B-17 Flying Fortress
|The Boeing Company
|28 July 1935
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseThe Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were first seen on 28 Jul 1935 as E. Gifford Emery and Edward Curtis Wells' Boeing Model 299, flown by test pilot Les Tower. It was designed as a response to the United States Army Air Corps' 1934 demand for a multi-engined bomber, but Boeing had over-done it: the four-engined bomber was so expensive that the US Army instead went with the two-engined Douglas B-18 Bolo design. The evaluation, though tainted with a fatal accident, impressed some top brass regardless. Through a legal loophole, the USAAC ordered 13 B-17 bombers for testing on 17 Jan 1936. Between that time and the opening of the Pacific War in 1941, fewer than 200 B-17 bombers entered service with the USAAC. Some of the early production bombers went to the British Royal Air Force which began the European War without heavy bombers. In early 1940, 20 B-17 bombers were transferred to the RAF, which redesignated them as Fortress I bombers. Their first operation was against the German Kriegsmarine's port facilities at Wilhelmshaven, Germany on 8 Jul 1941, and their performance left much to be desired as bombs missed their targets and machine guns froze at the high altitude. While these early B-17 bombers were being relegated to reconnaissance and patrol roles, the experiences shared by the British crews helped Boeing tweak the design of later models; mainly, the British crews expressed the need for these bombers to carry larger bomb loads and better aiming equipment.
ww2dbaseThe United States entered the war in Dec 1941, and from the start she began building up air forces in Europe. The first 18 B-17E bombers arrived to equip the US 8th Air Force units in mid-1942, and flew their first mission against French rail yards on 17 Aug 1942. With the newly devised Norden Bombsight, this mission was much more successful than the British experience earlier in the European War.
ww2dbaseThe American direct involvement in war increased production of B-17 bombers dramatically; in fact, they are often considered the first mass-produced modern aircraft. Before the advent of long-range fighter escorts, B-17 bombers flew in box formations so that their machine guns could provide overlapping fields of fire to protect each other, though at a sacrifice of rigidity of flight paths, which led to increased dangers from ground-based anti-aircraft guns. These bombers, after many rounds of improvements, were now known for their durability. Many stories were told where major sections of the bombers, such as the tail fin, nearly destroyed but the crews still made their ways home safely.
ww2dbaseA typical crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber consisted of 10 men. The commanding officer was the piot, and the executive officer was the co-pilot; these two officers received equal training, and their difference in status was largely only due to the luck of the draw. The bombardier was also an officer, manning the chin turret during flight but taking control of the entire bomber during the actual bomb run, even flying the aircraft at that time, via the connection between his Norden bomb sight and the auto-pilot system. The navigator, another officer, kept the aircraft path during the flight and manned the cheek guns when attacked. The flight engineer, a non-commissioned officer, was trained in the basic mechanics of the entire aircraft, and manned the top turret when attacked. The radio operation, a non-commissioned officer, handled communications and served as the first aid giver when necessary. Finally, the four remaining crew member, all non-commissioned officers, manned the ball turret, left waist gun, right waist gun, and the tail gun; although these bombers were durable, to call them "fortresses" was a exaggeration, thus the gunners served an important role in the defense of these actually vulnerable bombers.
ww2dbaseDuring WW2, 26 B-17 bomber groups served in Britain and 6 groups served in Italy. Beginning in 1943, they began a carpet bombing campaign against German industrial targets. Initially an alarming number of B-17 bombers were lost, but as the war went on, the depleting capabilities of German air defense made the bombing campaigns more effective. Many accused the Western Allies of conducting terror bombing during WW2, and many of the alleged terror bombing missions were conducted with B-17 bombers. On 15 Feb 1945, as part of the aerial operation against the German city of Dresden, 311 B-17 bombers dropped 771 tons of bombs, contributing to the killing of 25,000 people committed by both American and British bombers.
ww2dbaseSome B-17 bombers crash-landed or were forced down on German soil, and about 40 of them were put into service by the German Luftwaffe. They were designated Do 200 and were used in reconnaissance operations. A few of them kept their Allied markings and were sent to infiltrate Allied B-17 formations to report their position and altitude; initially successful, Allied airmen soon developed methods to challenge unidentified aircraft that tried to join their formations.
ww2dbaseSeveral B-17 bombers were also taken by the Soviets who flew them in combat missions despite having little experience with them. Soviet opinion toward the B-17 design was generally favorable. Some remained in Soviet service until 1948.
ww2dbaseFive bomber groups of the US 5th Air Force operated B-17 bombers in the Pacific Theater, with a peak of 168 bombers in Sep 1942. After some time of ineffective high altitude bombing, some of the B-17 bombers adopted "skip bombing", a technique usually practiced by medium bombers rather than heavy bombers. When skip bombing, the aircraft flew at very low altitudes over water; as the bombs were released, they struck the water at a shallow angle and bounced into the sides of targeted ships. The technique of skip bombing scored several sinkings.
ww2dbaseWhen WW2 ended, a total of 12,700 B-17 bombers were built. Peak US Army Air Forces inventory, in Aug 1944, was 4,574 worldwide. Besides Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed (via subsidiary Vega) also contributed to that total. After the war General Carl Spaatz commented that "[w]ithout the B-17, we might have lost the war."
ww2dbaseAfter the war, some B-17 bombers made their way to Israel via the black market, some were acquired by collectors in form of museums, while most of them were melted down for scrap. The most famous of the surviving B-17 bomber at the time of this writing is arguably the 25-mission veteran of European Theater "Memphis Belle", which is now at National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, United States for restoration and display in the near future.
Last Major Revision: Apr 2007
B-17 Flying Fortress Timeline
|28 Jul 1935
|The company-funded Boeing Model 299 prototype aircraft (later B-17 Flying Fortress), piloted by Leslie R. Tower, made its maiden flight from Boeing Field, Seattle, United States.
|7 May 1941
|The first of the B-17 Flying Fortress bombers in Britain arrived at RAF Watton.
|8 Jul 1941
|British B-17 bombers were deployed on a combat mission for the first time as three of them were ordered to attack Wilhelmshaven, Germany.
|30 Sep 1941
|The RAF withdrew B-17 bombers from service.
|1 Jul 1942
|B-17E Flying Fortress bomber "Jarring Jenny" landed at Prestwick, Scotland, United Kingdom having flown the 3,000 miles from Maine, United States via Greenland and Iceland. It was the first of hundreds of sister aircraft to be flown to Great Britain to form the US Eighth Air Force.
|14 Aug 1942
|The B-17E Flying Fortress aircraft "Chief Seattle from the Pacific North West" was launched from Port Moresby, Australian Papua for a reconnaissance mission over Rabaul, New Britain, but the aircraft became missing shortly after launch and was never found. This aircraft was paid for by donations from civilians of the state of Washington in northwestern United States.
|13 May 1943
|B-17 bomber "Hell's Angels" of US 303rd Bomb Group became the first aircraft to complete 25 combat missions.
|19 May 1943
|US B-17F bomber 'Memphis Belle' became the second aircraft to complete 25 combat missions after attacking Kiel, Germany.
|20 Apr 1944
|No. 214 Squadron RAF (of No. 100 group based at RAF Oulton at Aylsham, England, United Kingdom), established in Nov 1943, flew the first operational sortie with their Fortress Mk. III (SD) aircraft. These were extensively modified B-17G aircraft fitted out with electronic countermeasures and radar jamming devices. This Squadron would fly more than 1,000 sorties up to May 1945 losing just eight aircraft on operations.
|2 Jun 1944
|US suttle-bombing between Italy and the USSR (Operation Frantic) began. Under command of Lieutenant General Ira C Eaker, 130 B-17s, escorted by 70 P-51s, bombed the railway marshalling yard at Debreczen (Debrecen), Hungary and landed in the Soviet Union; the B-17s at Poltava and Myrhorod, the P-51s at Pyriatyn. 1 B-17 was lost over the target.
|6 Jun 1944
|Operation Frantic shuttle bombing continued as 104 B-17s and 42 P-51s (having flown to the USSR from Italy on 2 Jun) attacked the airfield at GalaÈi, Romania and returned to Soviet shuttle bases; 8 German fighters were shot down and 2 P-51s were lost.
|11 Jun 1944
|126 B-17s and 60 P-51s departed Russian shuttle bases for Italy to complete the first Operation Frantic operation. On the way, 121 B-17s bombed the FocĆani, Romania airfield.
|21 Jun 1944
|145 B-17s began an Operation Frantic shuttle bombing mission between the United Kingdom and bases in Ukraine. 72 P-38s, 38 P-47s and 57 P-51s escorted the bombers to the target, the synthetic oil plant at Ruhland, Germany. 123 B-17s bombed the primary target while the rest bombed secondary targets. The fighter escort returned to England while fighters based at Pyriatyn, Ukraine relieved them. 1 B-17 was lost to unknown causes and 144 B-17s landed in the USSR, 73 at Poltava and the rest at Myrhorod. During the night, the 73 B-17s at Poltava were attacked for 2 hours by an estimated 75 German bombers led by aircraft dropping flares. 47 B-17s were destroyed and most of the rest were severely damaged. Heavy damage was also suffered by the stores of fuel, ammunition, and ordinance.
|22 Jun 1944
|Because of the attack on Operation Frantic B-17s at Poltava, Ukraine the night before, the B-17s at Myrhorod and P-51s at Pyriatyn were moved farther east to be returned before departing to bases in Italy once the weather permitted. The move was fortunate as German bombers struck both Pyriatyn and Myrhorod during the night.
|25 Jun 1944
|At daybreak, B-17s and P-51s were flown from dispersal bases to Poltava and Myrhorod and loaded and fueled with intentions of bombing the oil refinery at Drohobycz (Drohobych), Poland before proceeding to bases in Italy as part of Operation Franticâs shuttle-bombing plan. Bad weather canceled the mission until the following day. The aircraft returned to dispersal bases for the night as precaution against air attacks.
|26 Jun 1944
|72 B-17s departed Poltava and Myrhorod, Ukraine, rendezvoused with 55 P-51s from Pyriatyn, bombed the oil refinery and railway marshalling yard at Drohobycz (Drohobych), Poland (1 returned to the USSR because of mechanical trouble), and then proceeded to Italy as part of Operation Franticâs shuttle-bombing plan.
|3 Jul 1944
|55 B-17s in Italy on the return leg of an Operation Frantic shuttle mission join Fifteenth Air Force bombers in bombing railway marshalling yards at Arad, Romania. 38 P-51s also on the shuttle run flew escort on the mission. All Operation Frantic aircraft returned to bases in Italy.
|5 Jul 1944
|70 B-17s on an Operation Frantic shuttle mission (UK-USSR-Italy-UK) flew from bases in Italy and attacked the railway marshalling yard at Beziers, France (along with Fifteenth Air Force B-24s) while on the last leg from Italy to the United Kingdom. 42 P-51s returned to England with the B-17s (of the 11 P-51s remaining in Italy, 10 returned to England the following day and the last several days later).
|6 Aug 1944
|In an Operation Frantic mission, 75 B-17s from England bombed aircraft factories at Gdynia and Rahmel, Poland and flew on to bases in Ukraine. 23 B-17s were damaged. Escort was provided by 154 P-51s. 4 P-51s were lost and 1 was damaged beyond repair. Further, 60 fighters from the previous dayâs strike took off from Operation Frantic bases in Ukraine, attacked Craiova railway marshalling yard and other railway targets in the Bucharest-Ploesti, Romania area, and landed at bases in Italy.
|7 Aug 1944
|In accordance with a Soviet request, 55 B-17s and 29 P-51s of the USAAF involved in Operation Frantic flew from bases in Ukraine and attacked an oil refinery at Trzebinia, Poland without loss and returned to Operation Frantic bases in the USSR.
|8 Aug 1944
|Operation Frantic shuttle missions continued as 78 B-17s with 55 P-51s as escort left bases in Ukraine and bombed airfields in Romania; 38 bombed BuzÄu and 35 bombed ZiliĆtea. No German fighters were encountered and the force flew on to Italy.
|12 Aug 1944
|The Operation Frantic shuttle-bombing mission UK-USSR-Italy-UK is completed. 72 B-17s took off from bases in Italy and bombed the Toulouse-Francazal Airfield, France before flying on to England. 62 P-51s (part of the shuttle-mission force) and 43 from the UK provide escort; no aircraft are lost.
|11 Sep 1944
|75 B-17s of Operation Frantic shuttle missions left England as part of a larger raid to oil refineries at Chemnitz along with 64 P-51s that continued on and landed in Ukraine.
|13 Sep 1944
|73 B-17s, escorted by 63 P-51s, continuing the Operation Frantic UK-USSR-Italy-UK shuttle-bombing mission, took off from Ukraine bases, bombed a steel and armament works at DiĂłsgyĆr, Hungary and proceeded to Fifteenth Air Force bases in Italy.
|15 Sep 1944
|As part of Operation Frantic, 110 B-17s were dispatched from England to drop supplies to Warsaw resistance fighters and then proceed to bases in the USSR but a weather front was encountered over the North Sea and the bombers were recalled. Escort is provided by 149 P-51s and 2 P-51s collided in a cloud and were lost.
|17 Sep 1944
|An Operation Frantic UK-USSR-Italy-UK shuttle mission was completed as 72 B-17s and 59 P-51s fly without bombs from Italy to England.
|22 Sep 1944
|The last Operation Frantic mission ended as 84 B-17s and 51 P-51s return to England from Italy.
|4 Wright R-1820-97 'Cyclone' turbosupercharged radial engines rated at 1,200 hp each
|13xBrowning M-2 12.7mm machine guns, 8,000kg of bombs (usually 3,600kg for short range missions or 2,000kg for long range missions)
|Rate of Climb
Did you enjoy this article or find this article helpful? If so, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Even $1 per month will go a long way! Thank you.
Share this article with your friends:
Stay updated with WW2DB:
Visitor Submitted Comments
All visitor submitted comments are opinions of those making the submissions and do not reflect views of WW2DB.
» Bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, and Other Cities
» Operation Frantic
» Masters of the Air
» Shot Down
» To Kingdom Come
- » 1,144 biographies
- » 336 events
- » 43,412 timeline entries
- » 1,237 ships
- » 349 aircraft models
- » 208 vehicle models
- » 371 weapon models
- » 123 historical documents
- » 259 facilities
- » 469 book reviews
- » 28,338 photos
- » 431 maps