On 26 April 1945, with Anglo-American armies across the Rhine and Berlin ringed by Soviet legions, American heavy bombers flew their last mission in the Combined Bomber Offensive. More than 70 percent of almost 2,700,000 tons of bombs that the Army Air Forces and raf dropped on Axis Europe fell during the war’s last nine months.113 Most of the destruction to German industry occurred during that span, aided by factories finally producing at peak capacity and without slack to compensate for the damage. The nine months of intense bombing after achieving daylight air superiority paralleled the six-month requirement forecasted by awpd-i, AWPD-42, and Eaker’s April 1943 CBO plan, though none of those plans anticipated the substantial diversion of the heavy bomber effort to battlefield support, raf Bomber Command made sizable contributions to the air campaign, dropping 67,000 tons of bombs alone in March 194 5.114 The destruction of Germany’s ability to fight accelerated after Eisenhower released control of Bomber Command and usstaf in September 1944. By December, bombing had destroyed half of Germany’s supply of all petroleum products. The attack on German transportation lines, which began in earnest in September 1944 and generally received second billing to oil targets, reduced the volume of railroad car loadings by 75 percent in February 194 5.115
The clamor for fast results removed the emphasis on efficiency that was a hallmark of American air power’s prewar progressive notions. When combined with the overarching objective of unconditional surrender, the impetus for speed had dismal consequences for the attacker as well as the attacked. The requirement for total victory “with minimum suffering and loss for the victors… could justify almost any action that accelerated triumph,” remarked historian Michael Sherry.116 The Combined Bomber Offensive killed 305,000 German civilians, wounded at least 780,000, destroyed the homes of 1,865,000, forced 4,885,000 to evacuate, and deprived 20 million of public utilities. By the third quarter of 1944 the air offensive had tied down an estimated 4.5 million workers, almost 20 percent of the non-agricultural labor force, in air raid-related activities.117 The goal of rapid success, though, impelled Spaatz and, to a lesser extent, Eaker to wage a campaign of aerial attrition that produced enormous losses for American airmen in the skies over Hitler’s Europe. By the end of the war Eighth Air Force had suffered 26,000 fatal casualties— more than the entire United States Marine Corps.118 All told, the Army Air Forces in the European and Mediterranean theaters lost almost 36,000 men killed.119 Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces combined lost 8,759 heavy bombers.120 raf Bomber Command, which fought for almost three years more than the Americans, had 55,888 men killed, a majority of whom lost their lives to the Luftwaffe’s formidable night fighter force.121
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, produced after the conflict by a team of primarily civilian analysts, concluded that “Allied air power was decisive in the war in western Europe.”122 It further surmised that had Allied armies not overrun Germany, bombing would have halted its armament production by May 1945, resulting in the collapse of resistance a few months later.121 Yet air power did not produce an independent victory in the European war, and the vast efforts of Allied armies and navies were essential to destroying the Third Reich’s capability and will to fight. The Survey acknowledged that strategic bombing complemented those efforts by achieving air superiority and reducing the quantity, and quality, of materiel that the Germans could bring to the battlefield.
Though the dream of a distinctive “victory through air power” remained unfulfilled in Europe, American airmen would have one more chance to make it a reality. As Spaatz signed Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Soviet Union in the smoldering Berlin suburbs just before midnight on 8 May, half a world away, the crews of 302 B-29S of Hap Arnold’s Twentieth Air Force prepared for missions against Tokuyama, Otake, and Amami-O – Shima. They had been burning Japan’s cities for two months. Another massive effort to achieve a rapid, independent victory with air power was underway.