30 August 2015

The Boeing YB-40 Bomber Escort and Its Tall Tales

Boeing YB-40 in flight. Note the second dorsal turret.
It quickly became apparent with the start of daylight strategic bomber missions over Europe that fighter escort was desperately needed to get the heavy bombers to their targets and back. During the design phase of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, air doctrine of the day called for the mutually supporting defensive fire from the bomber formation to be sufficient defense against enemy fighters. Early B-17 missions were against targets in northern France which were well within the range of Royal Air Force Spitfires which could provide escort cover- but as the Eighth Air Force began to dispatch its growing B-17 force against further targets, the Spitfires lacked the range. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang had yet to reach sufficient numbers in Europe to provide long-range escort and the only fighter in theater with the range, the P-38 Lightning, was desperately needed in the North Africa campaign. In those early days of unescorted daylight missions, only a quarter of combat losses were coming from anti-aircraft flak- the majority of bomber losses came from Luftwaffe fighters. The only aircraft with the range to escort the B-17s was quite obviously (at least to planners then) another B-17, so why not swap out a bomb-load for increased defensive armament as a large bomber escort? The passage of time has us not knowing who came up with the idea of a heavily armed B-17 as an escort, but in November 1942 the first XB-40 was ordered- taking a stock B-17F Flying Fortress from the license production line at Lockheed Vega (both Lockheed and Douglas were building Flying Fortresses to augment Boeing's own production), the XB-40 was modified with a chin turret with twin fifty-caliber guns to defeat head-on attacks by Luftwaffe fighters. In addition, the waist positions were staggered so the waist gunners had more freedom of movement and each gunner got a twin fifty-caliber on a flexible mount instead of a single fifty-caliber gun which was standard. Finally, a second dorsal turret was added where the radio room was located, this turret also had twin fifty-caliber machine guns. Space in the bomb bay was devoted to additional ammunition storage and fuel. Compared to a standard B-17F, the XB-40 had three times the ammunition for its beefed up gun armament. 

Interior layout of the YB-40 showing the increased guns.
A further twenty-four B-17Fs were taken from Lockheed Vega's production and delivered to the Douglas B-17 plant in Tulsa for modification to YB-40 standard (the "Y" prefix indicating a service test aircraft as opposed to an experimental prototype which would use the "X" prefix). There were only minor differences between the first XB-40 and the YB-40 series of aircraft. Some sources suggest different armament combinations were trailed including cannons, but the aircraft were sent to Europe standardized on the Browning fifty-caliber machine gun for all the defensive positions. The 92nd Bomb Group at RAF Alconbury would be the first unit to take the YB-40 into combat to prove the concept. Of that group of twenty five aircraft (including the XB-40), thirteen would be sent to Europe- one was lost on the ferry flight, making a forced landing in a Scottish bog, leaving twelve to continue on to Alconbury. The first mission was flown on 29 May 1943 with seven YB-40s accompanying a B-17 force to hit the Kriegsmarine U-boat pens at Saint-Nazaire, France. The YB-40s, loaded with extra guns and ammunition, were slower than regular B-17Fs and handling at altitude was sluggish. The entire formation had to slow down to allow the YB-40s to keep up. On the return leg, the now empty B-17Fs could fly higher and faster no longer burdened with their bomb-loads, but the YB-40s still had their guns as they didn't exactly lighten over the course of the mission as they didn't have a heavy bomb-load to drop. Marauding German fighters focused on stragglers in the bomber formations and while the YB-40s had the defensive fire to fend off the attacks,  no one was thrilled about the prospect of being the formation straggler on every mission. The Eighth Air Force command was less than impressed- the last mission was flown on 29 July 1943 with only two months of operating experience- nine missions were flown with the loss of one aircraft. Five German fighters were confirmed as shot down by the YB-40s with two probable kills. It was hardly a resounding performance and the YB-40 program quietly wound down. Through 1943 until early 1944, the YB-40s returned to the United States. Twelve aircraft of the original twenty four never left the United States and were ultimately scrapped. 

Layout of the YB-40's additional gun armament.
The experience of the YB-40, though, did leave a legacy with the B-17 force. The next variant of the B-17 to follow the B-17F, the B-17G, featured the chin turret and the staggered waist gun positions that were used on the YB-40s. Some sources indicate that the improved "Cheyenne tail turret" (so named from the United Air Lines modification center in Cheyenne, Wyoming) was also an outgrowth of the YB-40 program. 

Two tall tales have sprung up from the YB-40 story that are often repeated on websites, publications and even books. Both of them are just that- fanciful stories and we'll discuss both of them for the record and why they're tall tales and not true historical events. 

The first story concerns a B-17 pilot with the Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean named Harold Fischer (in some stories spelled Fisher). Returning to their base in North Africa after a mission against the Italian island of Pantellaria, Fischer's B-17 lagged behind the formation as it had two of its engines shot out. A lone P-38 Lightning formed up on his bomber and offered to escort them. It soon took up position behind the crippled B-17 and shot it down over the sea with Fischer as the only survivor. His story was met with disbelief until USAAF intelligence officers corroborated his story that a P-38 that had gotten lost had fallen into the hands of the Italians and it was being flown by a Regia Aeronautica ace, Guido Rossi, to shoot down B-17 stragglers. Fischer was the first B-17 crewman to have survived Rossi's ruse as he had already downed nine bombers with the captured P-38. Fischer came up with a plan to exact revenge on Guido Rossi and a YB-40 was requested from the Eighth Air Force in August 1943 which Fischer would fly, playing the part of a B-17 straggler to trap Rossi. After two weeks of flying, they hadn't gotten Rossi but the Italian added more kills to his P-38. Determined to get him, Fischer worked with Allied intelligence to find out as much as he could about Guido Rossi and learned his wife and child were living in an Italian city that was in Allied hands. Fischer went to the home of Gina Rossi to meet her and had an artist paint a portrait of her on the side of the YB-40 which he aptly named "Gina". 

On the next mission to Pisa, Italy, Fischer's YB-40 took heavy damage and ended up getting met by Rossi's P-38. Noting the nose art, Rossi asked Fischer if the woman on the nose of the plane was from his own town. Realizing they had Rossi, Fischer confirmed Rossi's suspicions and began to sing the praises of Gina's lovemaking abilities. Filled with rage, Rossi attacked the YB-40 and a running gun duel ensued with Rossi at one point trying to ram the bomber. Rossi was eventually shot down over the sea and survived. As the story goes, Fischer got the Distinguished Flying Cross for it and the two flyers eventually met after the war, but Fischer was killed in a crash during the Berlin Airlift.

Sounds like a great story, but there was no Italian ace named Guido Rossi. A P-38 did fall into Italian hands during the war and its pilot was known and the aircraft as only flown in an evaluation role. There is no record of the YB-40 operating in the Mediterranean theater of operations- while there were two bomb groups with B-17s assigned to the Twelfth Air Force, neither of them operated the YB-40 either. And most damning to the veracity of this story, there is a pilot named Harold Fischer who got the DFC- but he was USAF F-86 Sabre pilot in the Korean War- he was the 25th ace of the war and was imprisoned by the Chinese after getting shot down and wasn't released until 1955. 

The second tale relates to one 1st Lt. Harry Reid with the 95th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force who with one of his lead pilots, had noted a lone B-17 that would tail their bomber formations on their missions over Europe. In June 1944 as the story goes, Reid and his lead pilot, Captain Glenn Infield, hatched a plan on their own initiative to use a parked YB-40 at their base to get this lone B-17 which they suspected was a captured Flying Fortress being flown by the Luftwaffe to tail formations and give position, altitude and heading information on the formations to defending Luftwaffe fighters. On a mission against a target in Brussels, Reid and Infield set their plan in motion. Sighting the lone B-17, they closed on it. The aircraft then veered away from them, confirming their suspicions as a one B-17 would have formed up with any other B-17 right away for mutual defensive fire from the gunners. Pursuing the German-flown Flying Fortress, the YB-40 was bounced by six Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighters. Reid and Infield astutely realized if they stayed close to the captured B-17, it made the Fw 190's task harder out of fear of hitting the wrong B-17. Their radio operator happened to speak fluent German and he got on the Luftwaffe's fighter frequency and directed the Fw 190 pilots to attack the captured B-17 while they made a sharp break to the right. Thinking they had gotten direction from their own B-17, the Fw 190 pilots made their attack before their own B-17 could protest! With the captured B-17 damaged, the YB-40 completed a full turn to the right and came up and behind the other Flying Fortress, finishing it off just as escort fighters arrived on the scene. Because their plan was hatched of their own initiative without the approval of their superiors, Reid and Infield were never formally decorated for their actions. 

Again, sounds like a great story, but the last YB-40s were documented to have returned to the United States by March 1944. Most of the original twelve that flew missions had returned through 1943 but three were left in Great Britain at the start of 1944. One returned to the United States in January 1944 and the last two returned in March 1944, making the timeline of this second tale impossible. In addition, while the 95th Bomb Group was co-located with the 92nd Bomb Group at RAF Alconbury, there is no documentation of the 95th BG having flown the YB-40. Only the 91st, 92nd, and 303d BGs ever flew the YB-40. 

Sources: Aerial Gunners: The Unknown Aces of World War II by Charles Watry and Duane Hall. California Aero Press, 1986, p167-174. "Brilliant Mistakes: The YB-40" by Robert Dorr. Defense Media Network at http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/my-brilliant-mistake-the-yb-40/. Photos: USAF Museum, 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historians, Squadron Publications via War Thunder Forums.

1 comment:

  1. A small note, but I think the trailed in the text was meant to be trialed. Too bad the YB-40 wasn't more successful- it's an appealing idea.