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What the 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High still tells us about air combat (airspacemag.com)
113 points by gadders 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

Reminds me this passage of "The name above the title", Frank Capra's autobiography (a great book everyone should read):

I was coming downstairs from Admiral "Bull" Halsey's office. I would have to pass right by Admiral Nimitz. Was he waiting for me? Would be renege on the all-important Special Film Coverage directive I had written for him, and he had signed? Had MacArthur nixed the order to integrate all combat photography? Had the Air Force? The Marines?

I hesitated, then saluted, and walked by him.

"Oh, Capra! Can you spare a moment?"

I went limp. "Of course, Admiral."

Behind his desk, his back to me he faced a window that looked out over our sunken warships. "Sit down, please," he said, huskily. "I apologize for calling you in here. It"s just this --this --goddam sonofabitch of a war!". His hands clasped and unclasped behind him as he rocked slowly back and forth on his heels. Then, out of the depths of an overwhelming hurt, he cried out: "They cheered me... Three thousand of them... Eighteen-year-olds... Legs gone, faces gone... They cheered me... I sent them there .... They cheered me....".

Then he turned, sat heavily on his chair, and with tears streaming down his face, he beat the table with both fists: "GODDAM SONOFABITCH OF A WAR! GODDAM SONOFABITCH OF A WAR! What am I going to write to their parents? What can anybody write to their parents?..." He grabbed his wet face in both his hands. He was sobbing now. A father weeping for all the sons in the world. "Eighteen-year-olds... kids... boys... three thousand of them... They cheered me... I sent them there... they cheered me... GODDAM SONOFABITCH OF A WAR! goddam sonofa--" His handkerchief was out now. Not once had he looked at me, directly.

I sat as if transfixed. Tears had started down my cheeks. The white-thatched adminral blew his nose, composed himself, then looking at me with a shy little smile, he said pleasantly: "Thank you, Capra, Thank you."

He had wanted to share his great pain with another human being -- someone that was not Navy. I rose to my feet, try to mumble something. I couldn't. So I smiled back and walked out. I had witnessed something rare. Something awesome -- the inside of a tormented human soul.

It was worth me submitting this article, just so everyone could read that comment.

couldn't agree more.

If you're interested in WWII and film history, I recommend "Five Came Back" by Mark Harris.

"In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris turned the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 into a landmark work of cultural history, a book about the transformation of an art form and the larger social shift it signified. In Five Came Back, he achieves something larger and even more remarkable, giving us the untold story of how Hollywood changed World War II, and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the prism of five film directors caught up in the war: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens."


Also made into an excellent, 3-part documentary:


>Had the Air Force?

There was no Air Force in WW2. This is probably an editing error, Capra or biographer likely referring to the USAAF (Army Air Force).

Pedantry Officer concludes report.

The USAAF split into a separate military service after the war, but it was still considered a separate unit within the army during the war.

My father was in the Army Air Force during WWII - and he always said he was in the Army Air Force and not the Army. They were also nick named the Air Corps during the war.

There was absolutely an air force, it simply wasn't a separate branch of the service as it hadn't been broken out of the Army yet. Everybody knew what the air force was, it's probably an accurate quote.

Thanks for sharing that. Powerful stuff.

I wanted to buy this on kindle immediately - and can’t. Argh!

What an amazing passage. Thanks for sharing.

I've read the article, but I can't seem to answer the question "what does the film still tell us about air combat?". It seems to be more of a history of the movie's production and the people involved.

Well, the air combat of that period represents an odd microcosm of behaviors never to be repeated again, by another human civilization. Even if we wanted to fight another war the same way, it wouldn't make sense to even try it.

The trajectory of technology, and the circumstances leading to the qualities of the arms race and adaptive conflict within the period, means it was it's own little golden era of truly curious nightmares.

Riding a piston engine, in an uncompressed cabin, all the way to the stratosphere, all with the intent of using optical telescopes in good weather, so that you can drop kilotons of dumb bombs blessed with prayers that might guide them to a decisive target nestled among civilians?

To learn from that is to arrive at the understanding that the pace of technology must be permitted to trend with a civilization's capacity for its rational utilization.

Moving the progressive sequential improvement of technology at speeds faster than the sophistication of those that might benefit from it can produce a malignancy that backfires, to the harm of all those it could possibly (or even impossibly, in a hypothetical sense) touch.

When I was in the Navy, they showed us that film as part of leadership training. Our instructors said the portrayal of discipline, leadership, and the burdens of command was perfect. Except for the very end, which they felt was a bad Hollywood ending.

I saw it in leadership training course in the California Conservation Corps. I imagine it was inserted into the curriculum by a former military officer or NCO.

Naturally they wouldn't want it seem like it was OK for commanders to "lose it".

It wasn't that he "lost it", just they way he did.

Ah the style of the time was heavy dramatics. A holdover from the stage where you needed exaggerated expression to make up for the distance of the audience.

Still I didn’t find it nearly as bad as other examples from that era. “A Street Car Named Desire” for example takes it to another level.

Twelve O'Clock High is a masterclass on running a software project. The higher-ups can see that something is wrong with the team; it's not performing as well as it ought to. The outsider comes in, figures out what the problems are, and fixes them. Not an easy fix, not a quick one, and it takes an awful toll on several people. But the team ends up working well again.

I show this movie to everyone I can. It's full of lessons.

No, it's not. Pushing people that hard to finish some ad-supported web site / delivery service is not appropriate. Are you prepared to pay lifetime PTSD benefits?

Which is why we need unions.

You're right. Those people weren't working on a software project; they were in a fight for their lives—literally—with an enemy they just barely won against. It's not the same thing at all. But it is worth watching for the depiction of how hard humans can work, together, for a common objective when the ONLY thing that matters is getting through. I can't think of a single major character not damaged, broken, or killed by the end of the movie. I guess it resonated because that's the only kind of environment I've ever worked in. Yay, Lockheed.

I haven’t seem the film, but I will try to find it.

It’s good that some historical remnant - the control tower -remains. In NE Australia, there were a huge number of airfields that many hundreds of B-25s and other aircraft flew out from on missions to distant Pacific islands and back again. There is almost nothing remaining of that history as landing strips became roads or crops were grown over them.

It's rare that these airfields have survived in the UK. Beaulieu Heath was an important airfield in WW2, but now it's almost invisible from the ground. Google Maps shows its layout quite clearly still:


Worse perhaps is we're graudally losing that sense of history, of courage and sacrifice. I wouldn't want to be jingoistic about it, but I think people are unaware of what the wartime generations went through.

> Worse perhaps is we're graudally losing that sense of history, of courage and sacrifice. I wouldn't want to be jingoistic about it, but I think people are unaware of what the wartime generations went through.

While it pains me as a ww2 buff to say this, I do think that as a society we have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with WW2.

And, it's not like it ever made sense to turn East Anglia into some kind of WW2 air war museum. After the war, people wanted their farmlands back, and wanted to continue their lives, and they had every right to do that.

One clue to the existence of old airbases (at least in the UK) is in the names of the new streets that have been built over or near them. For example this map of Christchurch [0] is centred on 'The Runway', and street names reference the following WW2-era aircraft: Brabazon, Halifax, De Havilland, Viscount and Blenheim.

Similarly, this map [1] of St Ives has streets that include Comet, Wellington, Blenheim, Canberra, Lancaster and others

[0] https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@50.7378007,-1.7376243,16.5z?h...

[1] https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/Comet+Way,+Saint+Ives+PE...

Anybody interested in an excellent history of the WW II European bombing campaigns should pick up “Bomber Command” by Max Hastings. I covers everything from technology, to strategy, to ethics, and more. Top notch history book.


Hastings is somewhat partisan on this. I recommend reading him but read others too. Like Solly Zuckerman 'from apes to warlords' or the recent books on P.M.S. Blackett and the birth of Operations Research

I saw a copy of the novel at a used book sale this month, and was interested to find that one of the authors was Beirne Lay, Jr., whose piece on the Regensburg raid appears in a Library of America volume on reporting WW II. I'm not sure why I didn't put down my 50 cents when I saw it--the next day it was gone.

ww2 buff here... whilst relatively accurate, this movie in no way explains why and how the daylight (and night) bombing campaigns over germany almost failed. i would strongly recommend watching this talk by steven blank @ the computer history museum: "the secret history of the silicon valley".

the talk even OPENS with clips from 12 o'clock high! :)


TL;DR: it was radar.

Hey, as an WW2 buff, do you where I can get a list of ALL the bomber nicknames (Picadilly Lilly, Memphis Belle, etc)? I'm trying to train a neural net on them for generation of new 'authentic' nicknames.

Robert Buderi's book on radar is a good read on that. Alas, not electronically available (it should be) but worth seeking in print.

It's a nice meditative film review, and a piece of history; but what does it actually tell us about air combat? It tells us that WW2 strategic bombing suffered appalling losses, and that this left the survivors with what we would now call PTSD. Also the lesson of Catch-22.

Excellent video describing why losses were so high.


I think that video over emphasizes technical side of things and under-emphasizes that everyone was flying by the seat of their pants. Literally nobody on earth had experience in strategic bombing, it didn't even exist until then. The tactics had to be figured out as they went along.

Contemporary accounts suggest that it was an almost intentional ignorance. People were addicted to the idea that heavy-bombers were strategically useful in Europe (when they just flattened civilian parts of cities, all the manufacturing was hardened); and that valiant gunners were doing something useful for their comrades (when data showed that stripping out the turrets + guns + gunners, and flying higher and faster would decrease losses).

Freeman Dyson complains that operational-research was intentionally nobbled in bomber-command, even after great successes had been shown in the navy + coastal command:


And the technology just wasn't up to snuff either.

The Norden bombsight was a technological marvel. An analog computer to figure out when to drop bombs based on speed, height, wind direction, etc. It worked fine in optimal conditions. But during wartime it wasn't that accurate in practice.

I would argue that the primary value of the Norden was as propaganda. The Allies could pretend they were executing surgical bomb strikes rather than just indiscriminately bombing.

> and that valiant gunners were doing something useful for their comrades (when data showed that stripping out the turrets + guns + gunners, and flying higher and faster would decrease losses).

For the British, in particular, the (unarmed) Mosquito bomber loss rate was one tenth of the Lancaster loss rate, needed 2 crew instead of 7, cost about 1/4'th of a Lancaster, and carried about 1/3 of the bomb load.

What was the range of the Mosquito compared to the Lancaster?

Wikipedia claims the bomber version of the Mosquito had a range of 2400 km with 1800 kg bomb load (good enough for Berlin and back), whereas the Lancaster had a range of 4073 km with an admittedly massive bomb load of 6400 kg.

So no, the Mosquito was not a replacement for all missions the Lancaster was capable of, but for many it probably would have been a better choice.

Huh? This video is Secret History of Silicon Valley

The first 30 mins describes the electronic warfare part of the WWII strategic bombing campaign in Western Europe.

Personally, I think it explains part of it. But certainly the, in retrospect idiotic, idea that unescorted bombers armed with machine guns would be a match against fighters played a major role as well.

What do you propose instead of the "idiotic" idea? An extended ground campaign? Sending fighters without the range along?

It was a grim decision, but it was effective as they did reach their targets and perform the mission.

Well, it's easy to be wise after the fact, but anyway, a few ideas that pop up:

- No unescorted daylight raids.

- Rip out most turrets and guns (save maybe the tail and front) to save weight, reduce drag, and lose fewer men for each bomber downed. Or, as the sibling poster mentions and I mentioned in another post in this discussion, focus on fast bombers like the Mosquito rather than lumbering heavies.

- And yes, indeed, spend less resources on the strategic bombing campaign and more on other stuff. Like, e.g. the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Or more resources on winning the battle of the Atlantic faster. Marine patrol might not be as glamorous usage of big four-engined aircraft as thousand-aircraft raids over Germany, but were highly effective against the U-boat threat (and whatever was left of the German surface fleet).

- Focus bombing on operational/tactical targets rather than strategic bombing of cities. (This probably implies a bigger focus on improving bombing accuracy.). That is not to say all heavy bombing was useless. The focus on energy, particularly petroleum, infrastructure and transportation (e.g. railway infrastructure, or the aerial mining of the Danube and other waterways) was highly effective. And of course the British raids with the bunker-buster bombs, such as the sinking of the Tirpitz, U-boat pens, railway bridges/viaducts etc.

With the benefit of hindsight a better option would have been to build more unarmed fast bombers like the de Havilland Mosquito instead of slow, heavy bombers like the B-17 and B-24. The Mosquito could deliver more bombs at a lower cost, only risked two crew members, and was less vulnerable to fighters.


I disagree. Mosquitoes could be very effective flown by highly skilled pilots and navigators given great latitude to use those skills effectively. But one problem with the war was that it tended to kill those highly skilled pilots and navigators faster than they could be replaced.

Even in 1944, after losses had declined, most 8thAF Bomb groups had one or two really good navigators and bombardiers, and had everyone else play "follow the leader," even to the point of having entire bomb groups release their bombs simultaneously, rather than each bombardier making their own independent calculations. Obviously if the leader was shot down, then the next man up would take over, but degrading accuracy. Similarly BC used skilled Pathfinders (in Mosquitoes) to mark a target, and then let all of the rest of the unskilled drop somewhere in the target area.

Without the skills to take advantage of the Mosquito, the majority of pilots would have been worse off with less defensive effect, and because it would take more planes- and therefore pilots and bombardiers- to carry the same bomb load, it would have pulled more heavily from the middle and lower levels of pilot skill to put the same bomb loads into occupied Europe.

Why couldn't they have used the leader/pathfinder approach with Mosquito-style aircraft being the bulk that followed the leader?

Wrt losses, recall that for the British the Mosquito loss rate was one tenth of the heavies. So much less problems with crews being killed. And Mosquito bomb load was almost as high as the B-17.

So bombing with HE is very different than bombing with incendiaries. Incendiaries want to be spread out across an area, so having everyone drop individually within a specified area is preferred. But that's not necessarily the right choice for all targets: going after factories, in particular, drives you to High Explosive bombs.

HE effectiveness will suffer dramatically if you let each bombardier control their own route, given that there are not that many good ones available, which drives you to tight formations so one good bomb run can suffice for many planes. And big formations makes the Mosquito vulnerable, because it means that they can't use their speed and elusiveness. It's hard to turn a big formation, so their location is much more predictable, and big formations can't go at their top speed, because all the pilots have to be constantly adjusting their speed to stay in formation, and stay at the speed of the slowest member of the formation.

So a Mosquito isn't as effective as a Lancaster at the "burn down a city" job (much smaller bombload), and isn't as effective as a B-17 at the "blast this factory down" with generic crew quality. This isn't a knock on the Mossie: it was a good airplane. Just not suited to every mission.

> And big formations makes the Mosquito vulnerable, because it means that they can't use their speed and elusiveness

Sure they could use their speed. Mosquito economic cruising speed was, depending on altitude, 250-300 knots, compared to 160-190 kn for the heavies. Even if operating alone, Mosquitos couldn't floor it for any significant amount of time, since that would consume fuel too fast (same as any other aircraft). Zipping along at 300 kn made them more or less invulnerable to Luftwaffe night fighters, though not day fighters. But even for the faster day fighters, intercepting a bomber formation going 300 kn at 30k feet is much more difficult and time consuming than a 160 kn formation at 25k feet.

But yes, all bombers were very vulnerable during their bombing runs.

> So a Mosquito isn't as effective as a Lancaster at the "burn down a city" job (much smaller bombload)

Since the Mosquito cost only 1/3 of a Lancaster and usually apparently carried between 1/3 and 1/2 as big bomb load, for the same price it would have been possible to carry about an equal amount of bombs. But yes, this would have required 3 times as many pilots and navigators, which were certainly harder to replace than most crewmen on a heavy. Then again, with a loss rate of 1/10 there wouldn't have been such a big problem with keeping the training pipeline filled with replacements either.

That being said, one reason for the much lower loss rate of the Mosquitos was certainly that the heavies presented much easier and juicier targets. So if BC had built a mostly-Mosquito force, then presumably the loss rate would have increased, though it's hard to see it could have reached such appalling rates as it did for the heavies.

> isn't as effective as a B-17 at the "blast this factory down" with generic crew quality.

I'm not sure I follow this argument. For daylight "precision" bombing, Mosquito would have carried 2/3 the bomb load of a B-17G, so yes, a small advantage for the B-17 there if you consider the navigator/bomber to be the critical resource. But for formation bombing with a leader/pathfinder model, no big difference. And with the better survivability of the Mosquitos compared to the lumbering heavies, skilled crew perhaps wouldn't have been such a bottleneck.

The Mosquito could only carry half of the bombs of a B-17 and had almost half the range.

Well, wikipedia claims the bomber version of the Mosquito had a range of 2400 km with 1800 kg bomb load (good enough for Berlin and back), and B-17G 3200 km range with 2700 kg bomb load. So 3/4th the range and 2/3rd the bomb load.

> less vulnerable to fighters.

Less vulnerable to flak as well, primarily by flying faster (less time to get shot at) and higher than the heavies (cruise speed of around 300 kn vs. 160-190 kn for heavies).

And of course, if one got hit, it was a much smaller loss than a heavy.

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