Aviation History

Remembering the Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, USAAF’s most disastrous air battle to date.

Although the raid caused heavy damage at both factories, 60 of the 376 bombers—about 1 in 6 of those dispatched—were shot down and more than 600 Airmen were killed, missing, or captured.

In the summer of 1943, the US began building up its heavy bomber forces in Europe at a more rapid rate, and greater numbers of B-17s and B-24s were dispatched against targets inside Germany. However, whenever they flew beyond the range of their P-47 escort, however, they risked being mauled by Luftwaffe fighters.

On Aug. 17, the targets were Schweinfurt (against the ball-bearing plants) and Regensburg (against the Messerschmitt fighter factory), deep inside Germany.

To split the German defense, these raids were supposed to occur simultaneously, with the Regensburg force landing at airfields in North Africa. Unfortunately, fog delayed the Schweinfurt force’s takeoff, but the Regensburg force left on time.

B-17 going down after severe flak damage. 

As a result, enemy fighters hit the first force, landed, rearmed, refueled, and then engaged the delayed second force. Without escort for much of the mission, the bombers faced wave after wave of Luftwaffe fighters alone.

Although the raid caused heavy damage at both factories, 60 of the 376 bombers—about 1 in 6 of those dispatched—were shot down and more than 600 Airmen were killed, missing, or captured.

USAAF’s most disastrous air battle to date.

Boeing B-17F formation over Schweinfurt, Germany, on Aug. 17, 1943.

On Sep. 6, the target was Stuttgart; 45 of the 262 attacking bombers were lost. Though P-47s had been equipped with jettisonable belly fuel tanks, which somewhat extended their range, they still were unable to provide escort protection much beyond the western border of Germany.

The second Schweinfurt raid, also called Black Thursday, took place on Oct. 14, 1943 and only repeated the carnage.

Early assumptions were wrong—unescorted heavy bombers could not protect themselves against enemy fighters alone. Unfortunately, USAAF fighters at the time did not have the range to accompany the bombers all the way on strikes deep into enemy territory.

B-17 Flying Fortress bombers flying through dense flak.

The real solution to this issue came in the form of the North American P-51B Mustang. The long-range P-51B in fact not only cut bomber losses but quickly gained air superiority over Europe and in many ways made D-Day possible.

According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, during 1943, only about 25% of Eighth Air Force bomber crewmen completed their 25-mission tours—the other 75% were killed, severely wounded, or captured. Despite knowing the poor odds of finishing their tours, bomber crews courageously pressed their attacks mission after mission.

The American campaign objective for the 1943 daylight bombing missions deep into Germany was to cripple the Luftwaffe fighter force in order to provide the air superiority vital for the invasion of France, Operation Overlord, to be successful. Eighth Air Force was unable to achieve this campaign objective because the Germans were able to fulfill their own objective of destroying so many Eight Air Force bombers that the Americans stopped their bombing campaign in mid-October 1943.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army Air Force and Rama via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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