Taking the Fortress to War

The Fortress Mk I bomber had a difficult birth.
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During a visit to the United States in 1938 as part of the British Purchasing Commission, Air Commodore Arthur Harris found himself barred from entering the interior of Boeing’s prototype heavy bomber, the Model 299. Unimpressed with both his treatment and the aircraft’s characteristics, he scornfully remarked that its nose dome appeared, “more appropriately located in an amusement park than in a war plane”. Unbeknown to Harris, however, the Model 299 would prove to be more than just a sideshow.

Three years later the British government officially requested 20 modified Model 299Ts from Boeing. Designated the B-17C, their purchase was made possible by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease bill, which had been passed by the US Senate on March 11, 1941. The ink had barely dried on his signature when the first B-17C landed on British soil four weeks later.

The RAF designated the aircraft Fortress Mk I and set about establishing a special squadron for its operations. Only the cream of Bomber Command crews were permitted to apply – all of whom had to be less than 24 years old, physically fit and small in stature to cope with the rigours of high-altitude flying. Sixty percent of applications were turned down, but a successful few found themselves posted to RAF Watton in Norfolk: home of a newly-reformed RAF No. 90 (B) Squadron.

The former Royal Flying Corps fighter unit came under the command of Wg Cdr Jeffrey ‘Mad Mac’ MacDougall DFC, an ex-Blenheim squadron commander who quickly set about converting his new recruits to the Fortress I. Under the covert instruction of US Army Air Corps (USAAC) officers, Plt Off R. J. Roake duly became the first non-American to fly the B-17.

Not long after commencing conversion, 90 Squadron’s men moved to RAF West Raynham in Norfolk, with flying operations carried out from its satellite station at nearby RAF Great Massingham. The new squadron began training in earnest, undertaking cross-country flights and high-altitude bombing using the US-made Sperry bombsight. For the crews, it was a major shift from the night-bombing sorties they’d been used to.

Wireless Operator, Sgt Tom Imrie found the task of flying in daylight at high altitude a daunting experience: “We had to wash our guns with petrol. Often they didn’t fire [and] they jumped all over the place on the free mountings. Ammunition was stored in heavy 50lb containers, and at 30,000ft it was a hell of a job lifting them onto the mountings.” Others found the aircraft to be remarkably comfortable. Fitted with ash trays, carpeted floors and padded walls, it was dubbed ‘a gentleman’s aircraft’.

The Fortress I soon became something of an attraction for the aristocracy. On May 23, 1941 90 Squadron flew one of its aircraft to RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire for a royal review of Bomber Command aircraft. King George VI and his family spent some time reviewing the RAF’s new addition. A fortnight later, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other cabinet ministers arrived at RAF Great Massingham to inspect 90 Squadron’s work. Churchill’s visit occurred less than two weeks before a major disaster.

Fortress I AN522 was carrying out a test flight at 33,000ft with a crew of eight. After entering a thunderstorm the aircraft was pounded by golf ball-sized hailstones. AN522 lost control and lurched into a dive from which the pilot, Fg Off John Hawley only partially recovered. Moments later the port wing broke off and the aircraft disintegrated, coming down near Catterick Bridge, Yorkshire. Only one man survived: observer, Flt Lt William Stewart, who baled out through a gunner’s window. Of those who lost their lives, 1st Lt Follett Bradley Jnr became the first USAAC aircrew member to be killed on active duty during World War II.

Despite the tragedy, 90 Squadron found itself on the move again, this time to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. Still under construction, 90 Squadron’s crews found Polebrook’s new runways a welcome improvement on Great Massingham’s. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the Fortress I’s safety record.

Arthur Harris

On the evening of July 3, 1941 while undergoing maintenance, AN528’s no. 4 engine caught fire before the airframe was quickly enveloped in flames. Burning fuel and exploding ammunition forced those fighting the fire to retreat to a safe distance. They could only stand and watch as the aircraft was completely destroyed.

Five days later, three Fortress Is were loaded with four 1,100lb bombs, 3,000 rounds of ammunition and six crew members. Led by Wg Cdr MacDougall, the three bombers took off at 1500hrs, climbing to 27,000ft before heading northeast. After two months of intensive training, the target for July 8, 1941 was real: Wilhelmshaven’s submarine building docks. The B-17 was heading into battle for the first time.

Ignoring USAAC advice to operate the Fortress I in squadron strength, 90 Squadron elected to fly in open formation. Plt Off Alex Mathieson in AN529 was the first to reach the target. Unopposed, he dropped his bombs squarely. Wg Cdr MacDougall’s AN526 soon followed but was less successful. Two bombs remained firmly lodged. Despite a second attempt on the same target and a further effort over the Frisian Islands, he was forced to return to Polebrook with both still in place. Sqn Ldr Andy McLaren fared even less well. On reaching 20,000ft, oil began leaking from all four engines. At 27,000ft the flow had covered the tailplane where it froze solid. Stricken by severe vibrations and falling oil pressure, Sqn Ldr McLaren headed for base, dropping all four bombs on Nordeney in the Frisian Islands. It was an inauspicious start to combat.

A cancelled operation on July 14 was followed by aborted raids on Berlin and Kiel nine days later. The next day three crews were briefed for an attack on the German battleship, Gneisenau, which was reportedly moored in Brest harbour. Each aircraft dropped four bombs which missed their target and struck the quayside. An equally fruitless operation followed on July 26 when only one of three Fortress Is bombed Emden. Two days later, 90 Squadron suffered a third major catastrophe.

Flight Sergeant Hubert Brook and his crew took off in AN534 to conduct a high-altitude test. Severe turbulence triggered a structural failure of the aircraft’s starboard wing causing the Fortress I to break in two. The aircraft crashed near Wilbarston, Northamptonshire, killing all seven crew members, including USAAC officer, 1st Lt Laird W. Hendricks, who’d arrived at Polebrook just three days earlier.

The Admiral Scheer

Several unproductive missions followed before 90 Squadron returned to bomb the unscathed Gneisenau in Brest harbour. Taking off at 0903hrs on August 16, Plt Off Frank Sturmey dropped his four bombs as planned. However, his aircraft was immediately targeted by seven Luftwaffe fighters, including five Me 109s. Over the course of 23 minutes AN523 was attacked relentlessly. Three gunners were wounded as Plt Off Sturmey fought to evade the enemy aircraft. The fighters were eventually shaken off near the English coast and the badly-damaged AN523 headed for an emergency landing at RAF Roborough near Plymouth. On arrival it overshot the runway and collided with a concrete tank trap before bursting into flames. Sgts Needle and Ambrose were both killed in the process along with a sentry guard on the ground. AN523 had become the first B-17 to be lost as a result of enemy action.

Six further operations took place before 90 Squadron was tasked with attacking another ship: the German cruiser, Admiral Scheer. Operating from an advance base at RAF Kinloss, the Fortress Is bombed Oslo’s harbour twice over a three-day period. On the second of these raids, AN533 flown by Sqn Ldr Mathieson failed to return, his fate unknown. AN525, piloted by Fg Off Dave Romans was then attacked by two Me 109s at 25,000ft. His Fortress I subsequently burst into flames and crashed in the Norwegian mountains killing all onboard. Sgt Tim Wood’s AN535 also came under attack. He jettisoned his bombs in the same mountains and climbed to 34,000ft before oxygen failure incapacitated two of his gunners. Forced to descend to 24,000ft, he was attacked by a lone Me 109 which killed a semi-conscious Sgt Wilkins. Sgt Woods nursed the Fortress I back to RAF Kinloss where it crash-landed. The Norwegian losses effectively signalled the end of the RAF’s B-17 daylight bombing campaign.

Four further missions followed before Bomber Command brought the curtain down on Fortress I operations. Ineffective bombing from altitude, frozen guns and insufficient strength in numbers had conspired to make the experiment a failure. Yet lessons were still learnt. Better flying clothing, enhanced lubricants and self-sealing fuel tanks were just some of the improvements made during the trial.

RAF No. 90 Squadron continued to operate the Fortress I, mainly as a prop for the Warner Bros. company during the making of the movie Flying Fortress. Over the next four months its aircraft were gradually transferred to the Middle East and RAF Coastal Command. It finally ceased activities as the world’s first operational B-17 squadron on February 12, 1942. But that wasn’t the end. The curtain had merely been raised on an aircraft that would become one of the most celebrated stars of World War Two.

Paul Bingley is the author, with Mike Peters, of Bomb Group: The Eighth Air Force’s 381st and The Allied Air Offensive Over Europe.