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American disposable fuel tanks

LAURENCE REES: And to what extent, then, was the invention of these disposable tanks one of the most significant technological advances of the war?

TAMI BIDDLE: Well, the tanks were around, it was marrying them up with the airplanes, recognising that they could be self-sealing, recognising that the airplanes could fly with them, could jettison them, and then the aeroplane would have enough fuel capacity on its own to be able to fight and then return.

LAURENCE REES: And how significant was that?

TAMI BIDDLE: Oh, that’s huge. You know, I think in so many ways the development of long range escort fighters really saves the combined bomber offensive, because not only does it allow for the force on force battle with the Luftwaffe which makes D Day possible, but it basically, over time, eliminates the Luftwaffe. This means that increasingly not only the Americans but also the British can go to whatever target they want to and bomb it, if not with impunity, with much less defensive trouble than they would have had if those fighters had not been developed.

I think one of the things that Arthur Harris may or may not have understood by the end of the war was the fact that this American effort, using long range escorts, probably helped pull British chestnuts out of the fire, because by 1943-44, the Battle of Berlin, night fighters in Germany had become very lethal against Lancasters. Lancasters don’t have very much defensive armament, they fly at night, and they’re trying to evade German defenders to the greatest extent possible.  They are very heavily laden airplanes and are not manoeuvrable. Once you get in the sights of a German defender you are a sitting duck and then once you [the Germans] had a port firing canon that could go right underneath the Lancasters, fire upward and just destroy them, it was a horrific thing. If there had been no counter to that I’m not sure how much the bomber offensive could have pushed into 1944 or 1945 the way that it did.

As well as this, the escort fighters were able to denude the supply of pilots by attacking the day fighters and the day defenders, therefore attacking the overall supply of pilots. So it’s not only the pilots who can fly in the day, it’s the pilots who can fly at night and who can go after the Lancasters at night. So once you’ve started to clear that path a little bit and you have created space for yourself through attrition of the Luftwaffe, you have a spiraling effect whereby the new guys coming in are getting less training and have to go up against the bombers when they’re younger and more novice, and there’s a constant counter-force battle going on in terms of offensive and defensive techniques, but you get a sort of downward spiral whereby once you start to get short on pilots you can never quite make up the shortfall again because you’re under constant pressure.

Indeed there was increasing pressure by both the British and the Americans who are building more and more airplanes and investing more and more of their own war economies in the bomber side of this fight. And so once you are pushed onto that slippery slope you can’t ever quite recover. And in so many ways I think it was this that really, for the bomber war at least, turned the tide and made it possible for Bomber Command to continue to build up and for Bomber Command crews to stay together and to live longer so that they could go to more targets.