Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
The B-17 was likely America’s most iconic airplane of WWII. First flown in 1935, the Flying Fortress entered operational service in 1938. It was intended to be tough, as Boeing’s president had advised designers that he wanted an “aerial battleship”. Bristling with defensive machineguns, the B-17 was described by a reporter at its unveiling as a “Flying Fortress”, and Boeing quickly adopted and trademarked the nickname. B-17s became famous for their Eighth Air Force raids into Germany – a fame augmented by the wartime documentary Memphis Belle – and were legendary for their ability to survive significant punishment.
B-17s saw most use in Europe, in the strategic “Round the Clock” bombing campaign whereby US bombers attacked German targets during the day and the RAF bombed at night. RAF Bomber Command had begun the war with daylight raids unescorted by fighters, which lacked the range to accompany the bombers deep into Germany, but high losses to German fighters soon forced the RAF to switch to nighttime raids. When America entered the war, daylight bombing was the only practical option: US bomber training, doctrine, and bomb aiming equipment, were all based on clear target visibility, so it was either American daylight bombing or no American bombing at all.
US air commanders assumed that the more robust and heavily armed American bombers could fight their way to targets deep inside Germany, and relying on their own defensive firepower while flying in tight formations for mutual protection, conduct the raids with acceptable losses. While B-17s were exceptionally rugged, unescorted raids deep into Germany, such as those against the ball bearing and aircraft plants at Schwienfurt and Remagen in 1943, resulted in heavy and unsustainable losses to German fighters. American bombers were thus forced to pull back and limit themselves to targets closer to Britain and within fighter protection range. Fortunately, US fighter range steadily grew, and with the introduction of drop tanks, American P-38 and P-47 fighters began escorting B-17s and B-24 to targets deeper within the Reich.
The arrival of improved versions of the P-51 Mustang, equipped with drop tanks that gave them the range to escort bombers virtually anywhere in Europe, was a game changer that finally removed all restrictions. From then on, steadily intensifying daylight raids by B-17s helped reduce the Reich to rubble. American bombing reached its high water mark in February, 1945, with a 1000 bomber raid, escorted by 400 fighters, on Berlin, followed soon thereafter by joint American-British raids on Dresden which demolished the city and killed between 25,000 to 130,000 people.