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When reading through Wikipedia's articles on naval battles of World War II, you'll often encounter sentences like the following:

Also during this time, several U.S. B-17 heavy bombers attacked the crippled Ryūjō but caused no additional damage.

Were there any instances where high-altitude bombing of ships had a significant impact, or even managed to hit the intended target?

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Very rarely

Horizontal bombing:

In attacking shipping, the problems of inaccuracy were amplified by the fact that the target could be moving, and could change its direction between the time that the bombs were released and the time that they arrived. Successful strikes on marine vessels by horizontal bombers were extremely rare. An example of this problem can be seen in the attempts to attack the Japanese carriers using B-17s at altitude early in the Battle of Midway, with no hits were scored. The German battleship Tirpitz was subjected to countless attacks, many while in dock and immobile, but wasn't sunk until the British brought in special, enormous 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy bombs to ensure that even a near miss would do the trick.

Precision bombing:

The US defined the target area as being a 1,000 ft (300 m) radius circle around the target point - for the majority of USAAF attacks only about 20% of the bombs dropped struck in this area. The U.S. daytime bombing raids were more effective in reducing German defences by engaging the German Luftwaffe than destruction of the means of aircraft production.

In the summer of 1944, forty-seven B-29's raided Japan's Yawata Steel Works from bases in China; only one plane actually hit the target area, and only with one of its bombs. This single 500 lb (230 kg) general purpose bomb represented one quarter of one percent of the 376 bombs dropped over Yawata on that mission. It took 108 B-17 bombers, crewed by 1,080 airmen, dropping 648 bombs to guarantee a 96 percent chance of getting just two hits inside a 400 x 500 ft (150 m) German power-generation plant.

Operation Catechism:

On 12 November 1944, RAF Bomber Command dispatched 30 Avro Lancaster heavy bombers ... to Tirpitz‍'​s mooring in Tromsø, Norway. Each bomber carried a single 5-ton Tallboy bomb.

At least two bombs hit Tirpitz, which suffered a violent internal explosion. The battleship capsized and remained bottom upwards.

This was indeed "high altitude" bombing (5km, see comment, thanks!)

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    When targeting a factory, hitting a worker's home will sill have some effect on production. – Ian Ringrose Aug 27 '15 at 12:30
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    Operation Catechism's bomb run was started from around 5000m, and the squadron had to climb to the altitude the bomb sights were calibrated to before dropping, so I'd consider it "high altitude". Ref: Tirpitz: The Life and Death of Germany's Last Super Battleship, p309. – Comintern Aug 28 '15 at 3:22
  • @IanRingrose hence the RAF resorting to area bombing of entire cities, often with incendiaries. – jwenting Aug 28 '15 at 5:53
  • True, the bombers dropping bombs from high altitudes were very inaccurate. They often hit other things such as houses, cattle pens, and forests/trees. Sometimes, the bombers actually drop the bombs on the actual targets just due to luck. – 关一骏 Oct 28 '15 at 0:42
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Dive bombing and skip bombing were some of the few ways to accurately deliver a bomb in WWII. High altitude bombing in WWII was extraordinarily inaccurate, and a relatively small, maneuvering target like a navy ship was almost impossible to hit. High level bombers even found it hard to hit a large stationary ship like the Tirpitz.

Guided bombs made high level bombing of a maneuvering ship feasible in WWII. The German Fritz X guided bomb had a minimum launch height of 4km and had several successes against maneuvering capital ships. Fritz X bombs sunk the Italian battleship Roma and severely damaged Italia (formerly Littorio) following the Italian surrender. HMS Warspite was crippled by a Fritz X at Salerno. Afterwards, Allied jamming and air dominance rendered the Fritz X moot.

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  • The most comprehensive answer, IMHO. You can also add skip and mast-height bombing to the list of accurate techniques to make the answer complete. – Deer Hunter Oct 27 '15 at 1:53
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    @DeerHunter Thank you. I'm not going to go into the other techniques. This isn't intended as a comprehensive answer of all the ways to bomb a ship, diving bombing at least starts at a high level. You're welcome to edit them in if you like. – Schwern Oct 27 '15 at 2:16
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Japanese destroyer Mutsuki was sunk by a bomb hit from a group of B-17s. Since Mutsuki was stationary and engaged in rescue operations even that may not really count.

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