aviation in World War 2

bomber tactics
the Blitz
bombing of Coventry
bombing in the Bristol area
Combined Bomber (CBO)
Bomber Command
the Dambusters
bombing of Hamburg
1000 bomber raids
bombing of Dresden
bombing of Nuremberg
the Schweinfurt raids
German Night Fighters
the Pathfinders
Soviet bombing raids
Pearl Harbour
the Doolittle raid
the B-17 and B-29
fire bombing raids on Japan
Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

the bombing raids of World War Two

The Germans bombed London. The next day the RAF retaliated and bombed Berlin. And so began the "indiscriminate" bombing of cities that would continue throughout the war.

In 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a secret memorandum to his Chiefs of Staff, ordering "an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers upon the Nazi homeland."

The same year, at the Berlin Sports Palace, Fuhrer Adolph Hitler shrieked, "We will raze their cities to the ground. One of us will break, and it will not be National Socialist Germany."

In late 1942, Churchill appointed Arthur Harris Air Vice Marshall, head of Bomber Command, and charged him with carrying out the government's threat. Like the prime minister, Harris was convinced the air force could win the war; American Air Force commanders agreed. But army chiefs argued that, ultimately, only great land battles would defeat the Nazis, and so, they began preparations for an invasion of Normandy. Until the spring of 1944, these two strategies would wage war side by side, each convinced of its own logic.

Lacking accurate radio navigation equipment and flight radar, the British and Canadian bombers could only "precision" bomb in daylight. But without long' range fighter escorts to protect them during day missions, they raided by night, dropping explosives from high altitudes on industrial areas, hoping to hit something-anything-of importance. This was "indiscriminate" or "area" bombing. If they missed, well, they'd make a mess and at least destroy German morale.

In a secret memo, October, 1942, Air Marshall Sir Charles Portal framed Bomber Command's new policy: "I suppose it is clear that the new aiming points are to be the built-up areas, not for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories."

bombing Germany

In a meeting with the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Air Vice Marshall Harris enunciated his boss's policy: "We shall destroy Germany's will to fight. Now that we have the planes and crews, in 1943 and 1944 we shall drop one and a quarter million tons of bombs, render 25 million Germans homeless, kill 900,000 and seriously injure one million."

The heyday of "area" bombing would be 1943. The bombers pounded Germany with 48,000 tons of explosives in 1942, and with another 207,600 tons in 1943. Night attacks escalated, targeting Germany's most populous regions: the Ruhr, March to June, 1943; Hamburg, July to November, 1943; Berlin, November, 1943 to March, 1944.

An 8th Air Force B-17 makes a bombing run over Marienburg, Germany, in 1943

The bombing campaigns of World War II were the one element of the air war that had a strategic significance, on a par with the ground movements of infantry and the blockade-related activities of both sides on the high seas. It was this use of air power, first deployed to a significant extent in the 1940s, that was to have a lasting influence on geopolitics for decades to come. Previously, bombing from the air was looked upon as a form of sabotage—an irritant and a hindrance, but not a map-changing strategic factor in the course of a war. However, once bombing was carried out extensively against industrial, military, and civilian targets, it had the power to change battle lines, and ultimately to determine the outcome of a war.

The first use of bombing in the war was as a tactical weapon, by the Germans in the invasion of Poland. The early bombers were converted transports that were originally designed to be transformed into bombers: the Junkers JU86 and JU88, the Dornier Do 17, and the Heinkel He-111,  all used in the invasion of Poland. All these aircraft had been tested in the Spanish Civil War and had been found to be vulnerable to attack from the aft and forward directions. The remedy was to create gunner’s nests in “greenhouse” type nests, which were to become common in later bombers of both sides.

The bombers in service in France, Poland, and the Netherlands at the outbreak of World War II were antiquated, certainly compared with the German aircraft. Some, like the French Bloch 131, were so unreliable that the Germans preferred to destroy captured ones rather than use them or even turn them over to their allies. Two captured planes did see service in back areas (the North Sea and North Africa): the Dutch Fokker T VIII, a sea- plane (unusual for a bomber) that was also used by England when some Dutch pilots escaped the German invasion; and the Polish PZL P- 7, an excellent plane that was produced in small numbers and was capable of delivering a bomb-load of a whopping fifty-seven hundred pounds (2,588kg).

Most British bombers at the outbreak of the war were only a little better developed. The Fairey Battle was used extensively during the Battle of France, but it fell so easily that production was halted suddenly and the factory allowed to stay idle while new planes were designed. A bit better  was the Bristol Blenheim Mk 1, a plane designed from a private passenger plane commissioned  by news paper magnate Lord Rothermere for his personal use. It was an extremely fast plane for the day (and was specifically designed for speed), but adapting it to bomber duty turned it into a mediocre bomber at best.

The main bombers of the RAF were classic aircraft that owed their designs to the state of the art in the early 1930s, but were adaptable to new developments and situations and remained useful through the war. The Handley Page Hampden, for example, was relatively fast and could carry a very large load, but it had meagre defences, so it saw most of its use as a night bomber later in the war. The Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley accommodated a large fuel tank, which gave it a long flight time, making it perfect for antisubmarine patrol. The Vickers Wellington was the bomber with the most promise, using a geodetic frame that gave it great strength without great weight. It would surely be the bomber that would see the most service for the RAF and was produced in the greatest number; about 11,460 by war’s end.

The British finally managed to field a modern generation of bombers that became important elements in the bombing of Europe and the softening of the Germans in preparation for the Allied ground assault. The Short Stirling was the first British four-engine bomber and may be viewed as England’s first modern bomber. Its main deficiency was an inability to maintain performance at high altitudes. It soon gave way to the two planes that became the core of the British Bomber Command: the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster.

One of the workhorses of the Allied bombing campaign of Nazi-occupied Europe was the Avro Lincoln

Both relied heavily on the Rolls Royce Merlin engines manufactured in England and the United States, and on the most sophisticated electronics available. An important factor in the success of the British bombing campaign was the use of the Sperry bombsight.

In 1939 a German-American employee at the factory handed over a working model of the bombsight to the Luftwaffe, who copied it and used it, but the technology that went into the model remained secret and the Allies were able to stay a step ahead of the Germans in bombsight technology throughout the war. The one plane produced by the RAF that distinguished itself in particular as both a bomber and a fighter (and was used for everything else from reconnaissance to submarine patrol), though it defied classification and broke all the rules, was the de Havilland Mosquito.

The Mosquito came about as a result of a “what-if” experiment conducted by designer R.E. Bishop, who wondered about the effect of marrying an advanced Merlin engine to the lightest possible airframe, one made of wood. The notion found a surprisingly receptive ear in the RAF; a prototype was ordered in November 1940 and was flying by May 1941.

The de Havilland Mosquito

The Mosquito was supposed to outrun any fighter pursuit by flying at its maximum speed of four hundred miles per hour (643.Skph) at a height of thirty-nine thousand feet (1 1,887m), higher than any fighter could go. The plane performed so well that the experimenting continued and machine guns were added. The result was to turn the Mosquito into an effective fighter capable of diving onto any fighter and thus attacking from an advantageous position: above. Even the addition of cannon did not adversely affect the plane’s performance. Nearly sixty-five hundred Mosquitos were built during the war, and the plane continued to be built and placed in service until 1951, a testament to its utility and brilliant design.

The country with the most experience with large bomber-type aircraft was Italy, and the war gave the Italians many opportunities to develop their bomber fleet. Mussolini’s practice of going after lightly defended areas, however, gave these planes little challenge, and there was, therefore, little incentive for the Italian air force to progress. As a result, the SIAI-Marchetti bombers that were first-rate in the late 1930s were still the bulk of the bomber fleet in 1942, by which time they had become obsolete. The only bomber the Italians produced that could compete with those of other air forces (and the only four-engine plane Italy made) was the Piaggio P-108B, held up in production and not placed in service until June 1942.

German Dornier DO-17s on a bombing run over London.

In contrast to the Germans, who tested their fighters and dive bombers in the Spanish Civil War, but not, to any great extent, their heavy bombers, the Japanese developed and tested their bombers in China in 1937 and prepared for war by developing their bomber fleet as much as their fighters. Yet the Japanese only reluctantly accepted Admiral Yamamoto’s insistence that the bomber was also an important weapon for ground and naval support. More bombers were developed and built by the Japanese than would have been built without Yamamoto, but even so, only between one thousand and twelve hundred of each of the seven most important Japanese bombers were built during the war, as compared with more than eighteen thousand B-24s alone.

The key bombers in the first year of the war were the Mitsubishi G3M and G4M planes (identified by the allies as “Nell” and “Betty,” respectively). In the earliest stages of the war, these aircraft had little need of protective armour or armament. As this changed, the deficiencies of these bombers became apparent and the Japanese (characteristically) devised solutions to the problems. The result was the Aichi D3A1 (“Val”), a single engine dive-bomber that had the built-in protection of three machine guns and manoeuvred comparably to a fighter (at least at this stage of the war). The efforts to improve the fighter component of the bomber resulted in an improved  dive-bomber, the Kawasaki K1 48 (“Lily”), but its inadequacy made it clear that bombers would  have to be developed independently.

The bombers deployed by the Japanese between 1942 and 1944 betray the half-hearted way the designers approached the issues of bomber design. The “Lily,” for example, was a fast and agile  airplane, but no match  for an Allied fighter and without even rudimentary defences. The only four- engine bomber produced by the Japanese in this period was the Nakajima G8N1  (“Rita”);  only four were ever built and none saw active service. Failing to create a bomber fleet, yet desperately in need of impeding the Allied forces making their way toward Japan, the Japanese formed the kamikaze corps.

One wing gone, a B-29 falls in flames after a direct hit by enemy flak over Japan.

In conscious emulation of ancient samurai warriors (and named after the “divine wind,” or storms, that drove the Mongol invaders away from Japan in the thirteenth century), pilots volunteered for suicide missions, first flying dive-bombers loaded with explosives, then flying out- dated fighters to elude ground fire and Allied fighters. Toward the end of the war, 852 Yokosuka MXY7s, known as “Ohka flying bombs” and code-named Baka (“fool”), were built with rocket engines and short air-foils. These were launched at ships, and were virtually un-steerable.  

Despite the response of its own population to German bombing, the British Bomber Command still believed that strategic bombing was the way to defeat a nation’s capability and will to fight. In 1942, British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris was named commander of Bomber Command and he immediately began rallying for a larger bombing force and for a more intense, aggressive campaign against Germany’s industrial capacity. He targeted industrial cities with their factories, worker housing, and anything else that might contribute to German production. Prime industries were power plants, aircraft factories, oil refineries, rubber factories, and transportation hubs. During the summer of 1942, the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) arrived to assist in the effort.

During The Big Week, February 20-25, 1944, 3,300 bombers were dispatched to Germany from England and 500 from Italy, with 137 of the former and 89 of the latter being lost.

The United States and Great Britain joined forces to create the Combined Bomber Offensive. The two nations had different bombing approaches. The British preferred to fly under the protection of night. Darkness made exact targeting impossible, so "area bombing"--dropping a large number of bombs within a designated area around a target--was used. The Americans, however, were extremely hesitant to participate in an action that might result in civilian casualties. Also, they possessed the Norden bombsight, which was quicker and more accurate than its predecessors, increasing safety for the bomber crew and improving the effectiveness of the bombs. With the heavy armament of the B-17 Flying Fortresses, the USAAF chose to fly during the day for "precision bombing," hitting specific targets, such as factories or transportation hubs, precisely and with minimal damage to the surrounding area.

On August 17, 1942, the Eighth Air Force undertook its first mission against the marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in occupied France. A relatively easy first mission, the only casualties were two airmen who were injured when a pigeon flew into their plane. But for the first several months of the campaign, losses were heavy. Until the debut of the North American P-51 Mustang with its auxiliary gas tanks in March 1944, there were no Allied fighter planes with the range to escort bombers all the way to Germany. Meanwhile, to compensate for the lack of fighter escorts, American bomber forces under the leadership of Curtis E. LeMay implemented tight-formation combat flying. By early 1944, American industry was finally operating at peak capacity, producing enough bombers to replace lost ones, and add more for massive formations. The results were seen in the decrease in German aircraft and fuel production. After the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, the ground troops advanced quickly toward Germany, providing bases for escorts and destroying the German early air warning system in France. For much of the final year of the war, Allied bombers held air superiority over Germany, leaving bombed-out cities for the ground troops to occupy.