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.
For more discussion of the war, the latest news, and announcements, be sure to visit World War II Magazine’s Facebook page.