VIII Bomber Command

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VIII Bomber Command
Patch 8thUSAAF.png
World War II era emblem of Eighth Air Force
Active 19 January 1942 – 22 February 1944
Country United States
Branch United States Army Air Forces
Role Strategic Bombardment
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Major General Ira C. Eaker

The VIII Bomber Command is an inactive United States Army Air Forces unit that is better known as the later appellation Eighth Air Force, as was popularized in post-World War II films—and is frequently called the First Eighth Air Force by its veterans and successors in the services.[citation needed]

The command was the first strategic bombing organisation sent to England as the United States Armed Forces joined the war against the axis powers in early 1942. The Army Air Forces were the earliest forces that could be arrayed by the United States to directly attack the fascist regimes attempting land grabs as imperial powers. Its last assignment was being renamed as the Eighth Air Force, and throughout the war it was stationed at High Wycombe, England. The designation 8th Bomber Command was inactivated on 22 February 1944.

VIII Bomber Command was the heavy bombardment arm of Eighth Air Force—which also came to include a large intelligence, photo interpretation, and mission planning staff in the early days of the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany and Nazi-controlled Occupied Europe. Its primary mission was to attack and destroy strategic targets to cripple the Nazi industrial base in Northern Europe which supported their armed forces. With the advent of the invasion of Fortress Europe, a controversy developed between continuing that effort, or switching to bombing transportation networks leading into western France from the German frontier.

The command was inactivated and its units redesignated as Eighth Air Force as a result of a reorganization of the Army Air Forces in the European and Mediterranean theaters. Its subsequent unit became one of the initial two Numbered Air Forces of Strategic Air Command in 1946, and in 1992 became a major component of the United States Air Force Air Combat Command.

An aerial view from a B-17 Flying Fortress of the VIII Bomber Command; photograph taken on 31 December 1943, during an attack on a ball-bearing plant and a Hispano Suiza aircraft engine repair depot in Paris.

History[edit]

Lineage[edit]

  • Constituted as VIII Bomber Command on 19 January 1942
Activated on 1 February 1942
Inactivated with personnel and equipment redesignated Eighth Air Force on 22 February 1944

Note: An VIII Bomber Command (Very Heavy) existed between October 1945 and 10 November 1946 due to a redesignation of the 20th Bombardment Wing and was assigned to Eighth Air Force. It was programmed to be the command and control organization for Eighth Air Force B-29 Superfortress Strategic Air Command wings. It was inactivated before becoming operational. The command was disbanded on 8 October 1948.

Assignments[edit]

Components[edit]

Operational control of units assigned to: 1st Bombardment Division, (B-17E/F/G Flying Fortress) 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
Operational control of units assigned to: 2d Bombardment Division: 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
Operational control of units assigned to: 3d Bombardment Division: 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
No operational units assigned
Operational control of units assigned to: 1st Bombardment Division: 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
92d Bombardment Group, (Triangle-B, B-17G, YB-50), 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
RAF Alconbury; RAF Podington
305th Bombardment Group, (Triangle-G, B-17F/G), 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
RAF Chelveston
303d Bombardment Group, (Triangle-C, B-17F/G), 8 January – 22 February 1944
RAF Molesworth
306th Bombardment Group, (Triangle-H, B-17F/G), 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
RAF Thurleigh
Operational control of units assigned to: 1st Bombardment Division: 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
303d Bombardment Group, (Triangle-C, B-17F/G), 13 September 1943 – 8 January 1944
RAF Molesworth
379th Bombardment Group, (Triangle-K, B-17F/G), 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
RAF Kimbolton
384th Bombardment Group, (Triangle-P, B-17F/G), 13 September 1943 – 22 February 1944
RAF Grafton Underwood
  • Special Groups: as of 01 Jan 1945
36th Bombardment Squadron, (B-24H/J)
Radar/Electronic-countermeasure operations: August 1944 – April 1945
RAF Cheddington


Notes
  1. ^ a b c Reassigned to 40th Bombardment Wing
  2. ^ Reassigned to 2d Bombardment Wing
  3. ^ a b Reassigned to Twelfth Air Force
  4. ^ a b c Reassigned to 41st Bombardment Wing

Stations[edit]

Operational history[edit]

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress Serial 41-2578. This aircraft, known as "Butcher Shop" was the oldest and longest serving B-17 in the Eighth Air Force. While with the 97th Bomb Group on 17 August 1942, this was the lead aircraft in the first VIII Bomber Command heavy bombing combat mission over occupied Europe. Later, this aircraft was used for training combat replacement crews with the 11th Combat Crew Replacement Unit at RAF Bovingdon until 1945.

Origins[edit]

VIII Bomber Command was activated at Langley Field, Virginia, It was reassigned to Savannah Army Airbase, Georgia on 10 February 1942. An advanced detachment of VIII Bomber Command was established at RAF Bomber Command Headquarters at High Wycombe England on 23 February and its units began arriving in the United Kingdom from the United States during the spring of 1942. After organizing in the United States, both VIII Air Support Command and VIII Fighter Command deployed their headquarters to England and were both headquartered at Bushy Park by July 1942.

After the United States entered World War II (7 December 1941) it took several months to get the VIII Bomber Command ready for combat operations in Europe. One of the major factors was an initial lack of B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft and also adequate crew training. However, the U.S. Army and RAF efforts allowed activation of a number of heavy B-17 as well as two B-24 Liberator bombardment groups in early 1942. Four B-17E/F groups, the 92d, 97th, 301st and 303d, and two B-24D groups, the 44th and 93d, became the nucleus for VIII Bomber Command in England.

The first combat group of VIII Bomber Command to arrive in the United Kingdom was the ground echelon of the "97th Bombardment Group", which arrived at RAF Polebrook on 9 June 1942.

15th Bombardment Squadron (Light)[edit]

In early May 1942 airmen from the reformed 27th Bomb Group (Light) arrived in England to train with their RAF counterparts. The 27th BG had previously been transferred administratively from Australia to the US in May 1942 without personnel or equipment and re-constituted. Initially being stationed at RAF Grafton Underwood on 12 May, then to RAF Molesworth on 9 June. Under VIII Bomber Command the airmen were organized as the "15th Bombardment Squadron (Light)" and equipped with the British Boston III light bomber, receiving their aircraft from No. 226 Squadron RAF.

After a few weeks of familiarization training with the new aircraft, on 4 July 1942, six American crews from the 15th Bomb Squadron joined with six RAF crews from RAF Swanton Morley for a low-level attack on Luftwaffe airfields in the Netherlands, becoming the first USAAF unit to bomb targets in Europe. The 4 July raid had been specifically ordered by General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold and approved by President Roosevelt. Arnold believed that the 4 July would be an ideal day for the USAAF to open its strategic bombing campaign against the Nazis, but General Carl Spaatz did not have any of his heavy VIII Bomber Command bomb groups ready for operational missions. Two of the 15th's planes did not return from the mission, along with one RAF aircraft. The squadron commander, Capt. Charles Kegelman, plane was shot up badly and almost did not return.

Spaatz considered the mission a "stunt" triggered by pressure in the American press who believed the people of both the United States and Great Britain needed a psychological boost. However, Kegleman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and its British equivalent for his valor on that Fourth of July mission—the first Eighth Air Force airman to receive the nation's second highest combat decoration.

The 15th flew most of its missions from Molesworth in its British Bostons, and did not receive USAAF Douglas A-20 Havoc aircraft until 5 September. The squadron was transferred to RAF Podington on 15 September where it flew a few missions before being transferred to Twelfth Air Force for support of Allied landings in North Africa on 15 October.

B-17/B-24 heavy bomber operations[edit]

Nine-O-Nine, 91st Bomb Group, 323rd BS B-17G, displaying 1st Combat Bomb Wing tail markings
93d Bomb Group B-24D-1-CO Liberator Serial 41-23711 Jersey Bounce at RAF Alconbury England in 1942.
Douglas/Long Beach B-17G-95-DL Fortress Serial 44-83884 "Yankee Doodle Dandy" of the 390th Bomb Group shown with James Cagney. This aircraft survived the war and after a series of civilian owners, it now is on static display at Eighth Air Force Headquarters, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.
Lockheed/Vega B-17G-20-VE Fortresses of the 413th Bomb Squadron. Serial 42-97627 is in foreground
Boeing B-17G-70-BO Fortress Serial 43-37683 of the 339th Bomb Squadron.

At the end of July, Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, one of Eaker's original HO staff, replaced Lieutenant Colonel Cousland as CO of the 97th Bombardment Group at RAF Grafton Underwood, and he set about re-shaping the group. By mid-August he had 24 crews ready for combat. There were arguments behind the scenes about whether bombing in daylight was possible over heavily defended targets in Europe, and whether the bomb-carrying capacity and armament of the B-17 and B-24 would be enough. But the first B-17 strike of the war was scheduled for 17 August 1942.

Regular combat operations by the VIII Bomber Command began on 17 August, when the 97th Bombardment Group flew 12 B-17Es on the first VIII Bomber Command heavy bomber mission of the war from RAF Polebrook, attacking the Rouen-Sotteville marshalling yards in France. The lead aircraft of the group, Butcher Shop, was piloted by the Group Commander, Colonel Armstrong, and squadron commander Major Paul W. Tibbets (who later flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima Japan on the first atomic bomb mission). Over the Channel, the Fortresses were joined by their RAF escort of Spitfire Vs. Visibility over the target was good and the B-17s dropped their bombs from 23,000 feet (7,000 m). A few bombs hit a mile short of the target and one burst hit about a mile west in some woods, but the majority landed in the assigned area. Several repair and maintenance workshops were badly damaged, which put the German State Railway at Rouen temporarily out of action.

The 97th BG continued to provide the aircraft for the majority of early operations; just two days later 24 B-17Es flew in support of the Dieppe Raid, bombing the airfield of the JG 26 at Abbeville-Drucas. On the 21st 12 bombers struck the Wilton shipyards close to Rotterdam, nine bombers attacked the shipyards at La Trait on the 27th and on the 29th the 97th BG attacked the airbase at Courtrai-Wevelghem in Belgium. No aircraft were lost in these early raids and the Allied press at the time printed that the bombers had shot-down six attacking fighters during the raid near Rotterdam.

From these humble beginnings, the VIII Bomber Command in the United Kingdom increased the number of combat groups and its scope of targets and missions. Eighth Air Force aircraft attacked naval targets in France against German U-Boats and combined with RAF Bomber Command with missions into Germany. In August 1942, the 92nd at RAF Bovingdon and the 301st Bomb Group at RAF Chelveston arrived to join Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker's rapidly increasing force. The 92nd was the first heavy bombardment group to make a successful non-stop flight from Newfoundland to Scotland.

The initial mission of VIII Bomber Command was the destruction of submarine bases along the French coast, as the limited number of aircraft available in 1942 prevented the command from hitting targets within Germany. This was a critical assignment, as Allied shipping losses rose dramatically in the summer of 1942 and as shipping from the United States to Britain was expected to ramp up in October and November, losses were expected to get worse.

In the face of determined Luftwaffe fighter opposition to the American bombers, losses throughout 1942 against the U-Boat pens were high, although the commanders believed that the bombers could fight their way to their objectives without fighter escort. This belief was given credence on 20 December when only six B-17s were lost out of 101 aircraft dispatched on a mission to Romilly, near Paris despite widespread Luftwaffe fighter activity in Frace. Romilly was a turning point in the daylight aerial war, as for the first time VIII Bomber Command had penetrated 100 miles (160 km) into enemy territory and had successfully kept the Luftwaffe interceptors at bay. The results of the Romilly mission however, were disappointing as only 72 of the 101 bombers had actually hit the target and those hits only caused minimal damage.

Changes in the configuration of the B-17F to carry additional forward machine guns to improve fighter interception (Implemented as a chin turret on the B-17G) and Lt. Col. Curtis LeMay's modification of formation bombing to stagger three-plane elements within a squadron and staggered squadrons within a group led to increased defensive firepower against fighter opposition. LeMay's group flying modifications was first tried on 3 January 1943 when the VIII Bomber Command attacked Saint Nazaire for the sixth time. A total of 101 bombers, with LeMay in command of the 305th Bomb Wing were dispatched, but only 76 aircraft found the target. LeMay's tactic also called for a straight and level bomb run to increase accuracy, but during the mission seven bombers were shot down and forty-seven damaged. However the majority of bombloads were successful in hitting the submarine pens.

By the end of January 1943, losses in aircraft and aircrew were rising and the future of VIII Bomber Command as a daylight bombing force was in doubt. In senior quarters of the USAAF as well as RAF, there was the belief that the B-17s and B-24s should join the RAF in night offensive bombing missions. Also there was pressure on General Arnold, chief of the USAAF to use the VIII Bomber Command in missions against German targets. In response to this pressure, on 27 January 1943, the VIII Bomber Command dispatched ninety-one B-17s and B-24s to attack the U-Boat construction yards at Wilhemshafen, Germany. Despite heavy Luftwaffe fighter opposition, only three bombers (1 B-17 and 2 B-24s) were shot down. Unfortunately, due to bad weather conditions, only 53 aircraft actually dropped their bombs on the target.

Throughout the spring of 1943, VIII Bomber Command Fortresses and Liberators grew in numbers and attacked more targets in France, the Low Countries, and into Germany itself. In June, "Operation Pointblank" was initiated. It was an objective aimed at German fighter production. The operation was initiated as a result of the Casablanca Conference, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed on a combined bomber offensive from England. The primary objectives listed were the German Submarine yards and bases, the German aircraft industry, manufacturers of ball bearings, and the German oil industry. Secondary objectives were synthetic rubber and tyres and military motor transport vehicles. However, it was emphasised the reduction of the German fighter force was of primarily importance. The plan called for 2,700 heavy bombers to be in place before the Allied invasion of France, earmarked for mid-1944.

In conjunction with Operation Pointblank, the 4th Bomb Wing was formed in Essex, with now Brigadier General Curtis LeMay building up a new force of three new B-17G bomb groups, the 100th, 385th and 388th. On 22 June, the first really deep penetration of Germany was flown, to the synthetic rubber plant at Hüls, in the Ruhr Area. Hüls produced approximately 29% of Germany's total rubber supply. It was also heavily defended both by Luftwaffe fighters and Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA). 235 B-17s were dispatched and most of the route was flown without fighter escort. During the mission, sixteen B-17s were lost and 170 damaged, however 183 Fortresses bombed the plant so effectively that full production was not resumed for six months.

On 24 June, the first VIII BC raid on Scandinavia occurred when 324 B-17s from the 1st and 4th Wings bombed targets in Norway, with one force flying a 2,000-mile (3,200 km) round-trip to Bergen and Trondheim. Bad weather restricted missions throughout the rest of June and early July, however on 25 July Kiel, Hamburg and Warnemünde were bombed with the loss of 19 Fortresses. The next day, more than 300 Fortresses were dispatched to Hannover and Hamburg. Attacks on Kassel, Oschersleben, Kiel and finally a Heinkel bomber manufacturing plant at Warnemuende. Aircraft manufacturing plants at Kassel were hit on 30 July in the conclusion of a campaign known to the crews as "Blitz Week".

On 17 August, the first attack on the ball-bearing industry at Schweinfurt took place, with a diversionary attack on Regensburg was carried out to draw the Luftwaffe away from the main force heading to Schweinfurt. Luftwaffe defenses and AAA "flak" was intense and the few P-47 fighters available to escort the bombers could not possibly cover all seven groups in the attack. The 1st Wing force headed to Schweinfurt lost thirty-six B-17s, the 4th Wing which hit Regensburg, shot down twenty-six Fortresses. VIII Bomber Command flew only shallow penetration missions throughout the rest of August and early September while losses were made good. New groups and replacement aircraft arriving were the new B-17G model, with improvements in various systems, along with the Chin Turret facing front, to help ward off frontal attacks by the Luftwaffe.

B-26 medium bomber operations[edit]

B-26 of the 322d Medium Bomb Group on the perimeter track prior to takeoff
B-26 Marauder of the 322d Bomb Group on a mission over enemy-occupied territory, 1944.

The first operational raid took place on On 14 May 1943. Flying through heavy flak at altitudes of 100 to 300 feet (91 m), Marauders from the 322nd Bombardment Group dropped a group 500-pound delayed-fuse bombs on the Velsen generating station at IJmuiden in the Netherlands. All planes returned safely to base. However, the delayed fuse bombs which allowed Dutch workmen to escape also gave the Germans enough time to defuse or remove them. It is probable that the 322nd only escaped the attention of Luftwaffe fighters because of a battle taking place elsewhere with VIII Bomber Command heavy bombers.

On 17 May 1943, eleven Marauders returned at low level to attack German installations at IJmuiden and Haarlem in the Netherlands. This time the Luftwaffe was ready, and the raid was a disaster, with all but one aircraft (which had aborted due to an electrical failure) being shot down by flak and fighters.

The disastrous second raid at IJmuiden proved that the B-26 was totally unsuited for low-level operations over Europe, where enemy flak was heavy and accurate and enemy fighters were numerous and particularly effective. After the IJmuiden raid, low-level operations by Marauders over Europe were discontinued, and thought was given to withdrawing the type from combat. In the meantime, the B-26 equipped units stood down to retrain for attacks against strategic targets from medium altitudes (10,000–14,000 feet) with heavy fighter escort.

In July 1943, some consideration was given to adapting the B-26 as an escort fighter for the Flying Fortress heavy bombers of the VIII Bomber Command which were at that time experiencing heavy losses to German fighters. This suggestion was immediately dropped, since the Marauder had an entirely different performance envelope from the Fortress and in addition had proven that it was itself unable to survive without fighter escort in hostile European skies.

The B-26 did not return to action over Europe until 17 July 1943. This time, the B-26 was more successful in its new role of medium-altitude bombing, and proposals to withdraw the Marauder from combat over Europe were quietly shelved. Marauders developed tight formation flying tactics to ensure a close pattern of bombs on the target and to protect themselves against fighter attacks. Because of the tremendous concentration of defensive firepower that the B-26 offered, the Luftwaffe was reluctant to press home attacks on Marauder formations. However, in the European theatre fighter escort was essential to defend against determined German fighter attacks. The German 88-mm antiaircraft guns were most accurate at the altitudes at which the Marauder normally operated, and it was determined that a straight and level flight for as little as 30 seconds gave the German radar gun detectors sufficient time to track the formation and place shots right in its midst. Consequently, evasive actions every 15 or 20 seconds was absolutely necessary to minimize flak losses. However, once committed to the bomb run, there was no evasive action possible and runs of 25 seconds or longer were considered quite dangerous.

On 16 October 1943, Headquarters Ninth Air Force was reactivated at RAF Burtonwood with a mission to became the crucial and decisive tactical air force in Western Europe. It was decided at that time to transfer the entire 3d Bombardment Wing to the ninth, making VIII Bomber Command solely a strategic bombing force in Europe, and the Ninth the tactical air force supporting the ground forces for the upcoming invasion. Subsequently, all of the B-26 Marauder groups under the 3d Bombardment Wing were transferred to the re-formed Ninth Air Force.

Reorganization and inactivation[edit]

On 22 February 1944 a massive reorganization of American airpower took place in Europe. VIII Bomber Command's parent unit, Eighth Air Force, was redesignated as the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF). In addition, the tactical air force in England, Ninth Air Force was brought directly under USSTAF. USSTAF also exercised control over the other two Air Forces in the Mediterranean theater, Twelfth Air Force and Fifteenth Air Force.

VIII Bomber Command was redesignated as Eighth Air Force and brought under the control of USSTAF. VIII Fighter Command and VIII Air Support Commands were brought under the command of the newly redesignated Eighth Air Force. VIII Bomber Command was inactivated.

References[edit]

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Bibliography[edit]

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External links[edit]