We are reminded ceaselessly of how crucial breakthroughs like bronze weapons, longbows, the stirrup, gunpowder, rifles, the airplane, the submarine, the machine gun, and many other technologies changed the face of warfare and often became deciding factors on the battlefield. Not mentioned as often are the failures, the brilliant ideas that were not so brilliant, the technological dead ends, the badly conceived or badly employed weapons that either had no effect or actually contributed to defeat. “Brilliant Mistakes” is a continuing series covering failed concepts, weaponry, tactics, and strategies, all of which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Today, historians have a wealth of knowledge about the YB-40, the World War II aircraft that appears to qualify as the U.S. Air Force’s first gunship.
This modified B-17F Flying Fortress bristled with gun barrels and was sent forth to guard American bomber formations high over Europe. What is missing from its history is the name of its creator. Who thought up the YB-40?
“The record is unclear,” said Rob Young, a historian at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “It appears the YB-40 meets the definition of a donkey – that is, a horse designed by a committee.”
During the early period of the bombing campaign in Europe in 1942 and 1943, aggressive Luftwaffe fighter pilots began attacking American bombers from straight ahead at five degrees above the centerline, the position the Americans called “Twelve o’clock high” and where the fewest guns could be brought to bear against the attacking fighters. This tactic was intended to knock a bomber out of the sky by killing its pilots – and it worked. At one juncture a bomber crew was said to have at best a fifty-fifty chance of surviving its assigned 25 missions. Long-range fighters were not yet available to escort the bombers to their targets, so the Army Air Forces, or AAF – predecessor of today’s U. S. Air Force – searched for another way.
The AAF launched a program for a “flying destroyer” or “flying hedgehog” that would guard against Luftwaffe fighter attacks by filling the sky with a giant storm of machine-gun rounds. In August 1942, the AAF contracted with Vega Aircraft Corp. to modify the second production B-17F (aircraft no. 41-24341) to become the first XB-40. The aircraft probably should have been given a “P” for “pursuit” designation because it was now more like a fighter than a bomber and no longer had a bomb bay, bombs, or bombardier.
Vega fitted the aircraft with a chin-mounted nose turret – later to become standard on B-17G Flying Fortress models – and an additional Glenn L. Martin turret at the rear of the dorsal cockpit fairing where the radio operator’s single .50 caliber machine gun was usually mounted. Likewise, the waist gunners’ single .50s were replaced by twin mounts. Ammunition supply was almost triple that of a standard B-17F, some 11,275 rounds compared to 3,900 rounds on a B-17F.
The XB-40 made its first flight on Nov. 10, 1942. It’s significant that this was just a month ahead of the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered P-51B Mustang, which would end up protecting bombers using different methods.
The XB-40 (X for “experimental”) was followed by an order for 13 YB-40 aircraft (Y signifying “service test”), which had minor differences but were equally heavily gunned and were meant to escort bombers all the way to their targets and back.
The AAF rushed these aircraft to Europe. One of them (aircraft no. 43-5732) ran out of fuel and force-landed in a peat bog on an offshore Scottish island in May 1943 during its ferry flight from Iceland to Great Britain. This airframe was recovered but never served any useful purpose.
The remaining dozen YB-40s joined the 92nd Bombardment Group stationed at Alconbury in East Anglia beginning on May 8, 1943. Commanded by Col. William M. Reid, the 92nd was just one of several dozen bomb groups in three air divisions that made up the Eighth Air Force – eventually to number 350,000 men.
Reid was unimpressed. His new Flying Fortress on steroids now had fourteen .50-caliber Browning M2 machine guns. The ammunition of the era came in 27-foot belts, thought to be the source of the expression “the whole nine yards.” With its added guns and triple load of ammunition the YB-40 was ungainly, bulky, tail-heavy and unmaneuverable – the whole nine yards and more.
The 92nd took the YB-40 over the Third Reich for the first time on May 29, 1943. No significant air-to-air action took place. Heading home, the group’s B-17s, unburdened of the weight of their bombs, found themselves flying faster than the YB-40s, overburdened with drag-creating extra turrets and their massive load of ammunition. Since no one wanted to be a straggler in the ongoing campaign against German fighters, the YB-40s were now more a burden than a help.
Early in their service, Reid sent a message back to Washington requesting that no more YB-40s be deployed to the European Theater of Operations. There were eventually a total of 20 airframes in the series, including four unarmed TB-40 trainers. But the dozen that made it overseas flew only about ten missions. The YB-40s were eventually converted back to the standard B-17F configuration.
After World War II, several versions of a remarkable story were recounted by Martin Caidin and reiterated by Glenn Infield and other authors in the men’s adventure magazines: 1st Lt. Harold Fischer, a bomber pilot in the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy, was said to have borrowed a YB-40 from the Eighth Air Force. Fischer’s purpose was to entrap Italian fighter pilot Lt. Guido Rossi, who was using a captured American P-38 Lightning fighter wearing U.S. markings to shoot down stragglers on the way home from missions, initially posing as a friendly escort. Fischer lured Rossi – who knew plenty about the B-17F but nothing about the more heavily-armed YB-40 – and shot him down. Both pilots survived the war and later met, according to the tale, but Fischer was killed in the 1948 Berlin airlift. In one version of the story, Rossi subsequently romances Fischer’s widow. But no YB-40 ever appeared in Italy and no one named Fischer is listed among Berlin Airlift casualties. Apart from the fact that an Italian pilot with a different name, Lt. Angelo Tondi, flew a captured P-38 and may have used it to deceive U.S. bomber crews, the YB-40-in-Italy story appears to be more fantasy than fact.
Specifications for the YB-40 were little different than those for the B-17F. They included a wingspan of 103 feet 9 inches and a service ceiling of 29,800 feet. Power was provided by four Wright R-1820-65 Cyclone radial engines of 1,200 horsepower each. The aircraft had a crew of nine.
A kindred experiment to modify the B-24 Liberator to become a bomber-escort gunship turned out to be too little, too late. In February 1943, the heavily gunned XB-41 Liberator began tests at Eglin Field, Fla. Initial experiments, including firing of all weapons, seemed promising, but no full evaluation was ever conducted to see whether the heavier XB-41 could keep up with a Liberator formation. The AAF was still evaluating the XB-41 when the YB-40s proved themselves impractical in actual combat.
In November 1943, the 354th Fighter Group set up shop in England and began operations over the continent in the P-51B Mustang, later supplanted by the P-51D and P-51K models. The arrival of the Mustang changed everything. It had the range to escort bombers to their targets. It was a superb air-to-air fighter. The Luftwaffe now faced an air-to-air adversary that was far more formidable than a clunky, gun-equipped modified bomber. As air tactics over Europe evolved, Mustangs eventually were able to range far ahead of bomber formations and to engage German fighters many miles from their intended prey. The Mustang essentially neutralized the German air arm. During the final year of the war, German fighters almost never got close enough to a bomber to enable a gunner on a B-17 to fire his guns in combat.