A Brief History
On June 5, 1944, the British RAF plastered the Normandy coast of France with 5000 tons of bombs dropped by over 1000 bombers in preparation for the D-Day landings the next day. The bombing failed to destroy the German defenses, and the further bombing of the German “Atlantic Wall” after midnight on D-Day (June 6, 1944) by 2000 allied bombers also failed to achieve any particular benefit, especially due to cloudy conditions and bombers being extra cautious to avoid dropping bombs on Allied troops taking part in the landings, causing the bombs to fall too far inland to do any good. On other occasions aerial bombing has proven to be ineffective, sometimes totally failing to achieve its objectives, other times falling short of reasonably complete success. Today we list 9 of those bombing missions that stand out as examples of the failure of bombing from the air.
1. Allied Normandy D-Day preparatory bombing, June 5-6, 1944.
The failure to destroy beach defenses prior to the D-Day landings was particularly felt at Omaha Beach where American soldiers found those defenses and defenders virtually unharmed. With so many bombs falling too far inland, the main recipients of the blasts were the French civilian population. Obstacles, barbed wire, and mines were left intact as were machine gun emplacements, a disappointing situation for troops that were assured the German defenders would be dead or in shock when the Allies hit the beach. (Failure to destroy defending enemy positions by aerial bombardment and naval gunfire despite assuring landing forces that few defenders could possibly survive the hellish bombardment was a trend that occurred over and over again during amphibious landings during World War II.)
2. NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, March-June 1999.
Due to the ongoing Yugoslav Civil War, NATO chose to bomb Serbian Army and infrastructure targets without UN Security Council permission in order to attempt to force peace on the Serbians who were dominating (killing) their neighboring Croats, Bosnians, and especially Albanians. After claiming success with the bombing, it was later revealed that NATO claims were grossly exaggerated and that Serbian efforts at camouflage and making mock-up tanks and weapons had been highly successful in fooling NATO reconnaissance and intelligence units. Operation Noble Anvil utilized over a thousand attack and fighter aircraft, both land and sea based, the majority of which were American. Over 38,000 sorties were flown, resulting in the loss of 3 NATO fighters (including an F-117 Stealth Fighter), 2 NATO helicopters lost and 3 NATO fighter jets damaged. Additionally, about 25 American drones (UAV’s) were also shot down. NATO fighter bombers faced a barrage of over 700 surface to air missiles and heavy anti-aircraft artillery fire throughout the operation. The Serbians were reported to have lost more than 1000 killed, though NATO had claimed 5000. Another 5173 Serbian military members were wounded and 14 tanks, 12 self-propelled guns, 18 APCs, and 20 artillery systems destroyed. These numbers are a fraction of the original NATO claims of nearly 100 tanks, 153 Armored Personnel Carriers, 339 other vehicles and nearly 400 artillery pieces. On the other hand, the Serbian (Yugoslav) Air Force suffered large losses, about 121 aircraft, lost on the ground and in attempts to intercept NATO air strikes. Unfortunately, as with many bombing campaigns, many civilians were killed and non-military targets were damaged and destroyed. Human Rights Watch reported around 500 civilian deaths, while Serbian government figures are between 1200 and 5000. Civilian dead included 3 Chinese journalists killed when the Chinese embassy was accidentally hit with bombs. NATO reported bombing damage to amount to a value of $100 billion, though later Serbians claimed a loss of only $3.8 billion.
3. British Naval aircraft bombing of Battleship Tirpitz, 1944.
After sinking the Bismarck in 1941, the Tirpitz remained as the greatest battleship in the German Navy and a great threat to Allied shipping on the Atlantic. The British RAF and Royal Navy targeted the battleship while it was hiding in Norwegian Fjords with numerous air strikes by carrier borne aircraft. Those bombing raids failed to destroy or disable the great ship, and the plan changed to use heavy bombers against the battleship. Operations Tungsten, Planet, Brawn, Tiger Claw, Mascot and Goodwood mounted by carrier aircraft did cause some damage, but some of the raids failed to even score a single hit. Operation Paravane was finally embarked on September 15, 1944, utilizing 23 RAF heavy Lancaster bombers dropping 17 X 6 ton “Tallboy” bombs and 36 naval mines. One hit on the bow of Tirpitz was recorded, but the bomb passed right through the ship and exploded on the sea floor. This time the ship was heavily damaged, though still able to travel under its own power to a different fjord near Tromso, 200 nautical miles away. Operation Obviate followed on October 29, 1944, this time with 32 Lancasters each dropping a single Tallboy. No hits were made, though a near miss caused some damage. Clearly, using dive bombers armed with 1600 pound armor piercing bombs were not sufficient to heavily damage or destroy the incredibly armored ship, but the Tallboy bombs dropped from high altitude showed real promise. Operation Catechism ensued on November 12, 1944, this time with 32 Lancasters dropping 29 Tallboy bombs, scoring 2 direct hits and 1 near miss. Some of the other massive bombs that missed the ship destroyed the sand bank that had been built up around Tirpitz to prevent her from capsizing. Tirpitz rolled over and was done for, finally. Naval bombers using torpedoes may have proven effective, but German anti-torpedo nets and the surrounding terrain made torpedo attack not a viable option, leaving heavy land based bombers as the only option.
4. Allied bombing of German Submarine Pens, March 1941-July 1944.
German submarines were perhaps the most dangerous weapon in the Reich’s arsenal, the one weapon that really could have cause Germany to win the war in the Atlantic had they been successful. Once Germany conquered France and the Low Countries, the submarine based along the coasts became vital targets of British and then Allied bombing. In response, the Germans built highly bomb resistant shelters for their subs while in port called submarine pens. Massive amounts of steel, concrete and earth were used to create safe havens for submarines in port to be refitted and rearmed to resume patrols. Construction of these giant bunkers was hampered by constant air raids by Allied bombers, but in spite of such harassment, the bunkers were built. From March of 1941 to August of 1944, Allied bombing raids against Submarine Pens were largely confined to damaging the surrounding ports and cities, leaving the actual submarines and work areas mostly still safe. Conventional bombs of 500 pounds and 1000 pounds were virtually useless against the many feet thick layers of reinforced concrete (23 feet thick) and earth atop the sub pens. Attempts to rectify the situation by using 2000 pound armor piercing bombs failed to penetrate the bunkers as well. Finally, in August of 1944 the RAF began using Tallboy 6000 pound delayed explosion earth penetrating bombs and later the massive 22,000 pound “Grand Slam” bombs which when they exploded deep underground had an “earthquake” effect, sending shock waves through the ground causing damage some distance from the actual blast. The Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs gave the Allies a weapon that could not penetrate the entire thickness of a submarine pen roof, but after its blast deep within that roof still cause a collapse or hole in the overhead protection. The Avro Lancaster was the only bomber in the world capable of dropping the giant Grand Slam bombs. Other Allied schemes to destroy German submarine pens from the air included rocket assisted bombs (“Disney bombs”) that would accelerate 4500 pound armor piercing bombs to almost 1000 mph and unmanned drone heavy bombers packed with explosives and controlled by radio from another aircraft to be flown into the sub pens. (See #8 below.) So called “Bat” radar guided 1600 pound bombs were also tried unsuccessfully.
5. German bombing of Ludendorff Bridge, March 7-17, 1945.
When the American Army had the incredible good fortune to capture the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany on March 7, 1945, they could thank the failed German effort to blow up the bridge for the gift. When the German higher headquarters found out about the inadequate attempt to blow up the vital bridge (the only intact bridge across the Rhine for the advancing British and American armies from the West), an immediate call to the Luftwaffe was made to destroy the bridge at all costs. The US Army was well aware of the impending aerial attacks and surrounded the bridge with the heaviest anti-aircraft assortment of guns found anywhere on the Western Front, and probably the greatest anti-aircraft defenses of any particular point during World War II. Meanwhile, the US Army poured as many men and machines across the bridge as possible during the 10 days that it remained standing. Germany tried infantry, armored and artillery attacks against the bridge, and even floated boats carrying timed explosives down the river to blow up under the structure. Intense efforts to bomb the bridge by aircraft were made, including sorties by the Arado 234 jet powered bomber, of which 7 were shot down. During the 10 day battle to defend the bridge, US soldiers counted 367 separate German aircraft attacking the span. The desperate Germans even tried launching 11 of the V-2 ballistic missiles at the bridge, the first time ballistic missiles had ever been used against a point target. (All the V-2’s missed the target.) German Bf-109 and Fw-190 fighter bombers along with Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers attempted to attack the bridge, either by flying nearly vertically down from altitude or by low level flight along the course of the river, as high terrain on both sides of the bridge precluded attacking the structure longitudinally. Channeling aircraft along the river resulted in easy aiming for anti-aircraft gunners, and high level dive bombers were easy pickings for the much faster Allied fighter planes. Dozens of German planes were shot down, and no bombs hit the bridge. The bridge did finally collapse on its own on March 17, 1945, from damage inflicted by the original explosive charges that failed to take it down in the first place. Bridges are notoriously hard to hit targets, and provided much of the incentive for developing guided bombs.
6. Japanese balloon bombs (Operation FuGo), November 1944-April 1945.
After the catastrophic defeat at Midway in 1942, the Japanese fortunes of war during World War II went more or less steadily downhill. US military power was growing and eroding Japan’s own military with the balance of power shifting decidedly against Japan. The Japanese were desperate to find a way to attack the American homeland, coming up with ideas such as enormous submarines that could carry light bombers and the innovative idea of using balloons to carry incendiary bombs over the Western United States with the goal of starting massive wildfires. The balloons would fly at an altitude of 38,000 feet and utilize Jet Stream winds to carry them thousands of miles to the US and Canadian mainland. (An even scarier scenario was that Japanese war planners had cultivated mass quantities of cowpox, anthrax and other biological weapons to be unleashed by the balloon bombs, but fortunately Emperor Hirohito wisely chose to forbid such an attack.) From November of 1944 to April of 1945, the Japanese launched 9300 hydrogen balloons carrying either 1 X 33 pound anti-personnel bomb or a load of 1 X 26 pound incendiary bomb plus 4 X 11 pound incendiary bombs. The bombs were to be released by timers calculated to trip when the balloons were over US territory. Although only 300 or so of the balloons actually reached the US target, the effort represented the first time in the history of warfare that an intercontinental weapon was created and used. The 5000 mile distance was covered in only 3 days. The first balloons carried radio equipment instead of bombs so that Japanese engineers could track them and make adjustments for targeting. The only known fatalities caused by the balloon bombs were a pregnant woman and 5 Sunday School children she was taking on a picnic, killed when they found a balloon with unexploded bombs and somehow disturbed the bombs causing an explosion. The large paper balloons carrying over 1000 pounds of equipment and payload were discovered as far East as Manitoba and South Dakota, but due to the launching dates intended to coincide with favorable Jet Stream conditions the winter weather in North America proved unfavorable to the starting of catastrophic fires. Some fires were started, and a single US firefighter lost his life fighting a fire, but no appreciable effect on US people or property was realized. American fighter planes managed to shoot down 20 or fewer of the balloons, though fighter pilots were often unable to fly high enough or fast enough to catch the surprisingly swift balloons. American analysts originally speculated the balloons were being launched from the American West Coast, from German prisoner of war camps, from Japanese internment camps or possibly from submarines, but never imagined the balloons were coming all the way from Japan. Analysis of the sand found in sand bag ballast proved the sand came from a particular place in Japan where 2 Hydrogen production plants were located. The US quickly targeted those plants for aerial bombing and destruction. American censors covered up the balloon attacks, and Japanese intelligence was left believing the attacks were totally unsuccessful, leading to a cessation of the program in April of 1945. (Besides, 2 of the 3 Hydrogen producing factories had been destroyed.)
Note: The British used smaller balloon bombs during World War II as a low risk method of attacking Germany, launching nearly 100,000 of the unsophisticated devices and achieving far more success than the Japanese. Operation Outward British balloons carried either a long, thin metal wire trailing from the balloon meant to short out electrical high voltage transmission lines or an incendiary bomb of various configurations. The program called for a 50/50 distribution of wire and incendiary carrying balloons. The British balloons cost only about the equivalent of $100 US (2018 value), a cheap investment for a surprisingly effective program that regularly disrupted German electrical transmission. British intelligence also found German fighter planes being dispatched to attack the moderate altitude (16,000 feet) balloons which was a diversion of fuel and resources valuable to the Allies in itself. Operation Outward operated from 1942 to 1944.
7. US bombing by B-29 bombers from China, June 1944-January 1945.
The program to develop and produce the Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber was the most expensive project of World War II, double the cost of even the Manhattan Project atomic weapons program. Before the big bombers could be put to good use bombing the Japanese home islands, the US had to get bases within range of Japan, about 1600 miles. At first only bases in China were available, and the fuel, equipment, bombs and people to service the effort could only be airlifted to the Chinese bases from bases in India. Using B-29’s stripped of armament to carry bombs, fuel and necessary parts to the Chinese bases was incredibly inefficient and ineffective. The maximum ranges involved meant only minimum bomb loads could be carried and stockpiles of fuel and bombs quickly ran out. Mechanical problems and a lack of bombs resulted in an agonizingly low sortie rate. The raids on Japan that were conducted proved maddeningly ineffective when the high flying B-29’s encountered Jet Stream winds often in excess of 100 mph and sometimes over 200 mph resulting in bombs being blown considerably off course. Attempts to use the B-29 in its designed role as an unescorted high altitude daylight precision bomber were foiled by the Jet Stream and Japanese interceptors. The Japanese fighter planes rising to intercept the big, heavily armed bombers found the large planes hard to shoot down, though not impossible. The tactic of using the fighter plane to ram the bomber in a suicide attack proved effective, and the frequent engine fires and other technological malfunctions of the B-29 resulted in even more losses. Even when the US acquired bases in the Marianas Islands the initial raids were of disappointing results. Only when General Curtiss LeMay took over the B-29 operation of bombing Japan and instituted a radical change in tactics in March of 1945 did the B-29 become successful. Those changes were to strip all but the tail guns and turrets from the bombers and load them with maximum loads of incendiary bombs, flying the planes at only 5000 feet (to save gas and engine wear as well as increase accuracy) and at night to foil visual interception enabled the B-29’s to cause massive damage to Japanese cities and kill nearly a million people.
8. US Operation Anvil and Operation Aphrodite, unmanned bombers, 1944.
As noted in other entries above, the difficulty in bombing point targets such as bridges and extremely well protected hardened targets such as submarine pens with conventional aerial bombardment proved troublesome for aviators. Since the United States did not have a bomber such as the British Lancaster that could carry the enormous Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, a different method was needed to deliver a huge payload. An American solution was to attempt to design a weapon consisting of a heavy US bomber stripped of its defensive weapons and loaded with a maximum amount (30,000 pounds) of explosives and to guide that flying bomb of a bomber by remote radio control, a huge early version of a guided bomb. The US Navy version was called Operation Anvil, and the US Army Air Forces version of the program was called Operation Aphrodite. Using a B-17 (Army Air Forces) or a PBY-4 (US Navy adaptation of the B-24 Liberator bomber) the Army weapon was designated BQ-7 and the Navy version was called BQ-8. The main problem with the idea was that the radio controls of the time were not reliable enough to have the bombers take off without a live person piloting the plane. The plan was to have a pilot take the plane off, and then parachute out of the weapon once it was safely on its way, control being taken over by a chase plane with radio controls. Of the 15 missions flown by the flying bombs from August 1944 to January 1945, none were successful. Several pilots were killed, and in one case the Mosquito chase plane was also destroyed in the massive explosion. The older brother of future US President John F. Kennedy, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was killed when the BQ-8 he was flying exploded in flight, vaporizing Kennedy and his co-pilot.
9. US bombing of Laos, 1964-1973.
During the Vietnam War (1964-1975) American analysts quickly determined that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese communists were using Cambodia and Laos as sanctuaries from which to transport people and military supplies into South Vietnam and to base staging areas. The US response was to bomb Laos with a massive effort, mostly with “cluster bombs,” a large bomb consisting of dozens of smaller bombs inside a canister that would open in flight and release the small bombs over a large area. Many of the bomblets failed to explode on impact and remained in a highly dangerous state for many years. An estimated 80 million (THAT IS 80 MILLION!) of these unexploded bombs remain strewn about the Laotian countryside. The US government tried to keep the bombing of Laos (and Cambodia) a secret from the American people, although it was readily apparent to the people in those countries that they were being bombed, and that the only likely suspect was the United States. An estimated 2 to 2.5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos from 580,000 bombing sorties! (Almost double the total amount of bombs the Allies dropped on Germany during World War II.) Not only did this enormous expenditure of money and effort not stop the Communists from operating in Laos, the estimate that 30% of the 260 million cluster bombs remain unexploded and continue to occasionally blow up and have killed or crippled at least 20,000 (or 34,000 depending on source) Laotians since the war ended haunts Laos and the US alike. Only about 1% of the unexploded ordnance has been removed. The United States spends nearly $5 million per year in attempting to remove unexploded ordnance from Laos, a country virtually ruined by an ineffective bombing campaign that made Laos the most heavily bombed country in history. The US bombing in a typical 10 day period cost $130 million, which just about matches the total the US has spent in the last 25-30 years clearing unexploded bombs.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other incidents would you include on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Lindqvist, Sven. A History of Bombing. New Press, 2003.
Morris, Craig. The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory (History of Military Aviation). Naval Institute Press, 2017.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Capt E G Malindine of British pathfinders of 22nd Independent Parachute Company synchronising their watches in front of an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle, is in the public domain, because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1969; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1969.
HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply). More information. See also Copyright and Crown copyright artistic works. This is photograph H 39070 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-37)