Martin Caidin’s BLACK THURSDAY: THE STORY OF THE SCHWEINFURT RAID
A book review by Dennis D McDonald
Reading this book about the big Schweinfurt daylight bombing raid during WWII in 1943 is a grim experience.
The raid was designed to cripple Germany’s ball bearing production and thereby hamper Germany’s industrial war production. Results were disappointing. German resistance to the B-17s from the ground and from the air was incredibly fierce. 600 of the 3000 American B-17 Flying Fortress crew-members did not return.
We know now that World War II’s daylight high altitude “precision bombing” never achieved its promise for reasons related to weather, technology, strategy, and continued advances in air defense. The British had learned this lesson and had switched to night air raids on German cities. The Americans would abandon high-altitude bombing only later in the war against Japan in favor of low-level B-29 incendiary raids.
But this book, first published in 1960, is about 1943. Back then American WWII strategists still believed in the benefits of destroying the enemy’s manufacturing capacity from high altitudes, despite the relative imprecision and the losses incurred in the process. Also, according to Caidin, the time it took for the U.S. to build up its Air Force strategic bombing strength in England in preparation for massive daylight raids such as Schweinfurt gave Germany the opportunity to perfect its defenses.
Caidin weaves together first-hand accounts from still surviving participants with much research. He provides deep insight into the day-to-day fears of those who fought in the air along with context regarding the events that led to putting so many lives in danger both in the air and on the ground. He also does a pretty good job of balancing “what we know now” with “what they knew then.”
As anyone who has studied wartime decisions, after-the-fact lessons don’t help those who have already suffered the brunt of the fight on the ground or in the air. Caidin calls out mistakes when they happened but does his best to make sure we understand what it was like to be in the thick of it when it’s too late to turn back. That’s an important historical perspective to have when thinking through old decisions, as is the case with rethinking the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.
Caidin’s writing is sometimes matter-of-fact and sometimes dramatic. Here is an example of the latter:
A mass of bombers in the high blue is majesty itself. The thunder booms in deep resonance from the very heavens; it is a rich cadence of machines marching off to war in a measured step all its own. There is procession among the clouds, and the bombers slide forward with ponderous and majestic grace.
At other times he does his best to make the reader understand the terror of being one of the 10 crew members in a B-17 and for the most part he succeeds with graphic descriptions of blood and gore.
My only real complaint about this book is that the Kindle edition contains an outrageous number of typographical errors.
Review copyright © 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald