So when last we mentioned the British, they were busy creating the world’s first man made firestorm over Hamburg. Now, if I left it at that, you’d have the impression the British had broken the code, enjoyed success, and basically wondered why the Americans were being stubborn. Well, in the name of Monica, Nuremberg, and Window, I’ll explain why Hamburg was pretty much a one off that did more harm than good. Sure, Operation Gomorrah killed a lot of Germans and hindered U-boat production for a bit, but did not appreciably shorten the war in and of itself. Even worse, like a gambler who makes a big score at a table then does not immediately leave, Sir Arthur Harris did not realize the uniqueness of the situation. Subsequently, Bomber Command burned through a lot of its crewmen between August 1943 and March 1944.
First, one needs to do a little reading on firestorms. Understand that these phenomena are largely dependent on ignition sources, fuel, and atmospheric conditions. In other words, it’s not coincidence that both Peshtigo and the Great Chicago Fire occurred on the same night, nor that the Great Kanto Earthquake was followed by a firestorm. Get the right band of weather, have a whole bunch of fires start at once, and add a good steady breeze? Well, there will be large helpings of “long pork” and psychologically scarred citizenry regardless of whether it was “all natural” or involved “artificially enhanced airborne deliveries.”
Second, Hamburg was a case of the RAF catching the Germans “on the wrong foot” in their scientific chess match. The German system for night fighter defense, as discussed previously, relied heavily on ground-based radars. To grossly simplify things, the majority of these radars operated on Frequency X. The British figured out, through a mixture of study and coincidence, that if you cut reflective materials to a certain length for a given frequency, they would produce a false echo. Throw hundreds of these packets out the bomb bay, it tended to make ground radars useless due to excessive “snow” on the screen. No ground radars, and all but your most capable night fighter pilots would be left trying to catch fleeting targets in pitch blackness.
The date on this discovery is given as 1941 and 1942 by differing sources, with the honors being about even. The British, in typical nondescript code word fashion, called the foil “Window.” (The modern variant is called chaff.) If you’re thinking, “Uh, what the hell were they doing for a year plus?!”, remember that the Luftwaffe was still paying regular visits to British locales at night. Indeed,not only were they bombing cities, they were also pulling tricks like following Lancasters back to their bases, shooting up a couple bombers in the pattern, then dropping a couple bombs on their way out for good measure. Fighter Command was understandably not keen on getting their own radars blinded when the Germans reverse engineered Window, gave it some badass Teutonic nickname, and proceeded to wreak havoc across Southern England.
By July 1943, however, everyone could agree the Germans were pretty tapped out on the offensive operations front. Something about “More Russians than we ever imagined” and “Whoa, the British seem to be as good at flying night fighters as we are!” (Oh Hans, you have no idea. Wait, sorry, getting ahead of myself.) Moreover, the British realized their radars were a different frequency and would be largely unaffected by Window. So, with a nervous wince and crossed fingers, Fighter Command blessed off on opening a “Window” for Sir Arthur Harris “Pyres and Pyros” service (“Now delivering to all of Germany…)
The third factor for Hamburg was both technological and geographical. Sometimes what your realtor tells you about location, location, and location is true. In this case, being a port city with an easily identifiable harbor and distinct coastline just as your opponent is perfecting night radar means your location sucks. In a “Honey, are the neighbors opening an unregulated graphite reactor underneath their crack house?”-way.
Exacerbating this was the issue of Bomber Command’s Pathfinder Force, after some major growing pains, starting to come into its own. Bomber Command, in its usual way, only belatedly decided to give the blokes who marked the targets the best aircraft possible in the Mosquito and Lancaster. The former was so fast it was difficult to catch in the marking area. The latter could carry more marking materials and loiter in the area longer. The marking materials themselves includes improved flares and pyrotechnics with greater visibility and duration. Finally, the Pathfinders figured out that having a “Master Bomber” remain over a target and direct traffic greatly aided navigation for later bombers in the stream. As previously discussed, this all came together over Hamburg…then never really did so again for the rest of the war.
“Well why did they never pull this off again, James?”
One, the weather never cooperated. While, yes, Dresden was a thing, it was far from the shock effect and carnage delivered at Hamburg. Once one gets past Dresden, it’s arguable whether there was another significant fire storm in Germany for the rest of the war. Second, even when the conditions were right, the Germans took extensive passive measures to reduce the aftereffects of British bombs. No, there was no real economic way to reinforce and reconstruct German cities so that the bombs did less damage. However, there were numerous ways to prevent said damage from feeding the fire beast. Perversely, conducting minimal repairs to housing and other non-essential buildings created impromptu firebreaks that prevented the rapid spread of flame necessary to generate a true firestorm.
Finally, the Germans greatly strengthened their night defenses post-Hamburg. Production and conversion of the Ju-88 night fighter variants increased to cope with the higher performing Lancaster. The Germans also introduced the He-219 Uhu, a dedicated night fighter that possessed heavy armament and decent speed. Additional flak defenses, searchlights, and means of coordinating fighter attacks on the bomber streams all contributed to preventing Bomber Command from bringing together the necessary components to bomb the Reich out of the war.
That’s not to say Bomber Harris tried. Indeed, Harris tried mightily. Like a powerful brawler who believes he has his opponent lined up for a final flurry, Harris repeatedly flung Bomber Command at Berlin from November 1943-March 1944. Despite landing several steady blows, Bomber Command itself was increasingly bloodied by the German defenses. Even as the German night fighter force was ground down by simple attrition, Bomber Command’s losses approached 6 percent, or a full 3 percent higher than either the RAF or USAAF considered sustainable.
The crowning folly of Harris’ persistence was the Nuremberg Raid on the night of 30/31 March 1944. Due to poor meteorological analysis, a rigid command structure, a long flight, and recent changes to German tactics, things started out bad then got worse for Bomber Command. With the bright moonlight and highly visible contrails providing a “Here they are!” arrow to the RAF bomber stream, the Nachtjagdflieger gathered like sharks chasing a pod of bleeding dolphins. When all was said and done, over 100 of 700 RAF bombers dispatched were lost. Without the use of RAF intruders (Fighter Command Mosquitos and Beaufighters operating over German bases) to harry the Luftwaffe’s night fighter force, things likely would have been far worse.
With more crew casualties than the Battle of Britain in a single night, the RAF was simply incapable of sustaining these loss rates in either the short or long term. Fortunately for Bomber Command’s crews, even Sir Arthur Harris had bosses. With Operation Overlord looming, Bomber Command was ordered to concentrate on transportation targets in France and the Low Countries. Rather than landing the subsequent knock out blow he had so desperately sought, Harris found his own forces stunned and bleeding in its respective corner pondering what had gone wrong. Fortunately, events in the daylight strategic campaign would serve to mitigate the German defenses by the time the RAF resumed its strategic offensive.
(Featured image is “Nuremburg Nightmare” from Piotr Forkasiewicz. Please go check his amazing work out.)