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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.
The B-17E, the first mass-produced model of the Flying Fortress, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound bomb load. It was several tons heavier than the prototypes and bristled with armament.
Luftwaffe fighter pilots attacking a B-17 formation
According to B-17 Queen of the Skies website, the tail gunner was perhaps the most important gunner on the B-17E. He protected the rear quarter of the aircraft with twin .50 cal. machine guns. When enemy fighters first approached the E model B-17, they were met with a nasty surprise. Enemy pilots gained a healthy respect for the tail guns.
‘A German pilot did once say that attacking a B-17 formation from behind was like trying to make love to a porcupine that is on fire,’ Walt Miller, Former 0311/0302 at United States Marine Corps (1973-1993), explains on Quora.
Fighter pilots’ cockpits surrounded by red tracers
A Luftwaffe fighter pilot explained in Donald Caldwell’s book JG-26 Top Guns of the Luftwaffe;
‘The size of the heavy bombers and their formations could not be adequately described to a green pilot; they had to be experienced first-hand… The bomber gunners opened fire as soon as a target was seen, in order to disrupt or ward off attacks. The Americans’ browning .50 inch machine guns had a higher muzzle velocity and a greater range than the Germans MG 17s whose tracers were used to site their MG 151 cannon. So, the fighter pilots’ cockpits were surrounded by red tracers, “Swarming like wasps” in Karl Borris’s words, long before they themselves could open fire effectively; and because of low closing speeds, this extremely uncomfortable situation could continue for several minutes…some pilots would invariably break away prematurely, and the rest would pass through the bomber formation at whatever angle and orientation promised the best chance of survival.’
It was this effective position that forced German pilots to rethink their tactics which lead to them adopting the famous “12 O’Clock” attack, bearing into formations head on at a closing speed of over 500 mph!
An extremely effective defensive shield from B-17 formation
Another Luftwaffe fighter pilot recalls in Donald Caldwell’s JG-26 Top Guns of the Luftwaffe;
‘All four of the bombers shot down by JG 26 came from the 306th Bomb Group. The Geschwader lost only one pilot in this battle, but it was a serious blow to the unit. Hptm. Fritz Geisshardt, Kommandeur of the third Gruppe, was hit by return fire on his unit’s first pass through the bombers. Bleeding profusely from a wound in the abdomen, Geisshardt dove away from the battle and made a smooth landing …his blood loss proved fatal; the medical personnel at the Ghent hospital could not save him and he died early the next morning.’
According to the legendary German ace General Adolf Galland one key to success against USAAF bombers was for the fighters to maintain formation. Although the bombers’ guns did not bring down may German fighters, their streams of .50-inch tracers did in fact form an extremely effective defensive shield.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force