Orchestrated Hell

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

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))
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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.”

Preparing for takeoff, Murrow and D for Dog’s crew pulled on parachutes and Mae West vests. Parachutes were an uncertain asset. For all its strengths, the Lancaster was a difficult aircraft to get out of in a crisis—only about one in six crewmen shot down reached the ground alive. As D for Dog’s crew waited to board, a small station wagon drew up delivering for each man a thermos of coffee, chewing gum, an orange, and a square of chocolate. With that, the aircraft took off into what Murrow in his broadcast would term a “dead, silent, and expectant” sky.

In the broadcast, Murrow introduced the crew by their first names only. The Lancaster had a high cockpit, 19 feet above the ground. Jock, the pilot, sat there, with the flight engineer at his side. The navigator—on D for Dog, his name was Dave—sat behind the pilot at a small curtained-off table lit by a pinpoint lamp; Titch, the wireless operator, was backed against the main spar. His dispatches would be few and brief: German radio-interception equipment was so sensitive, according to Neillands, it could pick up the sounds of radio sets in England warming up prior to takeoff. Farther back were Boz, the bomb aimer; Wally, the mid-upper gunner; and Jack, the tail gunner. The rear gunner, Neillands writes, had the worst job: “stuck on his own at the far end of a vibrating fuselage; sucking on an oxygen line; particularly vulnerable to aircraft coming from astern.” D for Dog’s crew members were likely young: Most bomber personnel were between 19 and 22. All were volunteers.

Early in the war, the pilot was thought to be the key to success, but experience taught that crews survived only as a team. Perhaps reflecting this, Murrow would broadcast that as the flight advanced toward Germany, “Jack in the rear turret, Wally, the mid-upper gunner, Titch, the wireless operator—all seemed somehow to draw closer to Jock in the cockpit. It was as though each man’s shoulder was against the others’.”

In 1943, bombers left England with fighter cover but arrived at many targets unescorted. Not until spring 1944 did the United Kingdom get the North American P-51B Mustang, which had the range to escort bombers all the way to Berlin. After the fighters accompanying the December 2 mission turned back, Murrow reported, “Jock looked up at a vapor trail curling across above us, remarking in a conversational tone that from the look of it he thought there was a fighter up there.”

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