London, England June 10, 1943

On this date in 1943 U.S. and British air forces unleashed their Com­bined Bomber Offen­sive (CBO) against indus­trial targets valu­able to Nazi Germany’s war machine, partic­u­larly to the Luft­waffe. The CBO had several ante­cedents. In late 1942 both the British and the Amer­i­cans had iden­tified “bottle­neck” German indus­tries (Great Britain) or were pre­paring targeting plans (U.S.) whose pur­pose was to destroy and dislo­cate German mili­tary, indus­trial, and eco­no­mic assets, thereby under­mining the enemy’s capa­city and capa­bil­ity to pros­e­cute the air war against the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Eighth Air Force stationed in Great Britain. The Casa­blanca direc­tive of Febru­ary 4, 1943, a bypro­duct of the meeting British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill and U.S. Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt held in Morocco the month before, led to Lt. Gen. Ira Baker, head of Eighth Air Force, signing off on a plan for Com­bined Bomber Oper­a­tions in April 1943. On June 14, 1943, the Anglo-Amer­i­can Com­bined Chiefs of Staff issued the Point­blank Direc­tive, which modi­fied the Febru­ary Casa­blanca direc­tive. Poin­tblank’s highest priority targets were Germany’s fighter air­craft fac­tories, largely because the Western Allies’ invas­ion of con­ti­nental Europe, tenta­tively planned for some­time in 1944, required utmost Allied fighter superiority.

The June 1943 Combined Bomber Offensive began during the RAF’s bombing cam­paign against Germany’s arms industry in the Ruhr area of North­western Germany. However it wasn’t until Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah, the late July–early August 1943 round-the-clock bombing of Hamburg, a major port and indus­trial center on the Elbe River 70 miles inland from the North Sea, that the two nations’ air forces coor­di­nated a raid on the same loca­tion and bombing targets: facto­ries, U-boat con­struc­tion yards and pens, oil refin­eries, and storage depots. The sus­tained week­long bombing assault (U.S. heavy bombers unloading their pay­loads during day­light hours, RAF unloading theirs at night) severely shook the Nazi leadership.

At the start of 1944 Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle succeeded Eaker as the head of the Eighth Air Force. As part of the Com­bined Bomber Offen­sive, the Eighth Air Force launched Oper­a­tion Argu­ment, a series of bombing missions that became known as “Big Week.” Between Febru­ary 20 and 25, 1944, more than 1,000 B‑17 Flying For­tresses and B‑24 Lib­er­ators, pro­tected by over 800 P‑47 Thunder­bolts and P‑51 Mus­tangs, targeted the German air­craft indus­try. Their raids caused so much damage that the Germans were forced to dis­perse air­craft manu­fac­turing east­ward, to safer parts of the Reich, as well as dis­perse more than two dozen larger works of its air­craft indus­try across many hun­dreds of medium and very small plants, some set up in caves, mines, and tunnels.

The Pointblank Directive, whose priority targets were Germany’s fighter air­craft fac­tories, expired within days of the successful D-Day landings in Normandy, France. The Com­bined Bomber Offen­sive now directed its zeal and anger at German rocket and missile wea­pons fac­tories in June 1944 and against oil and synthetic petro­leum plants in Septem­ber of the same year. On April 12, 1945, two weeks before Adolf Hitler ended his dream of a Thou­sand Year Reich by putting a bullet in his head, the Com­bined Bomber Objec­tive ceased oper­a­tions. Between the RAF’s Bomber Com­mand and the U.S. Army Eighth and Ninth Air Forces operating from bases in Great Britain and later France and Belgium, 84,268 air­crew flying the bombers and fighter escorts that helped bring closure to the war in Europe had been killed or lost in pursuit of that end.

I found Patrick Bishop’s superbly written Bomber Boys: Fighting Back, 1940–1945 to be a riveting and sensitive account of the brave men in Britain’s Royal Air Force Bomber Com­mand and the risks they took (often ending in their injury or death) to help end World War II in Europe. Bishop describes the major RAF air cam­paigns against Nazi Germany, often at great length (Cologne, Ham­burg, Dresden among the most lurid), both from the per­spective of the air­men (nearly a half million) and from the millions who were their victims. The tragic toll of dead and wounded com­batants and civilians (including resi­dents of Great Britain) from aerial bombard­ments boggled my mind, especially as I learned that by the end of 1943 the notion of propor­tionality with respect to civilian casual­ties (a grizzly quid pro quo) had dis­appeared and grew ever stronger in the Allies’ favor. Bishop points out that the air­men of the RAF, almost to a man, were con­vinced of the correct­ness of their war­time mission, as it was explained to them, to hasten Ger­many’s surrender. Of course it took boots on the ground from June 1944 (Operation Overlord) onwards to move that into high gear, but punching holes in the roof of Adolf Hitler’s Thou­sand Year Reich and laying waste to manu­fac­turing and popu­lation centers inside its walls were stra­tegic com­ponents in defeating the enemy in May 1945. Sadly for the “bomber boys” their war­time contri­bution faded from national memory. This fine book aims to reverse that.—Norm Haskett

Inflicting Material Destruction from the Air: Examples from Combined Bomber Offensive

Combined Bomber Offensive: Hamburg after 1943’s Operation GomorrahCombined Bomber Offensive: Dresden’s city center in mid-February 1945

Left: Called the “Hiroshima of Germany” by British officials, Operation Gomorrah (the biblical moniker seems an apt choice) was at the time the heaviest assault in the history of aerial warfare. The air assault destroyed a significant percentage of Hamburg. Ten square miles of the city were reduced to rubble, over 214,350 dwellings out of 414,500 were destroyed, over one million residents were rendered homeless, and 40,000–50,000 civilians were killed, with another 37,000 wounded. The city’s labor force was reduced permanently by ten percent. The industrial losses were equally severe: 183 large factories and 4,118 smaller factories were put out of commission and Hamburg never recovered to full production. Losses to the city’s infrastructure were staggering: 90 percent of its gas works, 60 percent of its water system, and 75 percent of its electric works were destroyed. In the immediate wake of the raids, over two-thirds of Hamburg’s population, approximately 1.2 million people, fled the city. The Allies’ Hamburg raids led Hitler, who could never bring himself to see the destruction first hand, to be concerned that similar raids on other German cities could force his nation out of the war.

Right: The ruins of Dresden’s city center (“Altstadt”). Dres­den was home to 127 medium-to-large fac­tories and work­shops that sup­plied the Ger­man Army with matériel (per the German Weapons Office), such as air­craft engines, machine tools, small arms, optical instru­ments, and poison gas, and em­ployed 50,000 workers. Some 1,249 British and Amer­i­can bombers un­loaded more than 3,900 tons of incen­di­ary and high-explo­sive bombs on the center of the city, causing a fire­storm that incin­er­ated 15 square miles and between 22,700 and 25,000 peo­ple. Temper­a­tures inside Dresden’s famous cathedral, the Frauen­kirche (Church of Our Lady), reached an estimated 1,832°F (1,000°C) before the 300‑ft‑tall church collapsed. Later the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped 2,800 more tons of bombs on Dresden in three other attacks before the war’s end.

Combined Bomber Offensive: B-24 Liberators over Schweinfurt, August 17, 1943Combined Bomber Offensive: Braunschweig burning, October 14/15, 1944

Left: 1st Bomb Wing B-17s over Schweinfurt, Germany, August 17, 1943. The Schweinfurt-Regensburg mis­sion entailed two large forces of U.S. Eight Air Force bombers (376 bombers in 16 bomb groups with­out long-range fighter escorts) attacking separate tar­gets, both in Bavaria, with orders to cripple German fighter air­craft produc­tion. (German fighter output in July 1943 exceeded 1,200 planes.) The “double-strike mis­sion” deep inside Germany inflicted heavy damage on the Messer­schmitt factory at Regens­burg but not on Schwein­furt’s ball-bearing fac­tories, for a cata­strophic loss to the force: 60 bombers shot down, 87 shot up beyond repair, and 557 air­men missing in action or captured. A planned follow-up raid on Schwein­furt had to be post­poned to rebuild Amer­i­can forces. The second raid by 291 still-unes­corted B‑17s on Octo­ber 14, 1943, on the ball-bearing produc­tion center at Schwein­furt proved even more cata­strophic: 77 bombers lost, 121 damaged, and over 650 crew­men captured or killed. Just over 11 per­cent of the bomber force returned to base unscathed. During the course of the war more than 5,000 B‑17s were shot down by German fighter planes or flak batteries. In the memory of one U.S. airman, a 19-year-old tail gunner on a B‑17, “flak was worse than fighters” when it came to surviving a bombing run over Germany.

Right: Braunschweig, whose industrial sector was targeted during “Big Week” (Febru­ary 20–25, 1944), was com­pletely laid to waste by the RAF on the night of Octo­ber 14/15, 1944, in an opera­tion that rivaled the hellish fire­bombing of Ham­burg (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah) the year before. The city burned continuously for two and a half days.

Contemporary Newsreel of Hamburg’s Devastation by Anglo-American Bombers During and After Operation Gomorrah, July–August 1943