Mark Collins – World War II: Combined Bomber Offensive Against Germany Effectively a Bust

So concludes noted historian Richard Overy–from a review in The Economist:

Strategic bombing, 1939-45
A costly, brutal failure
A damning verdict on the bombing campaign in Europe during the second world war

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 852 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.uk

What is still surprising, in retrospect, is how successful combatant air forces were in commanding valuable resources while their achievements were so hard to quantify. It was understandable that the British, with no other means of striking back at Germany in the early stages of the war, were prepared to devote such a huge effort to making bombing a success. However, the 40% of the armed forces’ direct military budget that was consumed by the proponents of air power during the war, together with the diversion of skilled technical and scientific manpower that went with it, looks like poor value for money now… 

Mr Overy’s final verdict…is damning. He argues that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” Nor has it left any real legacy. It was rapidly rendered redundant by the overwhelming but (since 1945 at least) unusable destructive power of nuclear weapons. More recently, bombing has come full circle. Precision-guided munitions now allow Western air forces to hit military targets while leaving even nearby civilians often largely unscathed—the precise opposite of what prevailed during the second world war.

One must understand though that when the British in 1940-41 made the decisions to devote so many resources to aerial bombardment it was the only way open to them to try and hit back hard at Germany (and until June 1941 they were without a large ally).  So at the time it made sense; and later was too late efficiently to redirect all those industrial and human resources committed to attacking German cities.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

9 thoughts on “Mark Collins – World War II: Combined Bomber Offensive Against Germany Effectively a Bust”

  1. I understand the political necessity of the bombing campaign, especially in terms of the Soviets’ constant pressure for a second European front. What I do not understand (or rather, perhaps I understand all too well from an emotional perspective) is the choice of tactics.

    The Allies had only one bomber of proven accuracy and effectiveness throughout the early years of the war- the De Havilland Mosquito, which was orders of magnitude more accurate than any of the heavies due to its low and fast attack profile. The Mosquito could destroy with four aircraft a target that might take a dozen sorties and thousands of bombs for the Lancasters or B-17s to destroy. It had the highest survival rate of any bomber in that time period and the lowest ordinance expenditure per target. What I find truly baffling is that this incredibly cheap aircraft never made anyone stop to think about the comparative advantages of expending relatively few men and aircraft to destroy high-value targets versus sending in great fleets of bombers to be slaughtered by the Luftwaffe to very little effect.

    As to the one useful aspect of the bombing campaign- making the Luftwaffe bleed fighters and pilots- there’s no particular reason they couldn’t have achieved the same thing through fighter sweeps and strikes against airfields.

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  2. The Bf 110 was slow and manoeuvrable, and conceived as an escort fighter (in which role it was slaughtered). Descendants of the Bf 110 aircraft were developed for close air support, but the concept remained shaky until the Me 410 came along late in the war- by which time it was too late for it to do anything but interception. The Ju 88 was originally conceived as a fast bomber, in a role similar to the Mosquito, but by the time of the Battle of Britain, its speed had fallen behind the opposing fighter aircraft.

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  3. Perhaps a problem was that the RAF staff did not trust the Mosquito for some time (wood!) until it proved itself after service entry in 1942–and the difficulties in changing over (contracts too!) other bomber factories to make it. You go usually go on in war with the aircraft you have planned for (and luckily the Manchester could become the Lancaster):
    http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/dehavillandmosquito.cfm
    http://www.aviation-history.com/avro/683.html

    Thank goodness someone put a Merlin in the Mustang–and realized how far it could fly!

    Mark Collins

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    1. There were probably several additional considerations:
      1. the effectiveness of heavy bomber operations, particularly at night, tended to be over-estimated (there is some interesting discussion in the book “Most Secret War” by R. V. Jones);
      2. there was a concern that the Germans would soon develop fighters that could reliably intercept the Mosquito. This did not happen until near the end of the war when the Me 262 and Ta 152 started to appear.

      With respect to the first point, it would seem very reasonable to assume that a heavy bomber carrying several times the bomb load, and having a capability for carrying much larger bombs, compared to a smaller aircraft must surely be much more effective. Interestingly, the US showed little interest in the Mosquito.

      The Allied execution of the air war seems to have been at least partly a case of missed opportunities, some of which include:

      – failing to follow up on the successful use of the bombs developed by Barnes Wallis to breach key dams in the Ruhr Valley (the Germans were allowed to repair them)
      – the failure to realize that advanced navigation aids made it possible to carry out attacks in a systematic way against carefully selected strategic targets, even at night, and that such attacks could have a much greater military effect than the seemingly spectacular area bombing raids.

      Interestingly, it seems that the Germans realized the importance of accurate bombing early on. Their adoption of dive bombing tactics proved successful at first, but later had unintended consequences when demands that future bombers needed to have dive bombing capabilities disrupted the development of aircraft such as the Do 217 and He 177.

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  4. A friend with considerable knowledge of military history observes:

    “At this point, I’m not sure that any study, even by a level-headed historian like Overy, can ever resolve this question.

    It may be useful to consider how the bomber offensive looked from the perspective of those who had to fight a war but who lacked the ability to see into the future. Much of the writing about the bomber offensive is fatally flawed because of this; it looks very different after the fact when analyses may well demonstrate that the bombers were less effective than two decades of doctrine and successful inter- and intra-service politicking had assumed they would be.

    Many of the questions that come to mind are suggestive but not definitive. I would say that the diversion of even a hundred or so heavies to maritime reconnaissance and anti-sub convoy escort might have made a difference at the strategic level [I quite agree, more VLR Liberators – MC – some CanCon:
    http://ww2eagles.blogspot.ca/2011/06/liberators-of-atlantic.html
    http://www.canadianwings.com/Archives/archivesDetail.php?Consolidated-B-24-Liberator-s-of-the-RCAF-14 ]. And what effect on the German effort against the Red Army was the result of diverting hundreds of 88mm guns from anti-tank to anti-air roles?

    Post-war analyses of air power effectiveness in many roles questioned its efficacy. It was soon understood that all the close air support efforts of the RAF, RCAF and USAAF killed nowhere as many tanks, guns and trains as wartime enthusiasm and films proclaimed [e.g. http://www.wlu.ca/lcmsds/cmh/back%20issues/CMH/volume%203/issue%201/Copp%20-%20Operational%20Research%20and%2021%20Army%20Group.pdf ]. Interdiction bombing of supply lines often seemed to have little effect on the Germans’ ability to deploy capable army units with adequate supplies on all fronts [Normandy pre- and post-Overlord? MC].

    Aside from pure air defence, air superiority over the battlefield, maritime recce and transport, much of air power has been oversold to generations of media and politicians but then they do not read obscure works of operational research and after all, every airman is a hero ‘who was there’.”

    Mark Collins

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