Operation Clarion

On 22 February the combined Allied Air Forces launched Operation Clarion, which was a major bombing offensive aimed at knocking out the remaining German transport and communications system. Nearly 9000 aircraft, operating from bases in England, France, Holland, Belgium and Italy, attacked over 650,000 square kilometres of territory, targeting railways, bridges, ports and roads – the US Eighth Air Force alone targeted 33 transport junctions.

Navigators on H2X-equipped B-17s and B-24s of the U.S. Army Air Forces used radar charts like this one. The chart features a mission with Ruhrland, Germany, as a target. This refinery center was struck several times by the Eighth Air Force in the winter of 1944-45, and was the primary target when overcast conditions on February 15, 1945, caused American bombers to select Dresden as the nearest radar target of opportunity. The city was already reeling from heavy RAF incendiary raids the night before, and the civilian casualties resulting from the combined Anglo-American strikes cause the episode to be one of the most contentious of the European air war. The chart, consisting of several charts adhered together, also features defensive flak belts hand inked on by an intelligence officer.

World War II Bombing Mission Radar Map Radar chart, possibly used by the U.S. Eighth Air Force on the Dresden raid, February 15, 1945.

According to an American analysis of the effect of bombing on Germany’s economy, ‘it took 9,000 aircraft in Operation Clarion to knock out about three quarters of German production of railway trucks between the spring of 1944 and March 1945.’ On the other hand, it required massive diversion of German resources to provide both the air defence and operational staff to keep the railways running. Right at the end of the war, in 1945, the British started using massive ‘Tallboy’ bombs, weighing up to 10 tons, to destroy railway infrastructure such as tunnels and viaducts, and had these been available earlier, the bombing campaign might have taken its toll more quickly.

In the week after the Dresden mission, Bomber Command launched three missions against oil facilities. It also attacked Wessel on 16, 18, and 19 February in support of ground forces. The raids carried no incendiaries. The night after Dresden, Bomber Command sent 671 sorties to attack the city and marshaling yards of Chemnitz with 2,329 tons (over 60 percent of them incendiaries). The night of 20 February, Bomber Command dispatched an area raid of 513 effective sorties carrying 904 tons of high explosives and 1,615 tons of incendiaries to Dortmund. Next, Harris directed two raids, one by 617 Squadron, on the Mittelland Canal overpass at Gravenhorst on 20 and 21 February. On the 21st the command struck the marshaling yards and cities of Chemnitz (1,055 tons) and Worms (1,828 tons); both raids carried more than 55 percent high explosives. Between 13 and 20 February Bomber Command carried out eight area raids.

The Eighth undertook raids against its second priority target, transportation, with vigor. Radar directed raids averaging 150 heavy bombers struck at Cottbus on 15 February; Rheine, Osnabrück, and Hamm on 16 February; Frankfurt on 17 February; and Siegen, Münster, Osnabrück, and Rheine on 19 February. None of these raids carried a significant amount of incendiary bombs. On 20 February the Eighth sent 859 heavy bombers in an area raid against marshaling yards in Nürnberg, a city heretofore relatively untouched by bombing. This mission carried 1,869 tons of ordnance, 26 percent incendiaries. The next day the Eighth sent a maximum effort-its largest raid against a single target of the entire war-against Nürnberg’s marshaling yards. This “area” raid of 1,198 bombers drenched the city with 2,889 tons of bombs, including 1,169 tons of incendiaries. In the latter raid weather had given planners a choice between Berlin and Nürnberg. They chose Nürnberg only moments from take-off. Both Nürnberg raids used H2X.

On 21 February 1945 Allied weather forecasters predicted clear skies over much of Germany for the next day, whereupon the Allied air leaders, at the request of Eisenhower’s headquarters, scheduled Operation Clarion for execution. The plan had a gestation stretching back to mid-September 1944 when the Allies sought to deliver a blow to break German will. The idea of a wide-ranging offensive had continued to grow. Spaatz, in particular, embraced the plan and continued to advocate it. He hoped to repeat it frequently. By the end of December 1944, Clarion provided for attacks in visual bombing weather by all available Allied strategic and tactical airpower on unbombed smaller German rail and water communications centers in the hope of disrupting economic life and the tactical situation at the front line. The plan had also gained Tedder’s support. However, Bottomley, speaking for the RAF air staff, did not judge the time propitious. In a bit of irony the air staff hurled at Spaatz the cry he had so often used himself-Clarion would interfere with bombing German oil targets. Within Spaatz’s own staff some dissented. General [Frederick] Anderson’s deputy wrote that Clarion would cause little dislocation in Germany’s rail system because of its redundancy. “There is,” he added, “absolutely no basis for the hope that such an operation would cause disorder among the civil population of Germany by the feeling of fear.” He felt, however, that such bombing might cause disorder leading to the maltreatment of American aircrews and other POWs. Before recommending the plan not be executed, he had a further observation, “Operation [Clarion] constitutes open war against civilians, [who] would react badly in [those] states and . . . place our forces in a defensive position before the world.”

Eaker strenuously objected as well. His response emphasized the constant ambivalence of the AAF’s leadership towards the subject-area bombing. Eaker, when he commanded the Eighth, had initiated US area bombing in the fall of 1943. Writing on 1 January, as the Battle of the Bulge still raged and before the Soviet winter, he begged Spaatz not to order implementation of area bombing, stating: “It will absolutely convince the Germans that we are the barbarians they say we are, for it would be perfectly obvious to them that this is primarily a large-scale attack on civilians as, in fact, it of course will be. Of all the people killed in this attack, over 95% of them can be expected to be civilians.” He also objected to operational aspects of the plan, especially its low-level, small formation tactics and to the diversion of effort from the oil campaign. Next came a remarkable passage:

If the time ever comes when we want to attack the civilian populace with a view to breaking civil morale, such a plan as the one suggested is probably the way to do it. I personally, however, have become completely convinced that you and Bob Lovett are right and we should never allow the history of this war to convict us [of] throwing the strategic bomber at the man in the street. I think there is a better way we can do our share to defeat the enemy, but if we are to attack the civil population I am certain we should wait until its morale is much nearer the breaking point and until the weather favors the operation more than it will at any time in the winter or early spring.

In fact the Americans did not intend to kill German civilians as much as they hoped to damage their psyches. SHAEF’s proposed psychological war plan to accompany Clarion aimed to stress to the German people, especially train crews and yard workers, the necessity of avoiding railway stations, tracks, freight yards, and similar facilities. Shortly before initiating the operation and after the American press furor over Dresden, Spaatz issued specific instructions as follows: “In planning for Operation [Clarion] it is important that Public Relations and Communiqué Officers be advised to state clearly in communiqués and all press releases the military nature of all targets attacked. Special care should be taken against giving any impression that this operation is aimed at the civilian population or intended to terrorize them. In addition to the above care must taken to insure that all crews are thoroughly briefed that attacks will be limited to military objectives.”

By attacking numerous unbombed targets near small cities and towns, the Allies hoped to impress upon millions of Germans their helplessness in the face of Allied air superiority. British and American fighters and bombers would spread out all over Germany blasting transport targets such as grade crossings, stations, barges, docks, signals, tracks, bridges, and marshaling yards. The plan purposely selected targets near small towns heretofore untouched by the war and therefore not likely to have strong antiaircraft defenses. To heighten their accuracy, the Eighth’s and the Fifteenth’s heavy bombers came in at unusually low altitudes. Some of them bombed from 6,000 feet, while the Ninth’s medium bombers buzzed up and down the rail lines destroying locomotives and disrupting traffic. Britain’s 2d Tactical Air Force joined in the operations with more than 1,600 sorties, and Bomber Command made four attacks. In Italy the British 1st Tactical Air Force and the American Twelfth also joined in. In all more than 3,500 heavy bombers and 4,900 fighters took part. The bombers attacked 219 transportation targets while the fighters claimed to have destroyed or damaged 594 locomotives and 3,803 railcars. The Allies lost 90 bombers. Eleven of Eighth Air Force’s 13 fighter groups strafed targets of opportunity. In an Eighth Air Force daily intelligence and operations summary, the AAF made a rare admission. This document recorded that the ground strafing had killed three civilians.  

Eisenhower’s headquarters had requested Clarion to assist an offensive by Lt Gen William G. Simpson’s US Ninth Army, scheduled to begin the night of 22 February. The Ninth Army staged an assault that would cross the Roer River, clear the Cologne plain, seize Cologne itself, and close up to the Rhine, all of which it accomplished by 7 March. Spaatz had been itching for months to go ahead with Clarion. On 1 February at the weekly air commanders’ conference, he had pressed for immediate execution of Clarion. On 2 February Spaatz informed Twining and Eaker of his intention to order Clarion when conditions allowed. When Twining objected to the special tactics called for in the plan but not the concept behind it, Spaatz accommodated him with some slight modifications to provide more safety for the heavy bombers. On 5 February Spaatz told Arnold that Clarion was cocked and primed; he noted that he no longer expected any single air operation to win the war.

The results of Clarion justified Spaatz’s caution. The operation, which took place on 22 February and which the Eighth alone repeated the next day, failed to achieve its lofty goals. It did not precipitate a crisis among railway workers nor did it overwhelm the Reichsbahn’s repair facilities, disrupt the railways enough to affect the frontline troops immediately, or drive the war home to the German people. Clarion did, however, destroy a considerable amount of rolling stock and lowered the throughput capacity of several main rail lines for the duration of the war. The operation added further strain and attrition to a system already collapsing from the cumulative effects of the destruction being rained upon it.

The bombing itself proved remarkably accurate. The combination of lower altitude and smaller attacking formations produced good results. Of the 124 squadrons dispatched by the Eighth, 96 bombed visually; the Eighth Air Force operational analysis section plotted 76 of those bomb patterns and compared them to the average of operations from 1 September 1944 through 31 January 1945. Clarion’s bomb patterns were considerably more compact with one-third as many gross errors (8 percent as compared to 28 percent). In addition 26 percent of Clarion’s visually aimed bombs fell within 500 feet of the aiming point, and 82 percent fell within 2,000 feet as opposed to only 12 percent falling within 500 feet and only 57 percent landing within 2,000 feet for the winter’s general bombing campaign. Relatively few of Clarion’s bombs fell on populated areas, and for its entire effort during this operation, the Eighth loaded less than two-tenths of one percent (0.02 percent) incendiary bombs-an unequivocal sign that the Americans did not intend for Clarion’s raids to attack civilians or city areas. The Fifteenth Air Force chipped in with 48 squadron-sized or smaller attacks on rail targets in Germany, Austria, and Italy, while medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force dropped 850 tons on 11 marshaling yards and 44 other rail targets. Fighter bombers from the Ninth’s three tactical air commands hit rail targets with an additional 376 tons of ordnance and conducted armed reconnaissance along trackage from Düsseldorf to Giessen. Although Maj Gen Frederick Anderson probably spoke for all of USSTAF when, a month later, he proclaimed Clarion to be “singularly effective,” neither USSTAF nor the rest of the Allied airmen repeated the operation-first, because it required a special set of weather conditions and, second, because it required all the Allied air forces to give up their primary missions to concentrate on a special project with unquantifiable results.

The operation demonstrated yet again the impossibility of completely controlling the actions of the aircrews. In spite of the admonitions some crews, either because of cloud cover or failure to understand bombing policy for Clarion, bombed city areas as targets of opportunity. Thirteen aircraft, bombing visually, placed 39 tons on Grabow, and 77 bombers, employing H2X, put 233 tons on Ulm. Most embarrassing of all, a lone bomber strayed into Switzerland and bombed Basel.

Clarion provided yet another example of the inability of airpower to fatally loosen a police state’s internal control of its populace. The concentrated assaults on Berlin and Dresden on 3, 14, and 15 February failed as did the broad attack, which proved equally unsuccessful, and the combination of both tactics. It may further have confirmed the military axiom against spreading one’s forces too thinly in an attempt to accomplish too broad an objective. Napoléon and Gen Robert E. Lee practiced their wiles on the minds of either a single person or a few individuals, such as Mack in 1805 and Gen Joe Hooker in 1863. However, in the aggregate of modern warfare and intelligence, such moves are likely to be less than successful.

Clarion did, however, provide the opportunity for USSTAF to stage a press blitz to counteract reporting of the Dresden bombing. USSTAF had a United Press International correspondent at Eighth Air Force headquarters to cover the planning; briefed the press in London and Paris; sent a planeload of reporters to frontline airfields to cover the story; and sent its own combat camera crews out to get movie and still footage of the operation. The Eighth promptly released this footage and gained a 15-minute news spot on the National Broadcasting Company network.

After Clarion, both the Eighth and Bomber Command continued their pounding of Germany’s urban areas. On 23 February 1945 Bomber Command sent a daylight main-force raid against its most heavily bombed target, Essen, dropping an additional 1,313 tons, including 878 tons of incendiaries, on that city. That night Harris smashed the last of the 63 German cities of more than 100,000 population that he had placed on his target list. Three hundred sixty-eight heavy bombers blasted Pforzheim with 1,739 tons of ordnance, including 919 tons of incendiaries, starting a firestorm that may have killed up to 17,000 persons. Harris boasted to his fellow air commanders, “that whole place has been burned out. This attack had been what was popularly known as a deliberate terror attack.” He said that he knew “that in certain quarters, the value of these area attacks was disputed. Pforzheim was a town that contained innumerable small workshops for the manufacture of precision instruments. This attack must have destroyed the `home-work’ of the population and their equipment.” Harris finished by noting, “Bomber Command had now destroyed 63 German towns in this fashion.”

The Eighth hit two marshaling yards in Munich on 25 February. Although executed visually, this raid otherwise fit the pattern of the other “area-like” missions of the month; its 561 effective sorties dropped 1,652 tons of bombs, 45 percent of them incendiaries, in a possible response to General Marshall’s urgings earlier in the month. The next day the Eighth sent all three of its air divisions over the capital of the Reich (Berlin), where 1,089 effective sorties employed H2X to drop 2,778 tons of bombs, 44 percent of them incendiaries, through 10/10 clouds. Each division attempted to hit a separate rail station. The Schlesischer, Alexanderplatz, and Berlin-North stations were all located within two miles of the center of Berlin. The bombing started large fires and killed many civilians. RAF Mosquito nightintruder bombers attacking 12 hours later reported fires still burning. After the 26 February mission, with its 500,000 fire bomblets, the typical Berliner, with reason, would have been hard put to distinguish between RAF area bombing and AAF precision bombing. The mission lost only three bombers. The next day both strategic air forces continued the assault. Bomber Command hit the city and yards of Mainz with a daytime mainforce attack that released 1,734 tons of explosives, including 1,033 tons of incendiaries. As that raid took place, 314 of the Eighth’s bombers hit the yards at Halle with more than 700 tons of ordnance-15 percent incendiaries-while 717 bombers smashed the main marshaling yard at Leipzig with an area-like raid that dropped 1,933 tons, 24 percent incendiaries. Both raids used H2X. Finally, on the last day of the month the Eighth conducted an area-like attack on the yards at Kassel. Three hundred sixty effective sorties, with the aid of H2X, dumped 1,217 tons of bombs, 39 percent incendiaries, on the city. On the first day of March the assault continued with an area-like attack (353 bomber, 988 tons, 34 percent incendiaries) on the rail yards at Ulm.

There can no longer be any doubt that the US Army Air Forces purposely bombed the city area of Dresden. These attacks were certainly part of the Anglo-Americans’ campaign against cities and transportation centers in eastern Germany and, perhaps, as part of an attempt to push Germany into surrender. Taken as a whole, many of February’s strategic bombing operations were conducted with the seeming purpose of breaking the German will to resist. Like strategic operations in the Gulf War 47 years later, they illustrated the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of bringing down a police state with bombing alone.