Could a WW2 bomber-group 'go around again'?

I’ve just watched Memphis Belle for about the second time in twenty years, good movie but it did raise a question for me.

As the movie is over twenty years old I don’t think spoilers are really necessary but if you don’t want to know anything of the plot please stop reading now.

Its a pivotal plot point that the Captain of the lead plane decides to turn around and take another run at the target as it is obscured by cloud on the first run. My question is if that is even possible and secondly did it ever happen? I imagine it would be quite a complex undertaking to turn an entire bomber-group of several hundred aircraft 180 degrees to take another run at the target, at least in anything like a reasonable time frame.

Another question, the Captain explains his decision on the rationale that the entire bomber-group is going to release on his command and they want to hit the factory and not the hospital and civilian areas nearby, surely the bomber-group is spread out enough that if they release on the lead bomber they are going to cover the same area as they are spread out, the lead plane may put its payload down the pickle-barrel but the others are going to hit everything around it.

Nb: I fully recognise Memphis Belle is a Hollywood film and therefore takes some liberty with the facts but on my admitadly limited knowledge of WW2 it seemed fairly accurate to me.

I can’t answer your question, but I will point out that there’s a scene in Catch-22 where a bomber pilot, when he found out his bombs didn’t drop, decided to turn around and go back over the target. That was a single ship, though, not the entire formation. And of course mostly played for comedy.

Heller was a B-25 bombardier, however, so presumably he knew the score.

You’re flying hundreds of miles, dropping bombs, and then turning around to fly home. If you fail to drop the first time, you’re already planning to turn around to go home, so it isn’t a stretch to say “we’ll spin around and drop them on the return trip”. You’re heading back that way anyway.

Yes, but I was thinking of the logistics in turning an entire bomber-group, they would be spread out over many miles.

‘Never go out the way you went in’, can’t remember where I read/heard that quote but it was in reference to flying recon missions. As far as I’m aware bombers operated the same way, they certainly didn’t turn around and fly back over the area they just bombed as the defences would be ready and waiting…which is why the crew was so stressed at the Captain’s decision to go back for another try.

I don’t think the bombers did a 180 turn at any point in the missions, the return journey was achieved by several shallower course corrections over many miles to get back home…though I’m willing to be corrected on any of the above.

That is just routine formation flying that they had to be skilled at anyway to be in a bomber group. Sure they could and did do it if they needed to. Weather often necessitated spontaneous rerouting of bomber groups on its own. Formation flying isn’t the big issue in flying back over the target. The real risk comes from lingering over an area with strong aerial defenses for longer than originally necessary and giving the enemy a known place and time to defend. The element of surprise is greatly compromised if they know a group of bombers may make multiple passes over the same area without causing significant damage on the first run.

I don’t know the answer to the question, but I do know that, when the movie came out, veterans applauded it for its realism. The only exception was the use of the internal sound system for chit-chat; the captain yells at them for it in the movie, but it would not have been tolerated at all in reality.

How long in distance and time would it take them to travel en masse over the target, complete the 180 degree turn and then come back over the target again though?

I don’t doubt their flying skills, its the angry men on the ground shooting extremely fast moving pieces of lead in their general direction that causes the problems… :wink:

Edited to add: my question was inspired because in the movie they seem to take an exceptionally short period of time to turn around and reach the target again, I imagine it was a lot more complicated than that if for no reason other than the sheer numbers

Also edited to add the question again if historically any bomber groups did make multiple runs over the same target?

I heard some negative comments about the movie before I watched it again but I’m not sure why, sure its a bit Hollywoodish in places but its a Hollywood movie, and an entertaining and thought-provoking one at that…bomber crews were very brave men.

That site also says:

Factual error: Dennis warns the crew not to go without their oxygen masks. Throughout the movie, most of them do. At a service altitude of 25,000 feet any B-17 crew member who went without oxygen for more than one minute would lapse into unconsciousness. After twenty minutes, they would be dead.
I guess that’s why everybody who climbed Mount Everest without an oxygen mask died in the attempt.

However, whoever posted the point about primary/secondary/tertiary targets sounds like they know what they’re talking about.

Everest was scaled by trained, acclimatized professionals. Your run-of-the-mill waist gunner isn’t going to be able to do that. Off oxygen for very long and he’s in trouble.

I came into this thread to mention secondary and tertiary targets. They most certainly didn’t “turn around and give it another go.” They would RTB and dump their bombs over the English Channel. They suspect that’s what might have happened to Glenn Miller.

In trouble, yes, but not dead in 20 minutes.

Piling on with silenus, but the wiki for time of useful consciousness might be helpful. At FL 250 (which strikes me as kind of low BTW; I thought most B-17 missions were above 30,000 ft MSL) the chart says you have about 3-6 minutes before hypoxia gets you. You’re not dead at the end of this time, and you’re probably not even blacked out, but you’re doing nothing useful. The time lowers dramatically (1-2 minutes) if you have to do any exercise. Like muscling around a .50 Browning. It gets worse, the higher you go. The guys on Everest spend a very long time acclimatizing to the altitude.

I’d have no problem believing that a B-17 crewman w/o supplemental oxygen would be dead by the conclusion of his mission, though I think it’d take longer than 20 minutes.

For the OP, I’ve no idea how common it was, but this account of the 25 April 1945 raid on the Skoda armaments works, states that the entire raid had to make a second run over the target, due to bad weather obscuring the aim point. This second run included all of the Bomb Groups in the raid. From the Article:

It sounds like a giant ordeal.

And Maj. ‘King’ Kong rode a bomb bareback so we know that has happened in real warfare.

Thanks for the replies, so it sounds like going for a secondary target would be the standard operating procedure (should really have thought of that one, after all Nagasaki wasn’t the primary target on the second atomic mission).

And it also makes sense to go for a full 360 degree turn in the unlikely event you had to back, but that just adds more time and distance covered in enemy airspace before you could attack again.

Yeah, hit by friendly fire from returning bombers dumping their loads.

Coincidentally, I was listening to an mp3 of a Miller live-radio air check with Billy May on trumpet jamming to I Dreamt I Dwelt in Harlem when I read your post. What’r the odds.

Cue Twilight Zone theme.

In December, 1943, Edward R. Murrow went on a bombing raid over a heavily defended Berlin. He included the following in his report:

There probably would be no reason for the entire group to make a second run. Only those who could not drop would go around.

In the movie the entire group went around because they were dropping when the lead bomber dropped, and as they couldn’t hit the target nobody dropped.

The entire group tried to stay together. Flying in formation enabled their gunners to defend against fighters. A lone bomber was easy prey.

“Against 20 Russians trying to shoot you down or even 20 Spitfires, it can be exciting, even fun. But curve in towards 40 fortresses and all your past sins flash before your eyes.”

Quote from “Fips” Phillips, 200+ kills on the Eastern Front about what it felt like to attack an American bomber group, and he should know.