The Schweinfurt-Regensburg bomber raids of August 17 and October 14, 1943, were part of the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) bomber offensive initiated in June 1943. U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) leaders were determined, despite concerns about their effectiveness, to prove the efficacy of largely unescorted daylight, socalled precision bombing raids, and the ability of strategic bombing to win the war.
The raids were designed to destroy five ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft complex at Regensburg. The mission was assigned to Major General Ira Eaker’s Eighth Army Air Force in England. Both targets were far beyond the normal range of the USAAF’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress strategic bomber. Regensburg, to be attacked by the 3rd Bombardment Group, was more than 500 miles from the English coast, while Schweinfurt, to be struck by the 1st Bombardment Group, was nearly 400 miles distant. German fighters would thus have ample opportunity to attack the bomber streams both coming and going. Once they had dropped their bombs, the Regensburg bombers were to fly on to North Africa. Eighteen squadrons of USAAF Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and 16 squadrons of Royal Air Force (RAF) Supermarine Spitfires could provide protection only about 40 percent of the way.
Early morning fog on August 17 disrupted the plan for simultaneous attacks. Of the 3rd Bombardment Group’s 146 B-17s, 122 reached their target; they dropped 250 tons of bombs on Regensburg. Four hours later, 184 of the 1st Bombardment Group’s original 230 bombers dropped 380 tons of bombs on Schweinfurt. Of the 376 B-17s that took off, following aborts 361 crossed the Dutch coastline. Sixty (36 over Regensburg and 24 over Schweinfurt) were shot down, but 11 of the 301 bombers that made it to base were damaged beyond repair, and another 162 received some damage. The overall loss rate, including aircraft that had to be written off, was 19 percent. The Eighth Air Force lost 408 aircrew, 100 of them killed. U.S. gunners claimed to have downed 228 German fighters; actual losses were 27.
The raid did have some success. Nearly half of the machine tools in the Regensburg assembly plant were destroyed. Although the plant was back in production in less than four weeks, fighter production losses were on the order of 800 to 1,000 planes. Unknown at the time, the raid also destroyed the jigs for the fuselage of the Messserschmitt Me-262 jet fighter. German managers later speculated that this loss delayed the production of this aircraft by four critical months. At Schweinfurt, ball-bearing production suffered a temporary 50 percent drop-off. Double shifts, however, soon made up for this deficiency.
A belated attempt to renew the assault on Schweinfurt on October 14, the socalled Black Thursday raid, cost the Americans 60 of 291 aircraft and more than 600 aircrew. Again, the raid had only limited success. This raid left 133 planes so badly damaged that it took four months to bring the Eighth Air Force back to anything approaching full strength. The Germans lost perhaps 35 fighters.
German minister of armaments and munitions Albert Speer believed that the Allies could have won the war in 1944 had they continued raids against the ballbearing industry. Speer held in his memoirs that raids such as that at Schweinfurt could well have proven fatal if continued at a high level. The USAAF could not sustain such raids, though; they were simply too costly. The Eighth Air Force was losing some 30 percent of its strength each month, ensuring that few crews made it to the 25 missions necessary for rotation back to the United States. The loss rates for the bombers were totally unsustainable, and the attacks proved to Allied leaders that deep raids were impossible without long-range fighter escort.
The Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids did force the USAAF to address a host of long-standing problems, including navigation and bombing procedures. The raids also sparked a crash program for mass production of a long-range fighter, hitherto inexplicably low on the list of military priorities. That aircraft appeared in the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, probably the best all-around piston- engine fighter of the war. Mounting six .50-caliber machine guns and capable of a speed of 440 miles per hour (mph), it outclassed the Bf-109 in maneuverability and in speed by at least 50 mph. The P-51 Mustang could also carry 2,000 pounds of bombs. The British and Americans had been slow to utilize drop tanks.
An obvious range extender for fighter aircraft, drop tanks had been utilized by the Japanese early on in operations against the Philippines. The P-51’s range was 810 miles, but with two 75-gallon drop tanks it had a round-trip range of 1,200 miles; a further 85-gallon internal tank extended this to 1,474 miles, and even with two drop tanks it could reach 400 mph and more. The Allies now had an aircraft with the range of a bomber and the speed and maneuverability of a fighter. The North American P-51 and the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, another fine fighter and rugged ground- support aircraft, arrived in the European theater at the end of 1943. With drop tanks they could protect the bombers to and from their targets.
The air war thus turned dramatically. In February 1944 the Allies carried out a series of massive raids against German aircraft factories and strikes against Berlin, forcing German fighters aloft so they could be destroyed.
Middlebrook, Martin. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission. New York: Scribner, 1983.
Neillands, Robin. The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive against Nazi Germany. New York: Overlook, 2001.
Verrier, Anthony. The Bomber Offensive. New York: Macmillan, 1969.