Victory for Germany in Jaws of Defeat, Air War over Schweinfurt (1943)
Importance of Schweinfurt
Schweinfurt is a city in Bavaria in Germany. This city was very important for Germany as it produced many precession goods like ball bearings so vital for tanks and heavy guns. Schweinfurt was heavily defended. At the same time, the allies were aware of its importance and considered it to be a priority target.
Schweinfurt had a string of factories and was a lynchpin in the German war effort. Hitler himself had stressed the importance of this place and a string of anti –Aircraft defenses had been erected around the city.
Schweinfurt was regularly bombed by the US Army Air Force. Until the end of 1942, the USAAF did not have the bombers for the raid. Once, the B-17 and B-24 came on the scene, the bombing of Schweinfurt could be carried out. A great impetus to these bombing raids was given by Air Chief Marshal Harris of the Royal Air Force who believed that strategic bombing was a pre-requisite to victory.
In a service paper that the Air Marshal presented to the Allied supreme commander, he had advocated a day and night bombing of German industrial centers. Though the high command agreed with him, the limitation was that the USAAF and RAF did not have the long-range planes to penetrate into Germany. Despite this, a decision to bomb German industrial centers was approved.
The Raids of 1943
The USAAF started the bombing raids from 1943. This was after the long-range bombers like the B-29 were made operational. In August 1943 bombers of the USAAF attacked Schweinfurt, but though the factories were hit and production curtailed, the Allied Air Force suffered heavy losses.
The German fighter defenses were good and their AA guns extracted a heavy toll. The heavy losses made the USAAF postpone their next raid by almost 4 months. The raid in August 1943 gave important lessons to the Allied forces. It dawned on them that the German night defenses were good and their pilots adept at night flying.
The Crucial October 1943 Raid
The next raid was meticulously planned and it was decided to concentrate on the ball bearing and precession factories in Schweinfurt. This is the famous 1000 bomber raid as waves of B 29 escorted by P-47 fighters moved for the strategic bombing of the city. Unfortunately, the weather was not the best and the P-47 could not escort the bombers all the way and were forced to turn back midway.
The B-17’s now got into formation for the bombing. They were opposed by the Jagdwaffe, the night fighter arm of the German Air Force. The German night fighters gave a good account of them and shot 60 B-17’s. In all 117 bombers of the USAAF received damage of various degrees. The aircraft which made it back to England were rendered unserviceable. In terms of attrition, this was heavy and the commander of the USAAF concluded that such damage could not be sustained.
Losses of Air Crew
The air raid resulted in heavy loses of trained aircrew. Over 22% of the aircrew were lost or captured. Many parachuted down and were taken prisoners by the Germans. They remained in POW camps till the end of the war. An estimated 650 American airmen were lost and only 65 survived the war and returned back to the States.
It was in effect a loss for the USAAF and a German victory. The USAAF did not think of another similar raid for quite some time. The attack was carried out by the US 8th air force and its commanders had plenty to think after the raid. More important for that period in 1943, the Allies had lost control over the air over Germany. It was only after the war that the USAAF acknowledged the losses sustained and conceded that the battle went in favor of the Germans.
The Bombing raid was not a total failure as some of the factories and plants were hit causing some shortages for the German war arsenal. In particular, the Focke –Wulf plant at Manenburg was completely destroyed.
The Germans did lose many night fighters to the gunners of the B-17s. Despite the b-17’s having no fighter escort, the aircrew conducted themselves admirably. They displayed tremendous courage and skill in the air where the German night fighters had the edge.
The air bombing of Schweinfurt is a lesson that strategic bombing cannot succeed without a Favorable Air Situation-FAS. Along with FAS, the opposing force must have control of the ground i.e. the infantry soldier is needed to control the ground. The Allies won only after the ground troops moved in. Similarly in Vietnan also strategic bombing alone did not help as the US never controlled "the ground."