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RAF 90 Squadron AN528 During Training

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Boeing B-17C Fortress serial number 40-2064 (RAF AN-528) in Royal Air Force markings but without camouflage during a training flight over Puget Sound in Washington State in early 1941. In a secret operation because of America‘s stated neutrality, the British Purchasing Commission was offered five Boeing Model 299T/B-17C Flying Fortresses in September 1940. After United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt won re-election that November, the offer increased to twenty. The British were initially reluctant because Royal Air Force Bomber Command Chief Sir Arthur Harris, at the time an Air Commodore, had written a scathing report on the B-17C Boeing Flying Fortress after visiting the United States in 1938. The cupola in the nose was “more appropriately located in an amusement park than in a war plane.“ Harris also criticized the plane‘s bombload and performance. Regardless of Harris‘s opinion of the Fortress, the urgent need for aircraft led to the Commission seeking to purchase the first five Fortresses. They were assigned to 90 Squadron in February 1941. Twenty-four crews under Wing Commander J. “Mad Mac“ MacDougall arrived from Britain and staged through Canada to train in the Fortress, flying from McChord Field outside Tacoma. Others trained in Kansas City, Missouri and March Field in Riverside, California. All of them visited Boeing Headquarters in Seattle. The best of the RAF applied and only physically fit, small statured men were accepted, because it was felt they would have the best chance of surviving -50 degree Fahrenheit (-45.5 Celsius) temperatures encountered at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). Sixty percent of applicants to 90 Squadron were rejected. The veteran RAF crews appreciated the B-17‘s “luxury“ of ash trays, carpeted floors, and thermoses, nicknaming the Fortress the “gentleman‘s aircraft.“ These B-17Cs, or Fortress Is, as the British called them, had the older Sperry bombsight instead of the advanced Norden unit and only five .30 caliber (7.62mm) Browning machine guns. The tail had no gun for defense. Nevertheless, the British, under pressure from the Americans and certainly hoping the Fortress I would solve their need for a high-altitude fast daylight heavy bomber, intended to deploy 90 Squadron in combat. In April 1941, A United States Army Air Force Sergeant accompanied each RAF Fortress I as it flew from Brooklyn, New York, Portland Oregon, and Dayton, Ohio to Montreal, Canada. The five Fortresses then separately crossed the Atlantic beginning on April 10, with AN521 in the lead and making a new record of just over eight hours and twenty-six minutes from Camp Gander, Newfoundland to Ayr, Scotland. USAAF observer Colonel (later General) Ira C. Eaker explained American doctrine to the British: crews should have two hundred practice runs before combat, fly the Fortress in full squadron formation, don‘t fly above 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), and the B-17C was meant as a trainer, not a combat aircraft. The British were encouraged to wait for combat until the B-17D could be deployed. However, from other Americans, the British were receiving pressure to mount combat operations with the B-17C. General Henry “Hap“ Arnold was already complaining that they were not used in combat within days of the Fortress I‘s arrival in the United Kingdom. United States Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson telegrammed RAF Air Marshal Charles Portal encouraging him to use the Fortress in combat that week. Meanwhile, 90 Squadron was realizing that the promises made by Boeing did not live up to the performance of the Fortress. Flying at 41,000 feet (12,496 meters) the RAF crews saw the curvature of the earth, the sky turned purple and all the guns and some other equipment froze up. The men froze as well. Some of the men suffered from oxygen deprivation, vomiting, and other symptoms of brain damage. This may account for the increasingly high operational loss rate of 90 Squadron; as more of the twenty aircraft became available, only one would be lost to enemy action before the Fortress I was stood down; eight would be lost in operational accidents. AN524 broke up as it landed at RAF Great Massingham, 90 Squadron‘s forward base, and was left there to be cannibalized for spare parts. AN522 “J-Johnny“ was hit by hail on June 22 on a training flight on June 22, and broke up, killing the crew, including American instructor Lieutenant Jim Bradley, the first USAAF aircrew killed on active duty in World War II. 90 Squadron moved to RAF Polebrook for combat operations; the longer concrete runways were safer. The crews received electrically heated flying suits that were warmer bt did not repvent frostbite; they had to be put on in two sections because they coudl cause dehydration through sweating. The aircraft in this view, AN528 “B-Baker,“ was testing her engines at RAF Polebrook on July 3 when they burst into flame. She would be consigned to repair for months. At 1500 Hours on July 8, 1941, three Fortress Is, all that could be made ready, attacked the submarine factories at Wilhelmshaven. Only one of the three Fortress Is could bomb the primary target; one bombed the secondary after engine trouble and the third could not drop all its bombs. The German fighters followed the four contrails from the Fortress I‘s engines, but were unable to engage at 32,000 feet (9,753 meters). The guns, cameras, and windscreens all froze up; the crews couldn‘t see out to fire even if the guns had worked. On August 16, AN523 was jumped by seven German aircraft and returned to United Kingdom, but crashed and burned on landing, killing one on the ground and two crewmen. By September 1941, after twenty-two missions, it was clear that the Fortress I could not evade the Focke Wulf FW-190 at altitude, lacked enough defensive firepower, and had numerous mechanical faults. The eighth Fortress to be lost simply appeared in a dive out of a cloud over RAF Polebrook and plowed into the ground; the crew was waiting for the bail-out signal but never received it. All the crew were killed. The British suspended daylight bombing operations and began to fly only night operations with heavy bombers. Four of the Fortress Is were sent to the Middle East, where they flew mostly unsuccessful night bombing operations until May 1942. One flew on to India and rejoined the USAAF there. Five other Fortress Is of 90 Squadron were transferred to RAF Coastal Command 220 Squadron for convoy escort duty. The survivors of 90 Squadron were re-equipped with Short Stirlings and then Avro Landcasters. In August 1941, the first of the USAAF Eighth Air Force arrived, flying the advanced B-17D and E models. The first operational debut of the Flying Fortress was a resounding failure, but the type would go on to be the preferred mount of the Americans in the European Theatre. AN528 “B-Baker“ made the last operational sortie of a Fortress I on September 20, 1941, after she was repaired.
Image Filename wwii0191.jpg
Image Size 273.60 KB
Image Dimensions 1050 x 848
Photographer Unknown
Photographer Title United States Air Force
Caption Author Jason McDonald
Date Photographed February 01, 1941
Location Puget Sound
City McChord Field, Outside Tacoma
State or Province Washington
Country United States
Record Number
Status Caption ©2007, ©2024 MFA Productions LLC
Image in the Public Domain

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