The USAAF Arrives in Britain


Army Air Force men around one of the first B-24 Liberator to arrive in Great Britain.


Getting ready: Members of the flight and ground crews of a B-17 bomber.


King George VI of Great Britain visits the base of the USAAF 352nd Bomb Squadron at Chelveston, England, UK, 13 Nov 1942. The aircraft is B-17F “Holey Joe” with Cpl David C Casteel of Illinois standing second from the left.

Even before the USA entered the war, the US Army sent Captain Harvey C. Brown Jr. to be trained in photographic interpretation at RAF Medmenham. Upon his return to the USA, Brown put his newly gained knowledge to good use. He helped to set up a photographic interpretation school at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to complement the existing one at Lowry Field, Denver. It was from these relatively small beginnings that US aerial reconnaissance grew.


In April 1942, Major Elliott Roosevelt, the second son of the US President, arrived at Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, then a British colony in West Africa, flying in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. Roosevelt initially was less than enthusiastic about being posted far away from any fighting, but no less a personage than his father explained to him exactly how important his mission was. He and his team were to map North Africa from the air in preparation for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Algeria and Tunisia that was to take place later in the year.

Roosevelt did the job well. Following the successful Torch landings, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and put in charge of the 3rd Photographic Operation Group, flying specially modified Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and based in Algiers. There, he got to know some of Britain’s leading reconnaissance fliers in the Mediterranean theater of war. Though he admired them, there were also clashes between the American photographic interpreters and their more experienced British counterparts. Roosevelt stubbornly tried to keep American photo-reconnaissance separate from that of the British. It was a foretaste of the policy he was to adopt when he was posted to the UK in early 1944 to take charge of US photographic intelligence in Britain in the run-up to D-Day and the launch of Operation Overlord.


The first US photographic interpreters arrived at RAF Medmenham in September 1942, just a month after the US 8th Army Air Force had launched its first daylight bombing raids against targets in Occupied France. Some of the Americans got on with the British, but others did not. Fortunately, whatever issues there were between the two nationalities did not fester. More Americans arrived to be integrated into the Medmenham machine. The original 30 soon doubled to 60. By the beginning of 1944, the number had reached 163.

It was then that Roosevelt arrived on the scene. His aim was still to ensure that American photographic reconnaissance and intelligence operations were conducted entirely separately from those of the British. Together with General James Doolittle, the commander of the 8th Army Air Force, he urged that all US photographic interpreters currently stationed at RAF Medmenham should move to Pinetree, where the headquarters of the 8th Army Air Force were based and set up a new independent operation there. The British high-ups and the majority of senior Americans were horrified by the scheme. Not only would implementing it be a wasteful, expensive, and time-consuming duplication of effort, it also went completely against the spirit of total Anglo-American cooperation that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, now designated supreme Allied commander in Europe, was doing everything he could to foster. Eisenhower warned that any US officer finding it impossible to establish cordial relations with the British or caught running them down would find himself on the next boat home, however high his rank.

Roosevelt refused to be deterred. He threatened to take the dispute to his father to settle even after James Winant, the US Ambassador in London, warned him bluntly that his stubbornness “might jeopardize the whole future of Anglo-American relations.” Eventually, thanks to Winant and General Carl Spaatz, commander-in-chief of all US strategic air forces in Europe, a compromise was brokered between the disputants. It involved the setting-up of a new body—the Joint Photographic Reconnaissance Committee—on which the Americans and British were equally represented. The committee laid down the priorities for aerial reconnaissance. RAF Medmenham, renamed the Allied Central Interpretation Unit, retained control of photographic interpretation with the exception of damage assessment, which moved to Pinetree. Actual RAF and USAAF reconnaissance flights would still be flown separately—the RAF operating from Benson and the US 8th Reconnaissance Wing from Mount Farm. Roosevelt had lost his battle. In November 1944, he was recalled to Washington and reassigned to the Pentagon.


Of course, this was by no means the only disagreement between the two Western Allies. The issue was when and where the invasion of Occupied Europe should take place. The Americans were all for an invasion of France as soon as possible, for which the Soviets were pressing constantly as well. The British response was that this would be impossible before 1943 at the earliest and more likely impractical until 1944. Instead, Churchill and his military advisers argued that, once Axis forces had been driven out of North Africa, the best option would be to keep up the pressure on them in the Mediterranean, invading mainland Italy to knock the Italians out of the war and moving on to liberate the Balkans. The Americans reluctantly agreed to go along with the first part of the plan.

The one thing Washington and London both agreed on completely was that a massive strategic bombing offensive should be launched to carry the war into the heartland of the Third Reich. Air force commanders on both sides—the so-called “bomber barons,” as they were nicknamed—enthusiastically endorsed the decision, but differed as to how best to carry it out.

Sir Arthur Harris, who took over as commander-in-chief of Bomber Command in February 1942, was in no doubt that area bombing by night, carried out on an unprecedented scale, would overwhelm the German air defenses, break civilian morale by the sheer scale of the destruction it would cause, and so win the Allies the war. “Having watched the bombing of London,” he wrote, “I was convinced that a bomber offensive of adequate weight and the right kind of bombs would, if continued for long enough, be something that no country in the world could endure.” The four-engine Stirling, Halifax, and Lancaster heavy bombers that the British aircraft industry was churning out in ever-increasing numbers were the tools he needed to do the job. Revolutionary new radar aids and a new Pathfinder force would help his aircrews to find their targets and bomb them accurately on even the blackest of nights.

The Air Ministry obligingly issued Bomber Command with a list of priority targets. Essen, Duisberg, Düsseldorf, and Cologne were termed Primary Industrial Areas. Lübeck, Rostock, Bremen, Kiel, Hamburg, Hanover, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Stuttgart, and Schweinfurt were among the Alternative Industrial Areas Harris was enjoined to attack as well. The assault by Harris’s aerial armadas would continue until, as he put it, “the heart of Nazi Germany ceases to beat.” He was utterly confident of success.

US Army Air Force chiefs were just as convinced as Harris that strategic bombing would succeed. Where they differed from him was the way in which they thought it should be best implemented. After its disastrous experiences in 1939 and 1940, the RAF had concluded that mounting daylight raids with unescorted bombers was tantamount to suicide and that, for whatever reason, British aircrews were incapable of achieving the level of accuracy precision bombing demanded. The Americans begged to differ on both counts.


In the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Americans were convinced that they possessed a strategic bomber capable of carrying out unescorted daylight missions over Germany regardless of anything the Luftwaffe might throw at it. Flying in tight formation, each bomber “box” supporting its partners, Flying Fortresses would blow any attacking fighters out of the sky.

The Boeing certainly was a magnificent piece of aviation engineering. Flying at a cruising speed of 260mph (418km/h), with a range of 3,750 miles (6,035km) and a 35,600ft (10,668m) service ceiling, it was heavily armored and heavily armed with no fewer than between 11 and 13 machine guns. Its drawback was its lack of bomb-carrying capacity. A Flying Fortress could carry only a 4,800lb (2,177kg) bomb load as opposed to the 14,000lb (6,350kg) of an average Lancaster.

The Americans, however, believed that they had another trump card up their sleeves. It was the Norden bomb-sight, one of the air force’s most closely guarded secrets and one of the most advanced pieces of bombing technology to see service during the course of the entire war. It was a mechanical analog computer, which a bombardier could use to determine the precise moment at which he had to drop his bombs to hit their target accurately. The sight was claimed to be accurate enough for a bombardier to hit a 100ft (30.4m) circle from a height of 21,000ft (6,400m), though, in actual combat conditions, accuracy was understandably somewhat less. It was also affected by the generally overcast flying conditions in European skies.


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