their last mission as a subordinate part of VIII Bomber Command. On February 22, 1944, a massive reorganization of American airpower took place in Europe. The VIII Bomber Command and Ninth Air Force were brought under control of a centralized headquarters for command and control of the United States Army Air Forces in Europe, the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF).
VIII Bomber Command was redesignated as Eighth Air Force, with VIII Fighter and VIII Air Support Commands being brought under the command of the redesignated Eighth Air Force. VIII Bomber Command was inactivated.
General Carl Spaatz returned to England to command the USSTAF. Major General Jimmy Doolittle relinquished command of the Fifteenth Air Force to Major General Nathan F. Twining and took over command of the Eighth Air Force from Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker at RAF High Wycombe. Doolittle of course was well known to American airmen as the famous “Tokyo Raider” and former air racer. His directive was simple: `Win the air war and isolate the battlefield’.
Spaatz and Doolittle’s plan was to use the US Strategic Air Forces in a series of co-ordinated raids, code-named Operation ‘Argument’ and supported by RAF night bombing, on the German aircraft industry at the earliest possible date.
Cold and clear weather was predicted for the last week of February 1944 and Operation Argument became known as “Big Week”. On the night of February 19–20, the RAF bombed Leipzig. Eighth Air Force put up over 1,000 B-17s and B-24s and over 800 fighters and the RAF provided sixteen squadrons of Mustangs and Spitfires. In all twelve aircraft factories were attacked, with the B-17s heading to Leipzig, Bernburg and Oschersleben, while the B-24s hitting the Messerschmitt Bf 110 plants at Gotha, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 plant at Tutow and the Heinkel He 111 Plant at Rostock. The raids on the German aircraft industry caused so much damage that the Germans were forced to disperse aircraft manufacturing eastward, to safer parts of the Reich. (Ironically, it was this disbursement eastward that, in 1945, allowed the Soviet Union to gain access to much German aviation technology in their occupation zone. The postwar result was the rapid development of Soviet Air Force fighter jets largely based on this captured German wartime technology).
The next day, over 900 bombers and 700 fighters of Eighth Air Force hit more aircraft factories in the Braunschweig area. Over 60 Luftwaffe fighters were shot down with a loss of 19 bombers and 5 fighters. On February 24, with the weather clearing over central Germany, Eighth Air Force sent over 800 bombers, hitting Schweinfurt and attacks on the Baltic coast, with a total of 11 B-17s being lost. Some 230 B-24s hit the Messerschmitt Bf 110 assembly plant at Gotha with a loss of 24 aircraft.
On February 25, both Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces hit numerous targets at Furth, Augsburg and Regensburg, attacking Messerschmitt Bf 110 and Bf 109 plants. The 8th lost 31 bombers, the 15th losing 33.
Less than a week after “Big Week”, Eighth Air Force made its first attack on the Reich’s capital, Berlin. The RAF had been making night raids on Berlin since 1941, and nuisance Mosquito raids in daylight, but this was the first major daylight bombing raid on the German capital. On March 6, 1944, over 700 heavy bombers along with 800 escort fighters of the Eighth Air Force hit numerous targets within Berlin, dropping the first American bombs on the capital of the Third Reich. On March 8, another raid of 600 bombers and 200 fighters hit the Berlin area again, destroying the VKF ball-bearing plant at Erkner. The following day, on March 9, H2X radar-equipped B-17s mounted a third attack on the Reich capital through clouds. Altogether, the Eighth Air Force dropped over 4,800 tons of high explosive on Berlin during the first week of March.
On March 22, over 800 bombers, led by H2X radar equipped bombers hit Berlin yet again, bombing targets though a thick rainy overcast causing more destruction to various industries. Because of the thick clouds and rain over the area the Luftwaffe did not attack the American bomber fleet, as the Germans believed that because of the weather the American bombers would be incapable of attacking their targets. However, the “pathfinder” bombers of the RAF Alconbury-based 482d Bomb Group proved very capable of finding the targets and guiding the bombers to them.
Prelude to Overlord
In a prelude to the invasion of France, American air attacks began in February 1944 against railroad junctions, airfields, ports and bridges in northern France and along the English Channel coastline. Fighters from both Eighth and Ninth Air Forces made wide sweeps over the area, mounting strafing missions at airfields and rail networks. By June 6 Allied fighter pilots had succeeded in damaging or destroying hundreds of locomotives, thousands of motorized vehicles, and many bridges. In addition, German airfields in France and Belgium were attacked.
On May 1, over 1,300 Eighth Air Force heavy bombers made an all-out attack on the enemy’s rail network, striking at targets in France and Belgium. On May 7, another 1,000 bombers hit additional targets along the English Channel coast, hitting fortifications, bridges and marshaling areas.
On D-Day, over 2,300 sorties were flown by Eighth Air Force heavy bombers in the Normandy and Cherbourg invasion areas, all aimed at neutralizing enemy coastal defenses and front-line troops.
Defeat of the Luftwaffe
The P-51 Mustang first entered squadron service in Europe with the British in early 1942; the Allison V-1710 engined P-51A (Mustang I) having much success with the RAF, although it found the aircraft’s performance inadequate at higher altitudes. Rolls-Royce engineers rapidly realized that equipping the Mustang with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine with its two speed, two stage supercharger would substantially improve performance. Also, by using a four-bladed propeller, rather than the three-bladed one used on the P-51A, the performance was greatly improved; the XP-51B achieved a level speed of 441 mph at 29,800 feet (9,100 m), over 100 mph faster than the Allison-engined P-51A at that altitude. At all heights, the rate of climb was approximately doubled.
The USAAF now finally had an aircraft which could compete on equal terms with the Fw 190 and the later models of the Bf 109. The USAAF was finally fully sold on the Mustang, and a letter contract for 2200 P-51Bs was issued. The engine was to be the Packard V-1650-3, based on the Merlin 68.
In late 1943, the P-51B Mustang was introduced to the European Theater by the USAAF. It could fly as far on its internal fuel tanks as the P-47 could with drop tanks. However the P-51B was introduced as a tactical fighter, so the first deliveries of the P-51B in November 1943 were assigned to three groups in the tactical Ninth Air Force at the expense of VIII Bomber Command, whose need for a long range escort fighter was critical. The first escort mission for the bombers was not flown until December 5.
The effect of the Mustang on the Luftwaffe defenders was arguabley swift and decisive. The result was that the Luftwaffe was notable by its absence over the skies of the Europe after D-Day and the Allies were starting to achieve air superiority over the continent. Although the Luftwaffe could, and did, mount effective attacks on the ever larger formations of Allied heavy bombers, the sheer numbers of B-17s and B-24s attacking enemy targets was overwhelming the German fighter force, which simply could not sustain the losses the Eighth Air Force bombers and fighters were inflicting on it.
By mid-1944, Eighth Air Force had reached a total strength of more than 200,000 people (it is estimated that more than 350,000 Americans served in Eighth Air Force during the war in Europe). At peak strength, Eighth Air Force had forty heavy bomber groups, fifteen fighter groups, and four specialized support groups. It could and did often dispatch more than 2,000 four-engine bombers and more than 1,000 fighters on a single mission to multiple targets.
By 1945, all but one of the Eighth Air Force fighter groups were equipped with the P-51D.
Destroying the German oil industry
Eighth Air Force did not strike at oil industry targets until May 12, 1944 when 900 bombers, escorted by almost 900 fighters, pounded oil targets in the Leipzig area and at Brux in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, a smaller force hit an FW 190 repair depot at Zwickau. Over 300 German fighters attacked the bomber forces, losing almost half its aircraft. However, the Luftwaffe was successful in shooting down 46 bombers in a very unequal fight.
After D-Day, attacks on the German oil industry assumed top priority which was widely dispersed around the Reich. Vast fleets of B-24s and B-17s escorted by P-51Ds and long-range P-38Ls hit refineries in Germany and Czechoslovakia in late 1944 and early 1945. Having almost total air superiority throughout the collapsing German Reich, Eighth Air Force hit targets as far east as Hungary, while Fifteenth Air Force hit oil industry facilities in Yugoslavia, Romania, and northeastern Italy. On at least eighteen occasions, the Merseburg refineries in Leuna, where the majority of Germany’s synthetic fuel for jet aircraft was refined, was hit. By the end of 1944, only three out of ninety-one refineries in the Reich were still working normally, twenty-nine were partially functional, and the remainder were completely destroyed.
These missions, however, carried a high price. Half of the U.S. Army Air Force’s casualties in World War II were suffered by Eighth Air Force (more than 47,000 casualties, with more than 26,000 dead). Seventeen Medals of Honor went to Eighth Air Force personnel during the war. By war’s end, they had been awarded a number of other medals to include 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. Many more awards were made to Eighth Air Force veterans after the war that remain uncounted. There were 261 fighter aces in the Eighth Air Force during World War II. Thirty-one of these aces had 15 or more aircraft kills apiece. Another 305 enlisted gunners were also recognized as aces.
Victory in Europe
In January 1945, the Luftwaffe attempted one last major air offensive against the Allied Air Forces. Over 950 fighters had been sent west from the Eastern Front for “Operation Bodenplatte”. On January 1, the entire German fighter force took off and attacked 27 Allied airfields in northern France, Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands in an attempt by the Luftwaffe to cripple Allied air forces in the Low Countries of Europe. It was a last-ditch effort to keep up the momentum of the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) during the stagnant stage of the Battle of the Bulge (Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein). The operation was a pyrrhic success for the Luftwaffe as the losses suffered by the German air arm were irreplaceable and over 300 Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down, mostly by Allied Anti-Aircraft guns. The losses of the Allied Air Forces were replaced within weeks. The operation failed to achieve air superiority, even temporarily, and the German Army continued to be exposed to air attack.
First seen by Allied airmen during the late summer of 1944, it wasn’t until March 1945 that German jet aircraft started to attack Allied bomber formations in earnest. On March 2, when Eighth Air Force bombers were dispatched to attack the synthetic oil refineries at Leipzig, Messerschmitt Me 262s attacked the formation near Dresden. The next day, the largest formation of German jets ever seen, most likely from the Luftwaffe’s specialist 7th Fighter Wing, Jagdgeschwader 7 Nowotny, made attacks on Eighth Air Force bomber formations over Dresden and the oil targets at Essen, shooting down a total of three bombers.
However, the Luftwaffe jets were simply too few and too late to have any serious effect on the Allied air armadas now sweeping over the Reich with near-impunity. A lack of fuel and available pilots for the new jets greatly reduced their effectiveness. The Me-262 was an difficult foe for the P-47s and P-51s, possessing a distinct speed advantage. Allied bomber escort fighters would fly high above the bombers — diving from this height gave them extra speed, thus reducing the speed difference. The Me 262 was also less maneuverable than the P-51 and so trained Allied pilots could out-turn a Me-262. However, the only reliable way of dealing with the jets, as with the even faster Me-163 Komet rocket fighters, was to attack them on the ground and during take off and landing. Luftwaffe airfields that were identified as jet and rocket bases, such as Parchim and Bad Zwischenahn, were frequently bombed, and Allied fighters patrolled over the fields to attack jets trying to land. The Luftwaffe countered by installing flak alleys along the approach lines in order to protect the Me-262s from the ground and providing top cover with conventional fighters during takeoff and landing. Nevertheless, in March and April 1945, Allied fighter patrol patterns over Me-262 airfields resulted in numerous losses of jets and serious attrition of the force.
On April 7, Eighth Air Force dispatched thirty-two B-17 and B-24 groups and fourteen Mustang groups (the sheer numbers of attacking Allied aircraft were so large in 1945 that they were now counted by the group) to targets in the small area of Germany still controlled by the Nazis, hitting the remaining airfields where the Luftwaffe jets were stationed. In addition, almost 300 German aircraft of all types were destroyed in strafing attacks. On April 16, this record was broken when over 700 German aircraft were destroyed on the ground.
The Luftwaffe was, simply, finished.
The end came on April 25, 1945 when Eighth Air Force flew its last full-scale mission of the European War. B-17s hit the Skoda armaments factory at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, while B-24s bombed rail complexes surrounding Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden.
After the end of hostilities on May 7, 1945, Eighth Air Force bombers flew “Trolley” missions all over western Europe, giving the ground crews which supported them at their English bases a tour of the continent, so that they could witness first hand the complete destruction of the Third Reich that the Eighth Air Force inflicted.