Perhaps the most famous Flying Fortress of them all, the Memphis Belle flew combat at a time when casualty rates for bombers was pretty high.
Its claim to fame was as the first such bomber to complete a full tour of 25 missions.
I should start by mentioning that claim is not completely true, or maybe a qualified true.
The United States Army Air Force used a tour of duty system for combat personnel from the start of the War, 25 missions over Europe was a tour for aircrew in the strategic bombers. This was to serve two purposes, first it gets expensively trained professionals out of harm’s way before serious fatigue and burn out set in. The second important reason for a tour of duty is it gets experienced combat crew back to the US so they can train and pass their hard earned experience on to a next generation.
The US Eighth Air Force was established in England, for the purpose of the strategic bombardment of Germany (targeting industry and infrastructure), in January 1942 (actually “Eighth Bomber Command” at the time). That was very early in the War, it wasn’t until July 4, 1942 that the first combat mission was flown. It was another month before a regular schedule of missions was started. Efforts started with very small groups of B-17s, often a dozen or so, mostly targeting French targets and usually with fighter escort. Gradually they started penetrating deeper with bigger forces. Targeting Germany meant leaving their fighter escort behind and bombers were wholly dependent on their own interlocking fire power for protection.
25 missions was set pretty early on as a good balance of utilizing seasoned crews and giving them realistic hope of completing a tour and getting home. By early 1943 this tour was looking pretty tough, casualty rates were getting high and the math was making a successful tour seem less likely. By the end of that year casualty rates would get catastrophically bad and a successful tour looked statistically impossible. To continue with any chance of success it was decided that the bomber formations should go nowhere in Germany without fighter protection (improving the range of fighters is an epic story in its own right, but we’ll confine that story to the appropriate fighter posts!). In time, American long-range fighter cover would prove so effective that tour of duty requirements were increased to 30, then 35 missions. By the end of the War 8th Air Force could fly missions with over 1500 bombers and 1500 fighters.
The Memphis Belle flew its tour from November 7, 1942 to May 19, 1943. That is starting quite early, it would have been one of the first B-17 “F” models in the 8th Air Force. Through 1943 it would become the dominant model until the “G” model entered service at the end of that year. As several of the first planes were approaching the 25 mission milestone the Army Air Force chose to make a documentary by William Wyler. The film was actually shot aboard several different airplanes, one was shot down resulting in the death of cameraman Harold J Tannenbaum. Another, Invasion 2nd, flown by Capt Oscar O’Neill was assumed to be subject of the film until it was shot down on April 17. Yet another Fortress, Hell’s Angels, actually flew its 25th mission six days earlier than the Belle.
Memphis Belle was among the planes being filmed from early on however. Its name and artwork were considered to have an appealing and acceptable mystique. The mission focused on in the movie was actually the plane’s 24th, and its last flown by regular pilot Capt Robert K Morgan.
Which all leads to why this sort of “record” is kind of a confusing mess to track down. Planes and crews were switched around based on needs and availability. The Memphis Belles’ 24th mission was the 25th mission for most of its crew. They had flown four missions in other aircraft, which meant the plane flew four missions (including its 25th) with other crews. The original co-pilot, Capt James A Verinis, was promoted to pilot-in-command after their ninth mission and given his own plane. One of his PIC missions was flying the Memphis Belle, he completed his tour six days before the rest of the Belle’s crew. Quite often aircrew would miss a mission or two on sick call, or pick up a mission as a substitute on another crew; part of the Belle’s claim to fame then is how crew and plane finished their tour more or less all together!
Capts Morgan and Verinis were re-united to fly the plane back to the US for a 31 city War Bond tour.
Post-War the Memphis Belle had an interesting history. It was initially intended for the scrap heap, but was purchased by the City of Memphis (for $350!) to set aside as a War Memorial. In the early 1970s the plane was donated back to the Air Force. The Air Force allowed the plane to remain in Memphis, contingent on it being maintained and displayed in an appropriate manner. The plane had been displayed outdoors, the new Air Force oversight led to a tent being put over it. By 2005 its level of deterioration led to it being relocated to the Museum of the United States Air Force for complete restoration. In 2018 it was put on permanent display in the World War Two exhibit.
This is the HK Models kit. It is a vast improvement over the old Revell kit with a nice level of detail and good fit. I know some have objected to it about some flaws in outline, but I’ll leave that to true OCD types, it looks good to me. The build is fussy in places; not really “hard”, but there are some fine details that require careful attention to the instructions and maybe an extra hand or two. I used Eduard Brassin landing gear because the kit’s gear is depicted as fully extended, that is under no load. But the Eduard parts actually measure the same as the kit’s, which makes me think it was just a detail flaw in the kit; the plane should sit just fine with the kit parts, the detail is just a little off. I also used Master Models machine gun barrels after I broke a couple of the kit parts. These are beautifully detailed metal tubes, highly recommended for competent modelers, which is why I’ll probably just be more careful with the kit parts on future builds…
I had planned on using decals by Zotz, but I decided I liked the kit decals (colors) better.
My Dad saw the B-17s forming up into their defensive boxes on a couple of occasions. He said the whole thing was a sight to behold against the blue winter skies. It took them a long time to do it,but eventually somebody must have given a signal and they all moved off. That too was very striking but so too was the poignant silence after their departure.
That must have been an amazing sight! I remember several years back, seeing a formation of 60+ Texans at Osh Kosh; they filled the sky and made quite a racket. Obviously 8th Air Force bombers would be so much more in every sense!
What’s an OCD type?
Love the highly detailed pictures.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think a lot of us modelers have that characteristic to some degree.
I forgot I took some interior photos during construction, when I get to my computer in a couple hours (around 2?) I’ll edit the post.
Merci Dave. I have seen some videos on YouTube showing lots of green paint shades…
I meant for my PBY Catalina.
Definitely one of WWII’s iconic aircraft. There were more B-24’s built and they flew more missions and dropped more tonnage, but it was the B-17 that had the reputation as the best American bomber. Their survivability was legendary, with cases where a mere shell of a plane was able to make it back. Still, as Dave says, their losses with the 8th Air Force, especially in the fall of 1943 were quite literally unsustainable. But as Dave said the introduction of the long range escorts is another story that shouldn’t overshadow the B-17 and the 8th Air forces role in breaking the Luftwaffe.
The B-24 definitely had some advantages over the B-17. As a newer design it was faster, longer range and had a heavier bomb load. In many settings that made it clearly the better aircraft.
But not with the 8th. It was more fragile and harder to keep in tight formation. Doolittle considered it unacceptable and had the War continued much longer he wanted his B-24s (the 2nd Bomb Division) to re-equip with B-17s.
The B-24 was apparently a lot harder to fly, and with the wings atop the fuselage (as opposed to the B-17 where the fuselage sat atop the wings) the B-24 was a lot riskier in a belly or water landing.
Oh yeah. That high, thin wing was an efficient lifting device; but not strong.