Seventy Years Ago: The United States Army Air Force’s 8th Air Force begins Bombing Operations in the European Theater of Operations, August-December 1942
Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
On the night of May 30, 1942, the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command mounted its first “thousand plane” raid against Cologne and two nights later struck Essen with almost equal force. At this point the United States Army Air Force’s 8th Air Force was just beginning to arrive in the United Kingdom. It would not be until October 9, 1942, that it would be able to mount even a hundred plane raid, and that was against German airfields in France. It would not be until January 1943 that the 8th Air Force struck Germany and it would not be until May 1943 that the 8th Air Force had a sufficient force to be able to mount even a two-hundred plane raid.
The 8th Air Force was activated on January 28, 1942 at Savannah, Georgia, and during February the first detachment of its officers arrived in the United Kingdom. The 8th Air Force arrived in England believing totally in both the daylight precision bombing doctrine and the defensive capability of their strategic bombers. The 8th Air Force, commanded since May 5 by Maj. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, was formally established in the United Kingdom on June 18, 1942. At that time it consisted of only 200 assorted aircraft and about 2,000 men. During the summer of 1942 it grew by leaps and bounds. At the end of July its personnel strength exceeded 15,000 personnel and over 400 combat aircraft. By the end of August the 8th Air Force was composed of 30,313 personnel and consisted of one Bomb Group (B-17s) two Fighter Groups (P-38s).
The 8th Air Force mounted its first bombing mission in Europe on August 17 when 8th Air Force’s VIII Bomber Command, led by Brig. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, sent out 12 B-17Es, escorted by 8 squadrons of Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires to bomb the Sotteville-lès-Rouen Marshalling Yards, on the Seine west of Paris. At the same time 6 B-17Es, escorted by 15 squadrons of RAF Spitfires, undertook a diversionary attack. In the very late afternoon the main attacking force, with Eaker in the lead plane, dropped 18.5 tons of general purpose bombs on the target. They encountered light flak and German fighter aircraft and one B-17E was moderately damaged, but they all returned to base. The attack was considered a success. General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Force commander, declared, “The attack on Rouen again verifies the soundness of our policy of the precision bombing of strategic objectives rather than the mass bombing of large, city size areas.”
During the rest of August and in September and October the 8th Air Force attacked various marshalling yards, aircraft factories, submarine pens, steel and locomotive plants, and other targets in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The B-17s were in August and September normally escorted by at least two squadrons of RAF Spitfires. In early October P-38s joined with the Spitfires in escort duty and also in early October B-24s joined with the B-17s in making the attacks. On October 9 the first mission of over 100 bombers (108 B-17s and B-24 bombers attacked air fields in France) took place. Up to the end of October the 8th Air Force had dispatched 601 aircraft and 260 had dropped nearly 680 tons of bombs. Fifteen of the aircraft had been lost in action and four damaged beyond repair. At that time the 8th Air Force had four bomb groups of B-17s and one of B-24s, and one fighter group, with Spitfires; with three fighter groups, with P-38s being transferred in October to the Mediterranean Theater Operations (MTO).
Because of the high shipping losses in 1942 U-boats became a top priority target. Thus the offensive against submarine bases and yards that began in October would continue and take up the major part of the 8th Air Force’s activities until June 1943. During November and December the 8th Air Force on several occasions attacked the submarine pens at St. Nazaire, La Pallice, and Lorient. They also attacked other targets, such as a Luftwaffe servicing and repair base at Romilly-sur-Seine, close to Paris. Often these missions were unescorted, but normally they were escorted by at least five squadrons of RAF Spitfires, or Spitfires flown by the 8th Air Force’s fighter groups. But the Spitfire was a short-range fighter, built for defending the United Kingdom, and did not have the range to go all the way to Saint-Nazaire or La Pallice During November and December the 8th Air Force dropped 1,058 tons, while having twenty-two aircraft missing in action and four damaged beyond repair.
During November and December the 8th Air Force expanded as new bomb groups arrived and contracted as units were reassigned to the MTO. During those two months four 8th Air Force Fighter Groups and two Heavy Bomb Groups were transferred to the MTO for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. At the end of November, when Spatz transferred to North Africa, Eaker became commander of the 8th Air Force and remained its commander until January 1944, when he was succeeded by Maj. Gen. James (“Jimmy”) Doolittle.
By the end of 1942 the 8th Air Force had dispatched 1,491 aircraft and 705 of them had dropped some 1,740 tons of bombs (some 1,680 tons on France and the remainder evenly divided between Belgium and the Netherlands). By way of comparison, during 1942 the RAF dropped over 42,000 tons of bombs on Germany. The 8th Air Force’s contribution to the war effort in 1942 was minimal. But the invaluable experience it gained during the fall of 1942 would prove most useful in the succeeding years.