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Wild Blue Yonder, II

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: November 01, 2009 
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As we observed last week, flying a bomber over Germany was by its very nature dangerous business. Anyone who looks at it fairly, however, has to admit that some of the problems might have been  avoidable. 

There were a number of specious ideas "in the air" in those days.  The untried doctrine of "precision daylight bombing" to which U.S. air forces were wedded, for example, ran into the reality of fully alerted and heavily echeloned German antiaircraft defenses. The notion that bombers like the B-17 and B-24 could defend themselves against German fighters (the B-17 was a "flying fortress," after all), and thus did not need a long-range escort fighter, ran into the problem of a human machine gunner trying to hit an FW-190 whizzing past the bomber at breakneck speed. We won't even go into the giddy horror of serving as the ball-turret gunner.  The notion of a straight, slow bombing run over the target ran into the natural inclination of the pilot and crew to take evasive action from the ever-present flak.  Then there were the slogans–and the infancy of air power was filled with them.  Slogans like "the bomber will always get through" or the Norden bombsight's alleged ability to "drop a bomb in a pickle barrel at 20,000 feet" often seemed more like mantras to silence debate than flexible and sensible guidelines to warfighting. 

Historians usually point out that much of what passed for USAAF "doctrine" in the early years of the air war was dreamed up by a handful of air officers sitting around in a room, quite literally.  General Ira C. Eaker usually gets the blame, and so, by implication, does the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, AL.  But we need to go beyond personality.  There was a bigger issue here than one blinkered general or a single staff school.  This was new territory, after all.  There had been a great deal of discussion in the interwar era of strategic bombing, but no one had ever done it for real.  There was no objective evidence that "precision daylight bombing" by unescorted bombers would work, and, unfortunately, it didn't.  It would take the airmen years to work out a more sensible approach. 

As always, it was the men at the point of the spear–the bomber crews–who paid the price when doctrine clashed with reality.

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10 Responses to “Wild Blue Yonder, II”


  1. 1
    Luke Truxal says:

    This is a case where technology outpaced the doctrine. Especially in the case of radar which allowed fighters to wait and concentrate their efforts. Their are instances where German fighters were waiting at the exact point where the short range Allied escort fighters had to turn back. There is no way that Eaker and the Air Corps Tactical School could have dreamed up the ways in which radar would change the dynamics of fighter defense. Look at the Germans in the Battle of Britain. The Americans weren't the only ones whose doctrine could not keep up with the new technologies being developed.

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Good point(s), Luke. I guess I always feel that historians have to go beyond choosing a lone individual to blame and try to penetrate the problem a bit more deeply.

  3. 3
    Lee says:

    Fantastic follow-up to last week's installment. Insightful, informative, accessible, and just masterfully done- as a reader of this stuff, that isn't as easy as it looks- thank you.

  4. 4
    Rob Citino says:

    Lee– Thanks. I'm humbled.

    Luke– I tried to be fair to Eaker. But is it possible you're being TOO fair? Aren't planners PAID to think about just these developments (like RADAR?) I'm just sayin'…

  5. 5
    Luke Truxal says:

    I do blame Eaker for a lot of problems. Especially later in the war in his failure to realize the full potential of his fighters. That is why he was "promoted" to the Mediterranean Theater. I think the United States Army Air Corps as a whole deserves blame for not realizing the need to develop long range escort fighters during the inter-war years. From my limited and I mean limited research I believe the only officer at the time that realized a strategic bomber air force could be intercepted by fighters is Haywood Hansell. He proposed that if the bombers faced heavy fighter opposition the air corps should shift it's strategy and develop a strategic bombing campaign focused on gaining air superiority. Why Eaker did not follow this course of action Hansell proposed years earlier I still do not know. Which is why I am still a student. Jimmy Doolittle though did fight such a campaign which successfully gained air superiority for the invasion at Normandy.

  6. 6
    Steven Ramold says:

    The prewar strategic bombing doctrine is easier to explain in the context of the economic and political climate in which it was created. The doctrine was the product of a process that included what the Air Corps could get and afford rather than the most effective doctrine possible.

    The doctrine called for high altitude precision bombing in daylight in tight formation against industrial targets. All of these elements were included because of the limitations on military funding. With only limited numbers of bombers, aircraft had to fly at high altitude to protect them from anti-aircraft fire. Precision bombing intended to destroy targets on the first raid, so valuable aircraft did not have to risk hitting the target again. Daylight bombing aided accuracy, but also meant that bombers did not need the sophisticated (read, expensive) navigational equipment required to fly at night. Tight formation protected the bombers with mutual fire, necessary because there was no money for escort fighters. Bombers targeted industrial centers because, with only limited bombers available, their destruction would have the most impact relative to the destruction of other targets. Douhet might have loved the idea of dropping poison gas on civilian centers, but destroying tanks before they are built gave you more bang for the buck.

  7. 7
    Rob Citino says:

    Steven–

    Let me nail this down a bit Are you saying that the Air Corps consciously devised a doctrine it felt could win wars "on the cheap," so to speak? Did the airmen fool themselves, in other words? Or were financial constraints a kind of limiting matrix within which the Air Corps had to work (and which resulted eventually in a concept of precision daylight bombing)? Because #1 makes them look bad, and #2 makes them much more innocent victims of circumstance.

  8. 8
    Steven Ramold says:

    Rob,

    I think a little of both. Air power enthusiasts certainly believed that they could influence the outcome of wars in a decisive way. In the isolationist climate of the interwar period, the ability to strike the enemy at a distance without risking a large number of American lives sounded very appealing. The same rationale came up after Vietnam and resulted in the cruise missile that Presidents love so much. But air power enthusiasts also had to accept the economic reality of the Great Depression and recognize that they were not going to receive unlimited funding and had to maximize what funding they did receive. On top of all of that is the unswerving desire to emulate the RAF and have a separate American air force. For a service who did not want to be thought of as simply flying artillery, operating off on your own in the strategic role provided ammunition for your arguement for a separate branch. So, taken as a whole, I believe the prewar proponents of strategic bombing were promising, as you put it, 'wars on the cheap' and perhaps even believed it was possible.

    It might be easy to say that the Air Corps 'fooled themselves' into thinking that they got it right the first time. They certainly kept flying into the teeth of German defenses when every indication was that they were not inflicting the type of damage that they presumed they could inflict. But once freed from the isolationist and economic restrictions of the prewar period, the Air Corps did adapt to wartime conditions. The B-17/B-24 missions certainly got a lot of the press, but the Air Corps did not rely entirely upon four-engine strategic bombing. If the Air Corps was as truly committed to strategic bombing and strategic bombing only, then there was no need for the clouds of light (A-20/A-26) and medium (B-25/B-26) bombers, not to mention the wartime fighter-bomber expedient.

    And, in the end, the Air Corps itself continued to have faith in the strategic mission. It created the belief prewar, it suffered through it during the war, and it cemented it postwar. Thanks to 'bomber generals' like Curtis LeMay, the new U.S. Air Force, once again in a period of fiscal restraint, organized itself around the manned bomber of the Strategic Air Command to the detriment of virtually every other mission.

  9. 9
    Cap'n Dave says:

    Something else to consider is the timeframe for development of effective doctrine. Air doctrine was developed over an amazingly compressed timeline of about 20 years, and then put immediately into tactical operation without incremental assessments and updates. In contrast, development of effective musketry / riflery doctrine took far longer and had many, near annual, updates and adjustments from Frederick, through Napoleon, to Moltke and beyond.
    From my point of view, the serious flaw in those responsible for air doctrine seems to be a lack of responsiveness to ineffective tactics and a hidebound devotion to unproven theories. This is something we see today in various fields in the Army, from Stryker to COIN doctrine: A failure to adapt in light of flawed concepts.

  10. 10
    TL Rouhier says:

    In 42 Sokorski (sp?) wrote a book explaining the limits of air power and how it could be fixed. He invisioned a bomber with super engines that would have enough firepower to not need escorts yet carry a big bomb load. He also explained why the Germans didn't capture Moscow. Every 200 miles the army had to stop advancing so that new air fields could be built. That prevented them getting there befor winter set in.



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