The Truth About Our Bombers

For fighting today's wars on all fronts American heavies more than hold their own; our medium and light bombers are without equal.

Recent press reports from England making sweeping statements that American bombers are inferior to Britain's do not stand up under analysis. There is no question that Britain's new heavy bombers are good, for they are. But there can be no question that America's bombers are also good, if not better. Any comparison of bombers must consider one vital fact: that this war is being fought all over the world, and it can be won only by fighting on fronts all over the world — not just over Germany from English bases. And any comparison of bombers must recognize that there is more than one category of bombers necessary to win the war.

Consider first then, the long range four-engine bombers around which most of the recent controversy has centered. America has two: the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Britain's line-up now includes the Handley Page Halifax, the Short Stirling and the newest, the Avro Lancaster.

What, then, are the charges against the American craft? They appear to be that the B-17 and the B-24 have neither the speed, range, armor, armament or bomb capacity to make them useful for much more than submarine patrol.

A comparison of the B-17 and the Lancaster, which the British hail as their best; and a review of the record shows that American planes can more than hold their own. It should be remembered that the B-24 — in which Prime Minister Churchill recently flew with an American pilot to Russia and Egypt — is generally comparable in performance to the B-17.

First, there is the matter of speed. Official figures released by the British Air Ministry credit the Lancaster with a maximum speed approximating (note that it does not say exceeding) 300 mph. Unfortunately, the Army Air Forces have released no performance figures on the B-17E, the Flying Fortress now operating in England. It is, therefore, necessary to go back to its prototype, the B-299T. This plane, four models removed from the present craft, had a top speed of 325 mph. Since the B-17E has been developed through four models and is equipped with more powerful engines its speed can, to say the least, he safely put above that of the original job, giving it at the very minimum a 25-mph edge over the Lancaster.

Next, take the matter of range. Britain's Air Ministry has released no figures on the Lancaster; we have only press reports of approximately 3,000 miles. Assuming that its four Rolls Royce Merlin XX engines, which develop 1,260 hp at 12,250 ft, each consume 50 gals per hour (a conservative figure), the ship would have a cruising radius of 10 hr. Even if it cruised at 300 mph (which it obviously doesn't, since maximum speed only approximates that figure) the ship would then have a range of 3,000 mi. An operational range of no more than 2,500 mi is probably a safer figure, say 150 mi farther each way than that traveled by a strong force on the night of Aug 28-29, when British bombers raided Nuremberg, a distance of some 1,100 mi each way.

Again there are no official figures available on the range of the B-17E and again it is necessary to go back to the prototype, which had a range of more than 3,000 mi. Obviously, since planes, engines and fuels have been improved, the B-17E has a range well over 3,000 mi.

In the matter of armament — one of the most frequent criticisms of our bombers — American planes more than measure up. The Lancaster's firepower consists of ten 0.303-in Browning machine guns; distributed in the nose, top and bottom of the fuselage and in the tail.

Officially released photographs of the B-17E show at least the following guns: one in the nose; two on top of the fuselage; one on each side of the fuselage (waist guns); two in the bottom turret and two in the tail, a total of. nine guns. Since American practice has for some time called for .50-in calibre guns — nearly two-thirds again as large as those on the Lancaster — actual firepower is therefore superior in the B-17. Its .50-in-caliber machine guns can throw more shells farther and in a flatter trajectory than the Lancaster's guns can.

Little is known of the armor of either the Lancaster or the B-17. Here we have only the record, to be discussed later, which gives every evidence that the American planes are better than, or at least as good as, any in the world.

As to bomb carrying capacity, the Lancaster has a decided edge. The total fully-loaded weight of the Lancaster is given as approximately 60,000 lbs. A maximum bomb load of approximately 8 tons can be lifted. Thus, the Lancaster has a maximum bomb load of 8 tons against approximately 4 tons for the B-17.

Thus, in but one of four qualities does the Lancaster appear to have an edge on the Flying Fortress. It is no faster— quite probably not as fast; it has no more range — quite probably not as much; its firepower is not as great; its armor appears to be no better; but it can carry a heavier bomb load.

In this connection, one vital point should be kept in mind, however. The Lancaster has been developed for one purpose: mass night raids over Germany. The Flying Fortress, on the other hand, has been developed to meet vastly different and varying conditions — just such conditions as today's war calls for: fighting on fronts all over the world from all types of fields, putting the bombs exactly where they are needed.

In precision bombing, for which our planes are designed, American craft have no equal. One vital feature of this superiority, aside from the unequaled bombsights, is the exceptional stability of the planes at extremely high altitudes, a stability made possible by development of the turbosupercharger. Germany undoubtedly has an effective supercharger, but to date America appears to have a decided edge, one which will be increasingly effective with continued expansion of its Air Forces. This stability for bombing runs cannot be underestimated, for American planes have been designed and built on the theory that it is better to plant 4 tons of bombs where they will hurt the enemy the most than to drop greater loads over a wide area with, perhaps, less than 4 tons hitting the target.

On this point, an examination of the record indicates that this widely derided theory is destined to play an increasingly important role in this war.

Mr Peter Masefield has been quoted as writing in the Sunday Times of London that "it would be a tragedy for young American lives to be squandered through assigning either Liberators or Flying Fortresses to raids into the Reich night or day."

That was the day before Brig Gen Ira C Eaker, chief of the US Bomber Command in England, led 18 Flying Fortresses on a daylight attack on Rouen, Dunkerque and Cherbourg; hitting the targets. All 18 planes returned to their bases.

Two days later 23 B-17s made a daylight attack on German airports at Abbeville while Commandos were landing at Dieppe. All 23 returned to their bases.

The following day 12 B-17s, returning from a mission over the North Sea, were attacked by between 20 and 25 Focke-Wulf 190s, the latest and "hottest" fighter plane in Hitler's Luftwaffe. The score: three Focke-Wulfs definitely shot down, nine probably destroyed. All twelve of the B-17s returned to their bases.

On Aug. 24, three days later, German shipyards at Le Trait, France, were bombed during daylight by Fortresses, all of which returned to their bases.

Again, three days later, Fortresses made a daylight foray against German shipping at Rotterdam, putting the bombs where they did the most possible damage. All the Fortresses return to their bases.

The next day — again during daylight hours — B-17s bombed an aircraft factory at Meaulte, near Albert, France. Again, all the American planes returned to their bases.

The following day a force of B-17s bombed a German-held airport at Wevelghem, Belgium. All the Fortresses returned to their bases.

Eight daylight, precision bombing raids without the loss of a single plane. In fact it was not until Sept 7 that any Fortresses were lost; on that day two failed to return. The record of these so-called "inferior" planes making daylight raids contrasts sharply with consistent 5 to 10 percent losses of other Allied bombers during large-scale night raids. It contrasts even more sharply with the record on which the Lancasters made their debut and, it would appear from press reports, much of their reputation: that against Augsburg when seven out of twelve did not get back to their bases.

This record of American bombers, which is only the beginning, has been built in only one theater of operations. But any comparison of bombers must consider one vital fact: that this war is being fought all over the world.

Examine, then, the record in the Pacific. There the Japs labeled the Fortress a "four-engine pursuit ship." Aside from the cold fact that more of the vaunted Zeros have been shot down by Fortresses than Fortresses by Zeros, American planes won the Battle for Midway.

There, it will be remembered, two strong Jap forces were converging. One was a sea and air attack force, the other a land attack force. American bombers, American torpedo planes, American dive bombers and American carrier fighters kept those two forces from converging; kept them even from coming within range of American surface vessels. Not the least of the American striking power in that battle was contributed by four-engine bombers. And in that battle, it should be remembered, nothing but precision bombing was of value. There the targets were small, they were moving; they were not cities and sprawling industrial plants rooted in one place.

From the record it would appear that American heavies are doing all right in competition with the best in England. But any comparison of bombers must recognize that there is more than one category necessary to win this war. which brings us to the medium bomber.

First to come to mind, of course, is the American built Lockheed Hudson. Many of these have gone to Britain where they have done practically every type of work — and done it well — that anyone could ask of a plane. The British themselves have called the Hudson the "outstanding aeronautical achievement of this war."

Not to be overlooked, however, are the North American B-25, which the British call the Mitchell, and the Martin B-26., known in England as the Marauder. The Japs know both types very well; the B-25s which Brig Gen James Doolittle showed them over Tokio on his trip from Shangri-La and the B-26s which appeared off Midway as torpedo carrying planes.

The most significant fact about American superiority in medium bombers is this: England is reported discontinuing production of her own line of twin-engine bombers with no new ones "in the works." There are no reports, however, of the American-built B-25s and B-26s now in service being given up and production of them is being increased presumably to supply all the United Nations.

As to light attack bombers perhaps nothing more than this need be said: the British use the Douglas A-20, which they call the Boston, as a night fighter as well as a short range bomber.

No fair-minded American will deny that the British heavy bombers are good. For large-scale night area raids on Germany the Halifax, the Short Stirling and the Lancaster are undoubtedly without peers. But this war requires more than one type of bomber. Therefore, no American need. believe that our equipment is inferior. For long-range precision daylight bombing — which is as necessary as mass night raiding — our Boeing Flying Fortresses and Consolidated Liberators are more than holding their own. For medium and light bombers — both categories as vital as the heavies — the Lockheed Hudsons, the North American B-25s, the Martin B-26s and the Douglas A-20s have no equal in any man's air force.

Sweeping statements that American bombers are inferior should be taken with more than one grain of salt.

This article was originally published in the October, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 10, pp 96-97, 328-329.
The original article includes photos of B-17, B-24, Hudson, B-25, B-26, A-20, Lancaster, and General Eaker.
A PDF of this article [ PDF, 10.2 MiB ] has been prepared.