2.26.2009

The Failure of Strategic Bombing

A recent discussion in the WWII newsgroups piqued my interest in this topic, for which I argued that the Allied strategic bombing campaign was in effect, a failure. When we deal with interpretations and conclusions rather than simply reporting fact the issue is typically broken down into schools of thought, usually initiated by a seminal text on the subject. Often accusations of historical revisionism are thrown about, and it descends into an argument between tweed jackets calling each other fascists. I summarize the strategic bombing campaign in my summary of WWII in Europe post for those that are unfamiliar.

Another Potential Role
The men and resources lost in the strategic bombing, had they been transferred to an interdiction role especially with medium or fighter bombers would have had a much greater effect. My overriding point is that the resources (men, material) involved in the campaign would have been more effective in other roles. This can be debated endlessly and speculatively; but if the stated goal of the strategic campaign was to impair to end the German capability of making war (as per a Clausewitz viewpoint) then this interdiction strategy would have been far more effective and less costly. A wonderful example of the success of such a strategy is the first few weeks of the Barbarossa campaign, where the Luftwaffe (enjoying total air supremacy at this point) could literally reduce the combat effectiveness of a division by fifty percent before it even reached the front.

We see in a few short years after the war the newly minted USAF practicing an interdiction campaign on North Korea rather than one of strictly strategic bombing (again with mixed
results, but they were moving in the right direction). As time passes and successive wars are fought, technological and doctrinal improvements lead to the ubiquity of tactical (close air support) bombing on the battlefield.

I more thoroughly explore the thought process on strategic bombing and the initial development of tactics in my previous post on the Luftwaffe. Before WWII the public at large were largely unfamiliar with the concept of massive aerial bombardment (the classic first example being the bombing of Guernica, inspiring Picasso's famous painting). The populace thought of strategic aerial bombing of cities much the way we think of nuclear warfare today; something that is nigh inconceiveable and very frightening.

Losses and Limited Results
The US Army Air Corps suffered the highest losses per capita of all branches except the Merchant Marines. It was not until late 1944 when the Luftwaffe had been essentially marginalized that the limited successes of the campaign were seen, allowing bombers to strike virtually at will. The development of the new planes that could escort the bombers all the way to target and back using droptanks also contributed significantly to the success. But from conception the tactic was flawed; many targets were chosen on incomplete or simply erroneous data and assumptions, as well as the supporting doctrine not being perfected until late in the war.

Conditions for Successful Strategic Bombing
In order to conduct a successful strategic bombing campaign on a large scale two conditions must be present: technological maturity and air supremacy. The latter was present in late 1944 and 1945, but the former was not. Even though great advances were made in navigational techniques and bombsights, the simple fact is that unguided weaponry was simply not up to the task, requiring important areas to be carpeted rather than efficiently struck. We see a predilection towards the terror tactics of "destroying the enemies' will to fight" by the massive area bombardment of major cities by men like Bomber Harris rather than an emphasis on military-industrial targets. Several days of firebombing in Tokyo in 1945 by conventional weapons cost more lives than both the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The campaign did impair Germany's war making capability to an extent, but the major effect was forcing the Wehrmacht to redeploy resources such as artillery and fighters to protect their homeland, rather than at the front. In the analysis of the effect, we must ask exactly how high were the costs of the campaign, and were they justified in bringing about the original stated goal. My answer is conclusively, no.

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