I snatched my mike and barked down at Vince, "When, when are you gonna get rid of those bombs? What's wrong?"
Back came that Texas twang of his. "Keep your shirt on, Morgan. I'll let you know when the bombs are gone." Then he went back to work.
Apparently I didn't disrupt his concentration too much. The Bomber Command had defined "target area" as a circle with a radius of 1,000 feet. Photographs from several of our planes later showed that Vince Evans laid those bombs of ours ten or fifteen feet from the target's epicenter…The other bombardiers, those who had survived, toggled their switches off Vince's release and just simply rained down blazing hell on those trapped U-boats.
“The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle” by Col. Robert Morgan,
All the other men on the Flying Fortress had one job and one job only above all others, get the bombardier over the target. Everything else was just details. The bombardier's job was quite obvious, get the bombs on the target. In the early days of daylight bombing, each bombardier sighted for his individual aircraft through the famous Norden Bombsight. However, it was soon learned that if a tight formation was maintained, that if the group's best bombardier was in the lead aircraft doing the aiming, and if the rest of the formation dropped their bombs when he dropped his, that similar results would be achieved and the bombers could better protect themselves with their combined firepower while in formation.
Most crewmembers will tell you that the hairiest part of any mission was the bomb run. To confuse the enemy, the route to the target was never a straight line but a series of waypoints. The last of these waypoints before the target was called the IP. The IP was located near the target and usually had a highly visible landmark so that navigators could get a good fix on their position. Also, the heading from the IP to the target was usually just a few degrees off the heading the bombers would be flying to reach the IP so that the formations wouldn't loosen up just prior to the bomb run by making any sharp turns. From the IP to the target the aircraft had to maintain their speed and altitude. The pilots would tighten up the formation and the lead aircraft with the lead bombardier would get to it's assigned bombing altitude and speed. Once the start of the bomb run was reached, the pilot engaged the autopilot and told the bombardier that he was now flying the aircraft. The Norden bombsight that was carried on all B-17s, B-24s, and B-29s was tied into the aircraft's autopilot. The bombardier would dial in the plane's altitude and speed into the bombsight before placing the crosshairs on the target. Once the target was locked into the bombsight, the bombsight would keep the target in it's crosshairs based on the speed and altitude programmed into it by the bombardier. The bombardier would then get the strength and direction of any wind and program that into the bombsight along with bomb type. The bombsight would calculate the path that the bombs would fall to the target based on all this information, correct the plane's speed, altitude, and heading through the autopilot to keep these factors properly set, and when the proper release point was reached, would automatically drop the bombs on the target. As the previous quote shows, a good bombardier almost actually could put the bombs “in a pickle barrel” which was the claim of the Norden bombsight. The rest of the group would be watching the lead plane and when they saw his bombs drop, they would drop their's. This was called “Dropping on lead's command.”
The reason the bomb run was so frightening is the vulnerability the crews felt. For five to ten minutes, the planes would be flying straight and level. Absolutely no evasive action was allowed on the bomb run (earlier on pilots would try to take evasive action during the bomb run to try and confuse the enemy Anti-Aircraft Artillery and it was found that by doing this the bombing results were very poor). If there was AAA, flak as the crews called it, so thick that you would walk on it then so be it, they flew right through it. Even in the days of heavy Luftwaffe activity, the flak over a target was the worst because the crew could see the dark puffs of the flak up ahead, they could see that the gunners down below had the right altitude, and yet they had to fly right through it on the bomb run.
Sometimes on the bomb run it wasn't flak but fighters that got to the crews. Once on the bomb run the bombers would have their bomb bay doors open and the enemy fighters could see that. They would then know that the bombers were on their bomb run and would be forced to flying straight and level making them an easier target. On some missions, when the bombers were heading out to hit a very important and heavily defended target, they would encounter flak and enemy fighters but generally the enemy fighters stayed away if there was flak over the target for fear of getting hit themselves.
The formations had a lead bombardier and a couple deputy leads. The deputy leads would take the lead if for some reason the lead bomber or bombardier was unable to do the job over the target. However, during the early part of the air war, every bomber had a fully trained and qualified bombardier on board so just about any plane could take over lead if need be. This was mandatory as in some early battles, out of 14 bombers out of a squadron that went out, only one might come home!
Later in the war when long range fighters and 2 years of pounding had all but made the Luftwaffe non-existent, the bombardier was replaced with a toggler. Where the bombardier was a commissioned officer, the togglers were enlisted men. When a toggler was on the aircraft, it did not carry a Norden Bombsight. When the toggler saw the lead plane drop his bombs, he would toggle the bombs to drop out of his aircraft.
When not on the bomb run, whether it was a toggler or a bombardier, the crewman flying that position would man the nose guns. Up to and including the “F” model, this was a handheld gun in a fixed mount through the Plexiglas nose cone. Usually this was either a .30 caliber machine gun or a .50 caliber machine gun depending on the model of B-17. However, in the field crews usually modified this position to carry at least one .50 caliber machine gun (if the plane only had a .30 caliber one standard) and sometimes up to 3 .50 caliber machine guns. There were even some who tried to install a 20mm cannon up front to improve the weak forward firepower of the B-17. Two more .50 caliber machine guns were in the “cheek” positions and could be brought to bear against fighters attacking from the front half of the aircraft but were hard pressed to fire on a fighter coming directly at the front of the bomber. Starting with the last few “F” models and continuing with the “G” model, B-17s were outfitted with a chin turret carrying two .50 caliber machine guns. This turret, originally designed and used on the unsuccessful B-17 based XB-40 gunship, greatly improved forward firepower and was manned by the bombardier/toggler using a control yoke and reflective gun sight. The sight was mounted to the top part of the nose just inside the nose cone and the yoke could be swung out of the way to allow the bombardier to use the Norden bombsight.
In addition to his duties as a bomb dropper and gunner, the bombardier/toggler would assist with other various duties on the aircraft. Many times they would perform oxygen checks or assist the navigator or radio operator with getting fixes and their logs. Basically any of the basic duties that the other crewmembers could perform, so could the bombardier.
The bombardier was a fully commissioned officer, usually a 1st Lieutenant while the toggler was an enlisted man over the rank of Seargent.