The Eighth Air Force, “The Mighty Eighth” Was Born on This Day 1942

Just six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Air Corps (later to become the Army Air Force) activated the 8th Bomber Command at Hunter Airfield in Savannah, Georgia. The Eighth was slated for duty in England. Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker took the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command Headquarters to England the next month and located at High Wycombe, about 40 miles west of London. As the men began pouring into England, the Eighth Air Force was born. MG Carl “Tooey” Spatz assumed command in May 1942 and established a headquarters at Bushy Park about 15 miles west of London on June 25, 1942.

At its peak, the Mighty Eighth was the most powerful airforce in the world with over 200,000 men assigned to it. During the war’s peak in early 1945, the 8th could send a bomber force of 2000 and 1000 fighters in the air at the same time.

Despite some early growing pains at being housed in Britain, a familiar British refrain was the “Yanks are overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here”, the two cultures meshed and became very close. So close in fact that 50,000 women married US servicemen.

Of the 350,000 men assigned to the Eighth in World War II, 26,000 men paid the ultimate sacrifice. When the Air Force became a separate branch in 1947, the 8th remained active and moved its flag to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana.

Heavy Air Combat Over Europe: The skies over Europe during the war were bloody and violently contested. The goal was for the U.S. and Britain to gain air superiority to the extent that they could launch an invasion of the European mainland.

There was a difference of opinion between the British and Americans over whether or not to use strategic bombing in the daytime or at night. The British favored night bombing; the Americans were proponents of precision daylight bombing. They both learned that the Germans, who had a powerful air force, had no concept of strategic bombing and were suited to tactical support. In the end, it was decided the Americans would bomb by day and the British at night.

The 8th AF used the heavy B-17 and B-24 bombers as their main aircraft to take the fight to Germany. The U.S. developed the Norden bombsight that was so advanced at the time, the claim was a bombardier could drop a bomb from high altitude into a pickle barrel. While in combat situations, the results were far from that exact, it was normal for B-17s to drop its bomb load in good weather within 1000 feet of the target.

The United States didn’t have fighters that could escort the bombers to Germany and back until later in the war. They believed that the heavy armament of the bombers, flying in tight formation, could keep the German fighters at bay. They were wrong.

The 12 machine guns (.50 caliber) on each B-17 were insufficient to keep the German fighters away. Losses early in the war were staggering. The 8th Air Force lost over 26,000 men. Initially, air crew losses were at nearly 86 percent. An additional 28,000 men became prisoners of war. Aircraft losses were appalling: 10,561 planes of varying types were shot down, 4754 of those were B-17 heavy bombers. The attrition was so high that the Army capped a crew’s tour to 25 missions. If they survived 25, they could return to the states.

Coincidentally, the first B-17 to complete 25 missions was not the Memphis Belle. The Belle was the first to complete 25 and return home for a bond tour. Captain Irl Baldwin’s Flying Fortress, nicknamed after the Howard Hughes film “Hell’s Angels” in the 303rd Bomb Group, completed their 25 missions, nine days prior and volunteered to remain. They flew 48 combat missions without ever losing a man. I met Baldwin in 1998 at an 8th Air Force Reunion in Savannah.  I asked him which was worse, the flak or the fighters. He smiled and said….”yes, both.” He relayed that in the early days of the German raids, you could seemingly walk on German flak for miles.

Hell’s Angels, piloted by Irl Baldwin of the 303rd BG was the first 8th AF bomber to complete 25 missions

During the 995 days of air combat against Germany, the 8th AF sortied 332,645 heavy bombers. Gunners on-board the bombers destroyed 6,001 enemy aircraft in air combat in addition to 3,073 planes destroyed or damaged on the ground. Some of the heaviest losses were against the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories on August 17, 1943, and again on October 14. In the first raid, of the 209 bombers that crossed the coast, 145 were either lost or damaged. On the latter raid, 254 bombers crossed the coast and 198 were either lost or damaged.

On August 17, 1942, the first American heavy bomber mission was launched from England. Twelve B-17s of the 8th Air Force’s 97th Heavy Bombardment Group raided the Sotteville-lès-Rouen railroad yards, while six more made a diversionary strike. Three more daytime raids went out on August 19, 20, and 21.

By the end of 1942, the 8th Air Force was cutting its teeth on smaller, easily accessible targets along the French coast, much to the chagrin of their British cousins who were leading large night-time raids in Germany and doing heavy damage. In early 1943, the first daylight raids into Germany were hit hard by Nazi fighters.

The Americans switched their tactics and decided to bomb Nazi aircraft factories. The issue was, they were nearly inaccessible and heavily defended like the ones at Regensburg. This was followed by the attempt to cripple the German ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. The Americans spent a week of flying thru waves of flak and fighters and lost 148 aircraft. And after the horrific losses, they found they did little damage to the German war machine and what damage was incurred was quickly recouped.

With the air war of Germany hanging in the balance, a cooperative effort between the British and Americans turned the tide of the war. The P-51 Mustang was an American built fighter. But from December 1943-March of 1944, the planes were refitted with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The results were dynamic. The Allies now had a fighter escort that could far outperform the German fighters and escort the bombers as far as Berlin and back.

B-17s encounter heavy flak over Germany

The German fighter command could no longer feel secure anywhere over the skies of Europe in daylight. The air war initiative tipped to the Americans nearly overnight. Everywhere the Germans flew, they faced an ever-increasing multitude of aggressive Mustang pilots.

The bombers, which up to the devastating Schweinfurt raids had been hammered, saw their losses drop dramatically. The skies over Europe became dominated by American air power. As a result, the American planners grew bolder, the results were much more accurate with bomber losses in March 1944 just a third of what they were in October.

By August of 1944, the Allies now well entrenched ashore in France at Normandy and beyond had nearly swept the Luftwaffe from the skies because they had overrun the German early warning radar sites and advanced fighter bases.

One German infantry soldier joked during the Normandy that “if you see a silver plane, it is American. If you see a black plane it is British and if you see no plane it is German.”

With the air war turned, in mid-1944 the Allies turned their sights on German fuel production and transportation networks. Up until 1944, German arms industries had not only kept up with losses but had increased its production. But the turning of the air war had resulted in devastating losses for German war production, especially in their fuel production. By September, Albert Speer, the Nazi architect, turned Armaments Minister, sent a memorandum to Hitler that fuel production was down to just 8 percent of the levels they had in April.

The rail networks were devastated as the Allies hammered the rail junctions by carpet bombing. The result was the slowing and tying up of vast amounts of war material. These were then ripe for fighter-bomber attacks. By January of 1945, air attacks had the entire military system of Germany on the verge of collapse.

The Germans tried a panic move to restore air superiority over Europe with an offensive designed to knock out Allied airfields. Over 950 fighters had been sent west from the Russian Front for “Operation Bodenplatte”. On 1 January, the entire German fighter force in the West, comprising combat aircraft from some eleven fighter wings, took off and attacked 27 Allied airfields in northern France, Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands in an attempt by the Luftwaffe to regain the initiative.

It failed. The Germans lost 300+ fighters they could ill-afford to do without and the Allies’ losses were replaced in just weeks. The gamble, like the Battle of the Bulge in December, was a failure. No air superiority even briefly was achieved. The result was even less air support from the massive air attacks that were hammering the German’s industry, oil, and transportation systems already.

As Germany shrank, the number of targets did as well and the results were devastating. On April 7, 1945, 8th Air Force bombers in overwhelming force, attacked German airfields destroying 300 fighters on the ground. A week later they smashed 700 more on the ground, the once proud German Luftwaffe was no more.

After the surrender of Germany on May 7, plans were to shift the Mighty 8th, to the Pacific and bomb the Japanese mainland from Okinawa. General Jimmy Doolittle was setting up his headquarters there. The 8th was slated to get the new B-29s. But the two atomic bomb drops on Japan forced them to surrender and the war was over.

Today the 8th AF is part of the USAF’s Air Combat Command and took part in the Gulf War, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, as well as protecting American airspace.

In a future piece, we’ll look deeper at the US fighters and fighter groups in the 8th AF.

Photos: US Archives/Wikipedia