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Londoners inspect the damage following a night raid. After 57 consecutive nights of German attacks, 375,000 Londoners were left homeless. (NASM (SI NEG. #85-18328))

Orchestrated Hell

In 1943, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took his radio audience along on a RAF bombing mission to Berlin.

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(Continued from page 2)

The German night fighters were the striking arm of an integrated air defense system of radar, searchlights, and anti-aircraft guns. Allied aircrews developed considerable respect for their foe. Once, after the German Focke-Wulf fighter was introduced, a poster was hung in a crew room picturing a bomber pilot asking, rhetorically, “Who’s afraid of the new Focke-Wulf?” Someone pinned paper to the poster and, not rhetorically, every member of the unit signed.

When D for Dog reached Germany, Murrow began to see flak explode. It looked, he reported, “like a cigarette lighter in a dark room—one that won’t light. Sparks but no flame.” The flak most feared came from the German 88-mm gun. This versatile weapon, highly potent against tanks in land combat, could send a shell five miles high in seven seconds. When Murrow asked the pilot to estimate how close the flak bursts were to the aircraft, he responded, “Not very close. When they’re really near, you can smell ’em.”

Murrow’s own apprehension rose: Thirty miles from Berlin, he later broadcast, “D-Dog seemed to be standing still, the four propellers thrashing the air. But we didn’t seem to be closing in.” Cloud cover was “ten tenths”—complete. Instantly, the dirty gray clouds turned white; the aircraft was caught in the gleam of searchlights. Describing the vulnerability of being in a dark aircraft cast against suddenly gleaming clouds, Murrow reported: “D-Dog seemed like a black bug on a white sheet.” The pilot wore gloves with the fingers cut off; Murrow saw his fingernails turn white as he gripped the wheel. Sensing danger, the pilot whipped the aircraft into a climbing turn that dropped Murrow to his knees. Some pilots, Max Hastings notes, banked cautiously for fear of losing a wing; “[o]thers—the ones who lived—recognized that the danger of a wing collapsing was nothing as that of a fighter’s cannon.”

Jock and Boz, the bomb aimer, considered the target, wreathed with smoke. Murrow described the exchange: “Boz said he liked the two green flares on the ground almost dead ahead.” Soon thereafter, “there was a gentle, upward thrust under my feet, and Boz said: ‘Cookie gone’… and D-Dog seemed lighter and easier to handle.”

Murrow’s December 2-3 flight to Berlin was the fifth of 16 air assaults launched against the German capital between November 18, 1943, and March 2, 1944. Arthur Harris believed this air campaign would cost the Allies between 400 and 500 aircraft, but that “it will cost Germany the war.”

Only the first prediction came true. Of the 500 aircraft sent out just on the night Murrow flew, 50 were shot down. At the end of the mission, Murrow telephoned his wife. Janet Murrow later reported, “He sounded shaken.”

Near midnight, London time, on December 3, Murrow presented 20 million American listeners with his account of D for Dog’s attack on Berlin. Murrow recounted the mission, which from his airborne, buffeted vantage appeared to turn the German capital into “a thing of orchestrated hell—a terrible symphony of light and flame.” He also commented on the matter-of-factness of those engaged in the effort. The bomber crews, he said, speak of it as a job: “[A] young pilot with old eyes said to me: ‘I see we’re working again tonight.’ ” Another comment showed that Murrow had no illusion that the suffering was limited to the aircrews: “Men die in the sky while others are roasted alive in their cellars.” It was, he noted, a “calculated, remorseless campaign of destruction.” It was a campaign, not incidentally, that a month later would claim the life of D for Dog’s pilot, Jock Abercrombie.

Arthur Harris remained determined. On December 7, four days after Murrow returned to London, he predicted a German surrender by April 1, 1944. But Berlin was a city of stone buildings, with wide avenues that acted as firebreaks, and the destruction, though great, was not sufficient to force Germany to negotiate terms of surrender.

Richard Overy argues that strategic bombing, unlike combat on the ground, does not produce sharply defined victories or defeats. It does not win territories or lose them; rather, its effects are cumulative. “The Battle of Berlin,” he says, “continued the process of having the Germans pull back their resources from the defense of the Rhine, and [required them] to decentralize their production. In that sense it was no more or less a failure than other attacks. Berlin’s a big target; it’s a rather difficult thing to destroy.”

Robin Neillands offers a less positive judgment of the series of raids: “Harris did not have the aircraft to shatter Berlin quickly and had to divert to other targets to prevent the buildup of flak and fighter resistance over the big city.”

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