Lieutenant General Ira Eaker's Eighth Air Force celebrated the first anniversary of American heavy bomber operations from England in August by striking the two most critical targets on their objective list, the anti-friction-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and the large Messerschmitt aircraft factory complex at Regensburg. This was the deepest penetration into Germany flown to date by U.S. bombers. The attack plan was designed to force the German fighters to meet nearly simultaneous attacks. The 3rd Bombardment Division, commanded by Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, was supposed to take off first, hit Regensburg, and then proceed to landing fields in North Africa. The 1st Bombardment Division, commanded by Brigadier General Bob Williams, was to follow about 30 minutes later; the hope was it would find its route to Schweinfurt unobstructed by enemy fighters lured away by LeMay's force.
Heavy fog ruined the well-laid plans. Because of special training and innovative assembly techniques, the 3rd Division took off in the thick cloud cover, but the 1st Division did not. LeMay's bombers could not wait around and were sent off to Regensburg. The other force did not get airborne for more than 3 hours, giving defending German fighters a chance to refuel and rearm. Escorting P-47s did not have the range to protect the bombers past Aachen on the German border, and the B-17s suffered terribly. Of the 376 that began the raid, 60 were shot down; 24 of those belonged to LeMay. Of the 146 aircraft LeMay took to Regensberg, only about half were able to fly back from North Africa. But the feisty air leader did attack Bordeaux on the way home. Bombing at Regensburg had inflicted some damage on most key buildings, but results at Schweinfurt were not as satisfactory, although some essential machinery was destroyed.
Plans for the return to Schweinfurt on 14 October were just as complicated and also were foiled by weather. A total of 149 B-17s from the 1st Division and 142 from the 3rd Division would cross enemy defenses about 30 miles apart while a third force of B-24s attacked from the south. The B-24s could not assemble properly because of bad weather and flew an uneventful feint instead. The B-17s met an unusually well-coordinated fighter defense using rockets, cannons, and bombs. The attacking force lost 59 bombers over Germany. Another bomber ditched in the English Channel, and 5 others were abandoned over England or crashed on landing. Of the 257 B-17s that made it into Germany, only 50 were not damaged by flak or fighters.
The 14 October attack caused the most damage to the ball-bearing plants of any of the 16 such U.S. Army Air Forces missions during the war. Although Allied leaders exaggerated their success, the 10 percent damage inflicted on the factories inspired the Germans to diversify and disperse their ball-bearing facilities. More important was the effect of the raid on the American bomber force. Leaders realized they could not sustain such heavy losses, and deep-penetration raids were suspended while force strength was rebuilt and long-range fighter escorts were developed. By the time the Eighth Air Force returned to Schweinfurt four months later, its efforts to destroy the dispersed and reorganized industry were doomed to failure.
Conrad C. Crane
Caiden, Martin. Black Thursday. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1960.; Coffey, Thomas M. Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay. New York: Crown Publishers, 1986.; Craven, Wesley Frank, and James Lea Cate. The Army Air Forces in World War II. 7 Vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948–1953.