The Bomber Mafia


Malcolm Gladwell




Date Reviewed:

December 7, 2022

nything written by Malcolm Gladwell will be interesting, he is the proverbial author who could turn a phone book into entertaining reading material. Fortunately, Gladwell chooses topic even more intriguing than phone books. In this volume, Gladwell focuses on the US Airforce's attempt to use precision bombing during World War II. The goal was to win the war from the air, and thus achieve victory with a minimum number of casualties. After the carnage of WWI, the US commanders hoped to find a more humane way to conduct warfare.

The instrument that was going to allow the Allies to do precision bombing was a device called the Norden bombsight. When properly used, a Norden bombsight was supposed to allow the bombardier to drop his bomb load into a pickle barrel while flying at 30,000 feet. The Norden bombsight was an analog computer - the bombardier entered such factors as windspeed, altitude, temperature (cold air is dense air, so the bombs will fall slower), plane speed, etc - the Norden bombsight was supposed take in all of the variables and tell the bombardier when to release the bombs. Given the ability to precisely hit a a target, the Air Force commanders envisioned that they could knock out factories and cripple the German war effort. The proponents of the effectiveness of precision bombing were called the Bomber Mafia.

In 1936, a flood in Pittsburgh destroyed a factory owned by the Hamilton Standard company. It turned out, Hamilton Standard was the primary source for something called a variable-pitch propeller spring. Without these propeller springs, aircraft could not be built; they obviously all relied upon propellers. The Bomber Mafia recognized that the Hamilton Standard factory was a "choke point" in the US war machine. Take out that factory, and you take out aircraft industry. The Bomber Mafia set about identifying choke points that could be destroyed with high altitude bombing - aqueducts, electrical grids, ball bearing factories.

When the war came, the Germans launched night time raids on London. They flew at night to avoid the flak guns and to try and elude the British air defenses. But because they were flying at night, they could not see their targets. So they dropped their bombs indiscriminately, attempting to flatten the entire city and get the British citizenry to sue for peace. But the blitz had the opposite effect - British resolved stiffened as a result of the bombing. Yet when the tables were turned, and British planes flew missions over German, they employed the same tactics - fly at night, drop bombs on the German populace, and hope that this demoralizes their civilians. The Americans thought this was foolish - the British had first-hand experience that you can't bomb a population into a surrender. The Americans were determined to do high altitude (to get out of range of the flak cannons) daylight (the Norden bombsight required the bombardier be able to see the target) precision bombing. They identified a ball bearing factory as a chokepoint in the German war machine. Destroy the German's source for ball bearings, and their entire war effort would be crippled. The ball bearing factory was located in Schweinfurt. The Americans developed an elaborate plan to send 230 B-17's attack the factory. To draw away the air defense, there would be a simultaneous attack by 146 B-17s on the Messerschmitt factory in Regensburg. Gladwell explains that the execution of the plan was a disaster. Allied casualties were tremendous, and the factory was barely damaged.

The second half of the book talks about the air war against Japan. General Hansell wants to do precision bombing on Japanese factories using the new B-29 Superfortresses. But a number of factors stymie his plans - clouds over Japan, the incredible distance that the planes had to fly, and something that had never been encountered by bombers before - the jet stream. The B-29 bombers over Tokyo flew so high that they were pushed along at incredible speeds - so fast that they did not have time to aim their Norden bombsights. (If they flew the B-29s against the jet stream, then the powerful winds would hold the plane practically motionless, which would make it a sitting duck for the Japanese ground defenses.)

A new commander was brought in to direct the American air attack against Japan: Curtis LeMay. He was not a member of the Bomber Mafia, LeMay's interest was solely on getting results as fast as possible - successful results would shorten the war and save lives. LeMay ditched the daylight air raids over Tokyo, and instead order low level night bombing, the B-29s would carry a new type of incendiary bomb - Napalm. Japanese residences were built with a wood, rice paper, and other combustible materials. The Tokyo firestorm that resulted produced such a glow that the fire was visible from 150 miles away. The B-29s came back smelling of burnt flesh.

Today, of course, computers and GPS allow for bombs to be directed with incredible precision. The dream of dropping a bomb into a pickle barrel can now be achieved.

My sole complaint with this absorbing volume is that it is too short. It is just 206 pages in the trade paperback edition. I thought Gladwell could have told a lot more stories about various raids and why they succeeded or failed. No mention in this book of the Ploesti raids on Hitler's oil refineries. No mention of Iwo Jima. Nor Guadalcanal. But what Gladwell does include is certainly fascinating reading.