IT WAS the day before Christmas, 1944. Around the long polished table in the War Room of 8th Air Force Headquarters sat Lieut Gen James H Doolittle and his staff. Outside was the coldest day Eastern England had known in 54 years. Inside, one of the hottest raids yet launched on Fortress Europe was in the making. Colonel Jones, the target chief, pointed to the navigational overlay pinned onto the wall-map of Western Europe.
"A year ago, 8th Air Force dispatched 732 bombers on its mission over Europe," he said. "Today we are sending up the record total of 2,304, supported by nearly 1,000 fighters. They will attack 11 airfields and 14 communication targets in the tactical area."
His words created a stir, but Colonel Jones concluded his briefing. Then the bomber controller announced the time of take-off, time over target, and the bomber routes. The fighter controller then described the planned operations for the Mustangs and Thunderbolts they would sweep the target area as well as escort.
Scarcely was the briefing concluded when nearly one billion dollars worth of bombers and fighters manned by 21,000 Americans zoomed up from United Kingdom bases to deliver their lethal Yuletide surprise. The giant force left the English coast in a column 400 miles long. As the head of the column entered Germany, its last planes were just leaving England.
After crossing the Continental coast, the bombers split into three forces, Liberators of the Second Bombardment Division plastered a series of road and rail junctions and supply centers north of Trier, just opposite the bulge driven into the US First Army lines by Rundstedt's panzers. First and Third Division Fortresses hit 11 German airfields to the north and south of Frankfurt, where photo reconnaissance had revealed as many as 50 Nazi fighters concentrated on a single airdrome. Bombing was visual.
The bombardiers proved to be in rare form. They knocked out permanent installations on several dromes and post-holed a number of runways, rendering the fields temporarily unserviceable. Rail and road choke points were pounded, tracks ripped and twisted, goods-cars demolished. The flow of supplies to Rundstedt's forward elements was severely crippled.
Between Christmas and New Year's Day the 8th hammered German tactical targets in cooperation with the US recuperative ground effort. Together with the Royal Air Force and the 9th they destroyed over 600 Jerries who attempted to intercept their attacks. By December 29 the back of Hitler's counter-offensive had been broken. Rundstedt was forced to extricate his badly-mauled armor.
"The story of the 8th is the story of all of you," said General Doolittle in a New Year's message to the members of his command. It takes but little research to show how true his words were.
To get the 8th off the ground and back home safely required the unceasing effort of some 200,000 men working 365 days a year. Men frequently labored for 72 hours without rest to put their planes back in the air. Ordnance and chemical workers loaded more than 3,000,000 bombs and incendiaries in 1944, mostly by night. The work of thousands went into the driving, servicing and repair of the 8th's 25,000 motor vehicles. At one headquarters alone, telephone operators handled 14,000 calls each day.
The "story" begins at the top where the orders which energized this huge air armada originated. The fantastic success of the Red Army lies just as much in the brilliance of its generals as in the superb fighting qualities of the Russian soldier. Similarly, the success story of the 8th could hardly be written were it not for the men in its higher echelon. Yet, except for General Doolittle himself, Americans probably know less about these experts in air operational planning than they do about the Russian generals.
These experts are men who have made their mark in other fields as well as in the military men like Maj Gen Orvil Anderson, deputy commander, long a noted balloonist and tactician; the director of intelligence, Col William T Gardiner, twice governor of Maine; Brig Gen J S Allard, chief of staff, former Curtiss-Wright executive; Col George Jones, an executive with Harper Brothers publishing house before the war. To these competent men and their associates was entrusted the destiny of the 8th. What happened that day before Christmas, 1944, happened because they completed the operational planning which enabled the giant force to strike effectively.
What is meant by operational planning? Here is approximately what the term implies:
Each morning General Doolittle held a staff conference in his War Room. Here he was briefed by the staff weather officer from a special forecasting map as to base, route, and target conditions within the operational sphere of the Eighth. You cannot dispatch 2,000 bombers unless you know in advance that they will have sufficient visibility to take off and land safely. Bases may be open at take-off time, but they must also be open when the aircraft are due to land.
Underground in the operations room there was a large map, electrically controlled, on which was plotted every United Kingdom base. Red lights indicated the fields that were closed in; green lights those that were open. From these devices the general got an idea of how many bombers and fighters were available for take-off and all possible fields to which they might be diverted after completing the mission.
During the break-through period the 8th operated for 13 consecutive days in some of the worst flying weather they had ever encountered. At some bases visibility was restricted to less than 600 feet. Yet bombers and fighters took off and returned safely. On one mission the entire bomber-fighter force was successfully diverted for a loss of only five aircraft. Weather planes probed the skyways at all hours of the day and night reporting on continental conditions and approaching cloud fronts. It was the usual thing for weather men to hear the report: "weather was exactly as you predicted at the briefing."
Having selected the most likely operational area and an alternative, decision was made as to the type of targets. The general consulted his target chief and was informed of the latest priorities on all categories of targets: industria1, counter-air, transportation, communications, etc. As a strategic air force the main objective of the 8th was the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German war potential. However, if the army requested priority as it did on D-day and subsequently at St Lo, at Brest, and during most of the breakthrough period General Doolittle would commit the 8th to tactical bombing.
When the general chose the area and the targets, he would turn over the operation to his staff, to whip up and "lay it on" with assembly-line smoothness. For a typical operation they would work far into the night in the underground operations room. The weather would be rechecked. They made certain the target area was still open and decided whether it must be bombed visually or by means of the "magic eye." When instrument bombing was required the "magic eye" expert contributed necessary data on which the crews were briefed.
The "damage book" was studied. This is a graphic presentation of damage inflicted on each strategic target, synthesized from pictures taken by photo reconnaissance. Photo reconnaissance aircraft were out every day evaluating pictorially the effects of the 8th's bombing. By means of the "damage book" the exact portion of a target as yet unhit was pin-pointed for destruction and appropriate aiming points chosen whereby bombardiers were able to score hits. (Incidentally, the Harriman mission to Russia carried along a special copy of the "damage book" to show Marshal Stalin what the 8th was accomplishing.)
Bomber and fighter controllers estimated how many bombers would be required to neutralize each given target and what escort must be provided to chaperone them safely to and from the target. Were there any fighters left over? If so, they could be used to strafe unsuspecting airdromes or perhaps sink their .50-calibers into a full oil storage tank or a juicy stretch of railroad. Jerry will never forget the terrific shellacking fighters gave his transportation and communications during his flight across France.
Routes in and out had to be figured. Here the antiaircraft expert entered the picture. Each day he prepared a map on the positions of some thousands of German heavy antiaircraft guns. "It might be better to turn off the track at this point," he suggests, "the flak won't be so heavy." The bomber controller consulted the enemy reaction expert about the Hun's strength in the given area. When it's a problem in communications the signal chief was always handy. When oil targets were to receive the 8th's attention, the expert on German smoke screen counter-measure was consulted. His original research made it possible for bombardiers of the 8th to increase their accuracy against smoked-veiled targets.
For a tactical mission in direct cooperation with the Army it was still another matter. You can't let bombs drop at random in a tactical area without expecting to hit your own troops, not when you're often bombing from 25,000 feet. Hence, Intelligence supplied the latest forward line of our troops, including a bomb-line, that margin of safety between our stabilized forward positions and those of the enemy.
It was teamwork from beginning to end that did the trick, enabling combat crews of this giant force to be briefed and ready for take-off by zero hour the next morning. During the night their intelligence and operations received the field order, the teletyped blueprint of the entire mission as prepared by Doolittle's staff. Down the echelons it flashed division, wing, group. All the thousand and one details were collated into a recognizable formula on the basis of which bombers and fighters could take off, assemble and rendezvous, hit their targets, and return safely to base with a minimum of loss. On several occasions the 8th dispatched and returned its entire force without a single loss. Try to imagine dispatching 1,500 trucks on a 1,000-mile journey without a mishap even without flak.
And the mission didn't end when the last aircraft landed. Interrogation followed and information shot back up the line into the reporting units of Intelligence and Operations located in the underground nerve center. Here it was sifted and evaluated, then funneled to proper Allied headquarters. Intelligence prepared a daily "Intops Summary," a report of all Allied ground and air operations in the European Theater. From headquarters of Field Marshall Montgomery and Lieutenant General Bradley came reports on the daily progress of ground operations. From far-away Italy, 15th Air Force radioed its attack results. Across the Channel, 9th Air Force wired a summary of British and American tactical sorties, while here in England the RAF kept the 8th informed of target intentions as well as bombing results. By eight o'clock in the morning General Doolittle knew the complete picture. It was neatly packaged for him in the "Intops Summary."
What about the results of the 8th's own bombing". All through the night photo interpreters labored analyzing and assessing the "strike attack" films. They plotted the trajectory of the fallen bombs. They pin-pointed the damage and compared it with the previous cumulative destruction, ferreting out new damage. Then they classified results excellent, very good, good, fair, poor, or unobserved, depending on the degree of accuracy. In the morning the photo intelligence expert would brief General Doolittle. The results of the "strike attacks" influenced his decision on the selection of targets for the very next mission. The 8th learned by doing. It maintained a special research and analysis section staffed by competent civilians as well as military personnel.
Around take-off time every day, staff members briefed General Doolittle on the completed planning. Then he concentrated on the coming mission. It wasn't all smooth sailing. Especially in baffling weather. On one mission an entire force of Liberators had to return to base because a wall of cloud up to 30,000 feet suddenly blocked their route. According to the weatherman it was supposed to be miles northward. In came an unpredicted wind and sent the cloud front galloping south, Another time, an adverse report was flashed to the general after the heavies and their "little friends" had already assembled. He had to do some fast thinking in order to make the mission profitable. It amounted to changing the bomber track in mid-air. But it was done. Secondary targets were heavily plastered instead.
In making these momentous decisions the general was tantamount to the head of an unimaginably huge combine. Only instead of dealing in commodities and products he dealt with a large portion of the human and material resources of the American people.
The wise employment of this arsenal in the 8th's development of daylight precision assault was the prime function of the higher echelon.
This article was originally published in the July, 1945, issue of Flying magazine, vol 37, no 1, pp 46-47, 110, 112.
The PDF of this article includes photos of General Doolittle, of B-17s in formation at altitude, and aerial photos of bomb strikes and bomb damage from the mission.
Photos credited to AAF, USN.