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Major Charles Kegelman (far right) and his crew became the first members of the Eighth Air Force to carry out bombing operations over Europe on June 19, 1942 when they joined RAF Douglas Boston IIIs on a low-level raid over France.

During World War II, Britain was home to the largest air armada of its day: the United States Eighth Air Force. Designed to render massive destruction to Nazi Germany through daylight aerial bombardment, the Eighth Air Force commanded over 200,000 men and thousands of aircraft at its height. This American occupation of airfields across Britain, including Duxford, has left an indelible impact on both nations, but this mighty legacy had humble beginnings 80 years ago.

The US entered World War II in December 1941. While this was prompted by the attack against Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, Allied leaders agreed to prioritize the defeat of Nazi Germany in Europe and Britain emerged as the staging ground for events to come. Officials predicted only a modest aerial campaign would be needed in Europe to make way for an invasion (then planned for the fall of 1942), but the war presented air force commanders with the opportunity to assert their belief in air power.

Military aviation had made such significant technological advances since World War I that a group of senior USAAF officers ardently believed that long-range aerial bombardment could destroy an enemy’s ability to wage war, and lead to victory. Generals Ira Eaker, Carl Spaatz, Jimmy Doolittle, and Hap Arnold were among the proponents of this theory and would all have major parts to play in progression and outcome of the bombing war.

The Eighth Air Force was the instrument for their experiment. It was established on January 28, 1942, to undertake the invasion of North Africa, but it suddenly found itself without a purpose, and was re-allocated to Britain. In February 1942, General Eaker, and six staff officers arrived in London to set about organizing provisions for the units, men, and machines of the Eighth. They established a headquarters in High Wycombe in April 1942, and under agreement with the RAF, airfields in East Anglia scheduled for construction or re-assignment were allocated to US Forces.

Taking to the Air

Courtesy of Craig Harwood
B-17 Flying Fortress 41-9085 ‘Jarrin’ Jenny’ was the first Eighth Air Force heavy bomber to arrive in the UK in July 1942.

In early May 1942, the first echelons of the Eighth Air Force arrived in Britain. Flying personnel of the 15th Bomb Squadron disembarked from the SS Cathay at Newport in Wales on May 13, 1942, and took up residence of Grafton Underwood airfield, near Kettering the next day. Without experience of aerial combat in Europe, or aircraft of their own however, these pilots were reliant on the RAF for training and instruction.

Two months later, on July 4, 1942, six American crews from the 15th Bomb Squadron joined six from the RAF in a symbolic low-level bombing operation over the Netherlands. The auspicious date was chosen to enable the USAAF to fulfil a promise, that British and American troops would be fighting side by side by Independence Day. The mission resulted in the loss of a third of the Allied force, and the deaths of seven aircrew. It was nevertheless widely celebrated as the first USAAF bombing action of the war, even though Captain Charles Kegelman and his crew had joined the RAF on a similar operation over Hazebrouck in the days before on June 29, 1942.

Bombs Away

American ground support personnel had also been arriving in increasing numbers since May 1942, with many posted to airfields in Northamptonshire, much to the great curiosity of the local British population, but plans to get American bombers into the skies over Europe were dependent on the arrival of the machines themselves. It would not be until July 1, 1942, that B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Jarrin’ Jenny’ touched down at Prestwick airfield in Scotland, but by the end of the month she had become one of 180 American bomber, fighter and transport aircraft that had made the 2,965-mile flight across the Northern Atlantic to Britain.

With the pieces in place, the Eighth Air Force’s daylight bombing offensive launched in earnest on August 17, 1942, when twelve B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 97th Bomb Group took off from Grafton Underwood to bomb railway marshalling yards in Rouen in France. Eager to show his faith in the American bombing strategy, Eaker himself took part in the mission, reporting on his return to General Spaatz, there had been no loss of life, or aircraft, and that bombing had been relatively good.

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Senior American and British air force officers look out for aircraft returning from Eighth Air Force’s first heavy bomber raid over Rouen from atop the control tower at Grafton Underwood, August 17, 1942.

August 17, 1942 was the first of nearly 500 bombing missions flown by the Eighth Air Force from Britain. Despite the optimism of its commanders in 1942, the Eighth Air Force failed to have a profound effect on Nazi Germany until the Allies finally launched the invasion of Europe in June 1944. By 1945, over 26,000 men of the Eighth Air Force had lost their lives.

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General Ira Eaker after he took part in the Eighth Air Force’s first mission on August 17, 1942. He was a champion of precision bombing and helped to establish the Eighth Air Force in Britain during the spring of 1942.

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