Masters of the Air: The M2 .50 Caliber Truly Made the B-17 a Flying Fortress

The popular Apple TV+ miniseries “The Masters of the Air” tells the story of World War II aviators who served in the United States Army Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. The follow-up to “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” from producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks has already been noted for its gritty realism and features the vast armadas of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress on its missions over occupied Europe.

B-17 Bombers
Boeing B-17F formation over Schweinfurt, Germany, on Aug. 17, 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Those bombers were able to strike deep into German-held territory, hitting individual factories and other precision targets, but they also whittled away at the fighter strength of the Luftwaffe in some of the largest and bloodiest air battles in history. The B-17 flew more than 290,000 sorties in the European Theater of Operations and dropped more than half a million tons of bombs.

Daytime Attacks

While the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted night-time bombing raids over Germany, the U.S. 8th Air Force bombed during the day, and the B-17 proved especially well-suited for the task – yet it came at a steep price. As noted in “The Masters of the Air,” the Flying Fortress was easy to fly and it was able to absorb a lot of punishment. The aircraft could be shot up and remain in the sky, and its Norden bombsight gave American forces bombing accuracy unmatched by any other nation during the war.

Newspapers at the time claimed it was so accurate that it could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel” from 13,125 feet (4,000 meters). That was a bit of hyperbole, and the truth was that only one of every 10 of their bombs landed within 500 feet of their target. On the second bombing raid against the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt in October 1943 – following the mission seen in episode three of the series – the 8th Air Force sent more than 250 B-17 bombers at the target, yet the aircraft failed to completely destroy the factory.

As noted in “The Masters of the  Air,” the tactics to bomb German targets around the clock were costly. Tragically, more than 47,000 U.S. 8th Air Force crewmen were killed in those daylight raids over Germany.

Damaged B-17
Flak damage destroyed the nose section of this Boeing B-17G, a 398th Bomb Group aircraft flown by 1Lt. Lawrence M. Delancey over Cologne, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Truly The Flying Fortress

Development of what was to become the B-17 began in the mid-1930s and it first took to the skies in July 1935. While it was already a well-armed warbird for the era, Boeing soon began to plan the development of the next-generation bomber. That led to the development of the B-29 – but Boeing also continued to refine and improve the B-17. The aircraft increased in size and weight, while it also received increased armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and notably greater armament.

It also earned its now infamous nickname, the “Flying Fortress,” from a supportive journalist’s report.

The often-repeated story is that after Richard Williams, a reporter from The Seattle Times, observed the Model 299 prototype on the ground, he described it as a “15-ton flying fortress” in a photo caption. Boeing quickly responded by trademarking the name and the rest is history.

The aircraft went on to be even more heavily armed to deal with the threats from enemy fighter aircraft after it entered service.

A Lucky 13 Machine Guns!

The B-17G variation that saw service in the tail end of World War II was armed like no other aircraft before it, with up to a lucky 13 M2 .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine guns placed in nine positions located throughout the airframe; each able to fire upwards of 700 rounds per minute. This aircraft variant of the famous “Ma Deuce” was dubbed the AN/M2 (officially the “Browning Machine Gun, Aircraft, Cal. .50, AN/M2”) – and it was fitted with a substantially lighter 36-inch (91 cm) length barrel.

Broawing AN/M2 machine gun
A “Machine Gun, .50 Caliber, Browning, AN/M2” from a Boeing B-17G aircraft in the collection of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (Photo: National Air & Space Museum)

Crews of 10 included the pilot and copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, and five gunners – all crammed into the small cabin for six to eight hours per mission. The main cabin was also barely tall enough for the crew to stand up straight, while flying at altitudes above 27,000 feet meant it got very cold in the aircraft, often below-freezing temperatures.

Crews had to be careful of touching the guns, which until fired could be dangerously cold. Everyone but the pilot and co-pilot were expected to operate a machine gun when enemy fighters approached.

Each B-17 initially carried around 5,000 rounds of ammunition – with the tail gunners and turret gunners having around 1,000 rounds available. According to some sources, the ammunition supply was doubled by the end of the war.

B-17 Gunner
A drawing by artist Howard Brodie depicts a World War II gunner wearing an oxygen mask as he stands before an open slot in a B-17 airplane firing his machine gun during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. (Library of Congress)

The B-17G’s 13 machine guns were positioned throughout the aircraft to allow it to take on enemy fighters from nearly any direction, while the bombers also flew in tight formations.

There were two machine guns in the main cabin operated by the waist gunner(s) to defend from side attacks. Two more machine guns were positioned in the nose for the bombardier and navigator to operate when they weren’t conducting other duties, while twin .50 caliber machine guns were also positioned in the “chin turret” to the front of the aircraft and operated remotely.

Memphis Belle nose section
The front of the famous “Memphis Belle” – the first B-17 to complete 25 missions –  in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force (Photo by the author)

The Crew

It should be noted as well that the bombardier was located at the extreme front end, protected only by a Plexiglas window. Just behind him, the navigator sat on a mounted table with access to maps and charts to best plot the bomber’s course during each mission. However, the B-17 was most vulnerable to a head-on attack – with many bombardiers and navigators killed in the early stages of the daytime bombing missions. The added .50 caliber machine guns provided them a chance to fire back at approaching German fighters.

Directly behind the flight deck, where the pilot and co-pilot were seated, were twin .50 caliber machine guns in a top or dorsal turret. It was the turret gunner’s job to constantly scan the horizon for any incoming enemy fighters. A radio operator, located behind the turret, also operated one machine gun that fired upwards.

The underside of the B-17 was equipped with a Sperry ball turret, a spherical space about four feet in diameter and capable of rotating 360 degrees. After takeoff, the ball turret gunner – who was typically one of the smallest crew members – would crouch into a fetal position while entering the turret to operate a pair of machine guns. It may have provided a stunning view of the ground, but the ball turret gunner was still only protected by his flak jacket and the Plexiglas.

B-17 Ball Turret
The ball turret of the B-17. (Photo by the author)

At the extreme end of the fuselage were two more twin .50-caliber machine guns, which were operated by the tail gunner. His job was to protect the rear of the aircraft from attack.

Initially, the bomber crews wore only heavy flight jackets and sheepskin flight trousers, which were about protecting the wearer from the cold at extreme altitudes. However, the effects of Triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) – also known as flak –resulted in the development of flak jackets and even specialty helmets.

Flak helmets
A variety of flak helmets that B-17 aircrew wore in the later stages of World War II. These are on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (Photo by the author)

Though the B-17 was a fortress in the sky, it should be remembered that sometimes forts need some outside support. This turned out to be the case with the B-17. The huge losses seen in raids like the one over Schweinfurt convinced the Allied leadership that the B-17 could not go to war over German-held territory unescorted and in the latter stages of the war, the P-51 Mustang fighter plane proved to be the bomber’s little friend to Berlin and back.

The Memphis Belle B-17
How few remain: The Memphis Belle in the collection of The National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by the author)

The B-17 Flying Fortress went on to make its mark on history and became among the most famous aircraft of the Second World War, yet, it wasn’t actually the bomber that was produced in the largest number. A total of 12,731 B-17s were produced while 18,482 Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers were also built by the end of World War II. However, both heavy bombers had a well-earned reputation for being the workhorses of the USAAF.

Today, there are reported to be only 45 surviving B-17s, of which thirty-eight are in the United States. Just 10 are airworthy. Among the most famous of the surviving aircraft is the “Memphis Belle,” which is currently on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are The National Interest, Forbes, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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