August 17th, 1943, was the first anniversary of the start of the Eighth US Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign against Germany. To commemorate the event, the Eighth carried out an ambitious twin raid, intended to cripple the German aircraft industry. The idea was to launch two simultaneous aerial attacks against two vital targets, in order to confuse and divide German air defenses. It was hoped that the Luftwaffe’s fighters would be dispersed, and their effectiveness thus reduced, if they had to protect both targets rather than concentrate against one bomber force.
The targets chosen were Regensburg, a center for Bf 109 fighter production, and Schweinfurt, which housed most of Germany’s ball-bearing industry. Both targets were beyond Allied fighter range. Accordingly, the bombers would be escorted only part of the way, then continue on their own without fighter protection. The Schweinfurt force would return to its bases in England after the raid. To further confuse the Germans, however, the Regensburg force would fly south after dropping its bombs, continue over the Alps and across the Mediterranean, and land in airbases in Algeria and Tunisia. There, after they refitted, refueled, and rearmed, the bombers would return to England a few a days later, and bomb targets in Nazi-occupied France on their way back.
Seven groups of B-17 heavy bombers, with a total of 146 airplanes, took off for Regensburg on August 17th. Soon as they crossed the coast into Europe, they were intercepted by German fighters, which harried them with mounting ferocity all the way to Regensburg. Of two fighter groups scheduled to escort them part of the way, only one showed up on time to protect the lead bombers. The other fighter group showed up fifteen minutes late. In that quarter hour, German fighters attacked the unprotected B-17s with abandon. Fifteen bombers were lost before the German fighters, low on fuel and out of ammunition, returned to their airfields.
The Regensburg force dropped its bombs against light antiaircraft fire, and turned south for North Africa. The Germans had not expected that, and did little to challenge their escape. Nine more airplanes were lost en route due to mechanical failures or running out of fuel, for a loss of 24 bombers. Another 60 of the 122 surviving B-17s were damaged. The Schweinfurt force got it far worse. 230 B-17s, divided into twelve groups, took off that morning, but they had been delayed and started late. Thus, they did not fly simultaneously with the Regensburg force to overwhelm the German defenders with numbers. Instead, German fighters had time to concentrate against the Regensburg force, maul it, return to their airfields to refuel and rearm, then take to the air again in time to challenge the Schweinfurt force.
The Schweinfurt bombers were further jinxed by weather, as high cloud masses forced them to fly at lower-than-usual altitudes, where they were extra vulnerable to German fighters. Bf 109s and FW-190s fell on the B-17s with a ferocity never seen before. That ferocity increased the deeper the bombers penetrated into Germany, as over 300 German fighters attacked the Schweinfurt raiders. On the outskirts of Schweinfurt, the last German fighters, having already downed 22 bombers, returned to their airfields to refuel and rearm. They then waited for another go at the bombers on their way back home.
The Schweinfurt group lost 36 bombers shot down that day. The targets suffered significant damage, but German industry was sufficiently resilient to soon make up the production shortfall. Ultimately, what the double raid demonstrated, particularly the Schweinfurt portion, was that daylight bombing raids deep inside Germany without fighter escorts were too hazardous and led to unsustainable losses. US Eighth Air Force commanders did not fully grasp that, however, until another raid against Schweinfurt two months later, resulted in even heavier unsustainable losses.
The attack that set in motion the chain of events that led to both the Doolittle Raid and the eventual devastation of Japan from the air occurred on December 7th, 1941. On that date, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack from aircraft carriers against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Early that morning, Japanese warplanes, laden with torpedoes and bombs and escorted by Zero fighters, took off from carriers that had made their way in secrecy and radio silence to launch positions 200 miles north of Hawaii.
The raid that the Japanese pilots executed that morning had been planned for almost a year. It was coordinated with other attacks that day against US possessions in the Philippines, Wake, and Guam, and against the British in Singapore, Malaya, and Hong Kong. The attack on Pearl Harbor was intended to cripple America’s Pacific fleet, and impede US interference with planned Japanese conquests of American, British, and Dutch territories. As seen below, it was a devastating attack that caught the defenders off guard.
Starting at 7:48AM local time, 353 Japanese combat warplanes, in two waves, devastated anchored American vessels. Armed with torpedoes modified for Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters, and with bombs designed to pierce thick armor, they sank four battleships and damaged another four. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer, and a training ship. It was a lopsided slaughter. For the loss of 29 airplanes, 5 midget submarines, and 64 personnel killed and 1 captured, the Japanese killed more than 2,400 Americans and wounded around 1,200.
The raid also sank or beached twelve ships, damaged nine others, destroyed 160 airplanes, and damaged 150 more. However, the Japanese had concentrated on warships and airplanes, and ignored important infrastructure, such as oil storage facilities, docks, and power stations. The destruction of those and other vital installations would have impeded the use of Pearl Harbor as a base for America’s war effort in the Pacific. Additionally, there were no US aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor that day, so America’s carrier arm remained intact. It was that arm of the US Navy which would ultimately frustrate Japanese plans and bring about Japan’s doom.
An Air Raid to Free Resistance Fighters from a Gestapo Prison
In 1943, the Gestapo rounded up many members of the French Resistance in northern France and held them in the Amiens prison. Word leaked that the Germans planned to liquidate their captives, starting with a mass execution of over 100 Resistance and political prisoners on February 19th, 1944. A precision air raid to breach the prison’s walls and allow the inmates an opportunity for a mass jailbreak was requested. Accordingly, the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force drew up plans for Operation Jericho.
To find the prison was easy. It was a conspicuous structure with high walls, in an open area along the long and straight Albert-Amiens road. The difficulty, in pre-smart bomb days, was how to drop bombs to blast the outer walls and kill many guards, yet not destroy the prison and kill too many inmates. It was accepted that some or many prisoners would die in the strike. However, it was reasoned that they were slated for execution anyhow, and the risk of death in a breakout attempt was better odds than the certainty of execution.
Operation Jericho’s planners decided that the warplane most suitable for this mission was the de Havilland Mosquito. Nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder” because it was constructed almost entirely of wood, the twin-engine Mosquito was one of the most versatile and successful airplanes of WWII. It almost never get off the drawing board. Its basic concept was a bomber bereft of defensive weapons. It relied instead on speed and agility to avoid and escape danger rather than fight it off. That defied conventional wisdom at a time when bombers that bristled with machine guns to fend off fighters were the norm.
Poor weather repeatedly delayed Operation Jericho, but on February 17th, 1944, shortly before the scheduled mass executions, it was finally now or never. Despite heavy snow and fog, eighteen Mosquitoes took off from southern England and linked up with Typhoon fighter escorts over the English Channel. Flying low, the attackers took a circuitous route until they reached the town of Albert to the northeast of Amiens. They then followed the long and straight Albert-Amiens road, to approach the prison from that direction. The plan was for the first Mosquitoes to bomb and breach the prison’s outer walls. Other Mosquitoes would then bomb the guard barracks and cafeteria. The raid was timed for lunchtime, to catch as many German guards as possible as they sat down to dine.
Controversy Engulfed this Successful Air Raid After the War
The raiders arrived at noon on February 18th, 1944. To start off the show, they dropped 500 pound bombs with delayed fuses to allow the Mosquitoes to fly out of the blast zone before detonation. The explosions were right on target, and successfully breached the outer walls. Then the guardhouse was struck and destroyed, killing its occupants along with collateral damage prisoners in the vicinity. Once prisoners were observed pouring out of the breached walls, the raiders headed back home.
The mission was a tactical success, although the results were mixed. The bombing was pinpoint accurate by the standards of the day, and the walls were successfully breached, allowing the prisoners an opportunity for a jailbreak. At the cost of three Mosquitoes and two Typhoons, 50 Germans were killed – but so were 107 of the 717 prisoners. 258 prisoners escaped, but 182 were recaptured. Controversy erupted after the war when some in the Resistance disputed that they had requested the attack. Additionally, no evidence emerged that the Germans had planned mass executions of the Amiens prisoners.
In 1976, Saddam Hussein began construction of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Baghdad’s suburbs. His enemies were alarmed by its potential use in a weapons program that could furnish the Iraqi dictator with nuclear bombs. So in 1980, early in the Iran-Iraq War, Iranian F-4 Phantoms bombed the reactor. They inflicted minimal damage, and did little to derail the Iraqi nuclear program. Israel, also threatened by the prospect of nuclear weapons in Saddam’s hands, made its own plans to take out the reactor.
In preparation for the raid, Israeli pilots studied the power plant’s plans. They paid special attention to the part of the reactor where the nuclear core was housed. The most obvious route was a straight line from Israel to Baghdad. However, that would cross Jordan, whose radar stations could detect airplanes approaching from the west. Another possibility was to take a long, curved route farther to the south. However, American AWACS planes operating from Saudi Arabia could have detected unusual aerial activity.
The Israelis had a third, and riskier, alternative: fly low, under the radar, and weave a path between Jordanian and Saudi radar installations. That was the option they went with. On June 7th, 1981, a flight of Israeli warplanes, comprised of bomb carrying F-16s escorted by F-15s for fighter protection, took off for the Osirak reactor. At some point, the raiders were picked by a Jordanian radar and challenged by ground control. An Israeli pilot who spoke Arabic convinced them that they were Jordanian planes on a training mission. After 80 minutes in the air, the raiders approached their target and prepared to strike.
The F-15s peeled off to provide fighter cover if needed, while the F-16s climbed before they dove into the attack. The first F-16’s bombs found their mark, as did those of all the follow-on raiders. In less than two minutes, the Osirak reactor was completely destroyed. Israel insists that the pilots dropped simple iron bombs. However, the accuracy with which the reactor was hit has led to speculation that the Israelis had deployed early generation smart bombs. Their mission successfully completed, the Israeli airplanes took a direct high speed route back home.
Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, a prophet of the naval air power that devastated Pearl Harbor, was the Japanese Navy’s dominant figure. A determined and aggressive commander, he drew bold and imaginative plans. His strong leadership ensured that such plans were embraced by subordinates, who idolized Yamamoto and strove to execute his orders with vigor and skill. A chess champion of the Japanese Navy, he also became an excellent poker player while studying and serving in America. US intelligence deemed him “exceptionally able, forceful and quick thinking“. In short, American commanders realized that Yamamoto was a one-of-a-kind, and wanted to get him. That was about more than mere payback. Yamamoto was preeminent in all categories. If any harm befell him, any potential Japanese successor was bound to be personally and professionally inferior. Not to mention that Yamamoto’s death would both demoralize the Japanese, and simultaneously give Americans a huge morale boost.
However, to actually get Yamamoto lay more in the realm of wishful thinking and revenge fantasies, than in the world of the possible and probable. That changed with a fortunate break on April 14th, 1943. That day, US Navy intelligence intercepted a coded telegram sent in Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, the JN-25 code had been cracked by a secret US cryptanalysis effort known as “Magic”. American cryptographers, whose ranks included future United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, deciphered the telegram to reveal a momentous message. It began: “On April 18 CINC Combined Fleet will visit RXZ, R__, and RXP in accordance with the following schedule…” CINC Combined Fleet was Yamamoto. The decrypted transmission stated that he and his staff would fly on an inspection and morale-boosting mission from Rabaul to the northern Solomon Islands.
The intercepted message provided detailed departure and arrival information, mode of travel, the number of escort fighters, and contingencies in case of bad weather. The party would leave Rabaul in two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” medium bombers. Yamamoto’s would be escorted by six Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters. The other, carrying his chief of staff, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, was assigned three Zeros. Takeoff was scheduled for 6AM, Tokyo time, for an 8AM arrival at Balalae Airfield, near Bougainville. That would be the closest Yamamoto had ever come to American front lines, and a golden opportunity not to be missed. President Roosevelt reportedly authorized Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to “get Yamamoto“. Planning was immediately begun to kill the enemy admiral blamed for Pearl Harbor, and was given the apt codename Operation Vengeance. The intercept and shoot down of Yamamoto’s plane had to be precisely timed.
For American fighters to takeoff from a base and intercept enemy planes hundreds of miles away, a tight schedule had to be followed. If all went right, US fighters leaving Henderson Field in Guadalcanal at 5:25AM Tokyo time could fly a circuitous route that would intercept Yamamoto at 7:35AM near Bougainville. A few minutes’ deviation from the schedule by either side could doom the mission, with the Americans arriving at an empty patch of sky devoid of enemy airplanes. Fortunately for the Americans, and unfortunately for the Japanese, their target was known for his compulsive punctuality – a fact known to US intelligence from Yamamoto’s time in America. There was a hiccup, however: the flight route from Rabaul to Bougainville was beyond the range of US Navy airplanes. However, it was within the range of US Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning fighters, recently deployed to Guadalcanal.
Eighteen P-38G Lightnings, each armed with four .50 caliber machineguns and one 20mm cannon, and equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were selected for Operation Vengeance. They were to be led by USAAF Major John Mitchell. A flight of four was designated as a “killer team” to go after the two bombers. The other Lightnings, whose numbers included two spares, were to fly cover above and keep the Japanese Zero escorts and swarms of other enemy fighters expected to take off from nearby airfields off the killers. Sixteen Lightnings, equipped with drop tanks for extra range, were sent on a 600-mile roundabout flight to meet Yamamoto’s plane as it arrived from Rabaul at Bougainville on April 18th, 1943. The mission went like clockwork. The P-38s skimmed the ocean at 50 feet to avoid detection, and swung wide of islands between Guadalcanal and Bougainville and watchers therein.
They reached the planned interception point within one minute of Yamamoto. The Lightnings, armed with 20mm cannon and .50 caliber machineguns, attacked. While a kill team of four P-38s fell upon the two medium bombers carrying the admiral and his staff, the other Lightnings took on the Zero escorts and flew top cover to fend off any fighters scrambled from local airfields. Within minutes, both Japanese bombers were shot down. One crashed into the jungle below, and the other made a crash landing into the ocean. The P-38s then broke off contact. Avoiding detection no longer a necessity, they flew a 400 mile straight line flight back to Guadalcanal, which they reached after completing a 1000-miles-long mission. Yamamoto’s crashed bomber was located by a search and rescue party the following day, and his corpse was recovered from the wreckage strewn around the crash site.
The Oil Campaign that Sought to Starve the Nazi War Machine of Fuel
The Allied strategic bombing campaign against Germany in WWII sought to destroy, or at least degrade, the Nazis’ ability to wage war. Key to that was the “oil campaign”, which went after facilities that supplied Hitler’s forces with fuel. Targets included oil refineries, synthetic fuel factories, storage depots and other supporting infrastructure. The Romanian oil field and refinery complexes around Ploesti, some thirty miles north of Bucharest, were a vital source of oil for the Axis, and provided them with roughly one third of their needs.
The Germans were alerted by a small American air raid in June, 1942, that met little opposition and inflicted little damage. What the raid did accomplish was to alert the Germans to their potential vulnerability. So they surrounded Ploesti with antiaircraft guns, and set up one of the world’s densest and best integrated air defense networks. When American bombers returned a year later, Ploesti was far more hardened than it had been in 1942, protected by hundreds of 88mm flak guns and thousands of smaller ones, plus squadrons of Bf 109 and Me 110 fighter planes.
In 1943, as the Allies grew more focused on the Third Reich’s fuel, American air commanders drew plans for Operation Tidal Wave. It was to be a significantly more ambitious raid against Ploesti than the paltry affair of 1942. It would be carried out by Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the Ninth US Air Force, reinforced by bomber groups loaned them by the Eighth Force then forming in Britain. Unescorted by fighters, they would head north from Libya across the Mediterranean, then turn northeast towards Ploesti when they reached the Greek coast, for a 2,000 mile round trip raid.
On August 1st, 1943, which came to be known as “Black Sunday”, 177 Liberators took off from Libyan airfields for Ploesti. To achieve tactical surprise and catch the defenders unaware, the American warplanes maintained radio silence. They also flew at 50 feet or less to avoid German radar. For hours, the heavy bombers skimmed over the Mediterranean, then flew at treetop level when they reached land. However, as seen below, the Germans were alerted and the raid came to grief because of a cascade of mishaps.
Various hiccups plagued and doomed Operation Tidal Wave before the bombers reached their target. A navigation error took some bombers directly above a German position, and thus gave the enemy a heads up. A lead navigator’s bomber crashed, and bomber groups that had relied upon him arrived over the target staggered instead of simultaneously. A bomb group leader, who saw that all formation was hopelessly lost, broke radio silence to order the scattered B-24s to make their way to Ploesti individually and bomb as best they could. Thus, when the B-24s arrived at Ploesti, they did not catch the Germans off guard and hit them with a concentrated and well-coordinated blow, as planners had hoped. Instead, the American heavy bombers arrived in separate groups, and were met by alert defenders who’d had time to prepare a warm welcome.
Hundreds of antiaircraft guns, heavy machineguns, and a specially designed flak train whose cars’ sides dropped to reveal flak guns, opened up on the bombers, while fighter airplanes fell upon them. The low-flying B-24s also had to contend with smoke stacks that suddenly loomed in their path amid the billowing smoke. Of 177 B-24s that took off that day, 162 reached Ploesti. Of those, 53 were shot down. 660 crewmen were lost. Of the 109 surviving Liberators that reached an Allied airbase, 58 were damaged beyond repair. The damage to Ploesti was quickly repaired. Within weeks, the oil complex was producing even more oil products than it had before the raid.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading