British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said, “The bomber will always get through.” It was a truism that was sorely tested in 1943, when the US Army Air Force (USAAF) began mounting daylight bombing raids in Germany. On Oct. 14, 1943, Eighth Air Force made its second attempt to destroy the ball-bearing plants of Schweinfurt from its base in the UK. This raid largely accomplished its goals, but proved so costly that further operations ceased until a new model of attack could be formulated.
While the United States had joined the war at the end of 1941, it took a fair amount of time to transport the men and equipment to England and North Africa for any meaningful participation. Early air missions conducted by joint Anglo-American task forces gave way to American missions late in the summer of 1942, and these targeted German assets in occupied France; the targets were close enough that fighter escorts could accompany the bombers.
As the numbers of American pilots and planes increased, philosophical differences between British and American planners became more relevant. With some reluctance, the British had adopted nighttime carpet bombing as the only feasible way to carry on a strategic bombing campaign over a long period. The danger to bomber aircraft during daylight hours was too high, and reduced effectiveness was the price to be paid for an acceptable survival rate. Some, like Winston Churchill, considered the harm done to civilians as an unfortunate necessity, but civilian casualties and trauma were always part of the strategic bombing idea. Indeed, the quote from Stanley Baldwin cited above continued with the words, “The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.”
American planners were not prepared to accept this philosophy. Some civilian casualties would be inevitable, but they were only justified if the attack accomplished a real strategic objective. Daylight precision bombing raids would increase the odds of the latter while reducing the former to a minimum. Daylight raids permitted the enemy to respond with the full fighter reserve as well as effective anti-aircraft fire, but American planners trusted in a series of technical and tactical developments to protect most of the bombers. The technical aspects included the Norden bombsight system for a more accurate delivery of bombs and the physical construction of the heavy bombers themselves, which allowed for a fuller range of return fire while improving the chances of a damaged plane to return home. The principal tactical provision was a tight “combat box” formation that permitted the gunners to cover each other, as well as their own plane. Under the leadership of Lt. General Ira Eaker, the Americans felt ready to fly into Germany without fighter cover, trusting in their own planes to repel enemy fighters.
The British concluded that they were welcome to try, although they would not imitate the practice. A dual approach was codified on Jan. 21, 1943, with the Casablanca Directive; accordingly, British night bombing and American daylight bombing would be two aspects of a unified system of strategic attacks. Six days later, American bombers made their first attack on Germany proper, with a raid against the port of Wilhelmshaven. In June, the directive was modified by the Point Blank Directive. Given that the eventual goal was an amphibious landing in France, and that this could not be contemplated without air supremacy, the chief goal of the strategic bombing campaign was the destruction of German fighter production. This would also improve the chances of Bomber Command to accomplish other goals.
The Bavarian city of Schweinfurt became a target because 52 percent of German ball-bearings were manufactured in five factories there. A decisive blow in Schweinfurt would cripple not only fighter production, but indeed the production of all vehicles in the Reich. For their part, the Germans were aware of the danger, and the defense of Schweinfurt was a high priority for the Luftwaffe. On August 17, Eighth Air Force mounted a simultaneous raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg that resulted in the loss of 16% of the 376 B-17s that participated. The effect on Schweinfurt was light; on ball-bearing production, it was negligible.
Another attack was planned for October 14. 360 B-17s and 60 B-24s were to be sent on the mission; fighter escorts would accompany them for as long as possible, but such aid would end when the bombers were too deep in enemy territory. When the day of the attack came, only 260 bombers flew the approach successfully. Many of the B-17s were lost or damaged during the week before the attack, while many of the B-24s lost their way due to cloud conditions and their division was compelled to abort the main attack.
When the remaining bombers left the protection of the fighter escorts, they came under a relentless attack by the Luftwaffe, coordinated by Lt. General Adolf Galland. Galland drew not only from the fighters and destroyers (Zerstörer, or heavier attack craft like Messerschmitt 110s and 410s) allocated to Germany itself, but also from those detailed to France. Roughly 300 fighters, largely Me 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, were used, along with 40 destroyer craft. The B-17s endured some three hours of continuing combat, in which the Luftwaffe employed all of the lessons its personnel had learned in previous engagements.
German fighters were using more than the machine guns or light cannon built into their planes as primary armament. They were also able to launch air-to-air rockets from under their wings, while the destroyers could literally bomb the bombers by flying above them and dropping bombs on the enemy planes. Their tactics also proved highly effective, evading the “box” defensive pattern by flying ahead of the bombers, then turning and closing in from the front. Some fighters attacked in groups of four, others in groups of twelve, which frustrated countermeasures. A single fighter often attacked three or four times, refueling after each.
About thirty bombers were shot down before reaching Schweinfurt. 228 completed the bombing mission, with 88 bombs striking the primary targets, two ball-bearing factories along the Main river. With substantial damage to these two factories, the mission could be considered accomplished. The return home proved as deadly as the approach: another thirty planes were shot down, for a total loss of 60, with many more sustaining significant damage before landing. Twelve of these had to be written off entirely, while 121 could resume combat effectiveness after significant repair work. In contrast, German losses had been light, with 38 planes shot down; twenty more required repair. The USAAF dubbed the occasion “Black Thursday.”
Technically, the mission was a success. Baldwin’s declaration that the bombers would get through proved correct; at least, enough of them did so that the targets were battered repeatedly. The losses that were sustained in the process, however, were too high to be considered acceptable. The USAAF suspended further raids until more protection could be given to the bombers; this came in the form of the P-51 Mustang, which could carry more fuel and offer protection deeper into Germany. Schweinfurt would continue to be a target when bombing resumed, but the results would never match those of Oct. 14, 1943; when the Germans rebuilt their ball-bearing capacity, they also spread it out over a wider area, ensuring that a single raid could not again threaten all the machinery of the Reich.
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