WWII Commemoration: B-17 Returns to France
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 4)

One year after the 8th Air Force unit began operations, it participated in a three-pronged assault with the 192 1st Wing Fortresses attacking aircraft works at Le Mans and Nantes, while 83 planes struck La Pallice. Ten crew members of what would later later become known as the Mighty 8th crash landed into the shallow, low-tide waters of the French island of Noirmoutier on 4 July 1943 and were captured immediately by German soldiers. Sent off to Nazi concentration camps, they fortunately survived, and were liberated at the end of the War. This year, their families were invited to attend the unveiling ceremony honoring their World War II combat sacrifices.

Thousands of French joined the ceremonies on 30 June 2013. For the families and the participants in the ceremony, the event was a two-day experience. The first day focused on visiting various parts of the American presence in France and notably, the areas targeted by the B-17 raid of 4 July 1943. It was a chance to appreciate the physical reality of the terrain of that ambitious bombing effort.

8th Bomber Command Mission 71: 192 B-17s are dispatched against aircraft ­factories at Le Mans and Nantes, France; 166 make a very effective attack; 83 other B-17s are dispatched against submarine yards at La Pallice, France; 71 hit the target between 1201 and 1204 local; U loses 1 and 1 is damaged; causalities are 10 MIA. Bombing is extremely accurate. – Official log report on bombing activities of the 8th Air Force on 4 July 1943.

The second day was the ceremony itself, which culminated in the unveiling of a new monument to the crew of the B-17 overlooking the beach where the plane can still be found, and a flypast by the last operational B-17 in Europe.

Unfortunately, the US largely stayed away because of sequestration. As the great political philosopher Woody Allen once put it: “80 percent of life is showing up, ” and with sequestration as an excuse, the US government frequently is not.

The most compelling part of the ceremony in many ways was the presence of generations of French citizens who had organized and attended the 70th anniversary commemoration and events. Additionally, the flypast by sole remaining B-17 flying in Europe was done by a private group of Brits (which is in desperate need of money to keep it flying). The Americans who did come were enthusiastic partners with the French. The impact on the older generation – still alive – who saw the plane crash land was quite impressive as well. The brother of the co-pilot, George Stephenson, shared this insight into the impact upon one resident.

“I want you to think back to 70 years ago. Visualize a little 12 year old girl (Anne Gloire), dressed in a beautiful white dress, skipping along the path to her mother’s house near the beach. She has just received her first communion… Suddenly, she hears shooting from all around her – from the soldiers – from the sky – planes flying above her, shooting. Then a very large plane appears with four engines with only one working. She is afraid it might hit her home. Instead, it crashes in the water not far from shore. She is terrified and cries for her mother to protect her.

“Then she sees 10 men leave the plane with yellow vests. Soldiers are shooting at them. The men come to shore – several wounded by the soldiers. The soldiers shoved the men and loaded them into trucks and hauled them away. Anne wonders what would happen to them.”

Stephenson tells me that on a trip to France some years ago, he met Anne Gloire and called his brother on a cell phone for her to talk directly to him. “This was closure for her,” he recalled with obvious pride.

Better than any politician, Stephenson summed up the importance of the event. “I think if my brother were here today, he would say that the appearance of his plane above the water gave hope to people in the village that liberation and freedom are coming soon, and remains a symbol of freedom to this day.”

For the B-17 crews flying in Europe, every flight into Nazi held territory was their Pointe du Hoc moment: Fighting uphill against tough odds, with the distinct possibility of not coming back. As one B-17 crewmember later wrote in his diary about his participation in a bombing run against Le Bourget on 16 August 1943:

“Soon after daylight the formation was crossing the gray-green water of the English Channel. My anxiety and tension mounted, as I knew we would invade the lair of Goering’s best. The veterans had made certain we know what usually happened to new crews on their first meeting with Jerry. They were not expected to come back – it was as simple as that.”

What did it feel like to be a member of a B-17 crew in the summer of 1943? The same diarist quoted above provides a good sense of this from the briefing his crew received from his Major.

“The Major hesitated before answering and studied a large chart on the wall crowded with names. ‘See that chart? That’s the combat roster. We’ve been here 60 days, and so far we’ve lost a hundred and one percent of our combat personnel.’”

The best way to honor such courageous airmen is to learn from their experience, to try to repeat what worked, and avoid what did not. Indeed, a wealth of ­lessons can be learned from the B-17 ­experience. Air power remains a bedrock capability for the defense of North Americans and their allies. Freedom is not bought except with the blood of patriots. As Herodotus reminds us: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” But clearly you must deploy with asymmetric advantages.

The first lesson is that conflict with a reactive enemy always yields outcomes you cannot anticipate and creates deadly situations. For example, it was projected that the formations of B-17s would provide significant protection against German fighters. This made sense until, after a few encounters, the Germans figured out that attacking the lead plane in its most vulnerable spot would disrupt the formation and lead to a degraded mission. Thus, the enemy had a vote in the success or failure of US air campaign planning.

A second evident lesson is the need for journalists and analysts to learn modesty and restraint – they are not the warriors, nor are they practitioners of the art of warfare. Upon observing an initial bombing run in August 1942, the air correspondent for The Sunday Times, Peter Masefield, wrote that “American heavy bombers are fine flying machines, but they are not suited for bombing in Europe. Their bombs and bomb loads are too small, their armor and armament are low.” Not content with this, he went on to advise the American leaders that their planes were better suited for ASW duty.
A third lesson is that buying the wrong platform matters. The B-18 was cheaper but the B-17 was the right plane to buy. Due to various challenges, the B-18 was built and the B-17 was barely kept on life support, so that even after a surge there were less than 40 available at the start of the war – and they were in the Pacific.

Most importantly, never underestimate the intelligence of warriors to know when they are fighting with ­inferior equipment. After Pearl Harbor, the B-18 was pressed into service as a major asset in Hawaii “We were told that there were three B-18s flyable and we would take off and find the Jap fleet. I was scared. I thought of my slim chances of coming out of this flight alive should we run into some Jap fighters. Hell! They’d blow us right out of the sky in the these very vulnerable B-18s.”

A fourth lesson is that battles among weapons advocates before a war have their impact. The fighter advocates did not believe in bombers and the bomber advocates wanted their planes so much that they argued that, if properly armed, fighters would be unecessary. The end result was bomber crews going into harms way over Germany with no fighter escorts early in the war. This would not have happened if the right approach – integrated air operations – had been recognized and adopted from the beginning.

The fifth lesson is the importance of buying equipment early enough so warriors can train with it and commanders can figure out what do with it.
This lesson was underscored by the decisive failure against the Japanese in the Pacific. The B-17s were enroute to Pearl Harbor for their first ever exercise on December 8th. Radar operators, who were learning new equipment and had never seen B-17s before, identified air traffic on December 7th as the anticipated B17s rather than Japanese aircraft.

The largest contingent of B-17s had been in the Philippines for defense of the island against a threatened Japanese invasion. There were 107 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and 35 B-17 bombers in place in the Philippines at the time of the Japanese attack. The first Japanese Zero shot down by a US aircraft was by a B-17.

The B-17s were sent to the Philippines by generals Arnold and Marshall for the defense of the US forces in the Philippines. To bolster the air arm in the Philippines, in July, Major General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, proposed reinforcing the Philippine Army Air Corps by sending four heavy bombardment groups and two pursuit squadrons to the Philippines. General George C. Marshall, United States Army Chief of Staff, echoed this concern when on 1 December he stated, “We must get every B-17 to the Philippines as soon as possible.”

However, by the time hostilities broke out six days later, only 107 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and 35 B-17 bombers were in place in the Philippines.

In November 1941, General Marshall expressed his confidence that the B-17s in the Philippines could easily fend off any Japanese attack and set “the paper cities of Japan” ablaze. But there was a small problem: the B-17s had NEVER trained for such a mission.

Meanwhile, Major General Brereton, the newly designated Air Commander of the Philippine Air Forces had a different view and concern. With only one airfield, he believed – correctly – that the B-17s were extremely vulnerable to elimination by attack from the air and this, of course, turned out to be the case. Amazingly, in spite of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the B-17s were again caught on the ground a day later and, in a 45-minute attack, Clark Field became rubble.

General Brereton flew to Clark field on December 6th to plan a potential bombing mission against Formosa should war break out. Timing matters. A lack of military intelligence led to a plan to attack Takao Harbor based on assumption of presence of Japanese transports and warships. A mission was set for December 8th for the entire 19th Bomber Group.

Unfortunately, the Japanese had real war plans and real military intelligence. In response to the attack on the Philippines, a single B-17 attacked a Japanese capital ship and severely damaged it. On the way back, a pack of Zero fighters pursued it but assumed there were many more. As a Japanese pilot involved in the destruction of that B-17 commented: “This was our first experience with the B-17 and the airplane’s unusual size caused us to misjudge our firing distance. In addition, the bomber’s extraordinary speed, for which we had made no allowance, threw our range finders off.” In an understatement that reflects a failure in US procurement and war planning, he commented that “We had never heard of unescorted bombers in battle.” In other words, the B-17 simply was not used correctly.

MacArthur, as Army Chief of Staff, clearly considered the Army Air Corps as an extension of the ground forces and as a fairly limited coastal defense force. He was at the forefront of resisting the formation of an independent air arm and forcefully underscored the point that aviation could not independently influence the outcome of war. When his chance came to use the B-17s to strike Japanese airpower on ­Formosa, in spite of several hours of fog which kept the Japanese on the ground, he did not send the B-17s to do the one mission they could have accomplished, namely to bomb the Japanese aircraft on the ground in Formosa.

Would MacArthur have changed his views if there were enough B-17s in the fleet to demonstrate the “theory” of strategic bombing or of having an “independent effect”? The aircraft was procured as an experiment and considered by many to be just that, and not an essential element of the American warfighting capabilities.

A final lesson is the importance of leadership in peacetime for survival and success in wartime. The Boeing Company was central to the gamble to build the B-17. Its leadership literally bet the company’s future on what would become the B-17, as did several of its test pilots with their lives.
Airpower advocates in the Army Air Corps cultivated leaders who would become central to the War Effort. For example, Colonel Frank Andrews, core advocate of strategic bombing, brought General George Marshall to the Boeing plant in 1938 where he learned first hand why the B-17 should be the priority over the B-18.

The US and Germany made decisions about bombers in almost in the same year – this would prove a decisive impact on the outcome. The US was deciding against the B-17, but leaders in the Army Air Corps weighed in to save it. Major General Benjamin D. Foulois, then Chief of the Air Corps, endorsed the recommendation of one of his field commanders to procure at least a few of the B-17s for an operating squadron to conduct advanced aeronautical tests.

The War Department approved an Air Corps contract with Boeing in January 1936 for 13 of the aircraft fitted with superchargers and other high-altitude flight equipment. In spite of losing the competition, Brigadier General Augustine Warner Robins, Chief of the Air Material Command believed in the plane and persuaded the War Department to buy the 13 under the experimental provisions of Section K of the National Defense Act (1926).

In June 2013, families of the 10 crew members who, 70 years prior, had crash landed into the French waters of Noirmoutier Island, were invited to attend an unveiling ceremony honoring the sacrifices of those World War II combat crewmembers.

At the same time, General Frank M. Andrews, commander of the General Headquarters (Army) Air Force, weighed in with his support and the 13 test models received funding.

Meanwhile that great military strategist, Adolf Hitler decided against the Luftwaffe developing or buying a medium heavy bomber. In other words, by a thread, history was being made by two different decisions in Berlin and Washington which would affect the outcome of the war to come.

In honoring this B-17 crew, we must remember our obligations to history both past and future. We must learn from their courage, and the processes that put them in harm’s way. We need to buy the equipment and provide the training to avoid the fair fight by utilizing the best advantages the defence industry can offer.

Robbin Laird is a defense analyst and journalist based in Virginia.
© FrontLine Defence 2013 issue 4