The Realities of Air War, July-October 1943
The objectives that Eaker now sought did not exactly match those touted by airmen before the war. The limitations of his force and the unforgiving environment in which it operated altered the prospects for “efficient” results within the time constraints set by the Trident Conference. Anderson acknowledged Eaker’s problem: “There are unavoidable conditions, not immediately correctable, which preclude present attainment of the desired results and which necessitate acceptance of less than maximum efficiency.”96 The premium was on fast results, and fast did not necessarily guarantee efficient. Moreover, the overall war aim did not lend itself to rapier thrusts of air power; bludgeoning with bombs better suited Roosevelt’s goal of “unconditional surrender.” That objective called for speed, but only from the standpoint of ending the war quickly to save Allied lives. It also demanded enough destruction to erase the future desire for war from the collective psyche of the Axis populations. Roosevelt and Churchill—as well as Joseph Stalin—intended not only to wreck Germany’s war-making capability and will to fight, but also to destroy the Nazi philosophy that fostered the German war effort—and to assure that a similar world view never again materialized. “Practically all Germans deny the fact that they surrendered in the last war, but this time they are going to know it,” the president would tell journalists in summer 1944. “And so are the Japs.”97
To the Commander of RAF Bomber Command, the April 1943
Combined Bomber Offensive plan ably reflected the ideals that he believed should guide an air campaign. Air Marshal Arthur Harris had directed the raf’s bombing of Germany for more than a year, and had staged his first “thousand plane raid” in May 1942 against Cologne. He thought that the opportunity to employ two “highly specialised and well equipped” bomber forces in tandem simply made sense, plus it offered the chance to achieve maximum efficiency. “There is no difficulty in achieving our object at minimum cost in life, material and effort,” Harris remarked to Eaker in April 1943. “There is difficulty only in convincing those in whose hands lies the power to grasp the opportunity.” Having received the blessing of Combined Chiefs in May, Harris set out to achieve aerial effects in concert with his American ally that he believed would “decide all.”98
In actuality the Combined Bomber Offensive, officially designated “Operation Pointblank,” provided few instances of genuine cooperation between the two bomber forces. Their distinctive targeting philosophies, exemplified by the raf’s night bombing aimed at morale and the Army Air Forces’ daylight effort aimed at industrial production—along with the intense American desire to demonstrate independent success to bolster the bid for service autonomy—led to largely separate air campaigns.99 A notable exception occurred at the end of July when Harris turned his attention to Hamburg. For more than a week, the raf and Eighth Air Force pummeled the city, with the American raids occurring on 25 and 26 July against naval installations and an aircraft factory. Army Air Forces crews had difficulty seeing their targets because of the thick smoke created by raf attacks after midnight on 25 July, when 733 bombers had unleashed 2,290 tons of bombs, almost half of which were incendiaries. One-third of the 147 b – 17s dropped incendiaries as well.100 The series of raids ultimately produced a massive firestorm; 42,600 German civilians perished, and 75 5,000 more lost their homes.101 Harris deemed “Operation Gomorrah” a success, and colored away the city’s burned out sections in the “Blue Books” he kept that displayed aerial photographs of Germany’s major urban areas.
Hamburg also made a distinct impression on American political and military leaders. Roosevelt saw the raids as “an impressive demonstration” of what American air power might accomplish against Japan.102 Fred Anderson, who flew aboard an raf Lancaster bomber over Hamburg on the night of 27 July, offered that the raids showed the German populace “that we can hit any place in Germany anytime we propose to do so.”103 Hamburg portended that bombs might break German morale, much like the 19 July attack by Spaatz’s bombers on marshalling yards in Rome that Arnold believed “had a deep psychological effect on the Italian people” and led to the overthrow of Benito Mussolini.104 Arnold’s perspective downplayed the impact of Allied landings in Sicily the previous week and conformed to his belief that bombing could achieve independent success. Indeed, the Army Air Forces Commanding General had asked the coa in March to determine what targets air power could destroy “to knock Italy out of the war,” and requested a similar study on Japan.105
Arnold further envisioned three uses for incendiary bombs by Eighth Air Force: “burning down suitable precise industrial objectives; starting fires by day in the densely built up portions of cities and towns to serve as beacons for the R. A.F. to exploit at night; [and] burning down the densely built-up portions of cities and towns by day attack alone when the occasion warrants.”106 Although he emphasized to his commanders in June that the bomber, “when used with the proper degree of understanding, becomes, in effect, the most humane of all weapons,” Arnold had relayed a very different message to his air staff two months earlier: “The way to stop the killing of civilians is to cause so much damage and destruction and death that the civilians will demand their government cease fighting. This does not mean that we are making civilians or civilian institutions a war objective, but we cannot ‘pull our punches’ because some of them may get killed.”107
Arnold condoned ruthlessness only as long as it did not tarnish the image of the Army Air Forces. He returned to progressive ideals in specifying the message that he wanted Eaker and the Eighth Air Force to convey to the American people: “It is very important, for whole-hearted public and official support of our Air Forces in their operations, that the people understand thoroughly our Air Force’s precepts, principles, and purposes,” he wrote. “Still more, it is important for the people to understand that our prime purpose is destruction of the enemy’s ability to wage war, by our planned persistent bombing and sapping of his vital industries, his transportation, and his whole supply system. And finally, it is important for them to realize that this takes time, as well as money and planes and planning and work—but that it will win the war and save perhaps millions of lives which otherwise would be sacrificed in bloody ground combat.”108 As the Eighth Air Force prepared to attack Hamburg, he told Eaker to guarantee that postraid press releases stressed “the mission aiming point rather than the city or town in which the aiming point is located.”109
Eaker appreciated Arnold’s concerns, but the Eighth Air Force Commander placed his emphasis on assuring that his crews could actually drop their bombs in the vicinity of the aiming point. The weather in summer 1943 had turned especially nasty, with clouds covering Germany during the months that should have provided ideal daylight bombing conditions. The British had developed various methods of radar bombing that allowed them to bomb at night, and Eaker wanted to use those devices to enhance the Eighth Air Force’s daylight efforts during periods of poor weather. “We are looking for a considerable degree of accuracy, sufficient at least that we can dump our bombs in the heavily built-up industrial areas,” he informed Arnold—a far cry from the notion of precision bombing that he had espoused less than a year before.110 The best of the British instruments was his, a ground mapping radar that the raf employed with great effect against Hamburg. The British were reluctant to provide their allies with it for the same reason that American airmen refused to share the Nor – den bombsight with the raf—they feared that a downed bomber might reveal its secrets to the Germans. At the end of July, Air Chief Marshal Portal relented, and Eaker reported that he would soon have a squadron “ready to go with one of these gadgets” in the lead aircraft.111
In the meantime, whenever the weather cooperated, Eaker remained true to the principles that had guided the development of an American bombing force. In August Eighth Air Force participated in two dramatic raids against perceived linchpins of the Nazi industrial web. The first occurred on i August against the complex of petroleum refineries at Ploesti, Romania, which refined 60 percent of Germany’s crude oil needs. Eaker had mentioned Ploesti in his brief to the Joint Chiefs in April, and the coa had long had it on its list of targets. Eighth Air Force contributed two groups of B-24S for the raid, plus another slated for the Eighth, and the remaining two groups came from Spaatz’s Northwest Africa Air Force. They took off from the Libyan base at Benghazi and flew across the Mediterranean at only one hundred feet to avoid radar detection.
Chance disrupted the plan from the start. The aircraft carrying the lead navigator mysteriously crashed in the sea on the way to Ploesti, and the bomber with the deputy mission navigator developed mechanical problems and had to return to base. Mission navigation devolved to a new second lieutenant; two of the bomb groups refused to trust his skills and mistakenly flew to Bucharest when the lieutenant had correctly called for a turn to Ploesti. By the time the B-24S arrived in staggered disarray over the target, German defenses were primed and downed 41 of the 177 bombers dispatched. Other factors claimed an additional 13, and 55 more suffered major damage. Although the raid wrecked 42 percent of the refineries’ total capacity, the Germans had operated them at only 60 percent, which meant that Ploesti suffered a long-term loss of only 2 percent in production capability. Within weeks it refined oil at a higher rate than it had before the raid.112
Eaker’s own dual attack on 17 August against the Messer – schmitt factory at Regensburg and the ball bearing complex at Schweinfurt met a similar dismal fate and produced similar meager results.
Ploesti, Regensburg, and Schweinfurt exemplified the carnage that Luftwaffe defenses inflicted on Eighth Air Force throughout the summer and early autumn of 1943. Eaker tried to offset the losses by increasing his total of bombers and crews. He possessed almost 700 bombers by July, allowing him to launch some raids with as many as 300 aircraft, but he still lacked the numbers to do so on a consistent basis, plus his crew totals remained insufficient.113 Production problems in the United States left him short 240 bombers, and the diversions that had plagued him during the spring continued.114 At his April briefing to the Joint Chiefs, he stated that he would likely need to replace a third of his force each month because of attrition,115 but loss rates often neared xo percent on the missions flown against Germany in August. Losses among new crews were higher still—four new groups that arrived in April averaged a loss of 21 aircraft in eighteen missions, while four experienced groups on the same missions averaged 9.116 Eaker told Arnold that new crews needed at least two weeks of training to make them mission ready and that several losses occurred because “the formations are not always flown as instructed.” Yet he also acknowledged that part of the losses stemmed from “the unusual ferocity of the defense put up by the German fighter over his homeland as contrasted with the defense put up by him over occupied territory.”117
In the summer of 1943, Eighth Air Force had no real answer for the German fighter force, which was responsible for the vast majority of bomber losses.118 The p-47 “Thunderbolt” and the p-51 “Mustang,” two single-seat fighters with promising capabilities as escorts, lacked the range to venture far beyond the German border, and German fighter pilots waited until the escorts turned back to pounce. Engineers thus far had limited success developing “drop tanks” to extend the American fighters’ range. Attempts to protect bombers with the YB-40, а в-17 that carried no bombs and sported extra turrets and machine guns, failed miserably—the aircraft’s performance characteristics differed too much from standard bombers to keep place in formation. Eaker believed that with more bombers he could ultimately overcome the Luftwaffe, and that his bomber crews had already inflicted substantial losses on the German fighter force. He surmised that more bombers and larger formations offered greater firepower to shoot down German fighters. Eaker also pressed for fighter escorts, but he did not completely dismiss the YB-40, which he thought was “a good idea but we have not quite gotten the correct aircraft for carrying it out.”119
To the pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners who battled the Luftwaffe, the prospects for success appeared grim indeed. Most bomber crewmen did not focus on whether their actions contributed to Germany’s demise. Instead, their definition of success was simple—survival. In January 1943, Eaker and Arnold gave heavy bomber crews a requirement of twenty-five combat missions, after which they would transfer to assignments free of combat duty. The crew of the Memphis Belle was the first to complete the requirement and departed England in May 1943 t0 fanfare that included immortalization in a classic documentary by Hollywood director William Wyler. Other crews were not so fortunate. By August 1943 the life expectancy of a typical bomber crewman had dipped to fifteen missions—and would stay at that number for the remainder of the year.120 Eaker wrote Arnold in October, “I think it is perfectly marvelous the morale we have been able to maintain,”121 but the truth was better revealed in the first stanza of a poem written by one of LeMay’s crewmen:
They call him the “Aerial Gunner.”
His hopes, they say, are dim
And his life is said to hang by a thread
That is long and weak and slim.122
The progressive tenets of the Air Corps Tactical School had forecast a bomber offensive that achieved success by minimizing crew losses instead of through attrition. Yet the longer the daylight campaign persisted, the more it resembled an aerial slugfest that would continue until only one side demonstrated that it could still respond after absorbing massive punishment. Eaker could not allow that fight to persist indefinitely, but he could see no way to avoid the slaughter in the sky given the time constraints that he faced. Indeed, based on his receipt of intercepted German message traffic, he believed that the Luftwaffe fighter force had suffered severe losses that threatened its ability to control the air.123 If he could break that force through continued assaults on vital centers, then he might yet achieve daylight air superiority within the allotted time. The time available, though, continued to slip away. In mid-August, the Combined Chiefs of Staff solidified the i May 1944 date for the invasion of France and reaffirmed that the successful prosecution of the Combined Bomber Offensive was a prerequisite for it.
Still, Eaker did not abandon his faith that bombing could wreck Germany’s war-making capability. He continued to attack Point – blank targets that the coa had recommended despite suffering losses that again neared ro percent for raids over the Reich in September and the first half of October. On 14 October—a date that bomber crews would dub “Black Thursday”—Eighth Air Force returned to Schweinfurt. Of the 319 B-17S that attacked the ball bearing complex, 60 fell to German defenses.124 The magnitude of the loss caused even Roosevelt to remark that the United States could not afford to have 60 bombers shot down on a regular basis.125 Arnold called a press conference proclaiming, “Now we have got Schweinfurt!” and added that losses as high as 25 percent on some missions could be expected—and accepted.126
In truth the damage inflicted on ball bearing production once again had little impact on German war production, and Eaker had to send a notice to his crews that Arnold had been misquoted about condoning such a high loss rate.127 The grim assessment of the Army Air Forces Commanding General also did not go unnoticed by Time magazine writers, who summarized Eaker’s new measure of efficiency in their 25 October issue: “Suddenly the cost of victory loomed large. . . . The price was not exorbitant: without bearings the mechanized German war machine would be helpless. But the cost was high enough to elicit a spate of explanation.”128
Arnold wanted an explanation as well. Eaker sent him a cable in the immediate aftermath of the raid confirming the loss of sixty B-17S in combat and another five when their crews elected to bail out over England rather than attempt landing with heavily damaged aircraft. Eaker further noted that his crews had shot down ninety-nine German fighters, with another thirty probably destroyed and fourteen damaged.129 “This does not represent a disaster,” he asserted. “It does indicate that the air battle has reached its climax.” Eaker then asked Arnold to expedite the arrival of additional bombers and crews, provide auxiliary fuel tanks for escort fighters, and “send every possible fighter here as soon as possible. We must show the enemy we can replace our losses; he knows he cannot replace his. We must continue the battle with unrelenting fury.”130 Arnold agreed that the Luftwaffe had also suffered much but wanted proof that its end was near. “It appears from my viewpoint that the German Air Force is on the verge of collapsing,” he cabled Eaker. “We must not (repeat) must not miss any symptoms of impending German collapse. .. . Can you send me any substantial evidence of collapse?”131