This event will be on Sunday, October 14, 2018 in the Chapel of the Fallen Eagles at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force
It will start at 2pm and is open to the public
Join us to learn about the battle and to meet the families of the Veterans who took part in this epic clash. See below for program details:
Wreath laying at Second Schweinfurt Memorial in the Museum Gardens, with Color Guard.
– Introductions by Sue Fox Moyer: Veterans, SSMA members; families and friends, which have reserved seating in the front pews.
– Candle Lighting in remembrance of those KIA, prisoners, wounded and MIA personnel.
– Historical Backdrop by Scott Loehr, Museum President
– Reading of the Charge of the Light Brigade and contextual relevance
– Acknowledgment of the healing between former enemies and specifically with the City of Schweinfurt. Sue Moyer Fox and Heidi Reed will lead this section. Heidi is from Schweinfurt and a part time resident today. She was a small girl during the war and remembers the bombings. The inscription on the Plaque in Schweinfurt will be read in German and English.
– Mansions of the Lord with trumpet introduction by Members of the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus, Savannah Arts Academy and the Coastal Jazz Association – Conductor, Russell Watkins, Director Vocal Programs, Savannah Arts Academy – Chris Thompson, Production Manager.
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE-Wash. — On Oct. 14 1943, 8th Air Force launched what became one of the most infamous battles of World War II. By the end of the day, the attack that came to be known as “Black Thursday,” Mission 115 to Schweinfurt, saw the loss of more than six hundred Airmen who were killed or captured, the loss of 60 B-17s, and the future of the American daylight bomber offensive in doubt. Such extraordinarily high losses of Airmen and aircraft during the second Schweinfurt mission ultimately gave pause to the United States Army Air Force’s decade old doctrine that believed unescorted bombers could attack strategic targets and make it home safely.
In the early days of World War II, the USAAF was fighting not just to survive the dangerous and lethal skies over Europe, but to validate its air power doctrine that unescorted, precision daylight bombing could be decisive. Contrary to the British philosophy of saturation bombing of the German cities, USAAF leaders believed precision attacks against selected industrial targets would be the best use of the bomber. According to the USAAF Committee of Operations Analysts, “It is better to cause a high degree of destruction in a few essential industries … than to cause a small degree in many.” General Ira Eaker, who commanded the 8th Air Force, insisted that such operations against specific military targets would enable a ground invasion of the continent much faster than the indiscriminate bombing of the German cities conducted by the British.
Initially, most bombing missions were aimed at targets along the coast on in occupied territories. This was due to the lack of long-range fighter escorts and a still small numbers of bombers. As the bomber force grew, they began ranging further out. However, the escort fighters could not stay with the bombers and had to turn around near the German borders. On some of the long missions, the bombers would fly near 400 miles over German territory without fighter protection.
One of the focal points of the Allied bombing campaign was the destruction of ball bearing production facilities. Ball bearings were deemed to be critical to the German war industry. The Bavarian city of Schweinfurt had a heavy concentration of ball bearing factories. These factories accounted for more than 40 percent of production and made Schweinfurt an obvious target. Additionally, Schweinfurt was relatively small which made it easier to target by the B-17 bombardiers.
As a prelude to the 14 October mission, in early August 1943, the Eighth Air Force attempted its most complex mission to date, a dual pronged attack against the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt production plants in Regensburg. The planners had hoped the dual strike mission would divide and confuse the German air defenses. However, on 17 August 1943, when nearly 350 B-17s tried to launch, weather wreaked havoc with the plan. The Third Air Division launched on time but dense fog delayed the First Air Division’s B-17s from taking off. The three-hour delay gave German fighters enough time to attack the first formations of bombers, refuel, rearm, and then take-off again to attack the second group. As a result, sixty aircraft and nearly six hundred men were lost that day from the nearly 300 fighters available to be launched against the B-17 bombers. The 92d Bombardment Group sent twenty-two B-17s on this mission against Schweinfurt and lost two. Eighth Air Force lost twenty percent of its bombers this first mission to Schweinfurt. Sadly, the losses suffered on the 14 October mission would exceed that number.
Both targets were damaged but not destroyed. In Regensburg, all six main workshops of the Messerschmitt factory were destroyed or severely damaged. American intelligence claimed that the first Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission reduced bearing production by only thirty-four percent necessitating a second mission to target Schweinfurt. However, the losses suffered by the Eighth Air Force prevented an immediate follow-up attack that might have crippled German ball bearing production. While the Germans industry was vulnerable to a sustained campaign, it could withstand a single raid.
As the 8th Air Force recovered, the Germans foresaw the negative ramifications of continued Allied attacks against vital industrial targets and deployed its forces to counter the bomber threat. The Germans moved nearly all their fighter units from the Russian front to protect against the German skies against the American bombers. By the time the bombers returned to Schweinfurt for the second time in October, they would face over 800 fighters instead of the 300 faced in the first attack. In addition, the German general staff ordered the relocation of three hundred 88mm flak guns from other areas to the city. On that fateful day, the bombers faced nearly seven minutes of continuous flak while over the target. This did not include the time spent flying over concentrations of flak batteries along the bombers’ ingress routes. By the time of the second Schweinfurt raid, the Luftwaffe air defense response system and capabilities was at its height.
Two months after the first attack, 8th Air Force was ready against to target Schweinfurt. Mission 115 tasked 378 bombers from three air divisions with aircraft from nineteen bomb groups. The First Air Division consisted of nine B-17 groups, the Second Air Division consisted of three B-24 groups, and the Third Air Division consisted of seven B-17 groups. Each division consisted of multiple combat wings each with at least three bombardment groups. The plan called for the First Air Division to lead the train of bombers, followed by the Third Air Division which was on a parallel course just ten miles to the south. The Second Air Division was to fly a divisionary route and rendezvous with the other two divisions just prior to the target. The goal was to provide for a continuous stream of bombers over the target. The 92d Bombardment Group’s Colonel Budd J. Peaslee led the raid as the mission commander and he flew as the copilot in Captain James K. McLaughlin’s B-17.
As with the first mission, the English weather menaced the bomber crews. Because of the dense fog and a low overcast, Mission 115’s status went down to the wire. Finally, at 10:15 a.m., Colonel Peaslee saw the signal flare indicating that the mission was on. Soon, his B-17 lurched skyward leading a stream of twenty-one B-17s from the 92 BG.
Almost immediately after take-off, the plan started to unravel. The most significant weather casualty was the loss of the entire Second Division from the combat force. Only twenty-nine of the sixty B-24 Liberators scheduled to fly were able to take off. Eight of those were unable to join the formation and returned to base. The remaining twenty-one B-24s made a diversionary attack towards Emden. The overcast skies also disrupted the timing and launch of the Allied fighter escorts. Eighth Bomber Command would end up paying a price without those escorts.
As the B-17s approached Germany, thirty-three aircraft which aborted for various reasons. Of his number, three were from the 92 BG. The loss of the B-17s and B-24s left only 285 bombers to start the attack, almost 25 percent less than planned. In addition to the loss of over five hundred thousand pounds of bombs, more importantly was the loss of over twelve hundred machine guns that could have been used for protection against the German fighters.
The German Luftwaffe, aware of the limited range of the American fighter escorts, delayed their attacks until the few fighter escorts turned for home and then swarmed the bomber formations. Still feeling the effects of the August attack, the German General Staff tasked every available fighter unit to protect Schweinfurt. Colonel Bud Peaslee stated the following about the German fighters. “The opening play is a line plunge through center. The fighters whip through our formation, for our closing speed exceeds 500 mph. Another group of flashes replaces the first, and this is repeated five times, as six formations of Me-109s charge us …. I can see fighters on my side … their paths marked in the bright sunlight by fine lines of light-colored smoke as they fire short bursts. It is a coordinated attack … their timing is perfect, their technique masterly.”
The German’s brought fighters from as far away as Rostock on the Baltic Coast and Doberitz just west of Berlin to join in the attack on the bombers. Sergeant John Piazza, a gunner in the 92 BG’s 327th Bombardment Squadron recalled, “We were briefed to be met by about five hundred enemy fighters of various sorts. It turned out to be about seven hundred with fighters having come in from the Russian front. We saw everything imaginable thrown at us. Fighters, usually twin-engine, lined up at beyond our gun range and began launching rockets that appeared to be like a telephone pole as they passed by us and exploded. Some enemy aircraft flew above us towing bombs on long cables hoping to entangle the cable on a Flying Fortress. We had never seen so many enemy fighters before or afterwards.” Lieutenant William Rose’s crew from the 326 BS labeled the action as “very bad. [We were] attacked from all positions. Our gunners describe e/a [enemy aircraft] as flies.” The savage intensity of the German fighter left only 248 bombers to make the final bomb run on the target, about two thirds of the original strength.
On the return trip, the bomber crews continued to face the fury of the German air defenses. Many of the German fighters that left the fight to refuel and rearm came back to torment the bomber formations. The attacks, while intense, were sporadic. Many of the fighters had lost contact with their original units and were unable to make coordinated attacks on the bombers. The weather continued to play its deadly hand and prevented allied fighters from launching to protect the bombers on their withdrawal. The German fighters harassed the bombers unabated all the way to the English Channel.
As the drone of the returning bombers was heard, the cost of the mission was soon realized as bomber after bomber failed to return to its own hard stand. The force lost sixty bombers to fighters and flak over Europe along with 642 crewmen. Five more aircraft were lost near or over England, 121 had moderate damage, and seventeen aircraft were damaged beyond repair. The twenty-six percent loss of the attacking force mission made it the most costly mission of the war for the Eighth Air Force. Only thirty-three bombers remained unscathed, approximately twelve percent of the force.
The 92d Bombardment Group fared poorly but better than other groups. Of the eighteen aircraft entered German airspace, the “Fame’s Favored Few” lost six bombers. 22 men were killed in action and thirty-eight became prisoners of war. Two returning aircraft crash landed in England. Seven returning aircraft landed at divert airfields. Only three 92 BG B-17s made it home to perch upon their hardstands at Alconbury Air Base. One of the heroes that day was Staff Sergeant Winston Tooney, a toggeler (bombardier) on Lieutenant Ellison Miles’s crew from the 372th Bombardment Squadron. Sergeant Tooney was fatally wounded by flak on the bomb run. Wanting to complete his mission, Tooney refused aid and successfully dropped his bombs before succumbing to his injuries. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
As with the first Schweinfurt mission, the majority of bomber losses came after the Allied fighter escort turned back. Although the Schweinfurt plants were badly damaged, the mission failed to achieve any lasting effect. Ball bearing production resumed within six weeks and Germany’s war industry was able to rely on a previously built-up surplus inventory of bearings.
Realizing they could not sustain such heavy losses, the USAAF leadership put the bombing campaign on hold to review its strategy. This doctrine had been ingrained in the USAAF culture. It was as a staple of air power theory and had been taught at the Air Corps Tactical School for over a decade. The second Schweinfurt mission was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” and provided justification for the American leadership to re-examine its doctrine.
As a result of this reevaluation, USAAF leadership placed a higher emphasis on long-range fighter escorts. They worked with the Pentagon to alter aircraft production priorities and put the production of fighters ahead of bombers. Fully understanding the importance of fighter wing tanks to solve the fighter escort problem, they also pushed for an increase in the monthly production rate of the 150-gallon wing tanks. Previously, the wing tanks were in extremely short supply and held smaller quantities of fuel, thereby limiting their effectiveness. The additional fuel of the 150-gallon tanks gave Allied fighters enough fuel to complete their bomber escort missions and then drop down to lower altitudes to strafe enemy airfields. Furthermore, Eighth Air Force gave the fighters the freedom to take to the offensive. Eighth Fighter Command was finally able to take the initiative and sent out long ranging fighter sweeps deep into Germany where they would catch the German fighters on the ground, preventing their attacks on the American bombers. This change in tactics greatly disrupted the German practice of rearming and refueling for additional sorties against the heavy bombers. The fighter sweeps also hindered the Luftwaffe’s ability to train and replace their pilots.
Within a few months, 8th Air Force restarted the daylight bombing campaign. This time the bombers had “little buddies” along for the whole mission and could bomb their targets much more effectively with much fewer losses. Also, the long range escorts, flown in concert with the fighter sweeps, forced the Luftwaffe to drain other fronts of precious fighters to counter the bombing, allowing them to be hunted down and destroyed by the Allied fighters. These changes in strategy shifted the balance of air power in favor of the Allies. This air dominance would be the key to the Allies’ successful D-Day landings and sweep cross Western Europe.
The effects of the “Black Thursday” are still felt today. The lessons learned from the “Black Thursday” mission are imbedded in air power doctrine that has carried forward. The USAAF revised its decades-old bomber strategy of bomber self-sufficiency and adopted, in its place, a foundation of air superiority as a basic tactic before embarking on daylight strategic bombing. The Airmen who bore the high cost of this mission can take a small measure of comfort knowing that the losses they suffered were not in vain.
Article courtesy Jim O'Connell, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian / Published October 14, 2014