from WHEN MEN LOST FAITH IN REASON: Reflections on War and Society in the Twentieth Century
By H. P. Willmott
The protection of ground and naval forces from significant attack from the air, the wrecking of German lines of communication into Normandy before the landing, and the harassment of enemy formations either making their way forward or on the battlefield were the main contributions made by air power to Allied success in northwest Europe in 1944. Without these contributions, whatever success the Allies commanded would have been much more dearly bought, and, indeed, it is doubtful if without command of the skies the invasion of France could have been attempted. This was all very different from the bailiwick of air power in 1918, though in terms of definition of missions, roles, doctrine, organization, and tactics air power had not really changed very much in the intervening years. Certainly air forces had established themselves as equal in importance to the other two services, even if recognition and status was denied in many countries. But the real point about air power and northwest Europe in 1944 lies in the line of analysis that suggests that long-range fire and air strikes against reserves (have been) only one part of an overall scheme of combat operations in the past, the argument being that in the 1991 campaign these were the primary means of achieving the war’s aims the trend away from close combat is clear. 10 It is not too much to argue that in the Normandy campaign air power demonstrated an ability that can be recognized in any consideration of the 1991 campaign, albeit at shorter range and to less effect than was the case in 1991. Moreover, in 1944 air power shared with artillery the responsibility and credit for the breaking of German offensive and defensive power: fire was not the monopoly of air power, and effective fire most certainly was not the preserve of air forces. But the wider point is clear. At the battle of the Somme in 1916 losses between the offense and defense were roughly equal, but at Normandy in 1944 the German defense incurred twice the losses of the Allies: the critical point was that the imbalance of losses reflected Allied material preponderance and ability to strike from the air.
But if air power was critical in the victories that were won on the ground and in the overall balance of losses saved lives, air power was to be dependent upon the ground forces in one area of operations. The clearing of France and most of Belgium had the effect of turning part of the German air defense system, and it brought to continental bases fighters and strike aircraft that could support the heavy bomber offensive against the German homeland. This offensive, after the distraction of the Normandy commitment throughout the summer, was resumed in full earnestness after September, and its scale is illustrated by the fact that between 1 January and 26 April 1945 the Eighth U.S. Air Force flew 55 thousand-bomber raids. Between 19 February and 4 March 1945 it flew nothing other than thousand-bomber raids, while RAF Bomber Command, with operations on 81 days and 100 nights, on average put 495 heavy bombers into the air in any 24-hour period.
The obvious question, which provoked bitter argument in the two decades after the end of the war, was what the strategic bombing offensive achieved. Extreme positions can be discounted, but in seeking to attempt to answer this question one is confronted by one very awkward fact of life. It is well known that German war production reached its peak in August September 1944. What is less well known is that the peak of German distribution of war material was in October 1943. Given the fact that it was in that same month that U.S. heavy bombers met defeat over Schweinfurt and RAF Bomber Command had registered precious little real damage by that time, it is clear that the German distribution system was in decline even before the strategic bombing campaign began to inflict telling, cumulative damage on the German industrial, transportation, and social infrastructures. Much the same was true of the campaign against the Japanese home islands. The U.S. strategic bombing campaign began in June 1944 from airfields in southern China, but it was not until November 1944 that it started on any scale, and before March 1945 it was singularly ineffective. It was only after March 1945, when B-29 Superfortresses began to become available in significant numbers and the Americans adopted low-level area bombing, that this effort began to register telling results. Yet for the most part this effort was directed against redundant, surplus industrial capacity, because factories were already in end-run production.
Moreover, the one alternative to an offensive designed to destroy the enemy’s capacity to make war the enemy’s willingness to make war also obstinately fails to provide evidence of the effectiveness of the strategic bombing offensive. Neither Germany nor Japan showed any inclination to consider ending the war because of bombing, and in neither country was there any real sign of a collapse of civilian morale as a result of the Allied air offensive, though perhaps the wonder of this was not that it did not occur but that certain people had ever considered it possible in the first place. The totality of war, the knowledge that the issue at stake was national survival, and the conformity imposed upon German and Japanese societies on account of their political systems precluded the fragmentation of morale.
In an obvious sense, therefore, it is possible to portray the effect of the strategic bombing campaigns primarily in negative terms. The strategic bombing offensive clearly prevented German war production being greater than what it was: German industry functioned at about 1012% below theoretical production potential because of Allied bombing. The strategic bombing offensive also imposed additional costs on production, and most definitely it warped the pattern of German war production by forcing concentration upon fighters at the expense of strike aircraft, and upon antiaircraft guns and communications equipment for air defense at the expense of vehicles, guns, and radios for field formations. But in another negative aspect the contribution of the strategic bomber offensive to Allied victory was immense, if impossible to quantify. The effect of this offensive in stripping fronts of fighter defense and ensuring that Allied armies operated under conditions of overwhelming air supremacy is widely acknowledged, but how long the war would have lasted and what cost would have been exacted had there not been a bombing campaign that by 1945 had reduced Germany to a transportation wilderness is debatable. What is remarkable about the defeat of Germany is how quickly it was achieved once the initiative had been wrested from its grasp. In August 1943 the Western Allies had yet to set foot on the continental mainland and German forces were still in the eastern Ukraine. In less than 21 months Germany had been destroyed. One wonders how long this process would have taken if the Allies not had to hand air power that razed the German communications system.
No consideration of strategic bombing in the Second World War can ignore the obvious finale: the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. T. S. Eliot was correct: the world ended with a whimper, or thousands of whimpers, as unknown numbers died of cancer, leukemia, or as a result of radiation sickness. The use of atomic weapons against Japan remains a controversial matter one that still can command intense passion, as the 1995 Smithsonian controversy demonstrated. It is an issue that lends itself to simplification and certainty, with all the intolerance thereby implied. Understandably and rightly, Allied troops who were to have mounted the invasion of the Japanese home islands entertain no doubts about the use of atomic weapons against Japan. But these people apart, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 prompt two observations and two questions. The first observation is simple. The use of atomic weapons undoubtedly sits uneasily alongside American claims upon morality as the basis of policy. Indeed, the strategic bombing offensives against Germany and Japan stained the morality of Anglo-American claims. But morality exists only in choice, and certainly in the period between June 1940 and late 1944 there was no choice, and hence there could be no immorality in the bombing campaigns directed against Germany and Japan. One does not need to subscribe to the Cromwellian dictum necessity knows no law to recognize that with no other means to take the war to the Axis powers, the strategic air offensives were wholly justified.
The Allies had no capacity and certainly no moral right to deny themselves the only means whereby they might force the enemy to conform to their will. If nothing else, to have done so would have represented a base betrayal of all those who lived under Axis occupation. But by 1945, when other means of taking the war to the enemy existed, the strategic bombing offensives become more difficult to justify other than under the terms of the obvious institutional escape clause. The means had been developed and could not remain unused, given the costs and the losses that had been sustained in the process, but that hardly represents just cause. Thus if the attack on Hamburg in July August 1943 presents no moral qualms, the attacks of 1945on Dresden in February, Dortmund and Tokyo in March, and some 60 Japanese cities thereafter cannot be divorced from basic questions of morality.
Major General I. N. Vorob’yev, Tactics of the Long-Range Battle, Vioennaya Mys’l, October 1992.