Military history


On October 18, four days after Mission 115 had become history, the commanding general of the Army Air Forces, Henry H. Arnold, made this statement to the press: “Regardless of our losses, I’m ready to send replacements of planes and crews and continue building up our strength. The opposition isn’t nearly what it was, and we are wearing them down. The loss of 60 American bombers in the Schweinfurt raid was incidental.”

It is impossible to explain General Arnold’s words, for they conflicted in the highest degree with the situation which then existed. Rather than showing a downward trend (“the opposition isn’t nearly what it was”), the German aerial defense of Schweinfurt on October 14 was unquestionably the most masterful, most viciously pressed home, and most effective onslaught of fighter planes in the entire war. It is even more difficult to reconcile with fact the incredible remark that the “loss of 60 American bombers in the Schweinfurt raid was incidental”; this same loss, coming so swiftly on three consecutive raids that had cost the VIII Bomber Command another 88 bombers lost in combat, was the direct cause of the failure of the strategic bombing campaign to destroy the German bearings industry.

In the simplest terms, the inability of the VIII Bomber Command to continue its attacks on the bearings industry—an inability caused by losses so disastrous that they were beyond capacity of the United States to replace at the time—prevented the Fortresses from returning to Schweinfurt for another four months. And by that time the opportunity to deliver the coup de grâce had vanished; the Germans had not failed to take advantage of the losses they had inflicted upon the American bomber forces.

“The Allied air attacks remained without decisive success until early 1944,” declared Albert Speer. “This failure, which is reflected in the armaments output figures for 1943 and 1944, is to be attributed principally to the tenacious efforts of the German workers and factory managers and also to the haphazard and too scattered form of attack of the enemy, who, until the attacks on the synthetic oil plants, based his raids on no clearly recognizable economic planning.”

Speer asserted further: “Armaments production would have been materially weakened over a period of two months and would have been brought to a complete standstill at the end of four months if:

“1. All ball-bearing plants had been attacked at one and the same time.

“2. The attacks had been repeated three or four times at intervals of fourteen days each, without regard to the bomb plots.

“3. Each attempt at reconstruction had been attacked every eight weeks by two consecutive heavy raids, and if the execution of this total bombing policy had been continued for six months.”

Had all this transpired, Speer stated, the German war machine could not possibly have survived. “The destruction of the ball-bearings industry, ac the cost of a small expenditure of effort, would have caused a complete standstill of armaments and war production within a period of four months, and in certain important spheres even within fourteen days to eight weeks.”

During the course of the strategic bombing campaign in Europe, this hope was not to be fulfilled, despite a very major effort through the Combined Bomber Offensive. From August 17, 1943, until the end of the war in Europe in the spring of 1945, both the American and British bomber commands participated in a series of 40 separate air raids aimed at the bearings plants in Germany, Austria, France, and Italy, plus 11 other raids in which bearings plants suffered by proximity to targets undergoing attack.

In all, the Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, and the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, unleashed 12,000 tons of bombs on the bearings industry. Of this total, two thirds—8,000 tons— fell on Schweinfurt. The vast weight of bombs did not do the task expected of it.

Destruction of buildings in the raids was more than substantial, since it amounted to almost half of the entire pre-raid floor space of the bearings industry, while eventually the equivalent of another half was heavily damaged. It was not because of bombing failures that the bearings industry survived. The failure rested in the serious underestimation by Allied planners of the recuperative powers of German industry.

Also, we did not know during the war—such things are not revealed by the best of reconnaissance photographs—that dam-age to machine tools in German industry was not at all proportionate to damage to buildings. The machine tools destroyed equaled but 12 per cent of the original inventory, and those that were damaged came to another 30 per cent. These were small dividends for the bomb tonnage involved and especially in view of the disastrous toll exacted by the enemy defense system.

It proved impossible to establish a specific pattern of effectiveness for the attacks on the bearings industry, for both the intensity and the accuracy of the raids varied too greatly. The Fortresses were able to strike with stunning effectiveness at the small plants at Annecy and Ebelsbach, literally pounding them into junk and bringing all production to a complete standstill. At Setyr and at VKF Berlin the Fortresses struck with such precision that the plants were unable to function as producing units for months at a time. Even the large plants—at Schweinfurt—were partially disrupted.

Successive raids proved to the satisfaction of the Germans, however, that their factories enjoyed a resiliency not even they could have anticipated. The susceptibility of machine tools to damage was not so great as had been believed. High-explosive bombs were used in preponderant quantities, but fire proved far more effective than blast. Machine tools, which contained a great deal of oil, were prime targets for flames. Although appearing to be in good condition after the raids, the machines that had fed the fires with their own oil, or that had been heated by incendiary bombs or by the fires in the buildings, were found to be twisted, or broken in the frames and parts by the water used in firefighting.

Stocks of raw materials and semi-finished bearings suffered some damage, but they could not be hit so badly as to cause the industry to falter seriously. And even hits on buildings housing vital processes proved insufficient to wreck a plant or put it out of commission. This was in direct contradiction of the beliefs of the Allied planners.

A careful study of German records reveals that high-ex-plosive bombs, except in the case of direct hits, failed to destroy the heaviest and most important machine tools. On these machines the more sensitive electrical gear proved to be the most vulnerable area.

The most elaborate studies by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey failed to provide a yardstick of bomb effectiveness. “The variation in destructiveness of bombs was very great, so that it is impossible to state any coefficient of the number of machines destroyed or damaged per bomb hit.” In a strike on April 13, 1944, for example, a single bomb that exploded directly in the production shop destroyed the majority of the machines in Kugelfischer’s ring-grinding department for medium bearings. Other bombs that struck the factory building “did virtually no damage to machines.” On one raid in February, 1944, a single bomb appears to have caused more damage than all the rest of the bombs dropped in the attack. One hundred and sixty-one machines in VKF’s machine store-room in Works II were destroyed as a result of a fire set by this bomb that subsequently swept the storeroom.

Ingenious organization of the German factories also paid off handsomely. Through the establishment in the bearings plants of many departments, each of which carried through the complete manufacture of one component, a plant that was heavily damaged was able to continue its production even though the production of one or more components was halted: the other manufacturing processes continued unabated, or with only minor lessening of production, and the plant accomplished its vital final assembly by drawing on stocks. In addition to this resilient compartmentation, much machinery in one department could be quickly adapted for use in another, so that even when a vital process was destroyed in an attack, the Germans were able readily to provide substitute machine tools.

Nevertheless, by April, 1944, the heavy bomber raids had inflicted a significant blow. The best efforts of the Germans in the face of these attacks failed to prevent a drop in bearings production to less than 50 per cent of the pre-raid levels. Had continued attacks taken place at this critical moment, the objectives of the strategic bombing campaign might have been achieved. The bombers failed to return, however, for reasons we shall soon see.

By September, 1944, the German production had recovered to its full pre-raid level. Indeed, their total loss of production amounted to barely three months’ output, calculated at the rate obtaining before the first raid of August 17, 1943. Nor did all this loss result directly from the bombing attacks, but rather from the combined factors of direct-bomb damage and the German policy of dispersal with the immobilization of machinery and equipment that it demanded.

There can be no other view than that the Germans accepted the problem of bearings shortages, and met that problem, in superb fashion. Engineers worked day and night in an aggressive program to ramrod the redesign of armaments so as to eliminate anti-friction bearings wherever they were not absolutely necessary. This materially reduced requirements, and again contradicted the supposition of the Allied target analysts that this procedure would produce no vital beneficial results. Hardly had the dust cleared from the exploding bombs of the first Schweinfurt raids, moreover, than an exceedingly rigid system of bearings control went into effect throughout Germany in both the bearings plants and the user plants. In this manner the essential weapons manufacturers were further protected from lack of essential bearings.

Thus many factors contributed to the German effort to pre-vent crippling of industrial production as a result of the attacks against the bearings industry. Vigorous production measures, the dispersal of production lines from the large centers of manufacturing to numerous small plants, the bomb-proofing and erection of blast walls around vital machinery, and the amazingly rapid repair or replacement of damaged or destroyed machinery and equipment—all these measures enabled production to return to adequate levels before the cushion provided by reserve stocks and the shortening of the pipeline between producer and user plants ceased to exist.

This is the German side of the story that enabled them to boast in all truth: “Es is kein Gerät zurück geblieben vieil Wälzläger fehlten.”

The consequences of our heavy loss of bombers in the Schweinfurt raid were ominous. “In one raid,” states the Strategic Bombing Survey, “the Eighth Air Force had temporarily lost its air superiority over German targets.”

This was the concrete fact that the Eighth Air Force had to live with, and in the last analysis it was for this reason, and no other, that the German bearings industry survived the weight of all attacks made upon it.

“The incalculable advantage of a breathing spell from further attacks for another four months,” states the official history of the Army Air Forces, “was granted the Germans, who regarded the ‘omission’ on the part of the Army Air Forces as nothing less than miraculous.”

Four months passed before the Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force returned to Schweinfurt, and that was all the miraculous “breathing spell” the Germans needed. By December, 1943, two months after Black Thursday, the long-range fighters to escort the bombers all the way to Schweinfurt were ready. By then, however, continuing storms and heavy cloud masses over England and the Continent interfered with projected raids, and the acceleration of other bombing commitments lowered Schweinfurt on the priority target list. Not until late in February, 1944, was the Army Air Forces able to resume its’ attacks against the German bearings industry in general and Schweinfurt in particular. The Luftwaffe had battered us so badly that we lacked the strength—and the recuperative powers —to repair sooner the losses experienced on October 14.

On the evening of February 24, 1944, the Royal Air Force struck at Schweinfurt. The next morning heavy bombers of the Army Air Forces took off from England to smash the plants in a follow-up daylight raid. And that night, completing the long-needed consecutive raid against the target, another Royal Air Force armada attacked. A tremendous weight of 3,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries cascaded into the city and the bearings plants.

It was a case of locking the barn door after the horse was galloping down the road. The VFK works alone had transferred 549 vital machines to their new locations in dispersal plants, and this was 27 per cent of the VKF total in Schweinfurt. Even more machines had vanished from the Kugelfischer works.

More than 40 per cent of the target was no longer in Schweinfurt. Despite the overwhelming weight of the bomb tonnage involved, the February attacks produced less results than had the October 14 mission.

On March 24, 1944, 60 United States Army Air Forces bombers struck in a “precision” attack against the bearings works in the city. This proved to be one of the classic bombing failures of the war; not a single bomb of the hundreds dropped struck any bearings factory.

Less than one week later heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force struck with 104 tons of bombs in a night attack. The explosions and fires damaged some buildings but left the ma-chines and productive facilities unscathed.

On April 13, two weeks after the Royal Air Force attack, the Eighth Air Force returned to score its most effective mission since the October 14 assault. The attacks that followed for the remainder of the war, despite some damage, proved to be largely ineffectual. The heaviest of these came on October 9, 1944, when in a daylight strike the Eighth dumped 820 tons into the target. By now, however, more than 70 per cent of Schweinfurt’s former facilities for producing ball bearings had been effectively dispersed throughout Germany, and the dam-age wrought by the 820 tons of bombs, mostly high-explosive, came to perhaps 18 per cent that of Mission 115. This attack, states the Strategic Bombing Survey, “virtually marked the end of the strategic bombing attacks on Schweinfurt.”

The final tally at the war’s end revealed disappointing figures. For the Schweinfurt raids, the percentage of machines destroyed per raid averaged well under 5 per cent and the percentage damaged under 10 per cent. The Germans had restored the bulk of the machines damaged in the raids to productive condition within sixty days, and almost all of them within four months.

The great Fortresses and their crews of the VIII Bomber Command had done their best to cripple German bearings production. It was not enough.

At the war’s end, however, with Germany prostrate and defeated, it became possible to review in its full perspective the role of our air power and to assess objectively its impact upon the enemy’s capacity to fight.

“Allied air power,” states the Strategic Bombing Survey, “was decisive in the war in western Europe. Hindsight inevitably suggests that it might have been employed differently or better in some respects. Nevertheless, it was decisive. In the air, its victory was complete; at sea, its contribution, combined with naval power, brought an end to the enemy’s greatest naval threat—the U-boat; on land, it helped turn the tide overwhelmingly in favor of the Allied ground forces....

“By the beginning of 1945, before the invasion of the home-land itself, Germany was reaching a state of helplessness.”

In that European air war the separate missions by the For-tresses and the Liberators merged into a great and extended struggle of machines and men. In the course of that air conflict the United States lost some 160,000 airmen and many thousands of planes.

We fought many battles; some were so vast as to be individual campaigns. We emerged the victor from most, and our strength in the air prevailed to bring about the ultimate victory.

To all those men who fought the Schweinfurt battles, who watched their crew mates die, nothing would be more satisfying than to know that the campaign against Schweinfurt, against its industry whose destruction would have brought the enemy’s war machines grinding to a halt, was successful.

But it was not to be so; we did not win all our battles, and this was one that we lost.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!