U.S. and Royal Air Force leadership; local community leaders from Kettering, United Kingdom; and veterans marked the 70th anniversary of the first 8th Air Force bombers participating in World War II with a ceremony at Boughton House and a memorial service at Grafton Underwood Aug. 17.
At Boughton House 70 years ago, the Duke of Buccleuch loaned part of his 10,000-acre estate to the United States Army Air Forces, who built up Grafton Underwood Airfield on the grounds.
Leadership in attendance included Maj. Gen. Stephen Wilson, 8th Air Force commander; RAF Air Commodore R.L. Atherton, representing the U.K. Ministry of Defence; Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Dalton, RAF Chief of Air Staff; and Col. Brian Kelly, 501st Combat Support Wing commander;
“Our first heavy bomber air combat mission took place at this very spot 70 years ago today,” said Wilson, during his remarks to more than 200 people in attendance. “Twelve B-17s departed Grafton Underwood, escorted by RAF Spitfires, to strike targets in occupied France. General Ira Eaker, my predecessor as the Commander of VIII Bomber Command, flew on the first mission himself. The bombing results were good and the formation only took minor damage. It was a solid start, and the press swooned at the story, but we knew we had a long way to go. That December, General Eaker told Fleet Street reporters in London, still hungry for good news, ‘We won’t do much talking until we’ve done more fighting. After we’ve gone, we hope you’ll be glad we came.'”
Wilson talked about how RAF Bomber Command and VIII Bomber Command worked hand-in-hand striking at the heart of Germany’s war-making capability with “around the clock – RAF Bomber Command at night, Eighth Air Force by day” bombings. They grew into the nickname “The Mighty Eighth” – with more than 350,000 Americans serving in England and flying more than 620,000 sorties from August 1942 to May 1945.
“Comprised of nearly 50 bomber groups and 20 fighter groups, the Eighth Air Force sent aloft the greatest air armada in history,” said Wilson. “I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again. As many as 1,000 bomber and 1,000 fighter aircraft flew in a single maximum effort mission. A mission of this magnitude put more than 11,000 men in the air at one time. Unfortunately, not all of them made the return trip home.”
Early on, aircrew losses were at a catastrophic 20 percent per mission. The chances of a crew making it to 25 missions were virtually nonexistent. Occasionally, one crew, or even just one person, would make it to the 25-mission mark.
“More than 26,000 Mighty Eighth airmen made the ultimate sacrifice for our common cause. Another 28,000 became prisoners of war,” said Wilson. ‘Let me try to put this number in context. If we started the clock from 8th Air Force’s inception in 1942 to the end of the war in Europe, we lost two Mighty Eighth airmen every hour of every day, one killed and one became a prisoner of war, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for almost three years.”
The partnership with the RAF has continued for 70 years and Wilson addressed the brotherhood that has formed.
“Eighth Air Force has continued the tradition of delivering strategic airpower for 70 years,” he said. “Like our forefathers of World War II, Eighth Air Force aircrews have never been turned back from a target by the enemy. The weather has turned us back and we have been recalled, but enemy action – fighters or flack – never turned the airmen of The Mighty Eighth away from our target. Not in any conflict since our inception, from world War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently, Libya. And in almost every conflict, we have continued our remarkable relationship – fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside our trusted wingmen from the RAF. Over the years, it has become hard to find an 8th Air Force bomber crew that hasn’t shared a drink with their RAF brethren in some crowded bar on the far side of the world.”
“Thank you for keeping our story alive – Britain’s and America’s extraordinary story – where two nations with a remarkable relationship stood shoulder-to-shoulder against tyranny and aggression, a story of epic resolve in the life-and-death struggle over the fate of the free world, an incredible story kept alive in the hearts and minds of our people,” said Wilson.
The event at Boughton House was followed by a wreath-laying service near the 8th Air Force memorial at Grafton Underwood.