Sam Seitz

Operation Pointblank, the military designation for the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive, demonstrated the potential power of strategic airpower. However, it also revealed the naivete of early bomber enthusiasts, who grossly oversold the potential of large-scale strategic airpower and, as a result, developed a deeply flawed doctrine that undermined early Allied efforts. The efforts of British Bomber Command and the American 8th Air Force did play a decisive role in enabling an Allied victory. These efforts, though, were often inefficient and hamstrung by poor tactics and the limited capabilities of bombers in that period. In short, strategic bombing pessimists likely go too far in their denigration of Operation Pointblank, but they make a valid point that the bombing of Germany was not nearly as crippling and decisive as interwar airpower theorists had contended.

According to early pioneers of airpower, bombers represented a transformation in warfare. For example, early American airpower advocate William “Billy” Mitchell contended that the ability of aircraft to strike behind enemy lines rendered armies largely superfluous.[1] Italian theorist Giulio Douhet, arguably the father of strategic bombing, was even more extreme in his enthusiasm, arguing that land warfare between large armies was obsolete, easy victory could be achieved by bombing population centers,[2] and the bomber “would always get through.”[3] Neither of these men were entirely incorrect: Airpower did revolutionize war, enabling more responsive logistics, the use of paratroopers, and the development of devastating ground support planes. However, they overestimated the capabilities of a still relatively new platform, and they forgot that the enemy will always adapt to novel threats.

The deficiency of their views was quickly revealed by the less than stellar impact of Operation Pointblank, which began in June of 1943. The early missions of the bomber offensive resulted in fairly lackluster results: The Allies only reduced German shipbuilding by 35% over the course of the war, electrical power and chemical production by 10%-15%, and mining output by a paltry 3%.[4] In large part this was due to inefficient targeting and a failure to account for German efforts to circumvent the constraints imposed by Allied bombing. For example, American planners at the beginning of the war vastly overestimated the accuracy of bombers.[5] But the Allies were also hamstrung by poor cooperation and absolutely abysmal intelligence and targeting. The memoirs of Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, are replete with statements of utter bewilderment at Allied targeting. For example, Speer contends that as early as September 1942, the British could have shut down most of the production in the Ruhr by concentrating on the dams of the Ruhr Valley. Instead, “They divided their forces and that same night destroyed the Eder Valley dam, although it had nothing whatsoever to do with the supply of water to the Ruhr.”[6] In April 1944, the Allies came close to completely crippling German ball bearing production, but to Speer’s amazement, “the attacks on the ball-bearing industry ceased abruptly. Thus, the Allies threw away success when it was already in their hands.”[7] Even Operation Gomorrah, the firebombing of Hamburg to apocalyptic levels, reduced port efficiency in the city by only 30%.[8]

The Allies also failed to significantly degrade civilian morale, as Nazi propaganda was able to more than compensate. Indeed, one German analyst argues that “there was an almost mystic belief that victory could be won by sheer sacrifice.”[9] This failure came at a cost. Over 40% of America’s wartime budget was dedicated to airpower,[10] and bomber crews suffered heavy attrition rates throughout most of the conflict. During the October 14, 1943 raid on Schweinfuhrt, for example, almost 30% of the force was lost.[11] During 1943 alone, the U.S. and Britain lost 25,175 personnel over Germany, and this was in large part due to the obstinacy of senior leadership who continued to believe that bombers did not require fighter escorts.[12] It was not until 1944, when longer range P-47s and P-51s were deployed to protect bomber formations, that attrition rates dropped appreciably.[13] And even this transformation was delayed by antiquated doctrine, as the extremely capable P-51, which was available as early as 1939, was not employed as an escort until after the poorly conceived YB-40, a slow and unwieldy up-armed bomber, had been tried.[14]

Despite the disappointing showing of early missions, strategic bombing did begin to play a more decisive role later in the war. Perhaps its biggest achievement was the destruction of the Luftwaffe through attrition. As Lt. Col. Peter Faber points out, the bombers served as effective bait, luring German fighters up into the air to be destroyed by Allied fighter escorts.[15] This was especially true after fighter pilots were increasingly given permission to freely hunt German planes instead of remaining strictly with the bombers. Even if the Germans were able to replace the planes lost in battle, they could not replace the skilled pilots that were killed, eventually granting the Allies air supremacy over Europe and helping facilitate D-Day, the liberation of France, and the subsequent invasion of Germany. The air campaign also forced the Germans to reallocate a large amount of their production toward civil defense, decreasing their output of weaponry and equipment. It also required the Nazis to concentrate their airpower in Germany in order to protect the homeland, thus limiting the number of planes deployed to the Western and Eastern Fronts.[16]

It is also important to realize that the effect on German industry was greater than simple statistics might suggest. For one, Allied intelligence and prowess improved throughout the course of the war, allowing them to avoid some of the targeting mistakes that occurred early on. But more importantly, the German economy simply couldn’t cope with the continued, and ever-growing, bombing campaign. German industry and its workers were relying on superhuman efforts to continue going, but these efforts could not be maintained indefinitely. Workers were terrorized and sleep deprived, hurting their efficiency, and the use of slave labor could only go so far in compensating for the increasing strains on German labor.[17] Moreover, bombings forced workers to help in reconstruction, further limiting their output. Indeed, by July of 1944, 98% of German fuel production had been destroyed, and only a small percentage of production capacity could be rebuilt.[18]

There was also little else that could be accomplished during the early months of the war. The large investments in air power may not have been efficient in that their costs exceeded the value they destroyed on the German side, but there was little else to be done until a land invasion became possible. And the invasions of Normandy would likely not have occurred absent the air dominance achieved through the bombing of Germany. The air campaign also had the salutary effect of demonstrating support for the Soviets, thus keeping the Allied alliance together.[19]

In short, the Combined Bomber Offensive played a pivotal role in assuring Allied victory, even if it was relatively inefficient. Of course, the bombing campaign did not single-handedly cripple German production or morale. However, it did eventually begin to meaningfully undermine German output, and it was also crucial in formulating an early and significant response to German aggression. Thus, while strategic bombing failed to live up to the extremely optimistic expectations of people like Mitchell and Douhet, over time it proved its worth as an integral component of Allied victory in Europe.

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Notes:

[1] Johnny R. Jones, William ‘Billy’ Mitchell’s Airpower (Maxwell AFB, AL: Airpower Research Institute, 1997), 5-7.

[2] Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 58.

[3] Ibid., 53-55.

[4] Hans Rumpf, The Bombing of Germany, trans. Edward Fitzgerald (New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1963), 172.

[5] Phillip S. Meilinger, Bomber: The Formation and Early Years of Strategic Air Command (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2012), 38-41.

[6] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1970), 281.

[7] Ibid., 286.

[8] Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London, England: Penguin Books, 2013), 337.

[9] Rumpf, 191.

[10] Victor Davis Hanson, The World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2017), 67.

[11] William R. Emerson, Operation Point Blank, Lecture, USAFA Harmon Memorial Lecture, Colorado Springs, CO, 1963.

[12] Overy, 355.

[13] Overy, 358-359.

[14] Emerson.

[15] Colin Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2012), 136-137.

[16] Emerson.

[17] Stephan Glienke, “The Allied Air War and German Society,” in Bombing, States and Peoples, edited by Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, and Richard Overy, 171-184 (London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), 191.

[18] Speer, 346.

[19] Hanson, 130.

Bibliography

Douhet, Giulio. The Command of the Air. Trans. Dino Ferrari. Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998.

Emerson, William R. Operation Point Blank. Lecture. USAFA Harmon Memorial Lecture, Colorado Springs, CO, 1963.

Glienke, Stephan. “The Allied Air War and German Society.” In Bombing, States and Peoples, edited by Claudia Baldoli, Andrew Knapp, and Richard Overy, 171-184. London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.

Gray, Colin. Airpower for Strategic Effect. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2012.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 2017.

Meilinger, Phillip S. Bomber: The Formation and Early Years of Strategic Air Command. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2012.

Overy, Richard. The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. London, England: Penguin Books, 2013.

Jones, Johnny. William ‘Billy’ Mitchell’s Airpower. Maxwell AFB, AL: Airpower Research Institute, 1997.

Rumpf, Hans. The Bombing of Germany. Trans. Edward Fitzgerald. New York, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1963.

Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1970.