The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raids: The Bombers Don’t Always Get Through

In the 1920s Italian airpower theorist Giulio Douhet stated that “The Bombers will always get through.” He expounded further by advocating that any military spending not on bombers was just wasted money. The British and American “bomber generals” were enthusiastic, even fanatic, advocates of Douhet. At the beginning of the Second World War, the British quickly learned by their experience with German high velocity anti-aircraft guns and improved interceptors the flaws in Douhet’s theory. Almost immediately, they abandoned daylight bombing raids in favor of marginally effective, but much safer, nighttime bombing. American bomber advocates ignored British experience, and in 1942, began a precision daylight bombing campaign.

Winston Churchill once said, “America will always do the right thing, once they try everything else.” And the bombing campaign over Europe was no exception. Armed with the B-17 Flying Fortress which was equipped with the Norden Bombsight, American bomber generals boasted that B-17s conducting precision daylight bombing could “put a bomb into a pickle barrel.” American accuracy would supposedly nullify the need to re-attack targets, and thus mitigate losses. In 1942, only six bomb groups were available and mostly attacked targets in France, well within fighter cover from England. With the liberation of North Africa and the invasion of Sicily complete by August 1943, more bomb groups were released to the Eighth Air Force in England for the bombing campaign over France and Germany. The American bomber generals then had enough bombers to attempt deep penetration raids into the German heartland.

In June 1943, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff issued the “Pointblank Directive” for the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force to concentrate on the destruction of German fighter production. Moderate damage was achieved against the factories producing the new German Focker Wulf-190 fighter in July. But most German fighter squadrons were still equipped with the older Messerschmitt-109, and their production was concentrated in Regensburg. Moreover, American intelligence analysts concluded that the German aircraft industry’s critical vulnerability was the ball bearing, the entirety of whose production was located not far from Regensburg in Schweinfurt, Germany.

Allied planners conceived Operation Juggler to strike both Regensburg and Schweinfurt on the same day in sufficient force to cripple the German production of defensive fighters. Fighters could only escort the force as far as mid Belgium which meant that the bombers would fly unescorted to the targets for almost 2 ½ hours. Allied planners assumed that tight formations of numerous B-17s, each armed with ten .50 calibre defensive machine guns, would provide the overlapping fields of fire that would protect the bombers from the prowling German interceptors. Moreover, the first strike against Regensburg would then fly south over the Alps to airfields in North Africa to avoid fighters on the return leg. The second strike on Schweinfurt was supposed to arrive over target as the German fighters were refueling and rearming from the Regensburg raid, and would return to England while the return leg German interceptors were also refueling and rearming. If all went according to plan, only the Regensburg strike would have to fight to the target, while their return leg and both legs of the Schweinfurt raid were relatively fighter free.

All did not go according to plan.

Weather delays and fog over the English Midlands meant that the Regensburg raid, led by Colonel Curtis LeMay, departed well before the Schweinfurt raid which ensured that German fighters would have time to rearm and refuel to attack both raids as they crossed the Dutch coast. Also, the Regensburg bomber formation was so large that the escorting P-47s couldn’t cover all of the bombers. LeMay’s formation also had a weak spot in the rear where only two groups formed a defensive box, instead of the usual three. German tactics hitherto had been to take the formations head on to maximize time among the bombers, but the weak spot was too good to pass up, especially with the inadequate escort concentrated forward. By the time LeMay bombed Regensburg and turned south across the Alps (which worked perfectly: the Germans were completely surprised and few fighters bothered the Americans on the way to North Africa), the Regensburg Raid lost 24 bombers of the 146 that started out that morning.

The Schweinfurt Raid fared worse.

The German fighters were rearmed and refueled and prepared for the second strike. After the morning’s melee, additional RAF fighters were tasked to escort close to the coast, while the longer ranged P-47s would take over in Belgium. But again the formation was too large, and although the defensive boxes were solid (because of prior rehearsals of large formations with the veteran bomber crews of the groups that had been in England for ten months at that point), the Germans just took them head on, as usual. Even worse, the P-47s arrived late and barely had time to engage the marauding Germans before they had to break off and return home. By the time the Schweinfurt Raid reached its target 22 bombers were shot down, mostly from the lead wing. When the bombers did unload on the Schweinfurt factories, only the lead wings’ were accurate; the smoke from their explosions obscured the target factories. Even Norden bombsights couldn’t see through smoke. The return leg saw German fighters focusing on the damaged bombers, forcing them out of formation for an easy kill. By the end of the raid, 37 bombers of the original 230 “maximum effort” were shot down.

German armaments minister Albert Speer reported to Hitler that ball bearing production suffered an immediate 34% loss in production and Me-109 production slowed for several months. However, extensive stockpiles of both covered the gap, and because there was no immediate follow up production returned to normal within weeks. The Americans claimed over 300 German fighters shot down but German records show just 27. The Eighth Air Force lost 60 B-17 bombers and 5 escorting fighters, and more than 100 bombers damaged, 55 so bad that they would never fly again and were scrapped for spare parts. At that rate of loss, it was statistically impossible for bomber crews to survive 15 missions much less than the 25 they needed to rotate back to the United States.

Douhet’s, and his American acolytes’ vision of unescorted deep penetration raids by heavy bombers was shattered. But as Winston noted, the Americans had to try again, just to be sure. Eventually, they would do the right thing and wait for a long range fighter escort to make that vision a reality.

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