Boeing and Strategic Bombing
To fully understand the story of the B-17, one needs to first look at Boeing's history and position in the airplane industry as well as the military and political factors that helped to shape this aircraft. Without getting an understanding of the military theories, the political and economical motivators, and the trials and triumphs of the Boeing industry the why's and how's of the B-17 story remain unanswered and a full appreciation for the aircraft is unattainable.
Boeing, at the time of the government long range bomber contest, was in dire financial straights. Its civilian airline production was slowing down due to a slack in airline orders (more on this later) and other than finishing a couple small government projects, had no other new contracts on the horizon. In 1934 the aircraft industry conglomerate UATC, which included Boeing and its airline division United Airlines, was broken up by the US government and Boeing no longer had a guaranteed customer for it's civilian passenger aircraft. Because of these issues, Boeing decided to pursue more military contracts while redesigning its now outclassed civilian aircraft design.
On the government side of things, the US Army Air Corps, a branch of the United States Army, was having its own difficulties. World War I had seen the first use of air power to strike at the homeland of a country normally safe from such attacks. Germany had used her Zeppelin dirigibles (blimps) to raid London England. While the bombs themselves did very little damage, it caused a great stir among the populace of London and birthed new ideas to military leaders around the world. The idea of strategic bombing was born.
No more so was this idea embraced than in England. However, the argument arose as to whether or not the British should build its own strategic bomber force or build fighters to defend against an enemy's bombers. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris became the loudest advocate in Britain for the development of a strategic bombing force.
The theory of strategic bombing has two parts. The first is that it can knock out the enemy's ability to physically wage war. Industries that are vital to a war effort such as factories, plants, and refineries can be destroyed thus limiting the enemy's war making materials. The second part is that relentless bombing of the cities that these industries reside in will knock out the enemy's will to wage war. It was believed that the people that lived in these cities, if subjected to the terror, destruction, and inconvenience caused by an all out bombing campaign, would object against the war, war material production would drop off. There were even hopes that such raids would lead to the citizens openly revolting against the government. Most proponents of strategic bombing believed that an enemy could be defeated by air power alone!
It is interesting to note here that strategic bombing accomplished only one of these two goals, only marginally, and no where close to single handedly winning the war. Ironically the B-17, a product of this very theory, is the tool that proved this. However, this being said, there were two very important outcomes of the strategic bombing campaign over Europe from 1942-1945 that more than made up for this. While the bombing of German industries did nothing to put them out of commission (actually, German industrial production of all weaponry increased during the strategic bombing campaign) the threat of the bombers caused the German military to put men and materials into stopping the raids. 900,000 men serving as pilots, mechanics, and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) crews could have been used on the Eastern Front to defeat the Soviets before the Allies had a chance to land on the shores of France. Also, once the Allied bombing forces began to target oil refineries, the German capacity to wage war began to falter. Refineries and, perhaps more importantly, oil fields were difficult if not impossible to move and disperse like the rest of German industry. Without oil, the Germans could not make fuel. Without fuel, pilots couldn't be trained, aircraft couldn't be put into the sky, and tanks couldn't roll against the Allies. Lack of fuel helped turn the tide against the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and this was directly attributed to Allied bombing raids. Both of these actions helped win the war in Europe and with out the air superiority enjoyed over the Normandy beaches in June 1944 that had been won by Allied fighters escorting these bombing missions and decimating the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in the process, the invasion would have been hard pressed to succeed. (Note that the Luftwaffe had been so utterly mauled by June of 1944 that only two ME-109s buzzed the Normandy beaches on D-Day.)
Long before any of this happened, however, William "Billy" Mitchell was strategic bombing's greatest advocate in the United States but there were many more in the Army Air Corps that shared his views only did not voice them so loudly. Mitchell went so far as to show that aircraft could take on the Navy's role and sink battleships! Needless to say in the Great Depression era where money was tight all over this did not go over well with the Navy.
Because of the depression neither the U.S. or Britain were sold on the idea of strategic bombing. In England, the idea of invasion rattled most British. For years their little island nation had been protected by the surrounding oceans against invasion from the sea, up until the First World War being the only way one could invade Britain. As such, most were more concerned about protecting England from bombers than having bombers of their own. Add to this fact that in these economically lean times a fighter was far cheaper to produce than a bomber. Thus for the price of a single bomber squadron, England could produce a number of fighter squadrons. However, because England's leaders could see the value of strategic bombers, and because of the lobbying of "Bomber" Harris, a heavy bomber program was initiated and a limited number of bomber ideas would be tested.
In the U.S., similar views prevailed but for much different reasons. The U.S. felt that it had been drug, kicking and screaming, into World War I. The "Great War" had been a European problem that the U.S. should never have been involved in and, as the story went, U.S. involvement had lead to the Great Depression. As such Americans succumbed to the practice of Isolationism. Basically, the U.S. was going to keep to itself and let the world deal with their problems themselves. A strategic bomber was seen as an offensive weapon, something that did not fit at all into the idea of Isolationism. Compounding that fact was the depression and, again, the cost difference between fighters and bombers.
However, unlike in England where Fighter Command and Bomber Command were branches of the autonomous Royal Air Force (RAF), aircraft here were attached to one of the other armed services and in the case of land based aircraft, they fell under the Army in the Army Air Crops. The Army command felt that the role of aircraft was tactical and not strategic. Tactical air operations are those operations that support ground forces such as strikes against enemy strong points or bridges just behind enemy lines to cause a disruption in the enemy ground forces' supply lines. The Army's high command did not wish to promote any theories, ideas, or equipment that might cause the Air Corps reason to become its own branch and strategic bombing was just such a theory. Therefore, any equipment such as the B-17 and other heavy bombers were given lowest priority. Only medium bombers that could be used for tactical strikes were ordered.
It was under these conditions that the Boeing B-17 came into existence. In a way, it is amazing that the aircraft was ever built much less tested and orders for it placed. However, as will be seen in the following sections, the B-17 soon proved not only it existence, but changed the world's view about the possibility of strategic bombers.