- Historic Sites
After The Air Raids
An insider’s account of a startling— and still controversial—investigation of the Allied bombing of Germany
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
A section of the autobahn between Munich and Augsburg had been converted to an airstrip, the center concrete being painted green to disguise the change. In cul-de-sacs along the road were curious-looking aircraft, sleek and without propellers. One wondered if they had been delivered without them. They were, in fact, the Me-262s, the first jet fighters, and a full technological generation more fearsome than anything we or the British possessed. Only a monumental error—Hitler’s demand that they be redesigned as a light attack bomber—had kept them from being used with disastrous effect.
In Munich one of our teams came upon an impressive breakthrough in the art of economic warfare—a printing plant and some 130 millions in five-pound notes. They were to be dropped in Britain. Polish engravers had been brought out of the concentration camps for the work and shot when it was finished; the Germans did not wish such accomplished counterfeiters to survive. At Garmisch we interrogated the crew of a radio-directed repair train which moved out on call to replace rails and ties destroyed by bombs. The repairs, they said, could be quickly accomplished. But eventually they were prevented from reaching the breaks that most needed repair by the need to repair the numerous breaks in the track that allowed them to get there. A difficult problem.
On another afternoon I stopped to visit the fathers at Kloster Ettal and to join them over glasses of their liqueur, which I had first consumed in an adjacent bistro seven years before. For the moment there was a lack of comity within the Church. The fathers spoke with the utmost bitterness of the Franciscans and their cautious relations with the Nazis. In Munich that same evening the Stars and Stripes were flying over Adolf Hitler Platz. An American Army band, with great gusto and marvelous sound effects, was rolling out “Right in der Führer’s Face.” The crowd thronging the square looked relieved and appreciative. It was much better than London a week earlier. A few hours later I got orders to go to Flensburg on the Danish border for the most important interrogations of that year.
There already were indications that we might have to change our view of German economic management during the war. People have believed for four hundred years that the Armada was defeated by God and a tiny British force when, in fact, it was outgunned by ships of greatly superior range, greater size, and only slightly inferior aggregate tonnage. The myth of ruthless Nazi competence established during the war years still endures. In reality German war management was for a long time halfhearted and incompetent.
In both the American and British views at the time the German war economy was effectively and powerfully mobilized. In the American metaphor it was the “tightly stretched drum”; in British intelligence it was a “taut string.” It followed that any production of almost any kind that was denied by air attack was serious. It could not be replaced by reduced civilian consumption, for that was at a minimum. It could not be compensated for by increased overall production, for that was at the maximum. There was no slack.
Between British and American air-power strategists there was a historic disagreement as to how the taut German economy should be attacked, necessity being as ever the parent of belief. The Lancasters and Halifaxes of the Royal Air Force (and also the unarmed all-wood Mosquitoes) could fly only at night; by day they were hopelessly vulnerable. In the dark they could find only the cities, and from this technological imperative came the conclusion. The cities were the ideal target; by destroying them, one would inflict irreparable damage on German war production and also, perhaps, on the German will to fight. The heavily armed American planes could go by day and find specific industrial targets, although it was early discovered and at heavy cost that they needed fighter escorts. (It was learned more gradually that to find a target was not necessarily to hit it. Nothing in World War II air operations was subject to such assault as open agricultural land.) But however bitter the disagreement between the USAAF and the RAF and their supporting staffs, and also among the Americans on which industrial targets to hit, there was total agreement that much damage was being done to the German war economy. This we in the survey also assumed.
Our first indication that something was wrong came in London before the fighting stopped. It was a superb statistical find, the Statistische Schnellberichte zur Kriegsproduktion or the German Statistical Overview of War Production. The factories producing tanks, self-propelled guns, and assault guns—Panzer in the German military designation—were not a primary target. But they drew on labor, coal, steel, ferroalloys, machine tools, transportation, and all the lesser resources and fabrics of industrial life. A general disruption of the German economy could not be meaningful if it did not affect the production of these items. In 1940, the first full year of war, the average monthly production of Panzer vehicles was 136; in 1941 it was 316; in 1942 it had risen to 516. In 1943, after the bombing began in earnest, average monthly production was 1,005, and in 1944 it was 1,583. Peak monthly production was not reached until December, 1944, and it was only slightly down in early 1945. For aircraft (as I shall later tell) and other weaponry the figures were similar.