On 17 August 1942, the US Army Air Corps VIII Bomber Command began their assault on Fortress Europe. A dozen B-17E Flying Fortress bombers from the 97th Bomb Group (BG) raided the railroad marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in occupied France. Each of the 97th BG squadrons, the 340th Bomb Squadron (BS), the 341st BS, the 342nd BS, and the 414th BS sent planes on the raid. An additional six 97th BG B-17Es flew a diversionary feint toward a different target. Considering the scale of the raids that would be flown even one year later, the Rouen mission was small but huge in other ways.
Leading the Rouen mission was none other than Major Paul Tibbetts flying the 342nd BS lead aircraft, B-17E serial 41-2578 named Butcher Shop, along with the 97th BG commanding officer, Colonel Frank Armstrong. Also flying the mission was VIII Bomber Command commanding officer Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker flying the 414th BS lead aircraft, B-17E serial 41-9023 named Yankee Doodle. The two squadrons attacked in two separate formations and dropped a total of 18.45 tons of bombs on the mission. The planned amphibious landings at Dieppe in France were one reason the raid was flown when it was. Of course Major Tibbetts went on to some other notable achievements on the other side of the planet three years later.
The results of that first mission were mixed. The mission got started late in the day. Takeoff commenced at 1627 local time and the bombers didn’t drop their ordnance until 1739 local time. Even given the momentous nature of the mission, the bomb damage assessment (BDA) rated accuracy as poor. Two of the 97th BG B-17Es were damaged. The Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire escorts took a beating, losing three Spits on the mission. The long and distinguished list of B-17 and bomber gunners who scored victories over Europe also began on 17 August 1942. Staff Sergeant Kent R. West, the ball turret gunner on B-17E serial 41-9100 named Birmingham Blitzkrieg, shot down a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf FW-190A-3 Würger (Shrike).
The 97th BG would not continue their missions without losses for long. The 97th flew a total of 14 missions from Polebrook and Grafton Underwood. Over 247 sorties the Group dropped 347 tons of bombs on targets in Western Europe, but lost 14 bombers during those missions. Just a month after the Rouen mission the 97th BG was reassigned to the Twelfth and then the Fifteenth Air Force, flying missions from Algeria and Tunisia and then from Italy. The 97th BG received Distinguished Unit Citations for missions against an aircraft component factory at Steyr in Austria, on 24 February 1944 during Operation Argument or “Big Week”, and a mission against the oil refineries at Ploesti in Romania on 18 August 1944. Today the 97th Operations Group (OG) is part of the US Air Force Air education and Training Command (AETC).