Part 1: Failure From Air Corps To USAAF
***WARNING: this posting is extremely critical of the late General Curtis “Iron Ass” LeMay***
The U.S. Air Force was born at the ACTS (Air Corps Tactical School), which the man later described by his subordinates as the Iron Ass attended and graduated from in 1938. ACTS promoted what for the 1930s was a rather unorthodox strategy:
The Air Corps Tactical School was established in 1920 as a Field Officer’s School at Langley Field, Virginia. It expanded its scope and placed emphasis on airpower employment at the end of the decade. In 1931, the school moved to Maxwell Field, Alabama, where it was blessed with an extremely talented group of leaders. One of them, Col. John F. Curry, stands above the others in the development of air doctrine.
As commandant of the school, he provided a shield between his gifted instructors and the harshly critical superiors in Washington. His gift of freedom of thought and expression allowed Captain Harold “Hal” George and others to develop a strategic air doctrine. (11:14) It was Captain George who took the ideas and concepts of Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell, and advanced them into a war-winning potential airpower. The basic doctrine developed at the school emphasized concentrated bombing of the enemy’s industrial capability to produce war making materials rather than attacking the enemy armies in the field. Captain George described the doctrine this way:
…the destruction of the military forces of the enemy is not now and never has been the objective of war; it has been merely a means to an end– merely the removal of an obstacle which lay in the path of over coming the will to resist. The real objective of war is to overcome the hostile will [of the enemy]. (12:32-33)
Once again, this is not true now and never has been correct. Hostile will often grows after a combatant suffers defeat (the American South after 1865, Philippines after 1898, Germany after 1918) as war exhaustion gives way to a desire for revenge. The objective of war is to overcome an opponent’s means of hostility, which returns to the destruction and/or disarmament of military forces (such as interning the Kaiserliche Marine and restricting the size of the Deutches Heer with the Treaty of Versailles).
This confusion led to massive, needless slaughter from the sky in 1945.
The Road To Hellfire Is Built Upon The Best of Intentions
Oddly enough, the Air Corps doctrine of precision bombing seemingly sprung from a laudable goal. There had been a growing worldwide sense of unease about bombers since Stanley Baldwin’s 1932 warning “the bomber will always get through” about area bombing (a doctrine whose aims include sapping civilian morale, more commonly and accurately known as terror bombing); but the concern reached a crescendo in 1937 after the Japanese aerial bombardment of Guangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai began in August amidst the Second Sino-Japanese War which followed the Condor Legion’s (the Luftwaffe adjunct during the Spanish Civil War) April bombing of Guernica made it clear that terrorizing civilians was an organizing principle to the military forces of the nations that would soon form the Axis Powers. ACTS graduates formed the cadre of what became known as the ‘bomber mafia,’ officers that took “the bomber will always get through” and made it their mantra but specifically rejected indiscriminate bombardment:
The instructors at the Air Corps Tactical School were all advocates of air power and long-range strategic precision bombing. The Air Corps Tactical School also emphasized that daylight strategic bombing was essential, and that nighttime area bombing was impractical.
Spoke too soon. Impractical? How would nighttime flying make celestial navigation less accurate, not to mention accuracy in any conditions was increasingly becoming identical thanks to radio signal navigation after Jimmy Doolittle pioneered ‘blind’ instrument takeoff and landings in 1929? What had changed so dramatically between the 1930s and the RAF adoption of nighttime area bombing in 1942 which Arthur Harris swore by even after St Valentine’s Day, 1945 (and commentators in 2013 heartily agreed with when evidence surfaced that ‘Bomber’ Harris reiterated his support for firebombing 32 years later)? No, Major Ian Robinson could not possibly use the correct description applied by ACTS to area bombing, counterproductive, in a paper entitled “Curtis LeMay A Great Warrior” written six years prior to the death of the Iron Ass in 1990.
Precision bombing was an outgrowth of Billy Mitchell having advocated anti-shipping bombing in the 1920s. The B-17’s official “Flying Fortress” moniker is often thought to refer to the bomber’s many defensive machine guns, but it might also be in reference to Fortress America as maritime interception was certainly a high priority for the USAAC (U.S. Army Air Corps)…
12 May 1938: Three Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine bombers of the 49th Bombardment Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Group, departed Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York in heavy rain and headed eastward over the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission, assigned by Major General Frank M. Andrews, commanding General Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Corps, was to locate and photograph the Italian passenger liner, SS Rex, then on a transatlantic voyage to New York City. The purpose was to demonstrate the capabilities and effectiveness of long-range bombers.
…a mission the Iron Ass was intimately involved with:
The planning of the interception and in-flight navigation was performed by First Lieutenant Curtis E. LeMay. Position reports from SS Rex were obtained and forwarded to LeMay as the aircraft were taxiing for takeoff. The flight departed Mitchel Field at 8:45 a.m. They encountered heavy rain, hail, high winds and poor visibility, but at 12:23 p.m., the Flying Fortresses broke out of a squall line and the passenger liner was seen directly ahead. They flew alongside the ship at 12:25 p.m., 620 nautical miles (1,148.24 kilometers) east of Sandy Hook, New York. They were exactly on the time calculated by Lieutenant LeMay. The B-17s made several passes for still and motion picture photography while NBC broadcast the event.
Strike that. Maritime interception appears to have been Priority No. 1 for the 1930s USAAC:
At the time of the interception of the Rex, there were only 12 B-17s in the Air Corps, the original Y1B-17 development aircraft. By the end of production in 1945, 12,731 had been built by three aircraft manufacturers.
ACTS even relied on coastal artillery firing manuals:
Capt. Haywood Hansel and First Lieutenant Ken Walker, also instructors at the school, adopted a theory of probabilities from firing manuals of the Army Field Artillery and Coast Artillery. These probabilities were used to determine the amount of ordnance required for precision bombing to destroy a given target. The air doctrine called for bombing specific targets with sufficient force determined by the probability theories to destroy the target.
Classic Billy Mitchell. ACTS and the USAAC were not opposed to area bombing on account of its ineffectiveness at snapping civilian morale, remember the Air Corps was formulating strategy long before 1940 taught us all the Blitz enragement Effect. Moreover, area bombing can be useful in theory if it sets fires that in turn consume the target after the bombers RTB (return to base); though the risk remains that the Blitz Effect will enrage the enemy populace.
No, ACTS emphasized precision bombing because area bombing is completely pointless against enemy warships. Short of being a river that flows through Cleveland, bodies of water are fireproof and anything other than a direct hit or near-miss is a threat exclusively to fish. In this regard, the intercept of the Rex was perceived to be a serious threat to the U.S. Navy, which reacted in kind:
The Navy pitched a fit. The next day, Eaker was conferring with Andrews when the GHQ Air Force commander got an urgent call from Craig, the Army Chief. He, Craig, had gotten complaints from Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson and Adm. William D. Leahy, Chief of Naval Operations. They said the Rex intercept “was in violation of the Navy’s prerogative of controlling the sea approaches.”
Craig told Andrews that Air Corps operations henceforth would not be permitted to extend beyond a line 100 miles from the US shoreline. The strange 100-mile restriction was enforced intermittently. Maj. Gen. Stanley D. Embick, Army deputy chief of staff, suggested lamely that it had been imposed as a safety measure. In 1939, the War Department authorized some exceptions to the policy for training purposes, provided there was no publicity.
The order itself is the subject of a minor mystery. All agree that Andrews, when informed of the new policy, asked to see the order in writing. Brig. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who in 1938 was assistant chief of the Air Corps and later Chief of the US Army Air Forces, reported that he never saw such a written order. However, Andrews told Eaker in April 1943—five years later—that a copy was in the files at his headquarters in London.
A month later, Andrews died in an air crash and the order has not been seen since. “Undoubtedly,” Eaker asserted, “it had been removed by a current member of the Andrews staff with prior service on the War Department General Staff, who thus appreciated the possibility of its embarrassment of the Army and Navy.”
Arnold came to doubt that such a document ever existed, but there is no question that Craig had issued the proscription.
“As far as I know,” Arnold wrote in his 1949 memoirs, “that directive has never been rescinded. A literal-minded judge advocate might be able to find that every B-17, B-24, or B-29 that bombed Germany or Japan did so in technical violation of a standing order.”
The Navy and the War Department could fume all they wanted about the intercept, but GHQ Air Force had made its point. Heavy bombers were long-range instruments of power and capable of actions a long way from home. The issue had moved beyond the question of coastal defense.
It certainly would have to move beyond coastal defense, as the Flying Fortress was an abject failure in its original anti-shipping mission.
Miss By Miles
Ever since Billy Mitchell had attempted to cajole Congress and the Harding Administration to switch U.S. funding from battleships to bombers with the 1921 Ostfriesland sinking demonstration (which shifted to neither after the Washington Naval Treaty was signed the following year), the U.S. Navy had begun seeing army aviation as an existential threat. The admirals needn’t have worried. Behold the embarrassment that was horizontal bombing:
On the other hand, the 1938 rules were decidedly too generous to the horizontal bombers in assessing their effectiveness at 8 percent. In fact, Word War II demonstrated that in practice horizontal bombing was highly inaccurate, particularly as altitude increased. The Mitchellite ideal, horizontal bombing proved so ineffective against ships that apparently no warship maneuvering in open water was ever sunk by this method in World War II.
Apparently the only warship actually sunk by high-altitude horizontal bombing while underway in relatively open waters was the Japanese destroyer Mutsuki. On August 25, 1942, Mutsuki was in the “Slot” northwest of Guadalcanal, attempting to rescue survivors of the disabled troop transport Kinryu Maru. The destroyer was thus moving very slowly and maneuvering only minimally. At 1027 a flight of three B-17s appeared. Having had prior experience of the poor accuracy B-17s attacking from high altitude, the destroyer’s skipper ignored them and continued his rescue efforts. Soon after, Mutsuki was shaken by an explosion. The crew initially thought she had struck a mine, but soon discovered she had taken one bomb. She sank at about 1140, with the loss of forty lives. Reportedly, at the formal inquiry into the ship’s loss, Mutsuki‘s captain is supposed to have said “even B-17s can get a hit once and a while.”
Had they been functional weapons, USAAC naval interception bombers likely would have drowned the USN development budget and redirected the funding into a new, independent air force. To this end, ACTS just happened to relocate to Maxwell the same year (1931) Carl Norden began delivering bombsights to the U.S. military and began preaching the precision bombing gospel; somewhat ironic considering Norden’s disdain for the USAAC…
The Army Air Corps had long worked with the Sperry Corporation to equip its aircraft with autopilots. Carl Norden, who continued to compete with Sperry, preferred to work with the Navy rather than the Army. (He once told an Army Colonel “No man can serve the Lord and the Devil at the same time – and I work for the Navy.”)
…which was shared in equal measure by the Navy brass:
Procurement became a major headache because the Navy refused to share production with the Army. Between 1932 and 1938, the Norden Company produced only 121 bombsights per year. Even after Norden added additional production sources to meet Army Air Force needs, shortages of materials, specialized machine tools, and skilled labor kept production below required levels. There was a major shortage of bombsights that extended to late 1943.
The USN resistance might appear to have been underhanded, but was extremely reasonable in context:
As the war went on, it became clear that Army Air Force performance requirements exceeded those of the Navy and that the Navy had little interest in modifying the sight since it had chosen dive bombing as its preferred means of attacking moving targets. Thus, improvements to the bombsight were motivated by the Army and, by late in the war, were being developed by someone other than the Norden Company.
Precision bombing prewar was a USAAC budget-grabbing stratagem more than anything, and especially after the USN discovered than dive-bombing was far more accurate than the ACTS-taught drivel the admirals saw little incentive in continuing to assist in advancing the interests of the nascent, yet highly-competitive proto-Air Force. The USAAF (renamed from Air Corps in June 1941) was plagued by quantity and then quality shortages:
Between 1932 and the end of World War II, nearly 90,000 Mark XV (or M-9) bombsights – 81,537 for the Army Air Force and 8,353 for the Navy – were produced at a total cost of $1.1 billion. Production began to catch up with demand by late 1943, but mass production techniques also led to declining quality. The Norden Company was not interested in helping to solve the problem and in late 1944, 75 to 80 percent of all sights produced failed to meet specifications.
Yay capitalism!…oh, right. Note to laissez-faire nitwits–private enterprise and innovation aren’t necessarily synonymous, especially when businesses eschew R & D. Effectively, the B-17 was bombing blind:
The accuracy achieved at Dahlgren was never duplicated in combat. The Navy specification was for 2.5 mils (or 2.5 feet mean miss for every 1000 feet of altitude). The inherent accuracy of the 1944 Norden sights was 14 mils. By some reports, the accuracy achieved in combat was more than 50 mils.
While some used the discrepancy between design and operational accuracy to question the effectiveness of high altitude bombing…
Yes, all sane human beings would question the effectiveness of anything that doesn’t perform to specifications.
…the performance of the Eighth Air Force in Europe refutes this. In the end, seven and a half million bombs were dropped from an average altitude of 21,000 feet with 31.8 percent of them falling within 1,000 feet of the aiming point. While this did not meet prewar expectations for precision, it did stop German oil production and destroyed 20 percent of German war production in the last 16 months of the conflict.
I’ll come back to the oil and industrial campaigns in a minute; accuracy cannot be overlooked when the USAAF claimed to devastate the German economy. Dropping a bomb within 1,000 feet of aim from an altitude of 21,000 feet comes to 47.6 mils, which U.S. strategic forces managed to do 32% of the time. The bombsights were designed to sink ships, with the understanding that such targets are invariably in motion when at sea; unlike massive industrial targets–hitting a Krupp plant or oil refinery compared to a jinking destroyer should have been child’s play (forget complaining about adverse weather and winds over the Continent–such conditions were then and are now worse over the oceans). Norden accuracy was 5% of design specification one-third of the time. There is a term for this performance…
Evolution Of A Criminal War Doctrine
…and the term is area bombing. For all the vaunted superiority of precision bombing, the USAAF effort was identical to Arthur Harris’ Bomber Command:
Harris also countered the myth that area bombing was his idea – claiming it was already Government policy.
He said: ‘I lived in a shower of directives from the day I took over to the last day of war.
‘The directive when I took over was that I wasn’t to specifically aim at anything unless ordered to do so and to blast the German cities as a whole.’
Mason asked Harris why he was ordered to bomb whole cities rather than specific Nazi targets. In response, Harris said: ‘They came to the conclusion that they weren’t hitting very much and they didn’t have very much to hit things with…’
Harris’ measure of success was cruelty:
The RAF commander who ordered the controversial fire-bombing of Dresden which killed an estimated 25,000 civilians during World War II said he would do it again in a long lost interview filmed 30 years after the end of the conflict.
Former marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, gave the green light for the 1945 bombing which reduced the city in Saxony, Germany, to rubble.
The attack was widely criticised because of ‘blanket bombing’ which hit civilian areas as well as military targets – killing thousands of innocents.
But the newly-discovered interview with Sir Arthur, which was filmed in 1977 and will be aired for the first time on the BBC tonight, shows the RAF chief defending his decision.
And the chief commander of the Bomber Command tells his interviewer, Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, that he would do it again if he had to.
He said: ‘If I had to have the same time again I would do the same again, but I hope I wouldn’t have to.’
Sir Arthur then adds: ‘I hope it’s been of some use, for future generations in keeping them out of these riots. It never does anybody any good.’
During the interview, Mason discusses how many felt the Dresden attack was ‘a city too far’.
However Harris stood his ground saying: ‘The bombers kept over a million fit Germans out of the German army… Manning the anti-aircraft defences; making the ammunition, and doing urgent repairs, especially tradesmen.’
Keep German men out of the Wehrmacht by employing them as bricklayers, carpenters and undertakers? Did Harris not realize bombing did nothing to preclude men from serving simultaneously in their capacity as tradesmen and in the Volkssturm? Riots are beyond the pale, but setting thousands of people on fire is defensible? Thankfully, one of Harris’ men has better reasoning capabilities than his commander:
Bomber Command veteran Doug Radcliffe, 89, who is now secretary of the Bomber Command Association, backed his former commander.
He told the Daily Express: ‘Our raids meant there were 10,000 88mm anti-aircraft guns pointing up to the sky instead of at our troops and the Russians.
This certainly was true, though the artillery pieces also functioned as deadly anti-tank guns and the construction of flak-fortress-towers studded with these multi-purpose guns in most major German cities made capturing Germany much more difficult in 1945 as these near-impenetrable fortifications dealt immense casualties to advancing Allied forces. Whether RAF Bomber Command and Carl Spaatz’s U.S. Strategic Air Forces having given the Germans an impetus to build castle keeps that Russian troops had to overcome during the Battle of Berlin was a wise move is in the eye of the beholder; I would wager the Luftwaffe defenders on the Zoo Tower were more thankful than their Red Army opponents.
Bomber Harris and his men’s efforts were mostly maligned after the war, even by the PM himself:
A few weeks before the end of World War Two, Winston Churchill drafted a memorandum to the British Chiefs of Staff:
‘It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.’
But did the USAAF really perform any better?
The Restoration Factor
Spaatz’s strategic forces supposedly had far greater success than the British night bombers:
The first massive raid was flown on 12 May 1944 and directed against five plants. Other raids followed successively and continued into the spring of 1945. The severity of the raids was immediately recognized by the Germans. Between 30 June 1944 and 19 January 1945, Albert Speer directed five memoranda to Hitler which left no doubt about the increasingly serious situation. Speer pointed out that the attacks in May and June had reduced the output of aviation fuel by 90 percent. It would require six to eight weeks to make minimal repairs to resume production, but unless the refineries were protected by all possible means, coverage of the most urgent requirements of the armed forces could no longer be assured. An unbridgeable gap would be opened that must perforce have tragic consequences.32 Continued attacks also negatively influenced the output of automotive gasoline, diesel fuel, Buna, and methanol, the last an essential ingredient in the production of powder and explosives. If, Speer warned, the attacks were sustained, production would sink further, the last remaining reserve stocks would be consumed, and the essential materials for the prosecution of a modern technological war would be lacking in the most important areas.33
In his final report, Speer noted that the undisturbed repair and operation of the plants were essential prerequisites for further supply, but the experience of recent months had shown that this was impossible under existing conditions.34 Behind Speer’s warnings was his awareness that once production of fuels was substantially curtailed, once reserves and the fuel in the distribution system were depleted, the Germans would be finished and the end could be predicted with almost mathematical accuracy.35 In a way, Speer was merely echoing the prophetic utterance of Field Marshal Erhard Milch from the summer of 1943:
The hydrogenation plants are our most vulnerable spots; with them stands and falls our entire ability to wage war. Not only will planes no longer fly, but tanks and submarines also will stop running if the hydrogenation plants should actually be attacked.36
A perfect example of this was the amount of aviation fuel allotted to the training of pilots. Toward the last nine months of the war, they were sent into combat with only one-third of the training hours actually required.37
This ignores the fact that Romania was in reality the key to Axis oil production and distribution:
In 1938, of the total consumption of 44 million barrels, imports from overseas accounted for 28 million barrels or roughly 60 percent of the total supply. An additional 3.8 million barrels were imported overland from European sources (2.8 million barrels came from Romania alone), and another 3.8 million barrels were derived from domestic oil production. The remainder of the total, 9 million barrels, were produced synthetically. Although the total overseas imports were even higher in 1939 before the onset of the blockade in September (33 million barrels), this high proportion of overseas imports only indicated how precarious the fuel situation would become should Germany be cut off from them.2
At the outbreak of the war, Germany’s stockpiles of fuel consisted of a total of 15 million barrels. The campaigns in Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France added another 5 million barrels in booty, and imports from the Soviet Union accounted for 4 million barrels in 1940 and 1.6 million barrels in the first half of 1941. Yet a High Command study in May of 1941 noted that with monthly military requirements for 7.25 million barrels and imports and home production of only 5.35 million barrels, German stocks would be exhausted by August 1941. The 26 percent shortfall could only be made up with petroleum from Russia. The need to provide the lacking 1.9 million barrels per month and the urgency to gain possession of the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus mountains, together with Ukrainian grain and Donets coal, were thus prime elements in the German decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.3
The smallest of the Russian oil fields at Maikop was captured in August 1942, and it was expected that the two remaining fields and refineries in Grozny and Baku also would fall into German hands. Had the German forces been able to capture these fields and hold them, Germany’s petroleum worries would have been over. Prior to the Russian campaign, Maikop produced 19 million barrels annually, Grozny 32 million barrels, and Baku 170 million barrels.4
Grozny and Baku, however, were never captured, and only Maikop yielded to German exploitation. As was the case in all areas of Russian production, the retreating forces had done a thorough job of destroying or dismantling the usable installations; consequently, the Germans had to start from scratch. In view of past experience with this type of Russian policy, such destruction was expected, and Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s staff had begun making the necessary preparations in advance. But a shortage of transport that was competing with military requirements, a shortage of drill equipment as well as drillers, and the absence of refining capacity at Maikop created such difficulties that when the German forces were compelled to withdraw from Maikop in January 1943 in order to avoid being cut off after the fall of Stalingrad, Germany had failed to obtain a single drop of Caucasian oil. Nevertheless, the Germans were able to extract about 4.7 million barrels from the Soviet Union, a quantity that they would have received anyway under the provisions of the friendship treaty of 1939.5
Even before the Russian prospects had come to naught, Romania had developed into Germany’s chief overland supplier of oil. From 2.8 million barrels in 1938, Romania’s exports to Germany increased to 13 million barrels by 1941,6 a level that was essentially maintained through 1942 and 1943.7 Although the exports were almost half of Romania’s total production, they were considerably less than the Germans expected. One reason for the shortfall was that the Romanian fields were being depleted. There were other reasons as well why the Romanians failed to increase their shipments. Foremost among these was Germany’s inability to make all of its promised deliveries of coal and other products to Romania. Furthermore, although Romania was allied with Germany, the Romanians wished to husband their country’s most valuable resources.8 Finally, the air raids on the Ploesti oil fields and refineries in August 1943 destroyed 50 percent of the Romanian refinery capacity. Aerial mining of the Danube River constituted an additional serious transportation impediment. Even so, Romanian deliveries amounted to 7 million barrels in the first half of 1944 and were not halted until additional raids on Ploesti had been flown in the late spring and summer of 1944.9
The aerial siege continued with little letup until Ploesti fell. On 10, 17, and 18 August 1944—1039 Liberators and Flying Fortresses dropped 2200 tons of bombs on the active refineries in little over a week. The once aggressive German fighter defense had suddenly deteriorated; the bombers were able to attack in such a long stream that the smoke screen thinned considerably before the attacks were over. Sixty-five bombers followed up on 19 August, the third consecutive day of air strikes, to keep the fires burning. The RAF attacked at night. Oil production at Ploesti dropped to about 10 percent of original capacity.
At the end of August 1944, the Red Army arrived and took possession.
Concerted attacks became paramount starting in 1944, as repeatedly pounding the same target was required to prevent a resumption of production. But why did the 15th let up on 20 August when Ploesti fell ten days later? Perhaps because the second Soviet invasion of Romania began that day? The first attempt to capture Romania happened to fail on D-Day (6 June 1944), but the renewed offensive led to the Romanian King Michael I to stage a coup d’etat against military dictator Ion Antonescu on 23 August 1944. The Romanian monarch’s action is often touted as shortening the war by six months, but the effect of losing Romania was felt strongly on the Western Front as well:
Eisenhower with the Allied armies driving toward the Reich, finally released the bombers to his air commanders. Ultra intercepts confirmed just how important the POL targets were. Other intelligence sources confirmed this assessment. As a result Allied planners made POL targets the highest priority (September 3, 1944). [Kreis, p. 241.]
Spaatz had been forced to act in accordance with RAF Air Chief Marshal Tedder’s Transportation Plan, and the fall of Ploesti permitted USAAF heavy bombers to direct their attacks against German synthetic oil production four days later.
This demonstrated the importance of coordinating air strikes with surface forces. Destroying industry meant little if there was a cycle of destruction that resembled this:
The USAAF worked best when striking targets, be they strategic or tactical, when Allied troops could exploit the damage. Unfortunately, this lesson was not carried over to China.