Operation Pointblank: Evolution of Allied Air Doctrine During World War II
By the time Operation Pointblank ended, it had achieved its primary objective, securing air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for Overlord. Operation Pointblank had succeeded, but not in the way Allied planners had initially intended or expected. Round-the-clock bombing had not smashed the Luftwaffe into oblivion, nor had it destroyed German aircraft production. Instead, by simultaneously striking at aircraft factories and bombing industrial and military targets deep inside Germany, the combined bomber offensive forced the Luftwaffe to send its fighters to meet the ever-increasing flow of bombers over the Reich. Once in the air, they were assailed by Allied fighter escorts. In this war of attrition, the Luftwaffe lost its greatest asset--its experienced pilots. Without skilled pilots to meet the Allied threat, the rise in German aircraft production meant nothing.
The American doctrine of strategic daylight precision bombing failed because it rested on three premises that would be tested in World War II. The first premise centered on a belief of Arnold and his bomber disciples that their heavy bombers would "always get through" without escort and destroy or neutralize enemy industry. The B-17s and B-24s were not able to adequately fight their way in and establish local command of the air. Instead, the Luftwaffe exploited the weaknesses of the flying armadas, inflicting heavy losses on the bombers--losses so extreme that, after Black Week, strategic bombing was suspended until the emergence of a new air strategy.
Second, supporters of strategic daylight precision bombing believed erroneously that the civilian population was the weak link in a nation's defense. It was thought that bringing the horrors of war directly to the factories, power plants and railroads in the cities would cause the citizens of an enemy nation to compel their government to sue for peace. In practice, neither the morale nor the will of the bombed populations approached collapse.
The third premise was the belief that strategic bombing could eliminate an enemy's ability to wage war by destroying its industrial base. German industrial output was not stopped by Allied strategic bombing. Legions of laborers ensured adequate manpower, while the largest machine-tool industry in the world compensated for the damage done to machinery. Germany had sufficient industrial capacity to absorb the first years of Allied strategic bombing. Dispersal of industry, ongoing repair and expansion compensated for additional bombing losses. In spite of the Allied strategic bombing campaign, the German economy continued to expand until late in the war.
As the American strategic campaign entered its second year, it faced an experienced and determined foe in the Luftwaffe. By 1943, when American bombers began to invade the airspace of the Reich proper, the Luftwaffe fighter command began to make a major effort against them. American losses from both England and North Africa mounted inexorably from August to October, culminating in the Eighth Air Force's so-called Black Week. The week as a whole cost the Eighth Air Force a quarter of its airmen in England. After Black Week, the Americans effectively suspended daylight raids over the Reich until February 1944.
With U.S. bombers experiencing greater and greater attrition rates, American air commanders desperately sought a solution to their failing strategic-bombing campaign. A solution came with a change of emphasis in air doctrine. The changes produced a revision of Operation Pointblank and a doctrine that emphasized destroying the Luftwaffe in a war of attrition in order to gain air superiority for the coming D-Day invasion in the summer of 1944. The revised Operation Pointblank gave the Allies air superiority for D-Day and virtual command of the air for the push toward Berlin.
Operation Pointblank was a success. Local air superiority belonged to the Allies for the opening of the second front. The war for air superiority over Western Europe had been won, but not by "self-defending" heavy bombers. It had been won by a combination of fighters actively hunting down and killing Germany's air force and Allied bombers damaging the industrial and logistical infrastructure that supported the German military machine's ability to make war. In this two-pronged strategy, both bombers and fighters had a crucial, symbiotic role. American air commanders, like their ground counterparts before them, finally realized the truth of German strategist Carl von Clausewitz's statement--that victory in war comes, first and foremost, through the destruction of the enemy's armed forces. Operation Pointblank proved that American air power's first mission should always be the establishment of air superiority through the destruction of the enemy's air force.
This article was written by Brian Todd Carey and originally appeared in the November 1998 issue of World War II.
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