The Bomber Mafia

A Story Set in War


Malcolm Gladwell

London: Allen Lane, 2021

Paperback     256pp  RRP $35.00


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, August 2021


This is a relatively short book that succinctly and clearly covers, two significant aspects of the air war between 1943 and 1945, and the impact they had on the careers of two senior officers of the United States Army Air Corps - Howard Hansell and Curtis LeMay.

The two key aspects were the failure of the daylight raids on Schweinfurt in 1943, and the success of ‘fire storm’ raids on Tokyo and other cities in Japan in late 1944 and early 1945; and the roles of the two main characters on these events.

The ‘Bomber Mafia’ were a group of young, enthusiastic permanent-service officers of the Air Corps who, in the early 1930s were on the Instructional Staff of the Air Corps Tactical School, at Maxwell Field, Alabama. Other than Hansell, it included Donald Wilson, Muir Fairchild, Harold George, and a few others. Their role was to develop in other young pilots, the tactical skills they would need if they were ever to be called to active service with the Air Corps. The American airmen were part of a small Corps within the Regular Army, the role of which would be to support the ground army in wartime as it had done in France in 1917-18.

They also wanted to contribute to the doctrines that would shape an Independent Air Service. These were being formed in Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, and in a few other countries such as Australia and Canada. They had a vision of an Air Service which was independent of the Army, and which could win the next war America fought [should one happen ‘soon’] without the horrendous casualties and devastation of a war of attrition such as had been fought in 1914-18.

There is no evidence that any of these visionaries had read the works of Major Giulo Douhet, a pioneer and early commander in the Italian Regia Aeronautica. However, some of them saw that any future war in Europe could be won by precision bombing of the enemy’s ‘choke points’. These were the facilities upon which any nation depended if it was to continue to fight a major war.

In an exercise based on a hypothetical war between the U.S.A. and Canada, it was shown in a presentation by Wilson and Fairchild that, with seventeen bombs, the Canadians could bring the New York area to a state of impotency. Precision bombing, carried out by day, could destroy the power stations and electricity grid, water viaducts and pumping stations, and road and rail bridges. The enemy [New York State] would be unable to continue the war - civilian morale would be shattered, supply lines would close down, and the war would be over, ‘Canada 1 d New York State 0’, with very little loss of life and minimal physical damage.

General Ira Eaker, the Officer Commanding the US Air Forces in Europe in 1942-44, himself a graduate of the Air Corps Tactical School, could see the upside of the plan, and was sympathetic to the Bomber Mafia’s vision, although he was never a member of the group. He supported the idea of precision bombing in daylight, but did not agree with his colleague, Sir Arthur Harris, who commanded Britain’s RAF Bomber Command. He, and Frederick Lindemann [later Lord Cherwell], best friend and favoured adviser of Winston Churchill, both passionately believed in saturation night bombing of Germany’s industrial cities.

In 1939, none of the warring powers had the aircraft, equipment, or trained aircrews to carry out long-rang bombing attacks in daylight, but by 1942-43, the situation had changed.

The United States was an active participant in the war against Germany and the Axis Powers. They had the aircraft, the B17 Flying Fortress and the B24 Liberator which were fast, armoured and heavily armed, and had the range to penetrate deep into German air space. They had the aircrews to man them, and the Norden Bomb Sight which its designer, Carl Norden, claimed to enable the bombers to hit a target 15 feet square, from 20,000 feet, with over 80% accuracy - which in practice it could not do. It was too complex and needed a highly skilled [and lucky] bombardier, as was found later, to get the results Norden claimed to be possible. But Wilson and Eaker believed, and Hansell (by 1942 commanding a Bomber Group in Britain), was convinced that precision daylight bombing was the way to go. So, two operations were planned:

The US 8th Air Force, based in Britain, dispatched bombers from a base in Libya, to make a low-level daylight attack on the oil fields of Ploesti, in Rumania, that provided more than three-quarters of the Axis Powers’ petroleum supplies. The force sent comprised 182 B24 Liberator bombers, with 1,416 aircrews. Only 37 aircraft returned to base undamaged, and 660 aircrew were killed or captured. The refineries were back in full production within a few weeks.

The second mission was to hit a major ‘choke point’ - the largest manufacturing plant in Germany for roller- and ball-bearings, at Schweinfurt.  This mission was to be supported by a diversionary raid on an aircraft factory at Regensburg. 376 B17 Flying Fortresses were despatched, in daylight, to targets well beyond the range of any escorting Allied fighters. Losses were heavy - 16% of the aircraft with a further 26% returned being damaged beyond repair. Aircrew losses were 15% of the 3,700 airmen involved either killed or captured. A follow-up raid on Schweinfurt, by 291 aircraft, suffered 26% lost or damaged beyond repair.  In the two attacks on Schweinfurt, over 2,000 bombs were dropped - and 80 hits were obtained - barely 4% accuracy was achieved. Manufacturing production was not affected and returned to pre-raid levels within a few weeks. Daylight raids on targets beyond the range of escorting fighters were discontinued for five months, and there was a reversion to saturation bombing in daylight.

Hansell was aghast, and so, for different reasons, were many senior officers of the US Army Air Corps. The Schweinfurt raids were not the ‘turning points of the war, that Hansell had predicted. In a letter to General Ira Eaker, Hansell did claim that the results justified the strategy he had promoted, but Eaker was not convinced. He was posted to less senior command in North Africa, and Hansell was posted to the Pacific war theatre, to command a Bomber Group based in the recently re-conquered Mariana Islands.

There, he continued to believe that precision daylight bombing could be successful, but even with the recently-developed Boeing B29 Super Fortress he was unable to achieve the results that the higher Command of the Air Corps wanted. He was replaced by an iconic and ‘gung-ho’ leader, General Curtis LeMay, who was prepared to use napalm-filled incendiary bombs against the very flammable Japanese cities.

With the B29, LeMay had the aircraft to achieve the objectives his senior officers demanded. The B29, with a 5,000-pound bomb load, had an operational range of 3,000 miles. It was heavily armed, pressurised, had a maximum speed above 340 mph, and an operational ceiling above 30,000 feet.

One of the reasons Hansell had been unable to achieve his planned objectives was the discovery of the jet stream winds, previously unknown, which blew across Japan at altitudes above 25,000 feet and reached speeds of over 140 knots.  A navigator in an American reconnaissance aircraft actually reported to his captain that the aircraft caught in it, was flying backwards! Another aircraft, a bomber, was carried twelve miles beyond its target by this jet-stream before its bombs were dropped.

The vision that Hansell and his fellow believers had of pin-point accuracy, using the Norden bomb-sight, crumbled to nothing. His moral stance meant he could not bring himself to use incendiary bombs to burn Japanese factories and store-houses, and the homes of Japanese civilians. He was posted to command a Training Unit in Arizona, and replaced by LeMay, who would go through with a strategy which had him labelled as a war-criminal, both by the Japanese and some of his own fellow-officers. He believed that if one wanted to win a war, one used whatever weapons you had, and followed the orders given by your superiors. He went on to plan and lead the Berlin Airlift of 1949, and to become Chief of Air Staff.  He was a leader for his time and should go into history as such. Hansell retired into obscurity after the war.

Gladwell has set out to clear Hansell’s reputation.  He was an officer with a strong moral code, capable and competent, but unable to achieve objectives using weaponry which transgressed his code. Gladwell has also tried, successfully, to polish LeMay’s reputation, and give him credit for his considerable achievements as a planner and leader, and to show all sides of his very complex character. He has written a very readable book, one from which much can be learned about the problems faced by leaders in war.  The reader should read Chapter 2, We make progress unhindered by custom carefully, and note the two quotations from General John Pershing and an unnamed US Congressman, (pp 32-33). They are central to the issues that faced the main characters.




The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this copy for review.

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