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The B and the B were even faster and flew at altitudes too high for most pursuit aircraft to catch them. The revised doctrine from the Tactical School was that bombers could penetrate air defenses with acceptable losses so that fighter escorts were not necessary. In tests at March Field, California, in , Lt. Arnold demonstrated that P fighters were seldom able to intercept B and B bombers.
In his view, fighters of the future would rarely be a threat to bombers. In any role, pursuit aircraft would be of limited value. Claire L. Chennault, an instructor in fighter tactics at the Tactical School. Arnold was the foremost advocate of the bomber. By , he was a two-star general and Chief of the Air Corps. His principal disciples were Spaatz and Ira C. Fighters were a secondary consideration in pre-war research and development. In and again in , the Air Corps rejected proposals for auxiliary fuel tanks to give tactical aircraft, including escort fighters, greater range.
Drop tanks, it was held, would add weight for no good purpose. In any case, escort fighters were not supposed to be off chasing enemy aircraft. Arnold was chief of the Army Air Forces. In , Maj. Eaker was not particularly worried about that. Operations against occupied Europe had barely begun when the Allied strategic focus shifted—at British insistence—to North Africa.
The key commanders went there, including Spaatz. As bomber missions into western Europe increased, losses rose at an alarming rate. The first P fighters arrived in Britain in April to escort the Bs. In July, they were outfitted with drop tanks, giving them enough fuel to reach the German border. Bombers were seven times more likely to be shot down if they were not accompanied by fighters.
By summer, close escort was the standard practice. Initially, the fighters flew as top cover but then moved down into closer formation beside and in front of the bombers to better meet the Luftwaffe attack. The Ps had to weave and limit their speed to keep pace with the slower bombers. Whatever fragment of credibility that remained for the Tactical School bomber concept was swept away by stunning losses over Schweinfurt and Regensburg that fall. For the Schweinfurt mission Oct. One of every five Bs that set out from England that day did not return.
For the rest of the year, Eighth Air Force struck only targets that were within range of the escort fighters. In October, Eaker declared the primary role of fighters to be support for the heavy bombers. When bomber crews completed 25 missions, they got credit for a combat tour and went home, but in late , the odds were against their doing so.
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Before reaching that mark, 57 percent of them would be dead or missing. The terrible losses were not the only problem. Carl Spaatz steps out of a B in England in National Archives. Preparations for Overlord brought wholesale changes. Doolittle came with him as the new commander of Eighth Air Force, replacing Eaker who was promoted to lieutenant general and sent to command the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces.
Eaker never had enough bombers to achieve the results asked of him, nor did he have enough fighters—or the right kind of fighters—to provide real protection for the bombers.
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By contrast, with Overlord on the horizon, Doolittle was flooded with resources. Within a few months and despite attrition, operational bombers in Eighth Air Force increased from to 1, and the fighter force rose from to Why were loss rates so high? Some historians have argued that the losses experienced on raids like Regensburg-Schweinfurt demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that the concept of unescorted daylight precision bombing was a failed strategy.
Were Army Air Forces leaders blinded to the flaws in the bombing strategy they had developed? A close look at the historical facts demonstrates that it was not ignorance, hubris, or a misplaced commitment to their own thinking that led them to conclude that in and through the fall of the concept of unescorted daylight precision bombing was sound. Rather, it was a cold logic based on what was known and knowable at the time. To understand why this is so, it is necessary to understand the context of the times in which the planners and leaders worked. The U. Billy Mitchell, who saw what even the primitive airpower of World War I could do.
Although the ACTS taught these concepts to many airpower advocates, its doctrine lacked formal War Department approval. Accordingly, the spread of the doctrine was initially limited. The ACTS strategic bombing doctrine included the following components:.
In , the Army Air Corps took action to acquire a weapon system, although in small numbers, that enabled it to carry out its strategy—the four engine B Flying Fortress heavy bomber. Its design was based on the technology then available, and it was initially sold as a weapon for coastal defense against naval threats. Fast for its time and well armed by contemporary standards, the B was designed to fly in large numbers in a self-protecting formation for mutual defensive gunfire. Unaware of the British development of radar in as a means of detecting and tracking aircraft, the ACTS theorists believed, based on World War I and interwar experience, that bomber formations would reach their targets undetected or could fend off their attackers.
They further expected to encounter the enemy only over the target, where the enemy would concentrate defenses rather than having to conduct a long-running battle to and from the objective. The state of prewar fighter and air defense technology supported these views.
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When strategic bombing theory was being developed at the ACTS, the leading edge fighter aircraft of the time had an externally braced single wing, a fixed landing gear, an open cockpit, short range, and light armament. To think in the early s that the United States or any nation could within a few years develop a short-range, mile-per-hour pursuit fighter with a closed cockpit, retractable landing gear, a cantilever wing, and internally mounted machine guns or cannons would have been extraordinary.
But, that is exactly what happened. B Flying Fortress bombers of the U. Eighth Air Force maintain formation above the German city of Regensburg during a daylight bombing raid. The Americans maintained that greater accuracy was achieved during daylight raids, but German flak and fighters took a fearful toll on the bombers.
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Designing a rugged, fast, lightweight, highly maneuverable, and well-armed interceptor such as the Hurricane, the Spitfire , or the Messerschmitt Me was one thing. Developing an effective long-range escort fighter was another matter. From to , the design of an escort fighter that could fly fast enough to protect the bomber stream, had sufficient range to reach the target and return, and yet had good enough performance to fight successfully against enemy interceptors was judged by leading aeronautical engineers as not technically feasible.
Even though the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the USAAF, began a program in to explore ways to extend the range of fighters, the prevailing attitude of the Air Corps senior leadership was that the complete technology package for an effective, long-range, single-seat escort fighter was simply not available. As early as , Lt. Hal George, a bomber advocate and planner, was telling General Arnold that it appeared to him that bombers would definitely need fighter protection. But the aircraft envisioned by these planners was not a single-seat, high-performance fighter, but rather a convoy defender, a B or similar large multi-engine aircraft modified to carry more armor, more guns, and more ammunition.
Such a prototype, the YB, was to later prove in to be both costly and a complete failure in combat. The board could not overcome the seeming disparity between the operational requirements for an effective escort fighter and the technology then available. The board made no recommendations. The combat experience of the British supported this view. Eaker had been sent to England in the fall of for six weeks as a special air observer.
The Failure of Unescorted Daylight Precision Bombing Raids
The British had flown a number of daylight bombing missions against German targets on the French coast that were within the range of escorting British fighters. They had hoped to lure German fighters into an uneven fight. The tactic failed. The British bombing targets were just not of high enough importance to the Germans that they would engage the escort fighters. The Germans would wait until the British bombers attempted deeper raids without escorts.