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British reaction to Americans

LAURENCE REES: So the British start their 'area bombing' campaign, but then around the same time in 1942 the American Army Airforce arrives in Britain with a very different bombing policy, one of daylight 'precision' bombing. Was there any conflict between the two?

TAMI BIDDLE: There’s, I think, a lot of rivalry, and the Americans being the Americans sort of came over and said, ‘oh, we’re going to do it our way’ and ‘it’s going to be better’ and ‘it’s going to be efficient’ and ‘you’ll see, we’ll come over and it will make a great difference.’  In fact, Churchill in the Fall of 1942 was very concerned about the American air offensive and the attempt to do precision bombing would fail and it would fail for the same reasons that the British attempt had failed. And so he tried very hard in the autumn of ’42 to persuade the Americans to come into the night bombing offensive.

And the Americans resisted completely, and I think it was partly on moral grounds because the Americans sort of had this idea that they would stay above all this and that they would not be drawn into this conflict in the same way, and that they would not have to go in the direction of area bombing. But I think it was also a sense that 'we’ve got this terribly efficient way that we’ve worked out, how we’re going to find key nodes and weak points in the enemy’s war economy, and we’re going to figure out precisely and exactly what those are. And we’re in love with our own theory, which strikes us as terribly elegant, because what we’re going to do is find that key card in the house of cards and we’re going to pull it out and the whole thing, all the rest of it will come tumbling down. And we’re convinced because we’ve got the B17 and we’ve got the Norton Bomb Sight and we’ve got Americans who can do anything if they really just put their mind to it, we will be able to go and do this where the Brits had failed.'

I think Churchill’s advisors and the people who were around him as air advisors said, 'you know, they’re really devoted to this and if you press them and press them and press them and do it your way they’re going to get very grumpy and they might just end up sending all their resources to the war in Japan. So you’d better back off a little bit and allow them to make their own mistakes, because, for whatever reason, they really seem determined to try this out, so you’ve got to let them try. They may try and fail, but, you know, at least it’s America and they’ve got a lot of resources back home on the home front and if they fail perhaps they’ll pick themselves up again and keep going'. And in many respects that’s what happened. I think Churchill foresaw pretty well what was going to happen for the Americans in 1942 and 1943. The 1942 effort for the Americans is really pretty limited.

We don’t have that many airplanes and we’re still very much in the throes of gearing up, of building an airforce. We were, of course, determined to not be in the war at all, and it was just the Japanese sort of forcing us. I mean, obviously Roosevelt and many other people were trying to help the British as much as possible, but there was a very strong isolationist movement in the US, which restricted what Roosevelt was able to do before the war started. So once we’re in the war we’re going 90 miles an hour to catch up, but it really is a game of catch up, and through 1942 that is telling. And when we shift and go to [Operation] Torch, which was the invasion of North Africa, a lot of resources get invested in that effort that otherwise might have gone into the bombing effort in England.

So I think really 1942 is a very slow build up and the Brits are saying 'you’re talking a big game but you’re sort of flying twelve airplanes at a time to targets in France, which really isn’t all that impressive', and the Americans are saying, 'yes, but we’re striking key nodes in the enemy war economy'. It really isn’t until 1943 that the American effort gets geared up and fully underway, and they are very committed to this idea of what they will call either the key node or the industrial fabric theory of bombing, where they identify specific targets that are key elements in the German war economy and attack them. And, of course, Schweinfurt is the great example. Schweinfurt has ballbearings and every factory needs ballbearings, and if you don’t have ballbearings other machine tools can’t function, and so this is a bottleneck in the enemy’s war economy. So if you bring down that bottleneck and if you eliminate the ability to produce ballbearings you’ll have a giant effect on the whole war economy. So that’s what sends the Americans to Schweinfurt twice, once in August and once in October of 1943, but actually it’s pretty horrific because the Americans are now discovering, as the British had in 1940-41, that the bomber does not always get through. The losses were extremely high. The Americans had banked on the idea that they would fly their bombers in daylight in self-defending groups.

The losses at Schweinfurt are quite staggering and it really forces the Americans to take a second look in the way that the British had had to take a second look in 1941-42, when so many questions had been raised about Bomber Command and Arthur Harris had needed to prove that we could make this an effective force. The Americans then needed to prove that they could make their airforce effective. They did not change targets the way the British did, what they did was they changed tactics.

They decided that they would find a way to make escorts capable of flying with the bombers deep into Germany, defending them and assisting them to attack targets, so that they could have a level of survival amongst aircraft that would be sustainable over the long term. The fighters would fly with the bombers, help them get to the targets and help them get back home again, therefore minimising the kind of catastrophic losses of 8-10 percent of your bomber force every time you went out. Because if you have that kind of loss, even if you have a 4 or 5 percent loss, over time, over 20 missions that’s a horrific attrition rate and you simply cannot sustain that. So if you’ve got escorts who are helping you get to the target and back again you can then build up a kind of head of steam and you can get to the targets that you want to get to. And by the way, if you cut those fighters loose from the bombers for part of the mission they can then go after German defenders on their own, and in that way it’s a kind of force on force battle with the Luftwaffe whereby you might be able to actually destroy the Luftwaffe in the course of also attacking the war economy.

LAURENCE REES: And this was the Mustang?

TAMI BIDDLE: This was the Thunderbolt and the Mustang. It’s really P38’s, P47’s and P51’s. It’s three airplanes. Everyone loves to refer to the Mustang because it’s beautiful and it’s sort of sexy and it’s streamlined and it’s gorgeous and it’s aerodynamic. The P47’s are a big part of this as well. The key, though, are the drop tanks, the fuel tanks that enable them to go this distance and then once they’ve been jettisoned the airplane has got the maneuverability to be able to go one on one with German short range defenders. And this was the problem that everybody foresaw in the inter-war years but couldn’t figure out how to solve. How do you build an airplane that’s fast enough, has long enough legs to keep up with the bombers, stays with them, gets over the target but then when it’s over the target can actually defend itself against a short range defender which is terribly agile and terribly fast and terribly maneuverable. How do you get all that out of one airplane?

Well, the solution proved to be self-sealing, dropable, auxiliary tanks. And by coming to that realization and then by building them like mad back in the US and bringing them to the UK we were able to have a breakthrough pretty much right in the nick of time, in the winter of 1943-44 into the spring of 1944, where you’ve got to have some kind of air superiority over the Luftwaffe if you’ve got any hope at all of waging an amphibious assault in France. And that is crucial.

This is why I think the airmen through the Fall of 1943 and into 1944 have really got their hearts in their mouths, because they know that if this landing is going to succeed there has got to be some form of air superiority for this amphibious assault which is so terribly hard to do. You cannot contemplate doing it if you don’t have air superiority. There’s this great push that you see in the winter and February of 1944, when you have a ‘big week’ when the Americans find a bit of good weather in February and they make a great push to attack targets that they know the Germans feel compelled to defend. They’re sending their short range fighters up to meet the bombers, at that point the American escort fighters can go after those short range fighters and try to destroy them as much as possible and denude them in the lead up to D Day.