WWII aerial battle overhead!

What would it have been like on the ground when a formation of Allied bombers was intercepted by German fighters, both sides spraying machine gun fire? Would there have been a rain of lead? Was anyone on the ground ever killed by stray bullets?

People were definitely killed by AA shells falling back to Earth.

I acknowledge that this in no way answers your questions, but I thought you might be interested in what a large formation of WWII bombers passing overhead sounds like.

On May 19th 1942, the BBC were recording a nightingale singing in rural Surrey, when 197 Wellingtons and Lancasters passed overhead, on the way to Germany.

Here’s the, I think, rather moving recording:


For round numbers each B-17 carried 840 rounds = 1 minute of ammunition per gun. They didn’t simply spray for a minute, but that is the limit for how long all of their short bursts on a single mission could add up to.

At cruise speed they traveled a little less than 400 feet per second. And each gun fired at a rate of 14 rounds per second. So one bomber firing one gun would drop one bullet about every 27 feet of forward travel. If all 10 guns were firing that’s one round per 2.7 feet of forward travel. Sounds like a pretty dense hail storm of bullets, right?

But they’re mostly firing out to the sides. So they’re spreading bullets over a ballpark 2-mile wide swath.

So a single bomber who fired all its guns continuously until empty would pepper about 9000 rounds over an area 2 miles wide and 4+ miles long. That’s about 1 bullet for each 27,000 square feet of land. Said another way, that’s 2 bullets per acre.

The reality is they didn’t fire all at once until empty. They fired short bursts as they encountered fighters. So there’d be sporadic firing, then cruising for awhile, then sporadic firing. So a single bomber on a single mission would leave its 9000 rounds over a swath 2 miles wide and a few dozen miles long. Not much bullet density there. Maybe one bullet per 10 acres at best.

A typical bomber formation was 50 bombers. Bigger gaggles got up to 500 or more. So now we’re looking at 5 or occasionally 50 bullets per acre if you happened to be right underneath a truly epic the battle.

The risk to folks on the ground wasn’t zero, but it wasn’t large.

Thanks LSL Guy. Of course the bullets wouldn’t be scattered randomly, though–let’s say a fighter approaches from the side, you’d have several turrets opening up on that plane, so several streams converging roughly on the same spot–could there be localized heavy showers of bullets?

I mean, I know it’s not the same “spot” because everything’s in motion, but it still seems to me you’d be safer indoors because you don’t know when a bunch of bullets might all drop in a relatively contained area.

Nicely run numbers. I’ve also wondered what it may be like on the ground.

This is IMHO -
A .50 cal bullet falling at terminal v is not going to kill you but would hurt like hell.

Also consider that the German fighters are shooting as well. I’m sure not near as much as the bombers, but it does add to the mix. And they eject the brass. Most if not all the brass from the bombers stays in the plane. Ejected/falling brass wouldn’t hurt you, but it sure would surprise you.

The ME 109 could also carry 20 and 30mm cannons (which fired at a slower rate). I would not want to get hit by anything falling from these battles, but a 1 inch diameter piece of lead falling out of the sky could be a problem (as unlikely as it would be that you would be hit by it)

IMO not really.

As you said, the whole affair is moving forward across the ground at a good clip, so the bullets are spread out along the bomber’s line of flight. But there’s more.

From the bomber’s POV, they may all be aiming at the same spot. But they’re mostly missing. The bullets don’t stop when they get to the aim point in space; instead they keep going. And since they were aimed from various spots on the bomber inwards in a cone towards that the aim point, they’ll diverge outwards in a cone away from that aim point until they run out of muzzle oomph & simply fall to Earth.

Gunners would try to shoot at about 500 or less feet. That was the limit of effective aiming & hitting. 200 was even better. But the gun has a ballistic range of a mile or more. IOW, about 10-20x as far. So the bullet cone will grow to be about 10-20x bigger than the bomber is by the time the bullets are just free-falling. So 50-75 feet spread at firing time converges to the ideal aim point then expands out to become a 500-1500 feet spread at landing time.

You’ve also got the issue that even from the bomber’s POV the fighter is not a stationary target. So the whole time a gunner is shooting, he’s traversing his gun to track the target. As are all the other gunners. Which further spreads out the fired cone of bullets.

Last of all, the gunners were really pretty crappy shots. Not because they were incompetent bozos (they weren’t), but because it was a darn hard job to do well with the tools they had. Each gunner had his own perspective on the incoming fighter. Each decided whether and when to fire on his own. How much to lead & aim high & such was 99% judgement, 1% measurement. And so each missed in a different direction; above, below, ahead, behind, left, right.
In any random process there’s going to be thick and thin spots. We’ve all watched moderate rainfall which suddenly has a thick spot in it for a few seconds, then thin spots etc. The big difference here is the density is so slim that even a momentary concentration to 20x is still not much bullet-fall in absolute terms versus a person with a 2 square foot footprint on the ground.

If I can continue with a kind of relevant irrelevance, an old neighbour of mine (no longer with us) talked about the big German raids coming over the town (Bedford) on the way to the West Midlands. She said the ground would feel like it was shaking as they flew over. Despite having several engineering firms the town was never properly bombed (i.e. one or two bombers getting shot of their load on the way home), and some say it was because of the Hitler Tree.

So in the middle of the worst war in human history, when the future of Britain and Europe hung in the balance, and all resources were being dedicated to total war …

… the BBC felt it necessary to send out a team to record a nightingale singing.

That is very reassuring, in an odd sort of way.

NM, wrong thread

Well, they’d been doing the birdsong thing pretty much since the BBC started (and still occasionally do), and I suppose in dark times there needs to be some sort of constancy, even if it is in a white-knuckled “Some things are still normal, some things are still normal” way. :o

I read that it was quite a show to watch and many people would brave the threat of a stray bullet to see the battle.

[quote=“Baron_Greenback, post:3, topic:746590”]

On May 19th 1942, the BBC were recording a nightingale singing in rural Surrey, when 197 Wellingtons and Lancasters passed overhead, on the way to Germany.

Here’s the, I think, rather moving recording:


There’s the tale of people being at a concert when the bombers came back from a raid. Everyone, including the orchestra, fell silent. They were counting the number of bombers.

I recall my mother, who was in the countryside near Oxford and a large military supply depot, used to see the children hunting for “brass” after a dogfight.

This is a quote from an 11yo boy who lived on the South Coast, where they had "big containers of a mixture of petrol and oil installed in the grounds of a local school. Pipe lines ran underground to the beaches and sea, ready to be pumped out and to set the sea on fire by the Navy.

Collecting shrapnel was an almost universal pastime for kids in the city.

One thing you might find on the ground after a formation of bombers has been over is small strips of aluminium, called window by the British, released to confuse enemy radar. Civilians used it to decorate Christmas trees.

Then turn it in to the scrap drives. Reduce reuse recycle.

Here Mr. Hitler, have some of your old steel back. We’ll even deliver it to you! :slight_smile:

Isn’t it generally reckoned that it’s in fact good for wartime morale for there to be things not to do with the war, which people can give their attention to now and again – get a break for a while, from “war stuff”. (Though with this particular recording, circumstances caused that effect not to be achieved.)

Listening to it, by the way – I thought that the bird manages pretty well, to hold its own …

This is such a great post that I feel a little bad pointing out that you are actually significantly under estimating the numbers.

First, the guns go out both sides of the plane, so that doubles the width and halves the concentration.

Second, from what I’m reading on line, the range of a .50 caliber bullet is at least twice when shot at 45 degrees up from the surface. This would put the outer limits at 4 miles and a width of 8 miles. Obviously there would be more of a bell curve than a straight average, but the concentration would be significently smaller.

Finally, the 4-mile range is from a machine gun on the Earth’s surface, not one 30,000 feet up. Using simple geometry, (e.g. neglecting air resistance for the moment) the range is going to extend another five miles for a total of nine miles and an area of 18 miles wide, unless I’ve screwed up my math.

Yeah. I figured 2 miles (1 mile each side) was real conservative. I was expecting pushback from somebody saying I’d overestimated the range and wanted a defensible position. :slight_smile:

All this stuff is calibrated WAG at best.

The big point is for all the hyperbole about “wall of lead”, anybody who’s ever done infantry combat knows there’s a hell of a lot of the area in front of you that’s not getting effectively shot. You don’t have enough bullets or enough barrels to create the proverbial “wall of lead”.

In the bombers’ case, it’s more like mines in a harbor approach. If there’s enough invisible danger spots it becomes impractically unsafe to transit the area. Even though they’re only actually endangering a tiny fraction of the area.

That’s the “chaff” mentioned in the post before yours.