The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was an American heavy bomber, designed before the onset of the second world war, for the United States Army Air Corps. It was a fast, long-range, high-flying bomber that found a key role in the Pacific and European Theater of Operations, with bombers complementing the Royal Air Force Bomber Command from 1941.

The B-17 dropped a massive six hundred and forty thousand tons of bombs on Germany and its occupied territories, making up 42.6% of all tonnage dropped during the war against Nazi Germany.

The American bomber began operations with the RAF in 1941 when 20 B-17Cs were acquired and started bombing in July. The RAF experience with the bomber suggested it was not ready for combat and that it needed better defenses, more bomb capacity and more accurate targeting methods.

The United States Army Air Force began building up a bombing force in Europe soon after entering the war, with B-17Es and Fs demonstrating a good degree of success that would show the British how capable the bombers were over Europe. The combined bomber offensive by British and American bomber commands by 1943 proved to be effective – essentially the British bombing at night and the Americans by day.

What follows are details of some of the most significant operations carried out by B-17 crews:

  1. The Augsburg Raid (1942): One of the early operations involving B-17s was the daylight raid on the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg diesel engine factory in Augsburg, Germany, on April 17, 1942. This mission was notable for its long range and the fact that it was carried out at low altitude. It demonstrated the potential and the risks of daylight precision bombing.
  2. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission (1943): On August 17, 1943, the USAAF launched a double strike against the ball bearing plants in Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft factories in Regensburg, Germany. This mission highlighted the dangers of deep penetration raids without adequate fighter escort, as the bombers suffered significant losses.
  3. The Second Raid on Schweinfurt (1943): Known as “Black Thursday,” the second raid on Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943, was a critical point in the air war over Europe. The USAAF suffered heavy losses, with 60 bombers shot down and hundreds of airmen killed or captured. This mission led to a temporary halt of daylight strategic bombing until long-range fighter escorts could be provided.
  4. The Ploiești Raids (1943 and 1944): Though primarily associated with B-24 Liberators, B-17s also participated in the raids on the oil fields and refineries at Ploiești, Romania, critical to the Axis powers’ oil supply. The most famous of these, Operation Tidal Wave on August 1, 1943, was a low-level raid that resulted in heavy losses but underscored the Allies’ commitment to targeting Axis oil production.
  5. Big Week (1944): From February 20 to 25, 1944, the USAAF launched Operation Argument, known as “Big Week,” targeting German aircraft production facilities. This campaign involved multiple raids by hundreds of B-17s, escorted by long-range fighters like the P-51 Mustang, which marked a turning point in the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign by significantly degrading the Luftwaffe’s fighter strength. While “Big Week” primarily targeted aircraft factories and other strategic sites across Germany, it set the stage for the systematic bombing of Berlin by demonstrating the effectiveness of the escort strategies and the resolve of the Allies to penetrate deep into German territory. The raids on Berlin can be seen as a direct continuation of this effort, with the city being attacked repeatedly in the following months.
  6. Bombing of Berlin (1944-1945): The B-17s were involved in numerous raids over Berlin, the capital of Nazi Germany, starting in 1944. These missions were among the longest and most dangerous due to the intense German air defenses. The first large-scale raid on Berlin took place on March 6, 1944, marking a significant effort to attack the heart of the Third Reich. This raid marked a significant escalation in the Allied bombing campaign, as it was the first major daylight raid on Berlin. The USAAF dispatched 730 bombers, including many B-17s, to attack Berlin. Despite heavy resistance from the Luftwaffe and significant losses—69 bombers were lost, and many others damaged—the raid successfully hit industrial targets in the city, demonstrating the Allies’ ability to strike at the heart of the Reich. Following the initial raid, the USAAF launched several more large-scale daylight raids on Berlin throughout March. For example, on March 8, 1944, another major raid involved around 600 bombers. These continued assaults on Berlin were part of the “Big Week” strategy, aiming to overwhelm German defenses and target key industries. As the war progressed, the raids on Berlin increased in frequency and size. The USAAF launched several large raids on Berlin in the winter of 1944-1945, involving hundreds of B-17s each time. These raids were part of a concerted effort to hasten the end of the war by crippling what remained of Germany’s war-making capability.
  7. Operation Crossbow (1944): B-17s participated in this operation aimed at disrupting the German V-weapon program. They targeted launch sites, production facilities, and storage depots associated with the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket. These missions were critical in reducing the impact of these weapons on Allied cities and troops.
    1. Peenemünde Raid: While the initial raid on the German rocket research facility at Peenemünde occurred on the night of 17-18 August 1943, it set the stage for continued attacks against V-weapon sites throughout 1944. These facilities were a primary target because they were central to the development and testing of the V-2 rocket.
    2. Pas de Calais Raids (Spring and Summer 1944): Throughout the spring and summer of 1944, numerous raids targeted the Pas de Calais area, where the Germans had constructed launch sites for the V-1 flying bombs aimed at southern England. These raids were part of a broader effort to mislead the Germans about the location of the upcoming D-Day landings, as well as to neutralize the threat posed by these weapons.
    3. Siracourt (January 1944): One of the first specific Crossbow raids of 1944 targeted the V-1 storage bunker at Siracourt, France, in January. This was an attempt to hit the Germans’ ability to stockpile and launch V-1s against Britain.
    4. Mimoyecques, Wizernes, Sottevast (Spring and Summer 1944): These locations in France were targeted for their role in housing V-2 launch sites and production facilities. The Allies conducted several bombing raids against these heavily fortified bunkers, known as “Heavy Crossbow” sites.
    5. La Coupole/Wizernes (July 1944): La Coupole, also known as the Wizernes Blockhaus, was a massive underground military complex designed to be a V-2 rocket launch site, and was targeted by Allied bombers in July 1944. The site’s construction was heavily disrupted by these bombings, significantly delaying its operational capability.
    6. Walcheren (October 3, 1944): This raid was part of the efforts to destroy the launch and control sites for the V-weapons along the coast of the occupied Netherlands, aiming to prevent their use against Antwerp, a crucial port for Allied supplies following its liberation.
  8. D-Day and the Battle of Normandy (1944): In the lead-up to and during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, B-17s were tasked with bombing German coastal defenses, transportation networks, and other strategic targets in Normandy to isolate the battlefield and support the Allied ground troops.
  9. Oil Campaign (1944-1945): The strategic bombing of German oil production and distribution facilities became a priority for the Allied air forces. B-17 formations targeted synthetic oil plants, refineries, and storage depots throughout Germany and occupied territories. This campaign significantly contributed to the crippling of the German war machine by reducing the availability of fuel for military operations.
    1. Ploiești, Romania (1943-1944): Though the most famous raid on Ploiești, known as Operation Tidal Wave, was conducted primarily by B-24 Liberators on August 1, 1943, subsequent raids on this critical oil production facility involved B-17s. Ploiești was a prime target because it supplied a significant portion of the oil for the Axis powers. Repeated bombings, including significant contributions from B-17 formations in 1944, severely impacted the oil output from this area.
    2. Merseburg, Germany (1944-1945): The Leuna works at Merseburg were one of the largest synthetic oil production facilities in Germany and were targeted multiple times by Allied bombers. B-17s participated in these raids, facing some of the most intense anti-aircraft and fighter defenses. The raids on Merseburg, especially those in the latter half of 1944 and into 1945, were critical in reducing Germany’s synthetic oil production.
    3. Hamburg, Germany (1944): Hamburg was a major target due to its oil refineries and storage facilities. B-17s participated in raids against Hamburg, aiming to disrupt the oil supply and distribution network. The attacks on Hamburg’s oil infrastructure were part of a broader campaign against German industrial cities but had the strategic goal of impacting the war’s logistical support.
    4. Gelsenkirchen, Germany (1943-1944): Located in the Ruhr Valley, Gelsenkirchen was home to the Nordstern synthetic oil plant. B-17s bombed this site multiple times, contributing to the overall effort to reduce Germany’s oil production capabilities. The Ruhr Valley was heavily defended, making these missions particularly hazardous.
    5. Politz (Police), Poland (1944): Politz (now Police, Poland) was the site of a large synthetic oil plant. Raids by B-17 bombers on Politz were part of the effort to target synthetic oil production outside of Germany’s borders but within the Reich’s control. These missions extended the range of the B-17s and were critical in the broader strategy to starve the German military of fuel.
    6. Blechhammer and Schwarzheide (1944-1945): Blechhammer South and North and Schwarzheide were locations of synthetic oil refineries targeted by B-17s. These raids aimed to disrupt the production of synthetic fuels essential to the German war effort. The missions to these distant targets were complex and required substantial support, including fighter escorts, to protect the bombers from enemy aircraft.
  10. Battle of the Bulge (1944-1945): During the German Ardennes offensive in December 1944, bad weather initially grounded Allied air forces. However, when the weather cleared, B-17s and other bombers were instrumental in attacking German troop concentrations, supply dumps, and transportation links, helping to stall and eventually repel the offensive.
  11. The Dresden Raids (February 1945): While more associated with the British Royal Air Force, American B-17s also took part in the controversial and devastating bombing of Dresden in February 1945. These raids created a massive firestorm in the city, leading to significant civilian casualties and raising ethical questions about the strategic bombing campaign.
  12. Support of Operation Market Garden (September 1944): In support of this Allied airborne operation, B-17s conducted bombing missions against German positions and transportation networks in the Netherlands. Though the overall operation failed to achieve its objectives, the strategic bombing was crucial for the attempted advance.
  13. Railway Yards and Transportation Networks: Throughout the war, B-17s were tasked with the destruction of railway yards, bridges, and other components of the German transportation network. These missions aimed to cripple the German military’s ability to move troops and supplies, significantly impacting their operational capabilities.
    1. Saint-Lô, France (June 1944)
    2. Just after the D-Day landings, Allied forces targeted the rail yards in Saint-Lô to disrupt German movements and reinforcements to the Normandy front. This was part of a broader campaign to isolate the battlefield and support the Allied invasion of Normandy.
    3. Brest, France (August-September 1944)
    4. The bombing of railway facilities in Brest was part of the Allied efforts to capture this crucial port. The raids aimed to prevent German reinforcements and supplies from reaching the defending forces, facilitating the port’s eventual capture by Allied ground troops.
    5. Hamm, Germany (1943-1945)
    6. Repeatedly targeted throughout the war, Hamm was one of the most important railway hubs in Germany, linking the Ruhr industrial area with the rest of the country. Its yards were hit numerous times, with one of the most significant raids occurring on March 22, 1944, severely disrupting German rail traffic.
    7. Cologne, Germany (May 1944)
    8. The massive rail yards in Cologne were a frequent target for Allied bombers, given the city’s role as a key transportation and logistics hub in western Germany. Raids, such as the one on May 28, 1944, aimed to cripple the movement of German military forces and supplies.
    9. Munich, Germany (July 1944)
    10. Munich’s railway yards were essential for moving equipment and troops to the southern front lines. The raids, including a significant attack on July 12, 1944, were part of the strategic effort to paralyze German military transportation capabilities.
    11. Berlin, Germany (Throughout the war)
    12. The German capital’s rail infrastructure was a strategic target for the Allies, aiming to disrupt the heart of the Nazi logistical network. Multiple raids were conducted against Berlin’s marshalling yards, contributing to the overall degradation of the German war effort.
    13. Dresden, Germany (February 1945)
    14. The bombing of Dresden is one of the most controversial raids of WWII, due in part to the significant civilian casualties. However, from a military perspective, the Allies targeted Dresden’s rail yards and transportation facilities to hinder the movement of German troops to the Eastern Front.
    15. Vienna, Austria (1944-1945)
    16. As a major rail hub in the Reich, Vienna’s rail yards and oil refineries were targeted repeatedly by Allied bombers. Raids, such as those in March 1945, aimed to disrupt the transport of troops and resources, as well as to impact Germany’s dwindling oil supply.
    17. Brenner Pass (1944-1945)
    18. The Brenner Pass, a critical rail link between Italy and Germany, was targeted by Allied bombers to cut off Germany’s access to Italian resources and troops. These raids were part of a broader strategy to isolate Germany from its Axis partners.

During World War II, the USAAF flew hundreds of thousands of sorties with the B-17 across Europe. While it’s challenging to provide an exact number of missions flown by B-17s alone, because the USAAF also used other bombers like the B-24 Liberator, it’s documented that the Eighth Air Force, the main force using the B-17 in Europe, flew over 297,000 sorties from 1942 to 1945 against German targets. This number includes missions flown for bombing industrial sites, railway yards, military installations, and other strategic targets across Nazi-occupied Europe and Germany.

Approximately 47,000 airmen from the Eighth Air Force were killed in action, which accounted for about half of the USAAF’s total casualties in Europe. This figure includes crews from both B-17 and B-24 bombers, as the Eighth Air Force used both types in its strategic bombing campaign. The high number of casualties reflects the dangerous nature of daylight precision bombing missions carried out by the B-17s, often without fighter escort in the early years, which exposed them to intense anti-aircraft fire and fighter attacks. Despite the heavy losses, the bravery and sacrifice of B-17 crews contributed significantly to the Allied victory in Europe.