War and Social Upheaval: World War II Air Campaign--Air Defenses (1939-45)

Warsaw bomb damage
Figure 1.--Hitler and Stalin began World War II by invading Poland (September 1939). Poland had only a small and largely obsolete air force. There were no important air defenses. The Luftwaffe, however, took some time to destroy the Polish Air Force because the Poles had dispersed their planes before the Germans struck. From the onset, the Luftwaffe began bombing Polish cities. Here we see early civilian victims of bombing raids on Warsaw. The caption read, "Warsaw--What next?: Questioing, grave beyond their years are the faces of these three Polish boys who are shown, according to the caption passed by British censor, sitting beside the scttered blonings from their home after a German bombing raid."

As Europe spiraled toward World War II, the accepted dictum in military circles was that 'the bomber would always get through'. Few countries could build formidable air defenses. This required primariy a strong airforce. And a very small number of countries had major air forces (America, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union). Air defenses are generally construed as defending cities and other priority assetts, but an important aspect was defending the country's airforce. This was not fully appreciated before the war and thus an impprtant factor in early Grman and Japanese victories. If the airforce was destroyed as in the case of the Dutch and the Soviets, than the cities could not be defended. Only one country (Britain) during the War built a major air defense. The British air defenses employed radar for the first time and husbanded enough of its fighter squadrons to beat off the Luftwaffe. The combination proved decisive in the Battle of Britain (1940). The Luftwaffe like the British had developed radar, but failed to fully appreciate its importance in air warfare. And because they planned to do the attacking, defensive measurs were not a high priority. German air defenses were not seriously tested at the onset of the War because the Allied feared Luftwaffe reprisals. This changed after the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Britain devoted a substantial share of its industrial capacity for building Bomber Command which with the arrival of the Lancaster finally had the capability to strike at the Reich. The Germans built the most fearsome air defense of the War, extracting terrible losses on attacking bomber formations. Gradually Bomber Command and the American 8th Air Force wore the Luftwaffe down, especially after the arrival of long-range escorts (December 1944). America relied primarily on its twin ocean barries for air defenses. Air defense failures proved disaterous in Hawaii and the Philippines at the onset of the War. France pursued a strategy of moving much of its air force south to rear areas, but that meant it was not in place to blunt the German Western Offensive when the blow came. Japan' wood ad paper cities were the most vulnerable to air attack, but the country's primary air defense was the Pacific Ocean which meant at the time Japan launched the Pacific War, the Home Islands were beyond the reach of Allied bombers. The Soviet Union pursued the opposite of the French tactic. Stalin moved a substantialpart of the Red Army and Red Airforce west into unprepared defenses. This allowed the Germans to savage these forces at the onset of Barbarossa (1941). The Red Air Force was vurtually destoyed and would not reappear in force on the battlefield for 2 years.


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Created: 3:49 AM 4/12/2015
Last updated: 3:49 AM 4/12/2015