After Action Report 03
Submitted by Andy Grainger on 13 Oct 2005
 
The Strategic Bombing Offensive over Europe in World War Two

An Operational History

Air Commodore "Ginger" Grainger - Air Historical Branch

Despite - or perhaps because of - the terror bombing launched by the Luftwaffe in the Blitzkrieg campaigns of 1939 - 1941 the Western Allies appeared reluctant to attack the German war economy from the air. Throughout the whole of 1942 and 1943 German war industry expanded, producing enormous quantities of tanks and aircraft for deployment in Russia entirely unhindered by the RAF and the USAAF. Additionally, significant resources were devoted to the fortification of the Channel coast against the possibility of an allied invasion. Such long-range aircraft as became available to the allies were deployed into the U-Boat battle and so the Germans maintained only a rudimentary air defence system.

But all this changed in the autumn of 1943. With the withdrawal of Axis forces from North Africa during the summer a force of strategic bombers, largely provided by the USAAF, began to deploy to bases around Tunis. From there they could range right across Italy up to the Alps although not, of course, into Germany. By October approximately 2500 bombers were available.

At the same time American forces under Eisenhower launched the second front into Brittany. The UK Strategic bomber force was relatively slender, only about 1000 planes, but all these were used to support the invasion by flying missions against German ground forces in France. At the same time, however, both the USAAF and the RAF in the UK expanded their forces enormously by around 1000 aircraft per month. And in planning their first missions they were aware that there would be virtually no opposition from the Luftwaffe or the Flak.

During the winter of 1943/44, therefore, the Axis powers needed utterly to re-assess their reckless Russia first strategy. The bombers from Tunis ranged almost unhindered across the Italian industrial cities of Genoa, Milan, La Spezia and Rome. Italian fighters were redeployed from the battlefronts but, to the consternation of Il Duce, had little impact on the aerial armadas. The destruction caused was such as to deprive the Italian air defence forces even of ammunition for their flak zones. History will undoubtedly show that strategic bombing exercised enormous influence on the desire of the Italian government to seek an accommodation with the Western allies.

This was not the case over Germany, however. Initial raids on Cologne and the Ruhr had an immediate impact on the German economy - and on the German leadership. As was said by one of Britain's airborne commanders of the Germans "Touch them and they will react." They did. During the long winter of 1943 / 44 allied bomber crews were soon impressed by the German ability to build an air defence system apparently from nothing. Fighters were rushed from the battlefronts and flak guns appeared in vast numbers around key industrial centres. Scientific and technological efforts were concentrated on radar, night-fighters and communications. Documentation on this aspect of the German war effort is scarce but it seems possible that high levels of research into air defence had been conducted in the German war industry for some time but the leadership saw no need to apply it. But when the need arose, production was capable of being applied very quickly to the new flak weapons and command systems. The vast quantities of fighter aircraft that appeared over the Reich, however, could only be plundered from the battlefronts and their absence was reflected in the stupendous allied advances in both east and west.

The resources poured into the Strategic Bombing Offensive by the allies during 1944 were unimaginable. The force of 1000 RAF bombers in October 1943 was increased by 500 per month and a further 500 with the USAAF. During Spring and Summer 1944 5000 aircraft routinely flew over Germany. But their losses were horrendous. The allied commander, Air Marshal Michel Schwartzenberg, was appalled to see not only 50% losses every two months, largely to flak but also the inability of his bombers to reach the heavily defended German targets at all. His opponent, Mark Dolby commanding the entire German and then Axis air defence systems, was equally shaken to see these losses being replaced. During the summer Schwartzenberg was obliged to switch his operations to the lightly defended industrial targets in France and western Germany. As in Italy, these operations were devastatingly effective although the defences in Germany were enhanced by the arrival of new jet fighters. Further, the Germans began to construct V1 bases in Holland and these required a significant effort to suppress.

By the autumn of 1944, therefore, a sort of stalemate had been reached. Schwartzenberg's forces, massive though they were, could not strike effective blows against German industry. There were signs that German fighters were not being replaced so that some of the outlying targets became more vulnerable but, overall, German industry maintained its high output. The cost, of course, was that far more effort had to be put into flak and fighters. Indeed, the Germans chose to deploy V1's, V2's and jet fighters at huge economic cost although only the jets saw any worthwhile action. The V1's had to be deployed close to the UK - where there was no flak and so they could be suppressed and the German leadership seemed reluctant to launch the V2 rockets - even though nothing could have intercepted them..

The initial results of the Strategic Bombing Survey seem to reveal that German industry was hardly affected by the bombing. Rather, it was simply overrun by the allied armies during late 1944 and early 1945. The Luftwaffe had disproved the pre-war maxim that the bomber would always get through. They could only get through against the primitive defences such as were found in Italy or over German-occupied France. The lesson of the WW2 Strategic Bombing Offensive seems to be that the manned aircraft is far too vulnerable to modern countermeasures and yet requires a wholly uneconomic investment in highly trained aircrew.

It seems highly likely that the western powers will study the German rocket programme with very great care. The manned bomber may turn out to have one of the shortest lifespans of any weapon in history.

The Strategic Bomber

RIP

1917 - 1945