Ben Bova: The meaning of 'strategic bombing'

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I don’t always read the newspaper’s letters to the editor. I remember the poet Robert Frost commenting once, “I get a lot of criticism, but I don’t read it.”

However, a couple of recent letters dealing with the matter of strategic bombing in World War II caught my eye. There are many misconceptions about the bombing campaigns of that war, even today.

Strategic bombing means using air power to strike at an enemy’s home cities to destroy the enemy’s industrial base and terrify its citizens into surrender.

It actually began in World War I, when Germany used zeppelins and later airplanes to drop bombs on London. They had no real effect on Britain’s war-making capabilities, although they did cause panic and even riots among the people of London.

In 1914, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz wrote that while he was not in favor of “frightfulness” against civilians, “if one could set fire to London in 30 places” that would be “something fine and powerful.”

In the years between the first world war and the second, military theorists began to develop the concept of strategic bombing. Giulio Douhet in Italy, for example, prophesied that a nation could be brought to its knees by powerful fleets of strategic bombers pulverizing cities from the air.

In the United States, while Gen. Billy Mitchell demonstrated that airplanes could sink battleships, strategic bombing became the holy grail of air-minded generals who wanted a separate Air Force, independent of the Army.

And then came Adolf Hitler.

In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany’s “volunteer” Condor Legion shocked the world by bombing the Basque city of Guernica into rubble. Hitler had no qualms about “frightfulness.” The ruin of Guernica was very vivid in the minds of British and French politicians as they tried to avoid war with Germany by appeasing Hitler’s demands.

The war came anyway. And with it, the bombing of cities.

Nazi Germany invaded and quickly overran Poland. As the Poles were preparing to defend their capital city, Warsaw, Luftwaffe bombers destroyed much of the city. The Poles surrendered the next day.

A few months later, as German armies swept through the Netherlands, Luftwaffe bombers destroyed the heart of Rotterdam, even while the Dutch were negotiating a surrender with the German army.

By September 1940, it was London that was being pounded from the air. The Battle of Britain was at first an attempt by the Luftwaffe to win command of the air over southern England as a prelude to invasion. The Royal Air Force Fighter Command fought the Germans fiercely.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, approved a nighttime raid on Berlin. It didn’t cause much damage, but it infuriated Hitler so much that he ordered London to be bombed without mercy.

The “Blitz,” as the Brits called it, started with daylight bombing of London but shifted to night raids because the RAF made daylight raids too costly.

Once Hitler turned his attention to the invasion of Soviet Russia, the Blitz ended. But the British people were eager for some measure of vengeance for the bombings they had endured. RAF Bomber Command began a systematic attack on German industrial centers.

The RAF bombed by night and bombed broad areas of German cities. Their goal was to burn out whole cities and kill the people who worked in German factories making the weapons of war.

When the United States entered the war, the 8th Air Force started a campaign of daylight raids. The British thought daylight raids were little better than suicide, because the bombers would be attacking targets far beyond the range of fighter escort. But the Americans believed their B-17 “Flying Fortress” could fight its way through German fighter defenses and pinpoint industrial targets, even without fighters to protect them against German interceptors.

No area bombing for the Americans. Precision bombing. By daylight.

Luftwaffe fighters decimated the American bomber formations. By late 1943, the American campaign was on the brink of defeat.

The tide was turned by the introduction of the P-51 Mustang, a single-engine fighter that had the range to accompany the four-engine bombers all the way to Berlin and back. The Mustang was a technological marvel: not only could it reach as far as the bombers, but it could outfly the German fighters. And outfight them.

Legend has it that when Hermann Goering, the chief of the Luftwaffe, saw single-engine American fighters over Berlin he muttered, “Alles kaput.”

Lessons learned:

First, strategic bombing did not destroy Nazi Germany’s industrial capacity. The Germans were producing more weapons of war in 1944 than they had been in 1940.

Second, strategic bombing did not cow the German people into surrender. If anything, they fought harder. Just as the British steeled themselves against the “Blitz,” ordinary Germans grew to hate the bombers that were pounding their homes.

Third, and most important, strategic bombing did lead to the destruction of the Luftwaffe. With the introduction of long-range P-51 fighters, the American bombers became bait to lure German interceptors to come up and fight. Within a few months the Luftwaffe was shattered. It lost so many planes — and pilots — that it ceased to be an effective fighting force.

By D-Day, June 6, 1944, Britain and the U.S. had command of the air over all of Europe. The Luftwaffe could not stop the invasion of Normandy, nor did German air power do much of anything as Allied armies swept across France and into Germany itself.

Strategic bombing failed in its professed objectives. But it succeeded in sweeping the skies over Europe clean of Nazi planes.

The air war against Japan was a different matter. Strategic bombing, using atomic bombs, made the invasion of the Japanese home islands unnecessary.

Today, of course, with “unstoppable” ballistic missiles carrying hydrogen bombs, strategic bombing is the heart of war strategy.

Naples resident Ben Bova is a history buff, as well as the author of 120 books. His latest novel is “The Mortality Factor.” Bova’s Web site address is

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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