Masters of the air – and Warriors for Freedom

Remembering the achievements of the U.S. Eighth Air Force


In the tradition of the highly praised World War II mini series, "Band Of Brothers", the newly released mini series by Apple TV, "Masters Of The Air", tells the story of the Americans who won the air war against Germany during World War II. Viewers of the series will learn what life was like for the American airmen who flew the terrifying bombing missions over Germany that slowly but surely crippled the German war machine and enabled the essential Allied victory.

Without question, one of the most powerful instruments employed by the United States and her Allies to achieve total victory in World War II was the U. S. Eighth Air Force. It was formed in Savannah, GA in January 1942, shortly after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor forced the U. S. to enter the war.

Within months of its formation, the Eighth had spread nationwide for the needed task of training thousands of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners to man the thousands of planes that the American "arsenal of democracy" was soon to produce and deploy for battle. It started as a trickle that eventually turned into a stampede. By August of 1942, the first small, cautious mission was flown by Eighth Air Force bombers led by Paul Tibbets. Three years later Tibbets would fly the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

The Eighth Air Force was blessed with some famous personalities that history fondly recalls. Jimmy Doolittle, the distinguished Medal Of Honor winner from the daring 1942 Doolittle raid over Tokyo, was the commanding officer from January, 1944 to the 1945 German surrender. The academy award winning actor, Jimmy Stewart, and the legendary Dallas Cowboy football coach, Tom Landry, were squadron leaders on numerous perilous missions. Even the great actor from "Gone With The Wind", Clark Gable, flew some missions as a gunner and photographer.

In 1970 British historian, Roger Freeman, christened the term "Mighty Eighth" Air Force. From its humble beginning in 1942, it grew to represent air power on a scale never before imagined, and never to be equaled. With good weather conditions, by the spring of 1944 the Eighth Air Force could put 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters into the sky for missions over Germany. This was a serious air traffic control problem and mid-air collisions were considered an acceptable hazard. A new theater of war had now been introduced to thousands of men that would never occur again after 1945-- desperate combat at 25,000 feet where temperatures are below zero and there is virtually no oxygen.

Of necessity, the U.S. established 71 air bases in the area to the North and East of London known as East Anglia. The terrain was flat and close to the English Channel, making it ideal as a home for the heavy bombers-- the four engine B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. Almost 350,000 Americans served in the Eighth Air Force in what was called the "friendly invasion" by the Brits.

To this day East Anglia remains the most Americanized part of Britain, still reflecting the cultural shock of suddenly being overrun by thousands of young Americans. By 1944, the diaries of numerous East Anglia civilians changed from a gloomy tone to one of confidence in final victory as they witnessed these massive American air armadas assemble and then head out over the Channel for deadly serious business against the Nazis.

Advancing technology was key to their efforts. The invention of the state of the art "Norden Bombsight", that era's equivalent of today's smart bomb, had led President Roosevelt and American war planners to embrace a totally new use for air power. The concept of "strategic bombing" was developed. This was the strategy that air power would not just be used to attack enemy military positions (tactical bombing), but would be used on an unprecedented scale to degrade the enemies' means of production, transportation, and energy. In other words, destroy the ability of an enemy to effectively wage war.

The explicit strategy of the Eighth Air Force was the precision strategic bombing of German military and industrial targets. In order to effectively implement this strategy, the American high command decided they must fly daylight bombing missions. The reason for this was to make the bombing accurate enough to hit most of the intended military and industrial targets. The British considered daylight missions too dangerous and the number of lost planes and crew too high to be acceptable. Thus, the British strategy became night "area" bombing.

Let no one misunderstand this fact: American bombers flew the more hazardous daylight missions over Germany, exposing their gallant crews to greater danger from German fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns. They did this for the specific purpose of making their bombing of military and industrial targets more accurate and to minimize the inevitable civilian casualties.

To this end, by 1943, the Eighth Air Force was flying frequent missions deep into the heart of Germany, going after all the components of the German war machine. However, as these dangerous missions attacked further into Germany, the casualty rate reached unsustainable levels. The infamous August 17, 1943 raid against the ball bearing and Messerschmitt plants in Schweinfurt and Regensburg graphically exposed how bad the losses could be when sending unprotected bombers on a long range mission against a heavily defended target. The attacking force of over 300 bombers lost 60 planes, each with a ten-man crew, and another 100 bombers suffered extensive battle damage.

As these casualty figures indicate, the lack of fighter protection against very effective German Luftwaffe fighters and their experienced pilots was a serious obstacle. American fighter planes stopped protecting their bombers far short of Germany because the fighters would run low on fuel and be forced to return to their bases in Britain. In late 1943, the Mighty Eighth suspended long-range missions temporarily, pending a solution to this problem.

Fortunately, by early 1944 that solution began to show up in force. The next generation American fighter plane, the magnificent P-51 Mustang, had come to the rescue. The P-51, which became the most effective fighter plane of the war, was equipped with long range fuel tanks, and could escort the B-17's and B-24's all the way to the target and back.

By the spring of 1944, the Eighth Air Force turned its attention to the destruction of the Luftwaffe. With the D-Day invasion of France planned for June, it was imperative that the Luftwaffe be neutralized such that any Allied soldier on the beaches in Normandy who looked up into the skies would see only friendly aircraft. And the success of this Mighty Eighth strategy was realized on D-Day (June 6, 1944) when a mere two Luftwaffe planes managed to get near the beaches and do no damage.

The precision "strategic bombing" campaign never eliminated German war production. But, by early 1944, production had stopped increasing. By that summer it began a downward spiral. By 1945 war production was virtually nonexistent. Continuous bombing raids in 1944 against Nazi synthetic fuel facilities and oil refineries made the strict rationing of fuel mandatory. This seriously limited the training of new pilots and tank crews, and eventually front-line pilots and all military crews were forced to curtail operations because of fuel shortages.

Besides destroying military and industrial targets, the Eighth Air Force "strategic bombing" campaign had three additional major effects on the outcome of the war.

First, the German "88" was recognized as the best artillery, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft gun of WWII. In 1943, the Germans began to strip their armies of their "88's" at an accelerating pace in order to defend their cities with thousands of anti-aircraft guns. This caused incalculable damage to the fighting abilities of their armies, especially on the Russian front with its huge tank battles.

Second, by late 1943, 70% of German fighters were deployed to defend the homeland against "strategic" bombers, rather than supporting armies in the field. This put the German armies at a substantial disadvantage to their thoroughly air supported foes-- the American, British, and Russian armies.

And third, 1.5 million German personnel were assigned to air defense duty against Allied bombing. Every other theater of the war would have been tougher if many of these personnel had been available for other combat duty.

Despite this, in recent years, a few historical revisionists have questioned the morality of the devastating bombing campaign of the Eighth Air Force. Because most German cities were severely damaged and there were hundreds of thousands of German civilian casualties as collateral damage, it has even been called a war crime.

Such arguments overlook key facts. During WWII American troops were dying on average at a rate of over 9,000 per month, and the execution of Jews and others in concentration camps averaged 80,000 per month. Fair, objective historians agree that the first responsibility of Allied leaders was taking whatever action was at their disposal to end the war and stop the loss of Allied lives and innocent Jewish prisoners as soon as they could (though the full, horrific extent of the Holocaust was not known until the end of the war). Using the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force to degrade the ability of the Germans to wage war and break the will of the Nazis to resist their inevitable defeat, was a morally justifiable use of a powerful tool to end the war more quickly.

Virtually the entire German high command that survived the war agreed in post war interviews that Allied bombing and air supremacy was the single greatest cause of German defeat. The most conclusive evidence comes from Albert Speer, who oversaw German military and industrial production from 1942 until the end of the war. He asserted that "the strategic bomber is the cause of all of our setbacks” and referred to strategic bombing as "the greatest lost battle on the German side".

The price for this victory was high. The Eighth Air Force had the most fatalities of any American military unit in WWII-- 26,000, with another 28,000 taken prisoner. The war was the worst in human history. But the ultimate Allied victory determined that the second half of the twentieth century would be dominated by freedom and democracy, not dictatorship and enslavement. The world was not perfect, but two long-time militaristic, authoritarian countries, Germany and Japan, were transformed into peaceful, prosperous democracies. And Western Europe was rebuilt under the Marshall Plan.

A visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Savannah, GA is a trip to hallowed ground. It is a profoundly moving to reflect on the somber plaques placed by Eighth Air Force veterans in the memorial grounds to forever immortalize their crews; to honor the original headstone from Arlington National Cemetery of their Commander, General Jimmy Doolittle; to inspect a restored B-17; or to personally experience what it was like to fly a harrowing WWII mission over Germany in the "Mission Experience" virtual reality exhibit.

The U.S. 8th Air Force was but one of many vital components of the "greatest generation" that won the essential victory in WWII. However, the brave and resolute crewmen of the Mighty Eighth earned the honor of being remembered as the unstoppable force that delivered the decisive blow against the Nazis.

Eric Hogan is a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Mercer University Law School, and a retired real estate developer on Tybee Island, GA. His father and two uncles served in the Eighth Air Force during WWII and sparked his lifelong interest in the history of the war.