⚜ | B-17 Flying Fortress – What It Couldn’t Do

Today’s episode on Military Aviation History
is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus Hello everyone and welcome to Military Aviation
History, I am your host Bismarck and today I want to talk about why the B-17 failed in
part of its intended role. Now before we misunderstand each other, know
that I am of course NOT talking about the aircraft’s role as a strategic bomber. As a long-range strategic tool, the B-17 was
exactly what the United States and the Allies needed to conduct their daytime bomber offensive
during the Second World War, most notably against Italy and Germany but also Japan. It was tough, had good range and a respectable
bombload. However, although the aircraft saw tremendous
success in this role and is remember today for it, when the B-17 was developed many had
hoped to also use it for a quite a different purpose. For this we need to travel back into the inter-war
years because the groundwork for the B-17 was laid there. The United States Army Air Force did not yet
even exist as such. Instead it’s spiritual father, the Army
Air Corps was laying the groundwork out of which the later service would emerge. The 1920s and 1930s were an awkward time in
the United States when it came to all-things flying. Coming out of World War 1, the US had yet
to catch up with follow nations such as Britain and specifically France, who was leading the
aeronautical community when it came to those magnificent flying machines. True enough, a large portion of the US aviators
had been trained in cooperation with the French and many of their aircraft where in fact Francais. The U.S. had made a tremendous effort to expand
their Air Service but much of it, initially, was poorly managed and based on the erroneous
assumption that car and aircraft production wasn’t all that different. Except for engine production, the domestic
aeronautical developments took some time to get going, but going they eventually did. For more information on all that, see my previous
video. During peacetime, the U.S. experienced a vibrant
boom in their air industry. Flying captivated the masses and as the years
went by, commercial enterprises kickstarted the first golden age of flying. In the meantime, the US military apparatus
obviously could not ignore the capabilities of an air fleet in any upcoming conflict. While aircraft had not decided World War 1,
their potential and capabilities had been visible to all. There was one problem – the budget. The Air Corps and the Navy developed air fleets
independent from each other, which meant that each had to allocate their own resources to
the development, introduction and maintenance of aircraft. Due to ongoing rivalry and the very special
mixture of spice and fire that was added by your’s sincerely, Billy Mitchell, neither
the Air Corps nor the Navy exhibited much interest in cooperating. Instead, they actively placed boulders in
each other’s paths and sought to push through their own interests. The Navy to keep control of an independent
air arm, that would be the first line of defence for the United States, and the Air Corps for
unifying all things flying under one banner…theirs. That is of course simplifying matters significantly,
you can read more of it in some of the sources I use in this video, as always detailed below
in the description Part of the discussion was the question on
who should be responsible to defend America’s shores? The Navy, by virtue of literally floating
on the most likely approach path of an enemy force, that being the ocean, saw itself as
this very line of defence. The Navy was the extended arm of Uncle Sam’s
political will, and could, if necessary, be used as a far-reaching fist to defend US interests. It projected power and was, in essence, party
a strategic weapon able to hoist the Spar Spangled Banner far beyond the shores of the
homeland. Having done so since the Tripolitania War
of 1801 to 1805, it was certainly not going to stop now. In contrast, the Air Corps saw itself as the
new, up-and-coming force that would play a decisive role in any future conflict. When it came to defending the US, the Air
Corps argued that the Navy could be circumvented in a surprise attack, sunk or deployed in
the wrong areas. Instead air power was the solution, by placing
a strong air fleet on the shores of the nation, long-range patrols, quick and decisive anti-shipping
strikes and a concentration on air power would serve the United States better. Naturally, the Air Corps saw this as a non-Navy
task which should fall squarely into the hands of Army, and thus Air officers whom were the
only ones that could be trusted to understand aviation. At least that’s how the argument went albeit
somewhat simplified. To demonstrate that aircraft would easily
overcome any inbound Naval strike force, various trials were conducted. You had the first trials in 1921, resulting
in the slow and awkward death of the former German battleship Ostfriesland, mirrored by
attacks on the pre-dreadnought USS Alabama and, two years later, the USS Virginia and
New Jersey. Come the 1930s, Billy Mitchell was no longer
a factor but ongoing struggle over the budget, who controlled what, and who was to be the
United States new point man continued, albeit based on a more matter-of-fact discussion
in comparison to Mitchell’s latter years. An agreement was reached in 1933 between MacArthur
and Pratt, and later revised with a 1935 Joint Action statement. Remember this one, it’ll be important in
just a minute. So why this excursion into the Inter-War years
when we are talking about a bomber used during WW2? Well, this is where we turn to that. Come 1934 and the Air Corps is looking for
a replacement of their Martin B-10 bomber. The B-10 had only just appeared and showed
a considerable jump in performance. As the first US all-metal monoplane bomber,
it was faster than even the most advanced fighter aircraft the Army had at the time. But as so often, the innovator causing a revolution
often sees himself surpassed and the B-10 had only a limited life-expectancy. Provided with the specifications describing
speed, range and payload, Boeing came up with a four-engine bomber. At this point, the Model 299 as it was known,
raised quite some eyes – not specifically in a good way either. True enough, Boeing had realized that even
the most advanced twin-engine designs, like those of their competitors, had little chance
of being a practical answer to the proposed specifications. Thus, better needed to be met with bigger. The design held the promise of being exactly
what the Air Corps wanted and seemed to trump the opposition. The massive machine, fast, long-ranged, with
a considerable bombload made several Air Officers squirm with anticipation – in their eyes
they finally had a true strategic weapon. The only problem was that the Navy was the
tool of projection, not the Air Corps so automatically the strategic element of the weapon made it
vulnerable to the interests of those that preferred the whiff of salt-water and the
tempers of Neptune. There were only two problems. The first one, Model 299 crashed before finishing
its evaluation. Second, the cost of the aircraft was gargantuan. The twin-engine Douglas B-18 Bolo, based in
part on the civilian DC-liner was chosen as it, and I quote ‘satisfied practical requirements
at a reasonable cost’ -end quote. Now if you’d factor in capability, the B-17
was cheaper than the B-18 but that’s always going to be a hard sell and beside the point
for now. Nevertheless, the insistence of Air Officers
saw a handful of YB-17s, as the prototype was now known, ordered and trial flights were
flown. Interpreting the aforementioned 1935 Joint
Action statement their way, the Air Corps officers saw their role as one of long-range
defence, including notably anti-shipping. Building on the loophole of being allowed
to acquire a token number of four-engine bombers for experimental purposes, Brigadier General
Frank Andrews slotted the heavy bomber into the already existing parameters of the Air
Corps. This didn’t- at least not officially- foresee
the use of the heavy bomber as a strategic weapon but be necessary to guarantee the success
of the Air Corps mission of safeguarding the US from attack. As he said himself, the long-range heavy bomber
could, and I quote ‘stop hostile air expeditions at their source’, end quote’. What source is that, you might ask, perhaps
an aerodrome north or south of the border, or perhaps on… Greenland? No, Andrews meant aircraft carriers and the
heavy bomber, so the logic, was the most flexible weapon to search and destroy these floating
airfields. Likewise, a more theoretical application was
using the B-17 as a projection of power, as part of the Monroe Doctrine, to ensure that
both North and South America remain within the US sphere of influence. The B-17, mind you, was used in so-called
‘good-will’ visits to Latin America for just that. You can now see a problem emerging once more. For a hundred-and-twenty odd years, Uncle
Sam was represented abroad by the magnificent sight of the tall-ship and dreadnought, with
cannon, coal and oil. Now suddenly, for a fraction of the price
of a lumbering hulk, you could have a squadron of B-17s that can be deployed faster than
any fleet ever could. You can see the awkward dynamic that unfolds,
between the Navy’s own reason d’etre and the upstart Air Corps riding on the merciless
tide of technological progress. Nevertheless, Come March 1937, Joint Air Exercise
No.4 developed a scenario both the Navy and Air Corps took part in. Hunting for the USS Utah, a ship meant to
represent an enemy fleet, Air Corps B-17s launched multiple strikes. Long story short, the B-17s eventually found
the Utah and bombed it, scoring three hits. As the Utah had also been taking evasive actions,
this was a remarkable result. Another unofficial bombing run was done the
day after, but no records are available on the number of hits. As the story goes, the Navy had official results
of the day before classified – only to be leaked shortly after. A year later, B-17s once again successfully
completed anti-shipping trials. Enthusiastic about their new aircraft, the
aviators planned to land a PR-coup design to make a statement, broadcasting both their
desire to stand as an Air Force and to show off the capabilities of their new bomber,
of which they wanted more. Lots more. For this, they could have rounded up a fleet
of B-17s, which were steadily increasing in number, and flown over Americas big cities
in a fearsome display of force – and they did. They could have made long-distance flights,
going from one part of the country to the other, to show off the strike potential – they
did some of that too. But those kinds of stunts had been done in
the past and while they were still exciting, they were nothing new- what the B-17 needed,
or specifically what the Aviators needed, was something bold, something unheard off
and something that, ideally, upset the Navy. So, they got together and hatched out a plan
that had just the perfect concoction of guts and glory. But before we turn to that, here is a quick
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free trial today. Back to the aviators. What was their brilliant plan? From today’s perspective, it was simple. Find and intercept an Italian ocean liner
coming over the United States, the SS Rex, back then one of the fastest, most modern
commercial ships out there. Back then, this had never been done before. There was no radar, no constant update on
the targets position and speed. Instead, math, skill and luck would determine
the outcome of this gamble. On the 12 of May 1938 then, three B-17s took
off to find the Italians. Weather was bad but manageable, the crews
were given the Rex’s last position and the aircraft took off towards the anticipated
rendezvous with the Rex. On board was one certain Lt. Curtis LeMay,
acting as Navigator. Calculating interception to take place at
12:25pm, LeMay was -and this makes the German in me so, so very happy- perfectly accurate. At 23min past the hour, the B-17s broke through
the clouds only to find the Rex straight ahead. By 25min past the hour, the B-17s buzzed the
ocean liner in close formation 725miles off New York City. The gamble had paid off handsomely. At no point had aircraft intercepted a ship
in such a handsome fashion, far away from the coast lines, in bad weather and without
any outside guidance. For the people on board the ship, the flybys
at smokestack level were a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle – just a minute ago the Rex had
been sailing smoothly along, and now suddenly three massive machines were circling around
it in a phenomenal display of inter-war air power. Upon return, photographs and radio broadcast
went up and down the country and the coup was perfect. Next to this, hardly anyone took notice of
the mock raids on New York or the first blackout conducted in the United States to raise awareness
on strategic bombing. But while the pilots were celebrating, the
War Department issued an order limiting future endeavours over sea to a limit of 100miles,
later 300miles from the coastline. The nature of these orders makes them a bit
of a he said/she said affair. In any case, it was blatantly disregarded
as both B-17s and the older B-10s were used to intercept ships such as the Queen of Bermuda
and the Republic that year, as well as flying a 500 miles distance to the French Frigate
Shoals. The B-17 was taken by aviators to be the perfect,
modern example of how air would be both a strategic tool and neutering naval power in
any given conflict. As Andrews had said, the four-engine bomber
was one of the greatest developments in weaponry for coast defence. The B-17, next to its potential strategic
role, was seen to be the long-range strike aircraft, capable of finding, striking and
sinking any incoming enemy navy. Come World War 2, it saw ample use in this
role which might come as a surprise to some. After all, the Flying Fortress we remember
today was one flying high up, at 20,000 ft, carpet bombing a whole postcode into submission. Less well known is that during the early operations
in the Pacific, the B-17 was employed as a dedicated anti-shipping aircraft, meant to
partake in fleet actions and swing the tide. True enough, actual land-based targets for
the bomber were not that easily found at this point, but the now existent Army Air Force
had known this before. B-17s had been deployed to Hawaii and other
bases regardless, meant to strike shipping as much as doing other, auxiliary missions. The Army had anticipated that nine B-17s,
targeting a circle of a hundred foot radius, with a single 2,000 pound bomb each, would
score at least one hit on a ship from as high as 18,000ft. Considering that many ships presented
a larger target, a corresponding increase in hits was assumed. The future looked bright, with the B-17 envisioned
to sink whole battle fleets in one swift blow. Here, theory and overly optimistic thinking
might have clouded the judgement of some but there was at least some evidence to support
these claims. Even by 1936 horizontal bombing versus small
tugs from 12,000ft had provided …mixed results…which each side of the argument interpreted in their
own way. Coming up to 1939, the US slowly gears up
its efforts. Additional B-17 orders are made, with the
express use of hemispheric defence rather than any fundamentally established strategic
bombing dimension. By extension, the massive four-engine bomber
was slotted to safeguard the US American coastlines. When war erupted in the Pacific and South
east Asia, America lost about 30 B-17s in one go, wiping out about 2/3s of the Heavy
Bomber force available in the region. The B-17 however did soon make an appearance. The few aircraft left to the 14th Bombardment
Squadron were used in the desperate defence of the Philippines. While their effect was limited, on the 10th
of December 1941 one B-17 pilot became a national hero. Striking Japanese ships off the coast, the
media wiped up tales of him having steered his stricken bomber into the Japanese Battleship
Haruna after allowing his crew to bail, sinking her in the process. A single B-17, through bombs and ramming,
had sunk a mighty battleship, so the story went Good news or inspiring news was rare
during those days, so you can see why this got so much traction. In any case, no suicide attack had been made
against the Haruna, this Battleship would return at Midway. The ship attacked by Kelly was the Cruiser
Ashigara, no hits were scored, and he crashed into the open sea. Nevertheless, the story continued to be sold
just like the propaganda of the time even beyond WW2. One lesser known detail about the Battle of
Midway was that B-17s were the first to attack the Japanese one 3 of June 1942 just prior
to the actual battle. The first strike, breaking up the text-book
nine-ship formation into three smaller parts, did not hit a single Japanese ship although
multiple hits were claimed. All in all, at Midway, 314 bombs were dropped
by B-17s -based on prewar estimates, at least 20-30hits would have been scored. Although we will never know for sure, it seems
only one Destroyer was hit, while some near misses gave the Japanese sailors aboard the
battleship Haruna a fright and killed two men aboard the Mogami. Meanwhile, they had also forced a U.S. Tambor-class
submarine, the Grayling, to crash dive after mistaking her for…and I don’t know how
to put this…but….they mistook her for a cruiser. True enough, the crews were new, inexperienced
and drafted after 1939 when the strategic component of the B-17 was started to be pushed. But in their application, by 1942 in the Pacific,
they largely operated just like a Billy Mitchell would have wanted. As an aside, when the air crews retuned from
Midway with their overall claims of 22 direct hits, they actually had an advantage over
the Navy in the way that they got to talk to the Press first, with the ironic result
that the Battle of Midway was initially reported to having been won by the Air Force. The B-17 was soon seen to be a lost cause
for anti-shipping. The amount of planes needed to concentrate
bombs in a tight enough cluster to sink a manoeuvring ship, the amount of logistical
support needed, the limited basing options in the Pacific and the high skill ceiling
a bombardier needed to reach made the Flying Fortress impractical in naval actions. Beyond that, the ships during WW2 had a lot
more AA defences than during the inter-war, and thus the attacks were a lot riskier than
anticipated and needed to be flown higher. Also, many of the training sorties had been
conducted against targets moving in a straight line and when this was criticized, air power
advocates usually argued that the difference between a ship going at constant speed and
heading, versus one going evasive was negated by the saturation of bombs. Additionally, during the trials and also the
interception of the Rex, the approximate position, heading and speed of the target was known,
information that was often not available during war time or, if so, often inaccurate. There was some success of course. The Battleship Hiei was hit by one bomb dropped
by a B-17 and famously the Destroyer Mutsuki was sunk after the captain refused to get
underway when the heavy bombers appeared, saying that they never hit anything before
so they were certainly not going to hit him now. A couple of minutes later he was fished out
of the water. But these were isolated incidents and as German
historian Dr. Roman Töppel recently told me -exceptions prove the rule. Again, war time reality had squashed idealized
inter-war theory. When it comes down to it, the only effect
the B-17s had was to force Japanese ships into evasive manoeuvres, splitting fleet cohesion,
perhaps also interrupting carrier action and beyond that, reporting the position of the
fleet. Luckily for the United States, the B-17 was
a flexible machine and it soon would be fully embrace the role it became famous for – strategic
bombing. I want to quickly go back to SS Rex as a side
excursion since you already know the story of the B-17 during WW2. For some reason, reading about her again made
me want to share a bit more about her story. Her maiden voyage was in 1932, and she had
space for up to 2,000 passengers. Displacing 45,000 tons, she was 270m in length
and achieved a maximum speed in excess of 28kts, allowing her to hold the Blue Ribbon
until 1935. She continued her commercial role until 1940
when she was pushing into an auxiliary role for Italy’s effort in their backyard, the
Mare Nostrum. Until 1943 the proud ocean liner made some
limited supply runs of Axis troops in the Mediterranean, mainly as a repurposed hospital
ship and was later seized by the Germans in Trieste after Italy surrounded, changed sides
or became embroiled in a civil war – depends how you look at it. The ship was largely abandoned and ill-maintained
and when she was moved away from the harbour, she hit the shallows and could not be floated. On the 8 of September Royal Air Force and
South African Air Force Beaufighters caught up with her, littered the hull with cannon
and rocket fire in two waves and she partially submerged soon after while continuing to burn
for four days. After being partially scrapped during the
Cold War, remains of her can apparently still be found off the coast to this very day. Thank you very much for watching and thank
you to The Great Courses Plus for sponsoring this episode.. As always, have a great day, good hunting
and see you in the sky!


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