In 1943, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took his radio audience along on a RAF bombing mission to Berlin.
- By Mark Bernstein
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
NASM (SI NEG. #85-18328)
(Page 2 of 5)
Murrow was also relentless. During the Blitz, he had received permission to broadcast live from London by taking his case to the prime minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill, formerly a correspondent in the Boer War who believed that Murrow’s reports would dramatize England’s underdog status and would therefore appeal to Americans, overrode layers of British officialdom and got Murrow on those rooftops. With American entry into the war, Murrow’s circumstance changed. After Pearl Harbor, his wife, Janet Brewster Murrow, said Murrow felt “uncomfortable” in civilian dress. He tried to enlist but was told his reporting was a greater contribution to the war effort. So he tried to get closer to the action: For the whole of 1943, he badgered British officials and his superiors at CBS to get on a bombing run. (Apparently the U.S. Army was more tractable. Newspaper reporters, including Walter Cronkite and Andy Rooney, went along on the first B-17 mission into Germany in January 1943.)
Ostensibly, Murrow’s motive was accuracy: “Let me ride in a bomber,” he told CBS president William Paley, “and I can know a little better how the pilot feels when the tail is shot off.” But Murrow wasn’t satisfied with a single ride. He went along on 23 more combat missions, including a September 1944 ride on a transport delivering paratroops for the ill-fated Market Garden assault (the subject of the book and movie A Bridge Too Far).We may wonder about his motivation for these other flights; his broadcast of December 3, 1943, was the only one he made about his experience of the bomber war.
The principal aim of strategic bombing, Richard Overy writes, is to undermine an enemy’s capability to wage war. During World War II, combatants hoped to cripple the enemy’s production capability through continual attack on industrial targets, and, by strikes on non-military targets, to destroy the will of the citizenry to continue the fight. Although the original orders to the Luftwaffe were to destroy the British air capability, by the end of 1940 German airplanes were deliberately targeting population centers like Coventry, an industrial city the Germans set infamously ablaze with incendiary bombs and high explosives. In return, England launched thousand-bomber raids in 1943 over Cologne, Essen, and Bremen. In May of that year, 19 specially trained Lancaster aircrews destroyed dams on the Ruhr, spilling flood waters down the Ruhr Valley for 50 miles, extinguishing blast furnaces and flooding coal mines. Fifty-six of the 133 crewmen died in the assault.
Some raids were devastating. Almost 600 factories were obliterated in a July mission over Hamburg, and an estimated 42,000 people died. Hamburg, wrote Hitler’s armaments chief, Albert Speer, “put the fear of God in me.”
The results of attacks on strictly industrial sites were less definitive. A costly Bomber Command raid in August against Germany’s crucial ball bearing works at Schweinfurt, German sources reported, cut production by 38 percent, but in the following weeks, output was largely restored.
As 1943 progressed, a greater share of the air war against Germany was conducted by the U.S. Eighth Air Force, which had been established in Britain by June 1942. The Americans took a fundamentally different approach to bombing. The British almost always bombed at night; the Americans held that their more heavily armed B-17s and B-24s were, when operating en masse, sufficiently self-defending to fly in daylight. That strategy allowed use of the highly accurate Norden bombsight.
Daylight operations proved, however, equally hazardous. In October, the Eighth Air Force sent 290 bombers on a second attack of Schweinfurt. The attack temporarily cut production by two-thirds. The cost was startling: 60 aircraft shot down. Given that cost, further attacks on the site were curtailed, to what Speer called his “overwhelming relief.”
The British aircraft that played the most effective part in the bombing was the type Murrow rode to Berlin, the Avro Lancaster, arguably the finest heavy bomber of the European war. Although the Lancaster was a touch slower than the B-17, it could carry 14,000 pounds of bombs to Berlin. Max Hastings, author of Bomber Command: Myths and Reality of the Strategic Bombing Offensive, says, “The Lancaster was a stupendously reliable piece of machinery; crews had enormous confidence in it.” The Lancaster entered service in early 1942. In May of that year, Great Britain had only 29 of them; by January 1943, it had 178, and they made up better than a third of its frontline component. Historian Robin Neillands, who interviewed dozens of Bomber Command veterans for his book The Bomber War, says, “They adored the Lancaster.”