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Was It Worth The Effort?

June 2024
2min read


Critics of the Army Air Forces argued that the strategic bombing campaign was unnecessary. All the production devoted to building bombers and the enormous effort to train men to fly and maintain them could have been better spent on fighters, ground troops, and the Navy. It would also have avoided the worst accusation of all: that the United States used a method of making war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The bombs hit residences as well as factories, deliberately on the part of the RAF Bomber Command’s night bombing, but also from the American precision bombing, for the accuracy of free-falling bombs was far below the accuracy of artillery fire. Most bombs fell considerably outside their targets. Asked after the war, “Did you guys ever hit anything?,” one tail gunner replied, “Yeah, we always hit the ground.”

They did a lot better than that. In the last chapter, “Mission Accomplished,” in the official history of the Army Air Forces in Europe, the editors, W. F. Craven and J. L. Cate, give their assessment. Like all their work, it is judicious and authoritative. Much of the chapter is based on interviews conducted with Germans after the surrender. The Germans were professionals in the art of war and wanted to discuss what had happened, and why.

The Luftwaffe commander, Hermann Göring, said that the Allied selection of targets
had been excellent and that precision bombing had been more effective than night raids. Still, he believed Germany could never have been defeated by airpower alone. But Grand Adm. Karl Dñnitz, who succeeded Hitler as the second-and last-F½hrer, insisted that airpower had been the decisive element. CoI. Gen. Alfred Jodl of Hitler’s staff said the winning of air superiority had decided the war and that strategic bombing had been the most decisive factor. Albert Speer, the minister of production, maintained that the strategic bombing could have won the war without a land invasion.

Nevertheless, the German leaders said that the Allies had underestimated Germany’s industrial capacity. German war production continued to increase until it reached its peak in mid-1944. Then the strategic bombing campaign intensified; of all the bombs that struck the Reich during the war, 72 percent fell after July 1, 1944. In the following nine months, the bombing campaign wrecked the enlarged German economy. In April 1944, Germany had adequate supplies of oil. Over the next year, the 8th Air Force dropped 70,000 tons of bombs on the refineries, the 15th Air Force some 60,000 tons. Toward the end, even the most senior Nazis in the hierarchy were unable to find gasoline for their limousines.

The second major effect of the strategic bombing campaign, in this case aided by the tactical air force, was on transportation. Allied planes attacked bridges, highways, trucks, tanks, anything that moved, but most of all, the bombers went after railroad marshaling yards. By the spring of 1945, the German transport system was in ruins. The 8th Air Force had dropped one-third of its bombs, 235,312 tons, on marshaling yards. The 15th Air Force put almost half its bombs, 149,476 tons, on them.

Along with their acknowledgment of the effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaign, the German leaders being interrogated had criticisms. For example, Goring and Speer believed that going after electric power stations, which were highly vulnerable to air attack, would have benefited the Allies more; so, too, would have attacking powder and explosive plants. But whatever their cavils, and there were many more, the German leaders knew that the tremendous requirements of air-raid defense had tied down German guns and soldiers, who, had they been free to serve in the ground forces, might have made a decisive difference.

We will never know, because it was not done that way. We do know that what the Allies did won the war. What McGovern did, what the 741st Squadron did, along with the rest of the 455th Bomb Group and all of the 15th Air Force and the 8th Air Force, was critical to the victory. McGovern, his crew, and all the airmen spent the war years doing good work. —S.E.A.

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