Chapter 18: Rouen–Sotteville, No. 1, 17 August 1942
The Eighth Air Force flew its first mission in an atmosphere charged with curiosity, impatience, and skepticism. American air planners held the tactical feasibility of daylight strategic bombardment as a fundamental hypothesis, and on it they had based their entire plan for an air offensive against Germany; but it had yet to be demonstrated under combat conditions in the European theater. The hypothesis had yet to be proved not only to sympathetic observers in the AAF but to those, especially in Great Britain, who had no reason to believe that precision bombing by daylight could add significantly to the bombardment program, and who, on the basis of certain early and unfortunate experiments with the Flying Fortress, were inclined to doubt the virtues of the American plan and the capacity of the American equipment. Not unnaturally, then, the AAF was impatient to put its ideas and its planes to the test, and British observers awaited that same moment, their interest tinged with politely expressed skepticism.
Preparation for Combat
Two things in particular contributed to the impatience of the Eighth Air Force commanders. In the first place, their units were slow in arriving. As a result of delays probably inevitable in that stage of mobilization in the United States, it was not until 27 July that a single heavy bombardment group became available with air and ground echelons.1 In the second place, the new units were found to need more training in the theater than had originally been planned. Some such training had been considered necessary in order to acquaint pilots and crews with British control methods, the topography
of the British Isles and adjacent areas, and the vagaries of the Weather over the Channel and the North Sea. Some had hoped that this familiarization process might be completed in a couple of weeks. As it happened, however, crews arrived in the United Kingdom with inadequate experience in almost all essential skills. Their training had consequently to be completed in the theater at the expense of an extra two weeks’ delay.2
The 97th Bombardment Group under Lt. Col. Cornelius W. Cousland, the first of the heavy bomber units to arrive in the United Kingdom, had focused on it the attention and hopes of all those most concerned with the projected day bomber offensive. Regretfully, General Spaatz had decided to send it to the theater as soon as it was organized and equipped and sufficiently trained to negotiate the ferry route. The advisability of getting its crews into the United Kingdom outweighed the desirability of more thorough training before departure.3 But this meant that crews arrived with little or no experience in high-altitude flying. Pilots and co-pilots had received little instruction in flying formations at any altitude, to say nothing of maintaining tight formations at the extreme altitudes planned for day bomber missions. Many of the radio operators could neither send nor receive the Morse code. Worse yet, the gunners proved to be almost completely unfamiliar with their equipment. Many of them had had little or no opportunity to shoot at aerial targets, and several had never operated a turret in the air. This deficiency was especially disturbing to the Eighth Air Force experts because they felt sure that the ability of the heavy bombers to destroy enemy targets by daylight without prohibitive loss would depend in large part on their ability to defend themselves against enemy fighters.4
Warned in advance of this state of affairs, General Eaker’s VIII Bomber Command headquarters had taken steps to set up a coordinated training program covering all aspects of bomber operations, but concentrating especially on formation flying, bombing, and gunnery. In order to prepare for intensive gunnery training, it had procured gunnery range facilities, expert liaison officers, and a few tow-target planes from the British and had sent one officer to study British methods of gunnery instruction. These preparations made it possible to start work on the tactical units as soon as they arrived. But the deficiency in gunnery was not a thing that could be overcome
in a day, and results of practice against aerial targets continued to be disappointing.5
Similar difficulties attended the introduction of American fighter units into the United Kingdom. The 31st Fighter Group, commanded by Maj. J. R. Hawkins, began training at Atcham on 26 June. Inspection by British and American authorities revealed at that time deficiencies in gunnery, formation flying, navigation, combat tactics, and, in some cases, instrument flying. The pilots had also to be trained in British operating procedures, in flying at the maximum cruising speeds necessary for operations over enemy territory, and in the difficult task of assembling and navigating large formations at extremely low altitudes – a necessary procedure in avoiding detection by enemy radar. In addition to these training problems, the new unit was handicapped by a radical change of equipment. Initially trained on P-39’s, it was required to convert to Spitfires, a process which was not completed without a number of accidents. In order to facilitate conversion to the British equipment, six of the group’s ranking pilots were detached for operational experience with a Canadian squadron.6
Despite unfavorable weather and congested facilities, the 31st Group received intensive training. RAF Bomber Command lent its assistance and, as training progressed, AAF element, flight, and squadron commanders were attached temporarily to British units, with which they flew a few fighter sweeps as wingmen. By mid-August the group was fully operational and had been transferred to the south of England in preparation for initial operations under RAF control. Each of the three squadrons was attached for this purpose to separate wings of RAF No. 11 Group until they had gained enough combat experience to be able to fly as a group. Although other American fighter units were beginning to arrive in the theater, the 31st remained at this time the only one on fully operational status. There were, of course, three RAF squadrons – the famous Eagle squadrons – composed of American volunteer pilots. These flyers were transferred to the AAF in September 1942, forming the 4th Fighter Group.7
Intensive as the training of the new fighter units had been, it was clear by the middle of August that they were as yet neither numerous enough nor sufficiently seasoned to provide the cover necessary for the first bomber missions. Fighter escort, on a relatively large scale, was considered essential to the success of the day bomber campaign, and it was planned to use extensive cover on the initial missions and
until it might be demonstrated that the bombers could look after themselves in combat with enemy fighters. Policy concerning the provision and control of fighter escort had not yet been determined, but it was apparent that RAF units would have to do the lion’s share of the work for some time to come.8
The Mission of 4 July 1942
Curiously enough, the first American unit to achieve operational status and to engage in combat was neither a heavy bomber nor a fighter outfit but a squadron of light bombers, the only one of its kind among the U.S. forces then in the United Kingdom. The 15th Bombardment Squadron (Separate), commanded by Maj. J. L. Griffith, had arrived in the theater in May 1942 and immediately had been set to training on American-built Bostons belonging to RAF No. 226 Squadron. The British contributed even more to the training of this than to the other American units. Through lectures and direct instruction, they gave the AAF pilots the benefit of their long experience in conducting light bomber missions. Gunners were sent to the RAF gunnery flight for courses in gunnery and combat technique, and the ground crews were sent to RAF stations to observe maintenance methods. By the latter part of June, a number of crews had progressed far enough, especially in pilotage, to be considered combat worthy.9
It was consequently decided to put a few of the crews into combat at the earliest opportunity. Doubtless in order to initiate the American flyers into combat at the most appropriate moment, the date of the first mission was tentatively set for the Fourth of July. On the 2nd, General Eaker accompanied General Eisenhower to Swanton Morley, where the 15th Squadron was training with an RAF group, personally to consult the pilots who were to take this first dramatic step. As a result of the eagerness of the crews and the confidence in the ability of the American pilots expressed by the RAF commander under whose eye they had trained, it was decided then that six crews of the 15th Squadron would on 4 July join six crews of the RAF in a daylight attack at minimum altitude against four airdromes in Holland.10
Tactically speaking, the mission was a failure, at least as far as the American crews were concerned. It was carried out as planned, but only two of the six planes flown by the Eighth Air Force crew’s dropped their bombs over their assigned targets. The rest of the pilots
failed to recognize their objectives in time to attack or else ran into such stiff opposition that they could not bomb. Two planes were shot down by flak and one was badly damaged. The British lost one plane, evidently as a result of flak damage plus the attentions of the only enemy fighter to make effective interception that day. But the American losses did not stem entirely from the inexperience of freshmen crews, although one of the pilots shot down was reported to have taken insufficient evasive action in the flak area. The fact was that for some reason the mission ran into very heavy opposition from antiaircraft batteries, especially at the two northern airdromes of De Kooy and Haamstede. It even seemed to the surviving crews that the enemy gunners must have been warned in advance by ships in the Channel which had sighted the Bostons on their trip toward the Dutch coast. The RAF leader of the element attacking De Kooy reported the worst flak in his experience, and over-all losses in this one mission were declared to have been equal to the total losses of No. 226 Squadron in similar operations for the preceding five and one-half months.11
During the mission, however, one incident occurred which proved heartening to the American force and which did much to offset the otherwise discouraging results. Capt. Charles C. Kegelman, flying with the element detailed to bomb De Kooy airdrome, had his right propeller shot away by flak while in the vicinity of the target. The ground fire also damaged his right wing and started a fire in his right engine. Kegelman’s plane lost altitude and actually struck the ground, but he was able to keep it in the air after it bounced back up. Then, as he was preparing to leave the scene as fast as his one good engine would take him, he saw the gunners of a flak tower swinging their guns on him. Turning slightly, he flew directly at the tower and opened fire with the nose guns at close range. Fire from the tower ceased. He then proceeded to fly home at water level. For this exploit, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.12
The mission of 4 July had not been an ideal operation with which to inaugurate the American air offensive from the United Kingdom. Not only was it a small raid and one flown in borrowed planes, but it was tactically of little significance since the future of the bomber campaign depended on the development of high-altitude heavy bombardment techniques rather than those of low-level attack by fast, light planes. Nevertheless, the mission marked a beginning of a sort and did much to stimulate morale among the American flyers. At
least the enemy had been engaged and blows exchanged, and it did not matter a great deal that the enemy had distinctly the better of the trade.
On 12 July 1942 the 15th Squadron executed another six-plane attack, this time on the Abbeville-Drucat airdrome. Out of well founded respect for German flak defenses, this second daylight mission was carried out at medium altitude (8,500 feet) rather than at low level. All aircraft returned without casualties, although two of them suffered some flak damage. During the next few weeks the unit received its own planes, A-20’s, and was engaged mainly in putting the new equipment into operational shape.13
The Heavy Bombers Complete Their Training
Meanwhile, during the first two weeks of August, the heavy bomber crews of the 97th Group, now under Col. Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., were rapidly overcoming the handicaps under which they had begun their training. The training program progressed so well that by the 15th of that month twenty-four crews were declared available for daylight bombing missions.14 In addition to an improved grasp of such essentials as gunnery, bombing, navigation, and high altitude formation flying, these crews were learning their trade in other important respects – how to use oxygen as an aid rather than as something to be feared, how to guard against frostbite in the bitter cold at extreme altitudes, how to evade enemy fighters by skidding, corkscrewing, undulating, and turning into attacks, and how to avoid flak by changes in direction and altitude. Practice missions were conducted in cooperation with RAF Fighter Command for the purpose of giving the bomber pilots experience in making exact rendezvous with their fighter escort. These practice operations also revealed a great deal about the performance of the B-17 and its equipment under conditions more nearly like those to be expected in combat over northwestern Europe than any yet encountered. Barring some trouble with the gun mechanism at very high altitudes (the guns tended to become stiff and heavy to operate in extremely low temperatures, and sometimes failed to fire) and except for the fact that the B-17E lacked the firepower straight ahead that characterized its other fields of fire, the Fortress appeared combat-worthy.15
Large question marks remained, of course, and were not likely to be removed until the bombers were tested in actual combat. Not until
then, for example, could it be determined whether the additional armament and armor added to the B-17 in order to protect it from fighter attack would, by slowing it down, render it correspondingly vulnerable to antiaircraft fire. This problem was only one of many at this early date facing the exponents of daylight bombing. In each, a delicate balance had to be sought between the requirements of defense against flak, defense against fighters, and accuracy of bombing. High-altitude flying was believed essential for purposes of avoiding flak, yet it was agreed that the higher the altitude the lower would be the degree of accuracy possible in bombing. Under ideal conditions, bombing by individual planes or by elements appeared to offer the best chances of accuracy, yet the mutual fire support provided by a relatively large group of bombers would aid greatly in defending the bombers from fighter attack. These and other dilemmas, their outlines as yet only dimly discernible, were to govern the tactical development of the American bomber force.16 And in each case the nature of the compromise adopted could be determined only on the basis of experience gained in combat.
On the night of 9 August, a wave of excitement swept the 97th Group. An order had been received alerting the crews for a combat mission. Ammunition was loaded and preparations made for the big event. But the weather refused to cooperate, and the mission was canceled. Weather conditions – which were to provide one of the gravest obstacles to daylight precision bombing – continued unfavorable for the next week. Finally, on the night of 16 August, an alert was again called. This time the weather held.17
Rouen-Sotteville No. 1, 17 August 1942
The mission for the 17th was to be small, involving in all only eighteen bombers. Twelve were to attack the marshalling yard at Rouen, flying under heavy fighter cover provided by RAF Spitfire squadrons, while the remainder flew a diversionary sweep along the coast. But, small as it was, this mission commanded the attention of both American and British airmen as few larger undertakings had done. General Spaatz was at Grafton Underwood to watch the Fortresses take off, and with him were a number of staff officers from both the Eighth Air Force and the RAF. With him also were some thirty members of the U.S. and British press. Everyone shared in the excitement and tension of the moment. The crews of the 97th, their
morale having worn thin from repeated “dry runs,” stretches of bad weather, and a frustrated desire to have at the enemy, needed badly the stimulus that a successful mission would give them. Generals and staff officers, conscious of public impatience at home for action in the European theater and aware especially of the long-range strategic planning that hinged on the successful initiation of daylight bombardment, watched with intense interest not unmixed with concern. As for the press, its representatives accurately sensed a good story in the making.18
At 1539 hours the twelve attacking planes were in the air, with General Eaker riding in the Yankee Doodle, lead bomber of the second flight of six. For over three hours privates and generals waited at the base for the return of the Fortresses, sharing alike the common suspense. Shortly before 1900 hours, watchers on the control tower spotted a cluster of specks to the west of the airdrome-twelve of them. At exactly 1900 the first B-17 settled down on the runway, followed by the others. Pilots and mechanics swarmed out to meet the incoming crews like, as one observer put it, the crowds at a football rally. Soon the word passed around: all bombs dropped on or close to the target, no battle casualties, insignificant flak damage – in general, a successful mission.19
This first combat mission flown by the Fortresses of VIII Bomber Command could not have been more fortunately timed. Considerable “polite doubt” had been expressed in British circles during the summer of 1942 regarding the potentialities of the American bombers, and on 16 August, Peter Masefield, air correspondent to the Sunday Times gave voice to an opinion which left little doubt and which bristled with “plain speaking.”20 He spoke of British satisfaction at the prospect of American aid in the bombing of Germany. But he also made it perfectly plain that he considered the B-17 and B-24 quite unsuited to the job of bombing over heavily defended enemy territory: “American heavy bombers – the latest Fortresses and Liberators – are fine flying machines, but not suited for bombing in Europe. Their bombs and bomb-loads are small, their armour and armament are not up to the standard now found necessary and their speeds are low.” It was not simply that the American bombers could not perform the day bombing mission for which they were being prepared. They were likewise unsuited to night operations over Germany, and, in spite of the general desire in the British Isles to see these aircraft take part in
the night offensive, it would be unfair to the American flyers to send them into a type of action for which, according to British experience, they were not equipped. Masefield found the answer to this seemingly insoluble problem of using bombers that were suited neither to day nor to night operations by advocating that they be sent on patrol missions over the Atlantic submarine and shipping lanes.
The appearance of this article by one who presumably reflected opinion in at least some official British quarters gave rise to a certain amount of concern in AAF Headquarters. The following day General Arnold, on receiving the London dispatch which quoted the Masefield article, wired General Spaatz for a statement of the facts in the case as he saw them.21 General Spaatz was happily spared from having to resort to tedious and at best none too convincing apologetics, for, as a result of the mission against Rouen on 17 August, he was able for the first time to offer a combat report, and a reasonably good one at that.
The attack on Rouen had, he wired on 18 August, far exceeded in accuracy any previous high-altitude bombing in the European theater by German or Allied aircraft. Moreover, it was his understanding that the results justified “our belief” in the feasibility of daylight bombing. As for the B-17, it was suitable in speed, armament, armor, and bomb load for the task at hand. He would not, he asserted, exchange it for any British bomber in production.22
The target for this first heavy bombing raid was the Sotteville marshalling yard, one of the largest and most active in northern France. Concentrations of more than 2,000 freight cars had been photographed there. It possessed for the enemy a twofold importance: it was a focal point for traffic to and from the Channel ports and the west of France, and it comprised extensive repair installations, including a large locomotive depot and the Buddicum rolling stock repair shops. The specific aiming points were the locomotive workshops and the Buddicum shops.23
The twelve B-17E aircraft dispatched to the target enjoyed strong support from RAF fighters. Four RAF squadrons of Spitfire IX’s provided close cover for the attacking planes, flying with them to the target area. Five RAF squadrons of Spitfire V’s gave withdrawal support. Visibility was excellent and all twelve planes attacked the target, dropping a total of 36,900 pounds of general-purpose bombs from a height of 23,000 feet. Three of the bombers had been loaded
with 1,100-lb. bombs intended for the locomotive workshop; the rest carried 600-lb. missiles earmarked for the Buddicum shops.24
The bombing was fairly accurate for a first effort. Approximately half of the bombs fell in the general target area. One of the aiming points was hit, and several bombs burst within a radius of 1,500 feet. Those intended for the other aiming point fell mostly about 2,000 feet to the south.25 Fortunately, the yard and adjacent facilities presented a large target, so that even technically inaccurate bombing might still be effective. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly good bombing. And it was effective enough, considering the small size of the attacking force. Direct hits were scored on two large transshipment sheds in the center of the marshalling yard, and about ten of the twenty-four tracks on the sidings were damaged. A quantity of rolling stock was destroyed, damaged, or derailed. As it happened, activity in the yard was not at its peak when the attack occurred, or destruction of rolling stock might have been much greater. Damage to the tracks no doubt interfered with the flow of traffic, but a sufficient number remained undamaged to deal efficiently with the relatively low-pressure traffic then moving through the yard. The bottlenecks at each end of the sidings were not damaged. The locomotive workshop received one direct hit which probably slowed up the working of locomotives and other rolling stock in and out of the building quite apart from the constructional damage resulting from blast.26 Despite the inconvenience which this attack undoubtedly caused the enemy, it was clear that a much larger force would be required to do lasting damage to a target of this sort.27 But for the time being, the extent of the damage inflicted was less important than the relative accuracy of the bombing.
Important also was the fact that the bombers, both of the attacking and the diversionary force, came through with no losses and with a minimum of damage. Enemy opposition had been slight. Antiaircraft fire was observed at two places, but only two planes sustained damage, and that slight. Fighter opposition was negligible. Three Me-109’s attacked the formation, and several others put in a silent appearance. Of those attacking, one was claimed as damaged by fire from the B-17’s. The bomber crews received no injury at all from enemy action, the only casualties having occurred when, on the way home, one plane hit a pigeon and the shattered glass from the nose of the bomber slightly injured the bombardier and navigator.28
General Eaker made some interesting personal observations on the problems uncovered by this initial combat test.29 The crews were enthusiastic and alert, but nonchalant to the point of being blasé. possibly it had all been too easy, but confidence was a good fault in a bomber crew. Crew drills, especially in the handling of the oxygen equipment, appeared to be indicated, and air discipline needed improvement. A better, tighter defensive formation would offer more protection against enemy fighters – not that enemy action had been a serious factor in this instance. The critical items in missions of this sort General Eaker considered to be the split-second timing for rendezvous with the fighter escort (the fighters in this case had been a few minutes late), navigation to the target (there would not always be weather so fine that the target could be seen for ten miles), training of bombardiers (the Sotteville yard was, after all, considerably larger than the proverbial pickle barrel), pilotage of such a high order that a tight yet maneuverable formation might be flown with the shortest possible level run on the target (anything less would simply court disaster from flak and fighter opposition, both of which might be expected to improve materially), and, finally, accurate gunnery.
On the matter of escort, General Eaker was unwilling to say that the B-17 could make deep penetrations into German-held territory without cover, although it was apparent from the Rouen mission that German fighters would approach the bombers gingerly.30 General Spaatz shared Eaker’s caution on this point. In the cable of 18 August, to which reference has been made above, Spaatz asserted that American bombers would not be sent indiscriminately into Germany and that depth of penetration would increase only as experience dictated. Meanwhile, pending determined enemy fighter attacks, which would undoubtedly soon materialize, no definite conclusions could be reached regarding the feasibility of bomber attacks unsupported by fighters.31
On the day after this first mission executed by his bombers, General Eaker received the following message from Air Marshal Sir Arthur T. Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, RAF Bomber Command: “Congratulations from all ranks of Bomber Command on the highly successful completion of the first all American raid by the big fellows on German occupied territory in Europe. Yankee Doodle certainly went to town and can stick yet another well-deserved feather in his cap.”32
When the small force of B-17’s from VIII Bomber Command took to the air on 17 August 1942, they carried with them much more than a bomb load of trouble for the enemy. They carried with them a long heritage of debate and controversy. And they began an experiment in strategic bombardment which was destined to answer a number of questions vitally affecting the entire course of the war in Europe. In the summer of 1942, Allied plans, both strategic and logistical, lay in a state of extreme uncertainty. Certain major decisions had been made, but only tentatively, and the over-all plan of the war remained the subject of open discussion at the highest level.33
Although basic Allied war plans had indicated Germany as global enemy No. 1, it was still an open question to what extent U.S. heavy bombardment should be committed to operations in the European theater at the expense of the Pacific. To those responsible for the war against Japan, especially the U.S. Navy, it seemed by no means clear that the war against Germany should receive priority in air equipment, if indeed it should receive priority at all. And in July 1942 it had been decided that American commitments to BOLERO should be readjusted in the interests of offensive operation in the Pacific.34 A debate ensued as to the precise nature and extent of this planned diversion, a debate which continued through the late summer and early fall of that year, and which turned in large part on the ability of the American heavy bombers to do a job in Europe of sufficient strategic value to justify the degree of priority required for a major air offensive in that theater. In fact, it was not until the Casablanca conference in January 1943 that the full-scale bomber offensive envisaged by American and British air strategists was given an unassailable place in Allied strategy. Meanwhile, it was up to the bomber units of the Eighth Air Force to demonstrate that they could bomb the enemy in broad daylight heavily enough and accurately enough and with a sufficiently low rate of loss to make the American part of the projected offensive-the bombing of selected installations by day a practicable reality.
Then there was the question of priority in production, which in August 1942 was becoming the object of a prolonged and crucial controversy among American planners. A strategic bomber offensive
from the United Kingdom, aimed at Germany’s war potential, had been envisaged in the early war plans as a prerequisite to the invasion of Europe and the ultimate defeat of Germany. The USAAF had contended consistently that given adequate forces they could, in cooperation with the RAF, carry out such an offensive and do it, moreover, so effectively that an assault on Festung Europa could be accomplished with the least possible loss in men and ground matériel.35 But it was clear that to do so the AAF would need aircraft in unprecedented numbers. This meant, in effect, a top – if not an overriding – priority for the air program in American war production.36 But the higher authorities, faced with the problem of adapting limitless demands to resources that were strictly limited, had of necessity to allot priorities carefully and in accordance with very long-term strategic plans. If the air program was to be implemented in full, clearly the programs of the Ground Forces and the Navy could not be. And in the summer of 1942 it was anything but a foregone conclusion that the weapons of air power should be given precedence over those items – tanks and battleships, for example – which carried with them the reassuring weight of military tradition. Here again it was up to the exponents of air power to demonstrate the feasibility of strategic bombardment.
Thus, both strategic and logistical planning, insofar as they involved air power, depended to a great, possibly even to a decisive, degree on the ability of the Allied air forces to prove that they could bomb Germany successfully. With reference to the USAAF, in particular, since it had become committed to a policy of bombing precision targets in daylight from high altitudes, long-range planning depended on the ability of the Eighth Air Force to show that it could do the job and do it economically enough to make it a practicable operation of war. So far, the confidence of American and British airmen in the soundness of their strategic and tactical doctrines arose out of deep faith in the potentialities of air power rather than from an adequate store of experience. The German effort to cripple Britain in 1940–41 had demonstrated what ought not to be done rather than what might reasonably be expected from strategic bombardment. On the other hand, the subsequent bombing of Germany by the RAF had as yet been conducted on a scale too limited and in a manner too specialized to answer conclusively the opponents of air power. As for
the USAAF, its doctrine of daylight bombardment remained entirely an article of faith as far as any experience in combat under European conditions was concerned.
So it was that on 17 August 1942 all eyes were fixed on a bombardment mission which in the later context of strategic bombing would have appeared insignificant indeed. The experiment begun on that day culminated during the following year in the Combined Bomber Offensive, a campaign which could only have been attempted after all major doubts regarding the use of heavy bombardment forces had for practical purposes been removed.
[Transcriber note: Items missing from this transcription, and to be added:–
– Explanatory Notes
– Approximate Normal Ranges in statue miles US Aircraft--Spring, 1942