World War II/Strategic Bombing in Europe

The history of aerial bombing operations over Europe consists primarily of three contrasting efforts: those executed by Germany (the Luftwaffe), by Great Britain (the R.A.F. Bomber Command), and by the United States (predominantly the Eighth Air Force). The year 1940 marked the trial and abandonment, both by the Germans and the British, of long-standing notions about strategic air power.

German lessons edit

A German Heinkel He-111 over London dockyard

The Germans learned serious lessons in target selection and aircraft construction. The first lesson was that the choice targets of Royal Air Force airfields and the seaport docks and shipping yards were too hastily forsaken for the urban areas of London and Coventry. Many scholars agree that England was virtually on the brink of strategic collapse due to Luftwaffe bombing attacks on airfields and ports, when German high command concluded that these attacks weren't having enough effect and switched to city bombing.

Concerning the second lesson, the Luftwaffe's medium-sized bombers were not sufficient to inflict the necessary damage that a strategic campaign supposedly required. This lack of heavy bombers was not the only handicap. The German bombers were not adequately armed with power-operated turrets.[1] In addition, their fighter escorts flew in close support rather than general support,[2] thus retarding the ability to dogfight against RAF fighters. Of course the Germans were not alone in committing crucial mistakes.

The British approach edit

Britain's Bomber Command tried in late 1939 to fly daylight precision bombing raids over Germany. Although pre-war theory stressed the invulnerability of bombers flying in close formation with guns blazing, the small-caliber armaments on the Whitley and Wellington bombers were not effective against Luftwaffe Me-109s coming from behind or across the beam.[3] The decision was made to switch to bombing specific oil and transportation facilities at night.

The RAF's Air Marshal Arthur Harris

However, the precision aspect of bombing went out the window. Bombers flying at night were often unable to hit a prescribed city, much less a specific factory or rail yard. With the failure of both daylight and nighttime precision raids, the British settled upon the practice of area bombing--that is, "dehousing and demoralizing" the German populace by placing bombs in a loose pattern on city centers. Aerial photographs were then taken in the summer of 1941. The results, compiled in the Butt Report, were disheartening. It was found that only 20% of the bombers were putting their payload within five miles of the target.[4] Nonetheless, the new bombing policy was staunchly adhered to under the guidance of Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris. The underlying fault with Harris' obstinacy was its rejection of traditional grand strategy:

Area attacks... vitiated forces rather than concentrating them against a decisive point, they were uneconomical of force, and they strengthened the enemy will to resist and innoculated [sic] him against later onslaughts.[5]

So convinced of the correctness of their method, the British air authorities encouraged American leaders to adopt the area methodology. While Bomber Command went on its nightly raids, the world stood back to analyze, admire, or condemn the fires in the German cities.

The American effort edit

The entry of the American Eighth Air Force in Europe was slow and staggered. The American force had no desire, at least initially, to join in on the night raids with the British. Instead, minor attacks were carried out against precision targets (usually railways, factories, and submarine pens)[6] in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. With their Norden bombsights American bombardiers wished to flaunt their daylight precision bombing technique, thoroughly practiced on the home front bombing ranges. However, the early needs of Operation TORCH in North Africa siphoned away many American bombers from the western European theater. After the Casablanca conference in January 1943, the Eighth was back in Britain ready to bomb "around-the-clock" with the RAF. The bloody RAF raid on Hamburg[7] was complemented by American daylight raids on July 25-26, 1943. Paying little attention to earlier British trials and errors, the American bomber leaders learned for themselves, quite senselessly, the same lessons their RAF counterparts had learned three years before.

The cloudy continental weather and the haze of the industrial Ruhr valley greatly reduced the Norden sight's accuracy. Also its necessity for a long straight approach to guarantee accuracy made the bomber more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire (flak).[8] Because fighter escorts with acceptable ranges were not yet available, the lone B-17 and B-24 bombers in their stacked formations learned like the British that on-board defensive armament alone was simply not enough. The lack of insight was quick to show. On August 17, 1943, 315 B-17s made an attack on ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt in which sixty Flying Fortresses were shot down.[9]

Eighth Air Force raid on Schweinfurt

A loss rate of 19% was clearly intolerable, but another raid on Schweinfurt was made on October 14. On this raid the bombers were incessantly harassed while out of fighter escort range, and 62 planes out of 228 were destroyed. The ratio was now up over one-in-four, and each Fortress carried ten men. The Eighth Air Force, for the time, had to give up any more raids of this type.

The invasion of Normandy brought about a new bombing priority: the rail lines of western France were to be cut in order to hinder German reinforcements being sent to the area come D-day. Unfortunately these stretches of track often came very close to urban populations, and the lives of the French citizens were overruled by military necessity. In April 1944, British and American bombs killed "250 people at Juvisy, 200 at Toulon, 500 at Lille, 850 at Rouen, and 650 at Paris."[10] The raids seemed to produce the desired effect, though, and the OVERLORD landing and COBRA breakout were made much easier. With the army's success on the ground, the Eighth returned to its bombing missions over Germany proper.

Transition from precision to area bombing edit

But the return was not quite the same. The nature of American bombing policy definitely changed in a two-step process. The first phase was a result primarily of General Eisenhower's changing position. Eisenhower stated, "While I have always insisted that U.S. Strategic Air Forces be directed against precision targets, I am always prepared to take part in anything that gives real promise to ending the war quickly."[11] This opened the door for new methods of bombing to be tested and tried. President Roosevelt himself summarized in August 1944 a common belief among military circles:

We have got to be tough with Germany, and I mean the German people not just the Nazis....It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation....The German people as a whole must have it driven home to them that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization.[12]

The first aerial consequence of this policy statement was Operation CLARION. This plan was drafted in December 1944 and was intended to break civilian morale by sending a wide series of low-level attacks across Germany. The targets were ostensibly transportation ones, but the real objective was the psychological collapse of the German populace at large. Small towns were hit later in 1945 in a deliberate attempt to bring home to the German citizen the omnipresence of the Allied air forces. CLARION was the call to arms for those military leaders who wished to move from the precise to the indiscriminate in bombing.

Dresden incinerated by Allied bombing

The second phase of the new American doctrine was evidenced in Operation THUNDERCLAP. It was a plan enacted in January 1945 which made Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden acceptable, even preferred, targets. There was a two-fold reasoning behind THUNDERCLAP: one, that adding to the "existing pandemonium" would hasten the collapse and surrender of Germany and, two, that the Soviets would see for themselves the destructive power of the Anglo-American bomber forces.[13] Berlin was attacked on February 3 by some 900 B-17s. Some military objectives were hit, but 25,000 civilians may have perished.[14] Ten days later, historic Dresden was walloped by a two-day combined British and American raid which killed at least 30,000 civilians.[15] The American bombing policy over Germany had drastically changed and probably would have continued in this direction had the European war not ended. The ruthless attacks that summer on numerous Japanese cities lends credence to this assumption.

Outcomes of the campaigns edit

After about three years in Europe, American strategic air forces had developed into a gigantic operational group. At its maximum in August 1944, the U.S. Army Air Forces had over 619,000 combat personnel. These men dropped 1,461,864 tons of bombs on Germany.[16] Together with RAF Bomber Command's substantial efforts, 3,600,000 German dwelling units (20% of the total) were destroyed or heavily damaged. The homeless totaled between seven and eight million. Estimates suggest that 780,000 were wounded in bombing attacks and that 305,000 civilians were killed.[17] These are minimum figures, though. It has been proposed that more than 600,000 people in Germany were killed by "terror bombing".[18] The accompanying graphic, derived from United States Strategic Bombing Survey statistics, helps to illustrate the enormous increase in the American air infrastructure.


At what cost was this destruction achieved? Throughout the course of the air war against Germany, 9,949 American bomber planes were lost. This figure accounts for a significant fraction of the total number of bombers in action. It should be considered that with each lost bomber went not one engine, but usually four, not one man, but perhaps ten. In fact, 79,265 American aviators were lost in action[19] (more than 52,000 of them killed)[20] during bombing sorties. These fliers represented one of the most highly-trained and valuable segments of the military. Was their loss necessary?

References edit

  1. "The Uses of Air Power in 1939-1945", Sir Robert Saundby, excerpts from a lecture given on March 18, 1948, at London University, as condensed in The Aeroplane, April 16, 1948. (From Eugene M. Emme, ed., The Impact of Air Power (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1959), p. 218.)
  2. "Strategic Air Power in the European War", General Carl A. Spaatz, from "Strategic Air Power: Fulfillment of a Concept", Foreign Affairs, April 1946. (From Eugene M. Emme, ed., The Impact of Air Power (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1959), p. 228.)
  3. Robin Higham, Air Power: A Concise History, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1972), p. 131.
  4. Lee Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982), p. 129.
  5. Higham, Air Power, p. 132.
  6. Kennett, History, p. 136.
  7. Note: The city of Hamburg was devastated by the air raid. Over one million civilians fled the burning city; yet, 31,000 to 50,000 people unfortunate enough to remain were killed. The deaths were often due to asphyxiation, crushing, or intense burns and heat from the notorious fire storm which ensued.
  8. Higham, Air Power, p. 133.
  9. Note: Although 37?6 B-I7s were dispatched, only 315 made it to the target run. The raid also included an attack on the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg.
  10. Kennett, History, p. 156.
  11. Ronald Schaffer, Wings of Judgment, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 84.
  12. Schaffer, Wings of Judgment, pp. 88-89.
  13. Schaffer, Wings of Judgment, pp. 96.
  14. Schaffer, Wings of Judgment, pp. 97.
  15. Note: The casualties at Dresden were amplified by the large number of refugees seeking shelter from the advancing Red Army. The total death toll has never been undisputably established, and legitimate estimates range from 25,000 to about 100,000. Lee Kennett has stated (p. 161) that an estimate of 500,000 exists, but most scholars agree that that many bodies could not have been counted, much less disposed of by the authorities there.
  16. Saundby, "The Uses", p. 225.
  17. "Air Victory in Europe," excerpt from the Summary Report (European War) by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, September 30, 1945. (From Eugene M. Emme, ed., The Impact of Air Power (Princeton, N J: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1959), p. 269.)
  18. Ken Brown, "The Last Just War: How Just Was It?", The Progressive, August 1982, p. 19.
  19. Saundby, "The Uses", p. 225.
  20. Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, p. 204