Locklin on science

Anglo American heavy bombers of WW-2

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on April 26, 2011

An appreciation for the American and British super-bombers of WW-2 vintage.

No other nations built anything like them, until the Soviets released the Tupolev Tu-20 Bear nuclear bomber in 1955; 10 years after the end of the war (they also copied the B-29). Other nations had bombers in the WW-2 and immediate prior era, but they were much smaller and more primitive craft.

There is basic physics involved with their engineering and battle tactics. Volume goes like the cube of length. Aircraft weight is a function of area (since airplanes in general are basically aluminum skins), which is the square of length. Therefore a large bomber could carry lots more gasoline per pound of airplane than a smaller aircraft like a fighter plane. As such, they were inherently long range devices. Ever wonder why modern fighter planes are so large? This is why. This fact meant a bomber had to fight against fighter planes by itself, as no escort planes could fly with them the whole trip to their targets. As such, they came with a lot of guns. One could say, in a sense, they were dreadnaughts of the air.

The defining characteristic of the American bombers; many engines, many guns, glass nose cones. The tactical idea was they would fly very high, and in battle formation. Their numerous gun turrets would provide a blanket of firepower which would be able to protect the whole squadron from an attack by a fighter plane at any angle. The idea was sort of a 3-d version of the infantry phalanx. At least that’s what they thought; it sort of worked. The problem was, the formation was so rigid, the whole squadron had to fly at a mere 150MPH in a straight line, where they could be hit by ground based flak. Fortunately, the B-17 was tough. You could punch one full of holes, and it wouldn’t fall down. it was truly a flying fort.

B-17 Formation over Europe

While the guns were pretty cool, and they were occasionally used for ground support (I almost bought a boat off a guy who used to light up the Ustashi in the former Yugoslavia with his B-24 liberator), really, these suckers were giant bomb trucks.

“The mighty B-24 liberator”

The type of combat they fought with bombers really appeals to my imagination. It appeals to me for the same reasons early nuclear age jet combat aircraft appeal to me. This was an entirely new thing in war. The Germans tried to use aerial bombing as a serious weapon, like everyone else, but only the Anglos got it right. Mostly, Hitler seemed to see Bombers as a terror weapon. It freaked out the Spaniards in their civil war, though really, you probably could have snuck up behind them and made fartey noises and freaked them out. It certainly didn’t work on phlegmatic Englishmen. Raining bombs on London just pissed off the English. You do not want to make Englishmen angry as a nation. After the dumbkopfs in the Luftwaffe got done showing off, the English built tens of thousands of heavy bombers and turned millions of Germans into red jelly.

The snooty Avro Lancaster: annihilator of Dresden; notice the swankey Limey jaguar-like sidepipes on the engine nacelles

The British engineers deserve honorable mention for the De Haviland Mosquito; a brilliant design which relied on speed and maneuverability to avoid being shot down. It was actually made of wood. Like many successful planes (the A-10 comes to mind), the bigshots hated them, so, despite its technical success, cheapness and the fact that it could carry almost as many bombs as a heavy bomber, it wasn’t made the main Bomber of the British Air Services.

The Germans did have a good appreciation for the tactical (rather than strategic) use of the bomber, with their Stuka squadrons taking out thousands of Soviet tanks. So did the Japanese, with their fabulous Mitsubishi A6M aka “Zero” fighter/bomber plane. For my money, the best early fighter plane of WW-2: the range on this thing was incredible; nearly 2000 miles, at a time when a normal fighter range was 500 miles. But, neither axis power ever realized the strategic possibilities of filling a giant aluminum tube with TNT and shrapnel and driving it over the enemy, and emptying it. America realized this. America was good at big, mass production sort of things back then.

Modern people seem to think these wars were avoidable or an accident of history, or a result of the characters of the men in charge in those days. Not so. Sir Edward Creasy realized in the 1850s that America and Japan were two growing young powers who would come to blows. He wrote about it in his “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World” in 1852. America always knew we’d fight the Japanese. It was obvious before it it was obvious we’d give up slavery. It was also obvious we’d have to fight the Germans after Hitler came to power. As such, the US had the idea for heavy, long range bombers for quite a while. When the Germans did as well, the US developed the idea of a super long range, super huge bomber: the B-29, so we could bomb them from America. An awe inspiring super-dreadnaught; so advanced for the era, they were not retired until the 1960s. 350mph, 40,000 feet ceiling; it was practically untouchable at the time. It could travel 3300 miles without refueling, developed 9000 horsepower, and carried 10 crew, 20000lbs of bombs, 12 .50 caliber machine guns, and a 20mm cannon. The B-29 was comparable in artillery to a navy corvette!

“The Brobdinagian B-29 superfortress”

Such machines killed millions upon millions of people. The bomb runs were not accurate; they had to carpet many square miles to hit a few ball bearing factories. Many innocents were slaughtered. But, tens or hundreds of thousands of men met with fiery deaths driving these flying battle trucks over the enemy (40,000 died in the B-17 alone). You had to be insane to crew such a beast, but there was no shortage of volunteers. They flew so high, they needed oxygen to breathe. Most of the men who flew such machines were mere 21 year old farm boys; the very idea of using oxygen must have been more foreign to their sensibilities than going to outer space is to a 12 year old today.

Futuristic technology, 1930s style

They chewed tobacco and shot Nazi airplanes, while driving a giant space truck through the skies. If you survived 5 missions, you were lucky. About 1/4 of crews never returned. It wasn’t a pleasant death; fire, shrapnel, crash landings, turning you into jam. It was mad courage and derring-do! They did what was necessary in a war of industrial attrition!

“What must it have been like to survive another mission”

13 Responses

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  1. Rod Carvalho said, on April 26, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    “Tupelov Tu-20 Bear”? Shouldn’t it be “Tupolev”?

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm

      Damned Rooskie dyslexia. Thanks.

  2. coldequation said, on April 27, 2011 at 1:11 am

    I don’t know if the Germans were so much unaware of the possibilities of strategic bombing as logistically incapable of it. Bombing made sense for rich countries that had no other way to strike at the enemy; Germany was not rich and always had better ways to spend its resources.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 27, 2011 at 2:49 am

      That’s an attractive parsimonious explanation, except the British weren’t much better off, and had superbombers, and the Germans actually had a larger air force and tank count at the beginning of the war. They also dumped a lot of resources into expensive and arguably useless V-1 and V-2 rockets, and risky jet and rocket aircraft… in fact, as I recall, Hitler retarded the development of the Me-262 by insisting it be a fighter bomber, something it wasn’t terribly suited for compared to its utility in knocking out bombers. I think the superbomber simply wasn’t a part of their mindset. Sure, they had drawing board ideas for crazy flying wing ideas, but all they really had to do was lengthen the wing and fuselage on one of their existing designs, maybe the H-11, the way the British did with their Lancaster/Manchester. Though admittedly the H-11 had a smaller bomb payload than the Manchester. Like I said: just not in their mindset.

      • coldequation said, on April 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm

        But the British had no way to strike at Germany other than bombers between Dunkirk and D-Day, with the exception of nibbling at the margins in the sideshow of North Africa. Germany could strike at Britain with U-boats or by Russia (at least the Germans saw it that way: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/07/franz-halder-liveblogs-world-war-ii-july-31-1940.html). The British also had no risk of a ground army attacking them, being an island with a strong navy, so they could focus on builiding whatever they wanted.

        Have you looked at the designs that were floated for the Ural Bomber or the Amerika Bomber? Some of it was crazy shit like giant airplanes that launched small airplanes like a flying aircraft carrier, but I could have sworn that I read about one that was similar to the Lancaster. The thing is that it would have required fuel they couldn’t afford, and it would have been shot out of the sky by Allied fighters in no time, or at best could have been used for inaccurate night bombing, which the Germans should have known by then was not very effective. The V2 was a total waste of resources, but building a small number of poorly escorted bombers would have been even worse. The V1 was actually not a bad idea because it was very cheap.

        We certainly know that bombing was part of their mindset, because of the Blitz, and they were certainly aware of the existence of our bombers, so I can only think they didn’t build them because they couldn’t. The Germans were better off with the air force they had, which was focused on tactical bombing, because their only chance of winning was to knock out all potential enemies on the ground first (assuming that war with Russia was inevitable, which they did), and then settle in for a long naval and air war with the West if necessary.

        Their big failures were that they didn’t have naval aviation that was capable of shooting down ships, due to inter-service rivalries between the Luftwaffe and the navy, and that they didn’t produce nearly as many aircraft as they could have as early as they could have. They had a massive increase of production in 1944, which they could have had earlier, but it was too late by then.

  3. William O. B'Livon said, on April 27, 2011 at 9:50 am

    the very idea of using oxygen must have been more foreign to their sensibilities than going to outer space is to a 12 year old today.

    More’s the pity.

  4. Ilya said, on May 3, 2011 at 3:52 am

    I believe the statistic for total Americans dead in WW2 was 250,000…so I am not sure how many died piloting the B-29. From the sounds of it, not *too* many, relatively speaking.

  5. Chris said, on May 4, 2011 at 7:39 am

    The germans didn’t bulid strategic bombers because they were too expensive.When they finally got about ~300 He-177 in service in 1944 they realized that fuelling them would ground the rest of their fleet.So no the germans weren’t dumbkopfs!

  6. Bruce Charlton said, on May 11, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I am an expert on these matters – having built Airfix kits of most major aircract of WWII, and what I say is… Flying Fortresses were rubbish, Lancasters Rule.

    Lancasters could actually carry a lot of bombs; whereas by the time they had finished weighing-them-down and slowing-them-up with (useless) gun turrets, the Flying Fortress only had enough bomb capacity for the aimer to lob a couple of grenades through a hole in the floor.

    Indeed, in retrospect, it would have been better for bombers to have no turrets or guns, and rely on either fighter defence or the extra speed/ height to reduce casualties (which would have been reduced anyway by having fewer crew).

    Or just scrap big bombers and instead use massive fleets of fast, high flying Mosquitos – which *never* got shot down.

    So there.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 12, 2011 at 4:01 am

      Thanks for your comment, Bruce.

      Indeed, in retrospect, the Mosquito approach seemed to be the smartest one. “War Nerd” comes up with some interesting arguments about how we’re doing something similar today, with our fetish for the Aircraft Carrier. I have an upcoming article for Taki making the same argument regarding the Joint Strike Fighter; neat ideas, but fundamentally wrong for the types of problems that need solving in modern wars.

  7. Too Old To Work said, on August 4, 2011 at 12:56 am

    The Mosquito was a specialized plane initially intended for specialized attacks. In addition to being made of wood, it had no weapons in early versions. The idea was to fly fast and low to avoid being shot down. That evolved as the war did and later Mosquitos were armed.

    American bombers took horrendous casualties during day light raids because they couldn’t fight off German fighters and had no effective fighter coverage. As you note, most fighters of the day could not accompany the fighters to Germany and back, so after a point the bombers were on their own. It wasn’t until 1944 when the P-51D Mustang became available in numbers that bombers could be escorted to Germany and back.

    The B-29 was revolutionary because it was the first pressurized bomber and had remotely controlled turret guns. It’s fatal flaw was the proclivity of it’s engines to burst into fire. I don’t think that was ever totally corrected, even with the follow on B-50. Despite that, it still was able to delivery lots of ordinance, including fire bombs, to Japan.

  8. Goober said, on August 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm


    I am absolutely terrified by the implications that our modern aircraft carriers present. I think we’ve become very cocky when we place that many planes, bombs, missiles, and men onto one floating city and expect it to be invincible because of the phalanx gun system. The millenium 2002 war games showed us that our aircraft carriers are horribly exposed in the case of direct enemy attack. The loss of life and materiale would be devastating, and it could easily be accomplished by a force of 15 pleasure boats all firing a silkworm cruise missile (about $50,000 each – so pretty cheap!) at the same time. The phalanx system couldn’t handle that many targets. At least a few would get through, and suddenly 9/11 and Pearl harbor would look like we got off easy.

  9. oracleaide said, on August 15, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    How about the 1913 Sikorsky S-22?

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