Before tracing the course of the air fighting over Germany in those critical summer months of 1943, it might be well to glance at what was happening in the Mediterranean. There the war was going well. Airpower was slashing at Rommel's over-extended supply line, blocking roads, strafing motor columns, sinking ships, and shooting down air transports. Much of the doctrine of tactical airpower was being reasserted in action: that to operate effectively in conjunction with the ground forces, you first must have control of the air; that when you do have such control, the primary role of tactical airpower consists in attacking supply lines in the rear rather than close support in the immediate battle area. New lessons were learned every day about the value of softening up the enemy air force by bombing airdromes before launching a ground attack, about the importance of hand-in-glove coordination between air and ground commanders, about the necessity for integrated air forces that could act as a whole rather than scattered squadrons operationally tied to a particular army or navy unit.
This principle of unity of command was accepted at Casablanca in January 1943. In the following month, the converging 12th and Desert Air Forces were merged into the Northwest African Air Forces under AAF General Spaatz, with a second air command in the Eastern Mediterranean, under RAF Air Marshall Tedder. It was not until the end of the year that the solution of the joint command problem found clearest expression in the creation of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, in which the function of air units, not their nationality, determined where they were placed and how employed.
As the days lengthened and spring arrived, General Spaatz's forces proceeded with the arduous and necessary task of whittling down the Luftwaffe. A constant problem in those early days was how to find enough fighters to protect the bombers against the still threatening Axis airpower. The original heavy bomber group, the 97th, found revenge for the pounding it had taken from the GAF on its first night in Algiers by plastering Axis shipping and harbor facilities. In December, it had been joined by three squadrons of B-24 Liberators from the 92nd Group in England, who lived in the desert on spam and dehydrated cabbage, harassed Rommel's rear guards, and struck across the Mediterranean at Naples and the Sicilian airdromes. Several medium bomber groups, living under conditions just as rugged, gave the Nazis a foretaste of what B-25 and B-26 medium bombers could do. There were some bad moments in the Tunisian campaign -- as, for example, when Rommel flung his panzers through Kasserine Pass. On that occasion, everything with wings was thrown against him -- even heavy bombers flying below medium altitude. But there were also red-letter days, like the famous Palm Sunday engagement, when P-40 fighters of the 57th Group caught a swarm of JU-52s and ME-323s flying men and supplies to Rommel's hard-pressed forces and shot 79 into the sea in a slaughter reminiscent of the Battle of Britain.
In the Mediterranean there was more variety of air combat -- if not more heroism -- than was ever dreamed of in northern Europe at that time. High, medium and low-level bombing, bridge-busting, strafing of armored columns and airdromes, skip bombing of Axis shipping -- all these tactics and many others appeared in the 191 days between the Allied landings in North Africa and the collapse of Axis forces there.
Aerial Photo-Reconnaissance Became Important
It was in this period, too, that an aerial weapon, whose potentialities had never been fully exploited, began to be recognized as an indispensable aid to modern warfare. In 1939, one of Germany's best generals, Werner Von Fritsch, had predicted that the side with the best aerial photo-reconnaissance would win the war. In Britain, the RAF had skilled photo-interpreters assessing bomb damage and making target selections based on high altitude photos brought back by unarmed Spitfires or Mosquitoes. A squadron of American P-38 Lightnings, profiting from RAF experience, was almost operational. But it was in Africa that tactical reconnaissance proved itself invaluable to the ground forces. At one point during the final stages of the drive on Tunis, when weather grounded reconnaissance operations, the ground commander flatly refused to move until his air photo coverage was obtained. Flying P-38s (F-versions), members of the 90th Photo Recon Wing experimented with night photography, and brought low-level photo-recon missions -- 'dicing' missions, as they were called -- to a state of development which was invaluable later on in Italy and still later in the battles of France and Germany. They got little recognition for their work -- photo recon was strictly hush-hush in those days -- but they came to be acknowledged as the real eyes of the Army. To the long-range planners, with an eventual D-day in mind, their work proved beyond question that complete photo coverage of the invasion area and its defenses would be indispensable to successful landings.
Axis African Forces Collapse and Attention is Turned Toward Sicily
With the final collapse of the Axis African forces, on May 18 1943, Allied airpower was free to turn its attention across the Mediterranean to Italy, which Winston Churchill had once called the "soft underbelly" of the Axis. The Northwest African Air Forces was, by this time, a battle-hardened aggregation of nearly 4,000 aircraft, with 2,630 American airplanes, 1,076 British planes and 94 French planes. The first Axis target to feel the weight of its blows was the island of Pantelleria. Between May 30 and June 11, this heavily fortified Italian island in the Strait of Sicily, 62 miles (100 km) southwest of Sicily, rocked under more than 6,000 tons of bombs and finally capitulated without a ground assault -- the first territorial conquest to be achieved solely through airpower. It was a great victory, and a relatively cheap one -- we lost 63 aircraft and claimed 236 of the enemy's while gaining fighter fields indispensable for the invasion of Sicily. But airmen knew that such a complete collapse of a garrison was the exception rather than the rule.
With Pantelleria having fallen, plans moved forward rapidly for the invasion of Sicily. The primary mission of the Northwest African Air Forces was the destruction of the enemy airpower based there. Between July 1 and the invasion, on July 10, nearly 3,000 sorties were directed against airfields on Sicily and on the Italian mainland. The Luftwaffe took such a beating on the ground that it was able to offer only token resistance when the invasion of Sicily finally took place.
Some Problems Occurred During the Invasion of Sicily
All was not sweetness and light in the air, however, during the invasion of Sicily. The airborne operations, in which American gliders made their first combat appearance, showed with clarity the need for complete coordination of land, sea and air forces.
Training for the airborne operation had been complicated by the weather. Blistering 120-degree F (49-degree C) heat warped some of the CG4A gliders and, just 10 days before the Sicilian invasion, a howling sirocco (wind storm) caused additional damage to the fragile craft. Nevertheless, preparations went forward.
The 51st Troop Carrier Wing, with 133 planes and gliders, was to carry British troops into action, the gliders to be released over the sea but close enough to the coast to make their landing zones. The 52nd Troop Carrier Wing, with 227 aircraft, was to drop American parachutists. Heavy preliminary bombing of the invasion area and strong fighter patrols were ordered.
In spite of such preparations, some things went wrong. Smoke from the bombing, rising to 5,000 feet, blinded both C-47 transport aircraft pilots and glider pilots of the 51st Wing. Defensive flak was heavy. A strong head wind, plus other factors, resulted in 50 gliders landing in the ocean. The 52nd Wing didn't have much better luck. Some of their craft were shelled by our forces. Fires on the ground, reflecting on windshields, made visibility already obscured by smoke and dust even worse. Eight aircraft went down under fire from both friend and foe. Some chutists landed miles from their intended drop zones. Afterwards, the mission was given an 80 percent efficiency rating, but this charitable reckoning must have taken into consideration the fact that the enemy was thoroughly confused by our own confusion and greatly overestimated the numbers of Allied aircraft involved.
The going continued to be rough for Troop Carrier throughout the remainder of the Sicilian campaign. Not so much from the Luftwaffe -- our strikes against enemy airdromes kept air opposition light. But enemy flak was deadly. On July 11, we lost 23 aircraft out of 144. Two days later, a misguided Allied convoy sent up a barrage that knocked down seven more C-47s. Harassed pilots began to shy at the sight of anything bigger than a rowboat.
It was a painful process of education, but the lessons were plain and not to be forgotten. They were: absolute necessity for complete coordination between all members of the triphibious team; need for distinctive markings to facilitate aircraft recognition; better radio navigational aids; planes less vulnerable to ground fire than C-47s; bigger drop zones for parachutists. Ruled out of the book were glider releases over water, and the so-called "crash landings" of CG4A gliders, which were too lightly built to stand the shock without injury to the occupants.
These lessons were applied to great advantage a year later at Normandy.
The Attack on the Ploesti Oil Refineries in Romania
As the Axis grip on Sicily was slowly being broken, five groups of Liberators, three from the 8th Air Force and two from the 9th, staged what was probably the most spectacular single mission of the war -- the August 1, 1943 strike against the Ploesti oil refineries in Romania. The decision to fly the 2,000-mile round trip from Africa and go in at treetop level, gambling heavily on the element of surprise, was a bold one. It was based on the theory that the pinpoint accuracy obtained would justify high losses and that dodging radar detection would minimize losses by catching fighter and flak defenses unprepared.
Unfortunately, some faulty navigation nullified the element of complete surprise. The damage inflicted was considerable, Out of 177 B-24 Liberators, 42 were shot down or crashed, and 31 others failed to return to base. Ploesti was destined to be destroyed eventually by bombing, but to accomplish that destruction, the heavies reverted to their fundamental tactic of high-level precision bombing.
Preparations For Invasion of Italian Mainland
After Sicily, inevitably, came Italy. Pre-invasion softening up of German airdromes, particularly a spectacular strafing of 200 JU-88s at Foggia, kept the Luftwaffe's head down. But the Wehrmacht was tough. At Salerno, the only suitable invasion point within range of our fighter cover, the Germans drove a counter attack to within a few hundred yards of the beach. Once again, as at Kasserine Pass, the heavies joined the mediums and the fighter bombers in an all-out effort to break up the attack and save the beach-head. On two successive days, more than 1,000 sorties were flown, a commonplace event later in the war, but a distinct achievement over a distant beach-head in September 1943. The morale lift given our ground troops was enormous.
Movement of the 15th Air Force to Italy in the autumn of 1943 was a triumph of logistics. The main objective was to lose as little operational time as possible. Existing airfields in the Foggia area had been badly battered. These were repaired by the Allies and new airfields were carved out of the soggy Italian plain. The engineering problems involved were enormous. Steel mats were essential to keep bombers from bogging down in the spongy turf. Roads had to be built. Distribution of supplies inside Italy was a major headache. Most shipments were landed at Naples, where shattered port facilities were restored with brilliant efficiency by Army engineers. This equipment then had to be transported over the spiny backbone peninsula to eastern air bases. Sometimes the task of moving several hundred tons of steel mat from one side of a marshalling yard to another was more of a problem than getting the same shipment across mountains.
Fortunately, warfare in Africa had taught everyone, including the AAF, much about the difficult art of keeping mobile. Combat crews never once lacked material with which to fight. Bomb stackage was kept ahead of requirements. Gasoline was piped in and stored in adequate field facilities. By the end of December, supply problems were largely licked. With its strength building up rapidly, the 15th stood ready for the critical responsibilities of the new year.
The year 1943 began with the first tentative strikes by the US AAF against the north German coast. Costly experiments with medium-level daylight bombing had proved conclusively that Nazi flak was too deadly for any but high-level operations. Fortunately, our bombing accuracy had gradually improved to better allow for high-level bombing. Successful high-level attacks on Kiel and Vegesack silenced most of the critics of daylight operations.
In the spring of 1943, however, the cardinal principle of concentration of our air effort was not fully realized. We made some successful strikes against rubber factories at Huls and Hanover, but we were not able to follow up with further such attacks on the factories due to a lack of reserve aircraft, and the Germans were very successful at repairing the factories. Our failure to destroy the rubber industry was an example of biting off more than we could chew.
Besides, we were barely holding our own against the Luftwaffe. By June, the Germans had more than doubled the fighters that opposed our earliest attacks, and had introduced a mortar-type rocket. This rocket out-ranged our .50 caliber machine gun and its burst had a lethal radius of over 100 yards. If the Germans had ever devised an adequate aiming sight for it, they might well have driven us out of the sky before our long-range fighters appeared on the scene. Fortunately for us, P-47 Thunderbolt fighters carrying 100-gallon belly fuel tanks made their appearance in July. They were badly outnumbered, at first, and their range was still limited to the fringes of the Reich. But they slaughtered the twin-engine Nazi rocket-throwing fighters until the Germans were forced into the weird situation of providing fighter cover for their own fighter intercepters.
The range of our fighters, especially when the P-51 Mustangs finally got into action later in the war, was the biggest surprise of the war to most of the Luftwaffe commanders. One prisoner, captured shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, told with evident satisfaction of how General Galland, the Nazi fighter commander, refused to believe the reports of his own men about the long range of our fighter aircraft until four Mustangs pounced on him one day while he was observing an air battle in an ME-410, and chased him all the way to Berlin. After that he was convinced. So was the German high command. They knew then, as they admitted afterwards, that they had to develop their jet fighters -- and soon. Nothing else would stop the daylight invaders.
Experimenting With Various Weapons Systems
All through 1943, weapon clashed with counter-weapon. The Germans tried various forms of air-to-air bombing. None was successful. We trotted out the YB-40, a heavily armed B-17 Fortress designed to be a platform for firepower and nothing else. It was not a success, because the added firepower did not compensate for loss of speed. With better luck, we introduced flak suits that reduced casualties appreciably. The Germans experimented with intruder Fortresses that they had captured, with faked radio signals. We sent a squadron of B-17s to fly some night missions at very high altitude, while the RAF bombed the same target several thousand feet below. The reports were discouraging. Meanwhile, the RAF's superb air-sea rescue service reached the point where it could, and did, drop whole motor launches to ditched airmen, complete with everything except blondes.
RAF's Bomber Command, meantime, was locked in a night duel with the Luftwaffe as deadly as the day conflict between the Luftwaffe and the AAF. Beginning in March, 1943, with a 12-city blitz on the Ruhr, the RAF poured a steadily increasing bomb tonnage on Germany. How much it hurt the Nazis could be judged by the skill and determination with which their night fighter force fought back. It was tough going, and the night bombers could not count -- as the day bombers now could -- on squadrons of friendly long-range fighters to come charging to the rescue. They had to rely on deception and raw courage. They had an abundance of the latter, but the losses were cruel, and German civilian morale showed no sign of cracking under the rain of fire from the night skies.
It is still too early to attempt finally to evaluate the relative merits of night and day bombing at their respective stages of development in 1943. When asked a question along such lines after the war, Goering shrugged his massive shoulders and said, "Well, we could always evacuate the cities!" But it must be remembered that the RAF's pathfinder technique, in which special advance squadrons located and marked targets with flares at which the main bomber force would then aim, had not reached the degree of perfection it attained later. And the use of radar promises to make some forms of night bombing virtually as accurate as day, before the scientists are through with it.
The shattering daylight battles of the last week of July, when the US 8th Air Force made its first determined assault on the Nazi aircraft industry, left both sides close to exhaustion. It was at this point that the lack of reserve aircraft was felt most sharply by the AAF. By now it was evident that the growth of the Luftwaffe fighter force had to be stopped. With our heavy bomber squadrons weary and below strength, and without long-range fighters for the last stages of deep penetration missions, the planners of the daylight offensive had to choose a target that would cause Germany the greatest possible dislocation. They chose ball-bearings.
Ball-Bearing Plants Attacked
Concentrated in a few well-defended areas such as Schweinfurt, the ball-bearing industry looked like the most promising Nazi industrial bottleneck in the late summer of 1943. Its destruction would affect not only aircraft production, but transportation, guns, tanks, ships and many other war products, all of which required ball-bearings for their manufacture and use.
The attacks on the ball-bearing plants produced some of the fiercest air battles of the war. By September 1944, the Germans had lost the equivalent of five months pre-attack war production. We have the testimony of the general manager of Junkers in Italy that "the attacks on the ball-bearing industry were an unqualified success and disorganized Germany's entire war production." Luftwaffe prisoners, too, complained of engine failures caused by inferior bearings. It is true, however, that Germany was cushioned against the blows to some extent by fairly large reserves of bearings and by the fact that demand for bearings dropped sharply as Allied airpower smashed factories and curtailed production of items requiring bearings. The campaign against the ball-bearing industry hurt the Germans, but it was not decisive in the sense that the later campaign against oil was decisive.
The two deadly air attacks on the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt, on August 17 and October 14, represented the climax of the major air fighting in 1943. The second attack, which resulted in 59 heavy bombers being shot down over Europe, one in the English Channel, and six that crashed trying to land, gave us proof that until we had adequate Mustang fighter cover over remote targets, the cost was simply too high.
Inadequate German Defensive Efforts
Yet if we were gloomy, the Germans were near despair. Goering issued an order in which he stated flatly that the Luftwaffe's defensive efforts were inadequate. This was significant because the Germans had made frantic efforts to improve it. Steadily increasing attacks by our Britain-based B-26 Marauders on German fighter fields were driving the Luftwaffe farther and farther back toward the territorial borders of the Reich. During August, the Nazis had pulled the crack 3rd Fighter Wing out of Russia -- at a time, too, when the German lines were sagging under the Soviet offensive between Kursk and Orel. They had converted night fighters into rocket-throwing fighter-bombers. They had set up elaborate refueling and rearming points from which their fighters could fly double sorties against the daylight invaders. They had issued orders, on pain of court-martial, that German fighter pilots were to go for the bombers and ignore the escort fighters altogether. In a final desperate measure, they had created the Sturmstaffel, a suicidal group of pilots who took an oath to ram the American heavies if all else failed. This Teutonic form of the Japanese Kamikaze never came to much. But the fact that it had official sanction shows the German dread of our remorseless application of precision bombing.
With autumn came bad weather. Our formations had to fall back on instrument bombing, which at that point was far from a state of perfection. The Luftwaffe, licking its own wounds, rarely bothered to come up to oppose our planes. The climb through the icy overcast wasn't worth the risk involved. Slowly, both sides built up strength for the final test which lay ahead. When USSTAF (United States Strategic and Tactical Air Forces) was created at the turn of the year, with the 8th Air Force almost at full strength and the 15th Air Force building up rapidly in its newly acquired Italian bases, everyone knew the test was at hand. The decisive battles had not been fought in 1943. Perhaps 1944 would be a different story.
The year 1944 began with a furious assault on the German fighter factories. By now there was absolute clarity of purpose as to the first priority of daylight strategic bombing. It was the neutralization of the Luftwaffe. Without achieving that, the great machinery of the D-day invasion, for which the dynamic code word 'Overlord' had been coined, could not begin to turn.
By this time the Germans' monthly production of single-engine fighters had reached 650, with great expansion imminent. Breaking the back of this production would not only safeguard the invasion armada, it would leave our heavy bombers free to attack the real Achilles heel of the Nazi war effort -- oil. It might, moreover, liberate the RAF from the night bombing that had been its chosen element for so long. Failure to neutralize the Luftwaffe simply meant that the war might be prolonged indefinitely.
The first round was fought on January 11, 1944, when some 800 heavies, with escorting fighters, attacked aircraft factories at Oschersleben, Brunswick, Halberstadt and elsewhere. The Luftwaffe offered furious resistance. Fifty-three bombers and five escorting fighters were lost. Our returning airmen claimed 292 Nazi fighters destroyed.
The decisive attacks came in February, with an almost miraculous week of good weather and a great two-pronged blitz, from Britain and the Mediterranean, on the Nazi fighter complexes. When the smoke cleared away, German single-engine fighter production was reduced by 60 percent, and twin-engine production was cut by 80 percent.
With their amazing antlike persistence, the Nazis immediately started to repair their factories. Constant policing of their production remained necessary, and grew more and more difficult as the industry disappeared underground. But the air losses they suffered during the February attacks, both in planes and in pilots, made it impossible for them to come back to the strength required to defend against the looming certainty of D-day. In succeeding months, the Luftwaffe fought only to protect such vital targets as oil refineries, or the sacred heart of the Reich -- Berlin. D-day found Germany tired and dispirited. The lifeblood had been drained out of it in February 1944.
The Baby Blitz On London
Also in February, the German Bomber Command showed a flickering spark of life. This took the form of a baby blitz on London, an effort in which an attacking force, rarely exceeding 100 planes, took heavy punishment to drop a few more bombs on London, the city that had survived the big blitz of 1940-41, known as the Battle of Britain.
Just why the Germans chose this way to decimate their remaining night bomber squadrons, which might much better have been used against the juicy targets offered by the D-day invasion, still remains a mystery. Perhaps it is not too far fetched to wonder if the German high command, bearing in mind the progress of certain of its secret construction along the French coast, came to the conclusion that their bombers were obsolete in view of what was coming and decided to give German home morale a boost at the cost of their remaining planes. What was coming, of course, was the V-weapon assault on England.
Since the summer of 1943, Allied intelligence had watched, with growing concern, Germany's experiments with a long-range rocket (the V-2) and a flying bomb (the V-1). The RAF's surprise attack on the experimental rocket facility at Pennemunde, on the Baltic coast, was reported to have delayed the work on these weapons by several months. But by the end of 1943, queer launching ramps were mushrooming along the coast, all ominously sighted toward London.
To the B-26 Marauder medium bombers of the 9th Bomber Command went the major responsibility for neutralizing this new threat. The targets became more and more difficult as the Germans modified and camouflaged their launching sites. Moreover, they were so heavily guarded by flak that exasperated AAF crews wondered audibly if the whole thing were not just an elaborate Jerry flak trap. As the concern of high British officials became more acute, heavy bombers were also assigned to the targets. Their use was uneconomical -- fighter bombing in the end was to prove the best antidote to the flying bomb sites -- but the threat was too grave to ignore. The delay imposed on the Germans by the attacks on the rocket sites undoubtedly saved London from an ordeal far worse than eventually materialized.
It is interesting to speculate as to what effect the V-weapon program had on the Luftwaffe. The diversion of materiel -- and even more important, of the best scientific brains in the Reich -- undoubtedly weakened the Luftwaffe to some degree. The Nazis could hardly be blamed, for they knew they could never hope to match us in mass production of orthodox types of weapons. But if they had concentrated on their jet plane program instead of the V-1, V-2 and other unconventional weapons, they might have realized their dream of an aerial stalemate. In any case, the V-weapon threat never interfered with Allied preparations for the D-day invasion.
Experimenting With High Altitude Fighter-Bombing
One interesting innovation that appeared in those days was the brief experiment with high altitude fighter-bombing. A P-38 Lightning fighter group, led by a modified P-38 "Droop Snoot" carrying a Norden bombsight and a bombardier, proved capable of dropping a respectable bomb load with considerable accuracy and a minimum of risk. The implications of this type of bombing -- with the bomb pattern easily controlled by formation flying, with relatively less danger from flak, with no escort required since the Lightnings could jettison their loads and defend themselves if attacked by enemy aircraft, with a risk element of only one man per ton of bombs instead of two men per ton as in a medium or heavy bomber -- the implications were interesting, to put it mildly. Granted that the Lightning was not as stable a bombing platform as a Marauder or a Fortress; granted, too, that the success or failure of the mission depended entirely on the skill of one bombardier in the lead P-38 -- nevertheless this method of getting a bomb on a target seemed to have much to recommend it in terms of speed, safety and economy of men and machines.
Setbacks and Victories in Italy
In Italy, meanwhile, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces had ably supported the Anzio landings, neutralizing German airfields in the vicinity, and cutting supply routes to the battlefield. But the Germans were able to contain the beachhead and prevent the capture of Rome. Accordingly, on March 15, an attempt was made to blast a hole in the main front across Italy at Cassino. This was the first mass use of US AAF heavy bombers in close cooperation with ground troops. Four hundred and eighty-three planes dropped 1,205 tons of bombs on the town in a spectacular bombardment that caused worldwide comment. Cassino was pulverized but no break-through was achieved. The ground forces were unable to follow up at once with a heavy infantry attack due to a few hours of waiting for bulldozers to clear a path for tanks through the cratered rubble. In the interval, the stunned Germans were able to regroup and re-establish strong defenses. This lesson was not ignored when similar concentrated bombing was used at St. Lo in France, and at the Rhine and before Cologne in Germany.
In the 12th Air Force's 'Operation Strangle', supply problems of the German armies in Central Italy were made so acute that when the Allies finally jumped off in the push for Rome, German Commander Kesselring was unable to hold them. By cutting all railroads, the medium bombers and fighter-bombers of the 12th forced the Germans to use motor transport. Then the bombers pounced on these motor convoys and destroyed them. When the Nazis, in desperation, tried to send supplies down by sea, Coastal Air Force sank their ships. It was a brilliantly conceived and executed operation.
D-day -- The Invasion of France
As the days lengthened, preparations for Operation Overlord (the D-day invasion of France) quickened. Over Europe, Britain-based AAF medium bombers stepped up their attacks on airfields in France and Holland. The RAF withdrew from its grim battering of Berlin and turned its attention to French marshalling yards and enemy supply concentrations. Our photo-reconnaissance flyers mapped coastal defenses ceaselessly. Weather planes flew halfway across the Atlantic in rehearsal for the all-important day. The heavy bombers, their mortal duel with the Luftwaffe almost ended, began girding themselves for the tactical commitments of D-day and a new strategic campaign -- the campaign against oil.
The part played by airpower in the preparations for D-day and in the operation itself cannot, obviously, be fully discussed here. A whole chapter, indeed a whole book, could be written about any one of a dozen major contributions: the RAF's last-minute neutralization of German radar which left the enemy groping blindly for the direction of our main thrust; the patience and skill that lay behind the work of the lone weather plane, whose code message, flashed from far at sea, started the wheels of the whole gigantic machine; the superb effort of Troop Carrier in depositing two paratroop divisions behind the enemy lines and flying supplies to them despite fierce anti-aircraft opposition; the work of the fighters who struck at ground targets and guarded the seaborne armada; the instrument bombing by 1,077 AAF heavies who laid down a carpet of explosives 10 minutes before the landings, while the assault troops waited in their landing craft less than 1,000 yards from the beaches; the aviation engineers who built the landing strips while under fire ... the catalogue is endless.
The story of how tactical airpower cut the remaining bridges over the Seine before sundown on D-day plus 1, thus leaving the German defenders virtually cut off from reinforcements, has already been told in the pages of this magazine and elsewhere. It was another Strangle operation, applied to an even more critical situation. There is no lack of evidence as to its effectiveness. General Guderian, Germany's great tank expert, growled afterwards: "Lack of German air superiority in Normandy led to a complete beakdown of the German net of communications. The Luftwaffe was unable to cope with Allied air superiority in the West.
Nevertheless, by the middle of July the Germans had managed to bring up enough reserves to contain our ground forces in an uncomfortably small space. The hedgerows war was falling farther and farther behind schedule when once again the heavy bombers were called upon for a maximum effort. The British struck first at Caen, on July 18, and the British ground forces made a five-mile advance. But the real breakthrough followed the American effort at St. Lo on July 25. Here, 1,500 aircraft dropped 3,400 tons of bombs on the fixed positions of the enemy. The follow-up was instantaneous and decisive. The 1st Army, paced by the 9th Tactical Air Command, widened the breach and swung east. A week later General Patton's 3rd Army poured through the gap. The German counterattack at Avranches was smashed by a joint RAF-AAF effort. Tactical airpower was off on an offensive sweep that was to last until the end of the war.
With the breakthrough at St. Lo, the air war entered the exploitation stage. Limitations of space prevent here a full or even an adequate discussion of the colorful and varied achievements of the three Tactical Air Commands and the 1st Tactical Air Force in the pell-mell race across Europe. Some of their exploits were completely without precedent, as when the 19th TAC undertook to protect Patton's unguarded flank in his dash toward Germany, and did it so well that the German troops south of the Loire finally abandoned any thought of counterattack and surrendered in despair.
The farther the Germans retreated toward their homeland, the more they were harassed by swarms of fighter-bombers leapfrogging into airfields the Germans had just abandoned. The degree of coordination between these tactical aircraft and the ground forces was far beyond anything the Nazis had achieved in their best days of conquest. Tank commanders could whistle up fighter bombers in a matter of seconds. Roving aircraft controlled artillery fire, directing it on enemy emplacements and concentrations. Tactical reconnaissance planes kept an eye on enemy movements, spotting traffic jams that strafing P-47 Thunderbolts turned into traffic shambles. The losses of the Germans in vehicles of every kind had to be witnessed to be believed.
Meanwhile, the Italian-based heavies, having shared the credit for the February victory over the Luftwaffe, were busy aiding the Russians by strikes against Balkan communications. This campaign to deny the Germans access to the Balkan Battlefields continued right up to the fall of Vienna. At the same time the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces were dropping supplies to partisans in Yugoslavia, flying shuttle missions to Russia, hammering Axis ports in Vichy France and occupied Greece, pounding the Brenner Pass through which material was flowing to the stubborn German armies in Italy, participating in the oil blitz, and preparing for the August 15 landing in Southern France, an operation in which our air mastery was so complete that only one German plane was on hand to oppose some 2,700 Allied sorties.
The Oil Campaign
The oil campaign, which ranks, along with the neutralization of the Luftwaffe and the immobilization of the Wehrmacht, as the greatest contributions of airpower to victory in Europe, actually began a few weeks before the invasion of Normandy. To the British went the assignment of destroying synthetic oil plants in the Ruhr which were within easy range, even during the short summer nights. Oil targets in central, northern and eastern Germany, western Czechoslovakia and western Poland were given to the 8th Air Force; those in south and southeastern Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, Albania, southern Poland, southern France, and most important -- Ploesti, in Romania -- went to the 15th Air Force.
This combined offensive continued in mounting strength through June and July. By the end of that month, all but a handful of the important refineries and synthetic plants had been attacked. Every intelligence source indicated at the time, and the Germans have since agreed unanimously, that the results substantially hastened the end of the war. Conservative estimates showed that the loss of output at the 66 separate plants attacked between May and July was in excess of 400,000,000 gallons. By August, gasoline production had been reduced to 20 percent of Germany's minimum requirements. By V-E day the oil industry production was down to seven percent of pre-attack level.
This unqualified success, which left the remnants of the Luftwaffe with no gasoline for training pilots, left tanks stranded for lack of fuel, and dislocated the submarine campaign more than bombing had ever done, was not achieved without cost. The Germans ringed their refineries with the thickest concentration of flak guns ever assembled. With plenty of guns and skilled crews, they took a high toll of our men and machines. The strikes against Ploesti alone cost the 15th Air Force well over 200 heavy bombers.
The Nazis tried, too, to disperse their oil industry, but it was a slow process and they began it too late. Our timing of the oil blitz was good. If we had started it sooner, German dispersal would have begun sooner and might have gone far enough to provide the fuel for their jet program, which was rapidly nearing completion when our ground forces moved in. If the underground jet fighter factory at Kahla, with a monthly capacity of 1,000 ME-262 jet planes, had been left unmolested for five or six more months, the consequences are not pleasant to contemplate. These heavily armed jet fighters were being seen in the sky by the end of 1944. They were neither sufficiently numerous nor, as a rule, sufficiently aggressive to constitute a major menace, but technically they were far ahead of any aircraft the Allies had in action for short-range interception and they are unquestionably the fighter planes of the future.
Disappointments in Latter Half of 1944
Accompanying the brilliance of the strategic performance against oil and the magnificent work of the Tactical Air Commands, there were a few disappointments in the latter half of 1944. None was important in relation to the whole air effort, but in any attempt to present a balanced picture, they are worth mentioning.
One was the partial failure of the Allied Airborne Army's first major effort to breach the northern end of the Siegfried Line. The retreat of the British from Arnhem emphasized the necessity for dropping airborne troops fairly close to the advancing ground forces, and highlighted some of the limitations of airborne supply.
Another source of some disappointment were certain missions which were flown against the Germans who were clinging grimly to the Atlantic ports. They merely proved again that a motionless enemy, well dug into a fixed position, is hard to dislodge by air attack.
Then there were the much publicized shuttle flights to Russia. They did prove that the individual Soviet and American airmen had a lot in common and could get on well together. But any official exchange of information was somewhat limited. On the other hand, Allied airpower performed superbly in the gravest threat against our march to the Rhine. This was in the Battle of the Bulge.
Battle of the Bulge
The Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944 - January 25, 1945) was a surprise major German offensive campaign launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Wallonia in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. Its purpose was to buy a little more time for the Germans at any cost. For the first four days of the offensive, the weather was unflyable. On December 21, Tactical Air Command (TAC) Reconnaissance flew some suicidal sorties. On December 23, the weather mercifully cleared, and the TACs hurled themselves at the Nazi armored columns, while in the next week the medium and heavy bombers dropped more than 100,000 tons of bombs in a gigantic interdiction effort. The Germans, obstructed in their narrow corridor by the heroic stand of ground forces at Bastogne and St. Vith, were unable to supply themselves under the ceaseless rain of bombs. By December 27 they began to pull out. Within a month, the bulge was hammered flat.
New Year's Day, however, saw the last offensive effort of the dying German Air Force. Goaded to desperation by Allied attacks on their airfields, the Luftwaffe commanders squandered their last reserves of fuel by flying some 800 sorties, most of them at low level, against Allied airdromes. They hit us a sharp crack -- 127 aircraft destroyed on the ground, 133 damaged. But the Nazis lost about 200 aircraft to flak and fighters, and they could not stand such losses. Some of their battered squadrons were returned to the Russian front in a vain effort to halt the final drive on Berlin. In the West, the Luftwaffe was through. In March 1945, when the great airborne assault across the Rhine took place -- an effort involving some 14,000 troops carried in transports and gliders -- not one of the carriers was lost to enemy air action.
There is no need to elaborate here on the final weeks that saw the airfields of the shrinking Reich jammed with aircraft which had neither fuel to fly nor places to go. In the first three weeks of April, our air forces destroyed more than 3,000 planes, most of them on the ground. This slaughter coincided with the United States Strategic and Tactical Air Forces announcement that it had run out of strategic targets. Strange by-products of our bombing appeared, such as the bitter assertion of one prisoner that the Volksturm, the German civilian army, was nothing but an unemployment scheme made necessary by the destruction of German industry from the air.
By April 1945, it was clear that Germany was conclusively beaten. The final capitulation in May was something of an anti-climax. Those who witnessed first hand the evidence of the terrible beating Germany received from the air were not surprised by the total collapse of her war effort. The amazing thing was that any nation could have endured so much for so long.
The first postwar surveys seem to indicate that the German war machine was not fatally damaged by bombing before July 1944, regardless of how the German people suffered. The reason for this was simply that, up to that point, German industry was keeping pace with the rising tempo of the bombing. German production in mid-summer 1944 was considerably higher than it was in mid-summer 1942, because in 1942 the Germans still hoped to win by a blitzkrieg type of warfare that did not require the harnessing of their full industrial strength. In July 1944, however, with the Luftwaffe knocked out of the fight, and selective bombing being applied relentlessly by the Allies, production curves of the Nazis went into a decline that led finally to oblivion. One of the main reasons was that our fighter-bombers began to paralyze rail traffic within the Reich itself. Coal trains leaving the Ruhr dropped to something like eight percent of normal. General Pelz, the Luftwaffe's fair-haired boy, was not exaggerating when he said, in the autumn of 1944, that unless the Allied fighter-bombers were driven away, there would be no coal for Germany's industries. Dispersal of industry to escape our strategic bombing made this transportation problem even more acute. But it is worth noting that, until bombing of transportation facilities became heavy and sustained, the German railways were able to absorb terrific punishment.
In the last analysis, the mission of Allied airpower was to hasten the collapse of the enemy. It achieved this mission partly by crippling his war production and partly by denying him mobility.
Exactly what percentage of German industry was destroyed by bombing is yet to be determined. The Nazis tried to hide the true facts, even from one another. But the overall figure is not so important; it was selective damage that counted. The 93 percent destruction of German oil production was far more important in bringing Germany to her knees than the percentage of damage to her industries as a whole, whatever that figure may have been.
As for mobility, unless you can move freely, you cannot fight a successful war. When the Luftwaffe was slapped down and kept down, the Germans lost their mobility in the air. On D-day and thereafter, the Nazi armies lost a fatal degree of their ground mobility to Allied air superiority, which severed communications arteries and made daylight road movements virtually impossible.
Throughout the long years of war, as marshalling yards were torn up, railroad rolling stock destroyed, bridges knocked down and oil refineries smashed, German industry gradually lost the mobility that supplied it with raw materials and carried finished products to wherever they were needed. Lack of ability, for example, to transport V-weapons to their launching sites was one of the main reasons why this menace never became more effective.
Such German local successes, as there were toward the end of the war, came only when the Nazis were solidly dug in and didn't have to move, as in some of the Channel ports, or when bad weather grounded the Anglo-American air arm, as it did temporarily in the Battle of the Bulge.
In postwar interrogations, prisoner after prisoner complained bitterly of being pinned down, of arriving too late, of not getting supplies on time. They could not fight offensively because they could not move. And they could not move because, in a thousand ways, Allied airpower had robbed them of their mobility. There, if you like enormous nutshells, is one to put the European war in.
The temptation to try to look into the future is irresistible, and such crystal ball-gazing is no idle occupation, because on it depends the supremacy of this nation in the air.
It is obvious that an air force such as we possessed on V-J day will be a tremendous factor in supporting and enforcing the principles and ideals of the United Nations Charter. Aerial photography directed by ourselves or our Allies can be useful in observing the activities of nations that are potential troublemakers, and the tremendous range of our very heavy bombers will enable them to remain a threat to any aggressor, if global bases are maintained.
We must never discount, however, the possibility that in the future, despite our vigilance or perhaps through lack of it, new and revolutionary air weapons may be used against us. The flying bomb is still in the kindergarten stage of development. So is the radio-controlled rocket. The appearance of the jet fighter put the whole daylight bomber offensive in serious jeopardy. It is known that right up to the end of the war, the Germans were working feverishly on improved flak defenses. If the range and accuracy of their antiaircraft fire had been much more deadly, our bombers would not have been able to stand the losses. And they had other unpleasant tricks up their sleeves.
In retrospect, it seems that we were indeed fortunate in applying the overwhelming power of long-range bombardment just when we did. A few years earlier, the bombers could not have carried decisive loads. A few years or even months later, improved defenses might have stopped them,
In the Pacific, we are now witnessing long-range strategic bombing brought to a magnificent climax. But the air defenses of Japan, even today, are not comparable to those of Germany in 1943 or 1944. We should not let such successes make us complacent or blind us to the ultimate vulnerability of the big planes to defenses not now envisioned.
In any future war -- and it is more realistic than pessimistic to face the possibility -- the only certainty is that the weapons of the last war will be outmoded, and nothing becomes obsolete faster than an air weapon. Large air fleets do not guarantee air superiority. Pre-eminence in research is just as important. To repeat a phrase from the beginning of this article, 'thinking -- not materiel -- is what wins wars'. Boldness in discarding old weapons, ingenuity in devising new ones, and intelligent plans for using them are indispensable to national defense.
No one knows exactly what the laboratories of the future will bring forth in the way of new explosives, rocket projectiles, radar-guided flak, and so forth. At any time, revolutionary weapons may revise all previous military concepts. The trend may be away from the super-airplane. Swarms of smaller, faster, more versatile planes capable of great range, considerable bomb-load, and a high degree of self protection, guided by radar, operating regardless of weather, by day or night, and augmented by various advanced types of V-weapons -- this may be the shape of airpower in the future.
Whatever the future may hold, we would be foolhardy to rely on the protection of our surrounding oceans. To airpower already discernible, oceans will be no barrier. Nor can we be sure of finding, again, a natural air base like Great Britain, anchored to the flank of our deadliest adversary. We must maintain a force capable of instantaneous offensive action against any opponent, anywhere, at any time. The only power that can traverse land and sea overnight, and put the enemy on the defensive, is airpower.
Much has been learned, in three years over Europe, about the stunning impact of bombing, especially when concentrated against two or three vital targets. But much has also been learned about countermeasures. Any aggressor nation, given the opportunity that Germany had before this war, will certainly disperse and conceal its key industries in such a manner that the power of strategic bombing to inflict fatal damage will be greatly lessened. The moral is too obvious to stress: the time to stop aggression is before the aggressor is ready to strike.
The time has passed -- or should have passed -- when people argue heatedly about whether or not airpower, unaided, can win wars. To date, it never has. This does not mean that it never will. But the question is almost academic in the face of two certainties that have emerged from the European war with the respective fates of Britain and Germany as final proof:
If you hold the air, you cannot be beaten
If you lose the air, you cannot win
We would do well, if we wish to dwell secure in this nation of ours, to remember those two lessons for the rest of our lives.