Monday, February 24, 2014

The Siege: Big Week

This week is the seventieth anniversary of Big Week, five days of bombing, 20--5 February 1944, the greatest single victory in the history of the USAF. 

But, first, some introductory remarks, because Big Week had an introduction, too. One will encounter persons, who will remain nameless here, who imagine that the strategic air campaign against Germany as the vain and futile culmination of a virtually entirely theoretical approach to war, or perhaps a cult, or perhaps some kind of self-interested pursuit of institutional (that is) air force interests.

But Big Week had an introduction, and I shall introduce it.

For a few months after I graduated for the last time and had occasion to understand just how much society actually valued the skills that it had so generously subsidised my acquiring, I lived in the kind of flop house that a kind-hearted person will run, in a house on a property worth far more than what was left of the carpentry on it. Buildings fall down on their own if they are neglected, except in a magic world where effort and result are decoupled in whatever way we will, just so that it supports whatever thesis we propose.

Not this, but like it. (It's much nicer now.) Huffington Post

Which is not to say that houses can't be helped to fall down. I lived there with assorted persons and a sweet-tempered Golden Retriever. One of the persons in and out of that house did not like dogs, so when he was around he put the dog in her little kennel. He was glad to be shut of her, and she was perfectly content in her kennel.

Anderson bomb shelter, via Wikipedia.

Close spaces make us feel safe. We dream. We dig, imagining that in depth there is safety.

Subterranea Brittanica
We are wrong. The sign points us to the way out. What humans build, humans can destroy.

This is a postwar picture of the Siemens Schukert works at Nuremberg (credit via Crown), although the corporate identity had been subsumed into their "Bramo" trademark, and then been subsumed again as Bramo's early jet turbines were taken over by BMW.

The raid that destroyed this plant was probably the one of 01/01/1945, of which one website proposes that

 This plant was not building gingerbread confections, although the bomb that destroyed it was probably a 4000lb HC "cookie."

Back up a moment, though, to the bomb shelters of Brooklands, which were only effective if people were actually in them. On 4 September, 1940, they were not, as 14 Messerschmitt Bf-110s swept overhead at 1:24pm. A single 250lb bomb punched through the roof of a machine tool shop and detonated on top of a heavy press. A moment later, 83 machinists were dead and 419 were injured. John Terraine's Right of the Line frames this as a raid that "virtually stopped the production of Wellingtons for four days." 

I doubt that the survivors framed it that way. On 24 September, a similar low-level raid Bf 109s hit Vickers-Supermarine Southampton, killing 42, injuring 161, and cutting off municipal services. In the bloodless words of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, this would count as the "loss of a day's production." It was also pretty much the Germans using up the opportunity that a change in tactics always presented. Once barrage balloons were shifted from previous priority targets and proper precautions against splinter damage had been taken, these plants would be very difficult to attack so effectively with low-level tip-and-runs.

This had not escaped the attention of the German Air Staff. On 26 September, 1940, 76 Heinkel He 111s and Ju 88s, "accompanied by 60 Me[sic] 110 twin-engined fighters" managed to drop 70 tons of bombs on a one-square-mile area around the works.Vivid eyewitness testimony describes how a loft where completed wings above a bomb shelter was hit, and how a "blazing tide" of wing ribs followed by burning dope and paint poured into the darkness of the shelter." Most of the 55 killed, although not of the 92 injured, would have been in that shelter (251). 

That was the end for Vickers-Supermarine Southampton, as the works were dispersed. All production at the home of the Spitfire was lost for several months, although fortunately by this time Castle Bromwich was in full production. Even after dispersed manufacture was in full swing, it was calculated in another context that there would have been a loss of 20% of labour on fighter manufacture. (February 1944, 75.) It would have been worse for bomber manufacture, although, fortunately for the RAF, the great Midlands bomber plants that made the Halifax and Lancaster did not have to be dispersed. The German Air Force was never strong enough to make precision daylight attacks into the Midlands, and had instead to resort to area night-bombing campaigns that strove, as second-best to paralyze the general industrial life of a city.

In Big Week, the USAAF did that. (Also, Bomber Command did a fine job of coordinating its night attacks on the "Big Week" targets. But it wasn't beating the German Air Force. It was trying to avoid it, and had not yet come to terms with the fact that it could not do that any longer. a new technological paradigm was needed, but that toybox was going to be kept locked until the night of June 5/6, for fairly obvious reasons.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Postblogging Technology, January, 1944, II: Best Wishes and Good Fortune in 1944!


My Dearest Reggie:

The dates have aligned, and I hope we shall have a most auspicious year. "Mrs. J. C."  returned from her specialist's appointment in San Francisco at the beginning of the week in a gay mood, and now there are to be two cribs in the new nursery at the carriage house. Even the endless sound of hammering and nailing in the back as boxes of oranges are sealed and as quickly sent off to Chinese groceries in time for the Lunar New Year celebrations did not affect her feelings.

The arrival of your wife in advance of our Robbie Burns Supper was not, as I feared, a greater test. She and Judith bore the Inspector-Generaltrix's visit with the most magnificent aplomb. All is in order, and "Mrs. J. C." was the most gracious host. We were honoured by "Cousin H. C." and by Cousin Bess, lured out of the sanctuary of her home by the prospect of family, and a chance to spoil her beloved (half-)nephew and niece. We were also honoured, I am pleased to report, by our film star-Signals Corp relative's wife, who attended at the sharp insistence of "Mrs. J.C." Less happily, he brought along a friend, a member of Admiral Halsey's official family, quite handsome, notwithstanding his unfortunate red hair, in naval whites. 

I say "unfortunate" because "Mrs. J.C" believes him to be a stalking horse for his friend's adventuring ways. This strikes me as taking her personal dislike for the young man rather into the realm of the paranoid, but one must make allowances for woman in her condition. And, that said, I have to admit that for all his avuncularity, our patriotic actor relation rather rubs me the wrong way, as you Colonials say.

For example, we had as our guest once again the Provost of Santa Clara University, a clever man, as you have often noted, even amongst the Jesuits, andof long years in these parts and deep understanding of the value of the Poor Clares to our family. He watched without comment as I gave the traditional gifts to the young folk. 

But when "Miss "V.C" opened up her copy of the red-leather bound volume  of the Immortal Poet of Ayrshire's verse, and found within a crisp, new, $100 bill, she was somewhat taken aback. The Provost, as is his wont in other circumstances (have you ever seen him do this at a lunch for the parents of prospective students?) pulled out his old, ivory dog whistle, and told the story of how his grandfather used to be a "redeemer," pursuing fugitive slaves on the shores of the Ohio, and how there was often a crush of redeemers after some well-remunerated refugee, and how, on those occasions, when his dogs found the scent, he would pull out that old whistle, retrieved from a Mound-Builder tomb. "For it is a curious property of this whistle that it can only be heard by mongrel dogs, and none other. Grandfather was careful to keep a mongrel kennel, whereas the other redeemers used the finest bloodhounds for this remunerative work. Thus, Grandfather could call in his dogs without alerting the other redeemers, and many a bounty he took that otherwise would have gone to another."

Then, of course, the Provost held that long pause of his, before adding, as he always does, "Grandfather was an evil, evil man. But he did establish the family fortune that way. A curious thing, though: he never took a fugitive but was dark as deepest Africa, though we all know that slaves come in many colours betwixt coal and milk coffee. Perhaps the mongrels of other species can hear Grandfather's dog whistle, too."  

When I saw our young relation's eyes rise, I saw that, once again, someone had heard the dog whistle. My problem is that there was a hint of malice in the smile he gave then. I do not always approve of the message that the Provost gives when he goes on to talk to parents about how congenial their children will find Santa Clara while fiddling with his whistle. There are many children, however thinly their final coat of white overlies a primer  of coal, or sage, or even vermilion, who would do well at Harvard or Yale, and whose parents do not need to be frightened into sending them to Santa Clara, instead. 

But that hint of malice suggests that quite another message entirely was being heard, and noted.       

Monday, February 10, 2014

Postblogging January 1943: The Most Inevitable Technical Appendix Of All


Remember those housing start numbers from last time time. The reason I went and looked them up is that I made the mistake of skimming The Economist from the summer of 1947, and was about ready to slit my wrists in the bath. (Fortunately,  my CAD 1000/month one bedroom in Kitsilano doesn't have a bathtub. So yay for high rents through artificial scarcity.) Here's a Trotskyite, of all things, giving us the low down. The fact that The Economist was not known for its Trotskyite sympathies did not prevent its "American Survey" feature from confidently announcing through the whole of the summer of 1947 that by the time that next week's number came out, the bubble would have burst, and that stagflation would be upon us. And they  hadn't even invented "stagflation" yet! The author would just go, oh, there's something fundamentally wrong with the American economy, it's about to crash. Oh, and by the way, the cost of living is out of control! Recession+inflation, just around the corner!

So, yeah, the inevitable technical appendix. It's about jets, of course. 

The trope is that when an old scientist-technician-guy sits down to write his memoirs, there has got to be a bit where the Olds tell him that whatever he's working on will never actually work. There's places and times where I can see that conversation happening, but when you hear it in the context of aviation in the late 1930s, it's ....weird, is what it is. Computers are about the freshest technological progress there is, and I'm 49, and I do not remember a time when there were not computers --right down to predictions of self-driving cars** and artificial intelligence taking our jobs. If I were a 49 year old project manager in 1939, I would very distinctly remember the day that the first heavier-than-air plane flew. And I'm telling Frank Whittle/Hans Ohain that jets will never work? Seriously?

And, yet, jets did not work in 1939--45. Sure, Me 262s and even Gloster Meteors shot some stuff down. As with most of the technological developments of World War II that we notice and care about, the turbojet revolution was mostly in the pipeline when the war ended. 

There's probably some law of human nature here. Plenty of technologies were developed, field-tested and used during the war, but they tend to get the "But what have you done for me lately?" Treatment. Oh, sure, penicillin saved millions of lives, and the technology for mass producing it led directly to the massive postwar orange juice concentrate industry (seriously), apparently via the first experiments with Tang, but does anyone even remember that it was the production of penicillin, and not its "invention," that was the issue? On the other hand, if the technology was still on the way, its proponents had a fairly obvious reason for talking it up: it needed all the help it could get to win funding in the newly constrained postwar environment. All you have to do is look at the helicopter. The folk memory of 1944 is that everyone was promising that we would all be commuting in helicopters real soon.*** There were plenty of articles that said that, of course, but there were also plenty of "Let's be realistic about helicopters" articles. As it happens, it was the semi-trailer, reefer and shipping container that transformed postwar logistics, and while the shipping container has hired a publicist, the rest of it is all lost history.

So what would you have said if you were writing a "Let's be serious about jets" article in February of 1944?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Postblogging January 194Q: A Not-At-All Technical Appendix to "Postblogging January 1944, I"

Here's a bonus posting, because I'm on vacation this week and currently procrastinating. 

US GNP in chained 2007 dollars, 1939-1950. (St.Louis Federal Reserve.)

1939-01-01   1162596
1940-01-01   1264999
1941-01-01   1488930
1942-01-01   1770295
1943-01-01   2072020
1944-01-01   2237532
1945-01-01   2215925
1946-01-01   1959037
1947-01-01   1937567
1948-01-01   2018005
1949-01-01   2006981
1950-01-01   2181876

I've taken this out of the Internet's preferred table form because this way you don't have to squint at the squiggly lines and eyeball your estimate.  Fortune's "194Q" estimate is a 53% increase in GNP over 1939. Historically, using the 01/01/48 numbers for "194Q," I get 73.5%. Now throw in a swingeing federal budget surplus of 4.6% of GNP, per Lord Keynes'* numbers at Social Democracy for the 2st Century. Comparing the coming-out-of-recession 01/01/47 with the end-of-1939 01/01/1940 numbers gives 53%. That's not bad for a Stone Age economic writer, but throw in the pro-cyclic 1.7 billion dollar surplus and you get a worst-case historical "194Q" that significantly outperforms the projected, utopian "194Q" of 1943. 

I am utterly unqualified to draw a conclusion, but it seems to me that there is an "X" factor. It is not productivity growth, as that is already factored in to the "194Q" projection. Perhaps it is higher-than-expected labour force growth? But, if so, where are the people coming from? More likely, it seems to me, is a major excursion from the historical rate of productivity growth.  See why I am "unqualified" to draw a conclusion? I want to look at these numbers and see a major component of learning-by-doing coming out of a war time economy-of-knowledge transaction. (That is, "I'll fight for you if you'll let me fiddle with these here proto-computers.") I want to see that so bad that I think I am going to exclude my highly motivated analysis until someone else tells me that it's okay.

By the way, I swear that I did not make up "Professor Wilfred Brimley," (EDIT: "Wilford Brimley") "Wheeler McMillen" or "Ladd Haystead" up. Though I'll cop to wondering if Haystead's column was taking the wind out of Eliot Janeway.

Edit again: Googling around for a historic series of housing starts, I found this. Image, because I'm lazy.

It doesn't inspire complete confidence, in that this is preliminary to a study that tries to use Census data to revise pre-1945 housing start data up by as much as 50%, but even if the comparison to the previous highs of the 1920s is rendered suspect, there is enough here to show the way that housing starts spiked, as suspected, with the end of the war and remained high through the "technical depression" of 1945/6 and fails to reveal the impact of the 1948/9 recession. Single-residence construction does not seem like the obvious place to look for a war-caused skills/technology boost, but, classically, the light construction trades have absorbed a very large proportion of veterans, and there is plenty of technological change to implicate here. I'm thinking bulldozers and plywood.

*I'm thinking that this might not be the real Lord Keynes.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Postblogging Technology, January 1943, I: Will There Be Marmalade in 194Q?

My Dearest Reggie:

Material is piling up, and I have to write you anyway, to brace you for some business in special cargoes that I must ask you to arrange. Special delicacy, I hardly need observe, is required in the matter of border "rebirths" in war years, especially with an enthusiastic amateur FBI informant under foot every time he can get up from Burbank. So, then, here is the first of my January newsletters! 

Nor can I say that I have not had an eventful few weeks! In taking up  my brush last week, "Mrs. J. C." dropped a little reference to the city of broad shoulders. Well, I have been to the one that never sleeps, in fast company. It was very nearly too much for me, who am set so permanently in my ways. Fortunately, and I have had a few days to retire early and sleep late and let my hair down. (That is this month's obligatory "permanent wave" joke out of the way. Never let it be said that I do not keep up with the trends.) This Sunday,  I slept until the smell of marmalade boiling began to percolate upwards. Judith has been teaching the art to our young housekeeper, and I, I am carried away with memories of things long past.

In the matter of our friend, mentioned by "Mrs. J. C.," you know much and will have guessed more from my mention of special cargoes. Needless to say, the very volume of the rumours demonstrate the need for discretion! You will know that he has an acquaintance, quite as erratic in person as he may seem from a distance, who boasts of breaking his own contract with the assistance of those to whom he oleaginously refers as "men of respect." You may rightly suppose that our friend's vanity would only be assuaged when he could make a like show, and that this is how I came to owe a favour to one of Grandfather's little brothers. The actual business will be done by "Cousin H. C.'s" lawyers, of course. 

And engineers. I cannot expect "Mrs. J. C.'s" solid but essentially feminine mind to grasp something so technical, but I remain firm on this. We can solve our friend's most pressing problem in the courts, but we can only deliver the kind of life that he would like to lead through "research and development." He is a very, very rich man, so someone will do it. Why not us? I await a favourable report in the matter of your Christmas present via Bill and David soon, although the actual work has been delegated to a White Russian of the Mukden emigration, who is more intimately obligated to us.