In January, 1942, just one month after Pearl Harbor, a terse injunction by General H H Arnold, "Get men and planes into combat as soon as possible," started Lt General Ira Eaker and six aides across the ocean to set up a terrific bombardment which is only now reaching the heights. There were no precedents; General Eaker had to arrange for airfields, supplies, liaison with the RAF, and formulate plans for operation. In one month's time, haggard, worn down by lack of sleep, General Eaker submitted his plan to Major General Howard J Chancy, commander of the US Army Forces in the British Isles. The scope of the program to knock out Germany was tremendous. Included in the project were provisions for Fighter and Air Support Commands as well as Bomber Command.
From that time on, the Eighth Bomber Command directed its efforts toward one goal the destruction of military and industrial installations that would cripple the Axis and finally destroy her. General Eaker came to England convinced that high altitude precision bombing in the full light of day would deal the knockout blows from which Germany could not recover. Whether he and General Arnold were predetermined to use this method, or rather that more damage could be inflicted in a given length of time with the equipment then in production than by developing new equipment, is not definite. Some commentators point out that the Fortress and Liberator were originally designed for intercepting the enemy trying to reach America by sea. Whatever the original purpose may have been, these ships have dealt the enemy paralyzing blows, as many German fighter pilots could well testify.
Three months after General Eaker submitted plans to knock out a fierce enemy, the First contingent of troops, a light bombardment squadron, and HQ squadron, landed on English shores. Bomber Command was under way. General Eaker and his small staff (lately civilians) had surpassed expectations in setting up a Bomber Command in a short time.
Independence Day, 1942, held a double meaning as American crews crossed the Channel for the first time to deliver bomb loads on Dutch airfields. Six American. crews of a light bombardment squadron, together with six RAF crews in Bostons, made a minimum altitude attack. Two American aircraft were shot down by flak. Not a howling success, the first raid underscored what was already known. The Eighth Air Force was up against a tough, strong enemy.
As the July 4th mission was really a joint RAF-Eighth BC mission, the first official Bomber Command mission was the raid of August 17, 1942, on the Rouen marshaling yards. Twelve B-17s took off; twelve bombed the target; twelve returned to base. Less than a month before, the total number of heavy bombers in the Eighth BC was one. General Eaker lead the second formation of six planes in the Rouen raid. Daily forays on France continued, and at the end of '42, the Bomber Command heavies had been on twenty-six missions, had downed two hundred enemy aircraft, had lost forty-two bombers.
General Eaker's phenomenal organization in record time was merely a prelude to the obstacles that continually had to be solved on the spot by men with little or no previous experience. Meteorologists consider the European theater one of the most difficult in the world for predicting weather. Local variations and changes are more common, less predictable. Add to this the fact that weather reports from different sections of Europe and from ships at sea are not constantly available as they are in the US. Airfields in the US get hourly weather reports, and every six hours, a chart showing conditions all over the country. Fog, misty haze and overcast are more frequent.
Our greatest obstacles were pilots, crews, untinged by combat experience, unused to European flying weather, they were to be pitted against the Luftwaffe, accredited the world's top air force. Also, German flak defense was death to our planes. Peter Masefield, Air correspondent of the London Sunday Times, described the Eighth BC campaign a "gigantic military experiment" which proved to be "a success of the first magnitude."
Success can't be attributed to that old American belief that because we are Americans and had American planes our forces were bound to be the best. If General Eaker and his men had believed this, the Eighth Bomber Command would never have accomplished so great a task. Rather, they took the attitude that there was a stupendous amount to learn. After each mission, Intelligence officers listened to pilots' reports, applied the lessons learned the hard way. Increased fire power of the Fortress, the tight pyramid formations which enable our bombers to run the flak, hit deep into Germany, are applications of combat encounters. On recommendation of the command, the two .30-cal nose guns of the B-17E were changed to .50-cal. A nose mount developed by BC enlisted personnel was modified, made standard on all ships. Flying formations worked out on paper exposed attacking fighters to the maximum number of .50-cal guns.
Commanders of the Eighth Bomber Command and the RAF Bomber Command, have conferred almost daily since the Eighth BC set foot on English soil. On April 13, 1942, the two chieftains, General Eaker and Air Marshal Harris ate their birthday dinners together. Major General Fred Anderson, appointed head of the Bomber Command on July, 1943, continues the daily conference. As former commander of a Fortress Wing, Anderson bases future operations on plenty of rough and ready personal experience as well as reports from Intelligence officers.
This article was originally published in the February, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 1, pp 20-21, 68.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 8.5 MiB ] includes a dozen detail photos of, mostly named, B-17Fs and a B-24, along with a simplified organizational chart of the 8th Air Force.
The original was printed on 9½ by 12¾ inch paper. The pages in the PDF are reduced to print on letter-size paper.
Photos credited to USAAF, International, Signal Corps.