The world trembled as fire rained down from the skies above. People were disoriented, frantic, and running for shelter as churches, hospitals, and houses burned to the ground. By the time the explosions ceased, most of the city was ablaze and in ruin. The date is 1 September 1939, and the name of the town is Wieluń, Poland. World War II has just begun in Europe with the Luftwaffe carrying out a series of pre-emptive attacks against its neighbors prior to invasion.
At the time of the attack on Poland, the Luftwaffe was considered one of the greatest threats to the Allies. The German’s had begun to perfect the use of jet-engines, cruise missiles, and rocket propelled artillery. The V-weapons that Germany was producing were a troubling concern, especially to Great Britain by 1941. Over the course of the war, Germany had launched numerous assaults against many British towns with V-1 and V-2 rockets.
This was the stage that was set for the Allies as German forces raced across Europe. By the time the United States entered into the war after Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Europe was just trying to hang on while and adjust to this new multi-domain warfare.
The speed and progression of technology in Germany was not only a source of concern for the Allies, but also a prime target for a counter-strike. Striking at the pride of the German forces would deal an undeniable blow to the enemy. It also would mean that a major obstacle in the road to Berlin would be removed. Almost four years after the bombing of Wieluń, the Allies moved to launch a sustained bombing offensive against the Germans in a move to cripple them. This was the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) — a series of strategic bombing campaigns designed to send the German forces running.
Prior to the proposed offensive, the U.S. and the British had been acquiring targets and bombing those targets on their own. Operation Pointblank unified the Allied air forces into a structured format for the bombing of hostile facilities, materiel, and cities. The British were charged with utilizing heavy bombers under the cover of night to attack their targets. Meanwhile, U.S. bombers with fighter escorts would attack targets during the day. Due to the nature of bombsights in World War II, accuracy was poor at best. Night time bombing raids meant even lower accuracy. As a result, there were often high amounts of collateral damage from British bombing runs.
The first raids of the CBO occurred on 10 June 1943 in the middle of the ongoing air battle in the Ruhr region. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had launched a raid against industrial German centers near the Rhine River on the border with Belgium. All of the locations that were bombed by the RAF were key industrial complexes which in some way handled production, movement, or management. Of 783 aircraft that were launched, thirty-eight were lost. Ruhr would continue to be a CBO target through the end of the war.
Due to the nature of the weapons used, many U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) aircraft were unable to carry the payloads of British weaponry. The USAAF bomber fleet consisted primarily of B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. As a result, American air raids tended to have a much higher number of bombers in their formations. Likewise, American bombing raids also were spread out over a wider area rather than a straight line. The USAAF’s first campaign would be on 22 June in Huls, Germany against a synthetic rubber plant.
Intense anti-aircraft fire from the ground meant that losses were high, especially the earlier campaigns. The Germans had amassed a large amount of flaK guns, air-burst rounds, and anti-aircraft guns. Britain would have over 40,000 aircraft losses by the end of the Battle of Europe, with the USAAF mounting just over 38,000. For comparison, Germany lost the same amount of both air forces combined. Between the RAF and USAAF, almost three million tons of bombs were dropped on Axis territories across one million sorties.
By the time the CBO ended in April of 1945, the Allied forces had pushed well into Germany. Some estimates conclude that many German cities had been completely destroyed by incendiary bombs from the British or carpet bombing from the Americans. The Allies had achieved their mission objective by breaking the industrial backbone of the Germans, and leaving the Luftwaffe totally stripped of any potential.
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