Military history


This message would be read to all crews at mission briefings the morning of October 14,1943, prior to take-off for the attack against the city of Schweinfurt:

To all leaders and combat crews. This air operation today is the most important air operation yet conducted in this war. The target must be destroyed. It is of vital importance to the enemy. Your friends and comrades that have been lost and that will be lost today are depending on you. Their sacrifices must not be in vain. Good luck, good shooting, and good bombing.

(Sgd.) F. L. Anderson,

Brigadier General, U.S.A.A.F.


Anti-friction bearings, as essential components of virtually every mechanical device and weapon used in World War II, occupied a highly critical position in the war economy of Germany. Aircraft, tanks, armored and motor vehicles, a diversity of weapons, submarines and warships, electrical equipment, precision instruments, and plant machinery all depended on anti-friction bearings for speed and efficiency of performance. Bearings were literally the mechanical lubrication of the entire German war effort.

The consumption of bearings in German war industry was fantastic. In the month of December, 1943, the aircraft industry alone consumed 2,395,000 anti-friction bearings.

The modern designs of German fighters and bombers demanded many varieties of highly specialized bearings to over-come friction, since power units with low horsepower-weight ratios must carry heavy loads at high speeds. For example, the air frame for a single Junkers Ju-388 twin-engine medium bomber called for 1,056 anti-friction bearings. Its two motors and the instruments required hundreds more. Almost every aircraft had a specific bearings need for propellers, superchargers, pump drives, gear systems, reduction gears, as well as bomb sights, automatic pilot, and other control instruments. The aircraft industry without a continual supply of anti-friction bearings would literally be crippled to a state of impotence.

Tanks and motor vehicles that were capable of high speeds with heavy loads also demanded many anti-friction bearings throughout their construction. Similarly, weapons of all types depended on bearings for their accuracy and sustained use. The 88-mm. anti-aircraft gun, perhaps the most efficient such weapon of the war, used 47 anti-friction bearings; a single 200-cm. searchlight required 90.

The general-equipment industries, which produced military equipment as well as products that were essentially civilian in nature, required even more bearings than the industries that produced aircraft, tanks, motor vehicles, and a wide variety of weapons.

With an adequate supply of these bearings, the German industrial complex was a machine that functioned efficiently and adequately sustained the German armed forces. Without the bearings, that same machine would strangle itself to death.

It was obvious to Allied target analysts, once they had ascertained properly the role of the German ball-bearings industry, that the destruction of that industry was imperative. To make it the object of a systematic aerial campaign promised far-reaching results with minimum effort. In addition to the bearing industry’s pivotal place in the German war economy, the industry was concentrated within several target areas rather than disseminated piecemeal throughout the nation, and once crippled its recovery would be a slow and costly process, during which the interrupted production would produce its disastrous results.

Importance of Bearings to the Economy

If a heavy bomber attack could cut the supplies of this one component so vital to the manufacture of diverse armaments, the strategic air campaign would create repercussions sweeping through all of Germany like a paralyzing shock. Should the planned attacks on Schweinfurt, the primary center of bearings production, prove successful, the many and varied users of bearings would begin to suffer the effects of shortened supplies within a month of the initial attack. “Non-military users would suffer most” from an effective attack on the bearings industry, target analysts concluded, “with less critical military items such as trucks next in line. A nine months’ loss of output, however, would be bound to reach even to producers with top priority. No countermeasures would be able to avoid a 30 per cent drop in armament production as a consequence of successful attack.”

Intelligence agencies reported to VIII Bomber Command that the delivery of bearings to customers was on a “hand-to-mouth basis,” and that these customers carried “only small stocks of finished bearings.” The industry stood in urgent need of depth and decentralization for its defense; and in the lack of these things it was unusually vulnerable to being crippled by only a few devastating attacks. Its disruption could at an early date seriously affect aircraft production—notably fighters, a primary objective of the VIII—and within three months exert its influence on the battle line itself.

Concentration of Industry

Because of the industry’s concentration, target analysts felt strongly—and so they reported—that the “knockout blow” could easily be delivered. Plants in only six cities were believed responsible for 73 per cent of the entire output of bearings avail-able to the German war economy, even including those supplies which could be obtained from neutral nations, or from German satellites. It was an extraordinarily “ripe” target, as shown in breakdown:

Schweinfurt—42 per cent

Stuttgart—15 per cent

Paris and Annecy—9 per cent

Leipzig and Berlin—7 per cent

The importance of these centers, intelligence reported to VIII Bomber Command, was increased enormously by their specialization in military anti-friction bearings.

Recovery Difficulties

“The most important factor determining recovery is the ability to reconstruct, but equally crucial is the possibility of the effect of the raids’ being absorbed during the reconstruction and repair period.”[2] Analyses of the German situation indicated strongly to the Allied planning groups that the “cushion”—the alternate means of absorbing the effects of bombing raids— could be effectively broken through.

One element of the cushion was the “lavish use of bearings in German designs, the result of the industry’s long existence and excellent salesmanship.”[3] German aircraft and armaments used more bearings than comparable American and British equipment, but the VIII’s intelligence officers discounted the possibility that the Germans would be able effectively to reduce the number of bearings required in their planes and armaments. It would require at least six months and possibly one year to effect changes in design and to pass these changes on to the production line. Furthermore, technical difficulties would keep the savings in bearings consumption to a low point, and would localize the savings in industrial rather than military equipment. By its very nature, the heavy use of bearings dictated a continued use; it was, from the attacker’s point of view, an excellent and vicious circle that held every promise of crippling the enemy war effort.

Intelligence estimated that the German stocks of semi-finished components in bearings plants would suffice for six months’ production. Target analysts stated their belief that an effective attack on a bearings plant should result in the destruction of, or serious damage to, the bulk of these stocks, removing the possibility of their serving as the invaluable cushion during the post-raid period.

Target analysis personnel stated emphatically that the time required for pipeline delivery—the period of one month from the producer to the consumer—could not possibly be reduced. The Germans could strip non-military industry of its supply of bearings, but this measure would provide only a very limited and brief assistance.

Could the enemy make up the loss of primary plants by turning to alternate sources of supply? What if they diverted more raw materials and machine tools to the bearings industry, and increased their imports from Sweden? The answers to these questions were most reassuring, for a complete breakdown of all outside sources showed that the bearings supply from them could not be increased by more than 5 per cent of the total requirement, and this was a “generous estimate.” And to reconstruct the German factories and repair their bombed machines would involve a time period of at least six, and quite possibly twelve, months.

Of the VIII Bomber Command’s summary of these factors, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey stated: “Such were the considerations that underlay the decision to attack. Attacks on production in just four cities—Schweinfurt, Berlin-Erkner, Stuttgart, and Leipzig—would, if successful, eliminate 64 per cent of Germany’s sources of bearings supplies. Recovery would be slow, with reconstruction extending over the period of a year. The combined effects of destruction of installations and of semi-finished and assembled stocks would lead to an estimated loss of nine months’ production, a loss which could be offset by compensating factors of cushion to only a small extent. Pipelines were already short, stocks in hands of consumers were small, and savings through redesign of military equipment would take too long to be realized. Better utilization of alternate sources of supply in the conquered or neutral countries would yield a paltry 5 per cent increase.”

It became ever more obvious to the American bombing campaign strategists that all Germany would suffer a disastrous loss in the wake of a truly effective strike at the bearings plants. More and more machines, electrical equipment, and installations of all kinds requiring anti-friction bearings were needed desperately to sustain Germany’s fight.

In July, 1943, a total of 33,560 supervisors, technicians, and skilled and semi-skilled workers constituted the labor force of the German bearings industry. In use within the Fatherland itself were 13,000 precision machine tools. The industry operated on a two-shift system of sixty hours per week per shift, although the actual hours worked varied in different plants. Male laborers of the Müller firm at Nürnberg, for example, worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, while women worked twelve hours for six days on machines and fifty-eight hours a week when on the inspection bench.

In mid-1943 Schweinfurt was uncontestably the single most important industrial center for bearings production. It was a city of 60,000 population located on the Main River, in northeastern Bavaria, seventy miles east of Frankfort am Main, and by virtue of its small size was even more susceptible to heavy air attack.

In July, 1943, Schweinfurt produced 45 per cent in quantity of all the bearings manufactured in Germany; in monetary value it turned out 52.2 per cent of all bearings.

In Schweinfurt proper were the buildings of the Vereinigte Kugellager Fabrik (VKF) and the factory of Kugelfischer AG (FAG). VKF Works I and II employed in July, 1943, 7,844 workers; the FAG plant had 9,770 on its working staff. In the sprawling industrial city of massive factories and crowded areas of workers’ housing were also two other plants of lesser importance in the anti-friction bearings industry, Deutsche Star Kugelhalter and Fichtel and Sachs.

Since 1942 the industry had been straining under a major acceleration of its production program. Because of the critical concentration in Schweinfurt, in 1942 the major German firms had mapped out a major dispersal program. The plan was simple: no more than 39 per cent of the German production of any type and size (for example, small ball bearings, or medium tapered bearings) was to be located in any one plant. But this dispersal still lay in the future.

Following a successful bearings industry attack, concluded the target analysts, “non-military users would suffer most, with less critical military items such as trucks next in line. A nine months’ loss of output, however, would be bound to reach even to producers with top priority. No countermeasures would be able to avoid a 30 per cent drop in armament production as a consequence of successful attack.”

On the morning of August 17, 1943, the finger pointed for the first time at Schweinfurt.

The date is significant for several reasons. Not only did it initiate the first of 40 air attacks to come on the entire bearings industry, the majority of which struck at Schweinfurt, but it marked the single greatest aerial assault so far in the war against Germany. It was the greatest and also, in terms of losses, the most disastrous.

The mission of August 17, 1943, on the first anniversary of B-17 operations, was a double one. A total force of 376 Fortresses smashed at the bearings works in Schweinfurt and at the large Messerschmitt aircraft complex at Regensburg, one hundred ten miles to the southeast. In these attacks more bombers than ever before—315 B-17’s—struck the targets in the deepest penetration to date into Germany, and they unleashed the unprecedented bomb load of 724 tons.

It was a day of savage air battles. In the attack against Regensburg, the Germans blasted 36 heavy bombers from the air. Twenty-four more Fortresses went down from the Schweinfurt force, making the losses for the day a staggering 60 airplanes and 600 men. In statistical terms, the Germans destroyed a prohibitive 19 per cent of the attacking force.

On this attack the 3d Bombardment Division was to send its Fortresses, equipped with long-range tanks, from England to Regensburg, and then to continue on directly, in a precedent-breaking shuttle-bombing flight, to advanced bases in North Africa. More limited in its range was the 1st Bombardment Division, which would strike Schweinfurt and then return on a reciprocal route, because of the range problem.

It was a day of perfect flying weather, and the Germans struck at the bombers with savage persistence and incredible courage. The attacks were constant; no sooner did one wave of fighters tear through the bomber formations, than a fresh force screamed in to fire. The fighter pilots went wild; they attacked in vertical dives and climbs, rolled through the formations, closed to point-blank range. On several occasions entire fighter squadrons struck in “javelin-up” formation, which made it difficult and often impossible for the Flying Fortresses to take evasive action. The Germans came in with fighters wing to wing, three and four and five at a time. They lobbed heavy cannon shells and rockets at the bombers, and even dropped parachute bombs to drift downward into the massed formations.

The Schweinfurt raiders bore the brunt of heavy attack not only all the way in to the target, but all the way back, with fresh pilots constantly hammering away at the formations. All types of fighters appeared—single-engine Messerschmitt Me-109’s, Focke-Wulf FW-190’s, and Heinkel He-113’s, and twin-engine Me-110’s, Me-210’s, Junkers Ju-88’s, Dornier Do-217’s, and FW-189’S. In terms of air battle, it was the most intensive, violent, and without question the worst day in the memory of the American crews.

There was at least one bit of comfort for the mauled American crews in one of the final phrases picked up by radio interception. As the battle wore on and increased in its ferocity, the men in the B-17’s heard the increasingly excited German claims of strikes and kills mingled steadily with shouted cries of “Parachute!” and “Ho, down you go, you dog!” then a final gasp, “Herr Gott Sakramant

The grim aerial struggle brought some astonishing moments. In a Fortress named X Virgin, a waist gunner was killed by German fighters. In an unprecedented move, four men chose to bail out deliberately, so that the remaining crew would have enough oxygen to take the ship over the target and return. But this wasn’t the end of a wild mission; over the target the bomb-release mechanism failed to work.

Quickly a wounded gunner left his station and worked his way to the bomb bays. With a screwdriver he loosened the shackles, and then jumped up and down on the bombs until they broke loose and fell free.

Or consider the B-17 known to her crew as My Prayer. Fire broke out in the airplane; out of control, she plummeted in a wild, helpless dive. The crew—except the pilot, co-pilot, and the top turret gunner, whose chute was damaged by flames— quickly abandoned the flaming, plunging Fortress.

The pilot, by superhuman strength, fought the B-17 out of its dive. Behind him the gunner, painfully wounded in the leg, succeeded with the co-pilot in smothering the blaze.

It wasn’t over yet—they still had to get home with German fighters clawing in to finish off the cripple. The pilot flew the Fortress, the gunner worked the nose guns, and the co-pilot swung back and forth between the waist guns to hold off the enemy fighters as My Prayer whipped over Germany at tree-top level.

“We came home at two hundred and ten miles an hour,” said the pilot, “buzzing cities, factories, and airfields in Germany. It was the first legal buzzing I’ve ever done. We drew some fire, but I did evasive action and we escaped further damage. The people in Germany scattered and fell to the ground when they saw us coming, but in Belgium the people waved and saluted us...”

Despite the cruel losses sustained, the bombers, reports the official history of the Army Air Forces, “did an extremely good job. This was especially true at Regensburg, where they blanketed the entire area with high explosives and incendiary bombs, damaging every important building in the plant...”

The results on August 17, at Schweinfurt, although not so impressive as those in the Messerschmitt complex, were encouraging. German records reveal that the two main bearing plants were struck by 80 large high-explosive bombs. Damage was especially severe at Kugelfischer, the main plant, where 663 machines were destroyed or so badly damaged as to be useless for many months. In this one plant the production of the vital ball bearings fell from 140 tons in July to 69 tons in August, and to but 50 tons in September. Not until November was there any increase in production.

In terms of the ability of the VIII Bomber Command to sustain losses in the air battle against Germany, the cost was prohibitive and almost disastrous. It was a grim prelude for Mission 115—Black Thursday. That was yet to come.

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