Monday, May 17, 2021

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell is a solid and short read first made as an audiobook and then turned into a hardcover. It expands on stories from his Revisionist History podcast and is described as a tale of persistence (with Gladwell noting his appreciation of obsessives), innovation, and the wages of war. 

Three primary characters detailed are U.S. Generals Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell as well as Carl Norden, inventor of the Norden bombsight. Hansell was the architect of precision bombing, using the Norden bombsight to surgically strike enemy choke points in an attempt to win wars with less loss of life. The story is told of WWII efforts to bomb German factories in the town of Schweinfurt that produced ball bearings, and the enormous casualties suffered by U.S. air forces, with Curtis LeMay commanding planes directed by Hansell.

LeMay took over for Hansell when he was relieved of command in the Pacific theater and took the opposite approach, employing morale bombing, with the intent of shortening the war by demoralizing the enemy. Bombing of Japan was only possible after U.S. forces took the Mariana Islands, some 1,500 miles from Tokyo, and developed the B-29 bomber, with a range of a bit over 3,000 miles.

In the first bombing runs with B-29s over Tokyo, they discovered the jet stream, with the winds making it impossible to accurately drop bombs from altitude. LeMay switched from the daylight raids favored by Hansell to low-altitude night bombing raids. LeMay also employed area bombing with napalm, and on March 9, 1945 Operation Meetinghouse had more than 300 B-29s drop napalm bombs that killed roughly 100,000 people, with everything burning for 16 square miles. This was followed by napalm bombing of many other Japanese cities and it was interesting reading of how this firebombing campaign, along of course with the dropping of the atomic bombs, played a huge role in Japan surrendering in August 1945.