I have to wonder what it was like for the Luftwaffe, day after day, facing the coming storm.
There’s a lot of history about the air war over Europe. Still there’s very little about a secret wizard’s war that may have determined how that campaign was won. Steve Blank tells the story and how the nerds of WW2 went on to create the secret history of Silicon Valley.
In the film the bomber crews over Demark seem to have it almost easy. Were the Germans caught off guard or was something else going on. Here’s a film about the German air defense. Looks like it’s very sophisticated to me. In 1943 it actually worked as well as it was supposed to, to the point that the USAAF had given up on raids in Germany in the las quarter of 1943.
Well equipped with the latest radar equipment that German engineering and science could come up with.
And yet the Luftwaffe seems of have been defeated. The problem was that strategic bombing was a new kind of war. To some extent strategic bombing was a nerd’s war. That’s because strategic bombing doesn’t involve direct contact between the combatants. Strategic bombing is a numbers game. You send “X” bombers to a target and they do “Y%” damage and stop production for “Z” days. The problem is that you are going to lose a percentage of very expensive aircraft and even more expensive aircrews with every mission. If that percentage is more the 5% or so, you’ve lost half your original aircrews in just eleven missions. It was very rare that a crew actually finished it’s tour in 1943 and early 1944. That’s why the Memphis Belle was famous.
In 1943 General Eaker was losing the numbers game. Part of this was the lack of fighter escorts in 1943. But there may have been other things at work. In 1943 the wizard’s war was just heating up. Being able to escort the bombers to the target and have fighter sweeps loiter over France and Germany was an important tactical and strategic advantage.
But what if the German interceptors could not find the bombers in the first place? One interesting fact about German fighter aircraft during WW2 was that the operational ranges were very short. Both the FW 190 in most variants and the BF 109 were fairly short ranged with short loiter times. Most of the more exotic interceptors were even worse, especially those aircraft that were specially equipped with heavy ordnance to attack B17’s and B24’s more aggressively.
But those interceptors depended on know when the bombers were coming and where they were. Suppose that the screens on the RADAR units were suddenly filled with mush. Or the planes on the screen were not planes at all? Or that bomber formation actually turned out to be a fighter sweep. Or the ground controller can’t vector his squadron to the bomber. Even a small mistake can require aircraft to return and refuel, the Flak to lose the critical time required to acquire targets of even load the first rounds or even know that the bombers are anywhere near at all.
It gets worse as each control sector box is forced to rely on it’s own resources because the command center can’t get a clear picture as the bombers get ever closer. Which means fighter squadrons have to cruise around trying to find bombers that may not even be where they were supposed to be. To say nothing of getting caught by Allied fighters as you return to base, empty handed. If you pay very much attention to WW2 history, this happens all too frequently.
I’ve always wondered how so many coincidences happened. The wizard’s war explains so much. True the USAAF improved aircraft and fighter escorts made their presence felt. Also the 1943 raids had had a significant impact on fighter production. The thing is that Albert Speer managed to get fighter component fabrication dispersed and production rose again in early 1944, yet it’s apparent from reading the various histories from both sides that the German air defense just sort of fell apart. Some of that may have been pilot shortages, but the ineffectiveness was just too commonplace for that to just be the case. I’ve even heard stories from veterans on both sides of the issue about how easy the missions were on the Allied side and how things fell apart on the German side.
I’d always thought that just the general way the war was inevitably going, through attrition of Luftwaffe leadership, manufacturing difficulties and other war related logistic issues. Suppose though that something else had happened. The more I look at it, the situation seems to be that the wizards at the Radio Research Lab had gotten the upper hand over the German air defense to such an extent that the entire defensive network was essentially rendered incapable.
Now why isn’t this war as well known as the Rad Lab at that other university in Cambridge or even Bletchley Park? Probably because nerd warfare is not sexy. It’s move this dial or flip that switch and all too frequently the various combatants never even see the other side or are harmed by them, though others certainly are. Then there are distinct advantages to keeping the full scope of your capabilities secret. Especially when, as in the case of the Cold War, the new opponent manages to inherit the establishment of the old ones as was the case when the Soviets made off with the contents and factory of the German RADAR and electronics establishment.
Sometimes the nerd war has it’s dramatic moments, as when the British dropped a commando team into France to steal a Wurzburg RADAR set in 1941, Operation Biting. Though true electronic warfare works best when the enemy doesn’t even know that you have a good look at what his hardware does until you press the switch and it all goes screwy.
The fact that the enemy does not know that you have defeated his electronic and air defense systems means that you have time to deploy jammers and other countermeasures on aircraft and ships before they are rendered useless. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans did not invest the effort in continuous improvement of their systems that the Allies did. For whatever reason, the Germans kept producing Freya and Wurzburg systems and deploying them rather than further developing RADAR systems. Which meant that the deployment of jammers and counter measures on aircraft was fairly straight forward.
One thing that has always amazed me was how the various divisions of the German military and the Japanese did not develop RADAR to the extent the Allies did. While this is similar to many other facets of technical developments, especially those developments that were not sexy, like big tanks one would think that the onset of a massive bombing campaign would focus the attention of the German technical resources. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. There was plenty of money for development of rather useless things like long range ballistic missiles and not so much for things like microwave RADAR.
The funny thing is that apparently both Japan and Germany had the cavity magnetron and never applied the tube to microwave RADAR. Here is an article from the IEEE that points out that the cavity magnetron was a rather well known technology.
Yet somehow the usefulness of the magnetron seems to have escaped the Axis countries. I’ve always thought that the reason for that was that axis countries never really understood the magnetron. Yet that turns out to not be the case. Yet somehow the potential of microwave RADAR in the ability to shrink the size of the sets and increasing their utility. Somehow the Axis powers never seemed to understand how being able to put RADAR everywhere and in everything changes the entire face of war.
Consider what things looked like at the end of the war from the Allied standpoint. Consider that ground facing RADAR sets allowed bombing in any weather. As the following video of a bombing mission over Japan attacking some factory near where the Railroad museum is now striking right through the clouds.
WW2 was the first electronic war. The variety of electronic and electronic countermeasure equipment was amazing. If you look at ships at the beginning of the war and pictures of ships at the end of the war, the amount of antennae increases dramatically. WW2 changed the war environment from a fairly straight forward communication and observation environment to a fog of various electronic signals and counter signals where your life depends on the ability to the nerds to keep you in the game.