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World Battlefronts: The Pragmatic Test

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¶For two days U.S. heavy and medium bombers blasted twelve bases in France.

¶In a good-sized raid on Brunswick, home of two Messerschmitt factories, the heavies got into their one real fight of the week. They and their escorts shot down 48 Nazis; that day they lost nine bombers and nine fighters.

¶One night by moonlight about 1,000 R.A.F. heavies bombing Nuremberg were challenged by nearly as many Nazi night fighters, suffered the heaviest single loss of the war—96 bombers and 658 men.

March, April, May & June. These raids rounded out the first full month (March) of the new stage which the air war over Europe has just entered: the stage in which the Luftwaffe, in order to preserve its combat strength, has chosen not to fight except on selected occasions.

The overall results for March, the best indication yet available of what may follow in April, May, June:

¶The U.S. Eighth Air Force made a new record of bombing Occupied Europe: dropped an estimated 23,000 tons of bombs (best previous month was February, when about 18,000 tons were dropped); lost 427 planes (compared to 320 in February); destroyed 734 German planes (compared with 597 in February).

This does not include activities of the growing Fifteenth Air Force which, operating from Italy, increased all figures by about one third.

¶The R.A.F. operating from Britain made fewer big raids than the Eighth (but R.A.F. planes, including light Mosquito bombers, were out 28 nights of the month); dropped 31,000 tons of bombs (biggest previous month was August 1943 with 20,000 tons); lost 283 planes (compared to 381 in August).

This was something very like the all-out bombing which the believers in victory by air power have advocated. If it goes on for several months without being cut short by invasion or other developments, the world will have the pragmatic answer to the question: What can the wholesale bombing of a great industrial nation really accomplish?

Modest Intentions. Meantime laymen’s disillusionment with air power was growing. Wrote the New York Herald Tribune’s Homer Bigart: “It is strange, after reading eyewitness accounts of how Cassino was leveled by the air force, to stand on a hill overlooking the town and see so many buildings still erect. . . . The Allied air forces have been the victims of too much ballyhoo.”

No ballyhoo appeared last week in an official outline of its European air strategy issued by the U.S. War Department:

“The air battles now being fought over Germany are aimed to destroy Nazi fighter plane strength and production. . . . [That] is sought so that when Allied ground and air forces seek to force a further foothold on continental Europe they will have to contend ultimately with the German ground force, not with the German ground and air forces.”

In admitting this limited aim, official Washington was far less sanguine than air enthusiasts used to sound. Lieut. General Ira Eaker, September 1942: “I believe it is possible to destroy the enemy from the air.” General Henry H. Arnold, June 1943: “We are going to end [the war] and end it soon by bombing military objectives consistently and with the maximum destructive power that we possess.”

The Elusive Factories. Even knocking out German fighter strength is no mean task, as now officially described: “The German aircraft industry has tremendous recuperative powers. It is set up in a system of complexes, each composed of a final assembly plant and of component parts factories which feed their products into that plant for assembly into completed planes. Each complex is not only self-sustaining, but personnel and equipment of its units are interchangeable. . . . As soon as a plant in one complex is bombed out, its workers may be transported to a similar plant in another complex to be put on as an additional shift there and thus take up the slack caused by loss of the plant from which they have just been driven.”

Washington’s “Explanation of Strategy” reviewed the history of Eighth Air Force v. Luftwaffe to date:

¶From Jan. 1 until July 1, 1943, German single-engine fighter production rose 50% (but for the bombings it might have risen much more).

¶During the next two months constant bombing reduced it by 25%.

¶U.S. heavy bombers did not really hit their stride until the beginning of 1944. In the three months since Jan. 1, they have flown about as many missions, dropped about as many bombs as in the previous 16½ months. In January and February German single-engine fighter production was cut by two-thirds, twin-engined fighter production slightly more (“that does not mean, however, that . . . production capacity has been permanently reduced to that extent”).

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