Monday, October 29, 2012

Book review - Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II: The Myths and the Facts

This short but very interesting book covers the USAAF strategic bombing effort in WWII. The author looks into the beginnings of strategic bombing in WWI, the interwar theories and the history and performance of the US Army Airforce bombers in the European and Pacific theatres.

There are separate chapters for the planes used, the bombs, the bombsights, the aircrews, the campaigns and the postwar bombing surveys.

The author is highly critical of the theory and practice of strategic bombing in WWII. The interwar bombing theories of Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard were superficially attractive to politicians and military officers. Instead of sending hundreds of thousands of young soldiers to fight in the trenches a country could invest in a large bomber force that could quickly attack the enemy’s population and industrial centers. According to the prophets of airpower these attacks would lead to the collapse of the enemy’s economy and mass panic would force the government to surrender. These theories were based on the principles that:

1). The bombers would always get through to their targets.

2). The bombers would have no difficulty in locating and bombing the targets.

3). The civilian population would be predisposed to mass hysteria in the event of bombing.

In WWII these preconceptions were proven false. The use of radar meant that the course of bombers could be correctly estimated and fighters vectored to meet them, it proved to be extremely difficult to locate ground targets and the civilians of the Axis countries continued to work despite the bombing campaigns.

Undoubtedly the promoters of airpower must have realized these problems but they were more interested in ensuring that their airforces would rise to become a separate branch of the armed forces.

The greatest part of the book deals with the USAAF effort and looks into the equipment and personnel used. The strategic bombers were the B-17, B-24 and B-29.

The author is not afraid to criticize icons of US airpower. The B-17 was developed in the early ‘30’s and by the 1940’s was lacking in terms of performance. The RAF found it ‘uneconomical in relation to the crew and technical maintenance required’. It could not carry the bomb load of newer models and its bomb bay could not carry large bombs used against hardened targets.

The B-24 was a new aircraft but its ‘Davis wing’ was a source of problems. On the one hand it provided low drag at cruising speed and did not compromise high speed performance. However above 20.000 feet it was prone to high speed stalls and its design made it practically impossible to successfully ditch the plane in case of an emergency .

The B-29 was the most expensive bomber produced by the US. However its problems in the field were legendary. Eventually more were lost to accidents than by enemy action.

These planes were supposed to be able to defend themselves through heavy defensive armament and close formation flying. Over Europe the German fighter defenses inflicted heavy casualties and thus fighter escort was required. This role was performed by the P-47, P-38 and P-51 fighters. The P-47 was a very heavy plane, affecting its acceleration and climb rate. However at high altitude it was a good performer. The twin engined P-38 performed well in the Pacific but in Europe it had serious engine problems at high altitude. Eventually the fighter that would change the airwar would be the P-51 due to its unprecedented range and its excellent flying performance.

Bombing targets from 20-30.000 feet using unguided bombs was, to put it mildly, slightly inaccurate. The chances of the bombs dropping close to the target were minuscule (according to a USAAF study ~1.2% for a single B-17 flying at 20.000 feet to hit a factory sized target). This reality was compounded in Western Europe by the cloudy weather that made precision bombing impossible most days. Highly developed bombsights like the US Norden proved to be useless in W.Europe because of the clouds and smoke. In response to this problem the British H2S radar sight was used but its accuracy was even lower than the optical types.

Under these conditions locating targets was very difficult and accurately bombing them almost impossible. The USAAF compensated by using large numbers of bombers in every mission so that some would hit the target. However the cost of building and operating such forces was huge.

The human cost of the bombing campaign was also very expensive. Bomber crews had little chances to survive their 25 missions (increased in 1944). In the first half of 1944 the casualty rate was 89%. Casualties finally went down in the second half of ’44 when the Luftwaffe could not effectively attack the bomber groups due to attrition and lack of fuel.

At the end of the war the USAAF organized a detailed study of the German and Japanese economies and the effects that strategic bombing had on them. Famous economists, like Galbraith, were part of the teams that did the analysis. The results showed that German war production increased during the war despite the bomber offensive. In fact the year that production peaked was 1944 despite the huge Anglo-American effort. The separate RAF study came to similar conclusions.

Galbraith was critical of the US bombing survey and wrote in ‘A Life in Our Times’: ‘But strategic bombing had not won the war. At most it had eased somewhat the task of the ground troops who did. The aircraft, manpower and bombs used in the campaign had cost the American economy far more in output than they had cost Germany. However our economy being much larger we could afford it.’

Overall this is a very interesting and outspoken analysis of the USAAF strategic bombing effort in WWII.

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