Attacking a B-17 formation from the German side!

Sturmböcke attack- art by Piotr Forkasiewicz

One Luftwaffe pilot said that trying to attack a B-17 formation from behind was like “trying to make love to a porcupine that is on fire.”

“A typical interception in the fall of 1942 has been described by Johannes Naumann, at that time the an Oberleutnant in II/JG 26. The Gruppe was ordered to attack the bombers on their return flight as there was no chance of reaching them on their bomb run. The B-17’s were flying in a staggered formation at about 26,000 feet. The Focke Wulfs finally struggled up to 27,000 feet, only to see the American formation receding into the distance. The speed of the FW 190’s at that altitude was only a little greater than that of the bombers…No bombers were downed; none had even suffered visible damage.”

—Top Guns of the Luftwaffe p. 125 by Donald L. Caldwell.

“The size of the heavy bombers and their formations could not be adequately described to a green pilot; they had to be experienced first hand…The bomber gunners opened fire as soon as a target was seen, in order to disrupt or ward off attacks. The Americans’ browning .50 inch machine guns had a higher muzzle velocity and a greater range than the Germans MG 17s whose tracers were used to site their MG 151 cannon. So the fighter pilots cockpits were surrounded by red tracers, “Swarming like wasps” in Borris’s words, long before they themselves could open fire effectively; and because of low closing speeds, this extremely uncomfortable situation could continue for several minutes…some plots would invariably break away prematurely, and the rest would pass through the bomber formation at whatever angle and orientation promised the best chance of survival.”

—— ibid p. 126

“All four of the bombers shot down by JG 26 came from the 306th Bomb Group. The Geschwader lost only one pilot in this battle, but it was a serious blow to the unit. Hptm. Fritz Geisshardt, Kommandeur of the third Gruppe, was hit by return fire on his unit’s first pass through the bombers. Bleeding profusely from a wound in the abdomen, Geisshardt dove away from the battle and made a smooth landing …his blood loss proved fatal; the medical personnel at the Ghent hospital could not save him and he died early the next morning.

—-ibid p. 159

“Against 20 Russians trying to shoot you down, or even 20 Spitfires, it can be exciting, even fun. But to curve in towards 40 Fortresses and all your past sins flash before your eyes. And when you yourself have reached this state of mind, it becomes that much more difficult to have to drive every pilot of the Geschwader, right down to the youngest and lowliest NCO, to do the same.”

Hans Philipp in a letter to Hannes Trautloft, 4 October 1943. Philipp was KIA 4 days later, possibly By Robert S. Johnson, during a raid on Bremen.

It was a learning curve. The German Luftwaffe pilots called the B-17 formations “Pulk” or herd. It was kind of a scary sight for the Luftwaffe pilots. As they close in on the formation, they were going about 800km/h or 500 mph. They only had less than a second to fire their weapons and then take action to evade fire from the B-17’s themselves.

The Luftwaffe pilots started going head to head with the bombers at first. The newer B-17’s fire power was weaker in the front of the aircraft. First these head to head attacks were at a flat angle. But the Luftwaffe pilots learned that this angle of attack made judgment of the distance to the target difficult. They would have thought in their mind to open fire from too far away and then break away too soon for fear of collision in their mind. Later they decide to change angle of attack when approaching head to head. It was from ten degrees above the horizontal. American bomber pilots would later call this “12 O’clock High”, when reporting to the crew of the bomber. This help the Luftwaffe pilots a lot better and made it easier to estimate distance, very similar to ground strafing.

Of course the Americans started to add more guns in front afterwards in newer models of the B-17 like the “G” model.

After the Americans did this; then they started to go straight down from above the B-17 and a little bit behind but this took more skill.

Attacking the bomber straight from behind was very deadly for the Luftwaffe. It was like slow motion for them and was about only going 160km/h or 100 mph and took as long as 15 to 20 seconds for the attack, giving the bomber tail and ball turret gunner plenty of time to fire on them.

They started to learn more about how the bombers defended themselves and used S-curve maneuver to avoid fire hitting them and do a dive and inverted roll.

The Luftwaffe pilots started to realized that attacks from above the bomber would hurt the bomber’s oil tanks for the engine, thus taking out the bomber engines.

It was determined that it took 20 hits from 20mm cannon to take out a B-17 by reviewing Luftwaffe camera film of attacking fighters.

Akhil Kadida

Here are some American lessons for the crews of the B-17 bombers of the Luftwaffe tactical attacks on their B-17 formations.

This attack was called “The Triple Threat.” The Luftwaffe aircraft will fly along side the B-17 formation. They will cross ahead of the formation and be at the 11 O’clock, 12 O’clock and the 1 O’clock position. The fighters will dive 2.200 meters ahead and 400 meters above and attack head on. (C) does wing up break away to left at 800 yards. (B) does upside- down Split-S dive at 500 yards. (A) will break away using an inverted dive at 300 yards,

This attack was called the “Double Queue.” The Luftwaffe would be on both sides of the formation about 2000 meters away. They will take turns doing dives on the formation about 10 seconds apart. They would escape doing inverted rolls and Split-S. They are basically diving through the formation while attacking.

This attack was called “The Tail Gunners Headache.” An attack from the rear using similar escape tactics like in the “The Triple Threat” attack.

At first the American B-17’s flew in formations of 9×2 (18) aircraft each. Then they started changing the altitude of the bombers. Instead of following one another like in the past, they changed the altitude of each bomber in a high, medium and low box type formations.

First type of formations in September 1942.

Later type of formation in July 1943.

The secret was breaking apart the bomber group.

Manned by troops with relatively little training in fairly uncomfortable gunnery positions, the machine gun defense of a single B-17 was barely a nuisance for any German fighter seeking to hunt a bomber. However, the problem was not as simple as that. B-17 bombers did not come in singles, but in large combat boxes mustering more than a hundred machine guns in a fairly concentrated area of the sky, which in turn were further massed into raids consisting at least of dozens of planes.

And there would be escorts.

Thus, the German assault on a bomber formation usually came in two echelons, if the formation was escorted by significant numbers of fighters. The first wave consisted primarily of Messerschmitt Bf 109’s: fast, nimble, excellent performance at high altitude but rather short on armament, the 109’s were perfect for carving through escort fighters, or at least keeping them busy.

Once that happened, in the wake of the 109’s came the Sturmböcke.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-8/R8 of Jagdgeschwader 3 ‘Udet’, pilot Hauptmann Wilhelm Moritz

The term ‘Sturmböcke’ could colloquially be used to mean any of the various bomber-destroyers used by the Luftwaffe, but in common military jargon it meant one thing: the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 models dedicated to that purpose.

A considerably larger, heavier, more durable and more stable gun platform than the Bf 109 and nimble and agile enough to contend with single-engine fighters the way two engined Zerstörer bomber-killers couldn’t, the infamous ‘Butcherbird’ was the ideal bomber killer. The core of the Sturmböcke was the A-8 model of the Fw 190: at the time carrying one of the heaviest single-engine fighter armaments in the world with two 13mm MG 131 machine guns mounted on the nose and four 20mm MG 151/20 cannons in the wings. Each one of those four cannons could empty its 250-round payload in less than half a minute.

These aircraft were then usually applied with the general anti-bomber Rüstsätze of R2, R6, R7 and R8. German aircraft of the Second World War, especially the Fw 190, were surprisingly modular with a significant number of equipment kits that could drastically alter its purpose. The R2 upgrade package replaced the two outermost 20mm cannons with the 30mm MK 108 cannon, R7 was add-on cockpit armor, and the R8 was a combination of the two: R6 was rather different, adding two under-wing Werfer-Granate 21 anti-bomber rocket launchers. With a 40.8 kilogram warhead and 18.4 kilograms of fuel, the rocket had a 1200 meter range and was lethal to any bomber within thirty meters of the point of detonation. The weapon was particularly useful for breaking apart bomber boxes and reducing the formations to individual aircraft not supporting each other.

Luftwaffe ground personnel load a Werfer-Granate 21 launcher. The launcher created significant drag and impacted aircraft performance, however, if the pilot wanted, the launcher could be jettisoned after firing, restoring the aircraft performance.

However, the firepower of the A-8/R8 was far greater than the simple number or caliber of guns implied. Germans were the inventors of the Minengeschoß, the ‘mine shell’: a type of cannon munition with extremely thin walls made from quality steel, leaving a lot of space to pack in explosive filler. When they were introduced in 1937, 20mm Minengeschoß shells packed eighteen grams of explosive, thrice the filler of any other aircraft cannon shell of the same caliber in the world at the time.

The 30mm versions were even scarier. The initial variants packed a monstrous 85 grams of PETN, while the later version streamlined for better ballistics a still-scary 72 grams: no 30mm cannon shell ever built since has carried more explosive filler. The results of the sheer explosive power on aircraft were predictable.

When it came to the act of actually assaulting a large bomber formation, there were three essential components: altitude, speed, and nerves of Krupp steel. Germans preferred to attack from a higher altitude: they climbed up above the bomber box, and then dived sharply towards and through the bombers. The 13mm and 20mm guns, which had better ballistics, opened up first. This was especially important when attacking from astern, because this would probably knock out the tail gunner and make it much easier to close in and finish off the bomber. Attacks were pressed down to less than a hundred meters of distance between the two aircraft: despite the safety afforded by the heavily armored cockpit, this took steel nerves. The two 30mm cannons would open up at around 150 meters, the range at which they could hardly miss, and a single hit from which could knock the bomber out of commission. Once the distance was short enough to necessitate to break away, the German pilots either pulled up or dived through the formation and then began to climb for another attack run.

And thus, one by one, the bomber box would be reduced, or dispersed thanks to rockets flying towards them or fighters diving through them. And if or when that happened… they were at the mercy of the Sturmböcke.

More often than not, the ability of the American forces to prevent a massed counter-bomber formation of the Luftwaffe from inflicting horrendous casualties on a bomber raid depended on their ability to intercept the German bomber destroyer groups out of reach of the bombers themselves. This was the most effective way of fighting the Sturmböcke: because when the Butcherbird got among the herd, it would most likely disperse that herd.

And for aircraft that relied on force of numbers and overlapping defensive fire for their survival, dispersion was death.

German Pilot Perspective