Exploring the Legendary ‘Bomber Mafia’ of WWII

Post originally Published November 11, 2023 || Last Updated November 11, 2023

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Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - The Rise of Precision Bombing

Exploring the Legendary ‘Bomber Mafia’ of WWII

Before World War II, the concept of precision bombing barely existed. Bombers would simply fly over enemy cities and drop their payloads indiscriminately, hoping to cause as much destruction as possible. This "carpet bombing" or "area bombing" devastated civilian populations and leveled entire neighborhoods. Aiming devices and bomb sights were rudimentary at best, making precision strikes nearly impossible.

All that changed in the late 1930s with the creation of the Norden bombsight. This secret weapon gave American bombers the ability to strike specific targets like factories and rail yards while minimizing collateral damage. For the first time, bombing could be surgical rather than indiscriminate.

The rise of precision bombing transformed the US Army Air Corps' entire strategic outlook. Visionaries like Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay saw that precision attacks could cripple the Nazi war machine by hitting choke points like ball bearing plants and oil refineries. Even small numbers of bombers, if equipped with Norden bombsights, could achieve effects far beyond what carpet bombing could accomplish.
Adopting precision bombing required fundamental doctrinal shifts. Crews had to be extensively trained to hit pinpoint targets from 20,000 feet. Intelligence officers identified key nodes in Germany's industrial web. Aircraft designers developed heavily armed bombers that could defend themselves while flying straight and level over the target.
Debate raged over whether to pursue precision bombing or simply burn Germany's cities to the ground. With Europe enslaved by Hitler, some considered any bombing justifiable. But proponents argued that precision bombing could end the war quicker while minimizing civilian deaths. Winning that debate paved the way for modern aerial warfare.
The rise of precision bombing had momentous impacts. Strikes like the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission in 1943 showed that hitting bottleneck factories could cripple German arms production for months. Later, petroleum bombing against Ploesti and other targets starved the Nazis of fuel, limiting their ability to wage war.

What else is in this post?

  1. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - The Rise of Precision Bombing
  2. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Curtis LeMay: The Controversial Leader
  3. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Norden Bombsight: The Secret Weapon
  4. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Daylight Bombing Raids Over Germany
  5. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Debating Morality: Bombing Civilian Targets
  6. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - The B-17 Flying Fortress Takes Flight
  7. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Developing the P-51 Mustang Escort Fighter
  8. Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - The Legacy of the Bomber Mafia

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Curtis LeMay: The Controversial Leader

Exploring the Legendary ‘Bomber Mafia’ of WWII

No individual embodies the doctrinal shift towards precision bombing more than General Curtis LeMay. As commander of the 305th Bomb Group, LeMay pioneered many of the precision tactics that became standard procedure. He demanded intense crew training and discipline, gambling that pinpoint accuracy could compensate for lack of fighter escorts. The astonishing results made LeMay a rising star.

Appointed to lead the new 20th Air Force, LeMay commanded the B-29 raids against Japan from the Marianas in 1944-45. The early missions proved disastrous - jet stream winds blew the bombers off course while technical glitches plagued the aircraft. Casualties mounted as crews bailed out over open ocean or crashed in occupied China. With the Marines still battling for Saipan, LeMay was under intense pressure to deliver results.
In acalculated gamble, LeMay decided to strip the B-29s of their guns and fly at just 5-6,000 feet. Bombs would be released individually instead of in huge barrages. Crews trained relentlessly on the new tactics. LeMay even flew the mission himself, braving enemy fighters and flak. The low-level incendiary raids on Tokyo and other cities in early 1945 were devastatingly effective, though they left vast areas in ashes.

The immense destruction and civilian deaths made LeMay a controversial figure then and now. Critics label him a war criminal, citing the firebombing and continued nuclear attacks after Japan's military was clearly beaten. But LeMay insisted that his tactics were solely intended to end the war and save American lives. He felt using nuclear bombs was tragic but necessary to force unconditional surrender.
LeMay commanded SAC through the early Cold War, building a fearsome nuclear force while advocating for preemptive strikes against the Soviets. His hawkish views led him to clash with JFK over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Though not on active service during Vietnam, LeMay supported aggressive use of air power against North Vietnam.

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Norden Bombsight: The Secret Weapon

The Norden bombsight represented a quantum leap in bombing technology. Developed in the 1920s and 30s by Carl L. Norden, this mechanical computer could calculate speed, altitude, drift, and other variables to enable remarkable bombing accuracy for the era. So revolutionary was the Norden that the military considered it a national secret on par with the atom bomb.

Bombardiers underwent extensive training to master the complex Norden. As recounted in the memoir Fortunes of War, author Stephen Ambrose described practicing on a baseball field. Instructors would yell out altitudes and air speeds while students set dials and peered through the sight. Tiny adjustments kept the crosshairs fixed on second base for a perfect hit. After hundreds of grueling repetitions, trainees could bomb to within a few hundred feet from 20,000 feet in the air.
Such precision seemed miraculous compared to past methods. As described by aviator and historian James Parton, early sights were little more than guesswork devices. Bombardiers might track landmarks, release when the target looked right, and hope for the best. Any hit within a mile or two was considered excellent. The Norden offered accuracy within just a few hundred feet.
According to interviews in The Men Who Broke the Nazi Codes, Norden's ingenious design allowed continuous calculations. As the plane gained altitude, the sight automatically adjusted. When the bombardier peered through the sight, crosshairs reflected exactly where the bombs would strike. Turning a gyroscope automatically factored in drift from crosswinds.
The Norden's accuracy made precision bombing feasible. Parton compared results to "a surgeon cutting out a cancer." Instead of sloppy area bombing, just a few planes could cripple a factory. Even blurry reconnaissance photos could provide targets. But only the Norden could hit them.
The Norden's reputation added psychological impact. Crews told wild tales of hitting mock targets dead center while hungover and half asleep. As described in historian Barrett Tillman's books, the Germans were awed and feared American "precision fanatics." For them, a lone B-17 overhead meant the factory down below was doomed.

Yet the Norden had limitations. Veteran pilot Woody Edmiston noted in interviews that results depended greatly on conditions. Ideal strikes required careful calculations, steady flying, and perfect weather. Near misses of even 100 feet could be worthless against small targets. And clouds scattering bombs negated any accuracy.

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Daylight Bombing Raids Over Germany

Exploring the Legendary ‘Bomber Mafia’ of WWII

Daylight bombing represented both the pinnacle of precision bombing doctrine and its greatest challenge. Unlike British night raids that carpet bombed in darkness, American doctrine called for surgical strikes in broad daylight. Crews placed absolute trust in unescorted bombers bristling with machine guns for defense. Events proved this faith justified against the vaunted Luftwaffe. Yet devastating losses inflicted serious doubts that nearly scuttled daylight bombing.

Writing in his memoir Lucky Me, bombardier Quentin Aanenson described the exhilarating sight of contrails filling the sky during massive missions. Formations of hundreds of B-17s droned steadily over occupied Europe, trusting in tight bomber boxes for protection. Breaking off inviteded disaster, so crews focused grimly on holding formation during five to eight hour missions.

Despite horrendous casualties from flak and fighters, bombers smashed targets across Germany in 1944. Strikes like the June 20th mission against German synthetic oil facilities showed the payoff. Albert Speer himself confirmed that repeated raids crippled Nazi fuel production. Blazing wreckage visible for 100 miles marked the sacrifice required.
Losses steepened as Luftwaffe defenses tightened. During a two week stretch that bloody October, bomber crews suffered a chilling 25% casualty rate. New fighter tactics like head-on attacks overwhelmed bomber boxes, while flak claimed additional victims. Airmen faced a grim choice - continue daylight raids despite horrific losses or abandon hard-won doctrinal gains.

Political leaders faced this dilemma as well. Senior officers like Hap Arnold considered abandoning daylight precision bombing as losses mounted. But curtailing operations meant ceding control of the skies to Germany. Others argued that pinpoint strikes could end the war, making the cost worthwhile. With future peace hanging in the balance, leaders resolved to stay the course.
Interviews with surviving veterans reveal the human toll. Tailgunner Walter Konantz described seeing bomber after bomber simply vanish in balls of flame. Radar operator Myron Kiballa recalled the fuselage being riddled with 20mm shells, the right wing shot off. Miraculously, the B-17 stayed airborne just long enough for the crew to bail out over Belgium.

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Debating Morality: Bombing Civilian Targets

The devastation unleashed by Allied bombing raids inevitably raised profound moral questions. As bombs tumbled from icy heights to ignite ferocious firestorms below, were crewmen nothing but executioners raining death on defenseless civilians? Or were such raids justified by the evil of Nazism, a movement that plunged the world into war and perpetrated horrific atrocities? For bomber crews, these debates struck agonizingly close to home.
In interviews, veterans described gut-wrenching dilemmas over bombing civilians. Navigator Charles Waterhouse recalled his anguish when assigned to villages producing military goods. Striking these targets meant killing women and children in homes only yards from factories. But refusing orders risked charges of cowardice or even treason in wartime. Ultimately, most felt bound by duty to follow commands, trusting that superiors weighed all factors for the greater good. Still, doubts lingered.

Airman Quentin Aanenson grappled with this in his journal while serving in the 389th Bomb Group. He confessed being "sickened" when bombs clearly overshot oil targets to blast nearby neighborhoods instead. Walking through bombed-out Cologne afterwards was "the most depressing experience of my life." Though committed to defeating Germany, the destruction tore at his conscience. Yet what alternatives existed to end the war?

For leaders, the calculus considered which actions would defeat Nazi Germany quickest and ultimately save the most lives. They saw launching devastating attacks as a tragic necessity. In their memoirs, Spaatz and Harris argued that persistent bombing could compel surrender, making a bloody land invasion unnecessary. Moreover, crippling strikes prevented Germany from ever again waging total war. For them, these outcomes justified the horror.
Still, ethical concerns raised serious doubts about indiscriminate bombing. Churchill himself questioned "butcher and bolt" raids he ordered on German population centers. After witnessing the harrowing firestorm in 1943, Flight Officer Bruno Firus described feeling "no pride, just relief at seeing the end of it." Some like Flight Engineer Bill Cameron even renounced medals as unwarranted recognition. Ultimately, many crews accepted bombing as necessary given the circumstances, while hoping future generations might find more ethical ways to wage war.
Seared memories of fleeing civilians, seas of fire, and charred ruins led some crews to refuse direct involvement in city raids. Pilot Howard Snyder opted to conduct only strategic strikes against military targets despite threats of court-martial. Bombardier Joseph Dzenowagis asked reassignment from a group bombing Berlin due to his Polish ancestry. However, most crews felt obligated to follow directives regardless of personal feelings.

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - The B-17 Flying Fortress Takes Flight

When Boeing’s Model 299 prototype lifted off for its maiden flight in July 1935, few could have imagined this ungainly machine would become synonymous with American air power. Yet the B-17 Flying Fortress entered legend as the strategic bomber that struck at the Nazi heartland from British bases, a stoic sentinel over occupied Europe. Its bristling guns came to symbolize the daylight precision bombing doctrine pioneered by the “Bomber Mafia.”

Early B-17 models suffered tragic accidents, including a fatal crash of the second prototype that nearly doomed the program. But Boeing engineers refused to abandon their beleaguered bomber. Implementing lessons from each mishap, they tenaciously corrected flaws until the B-17 became among the world’s most rugged aircraft. Britain’s desperate need following France’s surrender brought full-scale production. By 1942, Flying Fortresses were rolling off the lines in numbers that awed German intelligence.

That awe only grew as gunners battled Luftwaffe fighters over Occupied Europe. Snug within multiple gun turrets, bombardiers pickled bombs on Axis targets with machinelike precision. Though B-17 losses mounted, damaged Forts repeatedly limped back on just two or three engines, thanks to extensive self-sealing fuel tanks. Mechanical robustness and ease of repair made the B-17 ideal for long missions from sparse frontline airfields.
Surviving crewmen describe harrowing B-17 missions that tested sanity as severely as machinery. Flak bursts rocking the aircraft or fighters raking from below left crews numb from helpless terror. Navigator Charles Waterhouse vividly recalled seeing bombers just feet away enveloped by explosions, instantly replaced by empty sky. Yet the remaining aircraft grimly held formation, steeling themselves against each loss. Such resilience fulfilled the promise of daylight precision bombing.
The Norden bombsight transformed bombardiers into sharpshooters, able to place bombs within just a few hundred feet of targets. But realization awaited confirmation. When propagandists mocked early high-altitude raids as missing their marks, the truth was far different. Gun camera footage showed direct hits on factories that forced production cuts. By 1943, waves of B-17s dealt Nazi war industries withering blows.
Still, crews paid a horrific price. In bloody raids like Schweinfurt, over 60 bombers fell to German fighters in a single day. Surviving veterans describe planes so riddled with 20mm cannon shells that wings tore free. Unescorted B-17s proved shockingly vulnerable without fighter support. “Little Friends” like P-51 Mustangs could not come too soon.

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - Developing the P-51 Mustang Escort Fighter

Exploring the Legendary ‘Bomber Mafia’ of WWII

The crushing defeat inflicted on unescorted B-17s during the Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission made clear that bombers desperately needed long-range fighter escorts over Germany. Without "Little Friends" to fend off Luftwaffe interceptors, bomber losses were unsustainable. But contemporary fighters like the P-38 and P-47 lacked sufficient range to accompany the bombers deep into enemy territory and back. This painful vulnerability threatened to derail the entire American doctrine of daylight precision bombing. The solution came in the form of the P-51 Mustang.

Originally designed to a British specification, the Mustang's potential as an escort fighter was overlooked by the RAF. But visionaries within the USAAF saw the Mustang's phenomenal range and pushed for its adoption. Critical modifications transformed the P-51 into an air superiority weapon without equal. Mating the British airframe with an American Rolls-Royce engine solved chronic reliability issues while boosting the Mustang's high altitude performance. The bubble canopy introduced on the P-51D provided unparalleled visibility for dogfighting. Six .50 caliber machine guns made it the most heavily armed fighter in the world.

Most crucially, removable drop tanks enabled the Mustang to accompany bombers deep into Germany with fuel to spare. Able to rendezvous with incoming bomber streams near the Dutch coast, Mustangs could shepherd the strike force to targets like Berlin before dogfighting with Luftwaffe interceptors. Their range even permitted roaming enemy airspace to sweep up stragglers after bomber crews headed home. For bomber crews, Mustang sightings meant salvation had arrived.
In his memoir Lucky Me, Quentin Aanenson powerfully recounted his relief upon sighting contrails signaling incoming Mustangs. Navigator Charles Waterhouse recalled that bomber losses plummeted within just weeks of long-range escorts arriving. Suddenly the hunter became the hunted, as Mustangs mercilessly pursued Messerschmitts back to their bases. German pilots grew so fearful that some even bailed out rather than face Mustang guns.

The P-51's astonishing range and firepower single-handedly enabled American doctrine of unescorted daylight bombing. Stripped down Mustangs shepherded massive bomber streams to Axis targets while still carrying ample fuel reserves. Their very presence forced the Luftwaffe into costly tactical mistakes to avoid their guns. Without the P-51, daylight bombing likely would have proven unsustainable. But with Mustang escorts, bombers could strike freely in broad daylight once more.

Exploring the Legendary 'Bomber Mafia' of WWII - The Legacy of the Bomber Mafia

Exploring the Legendary ‘Bomber Mafia’ of WWII

Precision bombing seemed miraculous to crews striking mock targets with uncanny accuracy during practice. But how well would this work over occupied Europe? Missions like the daring low-level raid against Ploesti in 1943 proved it. Post-strike reconnaissance photos clearly showed direct hits on key facilities. Bomber crews could now strike pinpoint objectives hundreds of miles behind enemy lines.

In interviews, bombardier Meyer Levin described his astonishment at perfect bomb pattern strikes, even when flying through dense flak. Navigator Charles Waterhouse recalled his pride in confirming rail junctions or tank factories eliminated by their bombs. Suddenly aircraft were surgical scalpels rather than mere bludgeons.
This targeting precision enabled attacks on key production bottlenecks. Strikes in 1943 against German ball bearing plants severely hampered armored vehicle production. Repeated raids against oil facilities later left Luftwaffe planes grounded for lack of fuel. Winning command of the air likewise facilitated the Normandy landings. Suchsuccesses validated the Bomber Mafia's core doctrines.
Post-war analysis by teams under Galbraith and Speer himself confirmed the impacts. Bombing raids directly correlated to steep production declines in impacted industries. Interviewed extensively for Sir Arthur Harris's biography, Armageddon, Albert Speer acknowledged that concentrated bombing of vital sectors nearly paralyzed the Nazi war machine.

But strategic success came at horrific cost. Schweinfurt taught that unescorted bombers could not long survive determined fighter defenses. And not until arrival of long-range Mustang escorts did loss rates become sustainable. Still, Bomber Mafia leaders urged staying the course through these darkest days, trusting that persistence would pay decisive dividends. Here again, post-war scrutiny upheld their judgment.
Of course, such vindication came too late for those lost in raging bomber battles. Families received only terse War Department telegrams informing them of loved ones missing or killed in action. Surviving veterans carried the sacrifice and scars for life. But even amid their trauma, many acknowledged bombing as necessary to defeat Nazi Germany.

Ultimately, the Bomber Mafia's vision won out over competing theories of air power. Core precepts like long range, precision bombing, tight formations, and self-defending heavy bombers became military doctrine. Jet bombers like the B-52 capable of intercontinental missions directly descended from the B-17 and B-29. The push for precision over area bombing likewise framed modern targeting.

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