The enigma of the Norden Bombsight
The Norden Bombsight sits on display outside of the Malmstrom Museum during the donation ceremony Aug. 19.
by Christopher Kratzer
Air University Public Affairs
1/20/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The chief of staff reading list has been updated this year to provide Airmen a guide to further their education and expertise. This year the list includes several TED talks, including "The Strange Tale of the Norden Bombsight," by Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist, author and speaker.
The Norden Bombsight is on display at Air War College and Air Force Enlisted Heritage Hall.
The bombsight, developed by Carl Norden, a Swiss engineer, was used by the U.S. Navy and Army Air Forces beginning in World War II until its retirement during the Vietnam War. Norden believed the device would lower the suffering and death toll from war by allowing pinpoint accuracy during bombing runs.
"The device had an incredible moral importance to Norden, because Norden was a committed Christian," Gladwell said. "What did the Norden Bombsight do? It allowed you to bomb only those things which you absolutely needed and wanted to bomb."
The Norden, essentially an analog calculator, could adjust for air density, wind drift, the bombers airspeed and groundspeed while controlling the bombers' final run on the target. It was called "the single most complicated mechanical device ever manufactured," according to Stephan Wilkinson in his book, "Man and Machine."
Despite being highly sophisticated, the bombsight was not as accurate as reported. Even though Army Air Forces information officers claimed the bombsight could "drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet," reality told a different story, according to Avers Don Sherman, a writer who studied the Norden saga.
"The Norden had only a 20-power telescope, so you couldn't even see a pickle barrel from 30,000 feet, much less hit it. You could make out a factory, but that was about it," Sherman said. "It was also very easy to defeat the Norden when it was used at high altitudes. Smoke screens worked just fine, ground fog was a barrier and the simple fact was that the year of the most disastrous B-17 raids, 1943, saw an unusual amount of bad weather over Europe."
One of the most famous failings of the Norden Bombsight came in 1944 when the Allies bombed a chemical plant in Leuna, Germany.
"This chemical plant comprised 757 acres. Over the course of 22 bombing missions, the Allies dropped 85,000 bombs on the 757-acre chemical plant using the Norden Bombsight. What percentage of the bombs do you think landed in the perimeter of this 757-acre plant? Ten percent, and of those 10 percent that landed 60 percent didn't even go off. They were duds," Gladwell said. "The Leuna chemical plant, after one of the most extensive bombings in the history of the war, was up and running within weeks."
The bombsight was heavily guarded and shrouded in secrecy to keep the technology out of the hands of Germany. Bombardiers were required to take an oath saying they would protect the bombsight with their lives if necessary, and the device was loaded with thermite, melting the device into a lump of metal. All these measures proved unnecessary since Germany became aware of the bombsight in 1938, according to Gladwell.
"Carl Norden, as a proper Swiss man, was enamored by German engineers. In the 1930's he hired a bunch of them, including a man named Herman Long, who in 1938 gave a complete set of the plans for the Norden Bombsight to the Nazis," Gladwell said. "They had their own Norden Bombsight throughout the entire war, which also, by the way, didn't work very well."
Gladwell uses the story of the bombsight to show how technology doesn't solve all our problems and often ultimately gives us unforeseen consequences.
"I have not described to you a success story," Gladwell said. "I've described to you the opposite of a success story. This is the problem of our infatuation with the things we make. We think that things we make can solve our problems, but our problems are much more complex than that. The issue isn't the accuracy of the bombs you have, it's how you use the bombs you have and more importantly, whether you ought to use bombs at all."
This proved to be true for Norden and his bombsight. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay used a Norden Bombsight to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.
"The bomb missed its target by 800 feet, but of course it didn't matter, and that's the greatest irony of all," Gladwell said. "The air force's $1.5 billion bombsight was used to drop its $3 billion bomb, which didn't need a bombsight at all. No one told Carl Norden that his bombsight had been used over Hiroshima. He was a committed Christian. He thought he had designed something that would reduce the toll and suffering in war. It would have broken his heart."