It was often overshadowed by the fighters it came up against, but the B-17 was at the centre of many unbelievable tales. Here are five of the most remarkable
5. Belle the Beast
The members of ‘Memphis Belle‘s’ crew first set eyes on their brand new B-17F-10-BO at Bangor, Maine, in September 1942. The B-17 would go on to gain fame for being the first Eighth Air Force bomber to complete 25 combat missions over occupied Europe without a crewman being killed and returning to the United States. In ‘Belle’s’ first three months of sorties from Bassingbourn, 80 per cent of the bomb group she was part of was shot down.
‘Belle’ participated in some of the most hazardous raids of the war, when the Luftwaffe still had a commanding fighter superiority and defences of the Nazi regime were strong. She was bullet-ridden, flak-battered and on five separate occasions had one of her engines shot out. But she carried on, facing Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs time after time and absorbing their cannon fire without flinching. The longest period that the B-17 was out of service for was five days, when transportation difficulties delayed a wing replacement.
During her 25 combat missions, ‘Belle‘s’ gunners were credited with destroying eight enemy fighters, but they also probably destroyed five others and damaged at least a dozen more. Her crew dropped more than 60 tons of bombs over France, Germany and Belgium, knocking out supply depots, railway yards, aircraft plants and an assortment of military bases. Although ‘Memphis Belle‘s’ crew members earned 51 decorations, only one Purple Heart was awarded—to tail gunner John Quinlan. Each of the crew received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters for their service during the war. The ‘Memphis Belle’ became a symbol of hope and success for many B-17 pilots.
4. Against the odds
On February 1, 1943, Lieutenant Kendrick Bragg and the crew of the ‘All American’ were given orders to attack several German-controlled seaports. Despite coming under fire from enemy flak, the operation was a success. The crew began to turn their B-17 toward home when they were met by a formation of German Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters.
The ‘All American’ fought off their Me 109 by firing from their nose turret. The crew watched as their bullets hit the Me 109, which was now performing evasive manoeuvres. However, before he could complete a move, the German pilot was incapacitated by the B-17. The Me 109, without a pilot to control it, tore through the rear fuselage of the ‘All American’. It ripped a gash in the metal and tore off the left horizontal stabiliser. Bragg tried everything he could think of to stop the B-17 from climbing, which was all it wanted to do. Using immense pressure, he was able to hold the aeroplane in a straight line. The B-17s to the sides of the ‘All American’ remained at her side, escorting the damaged bomber through enemy territory. Eventually, Bragg and his crew reached the airfield to land.
After releasing three emergency flares, he made a long, careful approach to the strip. The front wheels touched the ground and the tail dragged, bringing the bomber to a stop. Bragg had landed the ‘All American’ against all odds.
3. On a spin and a prayer
The crew of ‘Tail End Charlie’ set off in their B-17 at 7:45am January 11, 1944, unaware that this combat mission would result in an occurrence that the aeroplane had previously been thought incapable of.
After dropping their bombload shortly before midday, the group formation was hit by enemy fighters upon turnaround. At approximately 1pm, the bomber was attacked by another wave of enemy fighters. By this time, they had repositioned themselves accordingly with the number of fellow B-17s that had been lost and were flying number three position in the lead squadron. As the enemy came in, the top turret gunner of ‘Tail End Charlie’ shot a FW 190. The enemy fighter burst into flames, nosed up and to its left, and collided with the B-17 flying number two position of the second element on the right. Upon collision, the number two B-17 burst into flames, started into a loop, but fell off on its left wing and across the tail of ‘Tail End Charlie’.
Immediately upon being hit by the falling B-17, ‘Tail End Charlie’ nosed up and went into a loop. The action of the pilot regarding the handling of the ship was controlled and steady. As quickly as ‘Tail End Charlie’ was hit, the A.F.C.E. was engaged set up for level flying. Full power was applied with throttle and both pilot and co-pilot began the struggle with the manual controls. In only a fraction of a second, the ship had completed a loop and began spinning toward the ground, with five enemy fighters following on the tail. When the ship fell into a spin, the pilot - after determining its direction - applied full inside throttle, retarded the other two, used only aileron control, and applied it in full opposite position, rolled elevator trim-tab fully forward. After making at least two or three complete 360-degree turns, the B-17 finally levelled off in the clouds at 4000 feet.
During the violent manoeuvres of the loop, the left waist gunner, Staff Sergeant Warren Carson, was thrown about in the waist of the ship, resulting in a fractured leg. However, he remained at his guns until the chances of more enemy attacks receded. After the B-17 was well out over the North Sea, the injured waist gunner was moved to the radio room where he was treated and made comfortable by the bombardier who went back to assist. Upon approach to land, the pilot ordered all crew members to radio room to prepare for crash landing. However, the navigator volunteered to remain in the nose of the ship to direct the pilot and co-pilot in their approach to the field and a final landing.
After a long and arduous mission, the crew of ‘Tail End Charlie’ had worked together to land the stricken aeroplane. After setting it on the ground it was noted that the right tire was flat, and that the ship was almost dry of fuel. Following the incident, it was confirmed that a B-17 would loop, spin, and pull out of a dive, fly without a rudder and very little horizontal stabiliser, and will land normally without a rudder and a flat tire added. The knowledge and courage shown by the crew members was highly commended and recognised, especially the navigator who displayed extreme courage when he volunteered to remain in the nose to direct the pilot.
2. Nose-less landing
On the October 15 1944, a B-17 Flying Fortress took a direct hit over Cologne, Germany. The crew had just dropped their bombs and were turning away when a flak burst took out the nose of the aircraft. The togglier was killed instantly.
Part of the nose peeled back upon impact, obstructing the vision of both the pilot and co-pilot. What little there was left in front of the pilots looked like a scrap heap. The wind was rushing through, their feet were exposed to the open air at nearly 30,000 feet above the ground. They had no oxygen, no maps, no radio and practically no instruments. They descended and turned back towards allied territory.
By this time, the B-17 and its crew were down to 2,000 feet. Agreeing that they were over Belgium and flying in a south-westerly direction, they made their way over to France and found England. Nearing the field, the co-pilot let the landing gear down. That was an assurance, but a check of the hydraulic pump sent another spray of oil to the cockpit floor, indicating that the brakes were dysfunctional. Nevertheless, a flare from the pilot’s pistol had to announce the ‘ready or not’ landing.
Strictly by guess and feel and without instruments, the B-17 came in hot, with the pilot having to lean out to the left to see straight ahead due to the macerated nose portion of the aeroplane. Despite the odds being stacked against them, the crew had pulled off a safe landing and were back on the ground. After the event, the pilot was awarded a Silver Start for bringing a plane home that, by all rights, had no business flying. The navigator received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his skill and level-headed guidance.
1. The ‘piggyback’ flight of WWII
On New Year’s Eve, 1944, Flight Lieutenant Glenn Rojohn and his crew were not getting ready to welcome in the New Year. Instead, they were flying ‘The Little Skipper’, a B-17G Flying Fortress, through flak and dark plumes of smoke on their way back from a mission to target oil refineries in Hamburg, Germany.
Many of the group of 37 aeroplanes had already been hit or shot down. The surviving aircraft reformed the formation, with a replacement B-17 acting as the alternate group leader. Below Rojohn and his crew, a B-17 called ‘The Nine Lives’ was struck by heavy fire, taking out both the pilot and co-pilot. Unbeknownst to Rojohn that its flight crew were fatally wounded, the Flying Fortress continued to fly – however now it began to drift upward toward ‘The Little Skipper’. With an almighty crunch, the top turret guns on ‘The Nine Lives’ pierced through the aluminium fuselage on the bottom of Rojohn’s plane, binding the two together. The two aeroplanes became one. Bill Leek, co-pilot of ‘The Little Skipper’, later described it as ‘being stuck together like mating dragonflies’.
Trying to separate the two as he saw one of the below plane’s engines catch fire, Rojohn’s efforts came to no avail. As a result, he considered that the journey to England would not be possible and made the brave decision to head back to Germany. With amazing skill and an impressive show of airmanship, both Rojohn and Leek managed to coax the conjoined aeroplanes around. Rojohn gave Leek orders to bail along with the rest of the crew – but he refused, knowing that this would certainly cause his superior to perish. So, the two men worked together to perform a successful crash landing in a German field.
After they got out of the cockpit, Leek began to light a cigarette. A German soldier who had come to capture the survivors saw this, and ordered Leek to stop, pointing at the aeroplane fuel that flooded the ground around them. In total, six crew from ‘The Little Skipper’ survived along with four from ‘The Nine Lives’. They were taken as prisoners of war, where they would remain until their liberation in 1945.
Rojohn received the distinguished flying cross for his actions on the day, but he always credited his co-pilot and friend Bill Leek for saving his life. Despite the considerable loss of life, had it not been for the remarkable efforts of the two pilots of ‘The Little Skipper’, the possibility of any survivors would have been close to zero.
Flight Lieutenant Glenn Rojohn decided never to celebrate New Year again.
For another incredible story on the B-17, see our story on the bravest B-17 crewman here: https://www.key.aero/article/worlds-bravest-b-17-crewman
Or to explore a whole range of fascinating stories on aviation history, discover our historic aviation section.
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