With Wings As Eagles: The Eighth Air Force in World War II

With Wings As Eagles: The Eighth Air Force in World War II

by Philip Kaplan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510705104
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 03/07/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,200,338
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 10.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Philip Kaplan, formerly an art director with Playboy , Atlanta , and Architectural Digest magazines, has written, coauthored and designed thirty-eight books, including The Bird Farm , Silent Service , and The Bomber Aircrew Experience. He lives in Gloucestershire, England.

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"Somebody said that it couldn't be done, but he with a chuckle replied, that 'maybe' it couldn't, but he would be one who wouldn't say so till he'd tried. So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin on his face. If he worried he hid it. He started to sing as he tackled the thing that couldn't be done, and he did it."

— from Edgar Albert Guest's poem, "It Couldn't Be Done"

"We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more."

— J.S. Gibbons

IT WOULD BECOME the most intensive, concentrated and effective air assault in history.

The American and British Chiefs of Staff met after the 7th December 1941 Japanese attack on US naval and air facilities and battleships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an attack which brought the United States into the Second World War. Four days after that attack, Germany, an ally of Japan, had declared war on the U.S. When the Allied military leaders then conferred they had two goals in mind: To achieve air superiority over the German Air Force in order to prepare for an Allied invasion of the European continent; and to destroy Germany's war-making capacity.

The British Royal Air Force had been gradually building its own capability for taking the war to Germany and German targets in Continental Europe through a major strategic bombing effort. Having been at war with Germany since September 1939, the British government and the RAF welcomed the entry and participation of the Americans in the European air war. The RAF particularly relished the prospect of U.S. heavy bombers joining with their own aircraft in the raids they were conducting on an ever- increasing scale.

To that end the Americans set about to establish a new air force in the United Kingdom. It would ultimately become the largest and most powerful military air organization ever, and would, with the RAF, carry out a massive combined bombing offensive of almost unimaginable proportions against the German enemy.

Early in 1942 the vanguard of nearly 350,000 American Army Air Force men of widely differing backgrounds began arriving in England, where the population had already been enduring the dangers and deprivation of war for more than two years. These Yanks, as the British referred to them, came determined to do their part in the high-altitude bombing of German targets in Europe, but they had been trained to do so by daylight and not at night as the British did. Earlier in the war the RAF had tried daylight bombing and had declared it impossible. Thus, the policy battle lines were drawn between these two old allies. In time, however, the argument was settled and the Americans won the chance to prove their case for daylight precision bombing — which they did — but only at an enormous cost in lives and equipment. It would be a period of great danger for them, and death for many. It was also a time of endless fatigue, boredom, true comradeship, and the excitement of radically new experiences and emotions. For most it was destined to be the one great adventure of their lives. Those who flew the demanding, dramatic, and frequently spectacular bombing missions of the American Army Air Force from English airfields during World War Two had an utterly unique experience, incomparable to any before or since.

With four distinct U.S. Army Air Forces established and operating, the new UK-based outfit was to be the Fifth U.S.A.A.F., but within days of the new organization's designation, it was redesignated the Eighth, as the Fifth and two additional air forces had been planned for other assignments. By late March 1942, at the suggestion of Major General Carl Spaatz, commanding general-designate of the Eighth, his new organization was committed to be the nucleus of the American offensive air operations from the United Kingdom.

The Eighth Air Force would be assigned the most challenging, demanding, and dangerous job of those given to all American air forces in that war — the high-altitude daylight precision bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. Would the attacks of the Eighth, together with those of the RAF by night, sufficiently weaken German war production to reduce the cost in lives of the eventual Allied invasion of Europe? Could the Eighth be equipped and brought up to required strength quickly without unduly hampering USAAF operations in other war theatres? Could the bombing campaign of the Eighth be conducted within the parameters of acceptable losses? The young, inexperienced American air force in England had no answers to these questions. No one knew if high-altitude precision bombing of the German targets by day could be carried out successfully amid enemy flak and fighter defenses and the prevailing weather conditions in northwestern Europe. RAF leadership was politely sceptical and few in the high command of the Eighth were more than guardedly optimistic. But we are getting ahead of our story.

20th February 1942 dawned gray and unpromising and would remain that way. Allied flights from Lisbon to Britain in those days meant risking interception by long-ranging German patrol aircraft operating over the Bay of Biscay from French bases. One such flight arriving that day at RAF Hendon, a Douglas DC-3/Dakota, carried an American air force officer who initially would be responsible for arranging the reception of the new combat flying units of the Eighth, a man who for many weeks had been studying the methods, means, procedures, and quirks of the RAF bombing operations against German targets. Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker was among America's foremost proponents of the USAAF version of strategic bombardment as a primary war-winning approach. General Eaker arrived in England at a point when war actions were mostly grim and depressing for the Allies. In addition to their surprising Pacific advances on and after their Pearl Harbor raid, the Japanese had invaded and taken Singapore, attacked and sunk the British battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and taken Bataan from the Americans; there was also the retreat of Allied armies across Libya, German panzer tanks nearing Stalingrad, and the massive Allied shipping losses on the Atlantic to Hitler's hunting U-boats. Yet another recent defeat of sorts was the "Channel Dash" escape of the German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen from their vulnerable anchorages in the harbor at Brest to a safer port in Germany. The British critics of air power were demanding an explanation for the failure of the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm to prevent that escape. Defending the poor results of that air power was proving a challenge for its champions in London.

A few positive signs were starting to appear, though. One was the arrival in the UK of General Eaker, charged with setting up a headquarters and laying the groundwork for the new Eighth Air Force, and the appointment of the no-nonsense Air Chief Marshal Arthur T. Harris to head up RAF Bomber Command.

Two months after Ira Eaker took up his new post two truly audacious bombing raids took place within hours of each other — one British, the other American. At that stage of the war, Harris's Bomber Command had only two squadrons that were then equipped with the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber. He decided to try out his new Lancasters in a daring daylight operation deep into German territory. He mounted a small mission utilizing both Lanc squadrons, assigning them to fly a raid on the M.A.N. plant at Augsburg in Bavaria, where the bulk of diesel engines were manufactured for Germany's U-boat force. It was to be, at best, a bold, low-level, high-risk daylight venture that Harris believed had a good chance of success, a far better one than if it had been flown by the Stirlings, Manchesters, and Wellingtons that equipped most of his command. But the mission, flown in two elements of six aircraft each, would depend heavily on an essential element of surprise. Due to a catastrophic navigational miscalculation the first group of six Lancasters happened to cross right over an enemy fighter airfield as they roared over France at low altitude. Me 109 fighters rose quickly to give chase to the lumbering Lancs and four of the big bombers were promptly shot down. A fifth heavy was hit and brought down by flak over Augsburg and two from the second group of six were also downed by target-area flak. Of the five Lancasters that managed to return to base in England that spring evening, two were heavily damaged. In the raid itself, the diesel engine factory was badly damaged by thirteen 1,000-pound bombs and Harris was able to point with pride to the undoubted heroism of its second group leader, Acting Squadron Leader John Nettleton, who was awarded Britain's highest decoration for gallantry on the mission, the Victoria Cross. One effect of the raid clearly demonstrated to Harris and the Air Ministry a fatal lack of firepower then available on the Lancaster, whose eight .303 machine-guns had been no match for the cannon-armed Messerschmitt fighters.

On the other side of the world, just a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet to lead sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers on a strike at military targets in Tokyo and elsewhere on the island of Honshu. It was as bold and risky as the Augsburg attack that Harris had staged. It actually did little damage to Japan's war effort, but succeeded in showing the Japanese people that they were vulnerable to American air attack, which certainly damaged enemy morale.

Ira Eaker knew that the RAF crews and commanders were extremely leary of the American daylight bombing concept, having suffered bitter losses in their own experience with such operations. Still, they accepted the determination of the Yanks to try their own daylight bombing experiment and would offer and provide the Americans every sort of assistance they could in the effort.

Arriving in England with Eaker that miserable winter day were six other USAAF officers who would assist him in getting the Eighth up and running. The men were Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Armstrong Jr., who would later be the inspiration for the lead character of General Frank Savage in the book and motion picture Twelve O'Clock High by Beirne Lay Jr. and Sy Bartlett, both veterans of the air war against Germany; Major Peter Beasley; Captain Fred Castle, who would command the 94th Bomb Group and be killed while leading the 4th Combat Bomb Wing on a raid to attack German airfields, Christmas Eve 1944; Captain Beirne Lay Jr. the aforesaid co-author of Twelve O'Clock High and the first commander of the 487th Bomb Group at Lavenham, Suffolk; Lieutenants Harris Hull and William Cowart Jr. These seven were sometimes referred to as "Eaker's Amateurs."

Wycombe Abbey, a girl's school in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, was requisitioned in March 1942 to provide the Headquarters for the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force in England. Ira Eaker and his little advance party of officers were moved into Daws Hill Lodge, an appropriated country mansion on the property. It was handily located near the Headquarters of RAF Bomber Command. During the course of the war a substantial underground bunker was built beneath Roundabout Hill, below Daws Hill, and a large Nissen-hutted encampment was established south and east of Daws Hill and on the lower parkland near the Abbey. After the war, the school was returned to Wycombe Abbey and the girls reoccupied it in May 1946. However, the British Air Ministry retained the camp and the underground bunker. In October 2013 the bunker received a Grade II protected status listing from English Heritage. With occupation by the small group of newly-arrived Eighth Air Force officers, a joke was soon circulating about a small sign discovered in each of the former student rooms. It read Ring For Mistress.

Less than a month before the Eaker party was billeted in Daws Hill Lodge, the fledgling Eighth Air Force had been activated at Hunter Field, Savannah, Georgia.

Over the course of the war it would reach a peak personnel operating strength of 200,000 officers and men and was capable of dispatching more than 2,000 heavy bombers and 1,000 escorting fighters on a single bombing raid.

At peak strength it numbered more than forty heavy bomb groups, fifteen fighter groups, and two photo/reconnaissance groups, all operating from bases in the UK. At that strength a typical mission flown by the Eighth consisted of 1,400 heavy bombers escorted by 800 fighters, consuming 3,500,000 gallons of aviation gasoline, expending 250,000 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition, destroying twenty-five German aircraft in the air and on the ground for the loss of four U.S. fighters and five bombers, and dropping 3,300 tons of bombs on enemy targets of which on visual missions, 40 percent fell within 1,000 feet of assigned mean points of impact and 75 percent within 2,000 feet. This huge force had a powerful impact on the enemy war effort, but the Americans paid a heavy price for it. They suffered 46,456 casualties with more than 26,000 killed in action. Its personnel were awarded seventeen Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, 850 Silver Stars, 7,000 Purple Hearts, 46,000 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. Eighth Fighter Command produced 261 pilots who became aces, having been credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft.

A typical damage assessment report from photographs taken by Eighth Air Force photo aircraft after the attack reads as follows: "Very severe damage is seen in both the north and east marshalling yards. In the N. M/Y, both semi-round houses are severely damaged, one turntable is wrecked, many tracks obliterated in the center of the yard, all through-running lines out, the large transshipment shed [is] burning, large numbers of locomotives, wagons, and cars derailed, damaged, and destroyed. In the E. M/Y, the locomotive depot is severely damaged, all through lines out, and all sidings unserviceable. The passenger stations in both marshalling yards are severely damaged." (From K report covering attack on Falkenburg M/Y, 19 April 1945.)

Arthur "Bomber" Harris and Ira Eaker had worked together in Washington during 1941 when Harris had been on assignment there. They had become friends and it was as a friend that Eaker went to see his English neighbor to ask for his advice and assistance. They were friends despite their differing views on how to bomb the enemy. Eaker believed in precision daylight bombing by well-armed aircraft flying in tight, well-designed formations at relatively high altitude. Harris, on the other hand, normally sent his heavies out individually by night. He expected to make up for the attendant loss of bombing accuracy through sheer weight of numbers.

Harris went to work on his friend Ira, trying to persuade him to "come in with us on the night offensive," as well as making an attempt at humor by suggesting that Eaker's reluctance to accept his invitation might be due to the possibility that the Americans could only navigate in daylight. Then Harris read the seriousness and determination in Eaker to get on with the American experiment and he helped by providing the Americans with air bases in the English Midlands and East Anglia, having already provided the general with a headquarters for the Eighth Bomber Command at Daws Hill Lodge and one for Eighth Fighter Command at Bushey Hall near Watford. Finally, he gave his friend access to the proven British system of control and communications. An American record of that reception of the Eighth Air Force by the Royal Air Force: "With its Fighter Command guarding the skies by day, the Bomber Command striking the enemy by night, and Coastal Command sweeping the sea-lanes, the RAF might have taken a condescending attitude towards the advance guard of Americans whose plans were so large and whose means were apparently so small. The RAF took no such attitude. From the start their generous and sympathetic interest were the keys that unlocked many problems. 'Tell us what you want,' they said. 'If we have it, it is yours.' They might have added, 'Whether or not we need it ourselves.'" Nearly everywhere the Americans went in the UK, they were warmly greeted and made welcome. At a dinner in his honor, Ira Eaker stood to make a speech which was short and to the point: "We won't do much talking until we've done more flying. We hope that when we leave, you'll be glad we came. Thank you."


Excerpted from "With Wings As Eagles"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Philip Kaplan.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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