The Fall of Fortresses: A Personal Account of the Most Daring, and Deadly, American Air Battles of World War II by Elmer Bendiner (4 stars)
This is one of the best memoirs by an actual participant in the US bombing campaign over Germany and German occupied Europe. The author was 25 which meant he was a few years older than the average crewman and he had a maturity the others did not. He had worked as a journalist and had an eye for detail and was married with a child on the way. So his adult life had already begun when he first climbed into a bomber.
As a human being, he was deeply perceptive of himself and those around him and his sardonic view of what went on is much amusing. Given the casualties in the Air Corps, they wouldn’t accept married men but then the causalities got even worse and so they tossed out that rule and started enrolling married men as air cadets. “When I considered the dubious material I offered to a cadet school and the willingness with which that school accepted me I realized the war must be going badly indeed.”
He wrote this book late in his life, it was published in 1980, and the perspective of the years give it both the sense of being a coming of age story as well as a distillation of his long thinking about the war over his adult life. While some bomber crewmen felt remorse in the years after the war for being part of the carpet bombing of German cities and industrial areas, most did not. The author felt no remorse nor should he have felt any. World War Two was a fight to the finish against what Winston Churchill so aptly described as “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”
The Anglo-American bombing campaign was a great success. What wasn’t successful was the American theory of pin-point accurate daytime strategic bombing. The technology of the era wasn’t up to the task. Worse, the other major assumption made by American airmen in the years before World War Two — that heavily armed bombers could fly over enemy territory, bomb strategic targets, and fly home without the need of fighter escort – proved disastrous. Loss rates of bombers on unescorted missions ran as high as 10% or more.
What finally made it all work was the marriage of a British Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine with the airframe of a plane we didn’t know what to do with designated the P-51. With its American made engine, it wasn’t good for much. But with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, it was a war winner – fast, maneuverable, and deadly.
We began producing thousands of P-51 fighters with specially fitted drop tanks for fuel under their wings. By using that fuel first, then dropping the tanks, these fighters could accompany our bombers all the way from England or Italy to their targets in Germany and back. This finally began to reduce the catastrophic losses in the Eighth Air Force. What makes this memoir, The Fall of Fortresses, even more chilling is this: statistically, the odds of Bendiner surviving his tour of 25 missions were very, very low. In the months he was flying combat operations, mid to late 1943, only one in five US Eighth Air Force bomber crewman survived.
But as more and more of the P-51s began to sortie with the bombers, the loss rate was reduced. We could put up hundreds and hundreds of bombers every day and carpet bomb German targets. This way we destroyed the target, although we also destroyed everything around it. Our leaders had a terrible decision to make but they didn’t have much choice. The only way to get at the Germans before D-Day was from the air. And since only 2% of bombs landed within 1,000 feet of the target, the only solution was to drop hundreds of tons of bombs.
United States Army Air Forces strategic bombing raid on the ball bearing works at Schweinfurt, Germany.
Something Bendiner reminds us of is unlike any other service, senior officers often led bomber raids. On the very tough missions, the Group Commander, usually a full colonel, would fly lead plane. (A Group was analogous to a regiment in the ground forces.) Curtis Lemay, before he became a far right wing politician, was a brilliant air combat leader and as a colonel led his bombers on their most dangerous missions over Germany including Schweinfurt.
On 17 August 1943, the author flew in the disastrous first raid against the ball bearing works in Schweinfurt when 60 US bombers went down out of an attacking force of 376. Of those bombers which made it back to England, more than 60 had to be written off they were so badly damaged. While researching his book, Bendiner tracked down his group commander, then a colonel, who had flown the mission and retired as a general many years later.
“Mo,” Bendiner asked his retired group commander, Mo Preston, “when we went to Schweinfurt, did you reckon the cost? Did you think it was going to be worth it all?”
“How did I know? I was a ploughboy like you.” (Meaning he was no more in the loop of what 8th Air Force HQ was thinking than Bendiner.)
It’s a damn shame this book is out of print when so many lousy memoirs from World War Two are in print. But if you take the time to track down a used copy it will be time well spent.