America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945


Title:                      America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945

Author:                  Stephen L. McFarland

McFarland, Stephen L. (1995). America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press

LOC:       94021955

UG703 .M376 1995

Date Posted:      May 31, 2013

“The accuracy of precision bombing came to symbolize America’s intent to win wars quickly,” by Michael D. Hull[1]

They naively called it “the war to end all wars,” and there were many people who were certain that the world would never again tolerate such a bloodbath as the First World War of 1914­1918. No fewer than 19 million people died during those four grim years. Ten million soldiers were killed and 21 million wounded, the majority of them in futile frontal assaults on the Western Front. In the hellish campaigns at Verdun and on the Somme, an entire generation of young Britons, Frenchmen and Germans had been sacrificed.

To military leaders, the immediate postwar challenge was to ensure that the next war–which then seemed inevitable to an enlightened few–would not involve the horror of trench warfare. In Germany, the answer was blitzkrieg. In the Allied camp, leaders of the fledgling air arms advocated aerial power. Men like American Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell and British Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard believed that a future war could be decided strategically through bombing raids.

War would be cleaner, more impersonal and less costly in human life–at least to those wielding air power. Aircraft would simply fly over the enemy’s army and navy and strike directly at its vulnerable industrial complexes. It was a deceptively easy premise, but one that presented prodigious difficulties to those assigned to carry it out. Building a bomber capable of hauling bombs great distances to targets was one major obstacle. The other was developing a reliable bombsight that would put the projectiles on the targets.

The Norden bombsight, invented by an eccentric Dutch professor living in Brooklyn, N.Y., became the underpinning of America’s strategic bombing doctrine. Before the age of electronics and atomic power, this was one of the highest achievements of mechanical engineering, and the bombsight’s accuracy symbolized the United States’ intent to win wars quickly and with a minimum of casualties.

Touted widely and loudly as capable of “dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel,” the Norden bombsight was responsible for most of the destruction wrought on Germany and Japan by U.S. bombers during World War II. It satisfied a deep-seated American need to take the moral high ground in war–which was later abandoned–and satisfied the nation’s hunger for mechanical excellence.

The Norden sight entered military mythology as a technological wonder, yet it was never as good as its reputation, according to Stephen McFarland, an associate professor of history at Auburn University and author of America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945. This is a scholarly and highly informative study of the notion of precision bombing as pursued by America from 1910 through 1945. Although the Norden bombsight dropped bombs on targets better than any other similar device of its time, its achievements remain the stuff of mythology, says the author.

When the Boeing B-17 groups of the Eighth Air Force started daylight precision-bombing raids over German-occupied Europe in 1942, American military leaders were scornful of the British practice of area bombing. That technique had evolved because Royal Air Force Bomber Command had found daylight raids to be too costly and switched to night bombing. Darkness naturally precluded complete accuracy. Yet a study in 1944 concluded that only 7 percent of all U.S. bombs fell within 1,000 feet of their aiming point.

An observer watching Norden bombsights in use at Monte Cassino in 1944 said: “I could see bombs bursting 10 miles behind the American lines. They were dropping them all over the landscape. Maybe it was true that they could hit a pickle barrel with that Norden bombsight, but there were no pickle barrels in the Liri Valley that day.”

McFarland–who is also co-author, with Wesley Phillips Newton, of To Command the Sky–has written an exhaustive, balanced and thoroughly absorbing history of American bombing doctrines, technologies and practices that will grip all aviation scholars and historians. His study is a highly significant contribution to the record of aerial warfare. The author examines the principles on which bombing technology was built and the resulting friction between the Army and the Navy. The Navy believed the cost of bombing in level flight was excessive and the accuracy too poor, so it abandoned the Norden sight in favor of dive-bombing. McFarland also describes the roles and rivalry of the two bombsight companies, Norden and Sperry, in the development of U.S. strategic bombing.

The American experience against Germany proved the limitations of the Norden technology and the doctrine of war based on it, according to McFarland. Precision bombing could not win wars singlehandedly, though it could hasten their end. In the war against Japan, the American experience proved that if a nation attacked population targets and killed enough civilians, then strategic bombing could end a war.

General Ira C. Eaker, the first commander of the Eighth Air Force in England, told General Carl Spaatz in 1942, “We should never allow the history of this war to convict us of throwing the strategic bomber at the man in the street.” But Eaker, a man of great ability and integrity, admitted later that he had “always believed that civilians supporting national leaderships were equally responsible with the military….The man who builds the weapons is as responsible as the man who carries it into battle.”

Thus, McFarland explains, the Strategic Bombing Survey [see Strategic Bombing in World War Two ] claimed that the switch to area bombing occurred “because of the contributions in numerous ways of the civilian population (German and Japanese) to the fighting strength of the enemy, and to speed the securing of unconditional surrender.”

The most direct reason for the switch was the simplest and most pragmatic, the author relates. From high altitudes, Twentieth Air Force bombardiers could not hit the broad side of a barn, so they aimed at what they could hit—cities. General Curtis E. LeMay’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress raids on 68 Japanese cities and towns destroyed 2,502,000 housing units and forced the Nippon government to raze 614,000 more for firebreaks, leaving 30 percent of the population homeless. In nine months, the bombing caused 806,000 civilian casualties. Night area and atomic bombing convinced the Japanese that they had lost the war, just as inaccurate daylight “precision” bombing had done in Germany, says McFarland.

The ultimate irony, he concludes, was that the B-29–the most advanced bomber of World War II–came to represent the failure of precision bombing. The seers of the 1930s looked to strategic bombing to avoid the horrors of the World War I trenches. American airmen did avoid the trenches in the war with Japan, but the devastation aerial bombing inflicted on the Japanese was horrific.

America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945 is a masterwork of historical scholarship and informed analysis.

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One Response to America’s Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910-1945

  1. Pingback: Conspirator | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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