Could fighters have at least partially replaced bombers in WWII Europe?

Related to the thread in GQ about strafing a locomotive.

If I remember my history correctly, the air war in Western Europe focused on long range strategic bombing. The RAF bombed at night, and the USAAF bombed during the day.

That said, P-38s and P-47s cost 40 percent of what a B-7 cost, and the US could buy almost five P-51s for the cost of a B-17. .50 caliber shells cost a fraction of what a 500 or 1,000 pound bomb cost, and strafing had a far better accuracy than the 7% success rate attributed to Allied bombing.

Given, there were plenty of targets that could only be destroyed by big bombs, and incendiary bombing consumed German resources and had a significant affect on morale. That said, could there have been an advantage to replacing some of the strategic bombers with fighters and attacking targets through large scale strafing raids? To some extent, it seems that this would have been more effective: the larger number of planes could overwhelm antiaircraft defenses; accuracy would be improved (though less damage might be inflicted), and more eyes in the air might mean a better chance of identifying the targets.

In the aftermath of WW1, a guy named Giulio Douhet proposed that land warfare was obsolete; the attacker would always be at a disadvantage against the defender- except in the air, where the roles would be reversed. The speed and freedom of movement in the air would make aerial attack virtually indefensible against. Douhet theorized that future wars would be defensive stalemates on the ground and that victory or defeat would almost entirely depend on which side could most efficiently reduce its foe to rubble from the air. In particular he popularized the idea of a “knockout blow” on the eve of war which could leave a country’s capital a flaming ruin and it’s leaders dead or disorganized. Strategic air power would also be the most effective way to wage chemical or even biological warfare; nuclear war, only without nukes one might say.

The United States and Britain (both incidentally being powers that had the widest separation from potential foes) were the countries where the adherents of “strategic” air power had the greatest prewar influence, and where long range (for the time) heavy four-engine bombers were produced. The adherents of strategic air power considered any other utilization of air power a distraction at best or a waste of vital resources at worst. It took the actual experience of WW2 to prove them wrong. Strategic bombers took staggering losses from enemy air defenses and were not terribly effective until the Axis air interceptors were beaten down by sheer attrition, and the bombers gave up “precision” bombing (which routinely dropped bombs kilometers off target) and used radar to target incendiary night raids with the goal of indiscriminately torching entire cities.

By the end of the war fighter-bombers were effective in carrying out “interdiction” attacks against such things as bridges and railways in support of ground campaigns, as well as direct tactical air support of troops: exactly the things that the “Air Power” bomber enthusiasts had always opposed. Had it not been for the invention of nuclear weapons, “strategic” bombing would have been a footnote in history.

The first Mustangs were designed as fighter-bombers, to the point that they had dive brakes. I think it was a matter of cognitive dissonance on the part of the generals, who were convinced that heavy bombers were the only way to deliver lots of bombs. They got over it by Korea, when they realized that a Skyraider could carry as much tonnage as a WWII bomber.

Much smarter men, with better data, spent many sleepless nights coming up with the answer that they did. Billions of dollars were invested in their decision. This is now history; I believe they came up with the war-winning answer.

But at what cost? I believe the OP is asking if it could’ve been done cheaper, in lives and treasure, if it had been done by fighter-bombers.

Fighter-bombers would have been useless at busting the dams on the Ruhr, Ploesti or burning down Dresden. I don’t wish to create a hijack, but the guys that made the decisions and flew the planes, thought that they got it right. There’s a good reason that the B-29 was built.

That doesn’t go a long way towards explained why they commissioned the design and construction of the B-52, rather than sticking with Skyraiders.
Had a WWII fighter been able to carry the bomb load of a B-17 or a Lancaster, over the same distance, they would have used them. No such fighter existed in World War II (Skyraiders didn’t come along until it was too late, and in any event carried nowhere close to the bomb load of the late war bombers.)

Yes, it could fly higher than any interceptor the Japanese had. Had the B-29s faced a technologically comparable foe, something like the Grumman F8F Bearcat, it would have seen the 30% per mission casualties the bombers in Europe faced. Not to disparage heavy bombers- there’s nothing like a big ol’ truck for carrying lots of tonnage- but they require near-total air supremecy as a precondition of operating effectively.

Only the A-36 dive bomber variant of the P-51 had dive breaks. For real cognitive dissonance look to the Luftwaffe which required all bombers to be able to dive bomb, even though only the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber ever operated that way. And I mean all bombers, the Do-17, He-111, Ju-88 and even the He-177 had to be designed able to dive bomb.

Good point, if the Japanese had Phasers and Cloaking Devices, that would have REALLY tipped the balance. The Top Brass made their decisions on what information, technology, budgets and time-lines that they had available AND THEY WON. Ten men were lost every time a B-17 or a B-24 went down; it’s arrogant and foolish to think that a bunch of messageboard folk could be wiser, in hindsight.

this is my thought. The mix of aircraft was VERY specific. Nothing and I mean nothing went into production without a great deal of thought behind it. We had aircraft designed as fighter bombers and they were used effectively in that role.

Consider the P-61 which carried 6,400 lbs of bombs plus (4) 50 caliber guns and (4) 20 mm cannons. For a 2 engine aircraft it carried 3200 lbs per engine for 600 miles. Compare that to a B-17 which carried 8000 lbs of bombs for short range missions which is 2000 lbs of bombs per engine. the B-17 was a long range bomber so a great amount of effort was put into carrying a 4500 lb payload long range (800 miles).

On paper it seemed like the P-61 should have been the defacto bomber but when you need to travel 800 miles to deliver a payload then the metrics change considerably.

Yes, this is basically what I’m suggesting. Sorry for the drive-by posting; I’ll join in tonight.

Strafing runs are dangerous. You’d lose aircraft to AA, and also to pilot error. Factor in the shorter range and reduced payload of fighters, and the decision to use bombers the way they did seems to be the most efficient use of resources.

I’d imagine one problem with using a lot more fighters would be lack of fighter pilots. Also surely it would make air defences need to be little more than armour on roofs.

I think this is an important point. Strafing runs are good against targets like a truck convoy moving down a road but it’s not going to be very effective against a factory building. It’s pretty easy to just dump a few feet of dirt up on the roof and around the walls that will stop any bullets from getting through. You need a few tons of explosives to knock out a target like that.

It’s worth noting that the B-17 was not designed at the same time as the P-61 and so naturally did not have the same capabilities, or is “pounds per engine” a meaningful comparison, for that matter.

First of all, the B-17 was a pre-war design, created in the 1930s and starting service in 1938. The P-61, by comparison, was not operational until late 1943, which inthe context of World War II is a long, long time in aircraft design.

Secondly, there was a lot more to the B-17 than bomb load; the aircraft was designed, redesigned, and retained in service for other reasons as well. It dedicated a lot of its design and weight to defensive armament, which as it turns out might not have been the best idea but that was the theory they were working with, and was (successfully) designed to be durable to an extent no fighter could possibly match.

The Mosquito was a bomber/fighter.

No need to be snarky; I DID say “comparable” technology. The Japanese had one of the best fighter planes in the world in 1940; the problem was that’s what they still had five years later, while the US had vastly improved aircraft engines available.

They won against foes whom they had triple or more the manufacturing capacity. In anything like a closer match, the losses of the bomber commands would have gone down in history as a folly comparable to the human wave tactics of WW1. Even as late as the end of '44 the air generals were still refusing to reduce the number of defensive guns (and their crew) on the bombers, despite ample evidence that they helped so little the planes would be better off without them.

Remembering the spectacular successes of the bombers in 1945 is like remembering how well trench storming tactics worked in 1918, while forgetting what had happened before the enemy defenses had been worn down.

I chose the payload to engine reference because it’s a rough indication of the efficiencies of the plane in terms of both cost/maintenance and payload delivery. If you apply the metric to the more advanced B-29 you get roughly 5000 lbs per engine over a much farther range. The cost of the B-29 was over 3 times that of a P-61.

I picked the P-61 because it represents the theoretical replacement of bombers by a fighter/bomber. If all that was necessary in war is to bomb stuff and poke holes in things this plane was probably the most cost effective of the lot.

But there’s a small problem with using a one size fits all airplane. It’s easily defeated with a specialized interceptor airplane. The success of virtually every war is to calculate a winning combination of assets and strategies before it starts and then improve both in real time.

Besides destruction of property, mass bombing destroys the moral of the enemy. More so than a P-51 on a gun run would do. The idea is to destroy the enemy’s will to fight. Bombers are great for that. Reinforced targets require large bombs to destroy, and bombs are heavy. Smaller fighters have to balance the need for fuel into the weight/range calculations, often leaving no capacity for bombs.