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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