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For the 72 Million

The European Air War, 1939-1945

The loss of the newWorld War I had seen some air raids over England and Germany, but the technology was not yet available to wreak total havoc on the civilian population. The very idea of targeting a civilian population in a time of war was anathema to most of the world’s leaders.

Giulio Douhet, an evangelist of air power and later Mussolini’s air force adviser, postulated that the bomber would be the main weapon of the next war. Fighters were seen as too slow or secondary to the bomber forces. American Air Force Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell sank German war prize battleships from the air, despite the objections of the Navy. His flamboyant attitude and disregard of orders eventually led to his court-martial, but it was really an attempt to silence him. One of his little-noticed predictions was that of an attack on a little-known outpost called Pearl Harbor. Other prophets of air power included Hermann Goering, who oversaw the huge buildup of the Luftwaffe into an effective tactical air force.

“The bomber will always get through.” Stanley Baldwin, then UK Prime Minister, told the House of Commons on November 10, 1932. The strategic bomber, as envisioned by Douhet, was preeminent in the west. Fighters and other aircraft had less priority. At the start of the war, the RAF had separate “Commands” for different roles. Fighter Command oversaw the air defense of the British Islands. Bomber Command was the striking arm of the RAF. Coastal Command protected the maritime lanes that Britain depended on for survival. While under unified overall tactical command, these three units fought each other constantly for allocation of more resources and acted as separate air forces.

Air Vice Marshall Sir Arthur Harris led bomber Command. “Bomber” Harris was a veteran of the World War I, and a student of Douhet. He believed that Bomber Command could win the war alone through targeting the German civilian population making the tools of war for the Nazis. If production were disrupted to the point it was nonfunctional, Germany would have to surrender. Also, the was widespread public opinion in England and elsewhere that the Germans had brought the possibility of air attack on themselves, that the raids on Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London were illegal raids that demanded harsh payback.

The major difference between the Luftwaffe and the RAF was the aircraft they flew. The Germans flew tactical aircraft in support of ground operations. RAF aircraft were four-engined aircraft that featured large numbers of machine guns for defense. They were classic designs inspired by Douhet’s theory that air power could be the decisive weapon. Unlike the Germans, who did not introduce any significant new bomber design during the war, the RAF started the war with Handley Page Hampden and Bristol Blenheim two-engined bombers that were quickly supplemented and then replaced with four-engined Halifaxes and the superlative Lancaster, which could carry 22,000-pound “blockbuster” bombs.

Bomber Command started daylight operations early in the war. Until London was bombed in September 1940, RAF planes dropped leaflets. Even these raids had high losses, and the RAF switched to night raids early on. After the Germans bombed London, retaliatory raids on German targets embarrassed Hermann Goering, who had promised that Germany would never be bombed. The first targets for the RAF were the submarine bases at Lübeck and Rostock in September 1940. Precision bombing required daylight, and the losses were so high that the British did not wish to sacrifice their expensive aircraft. Harris himself admitted that a large force sustaining five percent losses could not remain operational for longer that a few months. Unlike the prophets between the wars who promised high accuracy and a war-winning weapon, the RAF was lucky to achieve bomb drops within five miles of their targets. Random damage to schools, houses, hospitals and nonmilitary targets were given much press by the Germans.

On the Eastern Front, neither the Red Air Force nor the Luftwaffe had strategic attack forces. Nevertheless, Red Army bombers attacked Berlin as soon as they could when the Germans invaded. The majority of the Soviet air forces were used as flying artillery, using American Lend-Lease P-39 Airacobras and Iluysin Il-2 Sturmovik “flying tanks” to attack German formations. The highly experienced German pilots, skills honed in air-to-air combat, shot down thousands of Soviet aircraft. It was not unheard of pilots to have a hundred kills; the top Nazi ace had 352 planes, mostly on the Eastern Front. (The top American ace had forty kills, all in the Pacific.) American planes flew shuttle missions, landing at Soviet bases after attacking deep targets in Germany, but due to supply concerns, the missions were not constant. On the Eastern Front, the vast majority of air sorties were tactical in nature.

The ideology surrounding bombers prevailed in the West. Starting in 1942, Harris organized massive raids involving all the resources the RAF could muster. The “1000-plane raids” were as much publicity stunt as they were actual military operations. If Britain, standing alone against Germany, had the audacity to send in massive numbers of aircraft, she could be seen as still fighting back. Before the Americans arrived in large numbers Harris mounted the first 1000-plane raid against Cologne on May 30, 1942. Harris had to pull students out of bomber training programs and fly every aircraft, even damaged and obsolete ones, to get 1158 aircraft into the air. During the briefing, the planners claimed that even with 1000 planes over Cologne, aircraft collision was not a threat and only two aircraft were expected to be lost. One aircrew officer raised his hand and asked, “Have they determined which two serial numbers will collide, Sir?” Everyone laughed, as much out of nervousness as humor.

The raid was devastating to Cologne. 600 acres were destroyed by 1500 tons of high explosives. 500 people died and 4,000 were injured. 13,000 homes were destroyed. Other 1000-plane raids were mounted the next few weeks. The raids marked a major shift from precision to area bombing. The first success for heavy bombing, the thousand-plane raids formed the core doctrine of the RAF for the rest of the war: large masses of aircraft bombing large areas by night.

The Americans believed they could employ the traditional doctrine of daylight precision raids. Over America, the Norden Bombsight flew the plane itself for greater accuracy. The American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator could only carry 5,000 pounds of bombs, but they had thirteen heavy machine guns and could absorb terrific punishment. True to prewar strategic doctrine, American fighter aircraft were not as far-ranging as their bombers, with most of the available fighter strength in 1941 consisting of short-range P-40 Warhawk and P-39 Airacobras that could not escort the heavies all the way to the target.

The American Eighth Air Force began operations in May 1942 on targets in France. Originally the VIII Bomber Command, its Fortresses and Liberator bombers opened a daylight precision campaign that stunned the British, who told the Americans to expect massive losses. The Americans believed formation flying with each bomber providing cover to the others, plus the Norden Bombsight, would overcome the British operational difficulties.

But the Germans had developed new techniques to combat air attacks. From the moment the Americans and the British took off, they were on radar station screens along the French coast. A commando raid in 1942 gathered data on their operation, and strips of aluminum foil were cut to ratios of the same frequency. Called chaff, the strips interfered with the radar, creating an indiscernible image. Other British inventions were H2S and Gee, navigational aids which radio directed bombers. A competing scientific war between Allied and German scientists kept driving technology forward in the air war.

By early 1943 the Eighth Air Force began sustained operational missions against targets deep within Germany. Losses were horrendous. After the end of German resistance in North Africa, the 9th Air Force arrived, primarily a tactical air force for ground support missions. But these units also suffered heavily without fighter escort.

The Germans were getting better at air defense. Nearly a million men and women were pinned down in greater Germany and occupied Europe to defend against the British at night and the Americans during the day. The Kammhauber Line, a series of boxes drawn on a map of the Western German frontier, allowed the Germans to vector in their fighters by coordinating their radar with antiaircraft artillery. The fighter would patrol a designated area at a specific altitude while the radar gained a fix on the enemy bomber stream. Then the fighters would attack, and the artillery would use proximity fuses on any bombers that got through. It was a defense that was effective, but with round-the-clock operations, the Luftwaffe needed more and more resources from critical battles on the Eastern Front. Her pilots often would fly both day and night operations, severely limiting their effectiveness.

In August and October 1943 the Eighth Air Force attacked ball bearing factories over Schweinfurt without fighter escorts. Even the new P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings, which could at least hold their own against the latest German fighters like the Focke-Wulf Fw-190, could not keep up with the bombers’ long range. Sixty American B-24s were shot down out of the 250 assigned to the raid. Even the Americans could not sustain those kinds of losses. The number of machine guns of the American bombers kept increasing.

Fortunately for the Allies, the British had issued a requirement for a new fighter during their darkest period of the war that could do the job. The North American P-51 Mustang was designed in 1940 in weeks to meet that British fighter design need. The aircraft was a single-engined low-wing monoplane that was a competent fighter with its American Allison engine. But the British tested it with their Merlin engine, and the results were surprising. The ceiling was higher, the speed topped 400 miles, and most importantly, with wing tanks the Mustang could reach Berlin, fight in combat, and return. United States Undersecretary of War for the Air Corps Robert A. Lovett, during a tour of the Eighth Air Force in 1943, recognized the need for this fighter and stepped up production. By December the Mustang was ready to take on deep long-range escorts into Germany. The American losses dropped from 9% to 3.5% for each mission.

Design changes to P-47 Thunderbolt and P-38 Lightning fighters allowed these aircraft to fly to Germany and back by 1944. By then, Allied armies were about to invade France and the Allied strategic bomber force was redirected to attack tactical targets all over the Pas de Calais and Normandy. Harris and his Eighth Army counterpart, Major General Karl “"Tooey”" Spaatz, protested but Eisenhower overruled them. Effective against the lightly defended targets in France, the Germans used this time to build up their defenses in Germany. Giant concrete towers topped with antiaircraft guns and shelters below, called flak towers, went up all over Germany.

When the bombers returned in September 1944, Spaatz had changed his tactical doctrine. Instead of pressing the precision bombing campaign, he set the goal of destroying the power of the Luftwaffe. With three air forces under his effective command, the Eighth, Ninth, and Fifteenth, Spaatz would order his bombers and fighters to seek out and destroy Axis fighters all over continental Europe. While Minister of Armaments Albert Speer successfully increased war production of fighters to unimagined levels, the core pilots who were the backbone of the Luftwaffe were dying out and could not be replaced. There was no safe area for pilots to train, and German aircrew were going into combat with 50 hours of training, compared to 600 for the Americans.

Meanwhile, Germany was crumbling under the weight of round-the-clock bombing. By the end of 1944 it was clear that strategic bombing was not going to win the war, but it was a decisive weapon that was inflicting great damage and preventing the Germans from moving forces that were badly needed elsewhere.

In February 1945, American POWs captured in the Ardennes campaign were moved to the city of Dresden for processing. They were to experience the terror of area bombing with the Germans, as the Allies plastered Dresden for three days. Temperatures reached 1000 degrees, and the air caught on fire, creating a “firestorm” that burned for four days. 1600 acres were destroyed, 135,000 were killed, including many refugees fleeing the Soviet advance. Harris was blamed, despite the involvement of the United States Eighth Air Force.

By the end of the war, the Americans had also switched to area bombing. Eighth Air Force General Curtis LeMay would take his experience to the Pacific, were he would direct operations using low-level incendiary attacks against the Japanese.

The massive bombing, despite the justification of the German attacks, has always been seen as an example of the horror of modern warfare. Harris was one of the only RAF commanders who was not honored at the end of the war, and many believe it was because of Dresden and area bombing.

The United States extensively analyzed the strategic bombing campaign in the Strategic Bombing Survey. Teams raced out ahead of the armies to analyze the damage to Germany and her cities. Much like the British in 1940, the German public had dealt with the bombing with determination and pride, and morale, while low, never cracked. The Survey found that much of the transportation was destroyed, but Germany was able to move factories underground or hide them and decentralize production so that massive quantities, albeit lesser quality, were produced under the bombing campaign.

Tactics developed in Europe were employed with devastating effect in the Pacific. 20th Air Force commanding General Curtis LeMay abandoned precision bombing for area bombing with incendiaries, causing cataclysmic firestorms.

The promise of air power would not be achieved until the Gulf War fifty years later. Only then would bombers be able to shatter an army so effectively that resistance would be nonexistent when the ground forces attacked. battleship HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, shocked Churchill and all of the Dominions. The Royal Navy would fight actions in the Java Sea and the Indian Ocean, but would not take up offensive operations in the Pacific until November 1944.

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