When I see contrails crisscrossing the sky, I wonder what the skies over Europe looked like during World War II. So many military aircraft were flying back then, heavy bombers, medium bombers and fighters. Without today’s on-board radar, clear skies provided ideal flying weather for the bombers and a clear, blue sky is a perfect backdrop for snowy-white contrails.
The U.S. Eighth Air Force flew daytime missions over Europe beginning in 1942. While the British flew at night, the Americans tackled the more dangerous daylight hours. Even during the Luftwaffe’s infamous blitz in 1940, the Germans dropped their bombs at night. They knew their bombers were much more vulnerable in the daytime. But the Americans believed that their heavily armed B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the comparably armed Consolidated B-24 could withstand German fighter attacks without the protection of their own fighters. It would be late in 1943 before long-range fighters would accompany the bombers all the way to the target and back. The Americans also believed that by flying in the daytime their bombardiers could be more accurate. The top-secret Norden bomb sight enabled the bombardier to hit the selected target with less damage to nearby non-military structures. At least that was what they believed at the time. Later they found that although the U.S. bombings had less collateral damage than the British “carpet” bombing, their accuracy left much to be desired. Also, the American losses due to anti-aircraft fire or “flack” were horrendous.
But let’s get back to those contrails that marked the path of bombers across the sky. Contrails are a phenomenon of atmospheric conditions. When the heat from airplane engines interacts with the moist atmosphere at high altitudes and when the temperature and humidity are within certain ranges, a contrail (essentially a cloud) is formed. Engine emissions facilitate the cloud or contrail formation by providing tiny particles for the moisture to gather around. Depending on conditions at altitude the clouds or contrails may quickly disappear, may hang in the sky as long thin lines or may spread out into what eventually appear to be natural bands of billowy clouds. Today’s contrails are produced by jet engines, but during World War II airplanes were powered by internal combustion engines. These engines produced enough heat to create the contrail phenomena.
When squadrons of bombers stacked into box-like formations sped across the sky, their contrails must have been a sight to see. Instead of one solitary streak across the sky, groups of pencil-thin clouds would have marked the squadron’s progress. When the humidity and temperature were right, these bombers could not hide from the enemy. Germans on the ground could easily track their direction and note when the group changed course. It was no wonder that the anti-aircraft fire was so deadly accurate.
Conversely, the streaks across the sky must have comforted those in occupied countries as the American bombers flew over France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Luxembourg. In the dark years of 1942 and 1943, when the Germans dominated Europe and the Allied forces were far away in North Africa and Sicily, these contrails provided hope to the people of Europe. Their message written across the sky said that Europe had not been forgotten.
Learn more about the Eighth Air Force and their war over Europe by visiting the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum just outside Savannah, Georgia. It is a fascinating place to visit.
And read about the men in those bombers in my novel, Kitty’s War, which will be released on Friday, December 16, 2016, published by The Wild Rose Press and available at Amazon and other online stores.