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The Air War Over Europe

Nominally dedicated to a Germany-driven strategy, the Army Air Forces began a slow buildup of bomber strength in England in anticipation of the strategic air campaign against the Third Reich. Necessary commitments of force to the Pacific theater slowed this expansion to some degree.

In the late 1930's it had been believed that heavily-armed bombers would always be able to penetrate enemy defences and by destroying installations behind the enemy's advance he would quickly become unable to wage war. Boeing had developed a revolutionary four engined heavy bomber to meet military specifications and this became known as the B-17 Flying Fortress. It was to be the weapon which the USAAF relied on to press forward with its strategy of daylight high altitude precision bombing by unescorted, but heavily armed, bombers.

The American plan developed for the destruction of German warfighting capability was the A.W.P.D.-l plan. This plan and its subsequent revisions established the need for air superiority prior to an allied invasion of the European continent. The plan acknowledged that the German air force, especially the German fighter force, would have to be defeated before an invasion could be contemplated, and that such a defeat might also be necessary to the prosecution of the air offensive itself. Hence, defeat of the German air force was accorded first priority among air objectives - - "an intermediate objective of overriding importance" - to take precedence over the Primary Air Objectives themselves.

The American and British political and military leaders believed that the destruction of the German air force required attacking the industrial base of the German economy. Both countries supported the use of strategic bombing as a means of defeating Germany. But they disagreed upon the method of implementation. The British favored night "area* bombing while the Americans preferred daylight "precision" bombing. By 1942 the RAF had given up daylight bombing because of heavy losses inflicted by fierce German defences, and so advised the USAAF against this strategy. Nevertheless, the Combined Bomber Offensive was agreed, and while RAF Bomber Command flew at night, the USAAF resolved to fly by day.

The first attacks on German-controlled Europe by American bomber forces were flown by B-24 Liberator heavy bombers against the Ploesti oil fields of Romania in June 1942. These raids had been staged from bases in Egypt. The first strikes against Western Europe from English bases were conducted by A-20 Havocs against railyards in northern France in July 1942. The first B-17 raids followed in August 1942, and continued unabated until the German surrender in May 1945. These nonstop raids are credited with sapping Germany's warfighting capability through attacks on military, industrial, and population center targets.

Radar begat countermeasures almost immediately. The first British product was “Window,” the codename for strips of metallic foil dropped from bombers to saturate enemy radar scopes. Chaff complicated the ground controller’s job by creating numerous flashes and false blips and clouds on the radar screen. In the July 1943 Hamburg raids, the RAF used 92 million strips of Window, which brought German radar scopes alive with false echoes. The RAF lost only 12 aircraft rather than what would have statistically been around 50 without the aid of Window.

German air defenses were thrown into disarray by the RAF tactics. According to the Luftwaffe’s Galland: “Not one radar instrument of our defense had worked. The British employed for the first time the so-called Laminetta method [Window]. It was as primitive as it was effective. The bomber units and all accompanying aircraft dropped bundles of tin foil in large quantities, of a length and width attuned to our radar wave length. Drifting in the wind, they dropped slowly to the ground, forming a wall which could not be penetrated by the radar rays. Instead of being reflected by the enemy’s aircraft they were now reflected by this sort of fog bank, and the radar screen was simply blocked by their quantity. The air situation was veiled as in a fog. The system of fighter direction based on radar was out of action. Even the radar sets of our fighters were blinded. The flak could obtain no picture of the air situation. The radar target-finders were out of action. At one blow the night was again as impregnable as it had been before the radar eye was invented.

The strategic air campaign over Europe was conducted by combined British and American air forces, organized into the Allied Strategic Air Forces. The original American contribution to this body was the 8th Air Force, which at first incorporated strategic and tactical air assets. By the end of 1943, the 9th Air Force was moved to England and assumed command of tactical air operations, thus forming the 8th Strategic Air Force and 9th Tactical Air Force [precursors of the post-war command system that included the Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command].

This reorganization was the result of lessons learned by the Army Air Forces over the sands of North Africa in the autumn of 1942. The Allied air forces had entered the conflict in that theater under the control of the local ground forces commanders. It quickly became clear that the resulting concentration of air activity on ground-support missions, without first gaining air superiority, led to extremely high casualties and ineffective support operations. It was decided that the air assets should be consolidated under the control of single command structure of the 12th Air Force. Its commander, General Carl Spatz, was free to shift his air assets as he saw fit, and was able to concentrate his forces to gain unquestioned air superiority over his German adversaries. Having done so, he was then able to better support the Allied armies among which the air assets had originally been dispersed.

This new organizational system served the Allies very well through the height of the war, as the 9th Air Force was able to provide extremely effective air support to the Allied armies driving across Western Europe following Operation Overlord in June 1944 -- especially after the arrival of powerful fighter-bombers such as the P-47 Thunderbolt. Meanwhile, B-17s and B-24s of the 8th Air Force maintained their strategic bombing campaign against German industry and morale, augmented by long-range fighter escorts such as the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang.


The argument over targeting traced back to the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 when the objectives of the Combined Bomber Offensive were formalized. RAF and AAF bomber operations were to be a coordinated effort, “each operating against the sources of Germany’s war power according to its own peculiar capabilities and concepts— the RAF bombing strategic city areas at night, the American force striking particular targets by daylight.” Yet, air planners were also directed to “prepare the way for the climactic invasion of Europe.”50 These differing objectives meant differing strategies, which in turn demanded a different set of targets.

Not surprisingly, the better the weather, the greater the accuracy. Electronic bombing aids were therefore essential, because the weather over Germany was usually miserable. Nonetheless, bombing through weather never equaled visual bombing in accuracy, regardless of the radio or radar aids employed. By October 1944, 41.5 percent of the Eighth Air Force’s bombs were falling within 1,000 feet of the aim point when bombing visually. Using only radio or radar aids, accuracy plummeted to 5 percent within that range.

The worst danger was faced by stragglers. When a bomber fell out of formation, enemy fighters quickly pounced on it. Bombers usually fell out of formation, however, because their engines had been hit by AAA, resulting in fires and power loss. The solution: put armor around the engines to reduce AAA damage, which would in turn reduce the number of stragglers downed by enemy fighters.

One “misdirected” avenue was the misconception that the German economy was drawn taut and therefore susceptible to attack with devastating results. Early in the war that economy actually contained a great deal of slack. Because the economies of the Allies were on a wartime footing, they assumed Germany’s was as well. This was not the case. As an example, Germany’s automobile industry, the largest sector of its economy in the 1930s, was utilized at barely 50 percent of capacity during the war.

On the other hand, some air planners believed that oil offered a special case. Germany had extremely limited oil sources within its boundaries; 93 percent of its peacetime needs were imported, but once war broke out the British blockade removed these options. Air planners thus saw Germany as highly vulnerable in the area of oil. Initially, despite the demands of military operations, Germany captured more refineries and hence more fuel than it consumed. When air planners met at Casablanca in January 1943 to determine targets for the Combined Bomber Offensive, they placed oil fourth on the list — Germany had so much oil in reserve it did little good to make it a high priority. This decision, at least as far as the Americans were concerned, would later be seen as an error.

How much damage was achieved when the bombs did hit the target was not obvious. Post-strike photographs showed, for example, that the bombing raids against Schweinfurt’s ball bearing factories in 1943 caused extensive damage. However, after the war it was discovered that many bombs detonated upon hitting the factory roofs. This collapsed the roofs, and such damage appeared impressive in photos, but in reality the machines on the floors below had been largely untouched — less than 5 percent were damaged, and most of those were quickly repaired. The ball bearing industry, hit hard in the fall of 1943 but at grievous cost to the AAF, was indeed a choke-point target system that should have been revisited.

The debate broke along national lines with the Americans pushing for the oil plan and the British—notably Air Marshal Arthur Tedder— advocating the rail plan. The question of oil versus rail was resolved on 25 March 1944 when Gen Dwight Eisenhower agreed to the rail plan.51 The critical factor was time. He wanted Allied air superiority to isolate the beachhead from German reinforcements before the invasion, not during the months that followed. Tedder’s rail plan won the day because it promised a more immediate solution.

Fire Storm

Probably the two most devastating and closely studied fire storms were in Hamburg and Dresden. Kilogram for kilogram, incendiary bombs were approximately five timesas effective in causing damage on German cities in World War II as high-explosive bombs. Four-fifths of the damage to English and German citieswas owing to fire as opposed to blast.

No discussion of the air war is complete without reference to the very severe wartime fires of Hamburg and several other cities in which a number of square miles were burned out in some six hours of most violent fire. Winds grew to hurricane level, blowing everything loose into the heart of the fire. The stronginward draft at ground level was a decisive factor in limiting the spread of fire beyond the initial ignited area. However, virtually everything combustible within this region was destroyed.

A firestorm is aptly named: it is a fire generated rotating thunderstorm. Massive simultaneous use of conventionalincendiary and high-explosive bombs on urban targets in World War II engendered events of wind-aided fire spread comparable in duration, scale, and intensity to that following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and on a few rare occasions engendered firestorms comparable induration, scale, and intensity to that following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Firestorms arise from the merger of fires from multiple simultaneous ignitions in a heavily fuel-laden (urban) environment. Within an hour surface-level radial inflow from all directions sustains a large-diameter convective column; typically, the firestorm reaches peak intensity in a couple of hours, with inflow speeds inferred to attain 25-50 m/s [30 to 40 miles per hour] and with the plume reaching 10 km. The firestorm is a mesocyclone (rotating severe local storm), with exothermicity from combustion (rather than condensation of water vapor) supporting convectively induced advection. The rapid swirling of the surrounding air results in reduction of entrainment into the plume, such that the mass flux ascending in the buoydnt plume is furnished entirely by a near-ground layer with large radial inflow.

On 27 July 1943, 750 four-engine Halifaxes and Lancasters of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command dropped 2,170,000 kg of high explosives, land mines, and incendiaries on Hamburg; with the fires still raging from the initial assault, a second air raid involving (inter alia) 218 Flying Fortresses of the 8th Bomber Command of the U.S. Army Air Force continued the raid. The results of the bombs and the firestorm were disastrous - over 50,000 civilians were killed.

on the evening of 13 February 1945 the attack on Dresden began with 244 four-engine British Lancasters. A second British 25-min raid commenced 14 February. Fires burned for seven days and seven nights, with sooty ash showering downwind as much as 30 km; 75% of a 29 km2 area was destroyed. Survivors described hurricane-force winds uprooting and snapping in half giant trees,jets of flame 12-15 m in length sweeping the streets, sounds similar tothose of a thundering waterfall or a howling tornado, and roof gables and furniture being blown toward the center of the burning inner city.

Until this point, Dresden, renowned for its cultural and historical significance and known to be crowded with refugees fleeing the Soviet advance, had largely escaped bombing by the Allies. Shortly after the bombs had fallen, controversies about the military necessity of the attack arose, which continue to this day. The number of civilian casualties also came into question, with claims made of up to a quarter million killed. In 2008, an independent historical commission formed by the city of Dresden concluded that approximately 25,000 lost their lives in the attack.

Twelve O’Clock High

The main morale issue the 8th AF had to contend with was the question that always seems to surface during combat: when do we go home? In examining crew members who began a series of 25 missions for the 8th, only 559, or 26.8% completed all their missions. The crews often resisted reporting physical or morale difficulties for fear of getting dropped out of rotation. Some other causes were that crews did not like to sever bonds with comrades, and there was always an increased danger of having to get used to a new crew member.

At its peak, the air campaign employed 1.34 million personnel and over 27,000 aircraft. Bombers flew 1.44 million sorties and dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs — 54.2 percent of that by the AAF. Procurement of Negro airmen presented peculiar difficulties. Army policy was to use Negroes in the same proportion as they were found in the total U.S. population, a figure calculated at 10.6 per cent. Actually, this was never done. On the Army General Classification Test an inordinate number of Negroes scored in the two lowest cate- gories, whereas by War Department policy the AAF had been given more than its share of men scoring in the two highest brackets; hence relatively few Negroes could qualify for flying or technical schools.

The Tuskegee Airmen sprang from an experiment conducted by the US Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces) to see if Negroes (primarily African-Americans) had the mental and physical capabilities to lead, fly military aircraft, and the courage to fight in war. In 1941, the Army Air Corps (Army Air Forces) awarded a contract to Tuskegee Institute to operate a primary flight school, which trained 15,000 pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and maintenance and support staff. The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

The bombing campaign was costly — nearly 160,000 airmen were lost by the British and the Americans (almost exactly the same number by each), and 40,000 aircraft were destroyed (22,000 RAF and 18,000 AAF). Losses for the Eighth Air Force were staggering: 44,472 men. Indeed, the Eighth Air Force suffered greater losses than did the entire US Marine Corps or Navy during the war. Of great significance, 85.9 percent of all bombs dropped by the AAF on Germany fell after D-day. In a true sense, the Combined Bomber Offensive did not really begin until the spring of 1944.

The breakdown common to combat fliers was called operational fatigue. The principal cause, of course, was the flyer’s instinctive fear of death, maiming, burning or capture. The syndrome did not appear suddenly among combat airmen but was usually the result of a chain of distressing, harrowing, fatiguing, conflicting and terrifying events. For up to 10 hours, aircrew could be subjected to continuous environmental stresses. They had to contend with loud noise, vibration, glare, cramped and bitterly cold quarters, heavy flight clothing and adherence to oxygen discipline. All this contributed to extreme fatigue even without the stress of combat.

The dangers the crews faced were awesome and their losses sometimes staggering. Ground crews tackled their tasks, but distanced themselves from getting too close to the aviators. They stayed away from learning their names in case they got shot down, so we wouldn't be thinking of them. Aircrews were the same way with other fliers. They didn't get to know other guys very well because they might come home from a mission and there would be somebody packing up their stuff. They didn't want to get too close.

Crews did not like to sever bonds with comrades, and there was always an increased danger of having to get used to a new crew member. Superstition and minor personal idiosyncrasies played major parts in the relations of crew members.

The average loss rate per mission for 8th Air Force bombers was 3 percent, but was sometimes well above 10 percent in 1942 and 1943 losses on unescorted raids. By early 1944, the average life of a B-17 was 21 missions as P-51 Mustang fighters started to accompany bombers. In the spring of 1944 General Jimmy Doolittle officially increased the minimum tour from 25 combat missions to 30. There was a predictable drop in unit morale, and the General was the subject of bitter feelings by many, especially bomber crews, who felt their contracts had been unfairly broken. Worse perhaps, USAAF Headquarters in Washington eventually recommended the abolition of tour lengths altogether, substituting “positive evidence of combat fatigue” as the requirement for relief from combat flying duties.

Historical accuracy has not always been a primary aspect of the movie-making industry. But the film Twelve O’clock High is the complete opposite to "Hollywood" films - is one of the greatest aviation movies of all time. It sticks pretty close to history and conveys the feelings present in the air force as well as other events during the setting of the movie. The characters themselves did not exist in real life, and some aspects of the movie were "tweaked" from the actual historic accounts. General Savage, a.k.a. Gregory Peck, takes over a demoralized “hard luck” B-17 bomber squadron in England the early days of World War II. The unit's commander was a great guy whom everybody loves — but he identified too strongly with his men. He was unable to face the paramount duty of a commander, to order his men into combat, from which some will not return. General Savage trained with his men, flew with his men, and faced danger with his men. Gregory Peck flies the most dangerous bomber missions with his crews against Nazi Germany early in the war when the casualty rates were very high.

Victory Through Airpower

Virtually every major commodity necessary to sustain the German war effort began a severe decline by summer 1944, which is when the bombing of Germany finally began in earnest. Production of aviation fuel, for example, plummeted from a peak of 316,000 tons/ month to 107,000 tons in June and 17,000 tons by September. Synthetic fuel dropped from a high of 175,000 tons in April 1944 to 30,000 tons by July and 5,000 tons in September—a 90-percent drop in four months. The effects of this fuel drought were felt throughout the Wehrmacht—aircraft stopped flying, and tanks stopped driving. In March 1945 the Soviets overran 1,200 German tanks that had run out of gas. Bombing attacks on the German transportation industry were even more profound: “The attack on transportation was the decisive blow that completely disorganized the German economy.” The survey noted that 40 percent of all rail traffic was coal — 21,400 train carloads per day at the beginning of 1944. By the end of the year, that number had fallen to 9,000 cars daily. Steel production was related to this collapse, reflecting an 80-percent drop in three months. Similar drops were experienced in the production of explosives, synthetic rubber, chemicals (nitrogen, chlorine, methane, etc.), powder, and combat munitions.

Over 70% of the bomb tonnage dropped in Europe and the Mediterranean was delivered after D-Day. By February 1945 Allied air power was so overwhelming that thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on Berlin and on 13-15 February the fearful firestorm of Dresden resulted in over 35,000 deaths. Years of systematic bombing by American and British forces reduced Germany to rubble.

Air superiority was essential to the bombing campaign’s success. This air dominance was not achieved until the spring of 1944, allowing the bombing campaign to achieve its dramatic success.

Regarding the war in Europe, Strategic Bombing Survey writers concluded that “Allied air power was decisive in the war in Western Europe.” Airpower was not, however, the only decisive factor; the massive Soviet army on the eastern front was chewing up German divisions at an astonishing rate. The American, British, and Free French forces in the west were facing far fewer German troops, but the offensive beginning on D-day caught Germany in the jaws of a vice it could not escape. Even so, strategic bombing had a catastrophic effect on the German economy and transportation system, and this in turn had a fatal impact on German armed forces.

Area attacks were deemed less effective in reducing industrial production than were “precision” attacks. In fact, the survey concluded that area attacks by the RAF had only a minor impact on German production. Analysts determined that German morale fell precipitously as a result of bombing, causing “defeatism, fear, hopelessness, fatalism, and apathy.” Yet the coercive practices of the Nazi regime — relying on slave labor and a 72-hour work week — kept factories operating.

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Page last modified: 27-07-2018 23:50:09 ZULU