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The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress design emphasized high altitude flight, speed, and heavy defensive armament in order to survive enemy defenses. Advanced turbosupercharged engines allowed it to fly up to about 30,000 feet with a combat load, while powered turrets and flexible guns covered all areas around the aircraft.
The B-17 flew in every combat zone during World War II, but its most significant service was over Europe. Along with the B-24 Liberator, the B-17 formed the backbone of the USAAF strategic bombing force, and it helped win the war by crippling Germany’s war industry.
What did the Germans think of the B-17?
‘I’ll discuss the Luftwaffe’s leadership’s first encounter with a downed B-17, and their exact reactions to it,’ Carl Brutananadilewski, Former Electrican’s Mate Nuclear (EMN2), USN 2015-2021, says on Quora.
The Luftwaffe and the B-17 Flying Fortress
‘In early as October 1942 the Luftwaffe was able to examine it’s first B-17 up close. A crashed B-17, which the Germans managed to down only after it had drifted out of formation, was reassembled at Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s experimental aircraft testing facility. There, it was examined by senior Luftwaffe leadership.
‘This is significant, because the first intact B-17 was only captured in December, more than two months later.
‘So, what did Luftwaffe leadership have to say about their first up-close examination with a B-17? I’ll let them speak for themselves!
‘Then Colonel Adolf Galland, Chief of the Day Fighter Squadrons, and later General of Fighter Aircraft, had this to say about it, “It unites every possible advantage in one bomber: firstly, heavy armor, secondly enormous altitude, thirdly colossal defensive armament, and fourthly, great speed.”
‘It’s no wonder he had that to say! The Germans discovered the aircraft was clearly designed for daylight operations: it had an enormous eleven heavy machine gun positions, loaded with incendiary ammunition then unknown to the Germans. Then, from another B-17 crash, the Germans had recovered almost intact the famous Norden bombsight (which funnily enough a German agent had already delivered the blueprints to the Luftwaffe before the war). That left no doubt about the Americans’ potential bombing accuracy.
‘Then combine the above knowledge with these two facts: American production figures, and that German reconnaissance flights over Eastern England showed extensive airfield construction. From this crash and that knowledge it was clear 1943 would see the onset of a crushing bombing offensive against Germany.’
No cause for anxiety about the American aircraft
‘Field Marshal Erhard Milch, State Secretary for the Luftwaffe, saw the writing on the wall after examining the crash when he said, “The Reichsmarschall (Hermann Göring) told me that there is no cause for anxiety about the American aircraft and that, four-engined though they may be, we can contemplate future equanimity. I told him that I do not agree.”
‘Milch, in fact, had much more to say than that later that month, “These are worries I just can’t get over. We have got to accept that one day the enemy bombers attacking Germany will be flying at altitudes of 28,000 or 30,000 feet.”
‘The strange thing is, this crash didn’t have the entirety of German air staff very worried! Or perhaps not so strange, when one takes into account that military officers are expected to be optimistic. Göring was not alone in his rosy analysis seen in Milch’s above quote. Hans Jeschonnek, Chief of General Staff in the Luftwaffe, had this to say about the incident, “We will fetch these four engined bombers down just as quickly as the twin-engined ones, and the loss of a four-engined bomber means a much higher loss to the enemy.”
The Luftwaffe saw the danger of the B-17 Flying Fortress
‘Despite some telling German victories against the allied bomber offensive, overall, history does not bear out Göring and Jeschonnek’s view in this matter.
‘As one can see, some realistic German leadership really saw the danger of these new aircraft, while others were confident they could fight them effectively and easily. But one this is for certain, Erhard Milch’s grim predication from this event about 1943, calling it, “The Year of Clenched Teeth” certainly bore out to be the truth.’
‘I’ll end with another quote from Milch, from March 1943:
‘“Things don’t look rosy for our big cities.”’
Photo credit: Unknown and U.S. Air Force via IWM