The wind vs. the whirlwind

German vs Anglo-American bomb delivery, 1940-1945

It must be time for some plots. The data here is taken from Richard Overy, The Air War 1939-1945 (Washington: Potomac Books, 2005 [1980]), 120, and represents the bomb tonnage delivered between 1940 and 1945 by Germany on Britain (including V-weapons) in blue, and by Britain and the United States on Europe as a whole (meaning Germany, mostly, but also France, Italy, the Netherlands, etc) in red. The first two years cover the Battle of Britain and the Blitz; the last four the Combined Bomber Offensive. Germany dealt out more aerial punishment than it (or its allies and conquests) received only in 1940; from 1943 Britain and the United States dropped vastly more bombs than the Luftwaffe could ever dream of doing. And here is part of the reason why:

German vs Anglo-American bomb delivery, 1940-1945

This is the number of bombers built by Germany and by Britain and the United States for the same period, though no data is given for Germany in 1945. I'm not sure if the German numbers include V-weapons this time, and I think the numbers for both sides are for any type of bomber, regardless of how or where it was used. So US Navy dive bombers destined for the Pacific would count, and of course after mid-1941 the Kampfgruppen were otherwise engaged. By the same token, however, a single-engined Stuka carrying less than a thousand pounds of bombs is given equal weight to a four-engined Lancaster carrying 14000 lb, so this plot actually underestimates the true scale of the Anglo-American dominance in the production war.

It all turned out pretty much as 'Bomber' Harris told the British public it would, in June 1942:

The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everybody else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.

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60 thoughts on “The wind vs. the whirlwind

  1. Brett: Good point about the wartime/peacetime distinction, but I suspect this line becomes much more blurred after 1945. The rise of nuclear strategy and the Cold War, along with the acceptance of methods like OR (and new, related, ones such as game theory,) mean that more of this kind of planning happens in peacetime.

    With the growth of the military-industrial-academic complex, these analyses are not performed solely by members of the armed forces or by civil servants any more; It is after all a RAND theorist who writes On Thermonuclear War and comes up with the term 'Megadeath.'

    These are just musings, partly inspired by an essay I wrote for my Masters last year. In suggesting the topic, my supervisor pointed out that there had been analyses of the Holocaust as the dark side of modernity, but there was no comparable studies of the projects of liberal democracy, such as the Manhattan project or the Strategic Air Offensive.*

    [*] although there are studies of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos that discuss some of the bureaucratic structures that inhibited questioning of the project's purpose; I used some of them to make my argument.

  2. My memory was, for once, right - Sebastian Cox's arguments about Harris and targeting in 1944-45 are in his introduction to Harris' Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February to 8th May 1945 (London, Frank Cass, 1995). A hideously expensive book, so probably one to look up in the library rather than purchase, unless you are a statistics and graphs nut (a classification that surely excludes anyone who would comment here...)

  3. Those who are unenthusiastic about purchasing the Despatch (translation: cheapskates like me) may wish to know that Cox's comments can be read via Google Books.

    I agree that his argument does ameliorate to some extent the criticism of Harris in late 1944 (though Cox notes that in his view attacks against oil could have been stepped up by at least twenty five per cent during that period, which is not nothing).

    What strikes me is the way in which Harris seems to have come to misunderstand the weapon system at his disposal in those last months of the war. He remained skeptical about the ability of Bomber Command to perform precision attacks long after it had become obvious that advances in tactics and technology had enabled it to do so. The Butt Report was ancient history by late 1944, but his fixation on area bombing caused him to seriously underestimate the transformed abilities and equipment of his own men.

  4. Allan raises an important point there. By 44 Bomber Command was quite an impressive weapon system with regards to accuracy. There is an entry in Leigh-Mallory's diary during the the Normandy Campaign where he and Portal laugh over the earlier protestations of Harris over his inaibility to provide such accurate bombing of these types of targets.

  5. Chris Williams

    Yes - it's always struck me that by May 1944, it was obvious that Bomber Command could hit a target smaller than a city, owing to the fact that they'd been doing just that for SACEUR. So how come they went back to business as usual after that? The Luftwaffe was essentially defeated, thus the difference between France and Germany was less important than it had been in 1943 - though the RAF might not necessarily have realised this.

    The bombing argument mutated several times during the war, didn't it? On the one side, there's a shifting cast of characters saying "Don't do area bombing because . . .", inserting a number of different reasons, many convincing. On the other is Harris, saying "No, I shall do area bombing unless you order me to stop". When ordered to stop - temporarily in the Spring and early summer of 1944, permanently in April 1944 - he did. Thus if we're going to play a blame game, Portal, not Harris, needs to be in the dock.

  6. Hmmm, others here are more expert than me, but is the ability to bomb targets in France precisely over the summer the same as being able to bomb targets in Germany precisely over the winter? How long does it take Bomber Command to get navigational aid stations set up in France? I'm not saying Harris was right, just that his preferences might be explicable. And had he been less blunt about what he was doing and claimed precision bombing only over the winter of 1944-45, would the experience of German cities actually have been much different?

  7. Post author

    Good questions, particularly the last one. A lot of transportation and oil targets would have been in working class suburbs anyway. Not all, though -- the aiming point of the hugely successful raid on the Dortmund-Ems canal on 23/24 September 1944 was near the town of Ladbergen, which today has a population of 6400 and is some distance from a big city (M√ľnster).

  8. I'd just like to add that this is a fascinating discussion (like many on Brett's blog!) which has developed my understanding of the history and people in question - one of the best things about the interweb...

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