On October 14, 1943, the air war over Europe reached a critical turning point. On that Thursday, the United States Eighth Air Force mounted Mission No. 115 against the city of Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball bearing industry.
Sixteen bomber groups from the 1st and 3rd Air divisions would participate in the strike. In all, 291 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses took off from bases in England and headed east toward the German border. As the bombers formed up over the Channel, short-range British Supermarine Spitfire fighters climbed to escort the heavies to the Continent. There, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts took over, escorting the flying armada to the German border. But insufficient range prevented the Thunderbolts from keeping the bombers company all the way to the target. Turning back somewhere around Aachen, just inside the German border, the P-47s left the unescorted bombers to a catastrophic fate.
Out of 291 bombers dispatched, 257 actually entered German airspace. Sixty were shot down, just over 20 percent of the total number. Two hundred twenty-nine B-17s reached Schweinfurt and dropped their bombs. Only 197 returned to England. Of those, five planes were abandoned or crashed on landing, while 17 others landed so damaged that they had to be written off. Altogether, 82 of the 291 original bombers that left England were lost, more than 28 percent of the entire force assigned to the raid.
Moreover, the Schweinfurt Raid was the climax of a week of strikes against German industrial targets. Between October 8 and 14, 1943, the Eighth Air Force flew 1,342 heavy bomber sorties, losing a total of 152 bombers (11.3 percent), with another 6 percent receiving heavy damage. During the entire month of October, the Eighth lost a total of 214 heavy bombers, almost 10 percent of the total number dispatched. Lost and damaged planes constituted more than half the sorties flown during the month. At that rate of attrition, an entirely new bomber force would be required every three months in order to maintain the Allied bomber offensive.
After the prohibitive losses sustained in October 1943, the Eighth Air Force suspended deep bomber strikes into German territory. Two premises of daylight strategic bombing—that bombers would be able to get through enemy defenses and back without escorts, and that destroying the enemy’s industrial base would cripple its war effort—appeared to be greatly mistaken. American air leaders, recognizing the inability of unescorted heavy bombers to get through and bomb German industry without excessive losses, questioned the very foundation of American air strategy. But why did American air leaders initially believe their heavy bombers would always get through, and what were the consequences of the American strategic doctrine when applied in the skies over the Third Reich? How has American air doctrine changed as a result?
The airplane, initially used during World War I in a reconnaissance role to locate enemy troop and artillery movements and concentrations, evolved throughout the conflict to perform all of the roles identified with modern air power—including strategic bombing. Although it was an immature weapons system during the Great War, the airplane’s enormous potential fueled the imaginations of interwar air theorists, foremost among them Italy’s Giulio Douhet.
Assuming that population and industrial centers would be vulnerable to fleets of heavy bombers, Douhet advocated attacking an enemy nation’s urban areas and factories with explosives, incendiaries and poisonous gas—with no distinction being made between combatant and noncombatant. Douhet believed that the impact of strategic bombing would simultaneously demoralize an enemy’s civilian population and destroy its capacity to wage war.
During the 1920s, Douhet’s theories and those of air power advocate Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell gained champions within the U.S. Army Air Corps, and strategic bombing doctrine began to be reflected in its field manuals. Chief among this new generation of bomber advocates in the late 1930s was the leader of the Army Air Corps, General Henry “Hap” Arnold. As the commander in chief of the American air service, General Arnold surrounded himself with “bomber men,” disciples of daylight strategic precision bombing. According to Arnold and his top commanders, the primary purpose of air power in Europe during the coming conflicts would be strategic bombing. Strategic bombing was the only major contribution the airmen could make to the war effort that was largely independent of the Army and Navy. If air power was to show its capabilities as an equal partner to ground and naval forces, it would be done through the successes of strategic bombing.
Because of the prohibitive cost of creating a bomber fleet on a “Douhetian” scale in the interwar fiscal environment, the U.S. Army Air Corps Tactical School advocated only the precision bombing of an enemy nation’s vital centers–its factories, power sources, transportation and raw materials. Advocates believed this goal could be achieved through the use of the new, fast, long-range “precision bombers” coming into service late in the 1930s, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.
Powered by four turbocharged engines, the B-17s and B-24s were, at the time of their test flights in the mid-1930s, faster than most of the world’s operational interceptors. ‘If the superior speed of the bomber was such to make interception improbable, or at worst, infrequent, then no provision need be made for escort fighters to accompany the bombers on their long range missions,’ said one modern analyst of the 1930s air doctrine. Moreover, the new heavy bombers flew above 20,000 feet, too high to be reached by most ground-based antiaircraft.
The Air Corps bomber men believed the American heavy bombers would fly high and fast into enemy territory, eluding interceptors and antiaircraft defenses. Once above the target area, these “self-defending” American bombers would utilize the world’s most sophisticated bombsight—the Norden—which allowed for such factors as speed, course, wind direction and distance to target. Under favorable conditions, trained aircrews were able to place their payloads within a few hundred feet of their target from over 15,000 feet, prompting an Army Air Forces spokesman to boast that the aircrews could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel at 25,000 feet.” But for the Norden bombsight to work well, American pilots had to deliver their payloads during daylight hours, in good weather and in level flight.
By 1940, with U.S. involvement in the European war imminent, American air commanders put their faith in the heavy bombers’ ability to get through to bomb Adolf Hitler’s Germany into submission. These leaders built an air doctrine around untested assumptions—that their bomber armadas could penetrate enemy territory without the aid of fighter escort and accurately strike German industrial targets.
In June 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps was redesignated the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and submitted a blueprint for the defeat of the Axis powers should the United States be drawn into the war. Convinced of the effectiveness of strategic bombing, the Army Air Forces asked for and received permission to build a huge bomber force on truly a Douhetian scale. But building such an armada would take time; planes needed to be assembled, air and ground crews trained, and an air force, the Eighth, had to be positioned in England.
The British initiated their own strategic bombing campaign against Germany in late 1939. Initially, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) Bomber Command attempted daylight strikes against the Reich, but those strikes proved disastrous, and the British soon turned to night attacks against urban centers. Throughout 1940 and 1941, the RAF continued to build up its small bomber force, and in May 1942, it conducted the first of many “thousand bomber raids” against German military, industrial and civilian targets. British Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster, and Vickers Wellington bombers waded through the night skies to burn Germany’s cities with incendiary payloads.
British bomber raids were conducted at night to minimize aircraft losses, but the accuracy of the nocturnal strikes left much to be desired. Bomber Command was forced to carpet-bomb urban areas, a strategy that razed parts of German cities but did not effectively target Hitler’s industrial complex. The British reasoned that carpet-bombing would destroy civilian morale. These night attacks continued for the remainder of the war, complementing the USAAF’s daylight precision-bombing campaign by forcing Hitler to use essential resources in an attempt to save German cities from firebombing.
The newly formed Eighth Air Force, under the command of one of Arnold’s premier bomber men, Maj. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, joined the RAF Bomber Command in England in the summer of 1942. When Eaker joined the Eighth Air Force, he had only a handful of B-17s in the European theater. Over the next year, the Eighth Air Force leadership struggled to build a bomber force capable of inflicting serious damage on the Germans. Once in place, the Eighth Air Force pursued a policy of high-altitude daylight precision bombing against specific target systems—aircraft factories, electric power, transportation and oil supplies—in an attempt to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war.
The Allied strategic campaign in 1942 was very limited and too modest to produce conclusive evidence on its effectiveness. This was a period of apprenticeship, as bomber commanders learned tactics, trained crews and built up a ground organization. In anticipation of the invasion of North Africa—Operation Torch—units originally assigned to the Eighth Air Force were instead sent to the Mediterranean. In addition, the Eighth Air Force changed target priorities because the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff demanded that it bomb U-boat pens and construction yards. Since most of their early targets were in France and within U.S. fighter range, the Eighth Air Force bombers had fighter support on many of their raids, and the Luftwaffe had not yet been trained to attack mass formations of B-17s.
Yet even in its limited early operations in 1942, the Eighth Air Force lost up to seven percent of its bombers on some unescorted raids, a rate of loss that previously had led the RAF to abandon daylight operations. Such high attrition rates meant the average bomber crew could expect to survive only 14 or 15 unescorted missions. The standard tour at that time was 25 missions. If more than half the missions turned out to be unescorted, the chances of surviving an entire tour were slim.
Still, German fighters and flak continued to decimate American heavy bombers during daylight raids. General Eaker continued to believe in his bombers’ ability to get through without fighter escort and bomb the Third Reich into submission. Eaker’s optimism was based in part on the outrageous claims made by his aerial gunners and poor intelligence concerning the makeup of the Luftwaffe’s defenses. The Eighth Air Force gunners claimed a 6-to-1 kill ratio against enemy fighters over France and the Low Countries, a vastly exaggerated figure.
Moreover, Eaker believed erroneously that the Germans had created a relatively narrow coastal fighter belt from Hamburg to Brittany. Once the bombers had punched through this fighter belt, he reasoned, there would be clear airspace the rest of the way to and from the targets. With American bomber strength continuously growing, Eaker believed his bombers would be able to get through without long-range escort.
But the Germans had not created a coastal fighter belt. Instead, the Luftwaffe had established five defensive zones, each roughly 25 miles deep, providing fighter coverage more than 100 miles inland from the coast. Instead of punching their way through a single linear defense, Allied bombers had to contend with a sophisticated defense-in-depth, which provided constant attacks against bombers going to and from their targets.
The integration of American and British bombing strategies was formalized in January 1943 at the Casablanca Conference in a directive that laid the basis for a “combined bomber offensive” in preparation for the invasion of Europe and the opening of the second front. Put into effect in June 1943, Operation Pointblank, as the combined bomber offensive was eventually called, appeared critical to any successful invasion and ground campaign, since the limited Allied ground forces would require clear air superiority and would benefit from a weakened Wehrmacht.
Operation Pointblank put German fighter strength at the top of the target list, in a category all its own. This directive, in effect, ordered the Eighth Air Force to destroy the German aviation industry and secure air superiority over the continent, but how air superiority was to be achieved was debatable. With every passing month, more Flying Fortresses and Liberators entered the pipeline, and General Eaker continued to believe his rapidly increasing flock of “self-protecting” bombers would be able to successfully reach, bomb and return from targets over the Reich itself.
Stripped of some of its bombers and fighters due to the North African Campaign, Operation Pointblank opened with attacks on targets in Western Europe. Eaker placed highest priority on attacks on the German aircraft industry, especially fighter assembly plants, engine factories, and ball bearing manufacturers. Petroleum targets and transportation systems dropped down the priority list, while submarine targets remained close to the top. Frustrated by erratic weather (which limited daylight raids to about 10 a month) and crew and aircraft shortages, the Eighth Air Force did not mount a very impressive effort until the summer of 1943. The ever intensifying campaign did, however, help divert about half the Luftwaffe’s fighter force to anti-bomber operations. When Eaker received additional B-17 groups, he ordered major missions deep into Germany against important industrial targets, since the airfield bombings were not appreciably reducing German fighter strength.
On August 17, 1943, the Eighth Air Force launched its deepest raid against the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt and aircraft production factories at Regensburg. The bombs destroyed some of the factory complexes, but the Luftwaffe destroyed or damaged much of the bomber force. The raids cost the Eighth Air Force 60 out of 315 bombers and usually the 10 crewmen in each bomber. After more raids against Luftwaffe airfields, the Eighth Air Force made another massive effort the next month. On September 6, Eaker sent 262 bombers against Stuttgart. Of those, 45 fell to fighters and flak. Although the Americans had proved that, weather permitting, they could put some of their bombs on target, their losses in unescorted raids suggested that the Eighth Air Force might not find planes and crews to replace its losses and maintain efficiency and morale.
Undaunted, Eaker reorganized his bomber force for another maximum effort into Germany in October 1943. Reinforced with bombers redeployed from North Africa, the Eighth Air Force once again flew unescorted into the heart of industrial Germany. The results were again disastrous. Losses in the second week of “Black October” climbed until the second major strike against the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt capped the slaughter. On October 14, “Black Thursday,” a force of 291 B-17s flew into Germany and lost 60 aircraft. Of the survivors, another 138 bombers suffered damage or casualties.
Throughout the summer and fall, Eighth Air Force bomber crews were experiencing a monthly attrition rate of 30 percent, while Luftwaffe pilots died at a rate less than half that of the Americans. Of the 35 aircrews that arrived in England with the 100th Bomb Group at the end of May 1943, only 14 percent of the men made it through the 25 missions required for rotation. The rest were dead, wounded, missing, psychological cases or prisoners of war. The message was clear: Bombers could not survive beyond the range of fighter escort. After Black Week, Eaker called off further penetrations and pondered his dilemma. The American daylight bombing campaign against Germany had reached a crisis point.
The changes eventually made to Operation Pointblank in 1944 came from several sources. Major General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle replaced Eaker as the Eighth Air Force commander on January 6, 1944. Doolittle’s experience as commander of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force during Operation Torch had convinced him of the critical importance of fighter escorts to the success of bombardment. With a fighter-escort advocate at the helm of the Eighth Air Force, the doctrine of air superiority took on greater importance. Not only would bombers continue to strike key aircraft industries, but increasing numbers of American fighter escorts would aggressively attack the Luftwaffe as the Germans rose to attack heavy bomber formations. The American fighters would also dive below 20,000 feet in search of enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground.
Building on engineering projects in 1943, the Eighth Air Force mounted wing and belly tanks on its Lockheed P-38 Lightning and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters. The USAAF also discovered that by placing a British Rolls Royce Merlin engine in the North American P-51 Mustang, originally designed as a ground attack fighter-bomber, they could create the optimal long-range escort fighter for air-to-air duels with the Luftwaffe over German territory. In the meantime, the Eighth Air Force had redesigned its bomber formations for more accurate bombing and mutual self-protection.
Perhaps most significantly, Doolittle instituted a phased escort system that provided fighter coverage in relays. No longer tied to the bomber formations in fuel-wasting close support, Allied fighters were allowed by the relay system to push into enemy airspace at speed and rendezvous with bombers. Using this system, RAF Spitfires were responsible for areas over the English Channel and the North Sea to a distance of about 100 miles. American P-47 Thunderbolts then took over, providing escort for the next 150 to 200 miles. Then P-38 Lightnings took responsibility for another 100 to 150 miles, extending fighter coverage to about 450 miles. With the arrival of the first P-51Bs in England in the late fall of 1943 and the rapid development and refitting of wing and belly tanks, American bombers would enjoy escort cover to 600 miles, a range sufficient to reach Berlin.
In October 1943, the USAAF activated the Fifteenth Air Force, a strategic bomber force flying from Italy that could reach targets in south-central Germany and oil-refining targets in Eastern Europe. The activation of the Fifteenth forced the Germans to defend against two major bomber threats during daylight. Moreover, American aircraft production was finally meeting USAAF needs, and the USAAF training establishment was producing increasing numbers of bomber crews and fighter pilots. In December 1943, the Eighth Air Force mounted its first 600-plane raid. On January 1, 1944, the U.S. Strategic Air Forces, under the command of Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, came into existence to coordinate the Eighth and Fifteenth air forces’ raids.
By early 1944, the newly formed U.S. Strategic Air Forces was hastening the destruction of the Luftwaffe in the air and on the ground, as well as carrying out the selective destruction of German industrial power. Spaatz abandoned his predecessor’s belief that the heavy bombers would always get through and championed the use of fighter escorts for bombers attacking deep into German territory.
The U.S. Strategic Air Forces, coordinating Eighth and Fifteenth air forces’ raids, resulted in a new peak in the American bombing effort. Testing all its reforms in early February 1944, the Eighth Air Force mounted a third Schweinfurt raid and lost only 11 out of 231 bombers, while three other raids sent 600 bombers against Germany with minimal losses. The USAAF mounted some 3,800 daylight sorties over the Reich during the so-called “Big Week” of February 22-25, while more than 2,300 night sorties were flown by RAF Bomber Command. Although Big Week cost the Eighth 300 planes (mostly bombers) lost or written off, nearly 10,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the German aircraft industry and ball bearing plants, a greater tonnage than the Eighth had dropped on all targets in 1943. As many as 1,000 complete or nearly complete German aircraft had been destroyed.
With fighters that could fly beyond the Rhine, protect bomber formations and sweep ahead to engage the Luftwaffe interceptors, the Eighth Air Force formations reversed the loss ratio with the German fighter force. American bomber losses fell below 10 percent of each raiding force, while German pilot losses mounted. In February 1944 alone, the Luftwaffe lost 33 percent of its single-engine fighters and 20 percent of its fighter pilots, including several fliers who were credited with more than 100 victories. In the first four months of 1944 it had lost 1,684 fighter pilots. Their replacements would be unskilled youths thrust into combat against experienced American pilots.
Compounding Germany’s troubles, the Americans had begun to introduce new fighters into the European theater in the fall of 1943, which continued throughout the war. They included Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings, which were joined by British Spitfires and Hawker Tempests. During the first six months of 1944, the air battle over occupied Europe continued with unabated ferocity. A primary goal of Operation Pointblank was fulfilled when, on June 6, 1944, the Luftwaffe failed to menace Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion, and the Allies enjoyed air superiority over the battlefield for the rest of the war. The success of Operation Overlord was in no small part due to the air war waged over the Continent between January and June 1944.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the Luftwaffe battled the RAF and USAAF as the round-the-clock pounding of German cities and industry continued. Allied heavy bombers over the Reich now served as both bait and hunter, compelling the Luftwaffe to climb above 20,000 feet to meet the oncoming bombers and their deadly escorts in order to defend important industrial and population centers. The German planes then became targets for the well-trained Mustang and Thunderbolt pilots.
By the time Operation Pointblank ended, it had achieved its primary objective, securing air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for Overlord. Operation Pointblank had succeeded, but not in the way Allied planners had initially intended or expected. Round-the-clock bombing had not smashed the Luftwaffe into oblivion, nor had it destroyed German aircraft production. Instead, by simultaneously striking at aircraft factories and bombing industrial and military targets deep inside Germany, the combined bomber offensive forced the Luftwaffe to send its fighters to meet the ever-increasing flow of bombers over the Reich. Once in the air, they were assailed by Allied fighter escorts. In this war of attrition, the Luftwaffe lost its greatest asset—its experienced pilots. Without skilled pilots to meet the Allied threat, the rise in German aircraft production meant nothing.
The American doctrine of strategic daylight precision bombing failed because it rested on three premises that would be tested in World War II. The first premise centered on a belief of Arnold and his bomber disciples that their heavy bombers would ‘always get through’ without escort and destroy or neutralize enemy industry. The B-17s and B-24s were not able to adequately fight their way in and establish local command of the air. Instead, the Luftwaffe exploited the weaknesses of the flying armadas, inflicting heavy losses on the bombers—losses so extreme that, after Black Week, strategic bombing was suspended until the emergence of a new air strategy.
Second, supporters of strategic daylight precision bombing believed erroneously that the civilian population was the weak link in a nation’s defense. It was thought that bringing the horrors of war directly to the factories, power plants and railroads in the cities would cause the citizens of an enemy nation to compel their government to sue for peace. In practice, neither the morale nor the will of the bombed populations approached collapse.
The third premise was the belief that strategic bombing could eliminate an enemy’s ability to wage war by destroying its industrial base. German industrial output was not stopped by Allied strategic bombing. Legions of laborers ensured adequate manpower, while the largest machine-tool industry in the world compensated for the damage done to machinery. Germany had sufficient industrial capacity to absorb the first years of Allied strategic bombing. Dispersal of industry, ongoing repair and expansion compensated for additional bombing losses. In spite of the Allied strategic bombing campaign, the German economy continued to expand until late in the war.
As the American strategic campaign entered its second year, it faced an experienced and determined foe in the Luftwaffe. By 1943, when American bombers began to invade the airspace of the Reich proper, the Luftwaffe fighter command began to make a major effort against them. American losses from both England and North Africa mounted inexorably from August to October, culminating in the Eighth Air Force’s so-called “Black Week.” The week as a whole cost the Eighth Air Force a quarter of its airmen in England. After Black Week, the Americans effectively suspended daylight raids over the Reich until February 1944.
With U.S. bombers experiencing greater and greater attrition rates, American air commanders desperately sought a solution to their failing strategic-bombing campaign. A solution came with a change of emphasis in air doctrine. The changes produced a revision of Operation Pointblank and a doctrine that emphasized destroying the Luftwaffe in a war of attrition in order to gain air superiority for the coming D-Day invasion in the summer of 1944. The revised Operation Pointblank gave the Allies air superiority for D-Day and virtual command of the air for the push toward Berlin.
Operation Pointblank was a success. Local air superiority belonged to the Allies for the opening of the second front. The war for air superiority over Western Europe had been won, but not by “self-defending” heavy bombers. It had been won by a combination of fighters actively hunting down and killing Germany’s air force and Allied bombers damaging the industrial and logistical infrastructure that supported the German military machine’s ability to make war. In this two-pronged strategy, both bombers and fighters had a crucial, symbiotic role. American air commanders, like their ground counterparts before them, finally realized the truth of German strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s statement—that victory in war comes, first and foremost, through the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces. Operation Pointblank proved that American air power’s first mission should always be the establishment of air superiority through the destruction of the enemy’s air force.
This article was written by Brian Todd Carey and originally appeared in the November 1998 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.