The Bomber Always Gets Through-Why Were Allied Air Chiefs So Naive?

Both the RAF and USAAF bomber proponents thought that the lumbering bombers could defend themselves from fighter attack. Yet, the sad experience was otherwise-RAF bomber losses were so high, that the RAF switched to night bombing as safer.
The USAAF had the RAF’s experience going into the conflict-but the generals thought the same way-they thought that the bombers cold sty in close formation, and ward off the German fighters with concentrated machinegun fire.
This is srprising to me-even in the 1930’s fighters were averaging 150-200 MPH faster than bombers. A fighter could penetrate a bomber formation and wreak havoc-and this was proven in 1941.
The bombers continued to take huge losses, until the advent of long-range fighter escorts. Why were the bomber generals so reluctant to open their eyes?

The theories were developed long before the war. And the British designed some of their bombers that were faster than fighters, so they thought they could get through.

The American bombers were much more heavily armed than the British ones, so they thought they could get through.

They both built whole industries out of this, and were loathe to admit they were wrong.

And then there’s radar, which the Germans didn’t have before the war. And neither side had when their theorists laid out the strategy.

It’s a subset of “why do militaries rarely if ever admit that the vastly expensive tech they have invested billions of dollars in is now vulnerable to other technologies?”

The answer is something along the lines of: it would jeapardize people’s careers and vested interests, people have a natural dislike of admitting mistakes, the fears of vulnerability may be wrong and in any case can only really be proved in combat, etc.

See for example battleships during WW2, or aircraft carriers right now.

Because they weren’t psychic. There wasn’t any practical way to know the loss rates against a modern interceptor force; they honestly believed the bombers could pull it off. It certainly wasn’t a surprise to anyone that fighters were faster than bombers; their belief was that well armed bombers, covering each other, could provide suppressive fire that would make up for it. If you look at the firepower those things carried, to be honest it’s kind of understandable why you’d think it would work. A formation of B-17s was throwing out a really astounding amount of .50 bullets.

Your OP sort of implies that bombers were utterly helpless inthe face of fighters but that just isn’t the case. German fighters did, in fact, have to be careful when attacking Allied heavy bombers, and the difference in loss rates between a successful raid and an unsuccessful one wasn’t that great. A large raid that lost, say, 7% of its bombers was a disaster; 2%, though, wasn’t bad at all. So the margin between success and failure was one bomber out of 20.

My grandfather flew Halifax heavy bombers for 427 Squadron. I looked up the mission list and **not once in his entire period of duty, on not a single mission, did his squadron lose more than one bomber in a sortie. ** Not once did the Germans succeed in destroying two bombers on a single mission (they damaged some, but never shot down more than one.) Not on any mission he was on or any one he sat out. The fact is the fighters WEREN’T tearing them apart; it was very hard for them to score kills. But if you lose that one bomber too often, the attrition adds up; 1 out of 12 would have wrecked the squadron in no time at all, 1 out of 24 would have been very hard to sustain, but you could get by with 1 out of 48. It’s a game of small percentages.
As with most OPs that ask the question “why did the admirals and generals of the past not know what I know now” the answer is that of course they could not have known and they were a lot smarter than you give them credit for. In 1939 the difference between losing 2% of your force on a sortie, which you could sustain, versus 7%, which you could not, was not something they could predict would happen. Nobody had fought a full scale world war using these weapons before. Nobody saw radar coming. Nobody knew how fighters would be carrying more cannons and going faster and all that. They were just making a best guess, and of course it’s not like the Germans were sitting still and not adapting as well. As the war progressed they took steps, about as quickly as you reasonably could given the technical and industrial difficulties involved, to try to move that percentage from unsustainable to sustainable.

And of course there’s strategic innertia; as a later warmonger would put it, you fight with the army you have, not the army you want to have. The Allies had built a bomber force leading up to the war and they had to use it because that’s what they had, and despite what some have said elsewhere it did hurt Germany. It sure could have been worse; they could have had a fleet of light two-engined bombers like the Germans had, which against a modern air force were hopelessly outclassed.

For a slightly more detailed account, this book gives a pretty good overview of the American bombing campaign in the European theatre. Mostly, as people have said, it was a matter of “testing” new technology in The Real World. A phenomenon that’s been demonstrated in quite a few wars…

(My father was shot down over France by this guy & avoided a POW camp thanks to the Comet Line.)

There’s a very simple reason you’re overlooking. The Allies didn’t have long-range fighters to defend the bombers. So you do one of two things, you either don’t send bombers on long-range missions, or you make the bombers machine gun platforms and hope they can shoot down other planes before those planes shoot them down.

It’s not like the Allies didn’t eventually have long-range fighters. The P-38 was actually developed before the War broke out and the P-51 prototype flew in 1940.

looking back, it’s hard to believe some of the *chutzpa *(hubris) of the top brass. If I was a B17 pilot being told not to worry, I’d’ve said something like ‘oh yeah? Would you like to join us on our next mission sir? Front row seat’. And yet, the myth persisted thru 1943 (when the Mustang started escorting) that 17s, 24s, 25s, 26s could defend themselves with their .50 cals and tight formation.
Then again, some lessons of history apparently ain’t been learned: the Stealth bomber has **no **guns. None. Even given that the whole idea is to be invisible to radar, why leave the pilot totally defenseless if there’s a flaw in the Stealth coating, chance discovery by fighter patrol, etc.? I believe the Blackbirds and U2s were also unarmed. If I remember right, at the beginning of Vietnam, the philosophy was that there wasn’t going to be any dogfighting, and the Phantoms were loaded with missiles, but no guns. After learning the contrary the hard way, the mechanix jerry-rigged some machine guns & Gatlings in pods on the downlow, which the Phantom pilots gratefully accepted. But even that recent lesson apparently hasn’t sunk in - the B2 bomber is also unarmed! Do the pilots at least get a shotgun - or a pistol, something to shoot in case they encounter an enemy fighter?

Guns slow the planes down by causing drag, and put them in greater danger. I recall reading (in Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe IIRC) that the military commanders at the time were told this, and decided to keep the guns for purposes of improving the morale of the crew even though they were in fact endangering the crew.

Air-to-Air weapons on a B2 would be about as useful as tits on a bull. It is not a fighter. Fighters are a lot more maneuverable, and if they can see a B2, they can kill it. Period. Same deal with the B1-B and the B-52. I’ve chased both airplanes in fighters many times. They are essentially flying coffins if they get discovered by fighters. Too big, too slow, and can’t turn worth a damn.

Some models of B-52 have, or at least had, a tail gunner, but still…tits on a bull.

Installing guns on the B2 would make it less stealthy, which would make it easier to shoot it down with missiles from outside gun range. Besides, what makes you think one lone, lumbering bomber can take on an entire squadron of air superiority craft, even if it has a gun?

Guns slow the planes down by causing drag, and put them in greater danger. I recall reading (in Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe IIRC) that the military commanders at the time were told this, and decided to keep the guns for purposes of improving the morale of the crew even though they were in fact endangering the crew.
Jesus, has anyone heard of recessed covered gun ports? They could stay hidden internally until needed, then the portholes uncovered. Stealth preserved.
The point ain’t to turn bombers into multipurpose fighter/bombers; it’s to give *some *kind of defensive armament, for the very real scenario of being stumbled upon by a lone or pair of enemy fighters. Is that really so off-the-wall? Just saw some episodes of ‘Dogfights’ with the very scenario - pre-podded Phantoms getting unexpectedly jumped when they were out of missiles.

No; but those guns wouldn’t do the bomber any good. They’d never be able to even aim the things at a much more maneuverable fighter*, and that’s assuming the fighter would for some reason come into range instead of using missiles.
*especially since your recessed guns would be unable to change direction, unlike the gun turrets on the old WWII bombers (which still weren’t good enough).

To the OP: I thiink your premise is incorrect. The axiom that the bomber always would get through, as coined by Steven Baldwin, was in essence correct. The statement was that no matter what air defence you put up, the enemy would get enough bombers through to inflict serious damage on cities and populations. Thus, any future war would be centered on the offence, and on infliciting more damage to your opponent, than he could on you.

And, WW2 proved this to be correct - Amsterdam, the Blitz, the bombing campaigns over Europe. Basically, whenever a air force in WW2 would target an enemy city, that city would sustain serious damage, no matter what air defence were in place.

As others have noted upthread - the loss rates of bomber aircraft flying unescorted were at times high from an attritional POV, but never high enough to have a significant impact on the damage done on that particular sortie. (Some woefully inadequate AC not included, like the RAF Battles, and the Stukas flying without Air Superiority not included).

However, the result of the bomber “always getting through” was not the complete destruction of enemy infrastructure, industry and morale as predicted prior to the war, and one could not rely on air power alone to win wars.

Hey Manfred von Richthofen! When was the last time you heard of an air to air dogfight?

I find it ironic that all of you are saying how thick those old generals and admirals were while arguing about the merits of arming steath bombers with machineguns in an age where most air combat is turning to unmanned drones and future combat might involve high powered lasers!:smiley:

It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, however in reality, it is extremely difficult to create a new paradigm. People tend to extrapolate from what they know and blind themselves to failures, thinking they are simply aberrations that could be “corrected” if they just did “more” of what they “know” is correct.

And people are stuck with what they have to work with. You have to bomb Germany but bombers are vulnurable to fighters. Fighters with enough range to escort the bombers don’t exist yet. What do you do?

Yes. A large bomber like a B-2 has no chance in combat against a modern fighter. None. The only way it survives is to not be seen by the fighter.

Guns are not going to be effective against the load out of the modern fighter, missiles fired from maybe 20 miles away.

The bombers did get through, almost always, but just didn’t have the effect that had been hoped for and the thing they lacked was the killer weapon - which did eventually turn up - from then on the situation has been completely changed, one bomber getting though might well win a war.

To finish it off, they dispensed with he bomber altogether.

and in this idyllic world where there are no dogfights, there are also no computer-controlled 37mm cannon, or mini-Gatlings?

Staggering…just staggering.
1st of all, not all of the bombers’ flight is gonna be stealthy, nor supersonic. 2nd, with all the tech & avionix available, the B2 could pick up the presence of an enemy fighter (via warning from an AWACS if not his own radar), and have the computer-controlled guns track the fighter & shoot before he could even aim. Point is, there really is no reason not to arm the bombers - it’s probably an example of ‘we do it like this because we’ve always done it like this’ mentality so prevalent in aircraft design. Is it so innovative to put a computer-controlled laser-guided recessed port 37mm cannon on a bomber, to protect a $2 billion investment (not to mention the pilots)? Why do I get the feeling I’m gonna get answered like Dr. Evil asking for sharks with laser beams on their heads? Really, Stealth and fast-tracking cannons are *20th *century tech.

As far as the ww2 bombers, it was just arrogance & short-sightedness on the part of the Army (remember, in ww2, they weren’t the Air Force, but the Air Corps, part of the Army). The same generals who put the P39 Airacobras & P40 Warhawks up against the Zeroes. And, who thought the German fighters would be ‘scared off’ by all the .50 cal lead flying at them. That explains why they didn’t put the Mustang with its drop tanx into service until late '43, even though it was in the arsenal since 1940. Military blundering is that hard to believe?

Benbo1, did you actually read my post?

Guns are simply a waste of time, they do not have the range to deal with fighter aircraft. The fighters are shooting missiles from far beyond the range of muzzle velocity weapons.

What is the point of being a stealth aircraft if you need to turn on your radar to track targets anyway? The instant you do this, you are no longer a stealth aircraft and you have just thrown away your best defence.You cannot track a target and attempt to use your weapon intercept without turning on your own detection systems.

Good luck on your 37mm cannon at taking down a Mach 3 missile too.

In this idyllic world, there have been at least 3 wars, with at least one with a modern opposing air force where stealth aircraft have been used and a grand total of ONE plane has been lost.

What exactly do you think is the maximum range of a Gatling cannon?

What is the typical range of an air-to-air missile?