‘Black Thursday’: The bleakest day for U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II

  • Published
  • By Air University History Office

Seventy five years ago, 291 B-17F Flying Fortress high-altitude heavy bombers, each with a crew of 10, attacked the ball bearing plants around Schweinfurt, Bavaria. German ground-based antiaircraft artillery and 300 fighters shot down 60 of the aircraft, with 600 crewmen killed or taken prisoner, the largest Army Air Force loss of the war to date. Of the surviving aircraft, 17 were so badly damaged that they were scrapped. Almost all of the other bombers suffered some level of damage. Because of the disastrous losses that day, Oct. 14, 1943, became known as “Black Thursday.”

Located in eastern Bavaria, Schweinfurt produced most of the ball bearings used in many of Germany’s military and support vehicles and equipment, especially tanks and aircraft. Army Air Force leaders believed the plants to be a key, or “classic,” target for strategic bombing. However, AAF intelligence had overestimated the importance of the plants as Germany had stockpiles of ball bearings and could get additional stock from Swedish and Swiss factories.

By summer 1943, the intensifying bombing campaign by the AAF’s Eighth Air Force and Royal Air Force aircraft led the Germans to establish a new early warning radar line, increase the production of fighters and antiaircraft guns and build special “FLAK” (from the German flugabwehrkanone, or “aircraft defense cannon”) towers around select target cities. It was only a matter of time before Eighth Air Force would select the Schweinfurt ball bearing plants for an aerial attack and contend with German air and ground defenses.

By July 1943, Eighth Air Force decided it had sufficient bombers to attack the Messerschmitt aircraft plants at Regensburg and Wiener Neustadt and the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt. On Aug. 17, 1943, Eighth Air Force launched 230 bombers to attack Regensburg and 146 bombers to strike Schweinfurt. Although the attack on the ball bearing plants temporarily reduced production by 34 percent, the loss of 60 B-17s from the two raids delayed a follow-up attack on Schweinfurt until Oct. 14.  

Those losses led planners to develop new tactics to mitigate Luftwaffe fighter resistance. For example, instead of dividing the force, the entire bomber force would be sent against Schweinfurt. Eighth Air Force also increased the number of fighter escorts, but they still lacked the range to escort the bombers to targets inside Germany.

The formation of the 291 bombers that launched on Oct. 14 split into two groups to attack Schweinfurt’s ball bearing plants. Bad weather in England unraveled the Americans’ plan to mitigate German fighter resistance. After the American force entered Germany, it encountered the most intense German antiaircraft and aircraft resistance to date.  

Once the attack began, German defenses devastated the American bomber force. Most aircraft in the attacking force suffered some damage.

Of the 291 B-17s in the attack force, 60 were lost, 17 were heavily damaged and most of the others incurred some damage, but were repairable. These losses amounted to 25 percent of the attacking force.

Although the Luftwaffe lost 38 fighters, many of the downed pilots bailed out and returned to duty. The Americans, on the other hand, suffered a 20 percent loss of aircrew, with 650 killed or taken prisoner, while many others were wounded. 

After receiving reports of wrecked American bombers all over the countryside around Schweinfurt, an elated Hitler hailed the German response as a great victory for Germany’s air defenses. Fittingly, the Americans named the day “Black Thursday.”

Furthermore, although the bomber crews reported heavy damage to the ball bearing plants, they were back in production within six weeks. The bombs had severally damaged the factory structures, but, in many cases, left the machine tools fairly untouched underneath the rubble. In addition, Germany made up the temporary decline in production with ball bearings from stockpiles and external sources. As a result, the German armaments industry suffered little disruption.

As a result, leaders now knew that they could no longer conduct raids into Germany without fighter escorts. Their escorts during the raid, the P-47 Thunderbolt, required external fuel tanks. In June 1943, the Army Air Force had directed the addition of external fuel tanks to the P-51A Mustang to produce the P-51B, but sufficient numbers of the modified fighter would not be available until the winter of 1943. As a result, Eighth Air Force halted raids into Germany and would not resume them until mid-January 1944.

Essentially, up to that point, Eighth Air Force lost air superiority over Germany, a glaring admission that unescorted daylight precision bombing doctrine developed at the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, in the 1930s was a failure.