Strategic Bombardment Help for WWII Series


#1

Hi Indy and crew:

This is G. A. Blume. I contacted you guys via e-mail some months back offering my services as a historian specializing in strategic bombardment. You had suggested that I join your forum and I apologize for being so tardy in doing so. I have been working with the rebuild of a Boeing B-17F in Asheville, North Carolina and consulting with the National Museum of the US Air Force on their restoration of Memphis Belle. Things have been busy!

Still, with today being the anniversary of the invasion of France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I am sorry to be getting such a late start.

Hopefully, I can be of some use to you guys.

For now:

The Allied air situation in May 1940 was not particularly good.

Prior to the war, the general consensus had been that it was impossible to develop a successful long-range fighter. After all, carrying more gasoline would require a larger airframe, and larger airframes meant lower performance. As such, the fighters of the 1930s tended to take on interceptor qualities (perfected through years of racing tournaments and speed record attempts). For this reason, fighters on both sides had to operate from forward bases to have any effect on local air superiority as, for example, even the latest British fighters could barely cross the Channel before having to turn back.

And it must be stressed that the war began on the cusp of a new generation aircraft. Aircraft development is never easy and usually takes years to perfect. As such, while new designs were available, Europe went to war with decidedly 1930s-style aircraft, such as the British Hawker Hurricane, German Messerschmitt Bf-109, and French Morane-Saulnier MS406. This would hurt France considerably as, already hampered by SEVERE interservice rivalry and an indifferent government, the French Armée de l’Air had too few next-generation fighters (namely, the Dewoitine D520) to seriously combat the Germans.

For what it’s worth, one big issue was armament. The introduction of cantilever wings and metal airframes in the 1920s had raised the issue of cartridges larger than the .30/.303 caliber MG. The US opted to use the .50 caliber MG. Most others favored 20mm autocannon, but since it was bulky and unreliable, it was used in limited numbers. The Germans led the way in cannon development – which worked to their advantage – while the British increased the number of .30 caliber MGs in its fighters to often ridiculous amounts. Those French fighter pilots who managed to down German aircraft on the first day (some 47 bombers and 25 fighters) often complained about how much ammunition it took to down a German aircraft.

In regard to bombers:

Britain and the United States were the only major powers to seriously study the possibility of a strategic air campaign. (And even then, only Britain had a military structure willing to do so.)

RAF doctrine on strategic bombardment was unclear at best. International law prohibited the bombing of civilians but made allowances for civilian deaths provided the target was of legitimate military value. (Obviously, Germany stressed this law in regard to the bombing of Warsaw.) For the British, the memory of panicked civilians in the Great War, combined with the collapse of Germany in 1918, solidified the belief that SOMETHING could be done along these lines. Civilians might be killed as collateral damage, but the targets would have to be of military value. Still, for the British, the economic impact of targeting an industry was not nearly as important as the psychological.

The RAF was keenly aware that their bomber force was outdated. (Of the RAF mainstays – the Fairey Battle, Bristol Blenheim, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, Handley Page Hampden, and Vickers Wellington – only the Wellington would not see a hasty retirement.) The introduction of radar had destroyed the possibility of daylight operations and the RAF was willing to accept this – after all, accuracy wasn’t the issue. As such, when the RAF began strategic operations on 17 May, it targeted synthetic oil refineries and steel mills: targets with features easily identifiable at night (i.e., storage tanks, blast furnaces, and smokestacks.)

Of course, blackouts and poor weather would prove this to be rather difficult in practice – but that’s for later…

Without anyone to champion the cause for strategic bombing (as well as a lack of funds to invest in it), France, Germany, and the Soviet Union focused more so on interdiction and tactical bombardment.

The invasion of France showed the world what effective tactical airpower was capable of. Starting on 13 May, Ju-87 Stukas provided continuous support to the German forces below rather than simply serve as “aerial artillery.” This significantly hampered the French efforts to halt the German advance upon the Meuse. By contrast, the British would see their tactical bombers – namely, the Fairey Battle – suffer incredible losses without achieving much success at all.

In the end though, it was the Germans who, inadvertently, brought about the strategic air war. With the German advance stalling (slightly) at Rotterdam, an opportunity was presented to surrender the city prior to a formal engagement. Rudolf Schmidt had called upon the Luftwaffe to conduct a Stuka strike should the Dutch hesitate, but somewhere along the upper channels the decision was made to launch a level-bomber strike. On 14 May, the Luftwaffe launched 54 aircraft from II and III/KG54 under Oberst Walter Lackner and 46 He-111s from I/KG54 under Oberstleutnant Otto P. W. Höhne against the city. 57 aircraft dropped their loads into the city before spotting a flare signaling them to abort (the recall order had not been heard).

Rotterdam was mostly wooden and its fire brigades almost all volunteer. Because of evacuations, the dead was limited to 884, thought this was still a huge figure when compared to previous bombings.

Considering the almost helpless state of the Dutch military (no German bombers were lost, for example), the bombing of Rotterdam caused international outrage. On 17 May, the RAF lifted its restrictions against bombing Germany proper, launching 24 Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, 52 Vickers Wellingtons, and 54 Handley Page Hampdens against the railyards of Cologne and the oil refineries of Hamburg and Bremen, Germany. No RAF aircraft were lost, though 47 civilians were killed.

Hope this helps.

Cheers!

G. A. Blume
Historian
www.GBlume.com
www.HangarThirteen.org


#2

I would not say that the french government was “indifferent”. I think the french government really realized (and early!) that strategic bombers would win the war.

The french government said that they had to sign the Munich treaty in 1938 because they had no bombers at the time and their aviation was lacking. So it was a huge problem they were really aware of.

The french did invest lots of money into aviation, actually they started thinking about it in 1928.

But the french industry never made before 1940 a good and powerful french engine to support their planes and french politics forbade the use of a foreign engine. Also the constructors never made a shift to full modern airplane factories and they prefered using old ways of making planes, which really was a problem, but they got more money this way, the planes cost were higher.

Seeing the inabilities of french industries to make a good long range bomber, and with a huge political opposition, the french government in 1938/39 started to check with US constructors for new bombers and fighters.

But they somehow faced the same problems with the US industries, which was not willing to create modern factories to build all those planes when the US politics still forbade the export of weapons to the allies.

With a huge amount of money and with Roosevelt reassurance that the export will be possible soon, the french (and english) started some bomber programs with the US, which would lead later for instance to the B-24 bomber (most produced bomber of the war), and they could manage to have delivered for 1940 (Douglas B-7 or A-20) and fighters as Curtis (H-75 french designation or P-36 for the US).
The french paid enormous amount of money per airplane, like a H-75 was costing 2 or 3 times more than a local made french fighter.

If I remember correctly, at first the US industries was not really able to keep up with the new orders from England and France and they also prefered to keep some production for use in the US first. But the money sent by the allies really helped to modernize factories and launch successful planes that would later really benefit the US.

Also, not to be forgotten the french made the first bombing raid to Berlin the 7th June 1940.


#3

Hi Nic,

Thanks for the nice reply!

“Indifferent” may have been a clumsy choice of words, but I think my argument remains the same.

You are absolutely correct that France had indeed made significant organizational leaps in regard to its air forces. Largely thanks to the efforts of Air Minister Pierre Cot (1933-1934, 1936-1938), France had focused its production toward bombers starting in 1936. Cot’s Plan II called for some 1,339 bombers, 756 fighters, and 645 reconnaissance aircraft.

Cot pushed hard for a strategic bombing force – something that French airmen had called for as early as 1927, translating and sharing copies of Giulio Douhet’s writings. However, Cot had to do so fighting against a government opposed to offensive forces. Cot’s strategic bombing units had to be termed “heavy defensive aircraft,” for example. This is the exact same situation faced by airmen in the US.

Still, virtually everything Cot had pushed for was thrown out in 1938. Guy LeChambre undid Cot’s most important reforms in regard to command organization. Strategic air forces were disbanded, and “bomber and fighter groups reverted to the direct control of army regional commanders. [French CINC] General Gamelin insisted that the primary duty of airpower lay in protecting the army from enemy air attack, nullifying attempts to instill an offensive orientation…”

Like Great Britain, LeChambre also shifted the focus away from bombers toward fighters.

France’s biggest problem in regard to strategic bombardment was that it was a land power. Strategic air warfare is generally conceived in economic terms, which is traditionally the domain of the navy. With its greatest threat right next door, it was hard for the French to justify air power which operated independent of the army. The French did indeed pay close attention to the Spanish Civil War, and as a result, some investment was made in tactical and interdiction bombers in 1939. Still:

“Neither the events of Spain nor the desire of air force officers to reform air doctrine, however, had any considerable impact upon General Gamelin or Air Minister LeChambre. An army-dominated High Command, largely and profoundly ignorant of the capabilities of modern airpower, frustrated France’s last chance to develop an effective operational air doctrine.”

From my point of view, the biggest problem with French air power was its own government. The constant shifting of power, all more suspicious than the next, drowned out any voices that might have called for aviation reform. In Cot’s case, it didn’t help that he was suspected of being a Soviet agent – which turned out to be true!

The industrial restrictions you mentioned were also quite ridiculous. If the government had shown more initiative, French air power might have played a greater role. As it was, the French air force had to make do with what they had in 1940 – even if it meant doing so without a real strategic air arm.

After all, the strike on Berlin you mentioned, was made by a single Farman F223 (a converted transport named Jules Verne) operating under the control of the French Navy.

Quotes taken from:

(1) Corum, James S, “Airpower Though in Continental Europe between the Wars.” The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory. Colonel Phillip S. Meilinger, United States Air Force, editor. 1997. Reprint, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1998

G. A. Blume
Historian
www.GBlume.com
www.HangarThirteen.org


#4

(it’s not clear from french sources if Cot was indeed a soviet agent before the war, it’s not really proved, just that later he had some contact during/after the war).

But anyway the French did order 120 B-24 bombers (in 1939?), maybe you know more about it?


#5

Hi Nic!

Yeah, the extent of Cott’s Soviet involvement is unclear; I just thought it was a point worth mentioning.

In regard to French B-24s:

The B-24 prototype first flew on 29 December 1939. Without ever actually seeing it, the French ordered 60 B-24s, with an optional renewal for 120 more. Similarly, the British ordered 164. These export aircraft were given the designation LB-30.

This was prior to the US making any B-24 orders of its own.

Consolidated did not complete a production model LB-30/B-24 until nearly a year after the fall of France. The initial batch of seven test aircraft (completed in January 1941) was broken up, with six going to Britain and one to the US.

The British got the majority of the LB-30 contracts, with most serving in RAF Coastal Command. The US preferred to wait until Consolidated finished redesigning the B-24 to better meets to needs of European combat (just as Boeing was doing with the B-17). Still, the need was so great that the British were willing to order the early production models without waiting for improved variants.

Hope that makes sense.

Cheers!

-G

G. A. Blume
Historian


#6

Your episode for 18 May was incredible guys. Probably the best and most balanced treatment of the breakthrough into France I have ever seen. You’re setting the bar high.

In quoting the heavy losses of RAF Advanced Air Strike Force (AAST), I feel there needs to be some discussion about the poor quality of British “light” bombers; namely the Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim. The Battle was widely known as a “flying coffin” and on 14 May, for example, a maximum effort by AAST of 63 Battles and 8 Blenheims saw 35 Battles and 5 Blenheims lost.

There was some feeling in the upper echelons that ‘something was better than nothing.’ Portal (CINC RAF BC) had warned about this on 8 May:

“I am convinced that the proposed use of these units is fundamentally unsound, and that if it is persisted in, it is likely to have disastrous consequences on the future of the war in the air. . . . It can scarcely be disputed that at the enemy’s chosen moment for advance the area concerned will be literally swarming with enemy fighters, and we shall be lucky if we see again as many as half the aircraft we send out each time. Really accurate bombing under the conditions I visualize is not to be expected, and I feel justified in expressing serious doubts whether the attacks of 50 Blenheims based on information necessarily some hours out of date are likely to make as much difference to the ultimate course of the war as to justify the losses I expect.”

Quote taken from:

Hastings, Sir Max. Bomber Command: The Myths and Reality of the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945 . New York, NY: Dial Press/James Wade, 1979.

Portal’s predictions were accurate.

Even with fighter cover, Battles and Blenheims suffered heavily. From 10 May to 15 May, Battles averaged a loss rate of approx. 50%. As a point of comparison, the bloodiest month of the US bomber offensive averaged 8%.

It should be noted that the UK refused to send over the large numbers of fighters Barratt had requested. There was a cold logic to this. Between 19 May and 1 June, the British had built 190 Hurricanes and Spits while losing 194 Hurricanes and Spits during that same period. Dowding’s (CINC RAF FC) concerns about his ability to defend the UK were well-justified.

And let us not forget that the RAF had a grand total of 408 aircraft in France, of which 299 were lost.

The 14 May failure heralded a shift in tactics by AAST, with Blenheims units slowly being returned home and Battle units increasingly operating at night. Considering the tactical and interdiction roles they were expected to fulfill, this helped with fighter interception, but hurt accuracy and did nothing to cope with ground fire.

In regard to the French, the massive aircraft build-up had been poorly organized, resulting in severe serviceability problems. As such, there was a great disparity between French air strength on paper and in reality. The numbers for 10 May state the French possessed some 2,402 fighters, 1,023 bombers, and 1,601 aircraft of various other types. The reality was far smaller, with only a third actually being fit for combat. (Nic might have concrete figures on this.)

There were several reasons for this state of affairs. Keep in mind my previous post on the shifting generation of aircraft design – the French had to go through this shift while fighting for its survival. Frontline units were struggling to maintain aircraft that were either too old to effectively maintain or too new to find parts for. This situation was complicated when, not only were there a myriad of differing types in service (including foreign imports), but the communications system was struggling to cope with redeployments and German air attack.

Despite poor leadership, the French air forces put everything they had into the fight. The Germans lost somewhere between 1,290 and 1,389 aircraft against France (depending on the source). The loss of various Allied records likewise leaves it unclear as to whom to credit these victories. Still, the French note that the Curtiss P-36 (imported from the US) accounted for a large portion of these numbers despite having only 131 P-36s on hand. No matter how you look at it, that is hard fighting.

-G

G. A. Blume
Historian