World War II Buffs: WWII Strategy?

In WWII, why didn’t the Allies bomb the heck out of the German railroads (by air) from the start? I’m no historian, but it seems to me the railroads were clearly the lifeline for Nazi Army. Furthermore, why didn’t the Allies go for air superiority over the Nazis before engaging in the Battle of the Bulge, etc?

Thanks for helping me understand.

They did. But it takes time to build up fleets of bombers and trained aircrews - it was a constantly ramping up affair. Also “precision bombing” was extremely imprecise in WW II - simply a technological limitation. The vast, vast majority of dropped bombs missed their primary targets. That the Allies did as much damage as they did was simply down to the massive tonnage of explosives they dropped.

As to air superiority, again it was a slow-ramping thing. Germany was fighting every inch of the way until they just couldn’t sustain production of planes anymore. By 1944 the Allies had it - during the Battle of the Bulge Germany was operating essentially sans air cover. But a.) air superiority meant just a little less in the 1940’s than it does today and b.) the Germans benefited by good (i.e. bad) weather in the first days of the fighting. All-weather air combat was not really a thing in 1944. Once the weather got better the Germans were absolutely hammered from the air.

Allies went after railroads.

You need to define your timeline. When in the war are you asking about?

The Allies did not have air superiority at the outset. Heck, the Battle of Britain shows the British were doing all they could to defend their own country. At that time they did not really have the ability to go after German railroads.

As the war progressed railroads were certainly a target.

W/regard to your air superiority question, by mid 1944 (maybe earlier) the allies did have superiority. The early on lack of air support in and around Bastogne was related to weather.

I can’t directly answer your railroad question, but I suspect the lack of fighter cover was a limiting factor w/regard to target selection.

The night bombers were lucky to hit a city. The day bombers somewhat better.

It was a good job for low level fighter bombers, but track is tough and hard to hit.

But Rolling stock was most sincerely a target.

I think (not sure) repairing a bombed out piece of track was relatively easy.

Better to zap a locomotive, stop a whole train and make the enemy deal with that.

They didn’t have air superiority at the start. You can’t do low level precision bombing without it, and high level bombing was hugely inaccurate, as mentioned already.

As it was for all armies of the era - up to a point. In Russia the Germans had to convert the rails from Russian gauge to German before they could use their own rolling stock; from the point of conversion onwards they had to use trucks, or horses and mules in places. And trucks have diminishing returns the further they have to carry supplies; past (IIRC) 200 the trucks use more fuel than they can carry.

The Russians didn’t have much of a strategic bombing capacity or strategy, their doctrine was all about tactical support. Some Western Allied bombers were based in Russia at times in the war, eg to bomb the oilfields at Ploesti.

They had it by then, indeed well before then. But the Germans timed their attack for the middle of winter under terrible weather, the Allied airforces couldn’t fly much at that time. When the weather cleared after IIRC a week, things changed dramatically.

The highest priority target for rail bombing was marshalling yards.

Strategic bombing was woefully inaccurate during WWII. So yeah, you’d need something as big as a marshalling yard as a bombing target.

But lots of fighters would strafe trains as targets of opportunity.

Night bombing was so imprecise that the mission plan was effectively “try to hit Germany”.

Trains in war time we’re often armored and could put up a lot of flak and other AA fire.

Remember that for lower-flying aircraft, anti-aircraft fire was fairly effective. The night raids made it harder to be seen, but also harder to see targets. Plus, they dropped bombs from very high up, which made accuracy worse. Low level strafing was a gamble that the Germans did not set up a machine gun which could be fairly effective against smaller planes.

Small fighters had guns and could strafe; heavier bombers were slower and less maneuverable but carried a large number of heavy bombs. (The bombs were called blockbusters for a reason). You didn’t want to attack trains at a low level with a slow-moving large aircraft that was an easy target.

Don’t forget that the early mass bomber raids were still fighting the German air defenses… I forget the percentage that were shot down each raid, but IIRC it was somewhere around 10% or more. Bomber crews were lucky to last a few months. That was what passed for “air superiority” by then. Things got better as they knocked off more and more German fighters, and better support fighters could follow the raids for long distances.

Strategic bombing was pretty much a new concept in WW2. No one knew how it would work, and there were multiple schools all competing to direct strategy. The British bombed at night, thinking that hitting a city is good enough given the limited accuracy of bombers at the time, and that it reduced their risk. They simply couldn’t have precise targets, targeting a portion of a city was about as specific as they could get.

America was experimenting with this idea that you could shut down an economy but hitting some sort of key manufacturing. As an example, there was this idea that there were only a few major ball bearing producing facilities in Germany, and if you crippled them, hundreds of different products that relied on ball bearings would come to a grinding halt. That might have worked - no one really knew, and it was all speculation then. So you had these huge raids on specific industry targets.

It became clear that the transport campaign (primarily rail, but bridges, trucks, etc) was successful and so the allies leaned into it, but it was 1944 before we really figured this out. The oil campaign of 1944 was probably even more successful. Once we figured that out, the allied bombing campaign (primarily American) absolutely smothered them.

But most of the work was done by light/medium bombers and tactical aircraft flying at low and medium altitude. You could target a rail yard or an oil refinery from high altitude, but not really a bridge, road, individual train, etc. In 1944 the allies were so dominant in the air that not only could they operate with no real resistance, but they could just flood the countryside with fighters and bombers and just shoot up every target of opportunity including locomotives, trucks, etc. It was really during this stage that German transport was significantly hampered and it kind of relied on us figuring out how to conduct a proper low level bombing campaign and also effectively defeating the Luftwaffe entirely and having enough fighters, bombers, and pilots to just comb the countryside looking for things to blow up.

So, basically, no one knew how to conduct a bombing campaign at the begining of WW2, we learned on the fly, and once we saw the effectiveness of attacking transport, we did pivot to that very effectively.

Good thread.

It’s a valuable reminder that at the start of WWII, aerial warfare the way we think of it now was new.

In the First World War, the use of aerial assets was in its infancy. There were some early attempts at bombing and support of ground units, but these tactics were largely irrelevant in the larger scope and strategy of the war. Airplanes were more valuable for surveillance, bringing back intelligence on the size and disposition of the enemy forces, and the aerial dogfights that followed were frequently about shooting down and/or defending these observation efforts.

Between the World Wars, there was a lot of theorizing about the future role of air power, but there was also no large-scale canvas for proving its value. Military planners took advantage of small-scale wars in various places to try out their ideas; in Nicaragua in the late 1920s, for example, the tactics of dive-bombing and the principles of aerial resupply were developed and refined by American forces.

This is the historical background that leads to the beginning of WWII, as discussed above, where a lot of what was previously hypothetical was subjected to the experimental crucible of actual war.

Comparatively, yes.

Just about.

There was also a conscious school of thought, at least in the RAF Bomber Command, that mass bombing of cities would so displace/demoralise the civilian population as to cripple their industries, whatever degree of damage that it did or didn’t cause to the factories themselves. Plus, after the 1940/41 blitzes on Britain, the public mood was receptive to “They have sown the wind and shall reap the whirlwind”. There was active public campaigning against the policy, but it wasn’t until after D-Day that complaints about diverting bombers from direct support of the invading forces led to its priority being somewhat reduced.

I was born in 1943 in a small village near Oxford and when I was nine or ten years old we went there to visit relatives.

While there we walked across some fields by a railway line and saw some craters left when the Germans tried to bomb the line. Apparently, my pregnant mother was quite alarmed by the bangs.

There was, and still is, an army supply depot a few miles away, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the intention was to disrupt operations there. The depot itself was heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns of course.

Between WW1 and WW2, there was a dispute between tenants of tactical and strategic bombing:
the former (Germany) would use smaller aircraft porting 1 ton or less, flying low but targeting precise objectives on the front-line, to direct support the Army.
The latter (UK) would use big aircraft porting 2 or more tons, targeting factories, airbases, railway,… in order to break the back of the country.
There was a big fear that the use of deadly gas will be systematic, to kill or flee civilians from the towns.

When WW2 broke the British discovered
a) fighters had evolved and were capable of shooting even a big craft.
b) AA fire was efficient enough to shoot down planes flying at low altitude, forcing the formations to climb up.
c) when you climb up, accuracy is very low.
Hence the British had to settle to bombing cities as a whole, and by night to escape fighters.

When the US arrived, they thought that the Norden visor might cancel c) and that the heavy MGs would cancel a) and so attacked on daylight.
The results were less than expected: on the first raid on the station of Rouen sotteville, one bomb hit the tracks( and the damages were repaired in some hours) and the 180 others hit the town…
In 1943 the loss percent was of 10-20% by mission. When the P-47 and P-51 arrived, their escort permitted the diminution of losses (at about 5-7%) and the commitment of the American industry would compensate the losses with ease.
By 1944, the Luftwaffe had lost the control of the skies, but accuracy was still low. Hitting a railway needed several raids and often destroyed everything 2 km around.
So the intentions were there but limited by technical difficulties and bad cooperation from the Nazis.

I have nothing useful to add to this thread, but just wanted to say I’ve found the discussion interesting and insightful, and to genuinely thank everyone for their input. It’s exactly this kind of discussion that induced me to become a Doper.

But, mainly, I wanted to say:

I see what you did there.

“Bomber Harris”, the officer in charge of the British bombing force, was treated badly after the war.