How efficient was the Strategic Bombing Offensive of the Allied Forces against Germany from 1939-1945?

Essay 2003 12 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II


The Strategic Bombing Offensive of the Allied Forces was one of the great military operations against Hitler-Germany. Despite of the meaning of the Strategic Bombing Offensive its significance and efficiency to the final victory over Hitler-Germany was always a topic of controversy. This controversy about the significance and efficiency of the Strategic Bombing Offensive to the final victory over Hitler-Germany took not just place under the contemporaries of the Second World War as Winston Churchill and his military advisers. This controversy is still alive, eg in the argumentations of historians as Richard Overy1 and Noble Frankland2.

In the following essay will be considered the efforts and results of the Strategic Bombing Offensive from 1939 to 1945. It will be discussed the efficiency of the Allied bombing to conclude finally the significance of the Strategic Bombing Offensive to the victory over Hilter-Germany. For this purpose shall be considered various primary sources as the Butt Report, the Singleton Report and the British and American surveys about the Strategic Bombing Offensive. Beside own points of view, shall be opposed the arguments of Richard Overy and Noble Frankland, the two opinion leaders of this historical subject.

The Strategic Bombing Offensive is to understand as the strategic planning’s and operations of the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force against the Hitler-Germany between 1939 and 1945. Since 1943, the entry of the US 8th Air Force and later the US 25th Air Force in the Strategic Bombing Offensive is this operation as well known as Combined Bombing Offensive. The Strategic Bombing Offensive was "aimed at destroying an enemy’s war capacity through destroying war production"3 but also aimed were the infrastructure and the moral of the German population.

The first considerations about a strategic bombing war goes back to the First World War, however this topic went to a real issue in late 1937 when the British Bomber Command got the order to plan the destruction of the economy of its most potential enemy, Hitler-Germany. Despite of this effort, virtually less was done as the war broke out in September 1939. The Bomber Command possessed about 488 light bombers, which did not fulfill the needs. Based on the lack of range and carrying capacity of bombs the demands of a realistic destruction of Germany were not practical. The low number of airfields with runways, which were long enough for bombers, the lack of navigation aids, bombsights and heavy bombs, led to further problems4.

Under these conditions the strategic bombing of Germany’s industry was not to carried through and the Bomber Command were just used for the support other operations. However, under the government of Neville Chamberlain was the threat of a German retaliation not just through bombing raids immanent. This threat included the use of chemical and biological weapons and held the Bomber Command away from strategic bombing over Germany.

This situation changed after the German invasion of Norway and the withdrawal of Prime Minister Chamberlain in spring 1940. Winston Churchill, who was less concerned about the possible consequences of the Strategic Bombing Offensive, formed the new government. Churchill stood for an "absolutely devasting, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers upon the Nazi homeland"5 and he canceled the restrictions for the use of bombs directly after his entering upon office.

After the massive bombing of Rotterdam at the 15th May 1940 through the German Air Force and the imminent defeat of the anglo-french troops in the north of France, Churchill decided to send the Bomber Command against industrial and military targets in the German area of the Ruhr. For this first attack on the German backcountry 96 light bombers were send to destroy power stations and refineries. This attack shows the technical and strategic problems of the strategic bomber force, from these 96 planes, six were lost and just 24 aircrews found the target area over Germany. Further operations of the Bomber Command against Germany shows that this inefficiency was not an individual case, it was often worse6.

High rates of losses constrained the Bomber Command to renounce on day attacks and to concentrate on night attacks. This was safer for the crews, but reduced the attacks on nights due to moonlight for visibility. Despite the technical and strategic problems and the restriction on night attacks the tactic of the strategic bombing was the only tool left. There were not many options available, since the defeat of the anglo-french army in June 1940 and the strategic bombing was the last way to demonstrate active opposition against Hitler-Germany.

In February 1942, Air Marshall Arthur Harris became the new head of the Bomber Command. Harris started some technical and tactical improvements, eg the concentration of power through bombing attacks with 1000 bomber, as in Hamburg or Cologne. Further improvements were that one man of every crew got special trained for the dropping of bombs and the use of pathfinders, crews formed from elite corps to guide the bombers to the target area.

Furthermore, Harris possessed more possibilities compared with his predecessors. The

development of the new production line of bombers as the Lancaster were ready and till the end of 1942, 2000 new bombers were produced. These bombers provided a higher carrying capacity of bombs and a higher flight range. This and further developments as the "Gee" navigation aid made the Strategic Bombing Offensive against Germany much more effective.

Moreover, in summer of 1942 the first parts of the US Air Force were sent to Great Britain to build up an American bomber force against Germany. The 8th US Air Force under General Spaatz flought its first successful attack against a marshalling in the north of France in August 1942. The combination of a high flight level, as well as long-range, the ability to defend them self and amour plating allowed the American B-17 bombers daylight-attacks against Germany. The daylight attack strategy plus the Norden bombing system made the American attacks more efficient than the British.

After the full deployment in Great Britain the 8th US Air Force and later the 15th US Air Force took over daylight attacks against the German industry. These precisive attacks were aimed on the selected targets, industry (especially the aircraft industry), railway-stations or depots (eg fuel-depots). The Bomber Command went ahead with its night attacks. These night attacks were aimed against the industrial areas as well as residential areas.

Not having the ability of precisive bombing, the Bomber Command used area-bombing tactics. With these attacks as seen in Hamburg, Berlin and Cologne should be destroyed the German industry and the moral of the German population.

Nevertheless, the success of operations against the area of Schweinfurt, Berlin or Nürnberg was paid with rising losses. The tactical and technical improvements in the German Air Force and the longer distance to targets in Germany caused these losses. The Allied bombers were unprotected on long-distance flights into Germany, because the fighter had a lower flight range and could not protect them the whole way.

Otherwise, the German improvements such as the Kammhuber Line a protection line against the strategic bombing with 50000 anti-aircraft-guns, the interference of the British Gee navigation aid, the new radar systems as Lichtenstein and tactical improvements of the German Fighter Force raised the Allied losses.

Beside the fighting scene some political issues affected the Strategic Bombing Offensive. After talks with in Moscow in August 1942 Stalin accepted the Strategic Bombing Offensive as a temporal compensation of a second front. On the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to defer the opening of the second front in Europe for one year. In the meanwhile priority should be given to the strategic bombing of Germany. The strategic bombing should open the way for operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. For this purpose priority was given to the destruction of the German Air Force.

From the last months of 1943 the effort of tactical and technical developments of the Strategic Bombing Offensive were paid off with raised success. The concentrated attacks against the German Air Force and the aviation-industry decimated the strength of the Luftwaffe and the production figures were significant. The German Air Force had average losses of about 50 per cent of fighters and a quarter of pilots per month in spring 1944. The production figures of new planes were falling and the production of fuel was reduced by 10 per cent in June. These losses were not to balance by the German Air Force; especially the losses of trained pilots were not to cover.

This success based on the technical and tactical developments of the Strategic Bombing Offensive. In this coherence the development of long-range fighters played a special role. These fighters were needed to escort bombers the whole way to Germany and to fight directly against the German fighter force. The development of Mustang fighters and additional tanks fulfilled this needs and the American production supplied them in high numbers since early 1944.

The reduction of the German Air Force was a supposition of operation Overlord, which were mainly fulfilled by the American units of the Combined Bombing Offensive. The British Bomber Command with its tactic of area bombing was competent for the destruction of the transportation system.

After the destruction of the German Air Force Hitler-Germany was hit by the whole destruction power of the bombers. On the other hand, there were still the Kammhuber Line with 50000 anti-aircraft-guns all over Germany and a remainder of the German fighter force, but they fought against a superior Allied force. As consequence an enormous bombing tonnage was dropped over Germany in the last year of the war. Finally the German industry and infrastructure was destroyed and many cities like Berlin or Dresden were extensive damaged.


1 Overy, R., Why the Allies Won, 1995; Overy, R., The Air War 1939-1945, 1980.; Overy, R., An Assessment, in: Royal Air Force Historical Society, Reaping the Whirlwind. A Symposium on the Strategic Bomber Offensive 1939-1945, 1993, pp. 27-31.

2 Webster,C./Frankland, N., The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany 1939-1945, 1961; Frankland, N., Overview of the Campaign, in: Royal Air Force Historical Society, Reaping the Whirlwind. A Symposium on the Strategic Bomber Offensive 1939-1945, 1993, pp. 27-31.

3 Frankland, N., Overview of the Campaign, in: Royal Air Force Historical Society, Reaping the Whirlwind. A Symposium on the Strategic Bomber Offensive 1939-1945, 1993, p. 4.

4 Overy, R., Why the Allies Won, 1995, pp. 106-107.

5 Churchill, W., Second World War, Vol. II, 1964, p. 567.

6 Overy, R., Why the Allies Won, 1995, p. 108.


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Title: How efficient was the Strategic Bombing Offensive of the Allied Forces against Germany from 1939-1945?