THE FATE OF THE ‘URALBOMBER’: 1943–4

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Junkers Ju89

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Dornier Do19

In May 1943 Hitler called German aviation industrialists together for a meeting. Ernst Heinkel, one of those present, recalled the Führer’s impatient demand for a high-performance bomber: ‘For three years I’ve been waiting for a long-distance bomber. I can’t bomb the convoys in the North Sea, nor can I bomb the Urals.’ A few months before, Hitler had told the air force chief of staff that the most urgent priority was a long-range heavy bomber for the Eastern Front to undertake raids by night ‘against long-distance targets which lie so far from our front that they [cannot] be reached by other aircraft types’. Hitler’s view – almost certainly correct – was that the air force made too many technical demands in the development of new aircraft and as a result produced persistent delays in providing the front line with what was strategically necessary. The Barbarossa Directive in December 1941 had anticipated a campaign against the Soviet armaments industry once the mobile war was over, but no campaign materialized, and no heavy bomber. The history of the air war against the Soviet Union would certainly have been different had an effective aircraft been available sooner and in sufficient quantities.

The story of the so-called ‘Uralbomber’ was a long one. In 1934 the then chief of the air staff, Colonel Walter Wever, was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea that in any future war a large multi-engine bomber would be needed. According to Andreas Nielsen, one of the German Air Force officers later recruited by the American Air Force to write historical studies on the war, Wever was convinced that the important target areas ‘would be Soviet industries and the outermost corners of European Russia’ and even beyond, in the Siberian regions to the east of the Urals. Two companies, Junkers and Dornier, were commissioned to produce an aircraft that soon attracted the nickname ‘Uralbomber’; the result was the Do19 and the Ju89, both of which first flew in 1936. Wever’s untimely death reduced the lobby in the Air Ministry in favour of a long-range bomber. His successor, Albert Kesselring, an army officer seconded to the air force, promoted greater army-air cooperation, and on 29 April 1937 the bomber programme was wound up. Research on bombing carried out by a special unit under the command of the future chief of staff, Hans Jeschonnek, confirmed an air force prejudice that precision bombing with highly trained crews carried out in bombers that could dive, to increase accuracy, was preferable to mass bombing with level-flying heavy aircraft. Air force technical development was led by a former fighter pilot, Ernst Udet, who understood the virtues of dive-bombing but had little sympathy for the large bomber. The Junkers Ju88, the bomber developed under Udet’s stewardship, carried a modest weight of bombs, but could dive to increase the impact of the bombs against a visible target on the ground. All bombers were supposed to be at the same time dive-bombers, whatever their size.

This was not the end of the German heavy bomber, as is usually argued, but only a pause. It was understood that a new generation of high-performance aircraft would be needed in the 1940s and that this should at least include a modern large bomber to supersede the obsolescent Do17 and He111 on which the force currently relied. On 2 June 1937, only weeks after the cancellation of the ‘Uralbomber’, the Ernst Heinkel works was given the contract to develop Project 1041 for a multi-engine long-range bomber. The aircraft was given the designation He177 and the prototype flew for the first time on 20 November 1939. By then it was already included in long-range planning for output from 1942 onwards, as successor to the ageing generation of medium bombers. It was intended to produce 350–450 bombers in 1942, rising to 900 in 1943 and over 1,500 in 1944. The new bomber had a limited performance compared with the new generation of British and American aircraft, the Avro Lancaster and the B-29 ‘Superfortress’ then under development. With a full load of 6,000 lbs of bombs the He177 had an operational range of only 745 miles, which would not take it to the Urals and back. The greatest handicap for the new long-range bomber was the requirement that despite its great bulk and weight, it should have the capacity to perform a shallow dive as well, a requirement entirely at odds with the size of the aircraft and its strategic purpose. Heinkel solved the problem by coupling two pairs of Daimler Benz DB-606 engines together, giving the aircraft four engines but only two nacelles, to reduce the drag during a dive. The engine configuration was not the only difficulty experienced with the aircraft – there were 56 files on modifications and technical problems on the He177 in Heinkel’s office – but it was the principal one. The aircraft as a result was prone to engine failure and engine fires, so much so that crews nicknamed it the Luftwaffenfeuerzeug, the ‘air force lighter’, and disliked having to fly it.

The slow pace of development of the He177 dictated by problems of design mattered less in the early part of the war when quick victories could be achieved with the prevailing technology. The German Air Force nevertheless expected that it would be their replacement bomber and by 1942, with the Soviet war prolonged beyond the first phase of fast-moving mobile warfare, the necessity for a bomber with greater bomblift and longer range became obvious. The strategic gap that this opened up for the air force was exacerbated by the insistent demands of the army for close support and the low level of serviceability and supply for the eastern theatre. An air force study written in late 1943 claimed that air force commanders had wanted to bomb Soviet industry from at least the autumn of 1941, but found that army requirements left the air force ‘completely harnessed to close support’ throughout the campaign. Although Hitler deplored the absence of a heavy bomber, his role as commander-in-chief of the army, assumed in December 1941, inclined him to place priority on air support for ground operations when these faced crisis. The main handicap, however, was the failure of the He177 to fulfil its early promise.

The sorry story of the He177 reflected more profound problems in the technical evolution of the air force. Uncertainty about the course of the war or the reliability of the aircraft had led to two cancellations, only for the model to be reinstated months later. Decision-making at a technical level was hampered by the interference of both Udet and Göring, neither of whom understood the nature of technical planning or grasped the extent to which industrial rivalry encouraged Heinkel to shield the seriousness of the design problems from fear that the heavy bomber would be placed with another company. Only in August 1942 did the chief of the air force development and testing office supply Göring with a comprehensive survey of all the faults of the He177, with the conclusion that the model could only be introduced successfully into combat by March 1944 at the earliest. Erhard Milch, Göring’s deputy, reflected that ‘one could weep’ over the failure of the air force’s one available strategic bomber. When Hitler was finally informed in May 1943 that the coupled engine was the explanation for the failure to get the He177 into combat he is supposed to have retorted: ‘But that’s madness … is it possible that there could be so many idiots?’ The air force technical branch had already arrived at the same conclusion and other bomber models were now in the pipeline, though years away from large-scale operation. Heinkel was ordered to convert the bomber to four regular but different engines (the DB-610) and the model was renamed the He277. It was ready for testing only by July 1944, by which time the bomber programme had been wound up in favour of fighters. Until then plans continued to produce the ill-starred He177 at the rate of 100 a month.

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The crisis of the German field army in the Soviet Union from Stalingrad onwards prompted the air force to argue the case for greater operational independence so that it could find ways to interrupt the flood of Soviet weapons and aircraft before they reached the front. In the summer of 1943 serious research began on what the chief bottleneck targets in the Soviet industrial system might be. The driving force behind the plan was the commander of the Sixth Air Fleet stationed in central Russia, Col. General Robert Ritter von Greim (who briefly replaced Göring as air force commander-in-chief in late April 1945). His staff drew up detailed contingency plans in June 1943 for a ‘Campaign against Soviet Russian War Economy’, but particularly the aero-engine industry, aviation fuel, locomotive production, tanks and vehicles. Two civilian experts, Professor Heinrich Steinmann and Dr Rudolf Carl, undertook their own analysis after being prompted by Armaments Minister Albert Speer, whose experience of Allied bombing of German industry inclined him to think that systematic destruction of the electricity-generating industry in the Moscow/Volga area might have decisive effects. The Carl Committee for ‘Economic Objectives for Air Attacks’ recommended destroying 56 generating stations in the region as the fastest way to impede Soviet war production. Models were made of the power stations and shown to Hitler. On Speer’s insistence, Hitler finally approved in December 1943 ‘Aktion Russland’ (Russian Action) for a single surprise attack against the Soviet energy system.

Most of this planning was delusional. Although the air force staff now led by General Günther Korten (following Jeschonnek’s suicide in August 1943), with Karl Koller as operations chief, strongly favoured a strategic campaign against selected Soviet targets, there were a great many obstacles to overcome. On 9 November 1943 Koller circulated a memorandum on ‘The Campaign against the Russian Arms Industry’, which at last won the army’s approval as a possibly surer way to destroy Soviet armaments at source rather than having to wait to destroy them at the fighting front. But the army preferred attacks against armament factories rather than energy supply, and was anyway soon demanding every bomber to stem the Soviet advance around Kiev. Specialist training units were set up for crews assigned to long-range night-bombing – something that had not been kept up after the end of the Blitz against Britain – but the shortage of He177 aircraft left them training on He111 and Ju88 medium bombers, with limited range. The crews needed time to learn how to use the new and more accurate Lotfe 7D bombsight, and the Fritz X gliding bomb, to maximize the impact of each raid. Navigation lagged behind Allied achievements. Air units were recommended to use a ‘command aircraft’ to circle over the chosen target, directing incoming bombers by radio to achieve the optimum impact, an arrangement that had already achieved some success in attacking tactical targets. It was difficult to find bases that could handle the new campaign and at the same time keep their purpose concealed. As Soviet forces advanced, so some of the targets chosen fell out of range. In January 1944 the experts concluded that attacks on the limited number of objectives still near enough to bomb ‘can lead to no decisive results’. By this stage of the war German bomber losses were exceeding production every month; from October 1943 to March 1944 the air force lost 2,623 bombers on all fronts against production of 2,109.114 In February ‘Aktion Russland’ was abandoned.

Instead, the 350 bombers that had been gathered on the Eastern Front for long-range operations were diverted back to a three-month railway campaign which proved unable to affect Soviet mobility materially and exposed the extent to which the speculations about doing serious damage to Soviet industry had been so much wishful thinking. Between January and May 1944 German aircraft destroyed no more than 34 kilometres of track, 15 railway bridges and 41 locomotives in more than 1,000 small raids. During the whole of 1944, 166 locomotives were destroyed and 441 damaged; during the same period only 11 factories were destroyed, together with 85 warehouses and shops. Nevertheless, in May 1944 Koller once again pressed unsuccessfully for a pre-emptive bombing campaign in the east, as the German strategic situation continued to deteriorate. The idea of bombing Soviet industry lingered on well past any point of operational reality. Late in 1944 Speer, von Greim and Koller persisted in arguing the case for long-range operations against economic targets. In April 1945 Koller, now chief of staff following Korten’s death from injuries sustained when the bomb exploded in Hitler’s headquarters in July 1944, recommended for the last time the idea of bombing more distant Soviet objectives. Hitler agreed, only to cancel his approval a few days later when every bomber was needed to defend the approaches to Berlin. Right to the end there remained a wide gap between ends and means in air force ambitions, a pattern that could be traced back to the illusions harboured about the degree of damage done to the British war effort during the Blitz. Despite the hope of many German Air Force leaders that they would be permitted to project a more strategic form of air power, the air force ended the war as it had begun it, conducting operational air warfare alongside the army.

There are many reasons why the transition to strategic bombing failed in the war on the Eastern Front: a shortage of aircraft given the demands of the fighting front; difficulties in maintaining adequate serviceability rates and the effects of the harsh climate; the muddled development of the one heavy bomber that might have fulfilled the task in time; the absence of a clear strategic view of what bombing might or might not achieve after the relative failure over Britain; and by 1943 the demand for long-range aircraft to support the Atlantic war and to renew the bombing of Britain. Whether or not a campaign to inhibit Soviet industrial production would have succeeded is open to speculation, given the capacity of the Soviet system to absorb massive shock and to improvise creatively, and the strongly coercive nature of Soviet labour policy. Soviet industrial building was certainly vulnerable to concentrated incendiary attack, as the fate of Stalingrad’s industry demonstrated, but the industrial economy was vast and much of it far distant from German bases. The Soviet Air Force, on the other hand, recognized the nature of the campaign being waged and focused attention on close support for the fighting fronts, leaving long-range bombing to the Western Allies. Soviet bomber production was a fraction of the output of all combat aircraft, just 15 per cent between 1943 and 1945. A number of small raids continued to be made on European targets, but again largely for political effect. Soviet bombers raided Berlin three times in the autumn of 1942, on 26–27 and 28–29 August and 9–10 September, partly in the expectation that the RAF would be bombing at the same time, a promise Churchill had made to Stalin when he visited him in Moscow in August, but failed to redeem. Small raids were made at the same time on Budapest, Bucharest, Warsaw and Helsinki, but after that long-range attacks were suspended until the spring of 1944 when the Finnish capital was bombed once again to try to coerce Finland into making a separate peace.

The brief offensive against Finland was the only time that the Soviet Union used air power on its own as a way to achieve a strategic end. Helsinki had been bombed once in the Winter War of 1939–40, but by units of the Baltic Fleet air force, which had contravened orders not to attack the city area. The three raids on Helsinki in 1944 coincided with the short campaign conducted by the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces against Bulgarian targets, which Stalin refused to support. There were three main raids, on the nights of 6–7, 16–17 and 26–27 February 1944, carried out by large bombing forces, 785 on the first night, 406 on the second and 929 on the third. The aircraft carried around 2,600 tons of bombs, but the raids were a complete failure. Although Soviet histories subsequently asserted that the bombing successfully hit industry, administrative centres and military targets, Finnish sources indicate that around 95 per cent of the bombs failed to hit the target area of the city, 48 square kilometres, and most fell in the sea. Thirty Soviet aircraft were lost to the defence forces and to accident.120 The raids did little to persuade the Finns to seek an armistice. This they did later in the year, in September, when it was evident that the war was lost.

The closest the Soviet side came to collaboration with the strategic offensive conducted by the British and American air forces against Germany was in the summer of 1944. This followed an agreement made with the American Air Force to allow American bombers to undertake shuttle-bombing of targets in eastern Germany and German-occupied Europe using Soviet airfields as the shuttle base. It was a surprising decision given the suspicious hostility displayed to Western offers of air assistance in the Caucasus in late 1942. Roosevelt raised the question of shuttle-bombing with Stalin at the Teheran Conference in late November 1943, at a time when the United States Army Air Force stationed in England was searching for a way to hit German industry without suffering heavy losses from unescorted missions. The American Air Force hoped that this might open the way for negotiating bases in the far east of the Soviet Union for attacks on Japan; there was some hope that military collaboration might contribute to warmer political ties between the two allies. Stalin finally agreed at the end of December, for reasons which are not entirely clear given the subsequent months of often fractious negotiation between the two sides. The Soviet priority remained front-line support for the advancing army, for which shuttle-bombing would provide little assistance.

An American delegation headed by Colonel John Griffith, who had fought with the American anti-Bolshevik intervention force in Russia in 1918, finally secured use of three sites in the liberated area of Ukraine at Poltava, Piryatin and Mirgorod. An American ‘Eastern Command’ was established under Colonel Alfred Kessler, an early replacement for Griffith, who found his anti-Soviet feeling difficult to disguise. After months of planning, ‘Operation Frantic’ finally began on 2 June 1944, by which time the rationale for shuttle-bombing had largely disappeared, thanks to the introduction of the American P-38 and P-51 fighters. The first operation was mounted against targets in southern Germany from bases in Italy occupied by the US Fifteenth Air Force. The commander in the Mediterranean, General Ira Eaker, flew on the first mission to ensure that it enjoyed a high political profile, and he was duly feted on his arrival in the Ukraine. The second operation, flown on 21 June from Eighth Air Force bases in England, was a disaster. A few hours after landing, the 73 B-17 ‘Flying Fortresses’ on the field at Poltava were subjected to a devastating attack by German bombers which flew in low against negligible defences. Colonel Archie Old, commander of the task force, described the attack in a report for the Eighth Air Force commander:

About ten minutes after the first flares were dropped the first bombs started falling and then for almost two hours, the bastards bombed hell out of the flying field, especially that part where the task force B-17s were dispersed. It was one of the most accurate bombing raids that the task force commander has seen or heard of, many thousands of bombs were dropped and approximately 95% of them fell on the flying field … of seventy-three B-17s on the field 100% were either destroyed or damaged.

Soviet personnel were forced by their commanders to try to combat the effects of the bombing while it was still going on; when it was over, Soviet soldiers picked up the unstable anti-personnel ‘butterfly’ bombs with their bare hands, or shot at them to make them explode. Between 30 and 40 of the soldiers were killed, as well as two Americans. The German commander was Lt. General Rudolf Meister, the man chosen to organize the pinpoint bombing of Soviet power stations the previous year. Only a handful of further operations were conducted by Eastern Command, including supply for the Polish Home Army in its uprising against the German occupiers, launched on 1 August 1944. This proved too much for the Soviet regime to stomach and in late August the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, told the Americans that the bases were now needed for the Soviet Air Force. On 4 October Operation Frantic was wound up, though the last American personnel did not leave until June 1945.

The air war on the Eastern Front remained for almost all its course a tactical one. Only 5 per cent of Soviet sorties were made against distant targets; the German Air Force flew a higher proportion of long-range sorties for reconnaissance and occasional bombing missions, and bombed cities in the path of the ground campaign, but did not develop a campaign of independent bombing of military-economic targets despite the growing pressure from Hitler and the air force High Command to do so. The Soviet Air Force was nevertheless not entirely opposed to the development of strategic air power in the future. Andrei Tupolev was allowed to renew work on a heavy four-engine bomber and the result was the Pe-8/TB7, the first modern heavy bomber of the Soviet Air Force; in the end only 91 were ever produced because of the urgent need for front-line aviation, but a few of them took part in the bombing of Helsinki in 1944.

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Petlyakov Pe-8

Tupolev was also given the opportunity to exploit three Boeing B-29 ‘Superfortresses’, interned by the Russians after they landed on Soviet soil following missions over Japan in the summer of 1945. These became the basis for the development of a new Soviet super-bomber, the Tu-4, which ushered the Soviet Union into the strategic air age. The head of the MPVO, reflecting on what lessons might be learned from the civil defence effort during the war, favoured retaining all deep shelters against the possibility that bigger and better bombs would be developed in the future from which the Soviet people would need sounder and more extensive shelter. While Tupolev worked on the new Soviet super-bomber, Lavrentii Beria, the Minister of the Interior, headed a project to develop the Soviet atomic bomb. When the bomb was successfully detonated on a remote site in central Asia on 29 August 1949, the Soviet Union entered the nuclear age. The heavy bombers, missiles and nuclear weapons of the 1950s overturned the Soviet preference for close-support aviation as the principal way to project air power and presented the new German Federal Republic, in the front line of the Cold War, with a strategic threat unrecognizable from the bombing war on the Eastern Front just a decade before.

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