The feared combat box formation of heavy bombers was a three dimensional “object” flying across the sky thousands of feet above the ground. It was not a flat object, like a pancake, but a round and thorny cluster of aircraft that was just as tall as it was wide.
Period photographs taken from above or below those formations make them seem flatter than they really were. A B-17 at the topmost position could be over 600 feet higher than the bottommost bomber.
This schematic showing the box’s side view, or elevation, gives an indication of the cluster’s height, but this graphic does so at the expense of the box’s three-dimensional breadth. A Bf109 engaging such a formation through its middle faced a more lethal threat than one nipping at its sides.
Along with breadth, altitude was a fundamental factor for a Luftwaffe pilot attempting to break up the combat box. An approach angle from above, diving towards the target, afforded that pilot an advantage of power and generous scope of view, and the increase of speed could minimize its exposure to enemy gunfire. Unfortunately, it also gave him less time to aim, which was a particular problem when approaching from the nose position. The combined speeds of the Bf109 and the B-17 allowed for a very limited window of time for effective fire. Weighing the advantage to do harm to the B-17 with the threat of harm from that same B-17 and its neighbors, is central to the play of this game.
In Skies Above the Reich, the design intent was to err in favor of simplicity rather than historical complexity. That means we don’t ask the player to measure or count or comprehend altitude numerically. The game presents altitude in relative terms. Is the fighter higher or lower than the formation, or approximately level with it? The player is presented with basic choices regarding altitude. Dive down on the bomber, climb up to the bomber, or approach level with it? Level is your best shot, while climbing towards one’s prey is asking for trouble.
The four Positions on the perimeter of the game board, representing space at a safe distance from the formation, are each organized according to altitude. The player maneuvers his assets around this perimeter, using its organization of altitude boxes to make decisions about how to approach the thorny target.
The Positions and their altitude boxes also regulate what happens when fighters break away from the formation and then return to the formation for another run. Does the Bf109 dive away towards the formation’s tail, or does it roll towards the flank? Enemy escort may be climbing towards the formation or trailing behind it, so maybe you will choose to roll or climb instead and get back in front of the formation.
When tangling with enemy escort, altitude proves to be a crucial factor. Engaging from above provides an advantage, but American pilots know that too so they are likely to bounce your fighters from above. Deciding from where to approach the bomber formation thus must also factor in the presence or absence of escort. Can you sneak in an attack before they engage your fighters, or will they position themselves so that the most advantageous approaches are now death traps for your pilots?
Although those escort fighters may be out to flame your Bf109s, all they really have to do is engage them while the combat box continues towards its target. Time is limited even without the irritating and dangerous presence of fighter escort, and each mission will challenge you to make the most effective use of time.
More about time in the next article. For now, I’ll leave you with this quote by Adolf Galland, illustrating the respect he gave to the B-17:
“German propaganda…changed the psychologically effective and suggestive name Flying Fortress to Flying Coffins. It used this expression over all the English-speaking radio talks transmitted to America and England. The German fighters, however, held quite a different opinion.”
– The First and the Last