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Shortening the War

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: September 16, 2010 
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Last time out, I wrote about losses.  In all the discussion about war–strategy, operations, tactics–casualties rarely get the precise attention they deserve.

I had that point reinforced this week as I was reading Robert S. Ehlers's very fine book, Targeting the Third Reich, dealing with air intelligence in the Allied bombing campaigns.  I urge anyone who thinks that strategic bombing is merely a matter of putting a lot of big planes in the air to read this book.  Before you're ready to open those bomb-bay doors, someone has to discern which sectors of the enemy economy and military-industrial complex you ought to be hitting.  That's a tough job, requiring the assembly of precise data during wartime.  Then someone has to decide which targets are most crucial to the efficient operation of those sectors.  That isn't easy, either.  Only then do you bomb.  Hopefully it goes well, but before you raise your fist in victory, someone else has to do the most difficult task of all:  BDA (bomb damage assessment).  The complexity here boggles the mind.  In World War II, it required highly trained specialists from multiple agencies willing to share information; purpose-built aircraft; good cameras, and even better film (a crucial point).  It also required the airmen who were actually performing the bombing to accept some hard realities–that they had often risked their lives and suffered casualties in vain, having missed their targets entirely.  By definition, anything as complex as BDA was going to take years to work out to a useful level, and indeed, it was the very definition of "work in progress" during the war. 

It was the discussion at the end of the book that struck me most forcefully, however.  Ehlers himself engages in a bit of BDA, posing the question of just how effective the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive had been, and asking in particular just how much it managed to shorten the war. 

Typically, this is the point in the discussion where we say, "Cue fireworks!"  Anyone conversant in the history of World War II knows that this is a very controversial issue with the answers varying widely depending on where you stand.  Both air power advocates and air power detractors have their points, and the discussion can get testy from time to time.

That was why I was so happy with the tone of Ehlers's analysis.  In the course of the war, he reminds us, military planners came to see strategic air power as part of the overall puzzle of smashing the German war machine, not the end-all and be-all.  Its principal task was not to win the war all by itself, but to limit the mobility of German ground formations and render them incapable of practicing the high-speed maneuver warfare (Bewegungskrieg) that was their stock in trade.

In three campaigns–against the railroad net in France and Belgium, against the German oil industry, and against railroads and waterways in Germany itself–Allied strategic air managed to do just that.  That success, in turn, shortened the war.  But by how much?  Ehlers weighs the arguments and comes up with a reasoned estimate that it shortened the war by three months or so.  In other words, not so much.

"Not so much," that is, until you begin to think about the issue of casualties.  A couple of figures ought to suffice.  In the last four months of the war in the ETO, the western Allies averaged 50,000 casualties or so per month; the Soviets army about 300,000 per month.  Adding it up, ending the war three months early saved over one million additional Allied casualties. 

If you ask me, those were three good months.

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5 Responses to “Shortening the War”


  1. 1

    [...] from:  Shortening the War » HistoryNet Post a [...]

  2. 2
    Robert Kapanjie says:

    The bombing war, not only saved a million allied casualities it also spared Germany the horror of atomic bomb attacks. The scientists at Los Alamos were racing to develop the bomb feeling they were in desperate competition with the Reich's A bomb development. If Germany had not surrendered when they did, their viability in August 1945 would have merited the A-bomb holocaust, not Japan, whom Allied military felt represented a greater threat.

  3. 3
    michael says:

    The main impact would have been in secondary and even tertiary effects of the bombing. This makes accurate analysis probably impossible to gauge. I do think that the impact of American daylight bombing was much more effective in winning the war than the British bombing at night which seemed to cause more civilian casualties versus a significant impact on military capabilities.

  4. 4
    Tony Tramonte says:

    I think it clearly shortened the war, held down (at least Western Allied Casualties) and helped to keep the Alliance with the USSR intact, as Stalin could see that Germany was being engaged by the Western Allied Air Forces, and that Germany had to use a lot of their critical resources on air defense. The strategic bombing and the tactical bombing made it possible for the Allied invasion of Northwestern Europe to be held off until 1944, by which time the Soviets had already pushed pushed the Germans significantly back towards Germany.

  5. 5
    Jacob DeWitt says:

    I think the best point is that the air forces of British and American needing a great deal of trial and error to figure out how to effectively damage the German war industry. Given the horrible attrition rate of British and American crews (about equal despite the differing theories on casualties during day and night bombing) it was an uphill battle to train and develop an effective bombing force with no prior experience to draw from. The Americans were more accurate, but used weaker bombs(if you can call a 500lb bomb weak) that required so many bombers that they nullified their theory of pinpoint accuracy. The British used the proper ordinance to damage industrial machinery, but were so inaccurate that the Germans sometimes didn't know which city was the target, and also shifted more towards urban destruction. The Oil and Transportation plans probably couldn't have come around any sooner than they did. They shortened the war, but agreed, it was a combined effort of different branches. And it probably did more towards that end than reallocating those men and resources to other branches would have done. It was a new technology using a new strategy. It probably did about as well as it could have.



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