On December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy, fulfilling obligations of the Axis treaty with Japan, declared war on the United States.
It turned out to be a fateful decision. The Americans quickly switched to war economy and became the primary supplier of war materiel for the British and Soviets already fighting the Nazi Germany and Italy and also soon joined the fight themselves. During the first half of the year, defeating Germany, although a priority on paper, had to be put on the back burner, as Japan had to be stopped in the Pacific. Only the victory at Midway allowed the Americans to sent their air force to Europe.
The preliminary scope of the American air force participation in the war with Germany was established on January 13, 1942 in Washington. The American air force along with the RAF was to take part in offensive operations against the German home territory. The mutual declaration regulating these matters was signed by President Roosevelt and Prime Minster Churchill. It served as the basis for the plan code named “Rainbow”, according to which four heavy bombardment groups and three fighter groups were to be stationed in Great Britain. Later, they were to be reinforced to a total of 21 bomber and 11 fighter groups.
The following plan, code named “Bolero”, regulated the entirety of issues related to preparation, redeployment and organization of the American military forces in Great Britain. On February 23, 1942, Headquarters VIII Bomber Command (VIII BC) of the USAAF 8th Air Force was established under Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker. Operational units were Heavy Bombardment Groups (BG) made of four Bombardment Squadrons (BS). In the initial period each squadron consisted of nine aircraft. For combat missions the bombardment group sent three squadrons on a rotation basis. First bomber units equipped with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft reached England at the beginning of July 1942.
On May 5, 1942 Maj. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz assumed command of the newly formed USAAF 8th Air Force. The 8th Air Force Staff was relocated to Great Britain on June 18, 1942.
The fundamental objective of the American strategic bombardments was the destruction of the German air force, therefore, the main target were aircraft and aircraft engine factories. Shipyards and submarine naval bases were other priority targets, as their destruction would turn the scales in the battle of Atlantic in favour of the Allies. Following the annihilation of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force and Kriegsmarine’s submarines the bombing raids were to paralyze communications system and then power plants along with liquid fuel production facilities.
First American air force units became operational on August 15, 1942. These were 97. BG composed of 340., 342. and 414. bombardment squadrons, as well as, 31. FG equipped with British Spitfire VB fighters.
On August 17, 1942, twelve B-17 Flying Fortress of the 340. Bomber Squadron from the 97. Bomber Group, escorted by four RAF squadrons of the 11 Fighter Group, equipped with the most modern fighter of the time – the Spitfire IX, bombed the marshalling yard, engine house and repair workshop at Rouen-Sotteville. The American bomber formation was led by Col. Frank A. Armstrong Jr., Commander of the 97. BG. On board B-17E, 41-9023, leading the second section of six bombers, was the commander of VIII BC, Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker. After take off, the American machines formed up two flights made of six planes each. These were made of two V-formations made of three planes each, arranged in such a way, that the leading plane of the second formation was on a line coming through the leading plane and its right side wingman of the first formation. The Americans dropped 16,700 kg of bombs from 7,000 metres on the largest railway junction in the northern France. However, their aim was poor and only a single bomb scored a direct hit on the engine house destroying four train engines and while some were damaged. Despite the anti-aircraft fire American bombers managed to return to base safely. Fighter escort repulsed the attack of II./JG 26 aircraft loosing three Spitfires of the 401 and 402 Squadrons. Germans reported downing four enemy fighters, one for Lt. Caderbach, Ofw. Philipp, Lt. Sternberg and Uffz. Vogt. American gunners downed Fw 190 A-3, W.Nr. 5332, flown by Lt. Herbert Horn 3./JG 2. German pilot died in the wreckage of his aircraft. The first B-17 gunner of the USAAF 8th Air Force credited with downing Luftwaffe’s aircraft was Sgt. Ken Rest, ball turret gunner of the B-17E “Birmingham Blitzkrieg” of 414. BS.
Conclusions for the future operations were drawn from the results of the first bombardment. Too few planes were sent to destroy such a large target, insufficient training of the crews resulted in poor aim and formation was stretched, which reduced efficiency of defensive fire. Moreover, the escorting Spitfires were four minutes late for the randezvous with the bombers.
This action was the beginning of a series of precision daylight bombardments conducted by large formations of four-engine bombers. It was in accordance with convictions of the high-ranking officers of the U.S. Air Force, who thought that Germany can only be defeated by strategic bombardments.
On August 19, 1942, the British landed at Dieppe. American bombers supported their allies conducting an air raid at 11.30 against Abbeville airfield with twenty four B-17E bombers. Twenty two Flying Fortress bombers reached the target and their bombs damaged two Fw 190 A fighters stationed there. Luftwaffe, being busy at Dieppe, did not intervene. On the next day, August 20, 1942, eleven B-17s of the 97. BG attacked the Amiens/Longeau marshalling yard. Fighters of III./JG 26 tried to intercept the bombers on their way back, but the escorting Spitfires forced them back with ease.
On August 21, 1942, formation of twelve Flying Fortress bombers was supposed to bomb a shipyard in Rotterdam. It was a very ambitious operation, because due to the fact that the distance between the target and airfields in the south-eastern England was considerable, the bombers would not be escorted by fighters on their entire route. Nine Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A fighters of II./JG 1 attacked the American formation just when it was flying without fighter cover. According to the official war diary of the German fighter unit “The operation was conducted by nine Fw 190, led by Oblt. Olejnik. Formation spotted the enemy in sector 3223 and engaged in sector 3368. These were nine Boeing machines, flying in tight formation. Repeated attacks were futile. Strong defensive fire of the tail gunners. The only “success” worthy of mention is the fact that all attacked Boeings made an emergency bomb drop over the sea”.
One of the bombers, B-17E “Johnny Reb” was damaged. Well-aimed 20 mm round hit the cockpit and killed the co-pilot, 2/Lt. Donald A Walter. Pilot, 2/Lt. Richard F. Starks had his hands burned and handed the controls over to the bombardier, 2/Lt. E. T. Sconiers, who safely piloted the machine back to England. Focke-Wulf 190 A-2, W. Nr. 2116, flown by Ofw. Detlef Lüth, was hit in the radiator by tail gunners and crash-landed at Katwijk, sustaining 10% damage.
Another bombing raid was conducted on August 24, 1942, by twelve B-17E aircraft of 97. BG against the shipyard at Le Trair. On their way back to England the bombers were attacked by a dozen Fw 190 A of II./JG 26. However, their pilots were unable to penetrate the fighter cover and reported shooting down five Spitfires without any loses. The British 402 RAF Squadron lost two planes in this combat, two others were damaged and their pilots were wounded, but they managed to return to England.
On August 27, 1942, nine B-17E headed for Rotterdam. Seven of them reached the target, but this time German fighters did not intervene. On the next day, August 28, fourteen Flying Fortress bombers were to attack the Potez aircraft factory at Meaulte. Only eleven aircraft reached the target, but their bombs caused no serious damage. On their way back, the bomber’s formation, escorted by numerous Spitfires, was attacked by Fw 190 A of II./JG 26 and Bf 109 of 11.(Höhen)/JG 2 near Le Havre. German fighters were unable to reach the bombers, but reported shooting down three Spitfires. Pilots of the 611 RAF Squadron shot down on Bf 109 G-1, W. Nr. 14065, “White 5” of 11.(Höhen)/JG 2, flown by Fw. Helmut Baudach, who was wounded.
Bombing raid conducted by thirteen Flying Fortress machines on August 29, 1942, against the JG 26 base at Courtrai-Wevelghem in Belgium was a success. It caused serious damage to ground installations and heavy loses in auxiliary personnel. The quick reaction flight led by Hptm. Priller was caught completely off guard and had not managed to take off before the raid began.
At the beginning of September 1942 the USAAF 8th Air Force was reinforced by bombers of the 301. BG. The new unit had its baptism of fire on September 5, 1942, when twenty-five B-17s of the 97. BG and twelve of the 301. BG attacked the marshalling yard at Rouen. Only thirty-one bombers reached the target and their aim was rather poor, as only 20% of the bombs hit the target area. The city suffered the most, 140 French were killed and 200 were wounded. Returning bombers were attacked first by the fighters of JG 2, which reported shooting down two Spitfires (Uffz. Gerhard Heinz of 6./JG 2 and Ofw. Josef Heinzeller of 3./JG 2) and then, over the sea, by II./JG 26. The second attack of the German fighters was very successful and ended in downing of six Spitfires. German losses were much lower, British fighters shot down only one Fw 190 A-3, W. Nr. 2237 of 1./JG 2 and its pilot Fw. Alois Immerl was wounded. One Bf 109 G-1, W. Nr. 10312, “White 4” of 11.(Höhen)/JG 2 was also damaged in about 20%.
On the same day, the Queen Elizabeth arrived at Greenock carrying the personnel of two new bombardment groups – 93. and 209. BG. She was followed by her sister Queen Mary, which brought the personnel of 91., 303. and 305. BG. Four new bombardment groups were to be equipped with B-17 aircraft, while the fifth (93. BG) with B-24 Liberator bombers.
In the late afternoon of September 6, 1942, fifty-one B-17 bombers of the 97. and 301. BG were to attack the Potez aircraft factory at Meaulte. However, only 30 bombers reached the target. Due to the lack of proper coordination , the Spitfire wing that was supposed to cover the Flying Fortresses was late and the bomber’s formation was attacked by forty-five Fw 190 A of II./JG 26. German fighters damaged seven bombers and shot down two. First B-17F Flying Fortress, 41-24445, USAAF lost over Europe belonged to the 340. BS, 97. BG and was flown by 2/Lt. Clarence C. Lipsky. It was shot down at 18.55, north-west of Amiens by the commander of II./JG 26, Hptm. Karl-Heinz Meyer. It was his tenth aerial victory. The crew managed to bail out and were taken prisoners. At 10.06, Ofw. Willy Roth of 4./JG 26 scored his seventeenth aerial victory over Le Treport, shooting down the second Flying Fortress. The shot down aircraft was B-17F, 41-9095, “Baby Doll” of the 92. BG, flown by 2/Lt. Leigh E. Steward. The entire crew drowned in the waters of the English Channel.
On the same day thirteen B-17s of the 301. BG attacked airfields in vicinity of St. Omer. The formation, protected by American Spitfires of 133 Squadron, was attacked by fighters of II./JG 2, which managed to shot down two Allied fighters. Aerial victories were reported by Ofw. Paul Marx of the 4./JG 2 and Uffz. Gerhard Heine of the 6./JG 2. Shortly thereafter, Oblt. Hans Naumann of the 4./JG 26 shot down a Spitfire of 402 RAF Squadron. Germans lost a single Fw 190 A-3, W. Nr. 0526. Its pilot, Lt. Ludwig Spinner died.
Another bombing raid of twenty-nine Flying Fortress bombers took place on September 7, 1942. The target was a shipyard in Rotterdam. Dreadful weather conditions over the North Sea forced majority of the planes to return to England, but nine machines of the 97. and 301. BG had not received the radioed order to abort the operation. Seven headed for Rotterdam and the remaining two for Utrecht. In vicinity of the target American aircraft were attacked by Fw 190 of II./JG 1: “Action of seven Fw 190, led by Oblt. Olejnik (guided by Y-Verfahren system). Formation made contact with the enemy force of 15 Boeings and 25 to 30 Spitfires, Fw. Kaiser was hit in the oil radiator and performed a perfect emergency landing at Katwijk. Lt. Endrizzi (4. Staffeln) did not return from this sortie. He was probably shot down during the first attack. He was last seen disappearing in the clouds in vertical dive. The enemy formation was forced to made an emergency bomb drop. One machine’s engine was hit and caught fire, but it burned-out within a short time.”2