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Follow Up: How Many Airmen Made Up a B-17 Crew in WWII

Some new information about the change in structure to B-17 crews during WWII has come to my attention from two 384th Bomb Group Association volunteers, Researcher and Combat Data Specialist Keith Ellefson and Historian John Edwards.

My original post, How Many Airmen Made Up a B-17 Crew in WWII, was published July 3, 2019.

Keith found a document that was simply titled “Administration” and marked SECRET that offered an interesting theory, one I had never considered. He identified the document as one from the 447th Bomb Group based in Rattlesden, Suffolk, England from the inclusion of a second topic on the same page titled Beautification Program, which mentioned the Ground Executive of the station, Lt. Col. Wilfred Beaver.

The topic regarding crew makeup was titled Nine Man Crew. It read (with a few minor typographical corrections and some format changes for readability),

On 20 July 1944, a program was instituted to reduce the weight of combat aircraft. With a decrease in weight, the operational efficiency of our planes would increase. As a part of the weight reduction program one waist gunner was removed from each plane.

The obvious result was a plethora of surplus gunners assigned to the Group. Measures were established to eliminate all excess gunner personnel. In order to best utilize the services of surplus gunners who were not permanent members of combat crews and not required as gunners for operations, it was necessary to accomplish one of the following:

  1. Release surplus gunners to the Zone of the Interior, if they had already completed 25 or more missions.
  2. Reclassify surplus gunners to other ground military occupational specialties in which they were skilled. (Absorption of these men in vacancies afforded in the various Tables of Organization of units on the Station was mainly the problem here encountered.)
  3. Transfer to other commands in this Theater where gunners were needed.

At the present time, a surplus still exists on this Station, but the process of depletion has been inaugurated.

I had not considered that the weight of one gunner, probably in the range of 130 to 150 pounds or more, plus the weight of his flying gear, could have made that much difference to the amount of fuel a B-17 would use over the course of a mission.

According to The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft by David Donald, as noted in Wikipedia, the empty weight of a B-17G is 36,135 pounds. Gross weight, and I’m not quite sure what that entails, is noted at 54,000 pounds. Maximum takeoff weight is 65,500 pounds.

The inclusion of one extra 150-pound gunner seems pretty insignificant to me, but perhaps being able to carry another 150 pounds of ammo or bombs, or being just a little lighter to increase air speed, was more important than an additional gunner to defend the ship, especially since the improvement of American fighter planes reduced the incidence of enemy fighters attacking the formation at that point in the war.

The amount of fuel that could be placed in the tank of a B-17 was limited and that fuel limit in combination with the weight of the ship would directly affect the distance the formation could travel into enemy territory. By reducing the weight of the aircraft, the formation could reach further targets. Well, maybe that does make more sense than I initially considered.

The 384th Bomb Group had instituted the change in crew makeup from ten to nine by reducing the number of waist gunners from two to one several months before the 477th, in the middle of May 1944. Keith noted that,

I am certain that reduction in crew size would have been a directive from 8th AF level with maybe some wiggle room for implementation at the lower echelons.

At Keith’s suggestion, I also asked John Edwards to weigh in on the subject and he added his insight, first on crew requirements,

Crew requirements were levied on the training air forces in the ZOI [Zone of the Interior] by the GHQ AAF [Army Air Forces Group Headquarters] as received from the combatant numbered air forces. This would be a request for crews. AAF would approve the requested strength based on the air war plan and the numbered air force’s mission.

After deciding how much of the pie each AF could have, the AAF issued broad goals for the number of pilots by type and navigators and bombardiers in proportion. The personnel allocations would be to fill the pipeline to each AF and how best to reach the manpower allocation for each.

and then regarding crew composition,

Crew composition was a different issue. When the B-29 training program kicked off in April 1944, AAF realized that a dedicated crew and a certain composition was required compared with the other four engine types. This impacted B-17 and B-24 crews.

Procurement policies were changed as the war went on to either increase or decrease the flow of personnel in the pipeline in specific specialties. When the first big change in crew number occurred, it was based on the bombardier vs. the togglier. A change in tactics by 8AF [the 8th Air Force] revised crew composition.

Now when 10 guys become 9, that was further based on a tactical change in that the effective box formations negated the need for two waist gunners. That would mean the crew composition in summer 44 was an average 9 guys which meant a gunner would be the TOG [togglier] so you had a net loss of one guy.

Early on, each B-17 in the mission formation had a specially trained bombardier who would take over flying the aircraft from the pilot at the IP, the Initial Point of the bomb run, and continue to do so until he spotted the target and dropped his bombs, at which point he would return control of the aircraft to the pilot.

Later in the war, only the lead aircraft in the formation had to carry a qualified bombardier and the remaining aircraft were manned by either trained bombardiers or toggliers, who would watch for the lead bombardier to drop his bombs and follow suit by toggling the switch to drop theirs.

Toggliers and non-lead bombardiers did not take control of the aircraft from the pilot during the bomb run and most often toggliers were not officers, but were enlisted men, likely surplus waist gunners, who sat in the bombardier seat and released the bombs with the formation.

This change also led to many officers who were originally trained as bombardiers, but didn’t qualify as lead bombardiers, to retrain to become navigators rather than waste their talents as button-pushers.

John continued,

Now in theater the CCRC [Combat Crew Replacement Center] or later RCD [Replacement or Reinforcement Control Depot] would make the assignments for crews based on personnel allocations according to TO&E [Table of Orgainization and Equipment] strengths.

From there, the AF would allocate crews by division then on down the line to the group. At this point, the big change occurs – each group HQ would create the operational crew composition based on it’s needs (like the other levels and assuming all these ideas agreed and 8AF correctly stated the requirement AND the ZOI filled it that way).

As a rough rule, each group could do as they pleased within the manning construct of the TO&E. The group started getting 9 man crews in late February just at or about other groups did, but remember, the personnel pipeline was filled with 1943 trained guys (whole crews) and groups still being trained up in the states.

In the end of all this, you still have the mission change requirement increase [from 25 to 30 to 35 missions required to finish a tour] so there are more ‘bodies’ on hand to fill up crews, rebuild them or create spares pools.

Note

In researching this subject, I became curious about the Combatant Numbered Air Forces. I happened to find a document online in PDF format named Air Force Combat Units of WWII edited by Maurer Maurer, originally published in 1961, and reprinted by the Office of Air Force History in Washington, D.C. in 1983.

Starting on this 520-page document’s page 457 (page 471 of the PDF file) is a description of each of the numbered Air Forces 1 – 15 and 20. Check the index at the end for the un-numbered Air Forces, as well. This comprehensive document covers not only the Air Forces, but the Commands, Divisions, Wings, and Groups – see the Table of Contents on the document’s page xiii (PDF file page 13).

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019

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