Did you know why the German planes attacked from the front in Masters of the Air?

Screenshot from Masters of the Air. The B-17s in the background are behind the two attacking planes, which have approached the formation from the front.
(Image: Apple Studios)

If you’re watching Masters of the Air, the new World War II miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, with us, you might have noticed something in Episode 2. During the return trip from Wilhelmshaven, a few German planes intercept the formation, and attack them head-on in a fly-by. You might have wondered why they attacked like this, with barely enough time to aim and fire. This detail is true to life.

A German training model showing the arcs of fire of a B-17
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

German pilots quickly learned that approaching Flying Fortress formations from behind was extremely dangerous. The fighters had to get within 400 meters (1310 ft) to open fire, but the B-17 tail gunners could open up much earlier, from 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) out, giving them time to pick off the interceptors. By attacking from the front, both the fighter and the bomber had far less time to aim, which worked in the more fragile fighter’s favor. Additionally, any hits were likely to land on the bomber’s cockpit and possibly shoot it down in the first pass. The downside was that the German pilot also only had half a second to aim, which meant that only the most experienced aviators had a decent chance of success – but it was still a better chance than by approaching from behind.

An experimental 6-gun chin turret designed to foil German head-on attacks
(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

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The 64-year-old President Washington during his final year in office
(Painting: Gilbert Stuart)
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