B-17 Flying Fortress
Six B-17Cs and 29 B-17Ds of the l9th Bomb Group were flown to the Philippines via Hawaii, Midway and Wake islands, and Australia. They had expected to be joined by the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron that arrived in Hawaii with four B-17C and two B-17Es in the middle of the Japanese attack on December 7, along with six B-17Es of the 88th Reconnaissance Squadron. Parked at Hickam Field were 12 B-17Ds of the 5th Bomb Group. Of 24 present that morning, seven B-17s were destroyed and four damaged.
Defending the Canal Zone was the 6th Bomb Group with nine B-17Bs and 19 B-18s, plus nine new B-17Es that arrived early in December. Newfoundland had six B-17Bs and a B-18A with the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron, and one B-17B was stationed in Alaska.
The only combat-ready group in the United States was the 7th, whose 35 B-17Es left Salt Lake City, Utah, on December 5 for deployment to the Far East. Six had arrived in Hawaii, as mentioned above, but the rest were diverted to Muroc to parry any threat to California. Most were then transferred to Hawaii, but in January their new replacements would begin to fly almost around the world via Africa to Java. To help the 39th Bomb Group at Geiger Field, Spokane, cover the Northwest, only 19 B-17Bs, five B-17Cs, and a B-17D were left to be gathered from scattered training sites. This group would remain a replacement training unit, sending off crews in factory-fresh aircraft to the war zones.
After heavy losses in the Philippines, 14 surviving Boeings of the 19th Bomb Group retreated to Australia. Then came the battle for Java, with the arrival of 39 B-17E and 12 LB-30s from January 13 to February 20 with 7th Bomb Group crews; 22 of the Es and eight LB-30s would be lost in that fight. Remnants of that Group fled to India. The 19th continued to fight from Australia and the 5th and 11th groups were in Hawaii for the Battle of Midway, while the 36th Bombardment Squadron was in Alaska at that same time.
Replenishments for the Southwest Pacific included 90 more B-17Es arriving with the 5th and 11th groups from July to December. When the 19th BG retired to America in October, the last Flying Fortress outfit deployed against Japan was the 43rd Bomb Group, who’s 49 B-17Fs had began operations in August 1942.
Yet by September 1943, B-17s had been withdrawn from the Pacific in favor of the longer-ranged B-24. The B-17 had not been very successful in its originally intended role of attacking moving surface ships, a job better done by low-altitude twin-engine bombers.
Instead, the B-17 flew over 98% of its combat sorties in Europe. On July 1, 1942, the first 97th Bomb Group B-17E reached the United Kingdom (the first Air Force combat aircraft to do so), the group losing four of its 49 aircraft over the North Atlantic ferry route. This group flew the first B-17E mission against Nazi-occupied Europe on August 17, 1942. (A heavy bomber group’s authorized strength was 48 bombers in four squadrons, during most of the war.)
Forty-five B-17Es also went to the RAF Coastal Command from March to July 1942 as the Fortress IIA. Fitted with ASW radar, they would sink seven enemy U-boats.
The ninth B-17E was fitted with 1425 hp Allison V-1710-89 inline engines by Lockheed Vega and called XB-38. The first liquid-cooled bomber design in a decade was begun in March 1942, ordered the following July 10, and flown on May 19, 1943. This attempt to compare performance was frustrated by a crash on June 15.
B17F and G Models
The B-17F followed the B-17E into production with a new molded Plexiglas nose, more armor, new propellers, and R-1820-97 Cyclones. While normal bomb load remained 4,000 pounds, the bomb bay could accommodate up to twelve 500, six 1,000 or 1,600, or two 2,000-pound bombs of the new AN (Army/Navy) standard sizes.
Production history of the B-17F series began with a Lend-lease contract made in June 1941 for 300 Fortress II bombers for the RAF. When the British decided to use the Boeings not as bombers, but only for ocean patrols, most of them became available for the Army. The first B-17F-1-BO was delivered May 30, 1942, and as they rolled out of the Seattle factory, the first two were used for testing, the next 12 allocated to the Eighth AF in England, the next six flown to the Fifth AF in the Pacific, and then more were allocated to each destination as the war developed. Beginning in October, 19 B-17Fs did go to RAF Coastal Command as the Fortress II, eventually sinking two more U-boats.
Later contracts for B-17F-30-BO to B-17F-130-BO brought the total to 2,300 built at Boeing by September 2, 1943. Douglas had received an order for 600 B-17F-DL on August 28, 1941, and Lockheed-Vega for 500 B-17F-VE on September 13, and delivery from their Long Beach and Burbank factories began in June 1942.
Many mechanical modifications made on the production lines were reflected by block numbers for each batch, often of 50 to 100 planes. For example, from B-17F-30 to B-17F-90-BO, two external racks under the wings could each hold a 4,000-pound bomb, but this option was seldom used. Modification centers made changes, especially in armament, when these could not be easily done at the factory.
Armament operated by the ten crewmen was originally the same as that of the E, but protection for the nose increased when the .30-caliber gun was deleted in August 1942, after 264 planes, and .50-caliber weapons were installed in the nose. Positions varied with model and modification center, but two were usually mounted on the nose side windows, and one in the nose itself. Another gun was added at the opening on top of the radio compartment, beginning with the B-17F-30-BO in September 1942. Some Eighth Air Force B-17Fs had two .50-caliber guns with armor in the bow; this left no room for a bomb sight, for usually bombs were released when the lead plane directed.
Extra tankage was added, beginning with B-17F-55-BO, to allow up to 2,810 gallons in the wings and 820 gallons in the bomb bay. In 1944, a water injection system could be added to raise the standard 1,200-hp to 1,380 “War Emergency” power for up to five minutes. Top speed, in 55,000-pound condition, was then increased from 299 mph to 314 mph.
These were the bombers that launched the American share of Operation POINTBLANK, the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany. So-called “precision” bombing in daylight was more effective than the night “area” bombing practiced by the RAF, and it was supposed that bomber firepower in mass formation would frustrate fighter defense.
The first Eighth Air Force attack on Germany, on January 27, 1943, was on the navy base at Wilhelmshaven, the same target as the first RAF B-17 raid. Of 84 B-17Fs dispatched, 53 found and bombed the primary target. Bomber strength would grow until the massive December 24, 1944, attack that sent into Germany 1,400 B-17G and 634 B-24 heavy bombers, supported by 792 P-51 fighters.