A few months' experience in long range daylight bombing under the peculiar conditions of European air warfare is now behind the US Army Eighth Air Force. The RAF gained some knowledge of the work and its difficulties during the first year of the war with forces which rarely exceeded one-tenth of those normally sent down on important missions by the bomber command of the Eighth Air Force.
Since then, daylight raiding at long range has been practiced only on isolated occasions by the RAF. A formation of Lancasters did good work against the Messerschmitt works at Augsburg on April 17, 1942, and a bigger force some 90 Lancasters in all made a resounding attack on the Schneider works at Le Creusot, France, on October 17, 1942. The many raids made deep into Germany by Fortresses and Liberators since midsummer have been undertaken in the face of the heaviest defenses the Luftwaffe has been able to muster.
They will rank as classic examples of that school of thought in air warfare which holds that powerful defensive fire is the best protection for a bomber formation raiding in daylight over long stretches of heavily defended enemy territory. The RAF was firmly committed to that policy for years before the war. The US Army Air Forces are still devoted to it. When Gen Henry H Arnold was in England during September he declared forcefully his intention of using cannon, rockets or whatever might be necessary to get his bombers through to targets in Germany.
Nothing could have been more skillfully organized or more courageously performed than those great raids into eastern and southern Germany. In every instance they were successful. The quality of the bombing was magnificent, as numerous reconnaissance pictures taken after the event have shown. The defensive work done by the raiding formations must have been equally good as judged by the reports of enemy fighters shot down. The majority of these fell to the machine guns of the bombers and only a small proportion were claimed by the escorting fighters usually Repub1ic Thunderbolts with long range tanks.
Here are two points to be noted in any attempt to sum up the experience gained by the large American formations which are now operating in Europe. The crossfire and the banked or tiered fire of American formations is highly effective. On the other hand, the performance of a long range fighter, never yet effective against that of the interceptor fighter, has not, in this instance, sufficed to protect the bombers it escorted from close and deadly combat. The cost of daylight raiding at long range, therefore, still remains high wherever the enemy can direct large intercepting forces of high performance aircraft against the formations on the inward and outward journeys.
General Arnold remarked that any fighter attacking a Fortress formation head-on (a favorite method of the Germans for several months), would have 48 guns bearing down on him. If it tried to come in above, it would have the fire of 50 guns to meet. That fire undoubtedly proved formidable and the Germans had to find some way of attacking without entering that field of fire. Recent reports have mentioned the use of rocket shells and the dropping of bombs on the bomber formations from above. The latter device probably need not be taken seriously. As to the success of the rocket shells nothing, of course, has been said.
A strict security rule forbids handing to the enemy any information which would tell him whether one weapon is proving more effective than another. What can be said is that the Luftwaffe has given a great deal of attention to lengthening the range of its fire against the American formations. There was a time when the fighters tried to pick off the flank machines with long range shell fire then closed in to finish them off as soon as they began to lag. At the time of writing, rocket-driven shells are being tried.
Whatever the truth may be about tactics, there have occasionally been heavy losses in the bomber formations. On certain of the more hazardous operations, such as those against the Rumanian oilfields at Ploesti and the big ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt, heavy losses were to be expected and were justly accepted in return for the serious blows delivered at the enemy. At times, the losses suffered on shorter runs have seemed to be high, rising perhaps to the neighborhood of 10 per cent. If that should prove to be an average rate of loss it would suggest that, distance for distance, daylight raiding with the best arrangements of defensive armaments and grouping, and with the aid of long range escorts, is nearly twice as costly as night-raiding.
If a balance-sheet had to be drawn up for purposes of comparison many things would have to be taken into account. American daylight bombing is precision bombing directed against particular targets of special value to the enemy. British night bombing is area bombing directed against a whole center of industrial activity. How much productive capacity is destroyed for each bomber lost on the respective kinds of operation could only be estimated if much more detailed reports of the damage were available than have yet been put at the disposal of the press. Nor is any such comparison the object of this survey. The determining factor, when once the strategic significance of a certain bombing program has been established, is the accepted replacement rate.
Everything in the last resort depends on production and training, provided the spirit and efficiency of bomber crews is not lowered by a sense of being asked to undertake undue risks. So long as the combat chances are even the crews are content to take them and the figures show that the odds are still in favor of the bombers. Production and training are moving upwards and the replacement factor seems likely to be able to meet the circumstances in the European theater and leave plenty of room for expansion. In the long run the damage done in Germany by the bombers should weaken the fighter plane opposition they have to meet in the air.
Nevertheless, losses are regrettable whenever they have to be accepted and at the present stage they are high enough to warrant some consideration of the less popular school of thought, which, throughout the period of. the self-defense creed, has held that the finest protection for the bomber is speed. This policy involves some sacrifice in load and range. It also involves putting some demands on the bomber crew which informed opinion has always declared could not safely be imposed. It means asking a crew to forgo the chance of a scrap and to run away instead. That, the experts have said, is no way to treat a soldier and no way to expect a soldier to allow himself to be treated.
Nevertheless we in Great Britain seem likely to give the idea a trial with the Mosquito. As a bomber, it carries no guns and its crew consists of only two. Some idea of the range it can be given with a fair bomb load is shown by its frequent night raids on Berlin, a round trip of 1,000 to 1,200 miles. This is an airplane which is faster than most fighters. It has escaped from fighter attack by means of its speed time after time and it does promise to afford a test on a small scale, perhaps, of the theory that speed is a bomber's best protection against both flak and fighter opposition.
The scale will have to be small because of the demands that arise for Mosquitoes for other purposes than bombing. A fighter version has had notable success over the Bay of Biscay against German long range fighters sent out to oppose the aircraft of the RAF Coastal Command which attack submarines near their home posts. The Mosquito does excellent work on photographic reconnaissance and there are certain other duties it may undertake. Large fleets of Mosquito bombers, therefore, may not be built up quickly but no signs have appeared in the Mosquito squadrons of the RAF that the crews resent their inability to fight back. They seem well enough pleased with the relative certainty of getting back.
In a small country like Britain the difficulty is more likely to be operational. To deliver the same weight of bombs as are now taken to distant targets by the "heavies," twice as many Mosquitoes would be needed. Multiplying the force without increasing the load would be judged uneconomic in these days when high concentrations of bombs are the aim and yet, given speed of the order of the Mosquito, two raids in quick succession would probably yield similar results. In the course of 1944 we undoubtedly shall have a chance to see the theory in practice.
The alternative to using speed is to develop the defenses of the bomber formations. The Germans have already accused the Eighth Air Force of using "flying cruisers" carrying 30 guns each. This idea was advocated by the writer Golovine before the war. He proposed the design of "destroyer" aircraft for escort and defensive work. Their use would be a logical development of day raiding against strong defenses, especially if, as is likely, the arming of bombers with long range guns should present awkward problems.
For the main assault against Germany both the United States and Britain are committed to the heavy type of bomber. It is too late now to rearrange production training and strategy on a new basis and the point to be resolved is that of self-defense. Rearmament plans develop slowly and the solution will probably be found partly in better escort aircraft and partly in the increasing exhaustion of Germany's power to oppose the air raids by day and by night.
This column was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 1, pp 72, 160.
The PDF of this article includes a photo of B-17Fs in formation on a bombing run.
Photo credited to International News Photos.