Excogitations On The Combined Allied Air War Effort Over Germany.

by Daniel Russ on August 27, 2011

In World War II, airmen from around the world were doing something no one had ever done. They got up in the morning and enjoyed breakfast and then they climbed into vehicles and made war hundreds of miles away in another country. If they were lucky, they would return and sleep in their own bunk that night. Today we look at these big lumbering bombers as technology from a distant past and often fail to remember that they were the most modern machines of their day. By the end of the war most of these bombers looked like moribund automobiles on a lot behind a gas station. But no one had ever commuted to and from a theater of battle on a daily basis before. Many of these boys were just that, boys from rural farms and crowded cities that found themselves living on massive airbases in countries they could name but knew little about. The airbase accommodations were often less than one would expect or hope for. Sometimes a pilot would bunk in a tent with others and share a latrine that was hastily dug into the landscape. Yes, a bomber pilot had no real glamorous duty; it was very hard. The English countryside tends to be cold and wet a good part of the year as well, and American boys who grew up on ranches in the sunshine had a hard time adjusting.


The lifespan for a US Airman was short. In fact it was so short that after 25 missions you could retire from the service and go home. In Britain an airman was only required to fly ten missions before his commission was up. The fact is training itself was also laced with danger. One in five allied airmen to die in World War II died in an accident. Over 22,000 Allied airmen died in training accidents. The equipment was much more unforgiving than today’s gear and the results were telling. It took about a year to train a pilot or a bombardier or a radioman. So creating an Air Force was difficult and as the war wore on, training times were shortened significantly. In Japan, Kamikaze pilots were given three weeks of training, just enough to take off, and steer and hopefully not come back.
The crew of a B-17 was typically nine to ten people: the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, the bombardier, waist gunner port, waist gunner starboard, bull turret gunner bottom, ball turret gunner top, and a tail gunner. So a B-17 going down could mean ten American lives. The crew would prepare for the mission and put on electrically heated jump suits to keep them from freezing to death in the minus 40 degrees at 25,000 feet. The plane’s four engines started and the pilot brought the bomber up in a slow languorous climb to altitude where it began its journey to the target.


B17 Crew
B-17s flew in a box formation that allowed each of the planes in the strike package to cover each other. But a formation of B-17s bristling with 50 caliber machine guns often fired on other bombers in the formation. Lancasters, built by Britain, went down in huge numbers. In all 8,600 British bombers were shot down. The US lost at least one third of all its 12,753 B-17s.  Before the Schweinfurt raid, Germany averaged shooting down half of the US attacking bomber force per mission. So the US decided to suspend further raids until we could develop an escort fighter that could fly into Germany and back on one tank of gas. Once the P-51 Mustang appeared, the numbers of lost B-17s dropped drastically. During the entire duration of the war, Britain bombed at night using sophisticated radar and navigation aids. Because there were no precision munitions, the best a night bomber squadron could hope to do is hit the entire city, factories, capitol and suburbs.
There was a certain acceptance by US and British bomber crews that the flashes and explosions ripping through German towns five miles below were also killing women and children. The bombs ripped through classic architecture and historical monuments that can never be replaced. B-17s carried about 7000 pounds of bombs and the Lancaster carried over 18,000 pounds of ordinance. The US B-17s managed to drop 640,036 tons of ordinance on Germany and the British B-17s dropped 452,508 tons of ordinance on Germany. Germany suffered over 2 million civilian deaths and many of these came at the business end of US bombs. Crew members with family at home most certainly imagined the luck of the draw that they didn’t happen to be on the ground below the whistle of incoming anonymous, bloody bombs.


Ground crews were a huge part of the war effort and not a single bombing mission would ever have taken off without them. They repaired the engines, patched holes in the plane, pulled bodies off of it, reloaded the machine guns, cleaned it, and made sure general flight systems were still working. This was one of the worst jobs. Hell the planes under your purview might not even return. And when your planes didn’t come back, that meant it could be a fault of your own. Did you fully repair that fuel leak? Did you remember to fix the bomb bay door hinge? Did you refill oxygen tanks?


One can understand how a minor failure on the part of a ground crew might cause the death of an aircrew. But wars, even new wars like the air war being fought in Europe are an ineluctable part of death and memory.


Sources: Wikipedia, My Father



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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 6, 2017 at 2:46 am

As far as I know, the training time for the Axis replacement pilots did indeed shorten quite a bit, and the skill level of their replacements fell dramatically during the war. Those for the Allies on the other hand, after the first “90-day wonders” returned from the front, actually increased.
The allies were wont to cycle pilots back from the front to begin training new ones. That ensured that knowledge and expirience were shared with new pilots, who then had a better start when they arrived at the front. And, once it was clear that they did have air supremacy (not superiority yet) they even increased the training time, to ensure even more capable replacements.

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