Eighty years ago touching the limits of strategic air power


RAF Bomber Command sent a force of twelve of its new Avro Lancaster bombers to attack the MAN factory at Augsburg deep in southern Germany, which supplied most U Boot engines. Air Marshal Harris saw this as a major contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic, which would ensure that his aircraft were not "diverted" to direct use in the sea war. This was the first significant operation by Lancasters which married the airframe of the Manchester which had been a failure because of the unreliability of its Vulture engines with four of the proven Merlin engines; in time it was to become the RAF's best heavy bomber, but the Augsburg raid was beyond the capacities of any contemporary heavy bomber. The key to the plan was to bomb accurately in daylight, which involved flying 500 miles across German held territory during the day. It was hoped that a dog-leg course over France, flying beneath radar height and the Lancaster's eight machine guns in four powered turrets would provide protection. They did not; the gun turrets which Harris had championed in the mid 1930s mounted only .303 caliber machines guns which were ineffective against German fighters. Seven Lancasters were shot down and the others severely damaged. The factory was hit but its machine tools were largely undamaged and production was barely interrupted. Squadron-Leader John Nettleton, the raid leader, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The USAAF wanted to demonstrate that the Japanese mainland could be attacked and mounted a unique operation under Colonel Jimmy Doolittle to do so. Sixteen specially lightened B-25 medium bombers were to be flown off the aircraft-carrier USS Hornet to fly 550 miles to attack a number of cities including Tokyo; they would continue westwards to China to land at Nationalist held airfields. The task force encountered Japanese forces unexpectedly and the raid was launched 200 miles further from the target than planned so all but one of the aircraft crashed, although 69 of the 80 crew were safe. Damage was negligible but the mission's goal had always been purely symbolic; it would take another two years before the new long-range  B-29 heavy bomber to be available to bomb Japan seriously. Doolittle expected to be court-martialed for losing his entire command but he was promoted and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

King George VI awarded the island of Malta the George Cross, Britain's highest decoration for civilian gallantry in recontion of its suffering under continuous Axis air attack. It was the first (of only three) collective award of the medal. By some calculations Malta was the most heavily bombed area of the Second World War. On a more practical level 47 Spitfires were flown off the USS Wasp to reinfoce Malta's air defences but all were destroyed in air raids within days.

The British retreat northwards through Burma from the advancing Japanese continued almost uninterrupted. The oil-fields at Yenangyaung, Britain's only source of oil in the region, had to be abandoned. The installations and refinery were blown up by British engineers, but the Japanese were able to bring the Fields back into operation.


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