Go see Dunkirk. Seriously. I can’t say much more as I don’t want to spoil it, but go see the movie. Good cinematography, acting, scoring, and pacing. Yes, some rivet counters have complained about nitpicking things like the destroyers, Ju-87s’ sirens, and the actual Bf-109s used. (No, I’m not joking.) Ignore them and go see the movie posthaste.
So remember when I said I had reading list? Well, I can do even better than that–I have an entire historiographical paper about the Allied Bombing Campaign in World War II. It’s a bit dated (I wrote it back in 2006), but the end notes and bibliography have more than enough things to get a person started.
Warning: This is a paper. So if you’re planning on reading it in one go, the little counter on the bottom tells me this thing is over 11,000 words long. Plan accordingly.
Destruction From The Heavens:
A Historiographical Examination of the United States Army Air Force’s Bombing Campaign Against Nazi Germany
20 April, 2006
Noted military analysts James F. Dunnigan and Albert Nofi, in their book Dirty Little Secrets of World War II, justifiably dubbed their subject conflict “the most enormous human drama in history.” Taking place in or around all six of the world’s inhabitable continents, involving naval battles on all of its oceans, and with military and political consequences that continue to the present day, this conflict has had a direct or indirect influence on every human being alive since 1939. Begun with a madman’s aggression, containing the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man, and concluded with the sun’s power let loose with the atomic pyres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Second World War saw numerous examples of humanity’s bravery, cowardice, and cruelty to his fellow man. Many of these instances took place within controversial campaigns conducted both by the Allied and Axis Powers, as both sides conducted their mortal struggle for victory.
Prominent amongst these campaigns is the Combined Bomber Offensive against Nazi Germany, Great Britain and America’s attempt to render Nazi Germany prostrate via airpower. The breadth and depth of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) effort has led to an extensive and diverse historiography. Unfortunately, this historiography is divided on the start date of the RAF’s dedicated attacks, making it difficult to conduct a truly effective study. In addition, the RAF’s actions, unrepentant emphasis on “area bombing,” and lack of documentation comparable to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) make any attempt to provide even a partial historiographical survey a labor on par with a full doctoral thesis or mass-market book project. Taking place at night, with targets that were both morally and physically ambiguous, Bomber Command’s efforts remain emotionally charged to the present day, with names such as Dresden and Hamburg mentioned nearly as often as Auschwitz and Dachau in the detailing of World War II’s horrors.
In contrast, the United States Army Air Force’s (USAAF’s) campaign is relatively tidy and clearly defined, if only slightly less controversial. Conceived in the Interwar Period (1919-1939), American air doctrine was a mix of European (e.g., Douhet and Trenchard) and domestic (e.g., Billy Mitchell) theorists combined with American technological prowess (e.g., Norden bombsight) and self-confidence. Taught primarily at the Air Corps Tactical School located at Maxwell Field in Montgomery Alabama, USAAF doctrine emphasized the superiority of the four-engined bomber over likely opposition. Bombers, it was believed, flew too fast for contemporary interceptors to catch and too high for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA, or “flak”) to hit. These machines’ crews, all but invincible from enemy interference, were expected to place their bombs on critical enemy nodes such as transportation centers, bridges and, most importantly, the industry that supplied and maintained ground forces. Rather than facing the horrors of an attritional ground war, 1930’s USAAF leadership taught that America’s aircraft would knock any likely opponents out of a major conflict with a few well-placed salvoes of high-explosive delivered in mass daylight raids.
America’s entry into World War II brought an opportunity for this doctrine to be executed against Nazi Germany. Utilizing Great Britain as its primary base, the USAAF organized the 8th Air Force to place doctrine into practice. Despite the cautionary warnings of their RAF counterparts, themselves roughly handled in a little over two years of offensive daylight operations, the USAAF believed its pair of four-engined bombers, the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator, were equipped with sufficient firepower to look after themselves. This view had some merit, as the most common British four-engined bombers, the Stirling, Halifax, and Lancaster were lightly armored and carried eight or nine rifle caliber machine guns in order to maximize their bomb load. In contrast, both the Flying Fortress and Liberator carried ten to thirteen heavy machine guns, heavy armor, and flew higher and faster than their British counterparts. Although both American aircraft carried a much smaller bombload than the RAF aircraft, USAAF leaders believed that this was offset by their increased accuracy by operating in daylight conditions and by using the Norden bombsight.
As this survey will show, this campaign’s numerous issues remain contentious. However, there are many facts that are not in dispute and these will be recounted here. The United States Army Air Corps began carrying out daylight raids beginning with the August 17, 1943 attack on Rouen, France. This raid, carried out in daylight, was the beginning of twenty-two months of unremitting aerial combat, culminating with an April 25, 1945 raid on Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. During this period, in accordance with USAAF doctrine, technological development, and moral considerations the 8th and 15th Air Forces conducted numerous raids against Nazi Germany’s critical infrastructure. From the dozen aircraft that penetrated Occupied France to Rouen, the American raids grew in strength to great thousand bomber hammer blows falling the length of Germany by 1945. Combined, the two units flew hundreds of missions, dropped over 1.5 million tons of bombs and, combined with their RAF compatriots, thoroughly wrecked Nazi Germany’s major cities and industrial infrastructure.
In the course of delivering this wholesale destruction, the 8th “lost 26,000 men, representing a loss rate of 12.4 percent…the highest casualty rate of any of the US armed forces in the Second World War.” Combined with the 15th Air Force’s roughly 16,000 losses, the more than 42,000 dead and missing represented over 10% of the United States’ military losses in World War II. In monetary terms, the USAAF’s bombing campaign cost America over six billion 1945 dollars in airframe costs and expenditures alone, with infrastructure, personnel, and other costs adding much more to this total. As if such loss expressed in raw numbers were not terrible enough, there remains the additional human costs incurred whenever a nation loses a large number of men whose intelligence, drive, and idealism were the primary reason they found themselves first in the USAAF, then in the skies over Nazi Germany, and finally falling to earth in blazing, shattered aircraft. In order to bring war to Nazi Germany and her populace, America paid an extensive price in blood and treasure both before and after the first U.S. Army ground soldier set foot in occupied Europe. Such a massive investment, even without the moral ramifications of dropping ordnance on nominal non-combatants, was almost certain to generate a large degree of study and examination. This began almost immediately after World War II with the USSBS and continues via general publications to the present day. These works fall into four broad areas of focus: effectiveness of the campaign as a whole; effects of American bombing on cities and civilians; German defensive countermeasures and their efficacy; and historical studies of specific units (e.g., the 8th Air Force) and aircraft (e.g., the B-17 bomber).
A few representative works should help the reader understand the general parameters of these fields. An example of a book that addresses the American bombing campaign specifically is Stewart Halsey Ross’s Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II, while a work that addresses it within the larger framework of World War II aerial warfare is Walter J. Boyne’s Clash of Wings. Herman Knell’s To Destroy A City and A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities are two examples of works that focus on the campaign’s effects on German urban centers. The German fighter force, the Jagdwaffe, has inspired several works that cover its various personalities and equipment, with Michael Spick’s The Luftwaffe Fighter Aces and Trevor J. Constable & Colonel Raymond F. Toliver’s Horrido! comprising some of this subject’s best works. As for the ground complement of the Reich’s defenses, Edward B. Westermann’s Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses, 1914-1945 is the only English language volume that focuses primarily on this topic. Finally, there remains a large number of books that focus on specific units, with the 8th Air Force as a whole being represented the most heavily. For the Allies, the venerable B-17 has the most aircraft-specific texts devoted to it, while the ubiquitous Me-109 has received the most interest amongst those airframes piloted by the Jagdflieger.
Overall, all four types of texts share several critical flaws. First, they utilize different metrics to define success or failure when discussing the USAAF daylight offensive. At best, these manipulations of German and American data are a brilliant example of Mark Twain’s famous commentary on statistics and untruths. At worst, they are extremely poor instances of authors allowing their personal bias to overcome their scholarly responsibilities. This bias, either for or against the American bombing campaign specifically or Allied bombing as a whole, is the second major defect in the current historiography. Advocates of bombing usually fall prey to the third failing, an overemphasis on the American bombing campaign’s effect on the Jagdwaffe in particular and the Luftwaffe as a whole from January 1944 to May 1945. More importantly, both sides share the fourth major defect of these works, that of stating an unequivocal moral position without adequately addressing or disproving the ethical arguments of the opposing side.
The USAAF’s Campaign In General Histories
Texts which address the USAAF’s campaign against Germany as part of a larger history of World War II prominently display all four of these flaws. This larger group, in turn, can be divided into two sub-groups. The first of these, published prior to 1976, were prepared without knowledge of the Allies’ cryptographical success against the German’s Enigma codes, commonly known as Ultra. As such, they usually give American leadership a relatively easy time for costly missions such as Ploesti, Regensburg, and Schweinfurt. An example of this phenomenon can be found in Edward Jablonski’s Tragic Victories, one of many works produced by this author. In the introduction, Jablonski states “[g]reat plans were devised, carried out with incredible valor, and then…discovered [not to have] quite worked out as planned.” Jablonski’s further discussion of the great travails of 1943 then proceeds to emphasize the tremendous virtues of the Allied aircrews with nary a mention of their leaders’ cold-blooded decision to send them into growing fighter defenses even with full knowledge of the Germans’ strength.
Despite the fact that the 8th Air Force’s aircrews understood that theirs was a dangerous business, it is unlikely that many of them would have regarded their superiors’ callousness in the same sanguine manner of Jablonski. Utilizing aggressive, stirring prose, Jablonski portrays these costly and bloody raids as partial successes, in each case pointing out that the countermeasures required of the Germans were “almost equally effective” to direct hits. In reality, as ULTRA made painfully aware to the American and British leaders, the effect of all the 1943 raids was far from that commonly accepted at the time or before the full ULTRA intercepts were made available. Jablonski and his contemporaries, through no fault of their own, were making historically inaccurate assumption based upon faulty Allied data. Unfortunately, this makes use of their works far from optimal for most historians.
Making these works still less suitable for current use is their overwhelming bias in favor of the Allied bombing campaign as a whole. In his first Airwar volume, Terror From the Sky, Jablonski begins to lay the groundwork for his relentless drumbeat of justification for the ensuing mayhem that would descend on Germany courtesy of the USAAF and RAF. First, on page 17, Jablonski outlines a list of names that would come “to stand for…fiery desolation from the air” that ends with London. Making allowances for Jablonski’s knowledge that he was planning on producing three more works on the Second World War’s aerial combat, the fact remains that his ending with London, especially at the end of a section on the Luftwaffe’s destruction of Guernica, clearly indicates a pro-Allied bias in his work. This is made more manifest by the amount of time devoted to discussing the human impacts of the German raids on England during the Battle of Britain and subsequent Blitz versus the near-celebratory tone given to the detailing of German and Japanese catastrophes such as Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. Jablonski, by virtue of his decision-making, seems to indicate the death of a young bride at a British hat factory was far more important than the extermination of over 50,000 Germans within the Hamburg firestorm. Jablonski is unapologetic in his bias, going so far as to entitle one of his chapters “Reap the Whirlwind,” a reference to an earlier alliteration to the Germans having “sewn the wind” with their attacks on Great Britain. Arguments such as these, in addition to being poorly constructed, do little to advance scholarly discussion of the American and British campaigns.
Works written after 1976 that address the campaign as part of the larger war effort correct many of the mistakes made by Jablonski and his contemporaries, however. The post-ULTRA authors, for the most part, acknowledge the grave errors made by the 8th Air Force’s commanders from 1943 to 1944. Richard Overy gives these mistakes the fairest treatment, stating that the American aerial commanders had “ignored Clausewitz at their own peril” in determining to strike at German industry without first making a concerted effort to reduce the defending forces, specifically the Jagdwaffe. Stephen Budiansky expounds on this error in his work Air Power, pointing out that American commanders such as General Carl Spaatz “inhabit[ed] a fantasyland” with regards to their beliefs on 8th Air Force crews effectiveness in the face of enemy fire and acceptance of “outlandish claims by B-17 gunners” with regards to destruction of Jagdwaffe fighters. Having delivered this rather forceful broadside, Budiansky then proceeds to outline the numerous errors committed by the USAAF hierarchy, such as delaying drop tanks for escort fighters, as well as the necessity of changing both doctrine and leaders in order to make the 8th Air Force much more effective.
The assessment of this increased effectiveness, however, still lacks a single working metric. Budiansky discusses the increased accuracy of the 8th Air Force towards the end of 1944 and into 1945 (with accompanying chart) as well as the effect of the oil shortage on the Wermacht as a whole and the likely effects if such an oil offensive had been begun earlier.  Overy similarly addresses the oil but also discusses the effects of the campaign on Axis morale, German industrial output, and the Combined Bombing Offensive’s general effect on the conduct of the war. Boyne also discusses the impact of the American (later joined by the RAF) emphasis on oil production, yet does not conclude this argument in the same forceful manner of Overy and Budiansky. All three men discuss a myriad of percentages, numbers, and tonnages, but the reader must often make the extrapolatory leap to understand that this was perhaps a vindication of the pre-war emphasis on precision bombing.
Even with the marked improvement on the pre-ULTRA works, post-ULTRA books still demonstrate a clear bias towards American (and by extension, Allied) efforts. This becomes apparent through their clinical treatment of the German populace as well as their overemphasis on the USAAF’s daylight fighters’ effectiveness. Boyne and Budiansky dehumanize the tremendous suffering that the Combined Bombing Offensive wrought upon the average German civilian, with Budiansky’s inadvertent comparison of killing sheep and civilians particularly unfortunate. Overy is far more humane, pointing out the grinding morale degradation caused by Allied bombing as a whole, with the unremitting pressure placed upon the German populace by the RAF and USAAF combined being almost palpable in his description. Unfortunately, the preponderance of general histories, both on World War II as a whole or aerial combat therein, lean more towards Boyne and Budiansky than Overy. Perrett’s Winged Victory makes few mentions of German civilians, while works such as James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of World War II presents these dead as faceless numbers with the exception of Hamburg and Dresden’s unfortunate denizens. It would appear, in most general histories, that a German citizen had to be caught in the howling maw of a firestorm in order to be worthy of close examination.
Under the Tonnage: The German Populace’s Experience
This error is more than compensated for in those works that focus on the plight of German civilians. Bridging the gap between the mainly technological focus of those books already examined and those which concentrate almost wholly on the German populace are the aforementioned work by Stewart Ross and Conrad Crane’s Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy In World War II. Both works, while ostensibly focused on the American bombing campaign, spend as much time discussing the effect American bombing had on civilians, both German and Japanese, as in discussing the technical means by which such bombing was delivered.
Of the two, Crane’s book is far more objective, as he carefully details the development of American doctrine, the attitude of the USAAF’s leaders and their military and civilian leadership, the American populace, and American airmen. Crane follows this with a discussion of the hardware of the American campaign, concentrating first on bombing aids then on the bombs themselves. Throughout he displays the gradual erosion of USAAF concerns with regards to civilian casualties, culminating with the easy acceptance of blind-bombing via radar through cloud cover in Europe and subsequent area bombings in Japan. The reader is left with the sense that the USAAF came into World War II full of idealism and a general desire to carve out Germany’s industrial heart with a minimum of what later leaders would euphemistically call “collateral damage.” Unfortunately, as Crane shows, this idealism was quickly fatally compromised. First, through their tacit acceptance of British area attacks, to the point where USAAF leadership “continually discouraged any public criticism of British obliteration raids,” America’s military leaders fully condoned the actions of their rather more ruthless ally. Second, by making a distinction between raids on German-occupied countries and Germany itself in several directives, the USAAF implied that it was not overly concerned with those German civilians that ended up under bombs which missed their target. Lastly, as Crane neatly summarizes, the “attitudes of American leaders towards the bombing of urban areas were affected to varying degrees by concerns for ethics, efficiency, and public relations.” American bomber commanders, confronted by the growing lists of casualties and under pressure to end the war, likely did not overly concern themselves with dead citizens of the Reich be they factory worker, woman, elderly, or even child.
They did not, however, seek to murder these individuals wholesale, either. It is on this very important point that historian Stewart Halsey Ross’s work immediately founders. Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts casts the USAAF leadership as a gathered band of homicidal men bent on establishing a separate air force on the bones of Germany and Japan’s civilians. In contrast, Ross casts Adolf Hitler and, by extension, Nazi Germany as a nation that regularly abided by the treaties it signed. Strategic Bombing notes that “Hitler proposed in 1935 and again a year later a universal agreement that aerial bombardment should be restricted to a zone of military operations,” then follows this with an observation that the RAF refused as such an agreement would conflict with its nascent bomber doctrine. Ross also ensures the reader is aware that the reader is aware that Adolf Hitler was the first leader to respond to President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a public declaration against the bombing of civilian targets in 1939. Finally, he portrays Great Britain as the builder of “the most aggressive fleet of big bombers in Europe” while simultaneously emphasizing Germany’s “tactical” bombers, thus implying that Britain’s air marshals, like their USAAF counterparts, sacrificed the possibility of a clean, sanitary air war on the altar of decisive aerial bombardment.
Ross culls these facts from official documents, unit histories, and previous completed works. As with the remaining statistics, quotations, and excerpts that compose his argument, they seem quite sound in isolation and build a credible case if taken alone. Unfortunately, the untidy remainder of World War II serves to completely undermine this carefully constructed argument. Hitler’s subsequent conduct at Munich in 1938 and the ultimate outcome of the Maximov-Ribbentrop treaty are but two of the myriad examples of the Nazis’ duplicity, thus making any 1935 diplomatic overture highly suspect. With regards to civilian targets, even if one discounted the Condor Legion’s assault on the Spanish town of Guernica in 1936, the fact remains that German Stukas were likely strafing fleeing Polish refugees even as the Fuhrer was positively responding to Roosevelt’s request. While these actions could be attributed to a few overzealous Luftwaffe pilots, the subsequent bombings of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London clearly indicates that such actions were not an anomaly. Finally, the Battle of Britain shows that the Luftwaffe’s bombes, while “tactical” in conception, were readily applied to strategic tasks at a whim. These facts are readily available to the casual student of World War II history, and their omission indicates that Ross may have sacrificed accuracy in the interest of bolstering his argument.
Unfortunately for students of the Allied Bomber Offensive, such bias appears to be the norm for works concentrating on German civilians’ fate during World War II. Amateur historian Herman Knell, author of To Destroy A City, examines the American and British offensive from an altogether different perspective than the other authors studied—that of a “dehoused” survivor. This experience, as well as Wurzburg Germany’s relative anonymity in other books dealing with the American and British offensives, appear to be the main impetus behind the completion of To Destroy a City. In the introduction, Knell recounts that Wurzburg is one of the “three most ravished cities in Europe” at the end of World War II. This lists exclusion of non-German cities makes it somewhat suspect, but Knell supports this controversial statement with the observation that “U.S. and British bombing surveys prepared after World War II tell us that…Wurzburg [was]…89 percent destroyed.” Having provided this evidence, however, Knell does not subsequently discuss what these percentages truly entails, leaving scholars with the task of finding his source or using contextual clues to determine just what exactly this statement means.
Such contextual aids are few and far between in Knell’s work. Instead, To Destroy A City clearly suffers from the haphazard research that went into its construction. Knell, a fair writer, is a poor organizer. His first one hundred seventeen pages discuss the historiography of the World War II bombing campaigns in general, an autobiographical introduction of the author’s situation in May 1945 and subsequent decision to investigate the Allied Bombing Campaign against both Germany and Japan, Wurzburg’s general worth as a military target, the raids upon that city, the development of aerial bombing strategy from before World War I through the end of World War II, and short biographical sketches of key bombing leaders up until 1945. In and of themselves, most of these subjects have required complete books for proper, objective treatment, and Knell’s book suffers from attempting to simplistically cover them in the allotted space, especially when he does so in a manner guaranteed to cause chronological disorientation. The recounting of these subjects do not support Knell’s contention, recounted on pages 11-13, that he is attempting to correct or avoid previous historical biases. It is somewhat dishonest to state that it is “far more important to understand why [bombing] happened than to point a finger and pillorize people and events” then use words such as “executioner” to describe Allied aerial commanders and “mass executions” to describe bombing raids on German cities. Even though he subsequently softens this language to the more euphemistic “practitioners”, Knell clearly indicates his disgust with the entire campaign by stating “nobody should ever call [Allied commanders] heroes.”
Although such a way of thinking is understandable from a person who suffered first hand from Allied bombardment, like Ross’s work it ignores critical facts. The American and British commanders fully believed that their actions would, if not lead to victory outright, greatly shorten the war. With the experience of World War I within their living memory, most of these men sought to avoid the bloodshed and generational decimation of ground warfare. In addition, these men had watched the Luftwaffe pummel several civilian targets, to include numerous English cities, without remorse or mercy. Although, unlike Ross, Knell does not excuse or exclude his countrymen’s aerial actions, he does not adequately address the effect these raids had on the Allied leadership’s feelings towards the German populace. This omission is only partially balanced by Knell’s acknowledgment of the difficulties experienced by American and British aircrews in flying through German defenses to deliver their loads, and is one of the work’s critical failings.
Similarly significant is Knell’s incorrect appraisal of the state of aerial technology during World War II. On pages 220-221, the author attempts to build a case that Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris willfully chose to ignore the capabilities of the Mosquito bomber in order to continue delivering large quantities of inaccurately aimed high-explosive. That these raids did indeed cause “heinous losses of innocent civilians” is indisputable, yet similarly irrefutable is the fact that the Mosquito capabilities described by Knell applied to the unarmed reconnaissance version flying at high altitude. In addition, the examples cited within To Destroy A City required a level of training, bravery, and luck that was all but unsustainable in large numbers, especially by an almost exhausted RAF. Those strikes which were made required a “long spell of working up” and, while spectacular, were arguably not cost effective. Finally, Knell also ignores the lethality of German defenses. In each of the cases cited by Knell, the targets struck with such precision were poorly defended, with relatively few automatic cannons or the dreaded ’88.’ In contrast, most of German industry lay within dense flak belts, the depth of which would have to be transitioned during ingress and egress. More importantly, the Mosquito’s survivability lay in both its high speed and the time required for German fighters to climb to altitude. At low level, the Fw-190 and late-model Bf-109s were quite capable of overtaking a clean Mosquito, much less one carrying a significant warload. As with his over concentration on the strafing exploits of American fighter-bombers, Knell’s decision to utilize a few ill-chosen examples in an attempt to bolster a particular argument is a rather large flaw in an otherwise creditable work. Although non-fatal, such a mistake serves to make the remainder of the work unfortunately suspect and of only broad, general use in scholarly study.
In contrast, British philosopher A.C. Grayling’s work Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WW II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, is of only general use for historians. Despite its subtitle, it quickly becomes evident that Grayling’s work is oriented more towards a philosophical examination of the American and British campaigns rather than a general history. Among the Dead Cities postulates that the Combined Bomber Offensive’s implications were justifiably “obscured by the fact that a much larger and more important moral matter occupied the mental horizon of the post-war world, and quite rightly so—the Holocaust.” Grayling then proceeds to lay out three pressing reasons why these issues must be immediately addressed. First, “the descendants of the bombed have begun to raise their voices and ask questions about the experience of their parents and grandparents,” that is, contemporary German and Japanese citizens are starting to question the necessity of their forebears’ travails. Second, “history has got to be got right before it distorts into legend and diminishes into over-simplification, which is always what happens when events slip into a too distant past.” Lastly, Grayling believes an examination of Allied area bombing can lead to a “proper understanding…of how peoples and states can and should behave in time of conflict.”
These reasons are all sound and solid reasons for a frank, open discussion of American and British efforts to utilize airpower to knock Germany out of the war. Grayling seems adequately spurred by them to present his central thesis that, yes, the Allied Combined Offensive was indeed a war crime. Immediately aware of the his opponents’ primary arguments, Grayling utilizes the bulk of his introduction to disproving the theory that Nazi Germany’s evil fully justified any and all means used to destroy it. This frontal assault begins on page six with the following passage:
Nothing in this book should be taken as any form of revisionist apology for Nazism and its frightful atrocities, or Japanese militarism and its aggressions, even if the conclusion is that German and Japanese civilians suffered wrongs. A mature [emphasis mine] perspective on the Second World War should by now enable us to distinguish between these two quite different points.
Grayling follows this initial barrage with several examples that further illuminate his line of thought, followed by a seemingly obligatory statement in which he makes it “emphatically clear” that he is not attacking the wartime service of the RAF and USAAF bomber crews, only merely stating that they may have been involved “in the commission of wrongs.” Grayling attempts to dispel the almost certain bitter feelings his statements are sure to cause with a bit of autobiographical frivolity that seems to mitigate veterans’ ire by recounting his love for their aircraft and service. Finally, Grayling lays out the component of his central question and gives a rough outline, the overall effect of which is to make the reader receptive to both his historical question and central argument.
The crux of Grayling’s argument is that, yes indeed, American and British bombing raids were full-fledged war crimes and thus, by extension and derivative from his own presented examples, Allied aircrew were war criminals. It is upon this moralistic rock that Grayling’s work, founders rapidly. For four chapters, Among the Dead Cities concisely outlines the American and British bombing offensives, provides a vivid recounting of German experiences underneath American and British bombs, and conducts a brilliant expose on the mindset of leaders both for and against wholesale bombing. Having laid his historical and technological groundwork, Grayling then builds his moral superstructure by clarifying exactly the “‘wrong’ at stake” utilizing just war theory.
Rather than relying on this, however, Grayling makes his first major mistake in stating that the Allies’ behavior postwar, both in the persecution of Axis leaders and the wording of the Geneva Convention of 1949, served as a “retrospective indictment of the practices” carried out during World War II. Having leaped onto this metaphorically thin ice, Grayling proceeds to stomp on its surface by stating “[t]he moral culpability of area bombing was so well recognised during and immediately after the war that when at last an effort was made to arrive at a firm and binding statement of the laws of war, it was explicitly outlawed by them.” Grayling then launches a whirlwind assault that encompasses fellow historians (Robin Neilland’s Bomber War is particularly roughly handled), Allied wartime decisions and, most importantly, the morality of the leaders who decided upon the implementations of their superiors. In the final chapter, aptly entitled “Judgment,” Grayling wraps up his argument by equating American and British bombing attacks with various terrorist actions, culminating with a reference to Hamburg and Hiroshima being equivalent to the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Like Knell, Grayling’s argument begins to unravel in the face the technological limitations of World War II. First, Grayling attempts to split a moralistic hair, stating that that “precision-bombing efforts against industry, transport, power and military targets” would have sufficed to prevent Germany’s full industrial capacity from reaching the Wermacht in the field. This statement, echoing Knell’s reliance on a massive number of Mosquito bombers ranging across Germany, likewise ignores the state of aerial ordnance delivery available in World War II. As Budiansky illustrated in Air Power, cited above, the USAAF was only able to begin placing a large percentage of their bombs within 2,000 feet of a target in the latter part of 1944. In turn, even this rather limited accuracy was dependent on two conditions. The first was USAAF air superiority, a condition not truly met until a combination of long-ranged escort fighters, rapidly declining German pilot skill, and a lack of fuel eviscerated the German Jagdwaffe (a process to be examined in more detail below). The second condition, seldom seen thanks to capricious Central European weather and German passive defense measures, was good visibility. In short, Grayling’s hypothetical campaign would have required the ideal sought by air power enthusiasts during the interwar period: an supine enemy and cooperative Mother Nature.
It is at this point that Grayling’s attempt to shave a fine distinction falls apart. Grayling states unequivocally that bombing directed in daylight against industry is decisive and, not being specifically designated as ‘area bombing,’ morally acceptable. However, even if the ideal conditions had existed with far more regularity than actually occurred, 70% of ordnance landing within 2,000 feet of a target still leaves 30% landing outside this circle. Thus, a 1,000 aircraft raid carrying a common load of six 500-lb. bombs apiece would drop 1800 pieces of ordnance at random throughout occupied Europe and the Third Reich. The ultimate destinations of this “outside group” cannot be fully known, as the statistics treat weapons jettisoned by aborting bombers over the English Channel and those which landed at 2,500 feet from the aiming point equally. What is known, however, is that aerial ordnance was quite efficient in killing exposed personnel both at the point of impact and at relatively long distances through fragmentary and secondary effects. Grayling, in adapting this particular aspect of the argument, appears to state that German civilian deaths were appropriate as long as the “good intentions” of precision aiming were there. This approach is simplistic at best, as a German civilian killed on accident or through the misfortune of having his farmhouse located within “danger close” range of a German arms factory is just as dead as one whose housing block was the proposed aiming point.
Grayling does not attempt to address this flaw in his argument, instead moving immediately into a detailed examination of the February 1945 attack on Dresden. As with most historians that utilize this German city as an example of the Allies’ utter immorality in their bombing offensive, Grayling manages to establish several critical points. First, he adroitly points out Dresden’s cultural importance, contrasting its inclusion on the approved target list with Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s decision to exclude Kyoto, Japan from the list of suitable atomic bomb targets. Second, he emphasizes Bomber Command’s desire to inflict pain on the German populace and intimidate the Russians, stating that “calculation involved in using civilian lives and the precipitates of history to make a gesture in a game of diplomatic politics is breathtaking.” This charge is made in conjunction with the oft-repeated statement “that one of the main motives for the atom-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to demonstrate to the Russians the superiority in weaponry that the United States had attained,” thus implicitly equating Dresden’s attack to the two ill-fated Japanese cities. Lastly, Grayling points out that the city was “known to be full of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the approach of Soviet troops,” thus completing the common litany of “reasons not to bomb [Dresden].”
Unfortunately for Grayling, this emphasis on Dresden and effort to intertwine it with the final assault on Japan exposes his central thesis to pointed, valid counterarguments. By presenting no primary source for his allegation regarding the reasoning behind the dropping of two atomic bombs, Grayling allows it to be readily discarded even without recourse to contrary evidence. Furthermore, the mentioning of two cities’ whose fate in large part was due to the fanatical, unreasoning resistance of a tyrannical leadership leaves open the possibility that the political and conditions leading to Dresden’s immolation were similar if not identical. In his emphasis on the refugees fleeing Soviet troops, Bomber Command’s aiming point, and the horrific outcome of the raid makes several critical omissions which address these geopolitical factors all the more glaring. Like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden was a major city within one of history’s most oppressive, notorious regimes. To portray it as an innocent, defenseless victim of a savage Allied assault is to ignore the defensive plans of Army Group Center, the offensive plans of the Red Army, or the simple fact that World War II bombing art did not allow for the pinpoint ordnance delivery common to modern aerial warfare. Finally, and most importantly, the extension of this line of reasoning places most of the onus for Dresden’s agony on the Allies rather than its proper place on the Nazi leadership that began a war of aggression than refused to surrender when clearly beaten.
This tendency to understate the Axis leaderships crimes is best exemplified by Grayling’s dismissive statement that “even if all the arguments of the defenders of area bombing are correct…[a]rea bombing was neither necessary nor proportional, and it was neither of these things by quite a long way.” While strong in delivery, this passage and its companions are relatively weak in factual support. It is quite easy, sixty years on, to state that the Allies handled Germany (and Japan), a bit roughly and with disproportionate force. However, this ignores several well-known historical facts. Whereas Grayling is quick to point out that the Allies heaviest blows fell once the Axis tide was clearly receding, he neglects to point out that this was also the period of the heaviest losses among both USAAF and RAF bomber crews. In addition, as illustrated in the works previously surveyed, the Jagdwaffe and flak units were still inflicting casualties up to the final day of the war. On the ground, the Wermacht continued to strenuously resist British and American advances to the Elbe, while the fanatical resistance offered in defense of Berlin has been well documented by able historians such as Cornelius Ryan, Max Hastings, and Antony Beevor. It is a bit idealistic to expect the Allies to cease launching bombing missions, much less large-scale ones, in the face of determined aerial and ground opposition.
Most importantly, however, to state that the Allies’ efforts were disproportional, and not by a small margin, is to utterly ignore German conduct throughout the war. Japanese excesses against Prisoners of War (POWs) has often led Western sources to speak highly of the Wermacht’s treatment of the same. Unfortunately, this ignores the excesses conducted against the Red Army in the East. More importantly, Nazi ideological beliefs turned the Eastern Front into a “racial conflict of the most savage kind in which any methods, criminal or otherwise, were sanctioned.” Given carte blanche, the German soldier raped, pillaged, and burned in a campaign that resulted in the death of over 12 million Soviet civilians. On the German Home Front, the Nazis implemented the Final Solution, and proceeded to utilize the methods of industrialization to gas, shoot, or work to death millions of Slavs, gypsies, Jews, and other humans considered “sub-human.” That this process, despite the precious resources its implementation consumed, continued literally until advancing Allied forces pushed open the camp gates indicates the depths of the Third Reich’s depravity.
It is unlikely that the Nazis’ victims, not to mention the USAAF airmen who became casualties during these final raids, would agree with Grayling’s glib assessment that the Allies hands were only less dirty than those of the Nazis by a matter of degrees. In just war theory, proportionality is the belief that wars’ ultimate goals and aims must be proportional to the costs involved. The objective of the USAAF Bombing Campaign, and the Combined Bomber Offensive of which it was an integral part, was the destruction of a homicidal, racist, and tyrannical regime that had plunged the entire world into a conflict that killed over 78 million people. Together, the USAAF and RAF are believed to have killed 593,000 German civilians, that is .76% of this total. While this may not fit into Grayling’s opinion of what is proportional, it clearly fits into just war’s theory of this concept and thus renders his central argument unsupportable.
The German Defenses
Less morally ambiguous than discussions of the relative worth of German civilians’ lives versus those of the Third Reich’s victims, however, is the examination of Nazi Germany’s defense and the soldiers that manned them. These works, especially those produced during the Cold War, tend to avoid taking moralistic positions, focusing narrowly on how the Luftwaffe conducted its defense of the greater Reich. Westermann’s Flak is the only English language text that attempts to portray the men and women who manned the Reich’s anti-aircraft batteries as anything but anonymous secondary actors ineffectively attempting to stem the ever growing tide of American and British bombers. Its uniqueness precludes its use in the examination of trends, and thus it will not be further discussed herein.
In contrast to their flak comrades, German fighter pilots (Jagdflieger) have individually and collectively been the subject of dozens English-language texts. Most of these books treat the Jagdflieger with great respect, with noted aviation historian Michael Spick’s sentiment that “[a]lthough the cause for which they had fought was tarnished, their honor was redeemed by the luster of their deeds” being representative of general sentiment. The USAAF’s daylight offensive, directly engaging a Jagdwaffe already overcommitted in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, is widely acknowledged as the instrument which destroyed the German fighter arm. Used to engaging much smaller single and twin-engined aircraft at low and medium altitude, the arrival of the much larger Liberators and Fortresses was a sharp shock. Spick, once again, provides the most concise elucidation of this phenomenon, pointing out the effect the bombers’ size and defensive fire had on the pilots who conducted these initial interceptions. General Adolf Galland, the Luftwaffe’s chief of fighters, reinforces this point in his autobiography, The First and the Last. On page 151, Galland equates the Jagdflieger’s initial encounters with these aircraft to an infantryman’s first encounter with enemy tanks, with his pilots having to overcome their “shyness of the [bombers]” in order to discover their “vulnerable points.” As noted by Spick, Galland, and several other authors, this process was fraught with dangers due to the American bombers’ dense formations and heavy armament. Moreover, this process was left to tactical units rather than being driven by a centralized Jagdwaffe process of experimentation utilizing captured airframes. While ultimately successful, with aces (Experten) from Jagdeschwader (JG) 2 devising the successful head-on assault, this methodology exposed a critical operational failing on the part of Galland and his subordinate staff.
Such operational failings were fairly common and, when coupled with the strategic errors made by the Third Reich all but guaranteed the Jagdwaffe’s eventual destruction. The historiography, much like that of the Wermacht as a whole, places most of the blame for these errors on Hitler and Hermann Goring, chief of the Luftwaffe. First, by engaging on multiple fronts, the Nazi hierarchy ensured that what strength it did have would be divided into several parts. Second, by stubbornly insisting on the continued development and production of offensive weapons despite the Third Reich’s clearly declining fortunes, Hitler ensured that the Jagdwaffe fought at a constant numerical disadvantage from mid-1943 on. Finally, and most importantly, the aerial equivalent of Hitler’s “not one step backward” philosophy is consistently cited in the historiography as an unmitigated disaster for the Reich’s fighter pilots.
This last point is so central to the historiographical trend that it requires detailed examination. According to surviving senior Jagdwaffe officers, in 1942 Hitler and Goring decreed that all American bombers would be subject to continuous attack from ingress into the airspace of occupied Europe. This was directly contrary to Galland’s suggestion, which was a more prudent strategy of concentrated Luftwaffe fighter attacks for a single large interception near the borders of Germany. The initial effect of the Fuhrer’s directive was the frittering away of the Jagdwaffe’s strength in a series of attritional battles through late 1943. It is true that the relentless attacks inflicted painful losses on the USAAF’s bomber units, and the historiography is quite clear that from January to October 1943 the Jagdwaffe won “a series of substantial tactical victories,” forcing the Eighth Air Force to temporarily halt deep penetrations into Germany. However, American production and manpower meant that these losses were replaceable. In contrast, the steady toll taken by bomber gunners, accidents, and occasional clash with escorting fighters initiated a slow, steady seeping away of the German fighter arm’s effectiveness. The cost in both Experten (aces) and neophytes was quite high, and it made those victories achieved both transitory and Pyrrhic. From January to April 1944, the introduction of larger drop-tanks, longer-ranged fighters, and far more aggressive American tactics transformed the constant hemorrhaging of 1943 into full-scale arterial bleeding that proved ultimately fatal. Despite the introduction of advanced jet fighters, themselves arguably delayed by Hitler’s intransigence, those works focusing on the Jagdwaffe are clear that the battles of 1944 ensured the German fighter arm was a spent force.
This focus on the interference of the Nazi High Command, differences in production outcomes, and sheer numbers of Allied fighters results in several critical gaps. First, there is an overemphasis on the potential impact of the Me-262 at the expense of other, more viable aircraft. Galland is the first to propagate this myth, as the last portion of his autobiography concentrates heavily on the “lost opportunities” this fighter provided as well as his own experiences operating it. Although Galland’s thoughts are heartfelt, they are also disproved rather readily. Spick provides the most concise detailing of the Me-262’s many flaws, namely that it required a long runway, accelerated poorly, had extremely poor fuel economy, and was critically vulnerable on takeoff and landing. In addition to these tactical concerns, the Me-262’s airframe itself required an excessive amount of strategic materials, the powerplant was unreliable, and it required a level of skill that was quite beyond that being turned out by the German flight schools by 1944. Combined, these factors would likely have prevented the Me-262 from being the war winner Galland and others have proclaimed it would have been.
This overemphasis obscures the fact that the Jagdwaffe had many alternatives at hand that, with a more forceful effort by Galland, may have actually had reasonable impact during the critical period of the American Bombing Campaign. The Focke-Wulf 190, an excellent successor to the Bf-109, was never given priority of production over that “much older and less attractive design [that had] many shortcomings.” Although its initial variants were not well-suited for combat over 24,000 feet, later models were quite capable of holding their own against even the most modern Allied aircraft. In addition, various other airframes that would have been better suited to indifferently trained neophytes reached the prototype stage yet were never produced in favor of continuously updating the 109. Even given the 109’s sterling combat record, it is a clear indicator of Galland’s and Goring’s misunderstanding of technological progress that they believed an airframe first flown in 1935 was still a viable contender in 1943. The latter is rightfully pilloried for his hand in this travesty—the former is not.
Galland is similarly excused in the historiography for failing to vigorously examine his likely need for more pilots prior to the crisis of 1944. In this he is not alone, as the historiography is generally unclear on what individual or individuals was largely responsible for the development of a fighter pilot training program. Also left unexplained is the reasoning for the non-inclusion of combat veterans in such a program. Throughout World War II, the RAF, USAAF, and Red Air Force each had a rotational policy that gave their pilots a rest after a certain operational period. These policies paid great dividends in allowing the passage of lessons learned from combat veterans to trainees during their advanced flight courses, ensuring that these individuals then arrived at their commands with at least a theory of how aerial combat should unfold.
The Jagdwaffe’s rotational policy, on the other hand, was virtually non-existent. Almost invariably, Experten flew until seriously injured, imprisoned, or killed in combat. Generally, the historiography gives a pass to Galland on this issue, noting that Germany’s strategic situation precluded the rotation of trained leaders to training commands. Such statements, given the greater efficiency numerous veterans’ imparted to Allied training programs, are only tenuously supportable. Although it is true that Germany was hard-pressed by December 1943, this does not sufficiently explain what the Luftwaffe’s fighter command was doing from September 1939 until that date. The historiography gives little indication that Galland, upon assuming command of the Jagdwaffe in November 1941, did little to correct the errors of his predecessors in this regard. It is apparent that Galland was an extremely brave man placed in a rather untenable position by Hitler and Goring. Unfortunately, the works on the Jagdwaffe make clear that Galland’s focus on the day-to-day operation of his fighter groups, their tactics, and his pilots’ well-being prevented him from engaging long-term concerns with the same vigor he applied to attacking his aerial opponents.
A large part of Galland’s inaction may be attributed to combat fatigue, the final gap in the historiography of the Jagdwaffe. There are limited references to demoralization and fatigue among the German defenders in secondary sources, and the overwhelming strain of the Allied assault is even more prevalent in the available primary sources.  The high concentration and technical skills required for World War II aerial combat are extensively recognized, as are the effects of extended psychological stress on the mental, physical functions which are necessary to efficiently execute these tasks. Yet, despite the two factors, no readily-available English language psychological study has been made of Jagdwaffe (and flak) personnel to date, an inexplicable gap. With the high casualties suffered by the Jagdflieger as well as the passing of many World War II veterans in the intervening years since the end of that conflict, it may be impossible to ever completely fill this gap, but unit and oral histories may provide a necessary foundation for an attempt to be made.
Unit, Airframe and Oral Histories
Such histories form a large part of fourth part of the historiography, that of subject-specific histories. On the Allied side, such histories tend to be myopic, sacrificing a greater understanding of the war’s strategic context in favor of a narrow examination of a particular organization’s experience in the air war. The majority of these histories focus on the Eighth Air Force, with the two most common examples being the nearly identically-titled The Mighty Eighth: Units, Men, and Machines (A History of the US 8th Army Air Force) by British aviation author Roger A. Freeman and military historian Gerald Astor’s The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It. Although most of the World War II press and subsequent histories seem to support the subtitle of Astor’s work, the 15th Air Force was decisively engaged in attacking the southern portion of the Reich from November 1943. Despite the importance of their attacks, especially those against Nazi Germany’s oil supply, there are no commonly available histories solely devoted to the 15th’s exploits. Nor is this lack of representation unique to the 15th, as it occurs for most of the Eighth’s subordinate commands. There are few widely published bomber group unit histories, reducing the men and machines that constituted the Eighth’s primary reason for being to relatively anonymity. In contrast, the 56th, 4th, and 364th Fighter Groups alone are each the subject of at least one book, while the 8th’s myriad aces are the subject of numerous autobiographies and composite works.
This overrepresentation of fighter pilots skews their relative importance to the overall conduct of the American Bombing Campaign. Similarly skewed is the importance of the B-17 Flying Fortress, as it is the airframe that is most commonly represented in print and pictures that discuss the 8th Air Force. Martin Caidin’s Flying Forts, Jablonski’s Flying Fortress, and Freeman’s B-17 Fortress at War are but a small sample of the large number of books devoted to the Boeing bomber. The B-24 Liberator, on the other hand, has had few books written on it, with Stephen Ambrose’s The Wild Blue being the most recent. A similar situation, however, does not exist with regards to the American fighters, however, as each of the primary escort fighters (P-38, P-47, and P-51) each have a similar number of works devoted to their operational use.
The number of Jagdwaffe general histories is relatively small. To date, there is only one comprehensive, English language history in existence, the rarity of which makes its acquisition fiscally prohibitive for libraries and private individuals alike. Likewise, there are few in-depth unit histories that cover the entire operational life of a single Jagdwaffe unit from the beginning to the end of the Second World War. Aviation author Donald L. Caldwell’s JG 26 is the best example of all these, being both extensively researched and well written, and the dearth of Luftwaffe war records and rapidly declining number of veterans makes it unlikely to be equaled. However, the Jagdwaffe’s chaotic personnel policies make this less of a historical gap than it would first appear. Experten were regularly transferred between units due to their own injuries or to fill command positions left vacant by a fellow pilot’s relief, disablement, or death. Units, in turn, were often detached for service on another front, resulting in some Jagdeschwader having subordinate Gruppen simultaneously located on all three major German war fronts. Consequently, books on the Jagdwaffe, unlike the overwhelming majority of those on their Allied counterparts, are often forced to explain the larger strategic picture in order to avoid confusing readers.
Unfortunately, concentration on the Experten has led to the lionization of their primary mount, the Bf-109, at the expense of the Fw-190 and its pilots. The majority of these books also fail to mention the Bf-109’s creeping obsolescence. In addition, there remains little information on the various anonymous pilots that composed the bulk of the Jagdwaffe. Although large numbers of these pilots did not survive their first missions, there is likely a significant number of them whose scores would have made them quite famous had they been born in one of the Allied nations. Lastly, there are few sources which detail the training methodology, pilot equipment, or daily operations of the Jagdwaffe as a whole. The early success, decline, and ultimate failure of the Luftwaffe in its entirety is clearly connected to the fate of its fighter arm, and it is a subject that deserves further study.
Such further study is outside the scope of this paper, which has focused on the available rather than potential historiography and its gaps. As the examination has shown, the USAAF campaign can be defined in many ways. Those works sympathetic to its conduct portray it as a limited success whose achievements far outweigh the collateral damage it caused. Its opponents decry it as a clear violation of just war theory that was brought about by various base desires for revenge, an independent Air Force, and/or cold-blooded indifference to the civilians it fell upon or the young men forced to carry it out. Such a debate will fruitlessly continue until one or more of the faults currently inherent in the historiography is addressed. Historians from both sides must agree on a common degree of metrics, as a discussion of the relative merits inherent in oranges’ and apples’ can only be resolved on personal bias. Although the complete elimination of such bias is, of course, impossible, by relying on these established measurements much of the current moral reproach and polemic speech would be removed from what should be dispassionate analysis. In addition, such statistics would allow the examination of both defenders and attackers and allow for an all-encompassing examination of the campaign’s effect on the Wermacht’s conduct of the war, with emphasis on the Luftwaffe in general and Jagdwaffe in particular. Finally, all of these steps would allow professional historians from both sides to actually hear and digest opposing viewpoints, thus allowing for a greater understanding of the Allied Bombing Campaign and Second World War as a whole. With active participants disappearing at prodigious rates, the importance of accomplishing this has never been greater even as the time to do so grows ever shorter.
(Books in Bold were not used in text preparation but are included for information purposes.)
Ambrose, Stephen E.. The Wild Blue. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Astor, Gerald. The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It. New York: Dell Books, 1997.
Biddle, Tami Davis. Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings: Air Power in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Budiansky, Stephen. Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas That Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II. New York: Viking Books, 2004.
Caidin, Martin. Flying Forts: The B-17 in World War II. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.
________. Me-109: Willy Messerschmitt’s Peerless Fighter. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Caldwell, Donald L.. JG26. New York: Orion Books, 1991.
Christopher, Paul. The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues. Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Constable, Trevor J. and Raymond F. Toliver, Colonel, USAF (ret.). Horrido!: Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.
Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II.Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
Dunnigan, James and Albert A. Nofi. Dirty Little Secrets of World War II: Military Information No One Told You About the Greatest, Most Terrible War In History. New York: Quill, 1994.
Ethell, Jeffrey and Dr. Alfred Price. Target Berlin: Mission 250, 6 March, 1944. London: Jane’s, 1981. Reprint, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.
Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth: Units, Men, and Machines (A History of the US 8th Army Air Force. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970.
________. B-17 Fortress At War. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977.
Galland, Adolf. The First and the Last. Bantam War Book Ed., 3rd Printing. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
Grayling, A.C. Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. (Advance Reading Copy) New York: Walker & Company, 2006.
Gunston, Bill and Tony Wood. Hitler’s Luftwaffe: A Pictorial History and Technical Encyclopedia of Hitler’s Air Power in World War II. London: Salamander Books, 1977. Reprint, New York: Crescent Books, 1979.
Hammel, Eric. Aces Against Germany. New York: Pocket Books, 1993.
Hinchliffe, Peter. The Other Battle: Luftwaffe Night Fighter Aces Versus Bomber Command. Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 2001.
Isby, David C., ed.. Fighting the Bombers: The Luftwaffe’s Struggle Against the Allied Bomber Offensive. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.
Jablonski, Edward. Airwar: Tragic Victories. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.
________. Airwar: Terror From the Sky. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.
________. Airwar: Wings of Fire. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971.
________. Flying Fortress. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965.
Jacobs, W.A.. “Operation Overlord.” In Case Studies in the Achievement of Air Superiority, Benjamin Franklin Cooling, 270-322. Washington, D.C.: Center For Air Force History, 1994.
Johnson, Robert S., with Martin Caidin. Thunderbolt!. New York: Ballantine Books, 1958.
Knell, Herman. To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Group, 2003.
Macksey, Kenneth. Military Errors of World War II. London: Arms and Armour, 1987. Reprint, Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2003.
McFarland, Stephen L. and Wesley Phillips Newton. “The American Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany in World War Two.” In Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment, ed. R. Cargill Hill, 183-252. Washington, D.C.: Center For Air Force History, 1998.
Mondey, David. The Hamlyn Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1982.
________. American Aircraft of World War II. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, Reprint, London: Chancellor Press, 1996.
Musciano, Walter A. Messerschmitt Aces. New York: Arco Publishing, Inc., 1982.
Nalty, Bernard C., John F. Shiner, and George M. Watson. With Courage: The U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History & Museums Program, 1994.
Neilland, Robert. The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany. New York: The Overlook Press, 2001.
Overy, Richard J. Why the Allies Won. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Perrett, Geoffrey. Winged Victory: The Army Air Forces in World War II. New York: Random House, 1993.
Richard, Denis. The Hardest Victory: RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Ross, Stewart Halsey. Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003.
Sims, Edward H.. American Aces. New York: Ballantine Books, 1958.
________. The Greatest Aces. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967.
Spick, Michael. The Luftwaffe Fighter Aces: The Jagdflieger and Their Combat Tactics and Techniques. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
________. The Ace Factor. New York: Avon Books, 1988.
________. Allied Fighter Aces of World War II. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1997.
Steinhoff, Johanne. Messerschmitts Over Sicily. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004.
Stokesbury, James L.. A Short History of World War II. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980.
Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
United States Army. “Strategic Air Victory in Europe Special Issue (July 1945).” In Impact: The Army Air Force’s “Confidential” Picture History of World War II in Eight Books, Vol. 7. Harrisburg, PA: Historical Times, Inc., 1980.
Westermann, Edward B.. Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses, 1914-1945. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2001.
Williamson, Murray. Strategy For Defeat: The Luftwaffe 1933-1945. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1983.
 There are several excellent single-volume works that discuss the RAF’s campaign, such as Denis Richards’s The Hardest Victory: RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994) and Peter Hinchliffe’s The Other Battle: Luftwaffe Night Aces Versus Bomber Command (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001).
 Impact: The Army Air Force’s “Confidential” Picture History of World War II In Eight Books, vol. 7, “Strategic Air Victory In Europe Special Issue”, July 1945 (Harrisburg, PA: Historical Times, Inc., 1980), 57 and 60.
 Stewart Halsey Ross, Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003) and Walter J. Boyne Clash of Wings: Air Power in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
 Herman Knell, To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Group, 2003) and A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, Advance Reading Copy (New York: Walker & Company, 2006).
 Michael Spick, The Luftwaffe Fighter Aces: The Jagdflieger and Their Combat Tactics and Techniques (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996) and Trevor J. Constable and Raymond F. Toliver, Colonel, USAF (ret.) Horrido! (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968).
 Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994), 89. This version of the work is that used for Military Philosophy at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY.
 Generalmajor Hans-Detlef Herhuth von Rohden, “Reich Air Defense in World War II: A Strategic-Tactical Survey,” Fighting the Bombers: The Luftwaffe’s Struggle Against the Allied Bomber Offensive, David C. Isby, ed., (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003), 26-27.
 Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton, “The American Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany in World War Two,” Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment, R. Cargill Hill, ed., (Washington, D.C.: Center for Air Force History, 1998), 209-215.
 Bill Gunston and Tony Wood, Hitler’s Luftwaffe: A Pictorial History and Technical Encyclopedia of Hitler’s Air Power in World War II (London: Salamander Books, 1977; reprint, New York: Crescent Books, 1979), 166.
 An example of the former can be found on pg. 99 of Jeffrey Ethell and Dr. Alfred Price’s Target Berlin: Mission 250, 6 March 1944 (London: Jane’s, 1981; reprint, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), while a good primary source for the latter phenomenon is Johannes Steinhoff’s Messerschmitts Over Sicily (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004).
 Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It (New York: Dell Books, 1997) and Roger A. Freeman, The Mighty Eighth: Units, Men, and Machines (A History of the US 8th Army Air Force) (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970).
 Martin Caidin, Flying Forts: The B-17 in World War II (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969), Roger A. Freeman, B-17 Fortress At War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), and Edward Jablonski, Flying Fortress (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965).
Having covered the Western Campaign, the Battle of Britain, and the first phase of RAF Bomber Command‘s assault on the Third Reich, it’s time to start the United States’ portion of the Strategic Bombing Campaign. Again, in the interest of brevity, I’m going to do a little background then make liberal use of the fast forward button so we can actually discuss punches getting thrown.
In World War II, just as in World War I, the United States had a little bit to get the lay of the land before joining hostilities. Unlike Great Britain, the United States did not have an independent air force in the years leading up to World War II. Indeed, the United States’ main air prophet, Billy Mitchell, got so uppity about airpower the Army court-martialed him. Still, even without someone going full Trenchard, the United States Army Air Corps was able to hoodwink Congress into buying the B-17 and B-24 ostensibly to attack ships at sea from high altitude. Neither bomber performed this task very well throughout World War II, but at least having the designs on hand meant strategic bombing was on the table.
Note I said possible, not prudent. A prudent person looking at the Battle of Britain and ongoing events over Western Europe might have said, “Mmm, maybe we should figure out this fighter escort thing.” But remember, this is the same Army organization that didn’t listen to Claire Chennault about the Zero (we’ll get to that for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about) and also didn’t relieve the guy who got his bombers all caught on the ground nine hours after Pearl Harbor. In short, if you had to list antonyms for dynamic, forward thinking organization that reacted quickly to military realities, the US Army Air Force circa January 1943 probably cracks the World War II Top Ten. (Number one is the Imperial Japanese Navy’s General Staff, for those wondering.) The USAAF was convinced that the reason the British and Axis had been smacking each others’ bombers around was that no one in Europe knew how to properly mount defensive armament or organize a bombing campaign. Good ol’ American ingenuity, as well as an eye wateringly massive industrial bases was expected to put the Old World right pretty quickly.
This fantasy was reinforced by the initial raids into Europe. By the time the Casablanca Conference rolled around, the Americans were truly ready to test their luck. Slight problem: Most of the RAF thought their plan was crazy. As in, I imagine the conversation between 8th Air Force Commander Ira Eaker and the British generals going something like this:
“So old boy, when shall we begin night training for your chaps?”
“Your heavy bombers? I mean, once this North Africa sideshow is over, certainly you’ll have dozens if not scores of bombers available to join ol’ Butch’s boys at night?”
“Um, did you read the doctrine I sent you? We’re going in daylight.”
*polite chuckle followed by look of sheer horror British Air Staff realizes Eaker’s serious*
Most of the RAF and Royal Navy, being unable to wrest bombers away from Sir Arthur Harris, thought the American Flying Fortresses and Liberators would make awesome anti-submarine aircraft. Or, failing that, the Americans would make great additions to tactical/operational raids into France. Harris, of course, figured the B-17s would make great additions to the night bombing campaign once they lost their armor and excessive machine guns. In any case, everyone but the USAAF thought going to bomb Germany in daylight sounded truly idiotic.
So great was British apprehension that Winston Churchill left for the Casablanca Conference planning to get Franklin Roosevelt to overrule his crazy generals. Unfortunately, Ira Eaker preached like a zealot and sold like a snake oil salesman. American bombers had the Norden bombsight. They were also hardier than their RAF counterparts and more heavily armed. Finally, appealing to Churchill’s sense of vengeance, Eaker dropped the money quote:
“If the RAF continues night bombing and we bomb by day, we shall bomb them round the clock and the devil shall get no rest.”
Churchill, always happy to inflict pain on Nazi Germany, thought that sounded splendid. Franklin Roosevelt did as well. Between them, they ensured the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued the necessary orders to make strategic bombing a priority task.
Was the USAAF that crazy, or just overly optimistic? Well, at the time, the Norden was a marvel of technology when first fielded. Put into production in the 1930s, it allegedly gave American heavy bombers an accuracy far superior to the Axis or Allied contemporary sights. Although apocryphal tales of it allowing bombardiers to drop their loads “into a pickle barrel” during testing were widely circulated, in actuality circular errors of probability (CEPs) of 500 feet were not uncommon during testing. Given the average size of 1940s manufacturing plants, American air zealots were certain that enough B-17s would start blowing German industry back to Renaissance.
Defensively, the bomber barons expected “Ma Deuce” to see them through. For those who are unfamiliar with American military slang, “Ma Deuce” is the nickname for, quite simply, possibly the best American machine gun ever fielded. I present the Browning M-2 .50 caliber machine gun:
I could go on for days about the M2. It’s been killing the Republic’s enemies since right after World War I, and it has made no distinction between Nazis, Kamikazes, Chinese Communists, Vietcong, terrorists…wait, sorry, got lost in the moment there. The reason for it longevity is that the M2 is not necessarily the best in any particular category, but is the epitome of “good enough to see you through.” For aerial warfare purposes, this weapon was basically the standard machine gun used by US forces throughout World War 2. Fighters mounted them in groups of 4, 6, or 8…but the B-17 / B-24 carried 10-16 (yes, 16!) depending on the model.
Thus, it wasn’t the excellence of the individual machine guns and expected accuracy of the young kids wielding them that gave the USAAF confidence. No it was the fact that when you start talking about an entire squadron full of machine guns, things get interesting. First, allow me to present 2 diagrams of what a B-17’s firing sectors looked like:
Now, mind you, this is after chin turrets were added, but you get the idea that attacking a single B-17 was like deciding to play “.50-caliber lotto.” I mean, a few months after Casablanca, a solo B-17 fought off hordes of (albeit lighter) Japanese fighters while inflicting massive casualties. So, given the experiences over France and the war to date, it was not utterly insane to think the B-17 was a tough out.
As if each B-17 was not bad enough, then Colonel Curtis Lemay helped refine a formation that made them even deadlier: the combat box.
Imagine, if you will, it’s January 1943, and you’re a German ace. You’re a bad mofo with over 100 kills to your credit. Spitfires have blazed under your guns. You’ve dusted Lightnings in North Africa. The Russians speak your names in hushed whispers while hoping their bladders don’t betray them. You’re familiar with American twin-engine bombers because, hey, Lend Lease (“Neutral my schnitzel!”). So you get scrambled to go attack some bogeys heading to northern Germany and you see that rolling ball of pain coming at you. What do you do?
Well, initially you open fire at too far a range because the B-17’s size makes it look closer than it is, get the living shit shot out of you and your wingman, and generally come back to base needing a change of underwear. From any one direction, you’re looking at ~40 machine guns wielded by angry American draftees. A large percentage of these men are used to hunting birds for literal survival, and 100% of them are pissed off they’re over Germany. Collectively they’re not super accurate, and fire discipline sometimes gets out of hand, but quantity of fire has a quality all of its own. By about the tenth penetration of German airspace, Adolf Galland is apoplectic in telling the boys at R&D they better figure something out.
Germans being Germans–they figured something out. The first steps were simple things like “Hey, maybe we should put more armor on our interceptors? It’s not like we gotta worry about escort fighters, so who cares if they’re clumsier?!” The second was to increase the number of cannons carried by both the 109 and the 190. While the closure rate was such that there wasn’t a huge range advantage of cannons over M2s (and most folks couldn’t hit at long range anyway) and the gun pods made the fighters clumsy as hell, the more damage done in a pass the better. Finally, the Luftwaffe resorted to improvised rockets. As in, “Hey, Wehrmacht buddies! We know you’re neck deep in Russians right now, but could we borrow some of your ordnance so your uncle doesn’t get whacked at the factory? Thanks! We promise we’re making our own rockets!”
As the saying goes, by July-1943 “shit got real” on both sides. For the Germans, both experienced and neophyte pilots alike were getting attrited by Farmboy Neds rolling a “100” on their to hit roll. Escort P-47s, despite their limited range, were still managing to take their own toll. Worse, even when they weren’t killing pilots, American bomber formations were causing so much damage to fighters that the Jagdwaffe‘s operational readiness rate was drifting into the 50-60% range. When squadrons were starting a week with 16 available birds then ending it with only 5 despite receiving 7 replacements, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize something had to give.
Oh, and by the, remember how we talked about the British? Yeah, Sir Arthur Harris’ boys were more than keeping up their end of the “bomb them around the clock.” In addition to their usual mayhem, they burned a huge hunk of Hamburg to the ground in July 1943. This was a rather significant emotional event for the Germans, it being the first manmade firestorm and all.
This incident gave the entire Nazi leadership the vapors for about two weeks. Given the American bombers just tooling around in daylight and the British playing “Come On Baby Light My Fire” in the key of Lancaster, Galland was forced to strip fighters from the Eastern and Mediterranean fronts. To say this was the last thing the German ground forces needed would be an understatement, but Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, et. al. gave him no choice. Having come to to power spouting the (erroneous) “stab in the back“-theory, the Nazis wanted to give the German civilian populace no reason to give up. (“Um, you are aware there’s this Soviet bird of prey called the Sturmovik, right?”–German Panzer crewmen from August 1943 on.)
Sounds grim, doesn’t it? Well, the only people having it worse than the German Jagdflieger were American bomber crews. The German fighters were causing damage and getting kills. Complementing these slashing attacks, German flak was doing things like this:
Except, in most cases, the crews were not making it back to take commemorative pictures. All too often, the last time someone would see a flak damaged B-17 was in its death spiral, with friends and comrades trying to see how many, if any, chutes got out.
The German defenses were so strong that by August 1943 it was statistically impossible for an Eighth Air Force bomber crew to survive their 26 mission tour. As in, “The reason everyone remembers the Memphis Belle is the logic on why lotteries announce their jackpot winners: the powers that be want to maintain false hope.” From the American perspective, it seemed that the Germans improved their ordnance, their flak, and their skill at head on passes every mission. Each B-17 and B-24 that fell took 10-12 men with it. That started to add up in the KIA/POW/MIA columns in an alarming rate, affecting morale. Exacerbating this, like their German counterparts in the Battle of Britain, damaged bombers also brought back wounded crew members with them. Scenes akin to these these started becoming all too common across eastern England:
Two battles pretty much put the exclamation mark on the “Hey stupid, stop that!”-phase of the USAAF’s offensive: Schweinfurt-Regensburg and the Army’s return trip to the Schweinfurt ball bearing plants. Long story short, the USAAF’s targeting folks decided that ball bearings were the critical material for the Nazi war machine, and Schweinfurt was believed to be the “one shot, one kill” node of air power fantasies. So, the first time, the USAAF tried to be cute and launch a double penetration to split the German defenses on August 17, 1943–the one year anniversary of their first raid with B-17s against occupied France. The double mission went…poorly. Over 60 bombers were lost, and the 8th Air Force took almost a month to fully recover. Even worse, while the aircraft factory at Regensburg was devastated, the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt were hardly touched.
For those of you who have seen Rocky IV, this point in the air campaign is analagous to where Apollo Creed’s manager was screaming “Throw the towel! Throw the damn towel!” The purpose of strategic bombing, the logic went, was to avoid bloodletting in large doses, not reenact the Battle of the Somme in the sky. Speaking of the British, the RAF was watching all this in sheer terror openly stating “We told you bloody colonials what would happen but noooooo.” Seriously, go read Harris’ and several other senior British leaders memoirs. Claire Chennault and other fighter generals, having tried for years to get the USAAF to focus on long-range fighter development, soundly cursed Hap Arnold’s mule-headed behavior and Ira Eaker’s poor choice of escort tactics. George C. Marshall wondered if the Allies would actually gain air superiority in order to allow a cross-Channel invasion.
So, in the face of all this, Ira Eaker doubled down on stupid. There are accounts of men actually screaming profanities at their leaders when the briefing map was unveiled on 14 October 1943. Like Union soldiers pinning their names and hometowns on their back at the Battle of Petersburg, men wrote last letters home, boxed up their stuff, and undertook all manner of tasks that would make their friends’ lives easier when they did not return. Everyone knew that the German defenses had only gotten stronger in the intervening two months since the last trip, with the attack almost certainly suicide. As the escorting fighters turned away at the limits of their range, the pilots could see a veritable horde of German fighters lurking in the distance just waiting for the B-17s to come closer.
As military debacles go, Black Thursday was just short of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Two hundred-ninety-one B-17s were launched. Of these, roughly 10-15 aborted due to malfunctions, leaving 281. The German fighter attacks were so intense that numerous B-17s ran out of ammo before even reaching Schweinfurt. The German flak concentration at Schweinfurt was considered the most dangerous to that date in the war. Indeed, the concentration was so dense that veterans of future raids to Berlin would still swear Black Thursday was the heaviest anti-aircraft fire they ever saw. Forced to fly straight and level from their initial point to bomb release (as they did in all missions), the B-17s were sitting ducks. Turning for home, they found themselves confronted with the same German fighters they had faced that morning after the latter had refueled and rearmed.
By the end of the day, the butcher’s bill was astounding. Sixty bombers were destroyed outright. Depending on the source, roughly 20 more were written off. Another 100 were damaged. These losses were not distributed evenly, and entire bomb groups basically ceased to exist. Personnel wise, casualties were horrific. Due to the extreme range of the mission, almost every critically injured bomber crewman died of wounds before reaching England. Almost 600 men were KIA, POWs, or MIA.
Starkly, by nightfall on 14 October, the Eighth Air Force had been rendered combat ineffective. Even worse, it had been for little appreciable gain. Having been sufficiently frightened by the first raid, the German war industry had built up reserve stocks of ball bearings, plus acquired more from neutral countries like Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Portugal. In the end, German production in general and of ball bearings in particular did not even slow despite many of the works being severely damaged.
The USAAF tried to put a happy face on things, but no one above Ira Eaker was amused. Given the scale of the disaster, something had to give. General Eaker was “fired laterally,” being sent to the Mediterranean Theater to take over a then nonexistent Fifteenth Air Force. Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, leader of the famous Tokyo Raid, was promoted into Eaker’s place. Severely chastened, the Eighth Air Force began to examine how they could resume the offensive once 1944 came. Help, ironically due to a British request for a new fighter aircraft, was on the way:
Note: Usually I do a reading list at the end of each of these. Seeing as how I have an entire Strategic Bombing bibliography somewhere on my computer, this will likely get printed as an entirely separate blog entry.
So, remember way back when I said I was going to do fighter history and bombing history separate? Yeah, I refreshed my memory on bombing during World War I.
*insert yawn here*
I mean, it happened. There were even a few times it was effective in the “we made a big mess” kind of way. But compared to fighter combat, there’s not a whole lot of there, there. So, I’m making a command decision and we’re just going to go with general air warfare from here on out.
I have no idea how many parts this is going to be. Remember the Battle of Britain? Remember us hitting the 2,000 word limit so quick I didn’t even get to talk about Czechs, Poles, and other foreign pilots?
We’re going to try to skip that this time around. Well, that’s probably going to happen again…so some things are going to get short shrift, as things don’t get really exciting until 1943.
“But wait a second! You were just talking about the Battle of Britain, now suddenly we’re in 1943? What the Hell happened in between?”
Look, I’m not saying there wasn’t important fighting. I’m just saying that most of November 1940 through, oh, January 1943 in Western Europe consisted of RAF Fighter Command creating squadron and wing commander openings via ill-considered fighter sweeps. Followed shortly by the United States, after Pearl Harbor, deciding they wanted to jump on that bandwagon with largely symbolic raids through most of 1942. We’ll get to most of that fun in the next installment.
The sum effect of this on the war? Well, it created a lot of German aces…but not nearly as many as the Luftwaffe’s attack into Russia (Eastern Front is coming later in this series). It also provided convincing evidence that maaaaaaybe the Spitfire was not all that good of an escort fighter. Oh, and that home field advantage was a real thing when you added radar (also known as, “Were you bloody idiots paying attention to what you did to the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain?!!”). Finally, it drove home that there’s not a whole lot you can bomb in France when you’re fighting Germany.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. That little problem about German factories being in, surprisingly, Germany had the Brits good and vexed as 1940 became 1941. First off, nothing like someone wailing on your country for several months during the day then continuing to do so at night to get the Vengeance Band warming up and looking for a lead singer. Indeed, some guy named Arthur Harris, while watching London burn one night in 1941 from the roof of the Air Ministry one night, started quoting scripture about “sowing wind” and “reaping whirlwinds.” Normally a bloke from Rhodesia muttering things from the Bible isn’t remarked upon by history. (Spoiler alert: This guy becomes important to our story in about 500 words.) In any case, Harris wasn’t alone, and as a matter of fact the RAF felt they had just the thing to get retribution: Bomber Command.
Now, some of you may be saying, in your best rendition of “The Bride’s”-voice: “And what, pray tell, is Bomber Command?” Well, you can read the Wiki here, or go with the short hand explanation of Bomber Command as the manifestation of 1930s aerial warfare theory put into practical use. In the 1930s, air planners assumed several things:
- The primary mission of a country’s air force was to drive home bomber attacks rather than support tactical ground operations.
- Bomber attacks were intended to destroy the enemy’s means of war production. In other words, rather than killing an enemy’s tanks, artillery, ships, etc., by the bushel in direct combat, a prudent nation would kill them by the gross (and incidentally a whole bunch of civilians, but “Shhhhh!”) in the factory.
- No escort fighter would ever be able to compete with a country’s interceptors due to the long ranges involved for the attacking air force.
- However, due to contemporary aeronautical engineering, multi-engined aircraft would always be faster, fly higher, and be more heavily armed than possible with single-engined interceptors.
The British, having formed the first independent air force, proceeded to double down by forming the first independent command designed to attack based on these theories. They then expended a great amount of research developing long-ranged, heavy bombers to equip it. Unfortunately, as you may recall, I’ve spent two blog posts detailing how the war had not gone according to Douhet up to this point for either side. The folks making the decision to bomb Germany lived through it in real time, and had practical experience from 1939-1941.
Despite this, the British still seriously tried to knock Germany out of the war via strategic bombardment once the Battle of Britain was truly over.
Operations started going poorly right from the beginning. Funny thing about bombing a strange, blacked out country at night while under threat of immediate violent death: It tends to make you miss. As in, the average British bomber crew was missing entire cities by over five miles. Nor were they doing so maliciously–I mean, Cologne probably looks like Wiesbaden when you’ve got anti-aircraft artillery fire bursting around you and some crazy guy in a night fighters is looking to impress the local Fraulein by turning your bomber into a blazing comet.
It did not help that the Germans, like the RAF, quickly started figuring out things like interceptor control and ways to mount radar on twin-engined fighters. Remember the Bf-110 squadrons and how they were sitting ducks during daylight? Well, turned out it just needed someone to turn out the lights to really shine, as the large airframe and heavy armament made it an excellent night fighter. Things started getting kind of bloody over Germany. Even worse, folks like the British Army and Coastal Command started pointing out that it was kind of wasteful digging German irrigation ditches with 500-lb. bombs when there were plenty of other things those aircraft could be doing.
Just as it seemed like Bomber Command was going to get sharply reduced, two things happened. First, in typical government agency fashion, Bomber Command decided to “rebrand” itself. Its leaders accepted that it was not going to win the war by attempting to encourage the union of a British ordnance with German machine tools in the middle of the night. No, in typical gentlemanly fashion the RAF was going to merely “dehouse” Germany’s population in a humane fashion using rather potent high explosives followed by incendiaries.
*We’ll pause while those unfamiliar with this story wait for me to explain how one blows up civilian houses without blowing up civilians only to realize that I’d just type Coventry about 10,000 times. In other words, this was all sophistry, the British sooooooo did not have any f*cks left to give*
The second thing that made this all work was that the Air Ministry put a fellow in charge of Bomber Command that they knew could get the job done. Someone who would not blanche in the face of heavy losses, would merrily bomb Germany from Konigsberg to Cologne, and yet could subvert his inner Visigoth long enough to seem semi-sane on the newsreels or sit in the pew next to Allied senior officials. A God-fearing man, the chosen flag officer also had an amazing ability to quote all the good Hellfire and Damnation parts of the Old Testament at will. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Sir Arthur “Bomber” / “Butch” Harris, the man
who replaced Peter Gabriel as singer of the Vengeance Band who took over RAF Bomber Command in February 1942:
“Wait a second, JY. This guy looks like someone’s genial grandfather. You’re making him sound like some crazed lunatic.”
You’re right, he does look like someone’s elder relative who always has the sweets, doesn’t he? But I assure you, behind that kind-looking exterior was a man who felt about Nazi Germany’s population about the way Mad Max felt about the man who murdered his family:
I mean, technically Max didn’t set the guy on fire himself, right? He was just “decarring” him.
When Harris took over, his command was equipped mainly with obsolescent twin-engine aircraft that did not carry much of a workable bomb load any appreciable distance. His crews could not navigate, tended to crash a lot, and they had few feasible electronic aids to help them see through the darkness. In short, your average bomber crew was just as dangerous to themselves as they were to the Germans. As in, “rednecks with a fridge full of tannerite” dangerous to themselves.
Three months later, Bomber Command was doing things like launching 1,000-aircraft raids. A couple months after that, it had replaced its obsolescent bombers with Handley Halifaxes, Short Stirlings and, the best of them all, Avro Lancasters. in large numbers. In order to better find targets, the RAF not only developed better radio aids, but also fielded a Pathfinder force to better mark the targets. Finally, in equipping their aircraft with ground mapping radar, Bomber Command proved serious about making sure the right Germans got bombed on any given night.
From the German perspective, the proverbial fecal matter was making sweet, sweet love to der lüfter as 1942 came to a close. While the Jagdflieger were more than holding their own in daylight, all of the above meant things were getting a little out of hand at night. Already tapped out fighting against the Soviets, dealing with the invasion of North Africa, and with the Battle of the Atlantic swinging like a pendulum, the last thing the Germans needed was to be dealing with a resurgent Bomber Command.
With this in mind, the Luftwaffe began to take things seriously after Operation Millenium and began shifting more resources to the Nachtjagdgeschwader. In addition to upgraded Bf-110s, the Germans fielded the Ju-88C, which was basically an excellent day bomber with a nose full of cannons. Realizing that the RAF had decided bombloads were more important than belly turrets, they also developed “Schräge Musik” weapons kits that allowed a Bf-110 or Ju-88 to fire upwards.
Schräge Musik, which loosely translated to “slanted music” in English, was the German slang for jazz. However, as many a Lancaster crew could tell you, there was nothing smooth or mellow about two cannon dropping high explosive and armor piercing rounds upwards into a fully loaded bomb bay or unsealed fuel tanks:
Still, despite all these innovations and the ability to occasionally inflict severe losses on Bomber Command raids, at best 1942 ended with the Reich Defense Forces and Bomber Command at a draw. Which, given all the other crazy stuff that was going on for the Reich around that time, probably made Adolf Galland, now General of Fighters, breathe a sigh of relief. Indeed, in my minds eye, I see him laying next to some beautiful actress, smoking a post-“sortie” cigar, and thinking:
Ja, things are bad. I mean, my brothers keep getting whacked, the Russians are starting to figure out how to fly and shoot at the same time, and it’d be nice if the Fuhrer would stop declaring war on industrial nation after industrial nation.
*slow puff of cigar and pat of shapely behind off screen*
But hey, it’s not like anyone else is coming to the fight, right? I mean, what kind of idiot would attempt to bomb heavily defended German targets after how bad we kicked the RAF’s ass in 1939?
*completely apocryphal, utterly non-historical camera cut to General Ira C. Eaker, commander of the United States Eighth Air Force, turning his head as if Adolf’s thoughts are projected into his mind*
“Hey Butch, hold a brother’s pint for a second.”
*theatrical rolling up of sleeves*
“I think some Nazi just inquired about the Uncle Sam Special…”
Tune In Next Time For “Around the Clock,” a.k.a., Can’t tell Sam’s boys a damn thing.”
When last we left this journey through aerial mayhem, France had just been knocked out of the war, the British Army was busy thanking every boat owner in Southern England while wringing out their clothes, and the Luftwaffe had just learned how to say “Acthung! Spitfire!” In the (wholly apocryphal) words of Hermann Goering, “Don’t worry, this will be quick.”
*pause* Yeah, just like Hermann was a little premature in his boasting, I’m going to tell you up front I have no idea how long this one’s going to be. The Battle of Britain has probably been responsible for literally millions of gallons of ink being spilled. With so many authors out there choosing the final three books is going to be a bit, um, interesting. On one hand, you have the view that the Battle of Britain was the decisive battle of World War II. In the middle there’s the theory that the Germans could have pulled it off, but it would have required the luck equivalent of a strong run at the craps table. As in, hitting so many die rolls that the casino’s staff tells the gambler in question “Don’t come back here if you like your internal organs…”. Finally, there’s the school of thought that the Germans were never serious about Sea Lion, the British knew this, and it was all a propaganda stunt.
As for your humble host, I fully believe the German High Command was capable of saying, “Hey, here’s a great idea! Let’s take our tactical / operational air arm and try to set the conditions for an amphibious debacle that will make Gallipoli seem like a Sunday tram ride!” These are the folks who brought you Operation Barbarossa, so high stakes gambles were sort of baked into the cake. Similarly, given that France threw in the towel with most of its army still in the field and the Germans far from possessing overwhelming force, Great Britain was certainly capable of getting a case of the yips in mid-1940. Ergo, without further ado, let me tell you how Air Marshal Hugh Dowding was responsible for saving Western Civilization.
*angry murmur from other historians* What’s that? You think I’m disrespecting ol’ Winston “Foggy” Churchill, Wielder of the Tommy Gun and Chewer of the Cigar? Mmm, maybe. I mean, don’t get me wrong–Winston Churchill is certainly the reason that Great Britain didn’t say, “Oh eff this noise, we’re done…” in May 1940. Indeed, despite Churchill beating out Lord Halifax for the post of Prime Minister, half of his cabinet wanted to cut a deal in the interest of preserving the Empire…
*glare at internal editor*
…the British Empire. To which Churchill gave a long, blunt reply that basically broke down to:
“They are fucking Nazis. Negotiating with Nazis is like negotiating with a hungry lion. Have you bloody idiots not been paying attention for the last two years?”
Winston then followed this up with telling Parliament something about “fight them on the beaches, blah, blah, blah.” Subsequent to that speech, he regularly advised the womenfolk in his social circle that maybe they should resign themselves to taking out one last Nazi while ol’ Hans was ‘in the saddle.’ (I’m not kidding about that part. Seriously.) Finally, to demonstrate England’s resolve to the rest of the world, Winston proceeded to have the Royal Navy blast the living crap out of whatever French fleet units that did not immediately
surrender, erm, I mean go into “internment.”
All this makes great history and does show a head of state that is, in the vernacular, not messing around. Buuuuuuttt, it ignores the fact that Churchill had not been Prime Minister from 1938-1940, was not particularly air minded and, despite his meddling nature, was not secure enough in his position to start meddling around with aerial defense of Great Britain. That job resided with one man: Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command.
Hugh Dowding was not a dashing fellow. Indeed, he is generally described as giving off the air of a particularly boring school principal who did not necessarily mix with those under his command. If there is a spectrum of leadership styles for aerial generals, Dowding is likely on the opposite side from Curtis Lemay. This is part of the reason he gets one or two sentences in most general histories, with the other being that he was cursed with back stabbers for subordinates (more on that later).
However, one of the things Dowding was good at was organization. Another was remaining calm. Both of these were necessary in May 1940 as everyone in London was running around going “Holy shit, holy shit…the Germans are right across the bloody Channel. Holy shit!” like they’d just witnessed a horrible car crash. In the final years of peace, Dowding had already begun putting together what would later be called an integrated air defense system (IADS). This defensive network relied on radar to provide early warning (Chain Home), guns to keep the the Lufwaffe from coming over at too low of an altitude, interceptors to deal with the German aircraft and, most importantly, a series of control command posts to make sure said Spitfires, Hurricanes and *gulp* “other fighters” were in the right place at the right time. In large part, Dowding was calmer because, unlike France and Poland, geography meant that he didn’t have to worry about panzers on his runways.
The British defense system looked like this:
Now, if you’re looking at that map and thinking, “Whoa, the guys in 11 Group sure look like they’ve drawn the short straw…”, you would be absolutely correct. After a last, “Okay, are we really doing this?” check from Adolph Hitler, the pilots in southern Kent got to find out how annoying it is to get the notice to scramble…then end up with Bf-109s in your takeoff queue.
That being said, the Germans found out a few things very quickly. One, while the RAF would still have village idiot squadron commanders flying in vics throughout the battle, self-preservation and attrition helped weed many of these men out. Ergo, it started becoming harder and harder to find quacking fighters with roundels. That’s not to say squadrons rotated in from No. 12 and 13 group didn’t occasionally get smacked around due to inexperience, but as June became July, the RAF started figuring out what in the Hell it was doing.
Helping this process was the innate advantage of fighting over home turn. Although the British air/sea rescue process over the Channel was criminally negligent, things were far better inland. If a Fighter Command pilot ‘took to the silk’ in the morning and was not injured, it was not unheard of for him to be sitting in another Hurricane or Spitfire within forty-eight hours.
This fact underscores another point–the Luftwaffe, for the first time, found itself in an even fight. There are various ways of counting airframes at the beginning of the Battle of Britain, and most sources will choose a method that suits the historian’s overarching thesis. (We’re sneaky like that.) However, only recently have folks started taking into account things like German pilot fatigue, high engine hours, and the operational wear and tear of operating very far forward from their depots into account. As June turned to July, the Jagdwaffe was sucking wind like a welterweight that had been throwing nothing but haymakers for ten rounds.
This analogy is particularly apt when one looks back at the map above. Notice that blue line that indicates the 109s’ maximum range? Yeaaaaahhh, that’s kind of important. Like most bomber disciples, Hermann Goering and his chief of aircraft development, Ernst Udet, had not invested in the development of a long-range, single-engine fighter. (In this they were not alone–you’ll get to hear how the Americans dropped this ball in a later post.) This made sense, as the Luftwaffe was a tactical / operational air arm. Long story short, this meant most of the German fighter pilots had to keep one eye on the fuel gauge as they started mixing it up with Hurricanes and Spitfires. Once the red light started glowing, it was time to head for home…or figure out how long one could tread water.
“Wait a second, James. In the last blog post you told us there were two German fighters. What about the Bf-110?!” Well, funny thing about radar–it tells people you’re coming. At that point, things like slashing attacks from upsun become problematic, and people end up having to actually dogfight. The 110, which had seemed quite capable on the continent, quickly found itself the equivalent of a station wagon in an Indy race. Although it still occasionally managed to surprise an unwary RAF fighter or two, by June it became apparent the 110 could not even look after itself, much less escort German bombers.
Speaking of escorting, also hindering the Jagdwaffe were tactical decisions forced upon them by higher headquarters. As the German Kampfgruppen began getting repeatedly mauled, they began to complain to higher headquarters that the Jagdwaffe were off hunting kills rather than actually, you know, escorting. This would be a common bomber refrain throughout the war for all sides. The Luftwaffe head shed, horrified at their losses, were the first to make the critical error of tying their fighter pilots to within visual range of the bombers as opposed to giving them free rein. This was a major error, as it meant that the 109s could no longer “free hunt,” but were forced to fly fuel drinking weaving patterns above their slower bomber brethren. I’ll let Adolf Galland sum up the problem:
“[The fighter pilots’] element is to attack, to track, to hunt, and to destroy the enemy. Only in this way can the eager and skillful fighter pilot display his ability. Tie him to a narrow and confined task, rob him of his initiative, and you take away from him the best and most valuable qualities he posses: aggressive spirit, joy of action, and the passion of the hunter.”
— General Adolf Galland, Luftwaffe.
The change in tactics allowed the RAF the respite of largely taking off and forming up in peace rather than having to worry about “fights on” from the moment their wheels left the grass. Moreover, it often allowed the Spitfires and Hurricanes to gain advantageous positions and seize the initiative. It was a rude awakening for the Jagdwaffe, and a harbinger of things to come for them later in the war.
As opposed to Goering, Dowding managed his end of the Battle of Britain like a maestro. Ever cognizant of the fact that he just had to keep the issue in doubt until September 30th at the latest, Dowding conducted an aerial economy of force operation. Despite Churchill’s pressures, Dowding refused to overly commit to protecting Channel convoys when the same resources could be moved by rail. Squadrons were committed as they became available, with the initial combatants wearing down the 109s so that later entries had free runs at bomber formations. Despite the temptation to meddle in squadron tactics, Dowding let leaders figure their own methods.
As time went on, the respite from German bounces as the RAF climbed to altitude, the winning of the production war, and the German decision to switch to targeting cities all contributed to Dowding’s victory. After getting through the critical period of mid-July to early August when Fighter Command was losing pilots quicker than they could replace them, by August 31st Dowding had actually started getting enough pilots to flesh out the squadrons he’d rotated north due to their losses. When Hermann Goering got the bright idea to go after London in order to force Fighter Command into a final series of battles, the new numbers ensured that didn’t go well. To follow our earlier analogy, the hard swinging welterweight found out that their opponent not only had one hell of a corner man, but had somehow put on 20 pounds in between bells.
By September 30th, it was clear to everyone involved that the Luftwaffe would not be obtaining air superiority in 1940, if ever. Hitler, not having really wanted to force England to the negotiating table through invasion, began to look east. The Luftwaffe would continue to send fighter-bombers by day and their medium bombers by night for several months, but quickly became consumed in preparations for Operation Barbarossa. A couple of day fighter Gruppen remained in the West, but by March 1941 the majority of the Jagdwaffe were gathering in eastern Germany and Poland for a date with the Red Air Force.
Great Britain, bloodied and battered, had a brief moment where the cabinet once more suggested that the nation seek the best deal possible. Churchill, as was his wont, quickly squashed this idea. Possibly with physical violence.
(Note: I have no proof that anyone got DDT’d in that cabinet meeting…but I have visions of Winston Churchill coming across the table a couple of times. “Winston!” “I didn’t hit him in the face and he’s already had all the damn children he should! Amazed I was able to actually find them to kick given how much he’s been crying about surrendering…”)
Air Marshal Dowding, despite having overseen the first successful defense of Britain proper in centuries, was forced out against his will in favor of the former commander of No. 12 Group, Trafford Leigh-Mallory. Leigh-Mallory speciously claimed that Dowding had basically left kills on the table by not following his suggestions of forming RAF squadrons into “big wings” of multiple units prior to vectoring them against incoming German bombers. Of course, Leigh-Mallory conveniently failed to discuss just how his “big wings” would have formed in the face of free hunting Jagdwaffe 109s. Nor did Leigh-Mallory address the fact that said big wings, by virtue of being easier to spot, would likely have suffered mightily at the hands of even the bomber-bound German escorts.
In any case Churchill, unimpressed with Dowding’s lack of offensive spirit and demeanor, summarily sacked his head of Fighter Command in December 1940. Forced to retire…
*loud klaxon* Oh, hey, the Eschewing Easy Alarm is going off. Better wrap this up before I kill someone through rhetorical bludgeoning.
1.) For the first time, radar changed the course of a campaign. Without Chain Home, Spitfires and Hurricanes would have been forced to fly standing patrols and been unable to mass against German attacks. It wasn’t perfect, but after two decades of the aerial offense largely having its way, things appeared to have swung decisively towards the defense.
2.) The German Luftwaffe, for all its potency, demonstrated the perils of thinking all air power was the same. For various reasons, the Germans found themselves attempting to kick Great Britain’s door in with twin-engine bombers and tactical fighter aircraft. The 109 was arguably superior to both of the British front line fighters and had its way against just about everything else (e.g., the Defiant), but simply lacked the legs to gain air superiority over southern England. As the British would find out when they went on the offensive, gaining air supremacy required range.
3.) The devil is in the pilot and airframe replacement program. Whether one believes that Fighter Command was on the ropes or not (a topic of much recent debate), the fact remains that the Jagdwaffe could not regenerate fighters nearly as fast as the RAF could. Moreover, for the first (but certainly not the last) time, the Germans began to suffer decreasing effectiveness due to a lack of “bench.” Although several individuals (e.g., Galland and Moelders) ran up impressive kill tallies, many more Experten from the Polish and French campaigns were either killed or became prisoners of war. Concurrently, the Germans’ airframes also began to wear out due to a poorly organized depot system. Both of these issues were the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the Luftwaffe.
4.) Firepower improvement was relative. The RAF’s decision to go to the “8-gun monoplane” was both vindicated and disproven by the Battle of Britain. As the Hurricane and Spitfire‘s designers had expected, their battery of machine guns were quite destructive. Unfortunately, all too often the level of damage tapped out at the “We’re going to need a firehose to wash the gunners’ blood out of the aircraft” versus the “Mein Gott, they just sawed off our wing…”-level. As mentioned above, aircrew being wounded but alive to kvetch about poor fighter protection ultimately led to German errors…yet the RAF expedited cannon armaments after the Battle of Britain for a reason.
5.) Overclaiming influenced the course of the campaign. Despite strenuous rules being put in place, the Jagdwaffe‘s victory claims led to less than optimal operational decision making by Lufwaffe leadership. Many histories of the Battle of Britain discuss Goering constantly referring to Fighter Command’s “last few Spitfires.” This is not hyperbole–the Germans actually believed it. While no small part of this miscalculation was due to Lord Beaverbrook’s strenuous efforts, in the main it was because German pilots often mistook a fighter diving away on fire as one that actually crashed.
Three books for the masses:
The Most Dangerous Enemy by Stephen Bungay. This one is borderline between a book for the masses versus the monkhood. Bungay’s got an easy writing style, but it’s a really thick work.
Fighter by Len Deighton
One book for the monkhood:
Luftwaffe Fighter Aces by Michael Spick. Another “But wait, this one talks about the whole war…”-tome that I’m fitting in now rather than later.
“The Axis have won the toss and will kickoff.”—Aries, Head Referee, Great European Rematch, 1939-1945
Four things I’m going to assume with this blog post:
1.) You read the last blog post on aerial combat and liked it.
2.) Everyone involved possesses a general knowledge of World War II, is willing to go to the Wiki article on it or, is so highly motivated they think Antony Beevor‘s or Max Hastings’ single volume histories are a worthwhile afternoon killer. (Both are excellent. Harsh, but excellent.) So the apocryphal quote at the top of things hasn’t totally lost you.
3.) In this same vein World War II is, to quote a Prolific Trek catchphrase, “my jam.” So I might occasionally throw out references to people, places, and things without a hyperlink. Mea culpa in advance, but these blog posts (yeah, it’s going to be plural) will start looking like a Smurf infestation if I link every name I drop.
4.) Readers will realize that The Usurper’s War-series is fiction. Meaning that I played with some things there that may not have reflected the actual history. So when I start talking about “This didn’t happen until 1944…” and it’s something I made happen in 1943 in Acts of War or Collisions of the Damned…that’s why they call it alternate history.
Without further ado…
All That Passed Before
When last we left the aerial arena, people were flying around in biplanes blazing away at one another. The Allies had been preparing to unleash a massive aerial armada, the Germans were going to valiantly try to stop it, and the war was going to end in bloody street fighting burg by burg. Except…the Germans, their resolve weakened by the blockade and the realization that Americans apparently liked to make babies circa 1895-1900, tossed in the towel on 11 November 1918.
The war’s end had the perverse effect of flooding the market with aircraft. People who had no business driving, much less flying a plane, plunked down good money to go break their necks. Permissiveness was the rule of the day, and lots of people who had no business flying quickly found out Sir Isaac Newton holds veto power over all matters aeronautical. Despite the appalling death toll, however, this period meant aviation captured the imagination the world over, with everyone from daring barnstormers to famous aviatrices keeping the public’s collective eye skyward. Thus even in the midst of the Great Depression, people were still finding funds to press the proverbial envelope faster and higher. However, in no way was this progression universal nor necessarily embraced by military establishments.
Ergo, when Great European Rematch began in September 1939, combatants had both single seat, high speed monoplanes in their inventory…and poor bastards who were puttering around in the sky in biplanes. As in, if you flew fighters for the Royal Air Force or Fleet Air Arm, your war potentially started off with this beauty as you primary mount:
Meanwhile, the Germans, allegedly limited by the Versailles treaty, were licking their chops at the thought of facing Gloster Gladiators while tooling around in their brand new Bf-109s and Bf-110s. They say a picture is worth a 1000 words (coincidentally where we’re at right now), so I’ll just put the 109 and 110 up for comparison:
The Western Front 1940
Thankfully for many British pilots, the Germans went east (Poland) then north (Norway) before coming west. The Luftwaffe, having sent “volunteers” to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s, had learned some things. First, without having the ability to really have an air force thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, they largely skipped bomber barons stifling fighter development to the degree that Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Corps (later United States Army Air Force) did. Oh, don’t get me wrong–Herman Goering and Nazi hierarchy made Byzantine aircraft development into a way of life. Buuuuuuuttt, there was no Trenchard (RAF) or Arnold (USAAC / USAAF) actively sacrificing single engine fighter developmental programs that would have saved lives in favor of heavy bomber programs. (More on that in a later post…it’s not quite as much a jerk move as it sounds.)
This free fighter development and Spanish warm up match led to the Jagdflieger developing the four-aircraft flight (Schwarm) as the most flexible formation for combat. In this flight, you had two leaders (#1 and #3) and their wingmen (#2 and #4), with each leader / wingman combination known as a Rotte. Each leader could choose a target, with the wingman making sure no one showed up and disturbed the leader while he went about his killing. Given the high closing speeds brought about by the advances in air technology, the Germans discovered that this was the best blend between not having a bunch of yahoos throwing themselves around the sky and formations so rigid they were basically a squadron leader looking for stuff to kill and his eleven subordinates trying not to run into him.
*pause as the reader goes through that last paragraph again*
“What? No one would be so stupid as to fly around like tha…”
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Royal Air Force. When the Germans turned west in May 1940, the standard Royal Air Force tactics were to fly around in squadron formation. These squadron formations, in turn, were divided into ‘vics’ of three. In practice, this was supposed to mean that the squadron technically had four groups by which to attack opposing bombers. Upon seeing the enemy, RAF squadron leaders were expected to call out a target, then a numbered attack. At this point, the vics would then proceed to attack said target in a proscribed, organized manner in sequence. Imagine a great waltz, except the orchestra is playing the “Death by Machine Gun, Aerial Movement” from the Spandau Ballet school of composition.
To be fair, in September 1939 this was a reasonable supposition. Fighters, at least to the RAF, were not supposed to be a primary concern. No one in the RAF had been informed that they’d be fighting in continental Europe (see part about Versailles Treaties, War to End All Wars, Appeasement, etc.) in the 1930s. Ergo, the good folks in Fighter Command drew a radius from Germany, looked at their own monoplanes’ performance, and said, “Well there’s no way the bloody Germans are getting their fighters here. At least, not more than once.” Thus, it was easy to see how the war could have been started still flying these formations, even with various individuals writing report after report about operations in Spain.
Still, by May 1940 the Germans’ methods should not have been totally a surprise. There were Polish pilots who had fled across Europe and were providing first hand testimony about how the Jagdwaffe just might know what it was about. British pilots had danced with their German counterparts during the so-called Phony War as well as in Norway prior to the storm breaking over France in May 1940. So perhaps even a circular or a “Hey chaps, the Germans tend to come in groups of four, with two of those four having every intent of collecting scalps. Might be time to throw out these stilted attack plans and get your heads on a swivel…” would have saved lives.
Instead, the RAF and their French counterparts got an aerial skull dragging. As in, most fights went pretty much like this clip from the miniseries “A Piece of Cake”:
Except, rather than Spitfires, the RAF was flying the slower Hurricane. Having been slow to make changes in the eight months of relative peace, a few weeks of penning “We’re sorry your son got blasted to kingdom come because his eyes were on his leader…” letters made some folks change their methods. They decided it was a good idea to put a “rover” up behind the squadron vic’s, with this position intended to give the rest of the squadron some warning that they were being stalked by approaching German fighters.
*momentary pause and cut to Jagdflieger laughing uncontrollably while discussing how they blew the “rover” out of the sky, then proceeded on down to flame a couple more of remaining British fighters*
So dangerous did this position become, there were documented cases of squadron commanders having to write up officers for “lack of moral fiber” and insubordination. Which is a polite way of saying that pilots were starting to tell squadron commanders where to get off, they weren’t serving as the flaming canary in the proverbial coal mine. As many Hurricane pilots found out, having an unsealed fuel tank in front of the cockpit could end very, very poorly when 109s were about. Listen to your buddy scream the whole 10-15,000 feet down, suddenly “I will see to it that you are transferred to the infantry…” doesn’t seem so threatening.
From the German perspective, the Fall of France reinforced the Spanish Civil War’s lessons. The Schwarm had been validated as the base formation that allowed a squadron to put the maximum number of shooters forward. Almost as importantly, it allowed the maximum visual coverage of a given airspace, meaning that if everyone was doing their job it was very hard to surprise German fighters. The 109, even with its flaw such as poor landing characteristics, limited firepower, and short range, was proven to be more than capable to defeating anything it ran into. The 110, although not quite as effective as they had hoped, was also capable of conducting effective slashing attacks and escaping French and British fighters attempts to get it into a dogfight. Both fighters proved extremely capable bomber destroyers, with the British Fairey Battle and Blenheim along with everything in the French arsenal proving easy prey. As the German Army chased the British off the continent then proceeded to “march in the shade” when they got to Paris, the Jagdwaffe had achieved its primary mission of gaining then maintaining air superiority.
In some ways, the RAF got a blessing in disguise by just how quickly the Germans blitzkrieg rolled over the Allied ground forces. France fell so quickly and decisively that it took the Chamberlain government with it. Winston Churchill, being a much cold-blooded bastard than his predecessor, ignored French pleas to send the more advance Spitfire to try and retrieve the situation. As a result, the first time the Jagdflieger got a good look at the most advanced British fighter, it was over Dunkirk. Moreover, it was after Fighter Command had belatedly started telling squadron leaders “Hey, those numbered attacks? Maaaaayyyybeee not the best idea.” Being prewar officers rather than combat technicians, many of these leaders were loathe to change…but at least they’d been told. With the Luftwaffe now right across the Channel rather than well outside of fighter range, the crucible of combat would provide a lot more motivation for innovation.
What Changed, What Stayed the Same
1.) As noted in the last post, most kills were by surprise. Especially the poor bastards flying as rovers/weavers/sacrificial lambs. But even for the Germans, the cases where someone was not doing their job often led to a British Hurricane or French fighter getting their licks in and away before anyone knew what was coming.
2.) A big change was air combat’s speed. At the end of World War I, fighters topped out at 150 miles an hour. At the beginning of World War II, most fighters were either at or right around 300 miles per hour. Well, except for the Gladiators. *shudder* In any case, that dot on the windscreen turned into an angry fighter with its nose and wings twinkling much, much faster than it had in World War I. Conversely, this meant that combats took place over a much wider area. This could rapidly lead to what several pilots referred to as “empty sky syndrome,” i.e., a fight going from “Oh my God, we’re all gonna die in collisions…” to “Where the f__k did everyone go?” in a matter of seconds.
3.) Firepower relative to World War I made a massive increase. Not only did fighters now have to worry about bringing down heavily armored bombers, but the speed of combat meant a maneuvering target was only in the sights for a fleeting moment. More due to the first than the second, interwar designers had started hanging more and more machine guns on fighters (Britain) or switched to cannon / machine gun combinations (Germany). Whether it was the 8 x .303s (Spitfire / Hurricane) or 1 x 20mm / 2 x MGs (Germany) armament, World War II fighters opened the dance hitting way harder. Things would only get heavier as the war went on.
4.) Deflection shooting became a thing. This was not totally different than World War I. However, the amount of lead to blast someone crossing front to left at a relative velocity of 50-60 miles per hour is a whole different world than that of 300 mph. To quote German ace Hans-Joachim Marseille (who would later go on to fame in North Africa after the Battle of Britain)
“As long as I look into the muzzles, nothing can happen to me. Only if he pulls lead am I in danger.”
That’s right, if you were looking right into someone’s guns and your both in a turn, he couldn’t hit you. Or more correctly, if he was so close that he would be able to actually to hit without pulling the necessary lead, you needed to worry less about machine guns and more about the imminent collision. In some cases, pilots had to pull so much lead to account for the drop of their bullets that their target wasn’t even necessarily in sight beneath the nose of their aircraft. Although some services (e.g., the USN/USMC and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had practiced this task as a course du jour, none of the European powers had given it much thought. Why? Bombers don’t maneuver (RAF) and the Jagdflieger generally assumed one either had it or they didn’t. By and large, the gunnery syllabi for these two services wouldn’t change much throughout the war.
5.) Despite heavier armament, most kills still happened at short range. This was partially a factor of the “never saw what hit him” as well as the lack of deflection training. How short is short? In ground combat, the average machine gun was capable of shooting out to 1000 meters, with most shooting taking place at 4-500 meters depending on line of sight. In the initial stages of World War II, the British set the convergence point of their guns, i.e. the point where all 8 streams should meet, at 300 meters…and found that people were just flat out missing targets at that range. With a few exceptions, most Experten (German aces) and their RAF counterparts found that shooting over 200 meters didn’t accomplish much other than warning your prey. This fact did not change even when engaging with 20mm cannon versus the British .303 machine guns.
6.) The bomber, contrary to what interwar pundits had speculated, did not “always get through.” In fact, beginning with the British daylight attack on Wilhelmshaven and going all the way until the French capitulated, bombers often took a mauling on both sides. Given the Germans achieved air superiority fairly on, this lesson didn’t quite have time to sink…okay, who am I kidding? Despite irrefutable evidence that bombers were vulnerable, everyone kept thinking unescorted bombing attacks had a chance. This…well, let’s just say this is going to become important next post.
Overall, fighter combat was largely taking up where it had left off in World War I, just faster, more lethal, and with new formations. The Schwarm was as revolutionary to the profession as the the forward pass was to North American football and was a large part of the reason Britain found itself alone. However, as will be shown in my next post, there was something to be said for playing a home versus away game when it came to vying for air superiority. Geography, in the form of the English Channel, was about to flip the script for the Jagdwaffe.
Three books for the masses:
One book for the monkhood:
Fighter Tactics and Strategy, 1914-1970 by Edward H. Sims As can be seen by the dates, this encompasses much more than the last two blog posts. But given the overwhelming number of books to choose from, I figured I’d slip this one in at this point.
“The fighter pilots have to rove in the area alotted to them in any way they like, and when they spot an enemy they attack and shoot him down, anything else is rubbish.”–Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. “The Red Baron”
It’s hard to believe that aerial warfare has only been going on for a little over 100 years. That we’ve gone from folks getting around in glorified tractor engines with wings…
to multi-million dollar jet fighters:
To put this in perspective, from say 1715-1815, the basic mechanics of ground warfare did not change all that much. Some battle captain who got a little too frisky with a mage’s second wife and was teleported 100 years into the future from 1715-1815 would still be able to give a decent account of himself. Sure there’d be some moderate nuances about Napoleonic maneuver, but after about 5 days of intense study, he’s not going to make too much an idiot of himself at Waterloo. Put that guy flying the Vickers Gun Bus up top in the cockpit of the SAAB Gripen below at 10,000 feet? Well, you’re gonna get about 30 seconds of video to add to that YouTube of “Greatest Air Crashes.”
So why should people care about fighters? Well, because air superiority sort of makes the military world go round since ~1914. Although bomber combat did technically start a couple years earlier with the Italians chucking some bombs at folks in North Africa, the “big show” of aerial bloodletting got its start with The Great War. Don’t get me wrong–the shenanigans didn’t start off right way. There are myriad accounts of reconnaissance pilots from both sides during the Battle of the Marne waving at each other as they went about their trade. Many pilots likely felt that it was dangerous enough getting from Point A to Point B that it would not be prudent to add the degree of difficulty of, you know, kill each other. I imagine it was like seeing a rival cabbie at the gas station:
*joyful early 20th century chamber music*
“Oh! Guten Tag, Byron!”
“Bloody hell Wilhemn, haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks! How’s trade?”
“Oh you know, the usual—taking pictures so our artillery chaps can blow the living hell out of your infantry again!”
*music screeches to a stop*
That’s right, either someone didn’t have enough coffee some morning, a pilot’s sibling got blown to a bloody mess or, more likely, higher headquarters realized maaaaaaayyyybbbee they should encourage their reconnaissance chaps to go after the other side’s reconnaissance chaps in a most impolite way.
Initial attempts were pretty much improvised, as pilots and observers started shooting pistols, unloading shotguns, and even tossing bricks at one another. It was like a big gang fight in the sky until…well, until someone brought a machine gun to the party. This, in retrospect, likely took a bit longer than it should have, even given how heavy and unwieldy machine guns were at this point. Once that first step was taken, however, the race was on…except pilots quickly realized that propellers and machine guns didn’t mix and observers were unconscionably heavy. This meant most of your early fighters were two seater, open air types in which one bloke flew, and the other blazed.
The problem with the above set up was that two seat aircraft were far less maneuverable than single seat aircraft. Moreover, a well-handled single seater could get someplace far faster than a two seater. However, despite those advantages, there was the one major disadvantage with most single seaters–machine gun fire + own propeller = glider. This simple equation led to smart guys like Roland Garros (Allies) and Anthony Fokker (Central Powers) to apply thought on how to “interrupt” a firing machine gun so it didn’t blow the prop off. Depending on what account you read, the following events occurred between April-July 1915 in this general sequence:
- Garros came up with a semi-reliable system first
- Fokker came up with a less reliable system second
- Garros was uber motivated to get to the German killing, so he simply reinforced his prop blades with steel wedges to deflect the “oopsies”
- German commanders, angry that Garros was conducting a winged spree shooting, told Fokker he better either figure crap out or he was going to get an all expense ticket stamped for someplace muddy, rat-infested, and within British artillery range
- Garros got a little greedy going after kills and ended up shot down behind German lines. Due to wet conditions, Garros could not get his plane to burn before capture.
- Fokker examined Garros’ system and realized that the Frenchman and he had solved different pieces of the puzzle
- Fokker perfected interruptor gear, calling it a synchronization mechanism due to it synchronizing the machine gun’s firing with the propeller’s movement.
Regardless of the exact timing or veracity of the above, the end result is not in dispute. By July 1915 the Germans were able to put interruptor gear and forward mounted machine guns on their fighters. Thus began what was called “The Fokker Scourge,” i.e., the point where Fokker fighters had a marked advantage over their British opponents and started blasting the Royal Flying Corps out of the sky.
Now, if you’re imagining a huge cloud of swirling multi-colored biplanes at this point, along with one conspicuous flying doghouse…you’re a bit early. As you can see from the above painting, early pilots hunted prey the same way George Thorogood drank: Alone. As in, “Hey, I’m going to go patrol this sector. If I happen to see something flying, I’m gonna shoot it. So don’t fly your happy behind over this creek here, because I don’t want to turn you into a flaming comet on accident.”
This isn’t as crazy as it seems at first blush. Take a look at early World War I monoplanes, then consider that visibility wasn’t always your friend. Plane comes out of a cloud bank, a pilot didn’t want to spend precious seconds trying to figure out if it’s his good buddy Hans or some guy named Jacques. On top of that, aircraft mass production still had not hit its stride. These were still machines that, by and large, a bunch of folks were putting together with canvas and glue in a glorified garage. That translated to not that many numbers at the front line. Combine this with the large amount of frontage from the North Sea to the Swiss Border, and you start to understand why men could fly for literally hours without seeing anything.
Horrified by the carnage of the trenches, belligerents’ populations began to lionize these winged “knights of the air” for their allegedly more noble existence. The dashing “ace” (designated after five kills) was born, and everyone just ignored the fact that men were puttering around in flying canvas fire sacks. Because, hey, blasting holes in one another until someone hits a powerplant, ignites a fuel tank, or incapacitates the other pilot is way cooler than…
*pause* Okay, fine, it beats life in a trench, but not by much. Lest there be any confusion, parachutes in fighter aircraft were not a thing until 1918, and then only for the Germans. In some ways, catching a volley of .303 to the head was the best outcome, as then at least the lights just went out. All too often, bullets cut a fuel line, petrol caught a hot engine, and the unlucky pilot became the next contestant on Mr. Newton’s Flaming Fireball of Funtime. It was not unheard of for men in this situation to decide they’d rather jump to their doom than sizzle all the way down. Less common, but not at all apocryphal, were reports of men who decided to blow their brains out rather than wait around to see rather kinetic or thermal energy would be their undoing.
Around the winter of 1915-1916, as the Fokker Scourge started to wind down, this solitary or extremely small group method of hunting started to change. There were many reasons for this that I won’t get into. Just know that by the Battle of Verdun, both sides were operating in at least 3-6 ship formations. As the numbers increased on both sides, committing flying manslaughter started to get complicated. The old hands, like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann had previously noted patterns to their engagements. As they began fighting a dual battle between combat fatigue and training new pilots (“Oh my God, you guys are a bunch of newbs!”—translated from the original German), these first generation aces started writing down rules and passing along maneuvers. A similar movement was started on the Allied side, and in this manner the first attempts at professionalization rather than just flying around shooting were begun. This is critical, as this tactical thinking soon led to operational theory.
Complementing these individual attempts and theorizing were decisions made about unit organizations. The German Imperial Air Arm, due to the growing discrepancy in numbers between the Allies and Central Powers, started to organize into squadrons (Jastas). These Jastas, in turn, began being shuffled from one point to another along the line like a traveling carnage troupe, with each unit having distinctive color schemes. It was thus the term “Flying Circus” was born, as if you got a whole bunch of Jastas together it started to look like Ringling Brothers (see here for color schemes—) in the sky. The Allies, in contrast, had sufficient numbers to maintain squadrons in a given sector, dressed their planes in plain drab, and seldom shifted except in preparation for major offensives. In any case, rather than the blundering street fights or serial murders of the earlier phases, by 1917 aerial forces were often being employed to create certain operational effects in support of ground operations. Want your enemy’s observation balloons to get lit up so you could shift a few battalions in relative peace? Send a squadron of Camels to get it done. Royal Flying Corps getting a little uppity in your sector? Jasta 2 will be on the next train. Slowly, principles like concentration of force and air superiority / supremacy began to be born in practice if not formally elucidated (yet).
The Tao Of Dogfighting Part I
Some eternal truths began to emerge as the war wore on. (This is James’s way of saying that Bloody April and Plan 1919 are kinda important, but we’re not touching them here.) I’ll hit the long-term high points here:
1.) The majority of folks who got shot down never knew what hit them. Those who were lucky enough to survive crash landings often said something akin to, “One second I’m flying along, doing my thing, trying not to run into anybody in the formation. Next? I’ve got my bloody observer’s brains all over my neck and the wing’s about to fall off.” Boelcke initially and von Richtofen after him were particularly notorious for passing up kills if the poor bastard they were about to blast showed any signs of seeing them coming. While this extreme was frowned upon in later wars, the fact remained many, many pilots got to see St. Peter before seeing their assailant.
2.) A majority of the killing was done by a minority of the pilots. Michael Spick, a noted aviation author, made lots of money off a book called The Ace Factor in which he tried to explain this phenomenon. Spick tied it to “situational awareness,” which was the buzzword du jour of the time he was writing. Basically SA (as situational awareness is often shortened to) was the ability to keep track of the moving chess pieces of an aerial flight much better than the guy who may be doing well to keep from ramming someone else in his own formation. I’m simplifying a bit, but Mr. Spick is both right and wrong. While SA is always important, what is almost as critical is a proficiency in the weapons of a pilot’s particular era. Or put another way, the reason aces are, well, aces is that they’re able to effectively employ their given weapons system.
Note that I said “employ,” not shoot accurately. As will be discussed later, some of the best aces of World War I and II were terrible shots. As in, Aaron Burr crossed with Elmer Fudd terrible shots. Aiming in three dimensions at speeds the human body was not designed to attain while simultaneously being stalked oneself is not a recipe for accurate shooting. This also contributed to a disturbing tendency for people to open fire well outside of their weapons’ “envelope,” i.e. the parameters were a chance to hit were particularly high.
3.) In aerial combat, it is better to carry through a miscalculated action with great zeal than to have the slightest hesitation under optimal circumstances. Put in modern terms, “go big or go home.” World War I aircraft did not have what modern parlance deems “energy,” i.e. the combination of engine power, aerodynamics, and maneuverability to engage in extended dogfights. With a few exceptions (Richtofen versus Hawker comes to mind), most pilots engaging in a turning battle quickly overstepped their aircraft’s parameters, stalled out, and then became sitting ducks for whomever they were facing. Get in, get blasting, and get out is a mindset that would carry through to the next few European contretemps and beyond.
We’re Over 2,000 Words and Eyes Are Glazing Over
Many important things happened in the last year of the war, but that’s basically what Wikipedia is for. The big takeaway for fighters is that, like all aircraft, by the end of the war they’d gotten bigger, faster, and more lethal. That Fokker Eindecker causing RFC pilots to wet themselves in 1915? It was armed with a single machine gun and had a top speed of 86 mph. By 1918, a German fighter pilot could strap into a Fokker D VIII with two synchronized machine guns and a blazing speed of 127 mph. The Allied fighter pilot having to fight him? Tooling around in a SPAD fighter with a top speed of 135 mph and similar armament. Combat had become massive furballs and often involved bombers running around in large formations. Sometimes the poor bastard at the controls would be expected to do his job at night and versus large airships at altitudes where breathing was difficult. By the last six months of 1918, aerial encounters were occurring in numbers that presaged future events. When the guns finally fell silent in November of that year, all parties involved recognized how far all aircraft had come and how far they could potentially go. Even as the idealistic spoke of “The War to End All Wars,” the cynical began to wonder what would happen the next time young men had to duel for control of the skies.
As I’m doing each of this series, I’ll do a recommended reading list. There will be three books for the casual reader on the topic, followed by one you probably only want to read if this is something you really love.
Three books for the masses:
One book for the monkhood:
No Parachute by Arthur Gould Lee.