It Wasn’t just the UK’s “Bomber” Harris who Claimed Strategic Bombing could Win World War II

Much of the Royal Air Force, exemplified by Air Marshal Arthur Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command, indeed believed in victory through air power:

1) Air Marshal Harris to Prime Minister Churchill in November, 1943:

We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the U.S.A.A.F. will come in on it [US Army Air Forces, not an independent service unitil 1947]. It will cost us between 400 and 500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.

Not quite. The USAAF had suffered grievous, unsupportable losses with its daylight attacks earlier that year, many without fighter escort over target (including the Schweinfurt/Regensburg raids noted below). So it stayed out while the RAF blasted Berlin by night for months over the winter. With heavy losses and nothing like decisive results. In fact the number of civilians killed may not have been all that much greater than aircrew losses, see here and here.

(It is noteworthy that Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons in No. 6 Group with Bomber Command suffered over 10,000 dead of the command’s 55,000 total. That was almost one quarter of all Canadian military fatalities during the war, note mention of the Battle of Berlin at the immediately preceding link.)

2) Then see this from General “Hap” Arnold, Commanding General of the USAAF, in June 1943 (p. 138, Selling Schweinfurt by USAF Colonel Brian D. Vlaun):

It is important for the people to understand that our prime purpose is destruction of the enemy’s [Germany’s] ability to wage war, by our planned persistent bombing and sapping of his vital industries, his transportation, and his whole supply system…it will win the war and save perhaps millions of lives which otherwise would be sacrificed in bloody ground combat…

The book itself is a very good account, based on primary sources, of the the development of strategic bombing doctrine, the formulation of targeting policy and the use and misuse of intelligence on which it was intended to be planned. executed and refined, the difficulties of bomb damage assessment, and assorted intra-and inter-service disputes and conflicts about the on-going conduct of the campaign. (With regard to bomb damage assessment a brilliant young WAAF (British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) photo interpreter, Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith, enjoys a prominent cameo role–pp. 159-60 and elsewhere.)

UPDATE: Very good review of the book that came out after this post:

Plus an earlier post inspired by a 2016 article in an academic journal by Lee Lacy, Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College:

Movie “Command Decision” and US Strategic Bombing vs Germany, 1943

It focuses not on combat as such but on the United States Army Air Forces’ determination in 1943 to preserve its policy of strategic daylight precision bombing (the RAF believed in area bombing at night) despite growing doubts about that policy in Washington given the grave losses being suffered [the movie deals in a fictional way with the Schweinfurt/Regensburg attacks, see here and here]

In the photo at the top of the “Command Decision” post Brian Donlevy is the brigadier general holding the model Me-262 in his left hand (though the fighter has a different name, see bottom right of the chart in front of the generals). The movie is on Turner Classic Movies from time-to time.

Also very relevant:

World War II: Combined Bomber Offensive Against Germany Effectively a Bust–or Not?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

4 thoughts on “It Wasn’t just the UK’s “Bomber” Harris who Claimed Strategic Bombing could Win World War II”

    1. Major General Ira Eaker, commander of the USAAF’s strategic bombing 8th Air Force in the UK, is forced to acknowledge the failure of the USAAF’s fervently-held doctrine that un-escorted daylight precision strategic bombing would work–at p. 192 of “Selling Schweinfurt” featured in the post above:

      ‘The day after the brutal beating at Schweinfurt [the second raid on Oct. 14 1943] Eaker finally declared to Arnold [Commanding General of the USAAF in Washington, D.C.]: “Nothing is more critical to our big battle here than the early arrival of P-38s and P-51s [fighters to serve as bomber escorts], and particularly the earliest possible delivery of three to five thousand 110- and 15-gallon auxiliary droppable [fuel] tanks for fighters.” It had taken…six months of painful losses that culminated with Schweinfurt before Eaker finally accepted that his bombers could not get through without the long-range escort.’

      In January 1944 Eaker was shifted to the Mediterranean Theatre and Lt. Gen Carl “Tooey” Spaatz (see book noted at end of the post) was transferred from there to take command of all strategic bombing from both the UK and the Mediterranean:

      And the conclusion of “Selling Schweinfurt”, p. 213 (the book, while exceptionally detailed, is also of a most reasonable length–increasingly uncommon these days):

      “An air campaign may never be fought with perfect information [esp. “intelligence”], but we can endeavor to ask the right questions: What are the organizational interests at play? What ideas and symbols are they selling, and why? And how will these affect the air campaign.”

      The excellent book provides answers to those questions with regard to USAAF strategic bombing doctrine, planning and execution up to 1944.

      Mark Collins


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