The Science of Bombing

Randall Wakelam, The Science of Bombing, All.

Introduction: World War II served as scientific catalyst as many countries searched for technological advantage, a development especially evident for the British after early strategic air operations fared poorly.  The quest to use science and math to increase the efficacy of bombing illuminated the strengths and weaknesses of technological determinism and the quantitative approach to human conflict.  It also demonstrated the importance of harmonizing strategic circumstance, operational reality, and technical feasibility.  Today, air and space strategists are confronted with the same imperative to link weapon systems to sound operational concepts and endow their pursuit of technology with sober thought and wise judgment.

AUTHOR’S BACKGROUND (use info from book, internet or other biographical sources):

Director of research & symposia at Canadian Forces College & assistant professor defense studies w/the Royal military college.


What does operational research section (ORS) contribute to bomber command?   Evaluating challenges within an organization can identify courses of action to remedy operational challenges and enhance overall efficiency & effectiveness.


-       Operational Research as originally focused on enhancing the use of radar for the air defence of Britain in the 1930’s. (26).  Focus grew as they looked at: 

o   Offensive effectiveness: mainly navigation & target finding

o   Defensive effectiveness: measures of self-protection to reduce losses

-       Bomber command had two primary issues regarding bombing: (12)

o   Legality: no laws governing air warfare existed then…only in draft form

o   Morality: If no other tool was available, area bombing was better than nothing

-       Harris did not develop the concept of strategic bombing or policy of area bombing (5)

o   Douhet, Mitchell, & Trenchard did after WWI

o   Also, Clausewitz “reassured warfare was to defeat enemy will” drove this thinking (6)

-       The Air ministry defined the targets Bomber Command was to attack (19)

-       By Oct 1940 – Portal (as Chief of Air Staff) came to resolve that “precision attacks” were possible when illumination permitted & “area attacks” could be made when not (21)

-       Operational Research (OR) definition: attacks of modern science on complex problems of large systems of men, machines, materials, & money in business, government & defense (25)

o   OR is concerned w/allocation & planning in complex situations w/limited resources

-       OR was successful in RAF for 4 reasons: (28)

o   AF was dependent on science

o   Chance brought radar to RAF – connecting scientist & AF officers

o   RAF as new & not bound by tradition

o   Success & Culture of open-mindedness attracted young/capable minds

-       ORS primary objective for Bomber Command throughout the war (35)

o   Increase efficiency in terms of bombs on target

o   Maintenance efficiency as added later in the war

-       OR sections had 2 broad tasks (46)

o   Give advice on more effective use of equipment & personnel

o   Give a considered opinion on the demand & priority of new equipment

-       OR reports led to:

o   Increased training on map reading & target identification (57)

o   Developing procedures for bomb release (60)

-       When Harris took over Bomber Command in Feb 1942 (64), he identified his challenges (68)

o   Lack of suitable aircraft in sufficient numbers

o   Absence of effective navigational aids

o   Deficiency of trained crew

-       Scientist recommended changing tactics hen bombing using GEE (radar NAV aid) & focusing on pilot morale being high when attacking Essen (74)

o   In other words, ensure the pilots had a successful bomb drop to raise their morale

-       Scientists pushed the AS for immediate fielding of Oboe (a new & more accurate bombing device – 74), & H2S (an aircraft-mounted ground-mapping radar – 77) which directly impacted the precision engagements of targets (79)

-       Bomber Command did have improvements in bombing effectiveness since war started (184)

o   More bombers & bombs helped this along w/better accuracy

o   Reduction of raids deep into GE & less hostile skies also helped

o   Growth in number of bombers, improved munitions & better TTPs did too

-       Bomber command could effectively execute precision bombing by the end of the war (204)

o   Relied on technology, aircrew, reduced defenses, etc.

-       Scientist were tasked to make bombing as effective & efficient as possible (229)

o   They were not involved in setting policy for Bomber Command


The ability to deal with ambiguity and competing factors is essential; the lesson for military educators is that any process of education must not only impart knowledge, but also take students outside their area of comfort, forcing them to build mental flexibility and giving them the thinking tools to be able to break don these problems into manageable parts, and synthesize viable solutions (233).


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