How vulnerable was Germany's electrical grid in WWII?

This article is about the situation in Germany during WWII and how, in retrospect, the Allies misjudged and lost a strategic opportunity early in the War.

To the author the situation may be analogous to the Iran infrastructure. The title and tenor of intro to the article linking the two is obnoxious (“Nazi Germany==Iran”).

I’m interested in the historical analysis, basically.

I think the author is making some big assumptions. The military used the strategy that he’s advocating - knock an enemy country out of the war by targeting one critical sector of its economy for destruction via heavy bombing. His only argument is that they chose the wrong critical sector.

Generally speaking, the program didn’t work. Heavy bombing was a lot less destructive than promised and national economies turned out to have more resilience. Strategic bombing helped an overall war effort but it couldn’t decide wars on its own. I’d need a lot more evidence before I’d agree with the author’s claim that the idea was fundamentally sound and it had just needed a little tweak.

I have no idea. But strategic bombing worked to the extent it destroyed untold numbers of targeted civilians — and towards the end of the war, when it became possible, gutted entire cities. Before that they could bounce back: hitting factories didn’t stop them starting over in weeks; and even the Dam Raids as an example of targeting infrastructure, although technically brilliant and brave, achieved less than was hoped. Drowning only a few civilians.
Plus, to an extent no-one can imagine today, electricity was not so utterly important back at that time, whether in western europe or the USA. There were plenty of farms that weren’t electrified until the 1950s.
I found this more amusing:
The German power system was, in hindsight, the most vulnerable aspect of the German economy.
No shit. And for your encore explain which national economy this would not apply to; then discuss what the next set of baddest people to ever exist may do to the U.S. National Grid through hacking.

Just from the military standpoint, the British decided to target the hydropower dams because destroyuing them would deprive the Germans of considerable (cheap) electricity, and that dams would take a long time to repair or replace. Coal mine shafts were also considered but they were far easier to repair than dams.

Now exactly how do you disrupt/destroy a distribution grid? Those are a lot easier to repair and replace.

IIRC electricity production and distribution was a lot more decentralized in the pre WW2 world including Germany. You had lots of small power plants serving small areas. So the effect was less.

BTW the page linked to, StrategyPage is like a wikipedia for armchair strategists. Anyone can post anything there.

Boy, that article really downplays the effect of the Allied bombing campaign against oil output, which indeed turned out to be crippling, and should have been attempted much earlier in the war.

And then it claims that attacking transportation hubs would have been decisive? Well, the transportation network was critical…the problem is, how does one effectively attack it with 1940s technology? As we later demonstrated by bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, it’s not very effective bombing a simple road. And railroads were fairly easy to repair – the American Civil War is full of cases of rail lines being swiftly returned to action. And hitting targets like rail lines and roads with free-fall bombs from high altitudes was essentially random at best.

What the author may be thinking of is the successful attacks on the French railway and road network associated with the lead-up to D-Day and the subsequent ground fighting leading to the liberation of France. In that case, “interdiction” attacks on road and rail were very effective.

But there were key differences. Most of the effective attacks were carried out by low-level fighter-bombers, operating in huge numbers with near-impunity. Not only were they able to hit rail junctions and track reliably from low altitude with loiter time, they were able to attack and destroy actual traffic – individual locomotives, trucks, and tanks – in a way that high-altitude bombing with B-17s and B-24s could never have achieved.

Also, repairing track was not a priority when Allied armies were pressing up fast and bringing at least the railheads under threat of direct ground attack. Attacking roads right behind the front is an order of magnitude more effective when the enemy already has his hands full facing ground attack.

None of this was possible deep inside Germany itself until the very final stages of the war. It’s ludicrous to assert that four-engine strategic bombers, badly harassed by the Luftwaffe and flak, could have paralyzed Germany’s internal transportation network early in the war, and by the time we were regularly operating fighter-bombers over the streets and rail crossings of Berlin, the war was already won and Hitler was crouched in the bunker fingering his service pistol.

Another factor was the dual value of transportation facilities like roads, rail lines, ports, and bridges. The Germans might be using them now. But the allies planned on advancing into German-held territory and when they did, those same facilities would be useful to them if they were intact.

There was no similar consideration for targets like oil production or industrial centers. The allies had no plans to used captured German facilities for their own production.

I’ve seen it argued the most important effect of the US daylight bombing campaign was the damage done to the Luftwaffe’s pilot corp. Because the lasting damage to German industry was minor, the Luftwaffe could replace planes but they couldn’t replace the experienced pilots lost trying to repel the raids. By the time of the D-Day invasions, they still had enough planes that they could likely have made some difference in the hands of experienced pilots.

In that sense, it wasn’t all that different from the medieval idea of chevauchee where the idea was to attack targets that the civilian population would demand be defended so as to get the enemy to come out of their fortifications. The actual loot/damage to industrial production was of only secondary importance so long as it drew out the enemy knights/pilots. The actual industrial targets in the US bombing raids were always a bit of a fig leaf-- what was important was that they were bombing within the cities and the civilian population would not have been happy about the Luftwaffe not sallying forth to meet them. Is suspect a lot of the likely electric infrastructure targets were rural and might not have had the desired effect.

I think that had the Allied bombing campaign been confined to one key target only (and the others ignored) it might have worked. Instead, we gave up just when decisive results began to be obtained. Had we targeted the Ruhr Valley (home to over 80% of German heavy industry, mining, coal and steel), we could have stopped the production of tanks and heavy guns. German industry ran on coal, and if enough mines and distribution points had been destroyed, the war could have ended sooner. Even by November 1941, steel was in short supply-the massive destruction of tanks and trucks in Russia was becoming a major problem for German war planners.

The power grids were not standardised even on voltage, frequency or even a.c/d.c and as such was highly decentralised.

Steam was still very much in evidence, especially in rural locations and was used to provide power for many machines. Steam was also used in factories to operate group shaft drive machines - you will have seen those old photos of factories where everything was running from overhead rotating shafts, which in turn were connected by pulleys to various machines. The prime mover in many such factories would often be a steam driven motor, or occasionally a single large electric motor that might itself be operated from a steam driven generator.

As such, coal was probably more critical, though fuel oil could also be used. Railways were far more extensive and very difficult to put out of action for any significant length of time, canals were extremely difficult to put out of action, rivers were virtually impossible to compromise, and all these made the movement of bulk fuels possible. Add to all this; precision bombing hardly existed, was generally extremely risky and reserved for specific high value targets instead of more general infrastructure degrading.

Allied aircraft simply could not carry out daylight raids to hit smaller targets such as power stations, power lines or even rail lines and canals, the losses were far too high.

The article also notes that any such vulnerabilities of the German power distribution system were only identified once the war was over - we can all be wiser after the event. It was noted for example, that the heavy bombing campaign might well have been much more effective and result in much lower allied losses had medium and light bombers such as the Mosquito had been used, but again that was identified well after the war was over.

There were tactical errors regarding the use of bombers, which should have been used far in a far more targeted manner, instead of area bombing, but it took several years before tactics developed to such a degree that a useful predictable and provable effect could be meted out and measured.

I think the author is really stretching things here - I note they don’t mention the failure of the German campaign on London which failed even to put out of action the docklands area, and this was a much easier target to identify and hit with relatively light casualties.

Heavy bombing was a relatively new technique, it had proven very effective in Spain with medium bombers, and it had been thought that heavier bomb loads would be proportionately more effective.

Indeed, both Germany and Japan were caught in self feeding downward spirals in pilot quality. In order to be able to replace heavy losses and conserve fuel, the amount of pilot training time was reduced more and more as the war went on. This in turn produced lower quality pilots, who didn’t last as long in combat due to their lower skill, which in turn meant replacement pilots had to be cranked out even faster, which meant further reducing training times which led to even lower pilot quality. Stalingrad didn’t help out Germany in this regard either; in order to try to come up with enough Ju-52 transports and pilots to try to supply 6th Army from the air, the Luftwaffe stripped pilot training schools of planes and instructors. Two other effects of the strategic bombing were trying up large numbers of heavy AA guns (over 10,000 seems to be the most commonly used figure) and personnel.

I too am very skeptical about the claims of the author of the article. His own figures don’t add up very well:

Twenty tons of bombs would put a power plant out of action for up to 3 months, but forty tons would knock it out for a year? By his won math, the 900 tons of bombs actually dropped on power plants should have knocked 22.5 plants, or 5.6% of Germany’s electrical grid out of operation for a year. I’d also want a lot more proof that power plants were actually so difficult to build and repair or easy to damage than some random guy on the internet. Pretty much everything being bombed during the war was turning out to be much more difficult to damage or knock out of action than was thought, and much easier to repair or replace to keep things running. The very title of the article - “Iran Struggles With Its Nazi Connection” - doesn’t lend itself to placing much faith in the author’s reliability.

Are you missing your cerebral cortex?

He was making some valid points.

Moderator Note

This is General Questions. Insulting another poster isn’t allowed.

samclem, moderator

After the war ended in Germany, teams from the USAAF started making detailed surveys of the damage to the country and its infrastructure. From these insights, the war planners in the Pacific war were able to make changes to the bombing priorities in Japan. After that theater ended, they again did the same thing and were able to gain more knowledge for strategic bombing.

WWII was the first war where strategic bombing was implemented, so it’s no wonder that it took a number of years to sort things out, especially considering the dearth of intelligence and even gaps in the understanding of the enemies’ infrastructures and economics.

The US allocated too many resources to attacking Japan’s oil refining capabilities at the end of the war. It’s not that attacking refineries is a bad idea per se; it’s that by the summer of 1945, so little crude oil was getting through the blockage, that the refinery capacity was no longer the critical factor.

The US Navy started to switch its targets from the remaining IJN ships, which were basically fixed AA platforms for the lack of oil, and started attacking transportation infrastructure.

Finally, there ought to be an equivalent to Godwin’s Law for comparing wars. What was a damn good idea 70 years ago may not work or be needed now. Things have changed a tiny bit since then.

There’s also the myth that WWII era bombers were actually able to hit a specific target with any degree of accuracy. There was little point in arguing the merits of which building you should be aiming for when bombs routinely landed miles away from their supposed target.

The German military had an organization that tracked where allied bombs landed so they could determine what the allied air forces were targeting and set their defenses accordingly. But the location where the bombs fell was so random the Germans were often unable to figure out what it was the allies where aiming for. Sometimes they couldn’t even tell what city the allies had been trying to bomb.

The overwhelming allied air power demonstrates just how difficult it is to knock out an enemy’s industrial complex when he’s doing everything that he can to stop you. Truth be told the allied did everything in their power and for the most part did it in te right order and modified their tactics when it didn’t work.

The Brits found out early (like the Germans) that unescorted bombers don’t work we’ll during the day and this knowledge limited their operations somewhat until sufficient escorts were available to them and their American allies.

Many alternate history options have been argued for after the war. Some claim that the Brits had heaps of 50cals in their inventory in 1940 and that replacing their .303 aircraft armament with these they could have decisively won the Battle of Britain early and easily. Other point to the de haviland mosquito and its exceptional war record. It has the lowest loss ratio of any aircraft in the war. They point out that a mosquito flying multiple raids a night could carry more bombs than a Lancaster, use half of the vital Merlin engines and still come home with a fraction of the losses.

All of these theories possibly have merit, but there would have been practical limits in the way otherwise they would not have been done. I’m sure it would have occurred to them then as it does now. The one thing that few people remember is that ww2 lasted only 6 years for the British and effectively 4ish years for the Americans. Compare that to say Iraq and Afghanistan and considers how the strategic requirements changed and you realize that things were moving incredibly fast. If it takes a year to conceive a new strategy, put in place the manpower and build the required factories and tool and then start the new campaign in earnest, it would have been 1/3 of America’s time in the war.

Personally I’ve always wondered why they never firebombed farms and stuff. They sunk shipping to starve out England, bombed the factories and airfields and tried to shake up the population, but why not the farmland.

Again probably practical and political obstacles in the way.


Looks like 14,000 Lbs for the Lanc and 4,000 Lbs for the Mosquito.

I think the concept was good-but the execution flawed. In his 1970’s book, Albert Speer discusses the impact that the bombing had on German industry. By the end of 1944, Germany was still capable of producing large numbers of fighter planes…but all of the experienced pilots were dead. Also, the oil supply was inadequate-the Romanian oil fields were getting hammered, and the synthetic oil production was inadequate. Once gain, coal was key-it ran the power plants, and was the feedstock for synthetic oil…had the coal production been disrupted, it would have been the end of the German war machine.

John Keegan pointed out that, in practice, high-grade steel machinery proved almost impossible to destroy using aerial explosives. The buildings might be destroyed, but the critical machinery just got knocked over. Crews could right it again, reconnect it to power, and have it turning out war material in a shockingly short time.

Can’t argue that coal wasn’t important, but I’m dubious that aerial bombing would have been an effective way to attack coal. We’ve already discussed how the Allies couldn’t reliably hit railroad infrastructure until they could bring short-ranged fighter-bombers to bear. I can’t imagine that hitting the mouth of a mineshaft would have been possible except by accident; and bombing an open pit mine – essentially already a huge crater – would have been totally absurd, and might even have helped (by breaking coal into loose chunks). And it’s not like stored coal itself would be vulnerable to catastrophic destruction like aviation gasoline; some World War I dreadnoughts had been designed to employ bunkered coal as additional protection against naval shells that penetrated their armor.