The summer of 1943 saw an expansion of US bomber forces in England as aircraft began returning from North Africa and new aircraft arrived from the United States. This growth in strength coincided with the commencement of Operation Pointblank. Devised by Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris and Major General Carl Spaatz, Pointblank was intended to destroy the Luftwaffe and its infrastructure prior to the invasion of Europe. This was to be accomplished through a combined bomber offensive against German aircraft factories, ball bearing plants, fuel depots, and other related targets.
Early Pointblank missions were conducted by the USAAF's 1st and 4th Bombardment Wings (1st & 4th BW) based in the Midlands and East Anglia respectively. These operations targeted Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter plants in Kassel, Bremen, and Oschersleben. While American bomber forces had sustained significant casualties in these attacks, they were deemed effective enough to warrant bombing the Messerschmitt Bf 109 plants in Regensburg and Wiener Neustadt. In assessing these targets, it was decided to assign Regensburg to the 8th Air Force in England, while the latter was to be hit by the 9th Air Force in North Africa.
In planning the strike on Regensburg, the 8th Air Force elected to add a second target, the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt, with the goal of overwhelming German air defenses. The mission plan called for the 4th BW to hit Regensburg and then proceed south to bases in North Africa. The 1st BW would follow a short distance behind with the goal of catching German fighters on the ground refueling. After striking their targets, the 1st BW would return to England. As with all raids deep into Germany, Allied fighters would only be able to provide an escort as far as Eupen, Belgium due to their limited range.
To support the Schweinfurt-Regensburg effort, two sets of diversionary attacks were scheduled against Luftwaffe airfields and targets along the coast. Originally planned for August 7, the raid was delayed due to poor weather. Dubbed Operation Juggler, the 9th Air Force struck the factories at Wiener Neustadt on August 13, while the 8th Air Force remained grounded because of weather issues. Finally on August 17, the mission commenced even though much of England was covered in fog. After a brief delay, the 4th BW commenced launching its aircraft around 8:00 AM.
Though the mission plan required both Regensburg and Schweinfurt to be hit in rapid succession to ensure minimal losses, the 4th BW was permitted to depart even though the 1st BW was still grounded due to fog. As a result, the 4th BW was crossing the Dutch coast by the time the 1st BW was airborne, opening a wide gap between the strike forces. Led by Colonel Curtis LeMay, the 4th BW consisted of 146 B-17s. Approximately ten minutes after making landfall, German fighter attacks began. Though some fighter escorts were present, they proved insufficient to cover the entire force.
After ninety minutes of aerial combat, the Germans broke off to refuel having shot down 15 B-17s. Arriving over the target, LeMay's bombers encountered little flak and were able to place approximately 300 tons of bombs on target. Turning south, the Regensburg force was met by a few fighters, but had a largely uneventful transit to North Africa. Even so, 9 additional aircraft were lost as 2 damaged B-17s were forced to land in Switzerland and several others crashed in the Mediterranean due to lack of fuel. With the 4th BW departing the area, the Luftwaffe's prepared to deal with the approaching 1st BW.
Behind the schedule, the 230 B-17s of the 1st BW crossed the coast and followed a similar route to the 4th BW. Personally led by Brigadier General Robert B. Williams, the Schweinfurt force was immediately attacked by German fighters. Encountering over 300 fighters during the flight to Schweinfurt, the 1st BW sustained heavy casualties and lost 22 B-17s. As they neared the target the Germans broke off to refuel in preparation to attack the bombers on the return leg of their trip.
Reaching the target around 3:00 PM, Williams' planes encountered heavy flak over the city. As they made their bomb runs, 3 more B-17s were lost. Turning for home, the 4th BW again encountered German fighters. In a running battle, the Luftwaffe downed another 11 B-17s. Reaching Belgium, the bombers were met by a covering force of Allied fighters which allowed them to complete their trip to England relatively unmolested.
The combined Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid cost the USAAF 60 B-17s and 55 aircrews. The crews lost totaled 552 men, of who half became prisoners of war and twenty were interned by the Swiss. Aboard aircraft that safely returned to base, 7 aircrew were killed, with another 21 wounded. In addition to the bomber force, the Allies lost 3 P-47 Thunderbolts and 2 Spitfires. While Allied air crews claimed 318 German aircraft, the Luftwaffe reported that only 27 fighters had been lost. Though Allied losses were severe, they succeeding in inflicting heavy damage on both the Messerschmitt plants and the ball bearing factories. While the Germans reported an immediate 34% drop in production, this was quickly made up by other plants in Germany. The losses during the raid led Allied leaders to re-think the feasibility of unescorted, long-range, daylight raids on Germany. These types of raids would be temporarily suspended after a second raid on Schweinfurt sustained 20% casualties on October 14, 1943.
Quo Fata Vocant-Whither the Fates call