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Robert Boyd Williams
Born (1901-11-09)November 9, 1901
Died February 10, 1977(1977-02-10) (aged 75)
Place of birth Albany, Texas
Place of death San Antonio, Texas
Allegiance United States United States
Service/branch Seal of the United States Department of the Air Force United States Air Force
Years of service 1923–1946
Rank US-O8 insignia Major General
Commands held 49th Bomb Squadron
2nd Bomb Command
16th Bomb Wing
1st Bomb Command
1st Bomb Wing
1st Bomb Division
2nd Air Force
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Distinguished Service Cross (United States)

Major General Robert Boyd Williams was a World War II general in the United States Army Air Forces. He led the B-17 raid on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories, the first large-scale deep penetration bombing raid on Germany.

Early lifeEdit

Robert B. Williams was born in Albany, Texas, on Nov. 9, 1901. He graduated from Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering in 1923. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Service on June 6, 1923.[1]

Early careerEdit

Williams entered flying training in June 1923 at Brooks Field in San AntonioTexas. In January 1924, he began advanced flying training at nearby Kelly Field, Texas.[1]

From August 1924 to October 1924, Williams served as Squadron Adjutant at Kelly Field. From October 1924 to June 1925, he attended the Photography Course at the Air Service Technical School at Chanute Field, Illinois.[1]

From June 1925 to May 1926, Williams served with the 5th Observation Squadron at Mitchel Field, N.Y.[1]

In May 1926, Williams moved to France Field in the Panama Canal Zone, where he served with the 6th Composite Group and the 7th Observation Squadron. In 1928, he was commended for making an emergency landing in a crater lake in El Salvador and then spiraling his plane out of this hazardous area after refueling. In July 1928, he became the Operations Officer of the 24th Pursuit Squadron at France Field. In September 1929, he was named Commanding Officer, 12th Photo Section, 24th Pursuit Squadron at France Field.[1]

In May 1930, Williams returned to the U.S., serving as a flying Instructor at March Field, California. In August 1931, he transferred to Randolph Field, Texas where he served as a flight instructor.[1]

From August 1933 to June 1934, Williams attended the Air Corps Tactical School, Maxwell Field, Alabama.[1]

Williams moved to Rockwell Field, California in August 1934, where he served as Secretary and Senior Instructor, Advanced Air Navigation Training Unit. In April 1935, he was assigned to the 30th Bombardment Squadron, Rockwell Field.[1]

From August 1936 to June 1937, Williams attended the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.[1]

In June 1937, Williams was assiged as Operations Officer of the 2nd Bombardment Group, General Headquarters Air Force, Langley Field, Virginia.[1] The 2nd Bomb Group received the very first B-17 Flying Fortress bomber delivered to the Army Air Corps in 1937.[2] In February 1938, Williams took part in the United States to South America flight by six B-17s from Langley Field to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and back.[1][2] Williams was commended in connection with that flight.[1] This goodwill tour to Argentina represented the longest distance performance of its kind on record and subsequently earned the 2nd Bomb Group the Mackay Trophy.[2]

In May 1938, Williams was assigned to the 49th Bombardment Squadron at Langley Field. He became squadron commander of the 49th Bomb Squadron in 1939.[3] In November 1939, he took part in a flight of seven "Flying Fortresses" from Langley Field to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and return. Williams received the Order of the Southern Cross from the government of Brazil in 1940 for his participation in the flight to Rio de Janeiro.[1]

From February 1940 to January 1942, Williams was again assigned to the 2nd Bombardment Group, Langley Field. For several months late in 1940 and early 1941, he served as a military observer in England during the early part of World War II while the U.S. was still neutral.[1] He was wounded and lost an eye during an air raid on London.[4]

In January 1942, Williams moved to Mitchel Field in New York, where he served with the 1st Air Force Bomber Command.[1]

World War IIEdit

In September 1942, Williams was named to command the 2nd Bomb Command (part of Second Air Force) at Fort George Wright, Washington He was in command of the 16th Bomb Wing briefly in April 1943, and on May 1, 1943, became Commanding General of the 1st Bomb Command in El Paso, Texas. In June 1943 he was assigned to the 8th Air Force in Great Britain, subsequently becoming Commanding General of the 1st Bombardment Division[1] with headquarters at Brampton Grange, England.[3]

Williams pioneered the use of VHF radio communications to control the attack on a target by a bomber formation. He announced that previously the formations had been merely led. After takeoff there was no control over the attack than in the case of a projectile once fired from a gun. Now the formation would have command, as distinguished from mere leadership. Previously, radio silence had been sacrosanct. Williams also authorized radio use to organize the formations.[5]

Williams also improved the training of the lead bombardiers by setting up rotating lead crews in each bomb group.[5] In addition, Williams implemented improved navigation devices for identifying the targets.

The Schweinfurt RaidEdit

See also main article: Schweinfurt–Regensburg mission

While in command of the 1st Bombardment Division, Williams led the first large daylight bombing strike against Germany, against the ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt on Aug. 17, 1943.[6]

Schweinfurt was the cornerstone of the Germany's ball-bearing industry, where five plants turned out nearly two-thirds of Germany's ball bearings and roller bearings. World War II created a huge demand for ball bearings. The German aviation industry alone used 2.4 million of them a month. In the summer of 1943, US and British planners for the Combined Bomber Offensive identified the ball bearings industry as a key "bottleneck" target, the destruction of which could clog up war production and potentially shorten the war.[6]

Eighth Air Force B-17s had been flying from England since September 1942, but seldom on large missions or with anything better than mediocre results. Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, commanding Eighth Air Force, had been unable to mount any large raids. Finally, in August 1943, he was able to put together enough B-17s for a large mission that would launch almost 400 bombers in a deep double strike against the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt factories at Regensburg.[6]

Planning for the Schweinfurt–Regensburg missionEdit

After an earlier postponement due to weather, the mission was scheduled for Aug. 17, 1943. The strike force was divided into two parts. The Third Air Division, led by Col. Curtis E. LeMay, would take off first and bomb Regensburg, 430 miles inside occupied Europe.[6]

The First Air Division, led by Williams, then a Brigadier General, would take off nine minutes later for Schweinfurt. Williams had the larger force, 230 B-17s compared to 146 for LeMay.[6]

Both divisions would follow the same route for most of the way, but beyond Frankfurt, the First Division would turn toward Schweinfurt. The plan was for both divisions to reach their targets about the same time, the nine-minute interval between them offset by the location of Schweinfurt, which was 75 miles closer than Regensburg. The first bombs were to fall on Schweinfurt at 10:12 a.m., and on Regensburg one minute later.[6]

Although the Messerschmitt plant was important, producing up to 400 Me 109 fighters a month, it was not the main target. By going first, LeMay's division was supposed to lure the German fighters away to give Williams a better shot at Schweinfurt.[6]

Vulnerability of the B-17Edit

The B-17s had never ventured so deeply into Germany, and they would be without fighter escort for most of the way. British Spitfires could go with them only as far as Antwerp in Belgium. American P-47 Thunderbolts would have to turn back at Eupen, about 10 miles short of the German border.[6]

Most of the bombers on the Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission were B-17Fs. Their guns provided overlapping cones of fire from the waist and from the top, belly, and tail turrets, but the B-17F did not have the nose turret that came on the B-17G. Handheld guns firing to the sides from "cheek" blisters did not close the gap.[6]

"We definitely lack firepower in the nose of the B-17", LeMay said. The Luftwaffe knew this and exploited the advantage of the head-on attacks.[6]

Luftwaffe Maj. Anton Hackl, who ended the war with 192 credited victories, explained, "If one came in from the rear, there was a long period, closing from 1,000 meters to our firing range of 400 meters, when the bombers were firing at us but we could not fire at them. This was a very dangerous time, and we lost a lot of aircraft trying to attack that way."[7]

When the B-17 was hit from the front, its armor gave little protection, and four or five 20-mm hits were enough to knock down the plane. Moreover, the high closing speed gave them little chance to engage the fighters. The combined closing speed of nearly 500 mph allowed German pilots time for only a half-second burst of fire, commencing at 500 yards, but if it was accurate, it was sufficient. Major Hackl asserted, "The head-on attack was the only way to knock down the bombers. One accurate half-second burst from head-on and a victory was guaranteed."[7]

The Schweinfurt–Regensburg RaidEdit

On the morning of Aug. 17, a thick fog covered East Anglia, where the B-17 bases were. LeMay's division had been scheduled to launch at 5:45 a.m. Takeoff was delayed for an hour, then for an additional half-hour. The mission called for LeMay's B-17s to cross the Alps after bombing Regensberg and land in Algeria. Further delay would mean running out of daylight before reaching the landing bases in Africa. Fortunately, LeMay had drilled his crews for a month in bad weather instrument takeoffs, and the first bomber was in the air at 7:15 a.m.[6]

The mission plan called for Williams' strike force to return to England, so a nighttime return was not an issue. In addition, the pilots of the 1st Air Division were not proficient in instrument takeoff. They finally launched five hours later than planned, more than four hours-—instead of nine minutes—-behind LeMay's division, which was almost to Regensburg before the first Schweinfurt bomber took off.[6]

Because of the five-hour fog delay, Williams and the First Division made a change that would have repercussions later. The original plan was for them to fly past Schweinfurt, turn, and attack from the east. This added 17 minutes to their approach, but it allowed them to make their bomb run at midmorning with the sun at their backs. However, because of the long delay, they would arrive at Schwein-furt in the afternoon rather than in the morning. The sun would be more to the west than to the east. If they stuck to the plan, they would spend 17 dangerous and unnecessary minutes in the target area and they would be attacking into the sun. Consequently, they switched directions to make the bomb run from west-to-east rather than east-to-west.[6]

The first of the Schweinfurt B-17s took off at 11:20 a.m. and a procession of 222 aircraft crossed the coast of the continent.[6] Williams himself flew in the B-17 "Vicious Virgin" (B-17F 42-5341), piloted by Lt. A.C. Strickland of the 427th Bomb Squadron.[8]

The German fighters, which had earlier struck LeMay's B-17s, were now refueled, rearmed, and waiting.[6] More than 300 German fighters attacked Williams' aircraft during the flight to Schweinfurt. Williams' B-17 force sustained heavy casualties and lost 22 B-17s.[9] Williams himself took over a machine gun in a cheek blister and fired it until the barrel burned out.[6]

As Williams' bombers neared their target, the Germans broke off to refuel in preparation to attack the bombers on the return leg of their trip.[9]

The strike force reached Schweinfurt at 2:59 p.m.[6] Williams' planes encountered heavy flak over the city. As they made their bomb runs, three more B-17s were lost.[9]

Bombing accuracy was not as good as hoped for. Some of the crews were confused by the change in direction of approach to the target. The first three groups had clear bomb runs but the other six had problems and many of their bombs fell wide.[6]

Turning for home, Williams again encountered German fighters. In a running battle, the Luftwaffe downed another 11 B-17s. Reaching Belgium, the bombers were met by a covering force of Allied fighters which allowed them to complete their trip to England relatively unmolested.[9]

Results of the Schweinfurt RaidEdit

Williams lost 36 aircraft on the raid while LeMay lost 24 aircraft. Of the 601 crewmen lost, 102 were killed. Many—381 of them—were taken prisoner, while others evaded capture, were interned, or were rescued from the sea.[6]

The German armaments minister, Albert Speer, said in his memoirs that the Schweinfurt bombing caused a 38 percent drop in ball bearing production.[6]

After the war, Major Major General Haywood S. Hansell wrote about Williams,[4]

Bob Williams's achievements are less well known, but his stature looms as great in the eyes of his men and associates. Actually, neither could exercise much command control during the mission. Their contribution had come in the months of training and indoctrination and inspiration. But their presence on the mission meant a lot to the crews and to the conduct of the operation.
Bob Williams was a few years senior to the rest of us. He had been one of the few chosen to pilot a B-17 in the early days of the 2d Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia. To me he seemed the very personification of "the officer and gentleman." As a commander he was urbane and personable without any hint of familiarity. He was an exacting but an understanding taskmaster, and whatever the job he demanded, he could do it better himself. It has seemed to me that the perfect achievement of leadership lies in getting other people to do what you want them to do because you are convinced that it is both right and necessary to do, and they are inspired to want to do it. To my mind, Bob Williams provided that kind of leadership. He was the "follow me" kind of leader.
Bob Williams had been selected to go to England as an observer before the U.S. entered the war. He was wounded and lost an eye during a heavy air raid on London. He had chosen to view the scene from the roof of his hotel rather than seek safety in a shelter. A bomb falling close at hand blasted nearby windows, and glass shards damaged one eye beyond repair. This would have sent most men to retirement or to inactive posts. Williams recovered enough to keep right on going.
On the Schweinfurt mission, Williams and his division went through torture during the hours of waiting for the weather to clear enough to permit takeoff. They knew that the carefully integrated plan of operations had been thrown out of balance by the fog that held the 1st Bomb Division on the ground long after the 3d Bomb Division had departed.
General Nathan Twining, who served many years with Bob Williams, says: "He is a wonderful man. Solid. Calm. Strong character. Competent. Great pilot. Great leader. One of the best."

Later ActionEdit

Williams commanded the 1st Bomb Division in the first largescale daylight attack against Berlin on March 6, 1944.[10]

Return to U.S.Edit

Williams returned to the United States in October 1944 and was named Commanding General of the 2nd Air Force, Colorado Springs, Colorado.[1] In this capacity he oversaw the training of B-29 crews for service in the Pacific Theater.[11] Williams served as 2nd Air Force Commanding General until November 1945.[12]

Awards and decorationsEdit

Williams' decorations from World War II included the Distinguished Service Cross, Great Britain's Order of the Bath, and France's Legion of Honor and Croix de guerre.[11] The Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) is the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Army, awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force.[13]

Later lifeEdit

Williams retired from the U.S. Army on July 1, 1946 as a Major General.[1] His retirement was based on disability received in the line of duty.[3] He lived in San Antonio, Texas during retirement.[14] He died on Feb. 10, 1977 at the age of 75.[1]


A sculpture by New Mexico artist Duke Sundt honoring Williams and two other World War II heroes was dedicated in February 2006 at the courthouse in Williams' hometown of Albany, Texas. The Albany Heroes' Monument honors Williams, Lt. Col. William E. Dyess, namesake of Dyess Air Force Base, and Rear Admiral Emory Arden Grantham, who supervised wartime Naval ship repairs at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. The life size bas relief portraits are accompanied by biographical information on plaques.[15]

The memorial lists Williams' rank as Lieutenant General and says that he retired in the 1950s.[14]


  1. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "2nd Bomb Wing History". Barksdale Air Force Base Official Website. U.S. Air Force. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  2. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Major General Robert Boyd Williams (USAAF)". "The Generals of WWII. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  3. 4.0 4.1 Major General Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., USAF (Ret) (September–October 1974). "Balaklava Redeemed". Air University Review. U.S. Air Force. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  4. 5.0 5.1 Phil Haberman. "1st CBW History". 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy) Website. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  5. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 John T. Correll (February 2010). "The Cost of Schweinfurt". Air Force Magazine. Air Force Association. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  6. 7.0 7.1 Alfred Price (September 1993). "Against Regensburg and Schweinfurt". Air Force Magazine. Air Force Association. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  7. Brian D. O'Neill (April 1999). Half a wing, three engines and a prayer: B-17s over Germany. McGraw Hill.,+three+engines+and+a+prayer:+B-17s+over+Germany. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  8. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Kennedy Hickman. "World War II: Schweinfurt-Regensburg Raid". Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  9. "303rg BG (H) Mission No. 118". 303rd Bomb Group (H) Molesworth, England, website. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  10. 11.0 11.1 Henry C. Dethloff with John A. Adams. Texas Aggies go to war: in service of their country. Texas A&M University Press. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  11. "Second Air Force(AETC)". Air Force Historical Research Agency. U.S. Air Force. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  12. "Distinguished Service Cross". U.S. Army Institute of Heraldry Official Web Site. U.S. Army. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  13. 14.0 14.1 Dreanna L. Belden. "Memorial to Williams, Dyess, and Grantham". The Portal to Texas History. Retrieved 2010-04-02. 
  14. Duke Sundt. "Albany Heroes' Monument". Duke Sundt Website. Retrieved 2010-04-02. 

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