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National Review
National Review
24 Feb 2024
Eric Hogan

NextImg:Masters of the Air — and Warriors for Freedom

I n the tradition of the highly praised World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, the newly released miniseries Masters of the Air tells the story of the Americans who won the air war against Germany during World War II. Viewers of the series will learn what life was like for the American airmen who flew the terrifying bombing missions over Germany that slowly but surely crippled the German war machine.

Without question, one of the most powerful instruments employed by the United States and her Allies to achieve total victory in World War II was the U.S. Eighth Air Force. It was formed in Savannah, Ga., in January 1942, shortly after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. to enter the war.

Within months of its formation, the Eighth Air Force had spread nationwide to train thousands of pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and gunners to man the thousands of planes the American “arsenal of democracy” would soon produce and deploy for battle. By August 1942, Eighth bombers led by Paul Tibbets flew their first small, cautious mission. Three years later, Tibbets would fly the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

Other famous personalities would fill the ranks of the Mighty Eighth. Jimmy Doolittle, the distinguished Medal of Honor winner from the daring 1942 Doolittle raid over Tokyo, was the commanding officer from January 1944 to the 1945 German surrender. The Academy Award–winning actor Jimmy Stewart and the legendary Dallas Cowboy football coach Tom Landry were squadron leaders on numerous perilous missions. Even actor Clark Gable (Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind) flew some missions as a gunner and photographer.

In 1970 British historian, Roger Freeman, christened the term “Mighty Eighth” Air Force, and it grew to represent air power on a scale never before imagined, and never to be equaled. By spring 1944, in good weather conditions, the Eighth Air Force could put 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters into the sky for missions over Germany. This was a serious air-traffic-control problem; mid-air collisions were considered an acceptable hazard. A new theater of war had now been introduced to thousands of men that would never occur again after 1945 — desperate combat at 25,000 feet where temperatures are below zero and there is virtually no oxygen.

Of necessity, the U.S. established 71 air bases in the area to the north and east of London known as East Anglia. The terrain was flat and close to the English Channel, making it ideal as a home for the heavy bombers — the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators. Almost 350,000 Americans served in the Eighth Air Force; the Brits called it a “friendly invasion.”

East Anglia remains the most Americanized part of Britain, an aftereffect of once suddenly being overrun by thousands of young Americans. By 1944, records we have of locals’ mindset suggest it changed from gloominess to confidence in final victory as they witnessed massive American air armadas assemble and then head out over the Channel for deadly serious business against the Nazis.

Advanced technology was key to their efforts. The invention of the state-of-the-art “Norden Bombsight,” that era’s equivalent of today’s smart bomb, had led President Roosevelt and American war planners to embrace a totally new use for air power. They developed the concept of “strategic bombing”: using air power not just to attack enemy military positions (tactical bombing), but also on an unprecedented scale to degrade the enemies’ means of production, transportation, and energy. That is, to destroy the ability of an enemy to effectively wage war.

The explicit strategy of the Eighth Air Force was the precision strategic bombing of German military and industrial targets. To implement this strategy effectively, the American high command decided to fly daylight-bombing missions. This was necessary so that the bombing would be accurate enough to hit most of the intended military and industrial targets. The British considered daylight missions too dangerous and the number of lost planes and crew too high to be acceptable. Thus, the British strategy became night “area” bombing.

Let no one misunderstand this fact: American bombers flew the more hazardous daylight missions over Germany, exposing their gallant crews to greater danger from German fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns. They did this for the specific purpose of making their bombing of military and industrial targets more accurate and to minimize the inevitable civilian casualties.

To this end, by 1943, the Eighth Air Force was flying frequent missions deep into the heart of Germany, going after all the components of the German war machine. As these dangerous missions attacked further into Germany, however, the casualty rate reached unsustainable levels. The August 17, 1943, raid against the ball-bearing and Messerschmitt plants in Schweinfurt and Regensburg graphically exposed how bad the losses could be when sending unprotected bombers on a long-range mission against a heavily defended target. The attacking force of over 300 bombers lost 60 planes, each with a ten-man crew. Another 100 bombers suffered extensive battle damage.

As these casualty figures indicate, the lack of fighter protection against highly effective German Luftwaffe fighters and their experienced pilots was a serious obstacle. American fighter planes stopped protecting their bombers far short of Germany because the fighters would run low on fuel and be forced to return to their bases in Britain. In late 1943, the Mighty Eighth suspended long-range missions temporarily, pending a solution to this problem.

Fortunately, by early 1944 that solution began to show up in force: the next generation American fighter plane, the magnificent P-51 Mustang. The P-51, which became the most effective fighter plane of the war, was equipped with long-range fuel tanks and could escort the B-17s and B-24s all the way to the target and back.

By spring 1944, the Eighth Air Force concentrated its attention to the destruction of the German Luftwaffe. With the D-Day invasion of France planned for June, the Luftwaffe had to be neutralized, so that only friendly aircraft would be in the skies over the beaches of Normandy. (Only a couple of German planes ultimately managed to show up and attempt a futile run over the beaches that basically did no damage.)

The precision strategic-bombing campaign never completely eliminated German war production. But by early 1944, production had stopped increasing. By summer, it began a downward spiral. By 1945, it was virtually nonexistent. Continuous bombing raids in 1944 against Nazi synthetic- fuel facilities and oil refineries made the strict rationing of fuel mandatory. This seriously limited the training of new pilots and tank crews. Eventually, front-line pilots and crews were forced to curtail operations because of fuel shortages.

Besides destroying military and industrial targets, the strategic-bombing campaign of the Eighth Air Force had three additional major effects on the outcome of the war.

First, it forced the Germans to move valuable weapons from offensive to defensive purposes. The German “88” was arguably the best artillery, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft gun of the war. In 1943, the Germans began to strip their armies of their 88s at an accelerating pace to defend their cities with thousands of anti-aircraft guns. This caused incalculable damage to the fighting abilities of their armies, especially on the Russian front with its huge tank battles.

Second, by late 1943, 70 percent of German fighters were deployed to defend the homeland against strategic bombers, rather than supporting armies in the field. This put the German armies at a substantial disadvantage relative to their thoroughly air-supported foes: the American, British, and Russian armies.

And third, 1.5 million German personnel were assigned to air-defense duty against Allied bombing. Every other theater of the war would have been tougher if many of these personnel had been available for other combat duty.

Despite this, in recent years, a few historical revisionists have questioned the morality of the devastating bombing campaign of the Eighth Air Force. Because most German cities were severely damaged and there were hundreds of thousands of German civilian casualties as collateral damage, it has even been called a war crime.

Such arguments overlook key facts. American troops were dying on average at a rate of over 9,000 per month. The execution of Jews and others in concentration camps averaged 80,000 per month. Allied leaders had a responsibility to end the war and stop the loss of Allied lives and innocent Jewish prisoners as soon as they could (though the full, horrific extent of the Holocaust was not known until the end of the war). Using the heavy bombers of the Mighty Eighth to degrade the ability of the Germans to wage war, and to break the will of the Nazis to resist their inevitable defeat, was a morally justifiable use of a powerful tool to end the war more quickly.

Virtually the entire German high command that survived the war agreed in post-war interviews that Allied bombing and air supremacy was the single greatest cause of German defeat. The most conclusive evidence comes from Albert Speer, who oversaw German military and industrial production from 1942 until the war’s end. He asserted that “the strategic bomber is the cause of all of our setbacks,” and referred to strategic bombing as “the greatest lost battle on the German side.”

The price for this victory was high: The Eighth Air Force had the most fatalities of any American military unit in World War II — 26,000, with another 28,000 taken prisoner. The war as a whole was the worst in human history. But the ultimate Allied victory determined that the second half of the 20th century would be dominated by freedom and democracy, not dictatorship and enslavement. The world was not perfect, but two long-time militaristic, authoritarian countries, Germany and Japan, were transformed into peaceful, prosperous democracies. And Western Europe was rebuilt under the Marshall Plan.

A visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Savannah, Ga., is a trip to hallowed ground. It is profoundly moving to reflect on the somber plaques placed by Eighth Air Force veterans in the memorial grounds to forever immortalize their crews; to honor the original headstone from Arlington National Cemetery of their commander, General Jimmy Doolittle; to inspect a restored B-17; or to personally experience what it was like to fly a harrowing mission over Germany in the “Mission Experience” virtual-reality exhibit.

The U.S. Eighth Air Force was but one of many vital components of Allied victory in World War II. But the brave and resolute crewmen of the Mighty Eighth deserve to be remembered as the unstoppable force that delivered a decisive blow against the Nazis.