- 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
More impressive was the effect of Hitler’s persistent intrusion on technical decisions, especially those involving ordnance and aircraft. Of such matters the Führer knew a good deal and in all cases enough to be damaging. Nor was he the only source of trouble. The Luftwaffe under Goering was a special administrative disaster. Until the winter of 1944 it controlled its own plane production, and air generals back from the front could order modifications that they deemed desirable without knowledge of the effect on production, and they often did.
Hitler also dismissed unwelcome information as irrelevant. Such was the case with data on American war production. From late 1942 on, American war-production figures were sufficiently satisfactory that they ceased to be kept secret. It also was thought that they would have an adverse effect on German and Japanese morale. Instead, Hitler made light of them, calling them propaganda. Nor were others perturbed, for he forbade circulation of the figures.
Other intelligence, Speer noted, presented a different problem. The German intelligence agencies, as later investigation established, had information of the utmost accuracy concerning the exact day and the particular beaches on which the Normandy landings would take place. There had been, however, no good way of choosing between the report that was right and some twenty or thirty others on the same subject that were wrong. It’s a difficulty that often recurs in the intelligence business.
From the relatively superficial mobilization of the German economy in the early years came the paradox of the German war performance. As sources of raw materials were lost, territory diminished, and most of all, as bombing intensified, war production increased. And it increased enormously. Not until the autumn of 1944, when the Western Allies were on the frontiers of the Reich, did German war production reach its peak. It was then three times greater than it had been in early 1942 when Speer had taken charge after Fritz Todt, his predecessor, was killed in an airplane crash. It remained high into 1945. Speer’s success was the result not of getting more out of a tightly organized economy but of improving belatedly and substantially on a nearly trivial early performance.
There were, as well, some singular accomplishments. The Germans showed great energy and resource in dispersing, reorganizing, and repairing plants and facilities after the air raids. The most damaging of the strategic air attacks were on rail transport and the synthetic oil plants. These did not immobilize the German army or air force, but they did increase the time required for troop movements, and the availability of gasoline became a consideration in planning military operations. (In the planning of the winter attack in the Ardennes in 1944–45, for example, some of the fuel was to come from captured stocks.) At the peak, 350,000 men were engaged in the repair of the huge synthetic oil plants, in their dispersal, and in building new underground facilities, which, however, were still unfinished when the war ended. A spectacularly successful effort was made to retrieve aircraft production after attacks on the air frame plants, those producing all of the airplane except the engine.
It could be argued that the effect of the air attacks was to increase, German airplane output.
This last achievement, a matter of much controversy, first came to our attention in Flensburg. In the last week in February 1944, every known air frame plant in Germany was attacked; 3,636 tons of bombs were dropped. Losses of the attacking American bombers, though they were under escort, were heavy. In January, before the attacks, 2,077 combat aircraft—fighters and bombers—were produced by the Germans. In March, the month after the attacks, production was up to 2,243. By September, 1944, when the peak was reached, production was nearly twice what it was before the raids. There was some shift after the attacks from making bombers to making fighters, but in the immediate aftermath there was an increase in both. The Germans managed to retrieve by proceeding with great energy to get the machinery, mostly undamaged, out from under the rubble, and they then got it going again in neighboring schools, halls, churches, or wherever space was available. Meanwhile management of the industry was shifted from the incompetent Goering and the Luftwaffe to the more effective Speer ministry. It could be argued that the effect of the air attacks was to increase German airplane output.
On the evening when we first discussed these figures on the deck of the Patria, Orvil Anderson’s voice broke, and he asked, “Did I send those boys to do that?” However, he soon recovered his poise and gave his attention initially to faulting the German statistics and, when that proved impossible, to seeking to have them overlooked.
The Luftwaffe was, indeed, ineffective by the time of the Normandy landings. This was because it had been defeated as a combat force; it was not that it was short of planes.