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Precision bombing logistics

LAURENCE REES:   But, of course, in a number of instances the American 'precision' bombing was actually much more like 'area' bombing because whole towns or villages were targeted.

CONRAD CRANE: You’ve got to understand that precision bombing was not really precise, the way it’s done in World War Two. The technology hasn’t reached that level. Today when we talk about precision bombing we’re talking about a nine or ten foot target. That’s very different than what we’re talking about in World War Two, where we’ve got twelve or eighteen aircraft dropping their bombs at the same time on the lead bombardier and bombs being spread out over maybe 4,000 feet on the ground. So if you figure out the footprint of twelve to eighteen aircraft dropping bombs at the same time over, and each bomb stretches out 4,000 feet on the ground, that’s not really pinpoint precision down a smokestack. It’s very good against a major factory complex and it’s good against a major marshalling yard - which also tended to be in the middle of cities - so you can’t help but have some kind of collateral damage from these kind of raids. There was a sense the Americans were doing the best they could with what they had, they felt they were being discriminate - they were out to destroy key industrial and economic targets and then military targets, and not out to kill civilians directly. But they understood as Carl Spaatz said one time, that our precision is relative not absolute.

LAURENCE REES:   You mentioned one raid I think to Munster and another raid to Berlin which weren’t really precision bombing attacks at all.

CONRAD CRANE: No, there were a number of American raids when you go through and look at them, the mission reports, where they targeted the centre of cities. Normally, though, that’s where the targets were, so it’s not that surprising to see that. There were some raids, especially when you got into February of 1945, that were inspired by the plans for Thunderclap, this idea that the Germans were getting ready to collapse. The bombing raid on Berlin and in February 1945, Dresden; those did have an element of generating terror as part of them. But you won’t find any American air operations or ordered attacks that were out to generate terror per se, I mean, it was not an overt objective that was thrown into these orders. But there was an understanding, especially with the raid on Berlin in early February 1945, that this was different, there was a sense that Dresden was somehow different, even though there was a big backlash about it we really weren’t changing our policies with those particular raids.

The Americans actually did come up with their own raid to generate terror, so to speak, with the Clarion raids which were also later in February 1945. But that was a kind of uniquely American way of generating terror; we’re not going generate terror by killing people, what we’re going to do is intimidate them with the overwhelming power of American air power and we’re going to be bombing targets all over Germany.  Everybody will see us, and they’ll realize that they can’t stop us and they’ll just be overawed by us. But even that was changed by Carl Spaatz to be more of a transportation attack because he became more and more uncomfortable with the overt terror aspects of it and, and he changed the nature of the attack by the end of the month.

LAURENCE REES:   But, as you say, the Americans became involved with terror bombing. Why?

CONRAD CRANE: There are a couple of things that are in play in February 1945. One is that even in the American precision bombing doctrine, in a document that really espoused it as policy, which is called Air War Plans Division One, the plan developed in 1941 about how an air war would be conducted against Germany, there was a caveat in there that basically said when German morale seemed about to crack, when German society seemed about ready to break apart, it was then justifiable to apply the air weapon against that target system. And so there’s a sense in early 1945 that maybe Germany’s about to break. There’s a lot of frustration with the Battle of The Bulge which seems to show this resurgence that Germany’s coming back and that we need to kind of put it back down again, maybe it’s time to unleash the air weapon and try to really crack the last vestiges of German strength. So that’s all playing out here as well. I mean, the plans really begin to develop in September of 1944 right after the breakout from Normandy when it looks like everything is going so well. And as the Germans seemed to be strengthening up again it reinforces the impetus to try to use air power in the war, because people were getting more and more frustrated, also they know they’ve got to end the war in the Pacific. As the war goes on the acceptance of civilian casualties grows; you’ve got more and more bombers hitting more and more targets; you’re getting less and less precise; the German weather is terrible in the winter and the Fall, as anybody that’s been over there knows, and you’ve got to keep the air pressure up. So Americans are doing more and more of these radar bombing raids which they know aren’t very accurate, but they have to do it to keep the pressure on the Luftwaffe and the pressure on German industry. So there’s more and more acceptance of bombing that’s less and less accurate.

LAURENCE REES:  So ultimately, isn't the American policy no more 'moral' than the British.

CONRAD CRANE: Even later in the war, though, when the Americans are bombing a marshalling yard in the middle of a city and they understand there is going to be collateral damage of civilians, they still tell themselves, well, we’re not targeting civilians on purpose, so we are different. We still haven’t crossed the line where we’re indiscriminately targeting human beings. We understand it’s happening and we’ve got to do this to end the war, but we are not out to de-house workers as the British will state, and we’re not out to terrorise German civilians. There’s always an element of morality here, but I think efficiency is probably more important. I mean, Americans, even to the end, believed that terror bombing is inefficient, it’s not going to work.

You may make people apathetic but you’re not going to drive them to force the surrender of the German government; it’s just not an effective way to use air power and there are better ways to use it. It’s very hard when you’re looking at documents to determine whether these people are concerned because of morality or whether it’s because of efficiency, but you hear the common arguments and you have to look at an overall record.

I think Carl Spaatz was very troubled by some of the things that his bombers had to do and I think that Spaatz felt morality was important. Jimmy Doolittle, the Commander of the American 8th Airforce, says in his memoirs that the reason we did this is because we thought it was the most ethical way to go. I mean, Doolittle was devoted to it because of ethics, and Doolittle was the one that has to do the February raid on Berlin that we talked about a little bit, and he was pretty much appalled by it. He was also appalled by Dresden and what happened there. He thought those raids definitely were beyond what Americans should be doing.