The Allied daylight bombing raid on Schweinfurt, Germany in August 1943, was the culmination of years of developing United States policy on air power and technological state. The circumstances and consequences of the Schweinfurt mission would bear great significance in the future of air raids and US Air Policy. Schweinfurt was the pinnacle of the daylight air raids deep over the Third Reich.
The state of the United States' air power during The Great War was not the sophisticated air force that we see emerge in World War II. Aviators in the first world war often flew in unarmored, open-cockpit, low-flying, single-engine aircraft for reconnaissance purposes in locating enemy troops. Air superiority was not a huge factor, and infantryman could even take out enemy planes. The bomber was viewed in a different light also. "The Great War consensus held that the bomber was primarily a tactical weapon, best used to support the operations of ground forces...1"
After World War I the United States as a whole moved towards strong isolationist sentiment. Americans no longer wished their sons to die on foreign soil for Europe’s quarrels. This in turn would have a significant effect on the development of air power for the United States.
The Advent of the Strategic Bomber
There were some strong advocates of air power. Among the more prominent were General Billy Mitchell, General Carl A. Spaatz, and General Henry "Hap" Arnold. General Mitchell was a very outspoken proponent of the strategic bomber. He believed that the nation’s air arm would become more important than the Navy (something the Navy did not want to hear). Despite demonstrations of bombers sinking captured German battleship hulks, the US War Department debunked Mitchell’s ideas. He was later court-martialed for his loud beliefs, which ironically brought more public attention to the cause for US air power.
However, the advent of the long-range, strategic bomber ended up occurring, more or less, due to isolationism. This aerial weapon was appealing because, it was said, it could be used to maintain isolationist policy. The long-range bomber could extend its reach far beyond US borders without having to deploy our troops. It was additionally appealing because it could be cheap to construct and required only minimal manpower to deliver thousands of pounds of bombs.
September 3, 1939, The Empire of Great Britain and France entered into war with Germany on grounds of the German invasion of Poland. The Wehrmacht demonstrated the fact that the bomber would become an essential weapon in warfare as it unleashed the Luftwaffe on Poland, predominantly the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.
Day vs. Night Bombing
The British began bombing campaigns against Germany, but in very confined domains. RAF Bomber Command initially restricted bombings to non-land, non-harbor targets, reasoning that land and harbor targets would endanger too many civilians in irony of their later policy of directly bombing civilian populations. The Brits also carried out "Nickel" operations, or leaflet and propaganda droppings which, although largely unsuccessful and caused losses continued mostly to allow aircrews to gain combat experience2. The Wehrmacht had good FLAK defenses against air attacks as well as a strong fleet of Messerschmitt aircraft, and the RAF suffered great losses at their hands. In addition, not only did the RAF find it difficult to hit targets, but they had trouble locating them. The British found that their strategic bombers were not an effective weapon of war, at least employing the aircraft and strategies they were. After one month of declared war, the RAF Air Chief Marshal Ludlow-Hewitt was instructed to begin preparations for conversion to night operations.
The dark of night protected RAF bomber formations from a lot of Antiaircraft fire and made it difficult for Luftwaffe fighters to locate bombers. There were however significant disadvantages to night bombing raids as well. The RAF could no longer precisely locate strategic targets in the dark, so they changed their policy to area bombing. They basically resorted to employing their bombers for attacking civilian-populated city areas, which some regard as terrorist bombing. The RAF hoped that they would disable Germany’s work force and lower morale while encouraging the Americans to join them.
The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff however decided to stick to their air policy of precision bombing in daylight strategic targets they thought essential to the German war machine: oil facilities, aircraft and munitions manufacturing, and ball bearing factories. The RAF tried to encourage the United States to reconsider their daylight program and to join the RAF in night raids, however the US stuck to its guns. "In particular, General Eaker had to defend the principle of daylight bombing in the face of British pressure for him to change to night attacks."3 "The US had some things the British did not. The Army Air Force had the B-17, and they had the Nordon Bomb Sight. The B-17 was more heavily armed than the RAF’s Blenheim, Hampden, and Wellington bombers, in the spirit of the self-defending bomber. The Nordon bomb sight was installed in the lead planes of each Bomber Group and allowed Bombardiers to more accurately pinpoint and hit their designated targets. The early targets attacked in the war under the Americans showed considerable success. "Early judgments (were) based upon the success of the first ten American missions, in which only two B-17s were lost...4" However, most of these missions were over territory where fighter escort was capable of covering. The Allies believing firmly in the self-defending bomber were not expectant of the losses to come in the raids over the mainland itself.
Ball bearings were needed for the manufacture of many precision instruments and war machines. "The various types of ball-bearings... are essential to the functioning of a modern military power equipped with tanks and aircraft. For instance, a Ju-88 airframe alone, exclusive of its engines, required 1,056 anti-friction bearings and a single 200cm searchlight required 90.5" Another significant portion of Germany’s ball bearings were imported from Sweden. The Allies attempted negotiating with the neutral Swedes to limit the export of the ball-bearings, but to no result. Therefore, the Allies saw it important to attack the factories Germany had for these bearings. With a severe cut in the availability of these important components, the Allies hoped to significantly cripple the ability of the German war machine to produce aircraft, tanks, and other necessary machinery.
In Fall 1941, the British Target Committee identified Schweinfurt as a substantial target, but it took British intelligence close to a year to obtain locations of the important factories located there6. The city of Schweinfurt was mainly agricultural until the emergence of ball bearing industry in 1906. There were two main manufacturers, Kugelfischer (K.G.F.) and Vereinigte Kugellagerfabriken (V.K.F.) which had two factories in Schweinfurt. When Adolf Hitler initiated the military build-up of Germany, in spite of the Versailles Treaty, K.G.F and V.K.F began working in collaboration to aid the German war machine. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, assessed after the war, determined that Schweinfurt was responsible for a little over half of the needed ball bearings for the German war effort7. There was not much else of military significance in the Bavarian town of 40,000 to warrant a bombing raid.
In early 1943, the RAF expressed their inability to attack Schweinfurt due to its small size and spread of factories around the city. By April, the Eighth Air Force assumed responsibility for attacking Schweinfurt and added it to their list of targets. There were five factories producing ball-bearings in the city at that time, but the Eighth Air Force Command identified three essential targets which were the aforementioned K.G.F and two V.G.F locations. They also noted the location of two nearby labor camps which the Germans had set up to house hundreds of foreigners which they forced into work.
The Regensburg Diversion
The city of Regensburg had been chosen as a target around the same time. Regensburg was a relatively famous Bavarian city of 80,000, rich in culture and its history. Between 1936 and 1938, a large aircraft factory was constructed under Hitler’s expansion of the Wehrmacht and helped Regensburg out of the depression. The factory was procured by the Messerschmitt corporation. The Regensburg factory employed about 10,000 workers over two shifts. Official American historians estimate that the factory’s production was around 380 aircraft per month.8 It can be said that "it was certainly the leading Messerschmitt 109 factory at that time.9"
The factory building itself was different from the Schweinfurt target. Regensburg’s factory was plainly separated from the surround buildings whereas Schweinfurt was nestled into residential areas, labor camps, a hospital, and other civilian sites. However, both cities were similar in not expecting any type of Allied attack. No Allied planes had flown into Southern Germany since April 1942 with a failed RAF attack by 12 Lancasters. Schweinfurt had more antiaircraft Flak guns and was equipped with sufficient air-raid shelters, where on the other hand Regensburg had fewer Flak emplacements and no shelters. A foreman in a factory at Schweinfurt, Alfons Kuhn, put the air before the air raids best. "I was one of the many who had never even thought that one day a force of bombers would appear out of the sky and bomb the hell out of the factory. We just went on day after day, turning up for work and carrying on with our normal life.10"
Both of these targets relate to each other because they were both selected to be attacked on the same day. The US Army Air Force’s Eighth Air Force decided that it would spring daylight bombing raids on both cities that day, in coordination with each other to achieve maximum effect and cover. The main US forces would strike the ball-bearing targets at Schweinfurt, while a slightly smaller force would depart earlier for Regensburg as a diversion. In addition, an often neglected part, RAF Spitfire and Marauders would attack a Luftwaffe base in Arras, France as another diversion to draw Luftwaffe planes away from the possibility of interfering with the bomber forces.
General Eaker and the Bomber Command set the date for the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission for 17 August 1943. The Schweinfurt force was slated to have 231 B-17s and the Regensburg mission would use 146 B-17s. A total of 183 P-47s and 97 RAF Spitfires would escort the bombers as far as the escorts could reach. In addition, 108 B-26s and 13 RAF Mitchells bombers were involved in smaller diversionary work, along with 152 Spitfire escorts and 78 Typhoon fighter-bombers. This meant on 17 August 1943 there would a total of 1,007 Allied aircraft in the skies above German territory, 667 of which were American11. Much of the diversionary missions were to pin down Luftwaffe planes and pilots from being called to assist other locations along the routes the bomber forces were taking.
The Regensburg mission was to take off a few hours earlier than the Schweinfurt mission, and therefore the attention of the Luftwaffe would be directed on the Regensburg area. The Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) would not expect the Allies to assemble a second full-size bombing raid on the same day, and therefore taking needed German planes and attention away from the Schweinfurt forces and their attack.
There would also be something different about the Regensburg force that the Germans would not expect. The Allies had taken control of parts of North Africa in their campaign against Feldmarschal Erwin Rommel and his Afrkiacorps, and managed to establish a few air fields. This was convenient, because now the Regensburg force could enter Germany, hit their targets, and turn South to egress out to North Africa. This was a significant betterment for the Regensburg aircrews, because now they did not have to push their way back through all the German territory they had just fought through, right into the hands of waiting Luftwaffe pilots. The Eighth Air Force planners hoped that this new egress route would save the lives of many aircrew. The option of flying in from North Africa from behind the defense lines was really not an option, as the bombers, bombs, and equipment would have had to been flown first from England to North Africa before the mission could have started, causing even further delays and complications.
Takeoff and Delays
In the early morning of August 17, 1943, seven groups of B-17 Flying Fortresses under the command of Colonel Curtis E. LeMay’s 4th Bombardment Wing took off from English coastal airfields to attack the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg. This was the farthest inland penetration of Germany by Allied air power since the start of World War II in 193912.
On this same morning, the Schweinfurt force was scheduled to take flight and execute its orders. The Schweinfurt forces, composed of the 1st Bombardment Wing, were to take off nine minutes after the 4th Bombardment Wing headed for Regensburg. The hopes was that with the distraction of the 4th Bombardment Wing, the 1st would be able to slip through German defenses and carry out the attack on Schweinfurt with minimal resistance. However, the English weather interfered with plans as was typical. A dense fog fell over England, but the Regensburg force was able to take flight. Unfortunately, the Schweinfurt force was delayed hours and hours. Brigadier General Anderson was in charge, and decided against having LeMay’s Regensburg forces circle and wait over the Channel for the Schweinfurt forces to get moving13. LeMay’s forces needed every drop of fuel to reach their final destination of North Africa. This is where the plan began to fall apart.
The long delay before the fog lifted sufficiently for the 1st to take flight separated the Regensburg and Schweinfurt forces. The Luftwaffe was no longer split between two forces, but was able now to focus on two different attack forces at two different times. This proved to be quite bad for the Schweinfurt forces.
The LeMay’s wing met some Luftwaffe resistance along the way, mostly Messerschmitt 109s, but there was not a tremendous amount of German activity. Their bombers were escorted by P-47s from the Dutch islands to Eupen, however after Eupen the fighters were forced to turn back due to lack of fuel. Afterwards, or so the joke amongst aircrews went, they would be escorted by the Luftwaffe. The trailing 100th Bomber Group was the least-protected in the 4th Wing’s formation, and they came upon the heaviest fire enroute. Despite resistance by Luftwaffe fighters, the Regensburg force was able to reach the city under the command of Colonel LeMay and successfully release their bombs on the Messerschmitt factory. The bombers turned south to set a course for Switzerland / North Africa. Most of the bombers would get there, although some would have to ditch on the return route (crews of which were all rescued). Over all 24 B-17s had been lost on this raid, 10 of them in the 100th Bomb Group.
Due to the Regensburg attack, the OKL had ordered fighter Gruppen from the North and other surrounding areas to come down to locations along the Regensburg route and reinforce the aircraft already there. Aircraft were dispatched from Zeist, Bremen, Wunstorf, Rostock, Oldenburg, Jever and Leeuwarden. The German Generals assumed that the Regensburg force would be returning along the same basic route it entered on, like all the previous Allied bombing raids. If the Regensburg force had returned along their original ingress route, they would have received a severe beating.
However, the inbound Schweinfurt route was not far from the German expected return route and because of this they met a substantial resistance. The splitting of the Luftwaffen forces that was supposed to be achieved by the simultaneous Regensburg and Schweinfurt forces was no longer effective. Instead of getting a reduced resistance, the 1st Wing experienced more than normal resistance. "The Luftwaffe War Diaries record that over 300 aircraft were airborne to deal with the Schweinfurt attack.14"
The Spitfire and Thunderbolt fighter escorts for the Schweinfurt forces were only capable of going as far as Aachen. Afterwards, the 1st Wing suffered heavy losses on their inbound route to the target over Germany. "...the Schweinfurt-bound bombers experienced the entire, familiar range of German fighter tactics.15" The Germans did not hold back, and threw whatever aircraft they had available at the Allied aircraft as well. Me-109s, Me-110s, FW-190s, and Ju-88s made up the majority of the force, but some FW-189s, Me-210s, Do-217Es and He-113s were even spotted in the skies.
At 6:30 pm, the group was passing over Eupen, and readying to make the final sharp turn at Darmstadt. The worst fighter attacks occurred during this time period and by now 15 B-17s had been lost, keeping in mind each B-17 holds a crew of 10 airmen. By 6:55pm, the groups were on their final heading towards the target and still taking on flak and fighter attacks. "From the moment that their escort left them, up to the target and back to the comparative safety of friendly cover again, the B-17s had to repel between 200 and 300 different enemy attacks.16"
The bombers made it to the bombing target and released their loads on the targets, one group after another. After releasing their bomb loads, the groups would turn North where they would proceed to retrace their route back out of Germany. From their initial set out through the bombing run, the losses totaled twenty-five aircraft and their crews, not including of course the aircraft which were struggling or damaged at that point.
Unfortunately, the boys now had to fight their way back through the same country they just struggled through, and the Luftwaffe pilots had time to refuel, rearm, and refresh. The bombers were expecting P-47 escort cover to resume once they managed to reach Eupen. The first task force got their cover 10 minutes before they reached Eupen, and the P-47s proceeded to fend off attacks from the Luftwaffe JG26 (26th Jagdgeschwader). The second task force from Schweinfurt, however, got to Eupen and found no escorts to support them and they lost an additional two B-17 aircraft and crew before they reached the coast.
The Mission Ends
When the aircraft reached their bases in England, the total losses of aircraft totaled thirty-six, each aircraft with ten crew members, for the Schweinfurt mission alone. The most heavily hit Groups were the 91st Group, which lost ten, and the 381st Group which lost eleven aircraft and crew. Out of all the 363 Allied aircraft that went into Europe that day, for the combined Regensburg - Schweinfurt missions, sixty aircraft did not return, representing 16% of the aircraft and crew dispatched August 17, 1943. "When the reconnaissance photographs were analyzed it seemed that only three of the twelve groups had bombed anywhere near the target and Schweinfurt’s production of ball-bearings was unaffected.17" A total of 80 hits were recorded as direct hits to the target facilities18. It is believed that it took the German workers approximately four weeks to rebuild the damage done to the two main factories at Schweinfurt19. For approximately 600 American lives, the Allies were successful in temporarily interrupting Germany’s supply of ball bearings. The Allied High Command attempted to pass this off as acceptable losses20, partially to prevent from alarming the public of our striking loss and to justify their daylight bombing policy.
However, the failure of the Schweinfurt, or more generally, the Schweinfurt and Regensburg missions, finally raised a lot of questions of whether daylight, precision bombing raids were of true value to the Allied war effort. As one can see from Schweinfurt, precision could not be achieved thoroughly as most of the bomb groups' payloads did not hit the designated target areas. The heavy losses inflicted upon the bomber fleet each time it ventured beyond escort range was another consideration raised. There was not yet a capable escort fighter of following bomber formations deep into Germany, and it was obvious by now that the "self-defending bomber" needed escorts to stay in the air. The effectiveness of these bombing campaigns also needed review, as the damage done to the Schweinfurt ball bearing industry was not significant at all - and the Allied goal for that mission was to crush it.
Schweinfurt was the pinnacle of the daylight air raids deep over the Third Reich. It represented a few years worth of accumulating experience and developments, and it had become apparent that the policy of daylight precision bombing, that the British had abandoned for similar reasons in 1939, was not worth it in terms of overall effectiveness.
Returning to Schweinfurt
However, USAAF commanders reluctant to accept these facts immediately insisted that Schweinfurt be bombed again. Therefore, another daylight, high-altitude, precision bombing raid on Schweinfurt was planned for a little over two months later, October 14, 1943. This mission had the same target, the same purpose, but with a slightly larger bomber force of 360 B-17s from the 1st and 3rd Bombardment Divisions. In the meantime, a number of missions were flown against targets such as Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Gdynia, Marienburg, Anklam, and Münster. Most all of these missions suffered significant losses also, especially the Stuttgart mission losing 45 of 388 bombers sent. The October 14, 1943 mission became known as "Black Thursday" because of its failure.21 The AAF Command reported glowingly that this second mission was a huge success and utterly devastated the ball-bearing manufacturing there. The truth was that there was not a huge impact, yet again, on the ball bearing production.
The Campaigns Fade into History
The August mission to Schweinfurt was the height of the Eight Air Force’s and Allied Daylight Bombing campaigns. It was the realization of the need for change in air policy. The air raids were all downhill following the August Schweinfurt mission, simply producing more failures. But it was the August Schweinfurt that provided the strong evidence and proof that should have been needed to change the air strategy for the United States in World War II.
With the modern inventions of such technology as cruise missiles, ICBMs, and the like in the modern day, large formations of strategic bombers will no longer be seen in the skies, gone forever, rending the strategic bomber practically obsolete.
1. Robin Neillands, The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany (New York: Overlook, 2001), 11.
2. Neillands, 37.
3. John Sweetman, Schweinfurt: Disaster in the skies (New York: Ballentine, 1971), 61.
4. Sweetman, 48.
5. Sweetman, 68.
6. United States Strategic Bombing Surveys, (Maxwell AFB: Air University, 1987), No. 53, p. 21.
7. Sweetman, 68.
8. Martin Middlebrook, The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), 34.
9. Middlebrook, 34.
10. Middlebrook, 35.
11. Middlebrook, 57.
12. Thomas M. Coffey, Decision over Schweinfurt (New York: David McKay, 1977), 3.
13. Neillands, 251.
14. Sweetman, 111.
15. Sweetman, 111.
16. Sweetman, 111.
17. Neillands, 254.
18. Sweetman, 119.
19. Sweetman, 119.
20. Sweetman, 119.
21. Martin Caidin, Black Thursday (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1960), 19.