A small glimpse into the common Combat Box formation used by heavy bombers in the ETO during WWII.
1. Lead Element 2. High Element 3. Low Element 4. Low Low Element
The Heavy Bomber “Combat Box”
A key to the success of the American daytime strategic bombing campaign against Germany was the evolving bomber formation called the “combat box” Designed to maximize defensive firepower and concentrate the group’s bomb load, variations of the combat box included 18, 27, 36, or 54 heavy bombers. Devised at the end of 1942, the basic 18-plane formation, called the Group Javelin Down, consisted of high, middle, and low six-plane squadrons stepped diagonally downward toward the sun.
Originally USAAF planners had hoped that 200-plus .50-caliber machine guns mounted in 18 Flying Fortresses would produce an impenetrable screen of fire around the formation. Even when later formations expanded to include 54 aircraft, their nearly 700 guns could not ensure that the majority of the bombers would reach their target, let alone survive the return trip. It took effective fighter escort, combined with the combat box, to make the ongoing strategic bombing campaign possible.
These large bomber formations provided distinct challenges to fighter pilots on both sides of the struggle. For Allied fighter pilots, the job of escorting the bombers to and from the target was an evolving task as the formations, enemy tactics, and the escort fighters’ combat range changed over time. For German fighter pilots, the task of attacking massive streams of bombers flying in ever more effective formations and escorted by fighters with increasing range and freedom of action was a daunting one.
By the end of 1943, with the development of long-range fighter escort and radar aid, the formation system was used much less for defensive firepower. 12 aircraft squadrons flew in 3 squadron Groups with each Group spread out at 4 mile intervals. This formation was used successfully until the end of the war.
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