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First episode of new TV series "Masters of the Air" depicts the U.S. 100th Bomb Group’s first combat mission to bomb U-boat pens in Bremen on June 25, 1943. Historical sources I can find only say that the mission was aborted due to bad weather and 3 bombers were lost to German fighters.

In the TV episode the Group flies through flak en route to the target, gets to within 30 minutes of the target, at which point the bombardiers pull the safety pins on the bomb fuses, and only then does the commanding officer decide to "scrub" the mission due to bad weather obscuring the target. Further, the commanding officer orders the Group to drop the bombs in the English Channel on their return to base in England. On their return they are attacked by German fighter planes and lose 3 bombers.

Did Allied bombers ever turn back from within enemy airspace without dropping their bombs? (Ignoring cases in which malfunctions or damage made it impossible to release the ordnance.) I am confused in particular at this scenario because:

  1. If a bomber is encountering flak over enemy airspace then the plane is within bomb range of enemy antiaircraft batteries, which are a legitimate military target. Odds of hitting one with a bomb are low but not zero. Why not take that shot?
  2. During WWII, "area" bombing with negligible odds of hitting military targets was an explicit strategy to demoralize the enemy.
  3. Carrying bombs makes the bombers slower, less maneuverable, and generally more vulnerable to enemy aircraft. Why spend fuel to carry bombs out of enemy territory if they're going to be disposed before landing?
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5 Answers 5

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The Tallboy bomb was considered so valuable that bomber crews were ordered to return them to base if they could not find the intended target. That was a special case though.

For large-scale attacks, bomb crews were given alternate targets if the original target could not be reached or turned out to be under cloud cover. Scrubbing a mission wholesale (or dumping the bombs into the sea) because the primary target was obscured would mean having put men and material in danger with nothing whatsoever to show for it -- a huge hit on morale.

So, generally speaking, bomber crews dropped their bombs, near their assigned target, or on an alternate target.

As for your specific questions:

  1. Flak was a "when", not an "if". Any target valuable enough to be attacked by bombers was protected by flak. Generally though, flak was placed around the target, not at the target, and spaced apart. From altitude, finding and hitting something like that was next to impossible. Getting lower to increase your chances makes you a much easier target for flak (both the one you want to find and for everyone else) as well as enemy fighters. Attacking a point target like this was only done by highly specialized units with lots and lots of prior training, for high-value targets (think Dambusters). Not something a crew, or even unit, would decide to do ad-hoc after a scrubbed primary target.

  2. Hitting the general area was what they were trying to do anyway -- even the USAAF was lucky if they could hit the correct post code, and that was for successful attacks. (The whole "precision bombardment" was the propaganda shtick. There is nothing "precise" about a four-engined bomber dropping dumb munitions from 20.000+ feet of altitude.) If the target is under cloud cover, chances are you won't even find the correct city. Also note that the Area Bombing Directive was a thing of the RAF, and had been superceeded by the Cassablanca directive in January 1943.

  3. See above. Usually the bomber crews would have a secondary target assigned. I would guess there's artistic license going on here (unless someone can dig up information on the actual bombing mission...).


As for precision: The USAAF considered any bomb that hit within a 300 yards radius around the aiming point to be "on target", and precious few bombs even got that close. Sources differ, from anything between 7% coming within 1000 yards to 20% being "on target". That means even the optimistic source states that four out of five bombs missed by over 300 yards...

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  • I seem to recall reading that if a bomb landed within 1000 yards of its intended target, it was deemed a hit and not a miss. I could be wrong.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Feb 4 at 23:07
  • The mission depicted in the show seems to be 'VIII Bomber Command 67' which targeted Bremen and Hamburg. Summary here: americanairmuseum.com/archive/mission/viii-bomber-command-67 and on the 8th Air Force Historical Society website: 8thafhs.org/research (doesn't have direct linking to articles - search 'Missions', by date go to June 1943, it's incorrectly shown on the selection for the 26th).
    – Kayndarr
    Commented Feb 5 at 4:40
  • The 100th Bombardment Group, the focus of the show, was in the second wave of aircraft. From the summary, the formation ended up scattered and only 18 of the 78 bombers in that formation found any target at all, hitting a ship convoy. Two of the bombardment groups, the 94th and 96th, don't find any targets across their entire groups. It's not mentioned what the bombers that didn't find targets did with their ordinance.
    – Kayndarr
    Commented Feb 5 at 4:49
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    @EvilSnack 300 yards radius was considered "on target". Sources differ on accuracy, but agree that less than 20% of bombs dropped met that criteria. That's for the USAAF daytime attacks; RAF nighttime attacks were generally less accurate.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 5 at 9:09
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    E.g. in February 1945 sixty US planes bombed Prague instead of Dresden due to navigation error.
    – Edheldil
    Commented Feb 5 at 12:25
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The whole Flevopolder, 970 km2, was turned into land after World War 2. During the war this was still water and a lot of bombs were dropped there. Since the area was mostly devoid of military targets it must be assumed that a lot of these were unused bomb loads dropped.

This is an interactive map of UXO cleared in the Netherlands

If you zoom in on the Flevopolder (Lelystad & Almere), you can see a lot of unexploded bombs cleared after the war

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Although this questions was about bombers, there's also a dynamic between bombers and fighters with bombs. The bombs on fighters were armed on the runway, and thereby you could not return with bombs for safety reasons. This means that you dropped your ordnance before landing. There's still whole groups cleaning up the unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Holland, as that was where things were dropped by both the Germans and British on the way back. There's a bunch of videos in Dutch by Heijmans that shows the remediation of these UXO.

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    They were intentionally dropping the bombs on Holland rather than in the North Sea?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Feb 5 at 11:15
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    @SteveBird I think they were dropping on what "was" the north sea, and then Holland expanded into it. COVID was a boon for UXO remediation because you could do things, like dig up runways. I helped with the design of equipment for this purpose, and the UXO seemed to be everywhere.
    – b degnan
    Commented Feb 5 at 11:18
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    There has been only very limited land gain in the Neterlands post-war, making the proposition that UXO's were dropped over sea initially highly unlikely. Dropping your ordonance before landing was not specific to fighter-bombers, but was done by bombers as well. (You don't add a couple tons of explosive landing weight to your aircraft if you can easily avoid it.) UXOs were -- and are -- an issue in all countries involved.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 5 at 12:05
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    @EvilSnack - given that Germany conquered the Netherlands, yes they did.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 5 at 19:58
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    From niod.nl/en/frequently-asked-questions/… - "The Allies carried out approximately 600 bombing raids over Dutch soil". The Germans carried out 6 in 1940 and 2 in 1944 (on the same page). There may be more, the list there is not exhaustive.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:18
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Another reason to hold on to the bombs until they were over the sea was that not all of the return route was over Germany and jettisoning bombs over occupied territory for no good reason would not be a good idea.

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  • This is not directly responsive to the question, "Did Allied bombers return from enemy airspace with undropped bombs?" - it implies an answer, but has been flagged as "not an answer". Could you revise to make it explicit?
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 14 at 19:02
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Around 10th to 20th of May 1945 a bomber returning to England dropped bombs on Merdorp, Belgium. One of the bombs fell on a pig barn, which was totalled, and damaged the house close to it. It is believed that bombs were released at low altitude just before flying over the top of the hill, and therefore the houses were not seen. There were fields between the village Wasseige and the next one, Merdorp. Strangely there never was any inspection after the war, there never was any hope of having compensation for the damage.

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