Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

Tumult over Fortress Europa

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Unable to mount a cross-channel invasion of France early in the Second World War, the Anglo-American alliance believed that their bombers could open a veritable “second front” against the Third Reich which the Soviet Union had been clamoring for since 1942. The British believed that their bombers could win the war single-handedly. American enthusiasm was more tempered in that they believed that their daylight strikes would shorten the war. Both sides had bitter lessons to learn.

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Once touted as a technology masterwork capable of bringing wars to an end with a minimal cost in lives, the heavy bombers of the Second World War occupied a hallowed position in wartime societies which saw them as an essential tool.

The great quest of the human race in the years of austerity from the 1920s to the 1940s was not to cure poverty, hunger or disease, but how to push aloft multi-engined behemoths with a bomb-load and how to dump that deadly cargo onto an enemy state with the utmost of accuracy and a minimal of effort. Such an achievement, it was thought, would save lives — through the obviation of another static, land slog such as World War I.

The Americans favored the use of rugged, heavily armed day bombers equipped with the top-secret Norden bombsight to carry out pinpoint accuracy of bombing against Germany’s most vital military targets, while the British, who having tried daylight bombing only to be badly bloodied, preferred to bomb German cities at night in an effort to break Axis morale. The American view was that indiscriminate night bombing (indiscriminate because accuracy in night bombing was impossible despite advances in technology), was not only wasteful but that the bombing of civilian areas would do little to cripple the German war industry. The British, in turn, warned the Americans that daylight operations were impracticable because of the vulnerability of four-engined heavy bombers to enemy fighters. Yet, the British had no leg to stand on when on a single night in 1944, they lost 96 bombers in combat.[1]

Lancaster Poster

This horrific casualty figure was a direct result of the unwavering confidence of Allied bomber barons that the relentless bombardment of Nazi Germany would force Adolf Hitler out of power and bring about the economic collapse of the Third Reich. In reality, just as American drone strikes in Afghanistan and western Pakistan have served to increase suicide and terror attacks on American and western forces in the modern era, German resistance congealed into an overwhelming hatred of the Allies, driven by the need to kill as many of “them” before Germany herself collapsed. To this end, the Germans developed fantastic tactics involving heavily armored fighter aircraft to ram bombers, a bat-shaped, rocket-powered craft designed to bolt into the midst of a heavy bomber formation and engage them using a large-bore cannon, a jet fighter made partly out of wood intended to be flown by teenagers of the Hitler Youth and a range of technical breakthroughs which not only made the business of finding the enemy easier, but blowing him out of the sky as well.

Yet, a sense of vulgarity permeates discussions about bombs, bombers and aerial bombardment, with their inseparable echoes of the secret human lust for corruption. It is a thing of uncouthness, unsophisticated, like conversations about pornography. The late writer, David Foster Wallace, once described how a pornographic actress looked as she excitedly told a fellow writer (Evan Wright, the author of Generation Kill) about her rescue and adoption of a stray dog. She looked for “a moment” like a 14-year-old, Wallace wrote, only to have the impression last for only a “heartbreaking” second or two.[2] Aerial bombardment, with its metaphorical  manifestation of debasement is no less of a loss of innocence of the species. Where the unsavoriness arguably ends, however, is at the legions of ordinary airmen of all sides whose wartime experiences constitute some of the most extraordinary tales of duty, loss and heroism in the annals of military history. From a sociological point of view, it is nothing if not remarkable that an entire generation of humans, hewn out of the hardships of the depression-era and thus being largely unused to technology, were able to adapt to the role of “modern” aviators.

B-17 aircrews 1B-17 doomedB-17 Memphis Belle

But why talk about events which are now over 70 years old? Because then as now, bombing continues to be touted as a solution to external problems and because then as now, we are witness to pronouncements by those promising panacea through technology. If the last one hundred years of human history and culture have told us anything it is that while technology has the means to perhaps improve our lives, it is incapable of solving our more fundamental problems because human nature, in general, is intractable.

By 1944, at the apex of the Second World War, it had begun to sink in to the Allies that the war would not be won by the bombers despite their formidable technology. As hundreds of airmen continued to die on a daily basis for futile war aims, the military boffins and the inventors continued their dogged progress into uncharted scientific territory, developing one wondrous gadget after the next, until, in the end it became not so much as winning the war in the air, but giving the fighting men the means to stay alive in the face of escalating odds until the juggernaut of the land armies could roll into Germany to crush the last vestiges of the Reich. Perhaps the air campaign against the Nazis is less an indictment against the effectiveness of bombing than a statement of fact that bombing is perhaps not the ideal solution to the world’s problems.

47,268 members of the Royal Air Forces (including 9,887 Canadians, plus thousands of other “colonials”) and 26,000 American airmen of the US 8th Air Force lost their lives over Europe during the war in order for strategists to learn that indiscriminate or wholesale bombing is ineffective. How well that lesson has been absorbed by successive generations is debatable.

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Night and Day - Lancaster + B-17

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8th AF Aura of Death

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While nose art was classified by American psychiatrists as a projection of the violent male ego, aircrews likely saw them as a means to soften and feminize the brutal nature of warfare. By assigning a motif to aircraft, the airmen hoped to turn their machine into a living thing capable of graciousness and mercy. Aircraft became a “she,” a female entity which shared in their life and death struggles. Air Force headquarters, however, was appalled by the pornographic nature of these artworks.  Yet, their fears for the inner souls of their airmen and potential of their wholesale transformation into ribald, roughened warriors so far gone into the realm of immorality that they would be incapable of returning to the fold in civilian life, was in many ways, as ludicrous as sending them out to drop bombs on populations in the first place. As actor Marlon Brando’s character, “Colonel Walter E. Kurtz,” succinctly points out in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (1979): “We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write “Fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

Perhaps, in demanding that aircrews tone down the explicit nature of their artwork, 8th Air Force headquarters was also trying to protect the innocence of the English youth, who were bombarded daily with images of nude women soaring over their rural villages and homes on canvases of airborne aluminum.

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The high stresses of air combat prompted men to adopt a variety of animals for emotional support. Every combat group had an animal mascot, and nearly every hut in every squadron had at least one pet, usually a dog, although there were exceptions as the following photographs show:


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The B-17 Cones of Fire V3
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Norden Bombsight
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The Nightfighters
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German nightfighters
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Nightfighting Radar

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[1] This was during a raid on Nuremberg on the night of 30/31 March 1944. Ninety-five of the losses were inflicted during the main raid on Nuremberg. The 96th loss was a Halifax bomber shot down while dropping resistance fighters over Belgium. (Martin Middlebrook & Chris Everitt, “The Bomber Command War Diaries,” part 1, ch 17, paragraph 27.504 (Kindle; Pen & Sword, 2014). The heavy losses prompted the RAF to transfer three additional Mosquito nightfighter squadrons to Bomber Command, to accompany the heavies into the Reich.

[2] David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays,” ch 1, paragraph 2.90. (Kindle; Little, Brown & Co, 2005)

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Much of the research of this post was carried out in 2003, amid the great media coverage of the American super-blitz on Iraq, shortly before I went off to college in the heart of red America, and lost my way in a manner of speaking. It was also inspired by Charles J. Shield’s biography of the American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, whose most famous book, “Slaughterhouse Five” examined the 1945 obliteration of the German city of Dresden (Vonnegut was an American POW in the city when it was bombed). Vonnegut’s wartime experiences are further explored in this earlier post.

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