THE STRATEGIC BOMBING CAMPAIGN
A supporting view concerning Operation OVERLORD is that it was unnecessary since Nazi Germany’s ability to wage war was being systematically destroyed by the combined bomber offensive. According to this view, Germany’s complete economic collapse wan only a matter of time. Without her industrial base, Germany could not have supported her forces in the field, regardless of their remaining numerical strength.
This view is controversial primarily because it focuses on a major doctrinal dispute between the US Air Force and the Army. Throughout World War II, the Army Air Corps was intent on conducting its operations in a clearly decisive fashion, so that when victory was won, strong support for the creation of a new, separate air service would exist. While the importance of using tactical air forces to support the operations of ground troops was recognized, air commanders consistently felt that the strategic bombing campaign against Germany should not be tied to the ground campaigns. They felt that if left alone to do the job for which their long range bombers were designed, they could destroy Germany’s industrial capacity to wage war. German armies without tanks, guns, ammunition, gasoline, or clothing would be unable to resist even the most modest Allied ground offensives. For this reason, diversion of long range bomber forces to support ground operations, including OVERLORD, was resisted by air commanders and viewed as counterproductive. However, such diversions were commonplace in the European theater. (12)
It should be recognized that this was a minority view concerning the potential dominance of strategic airpower. Its relationship to allied grand strategy is accurately characterized in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey Summary Report as follows:
In both the RAF and the United States Army Air Forces there were some who believed that air power could deliver the knockout blow against Germany, and force capitulation. This view, however, was not controlling in the overall Allied strategic plan. The dominant element in that plan was invasion of the Continent to occur in the spring of 1944…. The deployment of the air forces opposing Germany was heavily influenced by the fact that victory was planned to come through invasion and land occupation…. (Air attacks were) a part of a larger strategic plan – one that contemplated that the decision would come through the advance of ground armies rather than through air power alone. (3:3)
Army ground commanders generally found views concerning the decisive role of airpower to be incredible. To bring Germany to submission would, in their view, require defeating her Army and occupying her territory, in that order. It was entirely proper that all available air forces should be used to bring about that end. Since they felt that ground forces would ultimately “defeat” Germany, diverting strategic bombers to support ground operations in general and to support the planned landing at Normandy in particular could only serve to hasten the termination of hostilities. As indicated above, their views were dominant in the derivation of allied grand strategy.
During the initial phases of the European conflict, the claims of the airpower advocates were shown to be grossly extravagant. Bomber operations were not effective until airplanes and crews were available in very large numbers. They were not effective until long range escort fighters were developed and produced. And finally, they were not effective in destroying Germany’s ability to wage war until they were consistently used against the strategic targets for which they were designed. For all these reasons and more, the strategic bomber forces were not decisive, perhaps not even very effective, until late in the war.
However, by December 1943, these conditions had been met and the strategic bomber forces were systematically destroying Germany’s ability to wage war. Long range bombers were regularly attacking targets deep within the Reich from bases in the United Kingdom and in the Mediterranean. American forces flew daylight missions and targeted specific industrial facilities, striving for precision bombing accuracy based on disciplined formation tactics and the Norden bombsight. British bombers were concentrating on night missions against area targets such as German cities and other population centers. Long range P-51 and P-47 fighters were available in large numbers to escort American bombers and they were winning consistent victories over Luftwaffe fighters that had previously been decimating the bomber formations. Finally, targets critical to the German war effort were being selected and destroyed. Figure 1 shows the dramatic increase in strategic bombing capacity which had occurred in the Eighth Air Force alone. (22) All that was required in late 1943 was the uninterrupted opportunity to apply this nascent capability.
However, the requirement to support OVERLORD provided a most inopportune interruption. For four months prior to the planned invasion date and for two months after it, Gen Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander for OVERLORD, was given complete control of all aircraft stationed in England. Russell Weigley states in The American Way of War that,
In the spring of 1944 all Allied air power in Britain was placed temporarily under the direction of Gen Eisenhower, and he instructed it to isolate the proposed invasion beaches — and for purposes of security and deception, other beaches where the Germans might expect landings — from assistance from the interior of France and Europe, by ruining the transportation systems. (10: 343,344)
This tasking was especially disruptive to the strategic bombing campaign, since it required the preservation of deception concerning the actual Normandy invasion site. In practical terms, this meant that for every bomb dropped on transportation links which supported the Normandy area, two more had to be dropped in other areas, especially in the Pas de Calais area, which Patton’s fictitious army was “preparing to invade.” In essence, the strategic bombing campaign was terminated for over six months, at the precise point in time when it had finally become effective.
Air Corps generals who planned and commanded the strategic bombing campaign are scathing in their criticism of this diversion. Maj Gen Heywood Hansell who prepared the operational plan for the strategic air campaign has this to say of the use of the strategic bombers to support OVERLORD,
But Gen Eisenhower retained control of those forces for six crucial months when they could have been most effective against systems in interior Germany. As a result of these delays and diversions, the massive air offensive against the selected primary targets did not really begin until September of 1944 — ten months late and three months after the invasion. … The strategic air forces were finally returned to their primary objectives in October. In the next four months, the strategic air forces completed all the remaining strategic purposes originally proposed.
Similarly, Gen Curtis LeMay who was commanding the Eighth Air Force in England at the time has stated, “Neither for that matter, did I agree with the decision to invade Europe. I believed that once we had the complete upper hand in the air we could have waited for an inevitable German collapse.” (14:15) He has further commented that without this diversion and interruption, the strategic air forces could have completed the destruction of Germany before Normandy. (11)
While these observations could possibly be viewed as self-serving, they are remarkably consistent with assessments made by high ranking German officials. The following brief review of the results of the bombing campaign from the German perspective clearly indicates the war-winning potential which the strategic bombing forces represented at that time.
Although the American 8th Air Force began operations from bases in England on 17 August 1942, it did not stage its first raid on the ball bearing plants at Schweinfurt until August 1943. The initial raid was successful in disrupting production of bearings, but the aircraft losses to German fighters and flak were intolerable. A second raid In October 1943 resulted in even higher losses of aircraft and crews. Further raids on ball-bearing production were conducted-from December 1943 through February 1944 with consistently improving results, but they ceased in April to the amazement of Albert Speer, the German Minister of Production. He states, “Thus the Allies threw away success when it was already in their hands.” (8: 286) Speer goes on to state that had these raids been continued, “Armaments production would have been crucially weakened after two months and after four months would have been brought completely to a standstill.” (8: 284) During the period of these raids, Speer made attempts to disperse his ball bearing plants, but very plainly states that, “…what really saved us was the fact that … the enemy to our astonishment ceased his attacks on the ball bearing industry.” (8: 284) These raids were discontinued at a time when the Army Air Corps had the capability to continue them on an almost unlimited scale. They were discontinued so the bomber forces could be directed to support OVERLORD.
The German oil production industry was also targeted. Although the bomber force had been adequate for the task for several months, preliminary raids were not conducted until May 1944, and the main blow was not struck until after D-day. The synthetic oil plants were especially critical, since they were the only source of aviation gasoline and since Russian occupation forces had eliminated the Rumanian fields by August 1944.
Production from the synthetic plants had averaged 316,000 tons before the attacks began, but it was reduced to 17,000 tons in September 1944 and kept at a small fraction of previous capacity for the duration of the war. (3:8) The Germans considered these attacks to be catastrophic. Speer states that on July 21, “Ninety-eight percent of our aircraft fuel plants were out of operation.” (8: 350) Again, however, the requirement to support OVERLORD had delayed the strikes against this critical industry for over four months.
Similar situations existed in other industries such as aircraft production and electric power generation. Electric power is of special interest because post war analysis indicates that it was particularly vulnerable and that it could have been attacked with relative ease. According to the German chief electrical engineer, “The war would have been finished two years sooner if you concentrated on the bombing of our power plants.” (13:113) Unfortunately, it was removed from the approved target list by the Committee of Operations Analysts in Washington who were responsible for developing the target list for the strategic bombers. Maj Gen Heywood Hansell states this was done, “Apparently on the grounds that … its effects would not be felt on the invasion beaches.” (13:111)
As stated in the introduction to this section, it is impossible to completely separate fact from emotion when reviewing the information available on the strategic air campaign against Germany. However, one additional fact is of particular relevance. Due to the continuing complaints from the airpower advocates which diversion of strategic bombers caused in Europe, the B-29s were placed under JCS control when they became available for the Pacific theater. Official JCS approval was required for the use of these aircraft on other than strategic missions tasked from Washington. (12) Under these arrangements, with the ground and naval commanders denied ready access to the B-29s, a much clearer case for the decisive nature of strategic airpower was made.
In summary, when the strategic bombing forces reached full capability in December 1943, Nazi Germany did not have long to survive as an active combatant. Considering also the cumulative devastation of the German Army which had taken place on the Eastern Front by that time, the case for the necessity for OVERLORD is tenuous at best.