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A munitions specialist prepares a bomb to be used during Operation Linebacker over North Vietnam. (USAF)

The Christmas Bombing

In December 1972, B-52 bombers that North Vietnamese missile crews had been waiting for came to Hanoi. Night after night. Over virtually the same track.

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Still, Van was determined to try. The first wave had almost ended Van's hopes when several bombs hit close to the 77th, damaging some of the equipment and causing casualties among the crews who loaded the missiles on the launchers. A few minutes later, when Van turned on his Fan Song and tried to automatically track a B-52, the site was attacked by a Wild Weasel whose Shrike exploded less than 100 feet from the command van.

Van's frustration mounted when the second wave of B-52s attacked and the battalion could not break out a bomber from the jamming, but during that attack Van thought he noticed a point when the B-52's jamming dropped off. "We saw that the B-52s heavily jammed and usually whitened our radarscope…[but] we saw that the jamming did not remain heavy all the time," he recalls. "The main point was to calculate and determine the timing [and] range to expose the B-52 for us to kill like a lamb."

Van and his crew had another opportunity four hours later when the third wave of B-52s arrived, flying the same route and bombing some of the same targets as the previous two waves. The crew members of the 77th watched their assigned target carefully, and when they saw its jamming decrease sharply, they fired two missiles and went to the automatic tracking mode. The B-52 Rose 01 was hit, and four of the crew members bailed out successfully before the B-52 crashed in the suburbs of Hanoi.

Van had discerned a major vulnerability in the U.S. tactics. SAC had directed that each bomber roll into a steep post-target turn immediately after bomb release, a carryover from the days of high-altitude nuclear delivery. But SAC had not tested these tactics against the Fan Song radar or considered what a steep post-target turn would do in a SAM environment. In fact, the turn rotated the bombers' fixed and downward-focused jamming antennas away from the SAM radars on the ground, enabling the Fan Song radar to break out the aircraft's radar return and track it automatically.

The next morning, as the sun rose, curious Hanoi citizens surrounded the wreckage of two B-52s. Units from all over Vietnam sent congratulations, and General Nhan said that "a special feeling pervaded the various command headquarters, from the battalion to the general staff, from the northern rear area to southern battlefields. The Hanoi air defenses had stood up to America's greatest weapon and had held its own; it had inspired the people and the Army."

Although the bombers flew the same routes to the same targets with the same post-target turns the next night, the North Vietnamese hit only two and were unable to bring any of them down. The following morning the 361st Air Division staff called all of the missile battalion commanders to an urgent meeting at headquarters, disregarding the fact that they had not slept all night. Each of the nine battalion commanders was called before the assembled group to explain what tactics he had used, why they had failed, and what he planned to do to improve results. That afternoon, staff officers visited each battalion to review their tactics and procedures on the command van's simulator, and the crews practiced their operations in all the situations they had seen the first two nights and developed variations on their standard methods of controlling the missiles to take advantage of the B-52s' predictable maneuvers.

The third night of raids, December 20, began like the two previous nights: The first wave of B-52s appeared just before eight o'clock. As the U.S. force approached, the crew members in the command van of the 93rd Battalion waited anxiously. The 93rd had been harshly criticized for its failures the night before, and all that afternoon the officers had reviewed their procedures with a trainer from the 361st Headquarters staff. As the B-52s moved in to bomb targets they had bombed the previous two nights, the 93rd's hard work earlier that day was rewarded: The men fired two missiles at a B-52 banking in its post-target turn, and a few moments later Quilt 03 fell almost vertically out of the sky. Four of the six crew members survived.

The rest of the missile battalions soon made up for their failures of the previous night. Three battalions fired at one bomber, their missiles arriving just as the bomb doors on the aircraft opened. The resulting explosion was bright enough to be seen by a U.S. reconnaissance plane 80 miles away over the Gulf of Tonkin; miraculously, two of the six crew members survived.

As B-52 after B-52 was hit, the news flooded into the 361st headquarters command post, where a loudspeaker on the bunker's wall carried the voice of a female radio announcer reporting combat developments. Le Van Tri, commander of the Air Defense Command, called the 361st to report: "The enemy's formations are becoming disorganized. They are calling one another in panic and requesting air rescue…."

The North Vietnamese were ecstatic, but few missiles were coming over the assembly lines as they tried desperately to get ready for the expected midnight raid. Yet at midnight there was no raid on Hanoi, only a small B-52 raid well to the North. The second wave of B-52s scheduled to bomb Hanoi had been recalled by SAC. The North Vietnamese missile crews had done what the Japanese, Germans, North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians had failed to do—for the first and only time in the history of U.S. air combat operations, U.S. bombers on their way to a target turned back because of enemy defenses. Having decided to turn the second wave back, however, SAC reversed itself and sent the third wave on. By the time it arrived—about four in the morning—the Hanoi missile battalions had been rearmed.

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