Eighth Air Force Operations in England

During World War II

By Willis Frazier - Operations Officer
601st Squadron, 398th Bomb Group


Quite frequently the best presentations given to the attendees of the evening banquets at our annual 398th reunions are made by “one of our own.” Such was the case at the Thursday banquet during the 398th reunion held in Portland OR in 2002. Willis Frazier, the Operations Officer of the 601 Squadron was asked to speak about the Norden bombsight - because he had one!

Willis began his presentation with - why do I have one? My son Doug talked me into buying it from an Army/Navy surplus store. I have no operational use for the Norden bombsight, but it's nice for "show and tell". I would like to talk about the complete bomb system.

As follows is an explanation by Willis Frazier of several key operational technologies used by the 398th and the 8th Air Force during WWII.

Wally Blackwell
President - 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association


Eighth Air Force Operations in England

During World War II

By Willis Frazier - Operations Officer
601st Squadron, 398th Bomb Group


First, a word about the time of day when the Eighth Air Force carried out its missions. We bombed only during daylight hours. We bombed during daylight hours because it was necessary before the introduction of airborne radar to visually see the target when using the Norden bombsight, and our leaders wanted to use the Norden bombsight because of its accuracy.

Secondly, a few words on a subject I feel strongly about. We bombed military targets, although the target names do not indicate that. As an example, Merseburg was listed as a target. We did not bomb Merseburg, but bombed the synthetic oil plant outside of Merseburg. The target on D-Day was listed as Courseulles-sur-mer, but we bombed the beaches to explode mines so that the Canadians could come ashore. On the mission to Cauvicourt, France, where Wally Blackwell and crew, with the exception of the tail gunner killed by flak, were forced to bail out, the target was not Cauvicourt. The target was along the road from Caen to Falaise in support of the Canadians in closing the Falaise Gap to trap the German Seventh Army. On the mission to le Manoir, France, where Hal Weekley and crew were forced to bail out, the target was not le Manoir, but a railroad bridge over the Seine River to prevent escape of the retreating German forces following the battle of Normandy.

The Bombardier

The bombardier was a most essential part of the bombing system. Allen Ostrom in the Flak News published a short poem which began,

"You can tell the gunners by their hands and glassy stare,
You can tell the bombardiers by their manner debonair, ...".

Not being a man of letters, I looked up debonair in the dictionary. Debonair means suave, nonchalant, urbane, affable, gracious, genial and of good disposition. The description fits the bombardiers I have known.

One could generally spot a bombardier by his posture. The shoulder that carried the heavy bomb-sight to the airplane would develop a downward set. Another mark of the bombardier was the black ring around an eye. Black material from a black rubber cushion on the bombsight telescope would rub off on the bombardier's face.

Our crew bombardier was also gracious and genial. On retiring to my hut one evening I observed said bombardier and several buddies playing cards. Typically, they were playing on a foot locker covered with an olive drab army blanket, and in the middle of the blanket was a half empty bottle of bourbon. I recognized the bottle as mine, to be opened only upon completion of my missions. Maintaining his cool and being generous all the way with my bourbon, the bombardier said, "Willie, have a drink." I really didn't mind.

The above bombardier, Capt. Les Veley, later saved my life when I passed out over Germany because of lack of oxygen. My oxygen mask had become slightly loose because an attaching snap had torn off of my leather helmet. Lt. Lynn Prather took over piloting the aircraft, and called Les back from the nose compartment. Les held my oxygen mask to my face, and set the oxygen regulator to deliver 100 percent oxygen. The first thing I remember when I regained consciousness was Les saying, "Willie, wake up, wake up!" By this time our bomb group was nowhere in sight. It was dangerous to be alone over Germany. We finally spotted another bomb group in the distance, and slowly and carefully approached them with all guns pointed away from the group. We joined that group and bombed with them.

The Norden Bombsight

Development of the Norden bombsight was started in 1922 by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance. At that time the Navy awarded a contract to Carl L. Norden to design a precision bombsight. After years of experimentation the Mark XV bombsight was introduced in 1932. This bombsight, with modifications to the Mark XV, Mod. 9 series, became the standard Army-Navy bombsight of WWII. The Army Air Forces adopted the Norden bombsight because of its precision and high altitude bombing capability. Norden bombsights were procured by both the Navy and the Army Air Forces. You will find a Navy stamp on many of the bombsights.

In operations, the pilots and navigator would fly the B-17 or B-24 to the Initial Point, or IP. The bomb run, from the IP to the target, was a nominal forty miles in length. From the IP to the target the aircraft was under the lateral control of the bombardier. The pilots controlled altitude and airspeed. Prior to the bomb run the bombardier referred to tables which furnished the actual time of fall (ATF) information and trail values for the bombing altitude above the target, the true airspeed, and the type of bomb. The ATF and trail information were manually set into the bombsight by the bombardier. On the bomb run the bombardier would locate the target in the telescope, position the cross hairs on the target, and power the telescope to track the target. If the telescope were tracking too fast or too slowly, the bombardier would bring the cross hairs back on target and correct the rate of travel of the telescope. This operation was called "synchronizing on the target".

An explanation of trail and cross trail is in order. Bombs leaving the aircraft are pointing forward, and traveling at the speed of the aircraft. As the bombs fall, they pick up vertical speed, but their horizontal speed decreases a small amount. This decreased speed causes the bombs to impact behind the aircraft. The distance of impact behind the aircraft is called "trail". In case of a cross wind, the bombardier would crab the aircraft into the wind so as to remain on the desired track. Since bombs always impact directly behind the aircraft, the bombs will impact on the downwind side of the track to target. The distance to the side of the desired track is called "cross trail". Thus, the aircraft must be on a path displaced upwind from the desired track to correct for the "cross trail". The Norden bombsight made the necessary adjustments to correct for cross trail. The Norden bombsight was truly a computer. It was a mechanical analog computer.

The Norden Bombsight had to be level to function accurately. In flight a stable platform in the bombsight was leveled by the bombardier by observing two bubble levels, one leveling in pitch and one leveling in roll. The stable platform was then kept level by the bombsight gyro. The stabilizer base under the bombsight contained the yaw gyro. The telescope for viewing and synchronizing on the target was mechanically linked to the stable platform.

Airborne Radar Assisting the Norden Bombsight

Newly developed radar on B-17s provided the capability of bombing through an overcast. Lead aircraft were equipped with this radar. On these aircraft the ball turret was replaced by a radome housing an antenna. The radar equipment, scope and operator occupied the right side of the radio room. In the Spring of 1944 lead navigators were sent to a radar school at Alconbury to be checked out on the radar. They learned how to operate the radar, and they also learned how to coordinate with the bombardier on the bomb run. The radar acted as the "eyes" for the Norden bombsight when the target was not visible. The radar information was provided over the intercom by the radar operator to the bombardier on the bomb run.

The Automatic Pilot

The automatic pilot (See The B-17’s Automatic Flight Control Equipment (A.F.C.E.) by Willis Frazier) was valuable in the functions it could perform. It could maintain aircraft heading and attitude. However, it had no altitude sensor, and so could not maintain precise altitude. Also, it had no tie-in with an airspeed indicator and throttles, and so could not maintain airspeed. The altitude and airspeed were maintained by the pilots.

It was not necessary to use the automatic pilot on the bomb run. Heading signals generated by the bombsight would appear on an indicator on the pilot's instrument panel. The pilot would manually change heading to follow the indicator. However, the automatic pilot, when used on the bomb run, responded to signals from the bombsight, and thus removed the pilot from the loop. Most bomb runs were flown on automatic pilot.

The automatic pilot was excellent for use by the squadron and group lead aircraft during long periods of flight. It provided smooth flight by the lead aircraft, with constant heading and little change in altitude. The automatic pilot provided a measure of safety during combat. To achieve this safety, the automatic pilots in all aircraft would be set up for level flight, and then disengaged while the pilots flew formation manually. In case the aircraft control cables were cut in combat, the pilots could engage the automatic pilot, and the aircraft would continue in reasonably normal flight. As an example, the aircraft control cables were shot out on a mission flown by Colonel Hunter and Captain Douglas. They flew back to England on two engines and landed safely using the automatic pilot. The landing required great skill on the part of the pilots.

The automatic pilot was state-of-the-art at that time, and was a valuable device.


On many occasions all bombs would not release when they should have. The probable cause was the extreme cold temperatures at high altitude affecting aircraft electrical circuitry and switches. Minus 60 degrees F was not uncommon. On one occasion Bombardier David Levy and I were flying squadron lead, and some bombs failed to release. Levy saw a train, and suggested we try to hit it as a target of opportunity. There's no way to hit a moving train when the tracks have many curves. He looked out ahead and saw an entrance to a tunnel. He synchronized on the tunnel entrance, and released the remaining bombs. The bombs hit the tunnel entrance, and possibly closed the tunnel.

On another occasion while flying with Colonel Hunter all of our bombs did not release at "bombs away". We hit the salvo switch on the instrument panel to no avail. Bombardier David Levy then crawled back from the nose on his way to the bomb bay to mechanically release the bombs. He worked at releasing the bombs, then had to go back to the radio room to refill his oxygen walk-around bottle. At that time Colonel Hunter reached up and again hit the salvo switch. That time the remaining bombs dropped. Fortunately, Levy was in the radio room and not in the bomb bay, where he might have been salvoed with the bombs.


The Eighth Air Force as we knew it could not have existed without the development of many technologies in the 1930s. Six examples are as follow:

The aluminum B-17 was rolled out of the factory in 1935. Not many years earlier airplanes were built of wood and fabric.

Turbo superchargers were developed to provide sea level pressure at high altitude, allowing aircraft to operate in the rarified air of high altitude. The Turbo superchargers also boosted manifold pressure at takeoff and climb.

Developments in the chemistry of oil refining in the 1930s allowed production of high octane gasoline. The processes were catalytic cracking of crude oil and polymerization. High octane gasoline was essential for the high engine manifold pressure required during takeoff and climb.

The oxygen system, which allowed aircrews to survive in unpressurised cabins at high altitude, was developed in the 1930s.

Flight instruments. Pilots just could not have flown successfully at night and in instrument weather without the artificial horizon and the gyro compass. Flying needle-ball-airspeed would have been a disaster.

The final example is the Norden Bombsight. The Norden Bombsight was a superb device which was developed and ready at the right time to make a major contribution to victory.

To complete the poem started at the beginning of this exercise:

"You can tell the navigators by their maps and charts and such, and
You can tell the pilots, but you cannot tell them much".


Willis Frazier
Operations Officer
601st Squadron, 398th Bomb Group