22. The Strategic Bombing Campaign

AS THE GROUND FORCES LAY locked in messy, mortal combat, as the cauldron of the Resistance simmered and bubbled up, there was a third war being fought. High in the heavens men froze and sweated, fought and died. The air forces of the warring powers waged their separate wars with each other and with their rivals ashore and afloat. Of the many controversies surrounding World War II, few are more virulent than the whole question of strategic bombing and its contribution to the war.

In the Battle of Britain the Germans had made the first attempt in history to subdue another country from the air. They had failed miserably. As an offshoot of the German attack, the British had unleashed their own strategic bombing offensive against continental Europe. They began with little. Several of the dominant personalities of the Royal Air Force were bomber advocates, but during the late thirties the government had—rightly as it turned out—upgraded the fighter defenses at the expense of the bomber force. The British effort was therefore slow to develop. Their bombers had limited range and limited payloads, and in their early strikes, they could do little more than infuriate the Germans, and that at almost prohibitively heavy cost. In one famous disaster, for example, a force of twenty-two Wellington bombers raided German shipping in the Heligoland Bight and only seven returned home; the rest were either shot down over the target or failed to make it all the way back to their bases. That was in December of 1939. Through early 1940 the bombers were busy supporting the French as best they could, though the French, intensely fearful of German retaliation, were extremely dubious allies as far as the air war went. Next it was a matter of striking at potential invasion ports, bombing barges and landing craft concentrations. Not until late 1940 had the air war settled down, with the Germans involved in the Blitz, and the British retaliating wherever they could.

The technical problems were enormous, and the results disappointingly small. Bomber and aircrew losses were so heavy that the British were soon forced to confine themselves to night bombing. While that cut their losses, it also cut their efficiency, as targets became harder to find and easier to miss. After a year they estimated that only one bomb in ten fell within five miles of its target. The bombing campaign thus had an extremely long gestation period, and it was months and even years before it reached the level of intensity where it began to pay dividends.

For the Royal Air Force the last months of 1940 and all of 1941 was a period of experimentation and improvisation. Both the techniques and the material slowly improved. It was February of 1941 before the first of the British four-engined heavy bombers, the Stirling, went on operations. The Stirling was outstanding as an example of the kind of thinking that prevented more rapid development in the closing years of peace. Its wingspan was limited to less than one hundred feet, that being the standard size for R. A. F. hangar doors at the time of its conception, and its fuselage was made a given width so it could take the regulation service packing case. Nevertheless, the Stirling proved a useful, docile aircraft, and a major addition to Bomber Command.

Initially, the British thought they could fly close formations of bombers, thus providing mutual protection, that they could fly in the daytime, and that they could attack specific targets with some degree of precision. They found they were wrong in all of these assumptions. As they moved on into this learning period and took their losses, they not only bombed by night, but they did it in a different manner. Instead of the formation, they flew in a “stream,” where each plane would take off, then make its way independently along a given route to its target. Over the target they had to settle for “area bombing” instead of the precision they had at first supposed possible. Officially, they held to the dogma of precision bombing, but they gradually recognized that area bombing was in fact what they were doing, and that became the policy late in 1941.

As the British learned their lessons, so of course did the Germans. Their radar network improved and so did their control of the night fighters and the fighters themselves. On both sides radar would pick up an incoming plane and vector a patrolling night fighter on to it. When it got close enough, the night fighter would find its target on its own short-range radar, then close in for a visual sighting and the kill. The scientists and the aircrew worked hand in hand on these and similar matters. The Germans sent their bombers over England and used radio beams as navigational aids; all the pilot had to do was stay on the beam till he reached his target. The British countered this by inventing a way to warp the beam, so the German bombers gradually diverged from their targets and often bombed empty spaces. As the German radar system got better, the British countered it too. They discovered that a small piece of tinfoil dropped out of a plane caused a radar reflection. So they sent decoy planes over the enemy coast to drop tinfoil—“window,” it was called—and confuse the radar operators while the real bombers flew through to their targets.

Had the bombing proponents had their way, the campaign would have escalated a great deal faster than it did, but the other services were equally adamant in their demands for resources. At the end of 1941 the British Chiefs of Staff were seriously questioning the validity of the whole bombing effort. It seemed to be absorbing an inordinate amount of matériel for the results that were being achieved, and there was discussion of abandoning the whole idea. The British desperately needed aircraft to use as convoy escorts both along the coasts and in the Western Approaches, and Coastal Command became a successful rival to Bomber Command for the allocation of material. They decided to keep on more because of what they had already invested in the project than because of any positive results so far accomplished.

If 1940 and 1941 was a period of groping in the dark, literally as well as figuratively, in 1942 the R. A. F. began at last to make a bit of headway. As the spring weather came in, the British mounted greater and greater raids. At the end of May they undertook the first thousand-plane raid, against the city of Cologne.

It was a cast of desperation, with Cologne only incidentally the target. Bomber Command and its new chief, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, were really aiming at the British government and the service chiefs of staff. When Harris took over Bomber Command late in February of 1942, he found he had just over 300 planes in his force. That was few more than Bomber Command had possessed way back in 1940. So far Bomber Command had just not shown enough results to justify a higher priority than it was getting. Harris was to change all that. He was a fervent believer in strategic bombing and he was determined to convert his bosses to his view. He immediately set about planning for an operation that would impress everyone. A thousand planes in one raid, hitting one target, in one night! It seemed magical, but Harris and his staff made it work.

To do it they had to strip Bomber Command’s facilities of everything, and everyone, who could get into the air. Planes were pulled out of repair shops and reserve facilities, pilots called up from training squadrons and from leave, and robbed from Coastal Command. While the preparations went on, the British experimented with better methods; they developed improved guidance systems to bring their planes over the target in more concentrated bunches, they played about with the proper proportions of high-explosive bombs to incendiary bombs. High explosives could knock things apart, then incendiaries could set fires. Then another wave of bombers with more high explosives could knock out the fire-fighters and more incendiaries could compound the devastation. The ideal of destruction would be to create a fire-storm, a fire so hot and so intense that it would suck its own fuel into it and keep itself alive while consuming everything—human and material—around it. It was a long while before the bombers were able to achieve such paroxysms of destruction, but eventually they managed it.

The Cologne raid was a commencement exercise. The R. A. F. put 1,134 aircraft into the air, including decoys and night intruder aircraft, designed to draw off or fight German night interceptors. Something over 900 planes actually bombed Cologne. Forty-four failed to return, which was regarded by the R. A. F. as an acceptable loss rate, though unhappily, most of the losses were among new crews, with the result that premature effort would have to be paid for again farther down the line. In the city, fires raged for two days, and it was several days before the smoke cleared sufficiently for British photo-reconnaissance planes to take pictures so they could assess the damage. It turned out that about 20,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, about 1,500 commercial properties were damaged, and fifty or sixty factories were knocked out, some for short periods, some for longer. Rail and communications were interrupted for as long as two weeks, and vital services—electricity, water, sewage—were disrupted temporarily. Nearly half a million people were homeless, but only about 500 were actually killed or wounded.

The raid was not quite the success Harris had predicted; he had said it would wipe Cologne permanently off the map. He was far off in this. It turned out that to destroy even one city, it had to be raided again and again and again. The British finally realized that to wage a bombing campaign capable of winning the war all by itself, they would need perhaps 6,000 heavy bombers on operations at any given time. They and the Americans together never even came near that figure. Harris also predicted that the raid, and ones like it, would soon destroy German civilian morale. This attitude, basically a holdover from the prewar period, never proved true. Civilians showed themselves able to endure an amazing amount of punishment, and in fact rather than having their morale broken by the ruin of their homes and the deaths of their families, they became more supportive of their nation’s war effort. One of the remarkable aspects of wartime planning was that governments seldom seemed to apply their own experience to their enemies’ situations. The British knew they had not broken under the German bombing but they assumed the Germans would break under their bombing.

On the other hand, in some respects the raid was remarkable, even though it did fall short of predictions. More damage was done to Cologne in that one night than had been done there so far in the war. The British had hit Cologne more than a hundred times already, without accomplishing as much as they now had done in one big attack. The “big raid” was definitely the way to go; the real problem now would be to sustain the effort. And on that score, the raid was an unqualified success; one of the first communications Harris received after the raid was a congratulatory message from Churchill. It was immediately obvious that Bomber Command had scored a great plus with both the British public and the government. Whatever the R. A. F. did or did not achieve in the skies over Germany, they had certainly improved the situation in the rear areas.

Constrained to produce an encore, the bombers went back to hit targets in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s great industrial complex. Subsequent raids were not as productive as the one on Cologne, though; the British simply could not keep up the pace with the men and matériel then available, and the Germans rebounded more rapidly than anyone had expected they would. An inescapable difficulty was that the German economy contained a great deal of surplus fat, and the Germans could suffer a large amount of damage before it began to hurt them, or to decrease their capacity for waging war.

In fact, German production capacity never did fall off as a result of the bombing offensive. After Albert Speer took over as Minister of Production, German factories increased their output substantially. In spite of Allied bombing and the necessity to decentralize, production figures in key industries kept going up right to the very last stages of the war. What really killed the German war machine was not loss of production, but the inability of production to accelerate as rapidly as the demands of war entailed. Even though the Germans kept improving their output, their combat wastage and loss ratio increased even faster, and it was this factor, rather than production stoppages or breakdowns, that finally made the well run dry.

An important part of that wastage, of course, came from the bombing campaign and the need to combat it. By mid-1942 the British were still at it. Their techniques were constantly refined; they had now acknowledged the need for saturation bombing. It was not enough to hit a target once, then do it again in two or three months. You had to hit, hit again, and hit yet again. Bomber Command’s vision was of night skies raining devastation on every German city every night. It was still, given the limits of their aircraft, easier to hit western than eastern Germany, but fortunately for them, the heaviest industry was in the west; in the Rhineland, the Ruhr Valley, and the Saar Basin. They concentrated their efforts on Cologne, Dusseldorf, Essen, Dortmund. They also bombed the ports from which material was shipped eastward to Russia; Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck. They hit Berlin every time they could, just to show the Germans it could be done. As head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering had once boasted, “No Allied plane will ever fly over the Reich!” Now British aircrews stenciled his words on the noses of their bombers and next to them tallied up the number of their missions over Germany.

The Americans arrived in 1942 and immediately began setting up the apparatus to undertake their own bombing campaign. They came in a trickle in the spring, and it mounted to a near-flood as the year went on. The U. S. 8th Air Force was the command made responsible for the bomber offensive, with General Ira C. Eaker as its chief. Initially, they hoped to be operating in great numbers by late 1942, but the necessary diversion of units to North Africa prevented this. It was August before the first operations began, and for the rest of the year, flying in relatively small numbers, they mounted daylight attacks against targets in France. In January of 1943 they hit north German targets, penetrating the airspace of the Reich itself, and they soon ran into trouble.

The Americans insisted on repeating most of the mistakes the British had already made. It was not, as was thought at the time, because they were either stupid or wildly overconfident, but rather because they came to the battle with different ideas based on different equipment, and had to see for themselves the error of their ways. British experts said that precision bombing was impossible, and that the necessary degree of accuracy to get results was unattainable. The American response was that they had a gadget, the Norden bombsight, which could hit the target every time. In the phrase of the day, they could “put a bomb in a pickle barrel,” and do it from 30,000 feet. The British said that German fighter opposition was too strong for unescorted bombers. The Americans believed they possessed the answer to this too. British heavy bombers—the Stirling, Lancaster, and Halifax—carried lighter defensive armament than American types. The Lancaster had eight machine guns in three turrets, two in a nose turret, two in a top turret, and a four-gun turret in the tail. The last sub-type of the Flying Fortress, the B-17G, carried thirteen machine-guns—all of heavier caliber than the British—in chin, nose, dorsal, center fuselage, ventral, waist, and tail positions. There was of course a penalty for this; the maximum normal bomb load for the B-17G was lighter than that for the Lancaster, and the number of crew members was larger. The Americans had to use more planes and more men to deliver less payload than the British.

They insisted, however, that their heavily armed planes could fly successfully in the daytime and they sent them off in tight formations, stacked up “boxes” ostensibly able to give each other protection against German fighters. That too exacted its toll, for a substantial amount of the damage done to American planes was a result of the defensive fire of other American planes. The first raids over Germany went well, however, and led 8th Air Force to believe its ideas were being vindicated.

The Americans and British had agreed on a mutually supportive scheme of operations. The British would continue their night attacks and area or saturation bombing, aimed basically at the German civilian population and general disruption of the war economy; the Americans would operate by day, aiming at specific crucial targets. The R. A. F. occasionally had trouble convincing its aircrews that their raids had purely military value, and commanders had to insist that every general target contained a definitely military objective. New ways had to be developed to increase accuracy; specially selected crews were drafted into “pathfinder” squadrons whose job it was to locate a target and mark it with flares and specially colored bombs, so that follow-up squadrons could bomb where they were supposed to. Late in 1943 a new type of radar that allowed them to bomb through cloud was fitted to some Fortresses so that bad weather need not cause abortion of missions.

As the Americans got organized, and with the R. A. F. now fully into its stride, the tempo increased markedly in 1943. Units based first in North Africa flew across the Mediterranean to hit Italian factories and to strike at the Balkans. Later, heavy-bombardment groups operating out of southern Italy crossed the Alps to bomb Austria and southern German targets and flew costly missions to eastern Europe, especially to hit the Rumanian oil refineries around Ploesti. From Britain, both by day and by night, the bombers regularly struck at the Rhineland, the Ruhr, and increasingly at Berlin.

The Germans responded fiercely, but Hitler insisted that the Luftwaffe was an offensive weapon and was extremely reluctant to designate defense of Germany as its primary task. Eventually, he was forced to do so, but he did it with an ill grace and with mental reservations that made it very difficult for the Germans to operate at full effectiveness. An outstanding example of his meddling came in the famous case of the Messerschmitt ME262, the world’s first operational jet fighter.

For years experts had experimented with the possibilities of jet propulsion as a more powerful replacement for the propeller-driven aircraft. The British eventually produced a jet aircraft that entered combat three weeks before the end of the war in Europe. But the Germans beat them to the punch with a jet that became operational in 1944. Faster than contemporary Allied fighters, it might well have regained a degree of air superiority for Germany; Hitler, however, infuriated by the Allied “terror bombing,” ordered that all existing jet fighters be modified as fast bombers to fly retaliatory missions to Britain. This set the fighter program back at least four months and ended whatever chance may have existed for the Germans to become once more masters of their own skies.

As the scientific and developmental battle went on, so did the search for strategic answers. The British by 1943 were resigned to a campaign of pure straightforward pounding. The Germans were tough, but if hit long enough and hard enough, sooner or later they would break. The Americans, committed to precision bombing, became preoccupied with a search for the magic target. Surely, they told themselves, there must be one vital, vulnerable spot in the enemy war machine. Knock out that one specific component, and the Germans would come tumbling down.

They thought they found the answer in the German city of Schweinfurt. Here was concentrated the majority of the German ball-bearing industry. Destroy the factory, the theory went, and the magic one-shot answer would have been found. On August 17, 1943, the 8th Air Force struck at Schweinfurt and at aircraft factories in Regensburg and Wiener Neustadt. Of 376 aircraft on the joint mission, sixty were shot down by the fierce German reaction. Sixteen-percent losses were prohibitive; a week of that would have wiped out 8th Air Force. Nonetheless, Schweinfurt appeared a winning target. In a second raid, in October, the Americans lost another sixty planes, this time out of fewer than three hundred. In the week of that raid their total losses were 148 planes and 1,500 airmen. It was too much, and 8th Air Force could not stand the pace; all they were really proving, at immense cost, was that the British were right—unescorted daylight bombing was impossible.

Having reached the same impasse the British had reached two or three years earlier, the Americans then went on to a different answer. U. S. planes flying deep penetration missions into Germany were escorted across France and the Low Countries by British Spitfires or American-built Mustangs and Thunderbolts. The fighters took on the German fighters of the coastal defenses and got the bombers through. Then, when they reached the limit of their range, the fighters turned back and the bombers were left to go it alone. As soon as the escorts fell away, the German home defense squadrons came up to hit the bombers. The simplest answer to the problem, therefore, was to increase the range of the fighters; provide them with extra fuel and they could cover the bombers all the way to the target and back.

This was the same problem that had beset the Germans in the Battle of Britain; their fighters had not been able to provide cover for the bombers all the way to the target. Ironically, the answer had existed long before the problem. The American Curtiss F11C-2, a short-lived fighter with the U. S. Navy in the mid-thirties, and the German Heinkel He51, a biplane fighter that served in the Spanish Civil War, had both been fitted with auxiliary gas tanks slung under the belly. All that had to be done now was to produce a droppable extra tank, let the plane use it in the early stages of the flight, then drop it when it was empty. Allied planes could thus enter German air space with full tanks, escort their bigger brothers all the way to the target, and come home safely. In December of 1943 the first P-51 Mustangs flew close escort to Kiel, and then, in March of 1944, for the first time, Mustangs flew all the way to Berlin and back.

It was quite often such simple ideas as the drop-tank that made the difference between life and death for individuals, and between mastery and defeat for air forces. The mainstay of the German defense, for example, was a beautifully streamlined fighter known as the Focke-Wulf 190. Fast, agile, and deadly, the F-W was a match for any of the Allied planes. Up against the heavier American Thunderbolts, which were the biggest single-engined fighter of the war, the Focke-Wulf could break off the combat by rapidly climbing away from the Americans. Then one day a new Thunderbolt appeared, with bigger, wider propeller blades, dubbed “paddle-blades” by the pilots. Suddenly, the Thunderbolt could claw its way up into the air right after the Focke-Wulf, and German pilots had lost another advantage.

In the long run, more than any one plane, or any one operation, it was the sheer momentum of the bombing campaign that began to pay off. After five long years the bombers reached the point of destructiveness proclaimed by their champions at the start of the war. During the entire war, the Allies dropped 2,700,000 tons of bombs on Germany; nearly three quarters, 72 percent of that figure, was dropped between July 1, 1944, and the collapse of Germany. Only when the Allied bomber force could achieve that degree of concentration could they attain decisive results. The kind of results they did achieve were shown by the great raids of the war, such as those on Hamburg and Dresden.

The destruction of Hamburg took place in late July and early August of 1943, so it was a concentrated attack that served as a foretaste of what would come later, when the Allies were regularly able to mount this type of raid. Hamburg was the second largest city in Germany, and a major shipping and industrial center. It had been steadily bombed throughout the war—more than 130 times already. The Germans had learned to live with this and had created in the city a model civil defense organization, with plenty of shelters, fire fighting equipment, warning systems, and all the paraphernalia of a city under attack. With its industry, its population concentration, its wooden center dating from medieval days, it was a perfect target. The Allies decided, in an operation code-named Gomorrah, to wipe Hamburg out.

By now they had their techniques perfected. The major weapon used was the incendiary bomb, with enough high explosive mixed in to create fuel for the incendiaries. They also used delayed-action bombs, particularly useful in impeding the fire-fighters, and phosphorus bombs, perhaps the most cruel of all the different types. The first attack was on the night of July 24-25, by 740 planes from Bomber Command. The results were spectacular. Massive fires were set off, and the German civil defense mechanisms were quickly overwhelmed. The next day the Americans arrived and hit Hamburg again in a heavy raid that cost them a whole squadron wiped out by the ferocious German fighters. The second night Hamburg was left alone while the R. A. F. finished off Essen, but on the next day, the 26th, the 8th Air Force was back again. At night fast twin-engined Mosquito bombers of the R. A. F. put in nuisance raids to keep the Germans awake, then just before midnight of the 27th, the heavies came back again.

In two great waves of bombers sowing a carpet of destruction across the city, the R. A. F. created a fire-storm. Thousands of individual fires merged into one great all-consuming blaze. Buildings collapsed and their debris was sucked into the vortex of the storm. The wind drew fleeing people irresistibly into the fire. In the air raid shelters all the oxygen was sucked out and the occupants suffocated, or were baked alive by the heat of the fires raging overhead. Thousands of people simply disappeared.

The fires continued to rage unabated, but two nights later the British came back and did it again, hitting parts of the city that had so far escaped with minor damage. Finally, on the night of August 4, the British launched their last attack. They planned to hit with everything they had, but heavy weather made it impossible for anything but the Lancasters, who could get above the storm, to fly. Even so another 1,400 tons of bombs fell on the ruins of the city that night.

As the last R. A. F. bombers droned away to the westward, they left behind them a scene of awesome destruction. The fires, the rescue work, the opening of shelters full of dead, the mercy-killing of the hopelessly burned, went on for days. The worst German attack on Coventry had destroyed about a hundred acres; Operation Gomorrah wiped out 6,000 acres of Hamburg; more than half the city was destroyed, 300,000 homes were burned, three-quarters of a million were homeless, somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 were dead. In spite of all the German efforts to keep the disaster quiet, a wave of dread swept over Germany. The Royal Air Force had finished with Hamburg; the battle of Berlin lay ahead.

For all its suffering and devastation, Hamburg was but a curtain raiser to events to come. By 1945 the wiping out of the great city was past history. The Allied bombers, escorted by their long-range fighters, ranged unceasingly over the battered Reich. Their mastery of the air was no longer a matter of dispute and the vaunted Luftwaffe, that had brought Poland, the Netherlands, and France to their knees, could rarely put planes in the air. There was little fuel for operations and less for pilot training. Still the Allied armadas droned on. By the last months of the war, they were hard put to find useful targets. Out of their search came the raid on Dresden.

The capital of the old state of Saxony, Dresden was a city of immense age and charm. Napoleon had fought a battle near there back in 1813, but the twentieth century seemed largely to have passed Dresden by. By February of 1945 the Germans were reeling, and the bomber offensive had in large measure been diverted to the disruption of German communications, as an adjunct to the ground campaign now being fought on the western borders of the Reich itself. “Bomber” Harris, however, still believed in the efficacy of strategic bombing; Dresden was to be his last “big raid,” ostensibly because it was thought to be a communications center for the eastern German armies, more probably because it had not previously been hit, and it seemed about the right size for a full-scale strike.

Dresden was hit, first by the R. A. F., then by the Americans, in mid-February. The city was virtually destroyed, and upward of 60,000 people were killed. Two months later the strategic bomber campaign was called off; shortly after that the war ended.

Final judgment on the bomber offensive remains elusive. Its cost, in allocation of resources, in aircraft, and in aircrew, was heavy. The bombers never achieved what their original champions claimed they would do; German morale never cracked, and only at the very end of the war did the German ground forces suffer any real shortages of supplies that could be traced to the bombing. Yet the shortcomings of the bombers seem to stem more from the exaggerated prior claims of their supporters, rather than from their inability to achieve striking results. For certainly the results were striking; Germany lay in ruins, hundreds of thousands of her citizens were dead, further hundreds of thousands had had to be diverted into civil defense or countering the bombers by military means. No one who saw the ruins of Hamburg or Berlin would question that the bombers were effective; it was more a matter of disagreement as to whether or not they had been the one war-winning weapon, and the answer to that was that they had not. Neither had any other single item.

As the war receded into the distance, argument came to center less on the value of the bomber as a weapons system, and more on the morality of it. That particular question could be indulged only after the passions of the war had cooled. Total war followed a logical course from the killing of soldiers to the killing of those who provided weapons for the soldier, to the lessening of the efficiency of the enemy’s war machine—if necessary, by the incidental killing of his women and children. Many years ago Carl von Clausewitz had written, “War is an act of force, and to the application of that force there is no limit. Each of the adversaries forces the hand of the other, and a reciprocal action results which in theory can have no limit….” The first stumbling bombing of World War I led on to the more efficient bombing of World War II; Coventry and Rotterdam led inexorably to Hamburg and Dresden. From the point of view of the directing intelligence, morality did not apply.

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