Effectiveness of Allied Strategic Bombing in Europe

Ralph Zuljan

While its proponents have always made great claims about the effectiveness of strategic bombing, the results have rarely lived up to those claims. As a means of destroying the industrial base of the enemy, strategic bombing during World War II failed. Bombing Germany became devastating only in the final year of the war, at a time when the military outcome of the war was already reasonably predictable. While the bombing campaign certainly had an impact on Luftwaffe deployments and interfered with production to some extent, this cannot be argued to be of decisive importance to the war.

Richard Overy, in his book Why the Allies Won, makes the following statement about the effectiveness of British and American bombing of the Third Reich: "At the end of January 1945 Albert Speer and his ministerial colleagues met in Berlin to sum up what bombing had done to production schedules for 1944. They found that Germany had produced 35 percent fewer tanks than planned, 31 percent fewer aircraft and 42 percent fewer lorries as a result of bombing. The denial of these huge resources to German forces in 1944 fatally weakened their response to bombing and invasion and eased the path of Allied armies."

On the surface, Speer's analysis tells us that the Allied strategic bombing campaign had a decisive impact on the German war effort in 1944. Based on figures found in Paul Kennedy's "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," the Germans produced in 1944: 17,800 tanks, 39,807 aircraft. So that, on the basis of Speer's statement, they aimed to produce 24,030 tanks and 52,147 aircraft. For comparison, Allied production of tanks and aircraft in 1944 resulted in 51,500 tanks (USSR: 29,000; UK: 5,000; USA: 17,500) and 163,079 aircraft (USSR: 40,300; UK 26,461; USA: 96,318). Therefore, even with the additional production that would have resulted from no bombing at all, the Allies still produce twice as many tanks and more than three times the number of aircraft as the Third Reich.

Such figures do not support Overy's conclusion that bombing Germany had "fatally weakened their response to bombing and invasion and eased the path of Allied armies." In terms of the kind of war of attrition fought in 1944 the additional German production would not have made a decisive difference. Allied production for 1944 is clearly overwhelming. Looking at the military situation on the ground in 1944 is even more telling of how the war is going.

Overy goes on to say: "The indirect effects were more important still, for the bombing offensive forced the German economy to switch very large resources away from equipment for the fighting fronts, using them instead to combat the bombing threat." At least, an ever increasing number of Luftwaffe units were devoted to the air defense of the Reich as the war progressed. And, new aircraft production shifted towards fighters and away from bombers. The question remains as to whether this impact of the Allied bombing campaign was decisive to the outcome of the war or had just a marginal effect on it.

Furthermore, the converse of Overy's remark was also true. The production of bomber forces represented a significant resource expenditure for the US and especially Great Britain. Was this a worthwhile military expenditure? The results of the campaign are debatable. Certainly the German capitulation did not come about because of the Allied bombing campaign. That honor must go to the land campaigns fought by the allies. So, could the resources devoted to the bomber force been more effectively employed elsewhere?

Perhaps the greatest oversight in an analysis that focuses on the latter part of the war is that the crucial period to consider is from 1941 to 1943. It is in this period that German power is substantial and the possibility of a German military victory exists. How effective was the Allied bomber campaign during this period? According to a table found in the Penguin Atlas of World History, the Allies dropped about 10,000 tons on Germany in 1940, 30,000 tons in 1941, 40,000 tons in 1942 and 120,000 tons in 1943 while in 1944 they drop 650,000 tons and in 1945, about 500,000 tons are dropped in the first four months (at that rate, 1.5 million tons would be dropped over the course of 1945). Considering that Germany dropped about 37,000 tons on the UK in 1940, another 22,000 tons in 1941, with a few thousand tons every year thereafter with marginal results, there is little reason to believe that the scale of Allied bombing between 1940 and 1943 was substantial enough to alter the military balance in 1941 or 1942 either. Yet those are critical years to consider because that was when Soviet survival hung in the balance and British possessions in the Middle East were threatened by conquest.

Indeed, a look at the effectiveness of strategic bombing during the Second World War suggests that it is only effective against an enemy that has already been defeated militarily. In the case of the air war against the Third Reich, bombing only caused serious economic disruptions in the final year of the war, roughly from June 1944 to May 1945. By this time a German military defeat was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Based on such results, it is impossible to demonstrate that the bombing campaign would have achieved an economic breakdown of Germany since by the time such destruction was being caused, the fronts were already collapsing in both east and west. The Soviet Union, for all intents, had won the land war by the middle of 1944 and the successful Normandy invasion delivered the coup de grace. To make a case for the bombing campaign being decisive the reverse would have to be expected. That is, the fronts would have had to collapse after the industrial damage was done. As it was, strategic bombing merely contributed to the wholesale destruction caused by the general weakness of German resistance in the final year of World War II.

Originally published in "World War II" at Suite101.com on September 1, 1998.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on July 1, 2003.

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