By 1944, Allied carpet bombing involved heavy bombers dropping thousands of tons of relatively small bombs in an effective preparatory assault prior to a land attack. In this sense, the tactic was first utilized against Monte Cassino, Italy, on 15 February 1944. Waves of heavy and medium bombers dropped 435.5 tons of high explosives and reduced the local abbey to ruins. Ironically, the Germans, who had not previously garrisoned the abbey, now moved into the rubble and strengthened their defensive lines.
Following the June 1944 Normandy Invasion, Allied planners envisioned using fleets of bombers to blow holes in the German defenses, through which Allied armor and mechanized forces could then pour. The British tried using heavy bombers in close-air support during Operation charnwood in early July. The attempt failed largely because of poor target selection and the fact that the bombing ended hours before the British ground attack, allowing the Germans to reorganize their defense. In Operation goodwood in mid-July 1944, British and American bombers tried again. After the carpet bombing, Allied ground forces met with initial success, but they foundered against a German antitank gun line that had not been a major target during the bombardment.
Operation cobra on 24–25 July 1944 was another such effort and the most significant example of carpet bombing. U.S. bombers dropped 4,169 tons of bombs on the Saint-L™ area as part of the effort to support the breakout from Normandy. The bombers struck a box that was 7,000 yards wide and 2,000 yards deep. During the first day, many of the bombs fell short, hitting U.S. frontline troops and inflicting hundreds of friendly casualties. Among the dead was Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, chief of staff of Army Ground Forces. The second day's attacks were highly successful, helping Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley's forces to break out from the bocage, or hedgerow, country.
The use of strategic bombers for tactical missions such as carpet bombing met with strong resistance from leaders of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), who believed that army ground commanders were misusing airpower. They argued that the effects achieved at the tactical level were slight compared to those that could be achieved at the strategic level. However, the lack of priority afforded to tactical-strike support and interdiction finally forced the hand of the ground commanders. Beginning in April 1944 and lasting until September, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was given the authority to control the use of the USAAF's strategic bombers.
Although the sight of an armada of bombers was awe-inspiring and the simultaneous impact of hundreds of bombs was similar to an earthquake, the actual effect on tactical operations was mixed. The bombers lacked precision, and their bombs produced craters and rubble that impeded a rapid advance by attacking forces. The destruction of Caen in July 1944, for instance, was so complete that wheeled and tracked vehicles could not make it through the bombed areas. Although carpet bombing in support of offensive operations raised the morale of attacking ground troops, it was a poor substitute for effective tactical air support.
C. J. Horn
Crane, Conrad. Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.; Craven, W. F., and J. L. Cates. The Army Air Forces in World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.; Freeman, Roger A. The Fighting Eighth. London: Cassell, 2000.