Thursday, September 10, 2015

Operation Matterhorn

 The Captain Nicolas VanWingerden Crew, B-29, China/Burma/India.

From June of 1944 through January of 1945, four groups (sixteen squadrons) of B-29 bombers were deployed through airfields built by tens of thousands of Chinese laborers in the area of Chengdu – at Guanghan, Qionglai, Pengshan, and Xinjin.   They comprised the 58th Bombardment Wing of the new Twentieth Air Force.  This was the strategic bombing air force which implemented the dream of the air power pioneers such as General Arnold. 

The strategic plan for “Operation Matterhorn,” approved at the Quebec and Cairo Conferences, was:  gather a force of the new long-range Boeing B-29s in India, advance loaded bombers to the bases near Chengdu where they would refuel, and launch long distance raids against Japan.  Histories of the operation emphasize President Roosevelt’s personal commitment to opening a bombing campaign from China against Japan.  The Twentieth Air Force was not placed under any of the CBI theatre commanders (Arnold knew Stilwell and Chennault would try to use the B-29s to support their own operations), but was rather was an autonomous command under the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The supply problems were daunting.  Ships with materiel, fuel, and personnel traveled from the U.S. via lengthy and roundabout Atlantic or Pacific routes to Karachi or Calcutta.  Before any raid from India to China to Japan could be mounted, fuel had to be transported to the airfields near Chengdu.  B-29s, intended for bombing, flew preparatory missions that carried only fuel (seven tons per mission) over the Hump to China.  It took six missions over the Hump to provide enough fuel for one mission to Japan.  There were losses of aircraft and men on these supply missions, which also reduced the active service life of the engines and airframes.

The first raid against Japan -- a 3200-mile mission -- was conducted the night of June 14-15, 1944.  The numbers testify to the difficulty of the task.  Ninety two aircraft left India, but only 79 reached China.  Seventy-five aircraft took off, but only 68 reached the Chinese coast and only 47 attacked the target, the Yawata Iron Works.  Fifteen aircraft bombed visually and 32 bombed by radar.  Only one bomb hit the target.  It was a harbinger of difficulties to come.

The XX Bomber Command continued to press its attacks, including some missions against Japanese targets in Manchuria, Taiwan, and China.  Its effectiveness increased with the assignment of Major General Curtis LeMay to the CBI and as it adopted new procedures -- a different formation, lead crews to find and mark targets, control of the bomb run by both bombardier and radar operator, and different mixes of high-explosive and incendiary bombs.  But so did the effectiveness of the Japanese defenses.

By the end of 1944 the Command had lost 147 bombers.  It was evident that the attacks against Japan mounted from Chengdu were too expensive in men, aircraft, and material to continue.  The last attack from Chengdu -- against Japanese targets in Taiwan -- was conducted on January 15, 1945, and the bombers deployed to the Marianas Islands in February.  There they joined the rest of the B-29 force attacking Japan, first with high-level precision bombing tactics, later with low-level attacks that ignited Japanese cities.

Major General Haywood Hansell, one of the air power visionaries who commanded B-29s, judged Operation Matterhorn “not a success” from the operational view.  “You just couldn’t supply B-29s over the Hump well enough to conduct a successful bombing campaign.”  In the Marianas Islands, the bombing force could be easily supplied by sea across the Pacific, now cleared of the Japanese by the island-hopping campaigns.

Hansell judged, however, that “from the standpoint of strategic effect” it was “a tremendous success,” confirming the principle of central strategic command of a bomber force rather than assignment of the forces to local commanders.  Tactical innovations pioneered in China made the Command more deadly for the remainder of the war.  Many of the obstacles to the successful strategic bombing by the B-29s were with aircraft and engines; many of these problems were shaken out in India and China.

Post-war studies demonstrated that Japan was defeated by the twin effects of the submarine campaign, which cut off its supplies, and the strategic bombing campaign, which destroyed its industrial capacity.  Operation Matterhorn was part of the latter.

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