The WWII Air War
Over Europe

"Hitler built a fortress around Europe, but he forgot to put a roof on it."

–President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Mighty Eighth Air Force

The 8th Air Force was a bomber command unit formed at the Army Air Base in Savannah, Georgia on January 28, 1942 (just weeks after the Pearl Harbor attacks). Within one month it was headquartered in England. Within three years it grew to become the greatest military striking force in history.

Using a previously untested strategy called high altitude strategic bombing, the 8th Air force targeted facilities such as oil refineries, railway hubs, war machine factories, and other industrial sites that fueled the Nazi regime. Through trial, error, luck and loss, military leaders quickly learned that huge fleets of bombers were needed on every mission.

By 1944, the 8th Air Force reached a total strength of more than 200,000 men. It could dispatch more than 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 fighter planes on a single mission. It was, quite simply, the greatest air armada in world history, and was aptly nicknamed the “Mighty Eighth”.

Success came at a high price, however. 8th Air Force losses—of both men and machine–were by far the most significant of any branch of the military at that time.

Technology Made it Possible

Advanced technology allowed American fliers to run bombing missions during the day. The new B-17 allowed for high altitude, long range flying into enemy territory. Another new instrument called the Norden Bombsite provided the accuracy needed for precision bombing.

The Norden Bombsight was a top-secret technological breakthrough. During fair-weather testing on U.S. soil, it was noted to be so accurate that one could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet (hence the nickname “Pickle Barrel Bombing” associated with high altitude combat). Although the device was found to be less accurate when used in combat, bombers were able to hit within 1,000 feet of a target even amongst heavy enemy fire. No other air force in the world could claim such precision.

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The Price of Success

The 8th Air Force’s success came at a high price. Its losses – of both men and machine – were by far the most significant of any branch of the military at that time.

The drawback of precision bombing was that it was necessary to bomb by day. Without night vision goggles, or radar technology, sunlight and clear skies were needed to find the targets. Unfortunately, if the bombers could see the targets, then the enemy could see the bombers.

Initially the 8th Air Force took staggering losses – up to 86% of fliers were killed, MIA or POW. Although the Flying Fortress had twelve machine guns to defend itself, heavy attacks by German fighters and anti-aircraft ground cannons soon proved that a single squadron was too small of a combat unit. In fact, the Bombardment Group, with the combined force of four squadrons, was also too small.

In total, the 8th Air Force lost over 26,000 men. An additional 28,000 men became prisoners of war. Aircraft losses were also grim: 10, 561 planes of varying types were shot down, 4754 of those were B-17 heavy bombers. The 390th Bomb Group lost 176 of its 275 assigned aircrafts.

 

With loss rates high and crew morale low, the 8th Air Force capped the number of required missions at twenty-five. It took months for anyone to achieve that. Among the first were members of Crew #8 (below). They fared better than their plane: Dull Tool flew twenty missions before being shot down over Kiel, Germany on January 4, 1944.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AIR CREWS

Crew #8, from left to right, top to bottom: S/Sgt Frederick H. Oppelt (Ball Turret); Lt. Robert N. Brown, (Co-Pilot); S/Sgt. James Purnell Jr. (Waist Gunner); Captain David F. Parry (Pilot); T/Sgt. Millard W. Reynolds (Radio Operator); S/Sgt. Orville O. Fulkerson (Tail Gunner); Lt. John E. Knight (Bombardier) KIA 12/20/43; Lt. Philip D. Holman (Navigator); S/Sgt. William L. Mays (Waist Gunner); T/Sgt. Carl R. Carnes (Tail Gunner) KIA 12/20/43.

Combat Wings

At times the 8th Air Force dispatched over 2,000 bombers on a single mission. Even an entire Bomb Group, with its combined force of four squadrons, proved to be too small for most missions. Bomb Groups flew together in groups of three, called Combat Wings. The 390th Bombardment Group, the 95th Bombardment Group, and the 100th Bombardment Group formed the 13th Combat Wing. On large missions, multiple Combat Wings flew together. The combined units of Combats Wings were called Air Divisions.

8th Air Force Bombing Statistics

During 995 days of air war against Germany, the 8th AF dispatched 332, 645 heavy bombers. Those planes dropped 4,377,984 bombs of all types, plus 27,556,978 small four-pound incendiaries, totaling 701,300 US tons.

Bomber gunners destroyed 6,001 enemy aircraft in air combat in addition to 3,073 planes destroyed or damaged on the ground.

Of this, the 390th Bomb Group dropped over 18,755 tons of bombs. Crews also destroyed a total of 378 enemy aircraft (additionally, 78 are noted as probably destroyed, and 97 as damaged). The 390th Bomb Group had 9404 aircraft scheduled to take off (of which only 72 failed to get off the ground).

IN THE MUSEUM:

Over three hundred 390th Bomb Group air crew photos are displayed by squadron. Another exhibit explores the Bomb Group’s mission statistics.

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