Thunder and lightning and the bass vibration of Lancasters' engines disturbed the English night last June 20, as RAF crews zippered themselves into fleece-lined flying suits. It was a rough night for flying rough because of the turbulence of electrical storms and of Nazi ack-ack they would meet over France and Germany.
But the men had a consoling thought they'd never had before while preparing for a bombing raid over the storm-darkened continent. They knew the weather would be good when they landed. They knew it would be good because they'd be landing in a different country, a different climate. They were setting off on what was to be the first known successful use of shuttle-bombing.
While new developments in the field of aerial bombardment have been frequent in the past four years, shuttle-bombing gives promise of becoming the most significant of them all. So that even if it was only a routine zippering they were doing that stormy June night, an extra excitement may have gripped the young flyers of the RAF. For they were to take part in an experiment that will long be remembered in the gangster countries.
Even the name "shuttle-bombing" carries a comforting connotation, reminding one of the ceaseless round-trip subway trip between Times Square and Grand Central station in New York. In war it offers many advantages:
Shuttle-bombing has not yet been used on a wide scale. Gen James H Doolittle tried a sort of shuttle. He was taking off from an aircraft carrier and landing in China. But due to conditions beyond control, the shuttle angle of the operation didn't work, although the mission succeeded. Our army has used another variety in the vapor-clogged Aleutians. In bombing Kiska, US planes operated from Amchitka, over Kiska, to Attu, and return in reverse order.
In the Aleutian theater, weather was the most important factor in the shuttle-blasting given the Japs. In Europe, it was probably a combination of all factors, with weather a minor consideration. While at this writing the only announced shuttles in the European theater have been between England and Africa, the widespread use of this method will come into play with the occupation of more enemy territory by the Allied forces.
The United Nations are steadily drawing the noose tight on Germany. Each mile the Nazis are forced to draw in upon themselves brings Allied bases on opposite sides of the continent within closer reach of one another. Each mile means one less gallon of gasoline for four-engined bombers, six additional pounds for bombs. Air fields in certain parts of northern Italy will bring England within 600 miles. They will bring Yugoslavia, part of Rumania, all of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, virtually all of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France within a 500-mile bombing radius. The USSR will be within long range bomber distance.
The occupation of Italy by the Allies will not only make Germany and her weak sisters-in-arms virtually a bombing range for the AAF, the RAF, and the Red air forces; it will make possible such swift and deceptive shifting of operational strength that the enemy will have to spread his defenses almost uniformly throughout his territories, thus lessening their effectiveness. In many instances it will enable our bombers to carry heavy fighter protection on 100 per cent of their routes. This, in turn, will mean fewer losses for us and more for the Nazis.
The ratio of Allied planes lost to the total forces involved in a raid has long been over-emphasized in the press. As responsible Air Forces officials are prone to point out, we can't assume an arbitrary percentage as a "fair" loss for a bombing raid. The only measure of the success of bombing is in the nature of the damage inflicted on the enemy. The loss of one plane cannot be justified if the results of the bombing aren't worth it. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the loss of 500 planes on one raid might be worth the results achieved in the actual bombing. Civilians who read strategic significance into the announcements of the number of planes lost on a mission are therefore apt to be off base.
On the contrary, announcements of the number of enemy fighters lost is significant. Constant targets for the combined English and American air forces are Nazi aircraft factories, which are now concentrating heavily on fighting planes, rather than bombers. While our sluggers pour left jabs and smashing rights into the breadbasket of German plane production to slow it down, they also whittle down Nazi protective strength in air battles. Thus the loss of each enemy plane is doubly-felt because of the increasing difficulty of replacement.
In the shuttle-bombing operation from Britain to Africa, Germany found its fighter strength, largely concentrated along the English Channel and in the vicinity of logical targets within easy bombing range, only 50 per cent effective. Bombers which must take off from and land in the same general area must return from their targets through a fighter defense already alerted and expecting them. On the shuttle, the RAF planes simply continued in a south-easterly direction, probably leaving a puzzled German air force waiting all night for their homeward journey.
It was an odd experience for the RAF men. Bundled in winter flying clothes they smashed, for the first time, a radio direction-apparatus factory in Friedrichshafen, about 450 miles from London. This was an attempt to throttle the use of a potent weapon similar to Radar, the plans for which were given Germany by a Frenchman after France's capitulation. Reconnaissance later showed all the main buildings were heavily damaged by direct hits. The bombers continued on more than 500 additional miles to an African base. As the planes neared the Mediterranean and lost altitude, crew members began to feel unaccountably hot. Gradually it dawned on them that this was weather far different from what they had been accustomed to.
Four nights later the same boys rocked the Italian naval base at Spezia with high explosives. It was their second shuttle, for they continued on to England. This time, they arrived wearing shorts.
Second widely-publicized shuttle-bombing operation involved US Flying Fortresses in mid-August. Making one of the spectacularly long bombing trips for which they are known, the group penetrated Germany deeper than ever before. They shattered a Messerschmitt factory in Regensburg, eastern Bavaria, and continued on to North Africa, 1,400 miles from their take-off. The same day Fortresses made a 1,200 mile round-trip to hit Schweinfurt, Germany.
The real significance of shuttling lies in the uses to which it will be put when the distances separating our bases are reduced. The enemy then can never know when a flight of heavyweights sets out where it will terminate. We can keep him guessing, keep his antiaircraft and fighter planes deployed to protect targets anywhere in his territory. We can shift our balance of airpower to any area quickly and redistribute it with the same speed. We can decoy his fighter defense into position by building up a large force at one point, then hit him a devastating blow from an unexpected direction. Shuttling will give the most mobile of all weapons an added mobility that may well be a decisive factor in Hitler's final defeat.
It is quite conceivable that the climb up the South Pacific island-ladder from Australia to Japan will see considerable use of shuttle-bombing tactics. The hodgepodge of islands which forms the Nip supply chain may be susceptible to some by-passing. A look at a map will indicate that in some places our forces may be able to sandwich Jap strongholds between American air bases, and to give the Japs the Lampedusa treatment. American bombers could shuttle from one base to another, picking up fuel and bombs at each terminal, depositing them on the enemy between stops. Entry of Russia into the Japanese war would give both the Red air force and the AAF ample opportunities to demonstrate the effectiveness of shuttling over Japanese strong-points on the mainland.
The purpose of strategic bombing is to destroy the enemy's sources of supply and manufacturing plants and to shatter communications lines. Shuttle-bombing appears to be an effective aid to that purpose. It's here to stay.
This article was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 1, pp 26-27, 116.
The PDF of this article includes a map of Europe showing shuttle routes, with a montage of a photo of a formation of B-24s at the West side of the map.
Photo credited to International News Service; map by Hal Morris.