Monday, October 14, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: First Parallel

I'm mixing my metaphors. The artillerie du place opening up on the fortress from the first parallel is the opposite of the Charge of the Light Brigade. "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward." (Of many images available on the Net, I take this from a History of Surgery and Anaesthesia page.) Let's compromise on themes. Seventy years ago today, two groups (divisions in 1940s USAAF parlance) of B-17s raided the ball bearing plants of Schweinfurt, the swine ford, in Franconia. Fortresses charging.

It's a juxtaposition that works better with cavalry charges, anyway. Forts are (in our imaginations, anyway), the definition of far sighted, deliberate warmaking. Cavalry charges are the epitome of rash decisions. Blow the horn, and you're stuck with what comes next. If it comes home ugly, you are left to live with yourself. Even someone no worse than a cheerleader might get a little shrill as they try to find a way of blaming the other guy for fighting back. Since I am gesturing to Tennyson, here's Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, admittedly not talking about cavalry charges. (No, tell us how you really feel, Elizabeth.)   

I sense a guilty conscience, is what I am trying say, some way that it might be the universe's fault, that you did the best you could, that it had to happen that way. That's how you get 
 Weird, weird, weird, weird. Oh, and thanks to the Drifting Cowboy, by the way. And that's how I get to Schweinfurt: guilty consciences and thin rationalisations.

By the way, can I just say how awesome is is when there are still things on open shelves for browsing, such as the entire run of The Economist? Pull down a volume, and you can find out how, on 14th October, 1943, Seventy years ago today, 29 B-24s of 2nd Bomber Division, 8th Air Force, and 291 B-17s of 1st and 3rd Bomber Division set out from their British bases, to conduct a "Flying Fortress raid" on the important ball and roller-bearing plants of Kugel Fischer AG and Vereinigte Kugellagerfabriken AG, the large German subsidiary of the Swedish SKF. Photos show that at least half the facilities were destroyed, and Brigadier General Anderson of the USAAF suggests that the plants had been knocked out of production, and that a  restoration of 25% of production is the most that one could hope for in the immediate future. The Economist is not so sanguine. Ball bearings are a pretty quotidian product, and SKF's subsidiaries serve pretty much every national industry. Germany can import from Switzerland and France, as well as from Sweden.(The point of British attempts to tamper with the Swedish ball bearing industry are to keep the most valuable and difficult-to-manufacture types out of German hands.) The Economist does not know the numbers, but there are 524 American heavy bombers serviceable on the fields of Britain this day. It will later be established that there are 964 German single-engined fighters on charge within the borders of the Reich this day, although Richard G. Davis does not make it clear whether these are all serviceable, and I cannot check his source right now. (Hinsley, British Intelligence, III, 1, 296.)

A little further on in the same number of the legendary weekly newspaper for the economically-minded, editorial asks the question we long to hear answered in this October, when flame-red things flutter from the sky. "How is it that journey’s end may not yet be in sight even though most of the mileposts have been passed? Will the war be over in three months, in six, in twelve?" Do we not have threefold air superiority? Are we not bombing relentlessly? 

Okay, digression over. The still from the 1936 Errol Flynn vehicle, Charge of the Light Brigade, and  Elizabeth Barrett-Brownings "A Forced Recruit at Solferino," reminds me of this photograph, which I borrowed from, but which you could have papered the walls of your bedroom out of the papers of October 1943.

B-17s can take it. Sometimes, planes do not come back. The Ploesti raid, back in August, cost the B-24s of Ninth Air Force 50 planes and over 500 men, it will be admitted in the American press this month. But 8th Air Force is hammering Germany with B-17s, and Flying Fortresses can take it.  See? See the picture?

It is always good to have a little historical context at a time like this. I don't want to lay it on too thick, as I have some posts coming soon, but it helps to know that the resumption of the Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front has taken the Germans by surprise. They were hoping that the Red Army was exhausted. The Economist's resident German tea reader thinks that the fall of the Italian fascist regime triggered a "crisis" within German politics that the Nazis have just surmounted --a crisis made all the clearer by the ever closer approach of the 25th anniversary of the "unexpected" internal collapse of November, 1918. On another page, the paper finds it necessary to do the same dance for the fall of Nikopol as I have just quoted for the Schweinfurt raid. German war production is not doomed by the loss of Nikopol's manganese. Germany has other sources, and can substitute. 

Now, I have put "unexpected" in scare quotes because David Stevenson has quite satisfactorily demonstrated that nothing was more expected on 11 November 1918 than the end of the war and the collapse of Germany. What was unexpected on the morning of the last day of the winter of the year was come in its time as fall signalled the coming of the next. I have also tried to be a little lyrical as a way of suggesting that the round of the seasons do matter here. Fall is when you store up against the cold to come. As the Flying Fortresses take off,the Prime Minister is being asked to defend his government's position on coal in the House, and John L. Lewis is "the most dangerous man in America," because he will not stand against his own miners as they strike against prosperous northern coal owners to force a favourable northern settlement on the South. Put that way, it admittedly doesn't sound so bad, but with a chill creeping into the air, the question is, "Where is the winter's coal?" 

A nation's economy is a complex web. Picking it apart to the point where the winter's coal cannot be won takes time. Or, maybe, it takes single, smashing blows against key targets. If your enemy insists on making all of his ball bearings at three factories in a single town, deep in the heart of Germany, why not strike, in staggering force, and call up the hunters of Germany to their final battle?

Nine groups of 1st Bomber Division are in the lead in a massive box formation: 112 heavy bombers, 600,000 horsepower, 1350 men and as many machine guns, a cumulative total of flight training hours pushing towards the seven figures.P-47s in escort encounter the first wave of German interceptors of Jagdgeschwader 3 Udet. Their patron has 33 days to live. Crassly, he will have his final breakdown and shoot himself while on the phone with his girlfriend, although, to be fair, he at least took more responsibility for his actions than his rivals in the party hierarchy. His wing are among those failed by the Air Ministry, and their Bf109s  do not fare well against the massive Republic machines. 

It is different for JGs 1, 7 and 26, which will intercept a little further inland, beyond the range that the P-47s have little trouble with the supposedly self-defending American machines. 30fth Bomber Group, its formation opened up by turbulence, suffers the loss of 13 of 16 machines in minutes. The crews of 3rd Bomber Division recall following a trail of fallen 1st Division aircraft all the way to Schweinfurt. The defenders' fury spent, the 3rd will suffer 14 shot down out of 128 attacking, a loss rate of "only" 11 percent. 

In total, 59 aircraft will be shot down, 1 will ditch, and 17 will crash on home fields or be written off after landing. 655 casualties will finally be reported, with only 65  POWs. Bombing, which extended to the Gdansk shipyards and the Arado works at Anklam, was generally of a high order under clear skies. Of 598 500-pound GP bombs dropped on ball-bearing targets, 286 were identified by aerial reconnaissance as having fallen within the factory area. Of these, at least 35 were direct hits on buildings. In addition to the destruction by high explosives, incendiary bombs caused major damage by fire. The one-third reduction in ball-bearing production reported by Albert Speer was no fantasy. 

Nor is the air fighting a myth. It is, to be sure, not the case that the gunners of 8th Air Force shot down 180 fighters, and Air Chief Marshal Harris's use of figures like these to justify kicking money in the direction of .50 cal turret manufacturers has a whiff of forgotten scandal to it.

I will content myself with pointing out that in no way was the B-17 a particularly well protected aircraft. A typical multiplace de combat of its era, its exceptional defences consisted of what was in 1934 a large number of manual gun positions. Unlike later bombers, which were designed to take relatively large powered mountings, the the supposedly heavily-protected B-17 had a tunnel mounting in the rear and a manual gun (in some models) in the front. Neither could be improved upon without a massive rebalancing of the design. Which did take place. The B-17 got a powered tail .50 cal turret at the same time as the Lancaster. (I do not find much curiosity about late model B-17s on the Internet, but there is probably a good discussion of the late series modifications that rebalanced the B-17 to the point where it could take a gun turret, instead of a highly unsatisfactory tunnel position, in Freeman's book.) It did have gun turrets retrofitted into the centre, about the centre of gravity, but protection from the rear was weak, which is why it got two waist gunners on manual .50 cal positions. That's not a particularly good solution. Bear in mind that the B.1/39 was intended to carry a pair of 4X20mm turrets up and down for 720 degree protection, while in the next year or so the trend went to supposedly remote controlled heavy weapons in barbettes, as in the B-29 or Piaggio. 

That being said, the fighting was sharp. Those gunners were not up there in vain. The Germans did suffer 31 fighters lost, 12 written off, and 34 damaged, a loss, Davis points out, of 3.5% of all fighters available. 

It would have been a more impressive achievement if 8th Air Force had not written itself off to accomplish it. This is not how you win attritional battles.

But is it how you win continental sieges? The usual story is that effectively wiping out a key set of factories had no results at all. The Germans had other sources of ball bearings, the German economy was so inefficient that everyone had excess inventory on hand, slide bearings were substituted for ball bearings. 

Notice that the first and second points kind of contradict the third. I am not going to defend the Schweinfurt raid on the strength of a Wikipedia article, but check out the sad history of the DB605 before you decide that the ball bearing target was pointless. As for the notion that the ball bearing factories were "panacea" targets, I can only protest that if you're going to set out to bring down German industry by bombing, it is not entirely unreasonable to aim your bombs at important targets. The alternative of aiming your bombs at unimportant targets strikes me as strategically questionable at best.

Since "panacea" came up in the context of the argument over area bombing, perhaps it is time to put that to rest. Turning again to Davis's compendious history, I will summarise his summary chronology.

August 1943

Treblinka death camp closed for lack of people to liquidate. Strangely, Davis interrupts his discussion of the strategic air war against Nazi Germany to notice the opening and closing of death camps. Whatever could be his point? 

During August, Bomber Command was still fighting the "Battle of Hamburg. 1758 effective sorties against German targets cost 137 bombers, a loss rate of 7.8% 

1 August 177 9th AF B-24s against Ploesti. 50 bombers lost
12 August 1st Bombardment Wing 8th AF attacks the Ruhr, losing 23 B-17s out of 133 effective sorties while 4th Wing hits Bonn unopposed, losing 2 of 110. Total heavy bombers in theatre actually declines this week, to 808 from 833.
13 August 9th AF against BfW-Regensburg
16/17 August Bomber Command's last attack on Turin
17 August 315 8th AF bombers versus Schweinfurt ball-bearing and BfW-Regensburg. 60 bombers lost, 2 land in Switzerland. Curtis LeMay leads 4th Bomber Wing personally. 1st Bomber Wing becomes separated from the raid by failing to take off in foggy conditions. A short term loss of 40% of ball bearing production is noted.
17/18 August BC sends sorties 596 four-engined bombers against the V-weapon station at Peenemunde, a 700 mile penetration in 3 waves, 571 a/ca attacking. 
27 8th AF versus V-weapon target first time
31/1 BC reports first use of flares by enemy fighters.

September 1943

Bomber Command conducts 9 major raids in September. On the moonlit nights of 14/15 and 15/16, 650 effective sorties are flown at the Modane rail junction between France and Italy and the Dunlop rubber plant at Montlucon. Area raiding into Germany has limited effectiveness, as H2S proves incapable of giving good imaging over land, while OBOE is range limited to attacks in the far west.

6 September 8th sorties 407 bombers, a new high, against Stuttgart. No bombers attack primary target, and 5 B-17s land in Switzerland
8/9 September First 8 AF night mission sends 5 B-17s to join Bomber Command
15/16 September 617 Squadron drops the first 12,000lb bomb against the Dortmund-Ems canal. Or, more accurately, the massive aqueduct that takes the canal across the Lippe, 15 meters above the river. 
17 September First air-superiority version of the P-51 arrives in Britain. It will not be operational until December.
22/23 September BC conducts its first electronic spoof raid
23/24 September First Oboe-marked raid.
27 September 8 AF conducts its first area-bombing raid, against the city centre of Emden through 100% overcast. Two H2S-equipped B-17s mark the target and P-47s with drop tanks escort. 

October 1943
Bomber Command conducted 8 major raids into Germany in October, with indifferent results from H2S marking. On the other hand, short range, highly accurate OBOE attacks by Mosquitoes (needed for their high ceiling, since OBOE, being horizon limited, needed high aircraft for sightlines) bedevilled German industrial planners in the Ruhr and other places in the far west of the country. 

1 October 2 12th AF B-17s land in Switzerland.
4/5 October First operational trials of GH
7/8 October AIRBORNE CIGAR BC's first airborne ECM aircraft.
8 October 8th AF makes first use of Carpet radar jammers
8/9 October Last Wellington raid against Germany
9 October 3 8th AF aircraft and crews interned in Switzerland

The simplest story that we can tell about the Schweinfurt raid of 14 October 1943 is that an arrogant and purblind USAAF leadership was finally brought up against the realisation that they could not rely on self-defending unescorted bomber formations. It strikes me, on the contrary, that they did not need to learn that lesson. Arrogance can be a good cover for insecurity. If the lesson had not been obvious before, the losses of August must have brought it home. What we are condemning them for is not throwing themselves on their bunk with a loud, "Game over, man." With the rate of aborts-to-Switzerland as a proxy for morale and with an eye to the buildup of operational aircraft to tell them whether or not they were winning, all that the Allied air staffs could do was keep trying and hope that, amidst all of the forward-failing cascades of disparate technological lines of development, something that would come up that would keep them flying, and keep the bombs falling. 

That is, indeed, what happened. Since admitting defeat would just damage everybody's morale, the fact that 8th Air Force had to keep flying and keep dying until something better came along was transformed into another one, about the hitting power of .50 caliber machine guns, and the unprecedented defensive firepower and ruggedness of the B-17. Such stories do us little good when we want to get at the most profound interaction of technology, strategy and the national economy of a modern manufacturing power in history, but they clearly made some people feel better at the time. 

*The whiff of scandal comes from Harris's close association with the financier who revived Parnall, a former aircraft 


  1. This is basically Terraine's conclusion. I recall he put it that "like the infantry in France in WW1, Bomber had no choice but to "soldier on"", or words to that effect.

    6 September 8th sorties 407 bombers, a new high, against Stuttgart. No bombers attack primary target, and 5 B-17s land in Switzerland

    *No* bombers out of 407? That's a pretty impressive disaster. How many did they lose?

    minor point: Udet's death is given in various places as '41..

  2. On Udet, oops. The Economist's "Germany at War" column reported new rumours of Udet's death being suicide, and reading comprehension/confirmation bias covers the rest.

    As for the 6th September attack, by some miracle I was able to find the CD that came with Richard's manuscript and was spared the effort of downloading it all again. The raiding was scattered over much of France and southwestern Germany, so it looks like weather was an issue. All the missions are marked "visual," not surprisingly. 8th was just beginning its ultimately futile apprenticeship in night bombing with Bomber Command, only (5 aircraft flying with BC that night, while only 3 B-17s had H2S for service as day-area bombing pathfinders.

    Debriefs report two major targets attacked, Stuttgart and Strasbourg, with 13 losses over the former and 20 over the latter out of 41 a/c lost. The "no attacks on primary target" is based on the Gauleiter's report, showing no bomb hits in Stuttgart that day.