In the early days of the Great War, the bomber was a relatively new concept. Like all Great War era aircraft, it had many problems, the majority of them crippling. As Canadian ace Billy Bishop once stated: "They gave us these bombs, and told us to drop them on someone". Early bombing was a very archaic practice. Rickety biplanes were not strong enough to hold bombs underwing until later on in time. Sometimes, the sheer weight of the bombs prevented the planes from even getting off the ground, and in order to accommodate the bombs, instruments, or even the invaluable machine guns, might be removed. The pilot would have to load his bombs, fly to his target, and throw them out of the plane, guiding them to their target with equal measures luck and prayer. As one could expect, this form of bombing never made a significant dent in the war machines of the Allies or the Entente. It did provide pilots, however, with valuable lessons on the art of bombing.
Advantages of bombing
- Deadly psychological warfare. Infrequent raids frightened civilians, as they had no idea when the bombers were coming, the damage they would inflict, and who would be killed.
- Allowed for targets out of the reach of artillery or ground forces to be strafed or destroyed.
- Huge amounts of damage could be inflicted upon targets.
- Bombers could be modified to assume a wide variety of roles.
Disadvantages of bombing
- Frequent bombing sometimes ceased to have a terrifying psychological effect on the victims. In the battle of Britain, London bombings became as normal as the weather, and in certain cases, civilians even went about their daily routine during raids. In plainer speech, bombing victims sometimes gained morale as opposed to losing it.
- Civilian casualties are impossible to avoid.
- Bombers are vulnerable to attack, and the rise of the interceptor in the 1960's proved that one does not need to see his enemy to engage it.
- Bombers are extremely expensive to build, expensive to maintain, and very vulnerable to interceptors and missiles.
Bombing in the Second World War
The golden age of bombing occurred, without a doubt, during the Second World War. Bombers were produced in enormous numbers were constantly being upgraded and researched. Medium and heavy bombers were mostly used against stationary targets. Light/Dive bombers were mostly used to strafe installations or ground forces. Italy's most utilized bomber was the S.M. 79 Sparveiro which carried a medium bombload of 1250 kilograms. It was most successful in its torpedo bomber variant, and served until Italy's departure from the Second World War in the early 1940s. Italy's early-war ally, Germany, used their Heinkel He-111s with great success against industrial targets and as a vital component of the Blitzkrieg. Germany rarely built heavy bombers, preferring to send wave after wave of fast medium bombers at their targets. This strategy proved invaluable against Poland, decimating its cities in a matter of hours, as Wehrmacht infantry and Panzers flooded in. The same went for Hitler's terror bombing of Rotterdam, an infamous incident where Goering's Luttwaffe destroyed the major city of Rotterdam from the air despite promising to spare it if the Dutch surrendered. This incident became one of many quoted by anti-bombing advocates which rose up by the thousands after the war reached its climax, and horrific footage of bombed cities was released. Germany's Heinkel, Junkers, and Dornier produced most of Germany's bombers. The Arado company, despite having more experience with maritime aircraft, produced the Ar-234, the worlds first jet-powered bomber. However, the most famous German bomber of the Second World War was the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka. Armed with defensive and offensive machine guns, and bombs, it inflicted brutal casualties upon the allies. The Ju-87 Stuka (Shortened from SturzKampFleugZeug) had bent wings, allowing it to enter a steep dive and pull out of it. By diving, it could deliver its bombs with terrifying accuracy. However, its potency waned as the war went on and the Luttewaffe realized that dive-bombers were only effective as long as their deployers had control of the skies.
The Russians were hard-pressed to build bombers for their counter-attack against Germany. The Petlyakov Pe-2 was a medium bomber with a decent range that gave Russia its much-needed ground attack power. The Soviet Ilyushin company produced the Il-2 Stormolvik design, which many people agree was the best attack aircraft/light bomber in World War Two. It had a wing design comparable to that of the Ju-87 and was thus a supreme performer at low altitudes. This being said, it wasn't until the post-WW2 years that Russia built up its now legendary force of bombers.
Britain and the United States produced the greatest bombers (performance-wise) that would see service fighting for the Allies in the Second World War. When the United States entered the war, they had to build their bomber-force from the ground up. A good majority of their bombers, such as the B-18 Bolos, were obsolete. A stroke of luck for the United States was that two very potent bombers of the B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress, were ready for the start of the war. The medium B-24 was developed early in the war but could carry a 3,992 Kg bombload a distance of 3,379 Km, and soon became America's most numerous bomber. The B-17's advantages, on the other hand, were a massive bombload, heavy armour, and a multitude of guns. The most famous American bombing raid of the early war years was undertaken by Doolittle's Tokyo Raiders, when several B-25 Mitchells bombed Tokyo, Japan itself shortly after the Pearl Harbour attack. Although very minimal physical damage was inflicted, the morale of the American people was lifted and Japan's citizens became quite nervous. At sea, Vought AU-1 Corsairs, Douglass Dauntlesses, and Curtiss SB2C Helldivers destroyed hordes of Japanese ships with bombs and torpedoes, while P-47s, A-26s, and A-20s became the ultimate American attack bombers on land.
British Halifaxes, Wellingtons, and Blenheims were used to bomb German forces and cities, although unlike certain heavily-armoured American bombers, they usually flew at night as a rule. The jack-of-all-trades Mosquito was used as a fast medium visual-attack bomber, usually against entrenched German positions or supply convoys. Hawker Typhoons, which proved a failure in the interceptor role, soon became invaluable as rocket-carrying attack aircraft. Their speed and machine-gun/cannon armament also allowed them to defend themselves from marauding fighters without having to abort the mission. The ultimate British bomber, and arguably the best night-bomber of the war, was the Avro Lancaster. A revised design of the unsuccessful Manchester bomber, the Lancaster came equipped with radar, radio, and a decent bombload. At sea, Britains Short Sunderland was their premier torpedo bomber of the war, and a great obstacle to the German U-boat fleet. The Sunderland could use its torpedoes and cannons to destroy a submarine in less than a minute, and it could stay in the air for long periods of time, allowing it to lie in wait for a U-Boat captain to surface his vessel.
Japan's bomber force was, by all respects, effective only if it could bring its strengths into play. Japanese bombers and bombing strategies were drastically different from those of other countries of the war. While most bombers were heavily armed, carried massive loads, and employed thick armour plating, Japan used multitudes fast, light bombers with moderate loads instead, depending on maneuverability to ensure maximum effectiveness. Mitsubishi's A6M Zero fighters were used in the attack role to deliver bombs and torpedoes with frightening accuracy towards ships. Zeroes, along with Japan's best dive-bomber, the Aichi D3A "Val", were used in the infamous Pearl Harbour attack with amazing results. In fact, so many Japanese aircraft attacked Hawaii that Americans initially waved to them, assuming they must be their own, since no one could have predicted the sheer magnitude of the raid. However, Zeroes and Vals bombed ships, destroyed aircraft on the ground, and caused havoc to the American forces. Later on in the war, Japan turned to Kamikaze aircraft. The pilots would treat their aircraft as bombs, and fly them into their targets. Japan even developed specialized suicide bomber aircraft, such as the rocket powered Ohka, which caused havoc with American supply convoys. Ultimately, over 50% of Kamikaze aircraft were shot down before they hit their target. Japan employed several heavy-medium bombers, such as Ki-67 Peggys and Ki-109s, but they suffered from poor bombloads and miniscule defences, even though they were quite fast.
Post World War II, bomber designations and types slowly changed to what they are today. During the war, there were three main types of bombers, light, medium, and heavy. Although attack aircraft also existed, they were still recognized as belonging to either the light or medium bomber categories.
Second World War types
- Light Bombers
- Also known as Dive Bombers, these bombers were often single-engined, had little or no defensive guns, and were used for accurate attacks against ground units or small stationary targets. They also did not carry very large loads. The Ju-87 Stuka, Vought F4U/AU-1 Corsair, and Ilyushin IL-2 fall into this category.
- Medium Bombers
- Medium bombers had multiple engines, good range, a moderate bombload, and moderate accuracy. These bombers were used mainly against stationary targets such as cities or shipyards in large numbers. The B-26 Marauder, Junkers Ju-88, and Vickers Wellington fall into this category.
- Heavy Bombers
- Heavy Bombers carried large loads, heavy defences, heavy armour, and depended on their bombs large blast radius to strike the target. These bombers attacked from greater heights than medium or light bombers, and used against cities or hard targets such as factories or military installations. The Boeing B-29/50 Superfortress, Tupolev Tu-4 Bull, Avro Lancaster, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, and Handley-Page Halifax fall into this category.
Cold War/Modern types
- The "light bomber" category vanished after the Second World War and was replaced with the similar but more specialized attack category. Light bombers were no longer considered "bombers" because they did not have large blast radiuses with all their weapons, were able to engage other aircraft in combat, and utilized rockets and cannons just as much as bombs. In fact, the only commonality light bombers had with medium or heavy bombers was the ability to drop bombs, and the designation was too vague and therefore dropped. Attack aircraft could have one or more engines, but were distinguished by specializing in the ground attack role, mainly destroying tanks and infantry. Examples of attack aircraft include the A-37 Dragonfly, A-10 Thunderbolt II, Blackburn Buccaneer, Sukhoi Su-25/Su-39 Frogfoot, Soko J-22 Orao, Mirage V, and the MiG-27 Flogger-D.
NOTE: Attack aircraft are no longer classified as bombers. The term bomber now refers to heavy or medium types which are completely designed around the purpose of delivering bombs.
- Medium Bombers
- Medium bombers, like light bombers, saw changes in their role during the cold war years. During WWII, medium bombers flew long range missions in large numbers to compensate for moderate defences and bomb loads. Modern (Post-1950s) medium bombers, however, received jet propulsion. They now flew solo or in small groups, with little or no defensive armament, and would carry out the deep penetration role just as often as the bombing role. Although medium bombers still dropped intermediate-sized loads of conventional bombs, they were also tasked with delivering tactical weapons into enemy territory. Medium bombers came in all sizes, from Dassaults relatively tiny Mirage IV, to Tupolev's larger Tu-22M Backfire. Ultimately, almost every medium bomber had a variant specifically tasked with delivering a WMD (Usually a nuclear bomb), to act as either a deterrent or a delivery platform in times of crisis. Examples of (modern) medium bombers are the Tu-16 Badger, Mirage IV, B-58 Hustler, B-66 Destroyer, Il-28 Beagle, English Electric Canberra and the TSR-2.
- Heavy Bombers
- Heavy bombers have, in concept, largely remained the same since the Second World War. They are all large, able to deliver a heavy payload of bombs, and can be equipped with strategic weapons such as nuclear munitions and cruise missiles. Heavy bombers are the most vulnerable of all bomber types, generally lacking the speed of medium bombers, and resort to more unconventional measures for self-defence. For example, the B-2 bomber uses stealth to be able to attack enemy bases unseen, while the Tu-160 Blackjack and B-1B Lancer resort to a combination of long-range engagement (Using cruise or nuclear missiles), speed, and even some stealth features to carry out low and high level penetration missions. Examples of heavy bombers include the Tu-95/141 Bear, B-52 Stratofortress, B-1 Lancer, Tu-160 Blackjack, Valiant, Vulcan, and the Victor bombers.
The Future of the Bomber
Despite the mere handful of heavy bomber types in service today, the bomber will still prove a valuable weapon in modern and future warfare. In between wars, however, bombers are often a huge burden on the air forces fielding them. Britain used to be one of the only three countries that still built bombers, but due to budget constraints, they retired their force of "V-Bombers" (Vulcan, Victor, and Valiant). Even today, Russian Tupolevs and certain Sukhoi types as well as American Boeings are draining resources at an astronomical rate. For heavy bombers, one needs to construct and regularly maintain massive airstrips. Also, since bombers are often kept in service for decades, their airframes deteriorate and maintenance costs skyrocket.
However, during a war, a bomber can prove to be a valuable tool. RAF Vulcans were used against Argentinean bases in the Falklands war, and in one incident a Vulcan completely decimated an Argentinean airfield using conventional bombs. Despite these advantages, though, bombing is in no way a safe practice. On the ground, flak guns and SAM positions prevent bombers from flying low, and since the introduction of jet aircraft, most bomber no longer have any defensive turrets as they have a hard time hitting targets with such a high velocity. The main danger to bombers is by far the interceptor fighter. Interceptors use their incredible speed, flight-range, and weapons range to engage bombers with such rapidity and from such far distances that they have little time to respond. For example, the American F-14 Tomcat could use its AIM-54 Phoenix missiles to destroy six Tu-141 Bears at once, from 150 miles away. And the Russian Mig-25 with its top speed of approximately 3000 KmH and its high service ceiling will catch any bomber in a matter of seconds. Worse, still, is that interceptors always operate close to forward air bases, and can get airborne, unleash a full load of weapons, land, re-arm, and then re-engage in less than an hour in certain situations.
To defend against these threats, modern bombers use stealth, speed, and most importantly, escort fighters, to protect themselves on their way to a target. The one fact that must be taken into consideration is that, no matter how difficult it is to safely escort a bomber to its target, once the bomber arrives, its target will be decimated. In conclusion, since the only time a bombers strengths (Massive destructive capabilities) can be brought into play are during war, the bomber will not disappear over the next century, just go into hibernation until the next major armed conflict appears.
Written by: Pace51