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In WWII-era films and newsreels, aerial bombs are often shown making a whistling sound as they fall; starting high pitched, then decreasing as the bomb approaches the Earth (example here, starting at about 0:50). I also remember it being mimicked in WWII-era Looney Tunes and the like that I saw as a kid (okay, and as an adult).

Did WWII-era bombs actually whistle like this? Why did they do so? Was it by design? I presume the bombs were falling slower than the speed of sound, so was the whistling audible from the ground - and soon enough to seek shelter?

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Why would you design a bomb that warns you that it is falling? –  Monster Truck Jul 25 '12 at 13:29
Warn the people below, you mean? I don't know; to damage infrastructure while reducing civilian casualties, maybe? That's part of the question, really… –  Garrett Albright Jul 25 '12 at 13:50
Hmm. That can be true but I wouldn't rule out the accidental aerodynamic fault though --true streamlined bodies are a recent innovation. Any mistake with the curve means a lot of sound. –  Monster Truck Jul 25 '12 at 14:02
@Garrett Albright: The commendable modern desire to reduce civilian casualties is not relevant to WWII. –  Felix Goldberg Dec 8 '12 at 13:58
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2 Answers

up vote 32 down vote accepted

It is true that bombs in World War II would make a whistling sound as they fell. This could be heard by both the pilot and the target, however due to the Doppler effect, they heard different things. The pilot would hear a high pitched whistle and as the bomb accelerated it lowered in pitch. The target would initially hear a higher pitched whistle than what the pilot heard because the target is in front of the bomb and the pilot is behind the bomb. The pitch would continue to increase until the bomb struck. This is assuming the bomb is going slower than the speed of sound. The bomb will not reach the speed of sound until it has fallen ≈19 500 ft.

The whistles were purposefully attached to the bombs. Their purpose was to weaken enemy morale and to enhance the intimidation of dive-bombing. Look at the Stuka dive-bomber, a similar case. What other purpose did it's sirens have? As far as warning the target, it's too late to get to safety once you hear the whistle if you're not there already (bombs fall fast). Not all bombs were equipped with whistles, but they still all made noise as they fell due to air displacement (just not the famous whistling sound). This Wikipedia page gives one example of bombs that were purposefully fitted with whistles.

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Yes, I can tell you from personal experience that they certainly did whistle. When I was a boy I lived in Nottingham, and until May 1941 we were lucky in that, although we heard (and sometimes saw) German aircraft, they usually passed over on their way to less fortunate cities like Sheffield, Coventry or Birmingham. But on the night of Thursday 8 May 1941, for the first (but not the last) time, Nottingham itself was the target. We were woken up by the sound of the warning sirens, but they were very quickly followed by the sound of falling bombs (including the terrifying whistling), and we were too scared to leave the house and go into our air raid shelter: we sat on the steps leading down to our cellar. There were a lot of people killed in Nottingham that night; luckily for us we escaped unhurt, and nobody we knew was killed. But I can tell you - nobody who has ever heard that whistling noise will ever forget it. I am nearly 81, and I was 8 at the time, and I can remember it all too well. So why did the bombs whistle? To warn people to take shelter? Don't make me laugh - there would be no time. There is only one reason that makes sense to me - it was to scare the hell out of those beneath them, and it certainly succeeded as far as I was concerned!

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Wow, a first-hand account! Thanks for sharing your experience. :D –  Garrett Albright Nov 19 '13 at 18:30
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