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Ground Attack Tactics Part 1 - Level Bombing

From March 6th 15:00 GMT to March 7th 15:00 GMT

30% RP gain bonus for the level bombers (see the full list on the Forum):



 +50% bonus for "Heroic Bomber" achievement

  *destroyed most ground targets

**Silver Lion reward is increased from 5000 to 7500


The idea of using an aircraft to attack ground forces had actually already been put into practice years before even the outbreak of the First World War. However, it was in the war torn skies of Europe between 1914 and 1918 that great advances in the science of bombing would take place. The First World War saw the use of both tactical and strategic bombing. Whilst air power theorists still argue over the exact definition, in broad terms tactical bombing is the direct attack of enemy units whereas strategic bombing is designed to attack the enemy’s industry, infrastructure and ability to wage war. Tragically, strategic bombing also covers the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.

For both strategic and tactical bombing, the principals of level bombing can be used.


German «Dornier Do 17» over France, June the 21st 1940. (Deutsches Bundesarchiv/German Federal Archive)

Germany entered the Second World War with more practical experience of level bombing than perhaps any other nation. German aviators had amassed years of experience in the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War, where light and medium bombers had been used in both a tactical and strategic context. German doctrine revolved around the effective use of the Lotfe tachometric bombsight which required a bomb run of some 40 seconds over the target area, during which the aircraft was effectively straight and level. The height at which this attack was carried out depended very much on the target’s defences – put simply, the stronger the defences the higher the attack run although this would obviously come at the expense of bombing accuracy. The bombardier would input variables such as the aircraft’s height and speed and the wind velocity into the bombsight. With this data processed, the bomber’s autopilot was engaged and small adjustments to the bomber’s course were made by the bombardier on the bomb run itself. The bombs were dropped either automatically by the system or manually by the bombardier’s controls, and could be dropped individually or as a stick of several bombs.

One significant deviation from this approach was to rely on surprise as the main element of defence and attack from low level. This called for the pilot to visually judge the release point of the bombs from his position in the cockpit.

One main problem, however, was the vulnerability of the level bomber during the bomb run. The German counter to this was to fly bombers in formations of multiple aircraft where bomber gunners’ fields of fire would interlock and overlap, thus providing mutual protection. Early practical experience often showed that this alone was not enough and so a fighter escort was desirable if not essential. The concept of making a daylight bombing run with no fighter escort in small numbers, let alone individually, was absolutely unthinkable.

In terms of bomber formations, the standard was the three aircraft ‘kette’ which was similar to the British ‘vic’ – effectively an arrowhead where the leader flew slightly ahead of his two wingmen. This arrowhead could be extended to more aircraft, as was the case with the ‘Staffelwinkel’ which would place the entire squadron in an extended kette. Another alternative was the ‘Staffelkolonne’ which placed three ketten in line astern.

RAF Bomber Command’s tactical approach to level bombing started in a similar manner, but quickly took a different path from that of the Luftwaffe. The belief that British bombers were faster than most opposition they were likely to encounter, and well protected by 0.303 inch machine gun turrets, led to early British bombing raids being conducted in daylight with no fighter escort. Casualties were horrific. By the time RAF Bomber Command had begun its strategic bombing campaign against Germany in earnest, the decision had been made to carry out attacks almost exclusively at night. Night bombing presented a number of new challenges to overcome; first and foremost attacking specific targets at night over a country operating in a wartime blackout was very challenging. Dropping bombs anywhere near the target was only possible with useable light levels provided from a good moon and clear skies. Then there was the problem of protection – the tight formations used by daylight bombers were dangerous at night due to the hugely increased risk of collision. Also, British night fighters struggled with finding German bombers, let alone protecting their own from German night fighters so an escort was also out of the question. The result was that British bombers attacked at night, individually (or in small, very loose formations at best) with no escort and only the cover of darkness for protection. However, the startling inaccuracies highlighted by the 1941 Butt Report brought all of Bomber Command’s tactics and procedures into question. The findings of the Butt Report concluded that approximately 5% of RAF Bomber Command’s night bombers were dropping their bombs with five miles of the target, let alone hitting it. On a night with poor light levels and a target with heavy defences, it was realistic to assume that one bomber out of every hundred would drop their bombs within five miles of the aim point. Air Chief Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris therefore made arguably the most controversial decision in the history of air warfare – if it was impossible to increase bombing accuracy for precision attacks, then the targets needed to be bigger – ideally miles bigger. This was the birth of ‘Area Bombing’, the deliberate targeting of centers of civilian populations. If the Battle of Britain was the RAF’s Finest Hour, this was now the RAF’s darkest.

Decals to be added in the future updates:

'Hell's Belle' B17 G s/n 4237737

401st BS 91st BG 8th Air Force

Artist: Colin Muir "fenris"

"Bomb Babe" B-24J-175-CO Liberator s/n 44-40709

866th Bomb Squadron, 494th Bomb Group, 7th Air Force.

Flew 44 combat missions. Salvaged on August 13,1945

Artist: Jej Ortiz "CharlieFoxtrot"

Fire bombing now saw bomb loads chosen not to precisely destroy single, hardened targets but to cause maximum loss of human life.

Tactically, there were some improvements later in the war which did help to bring targeting back to legitimate targets of military significance. These included the greater use of more reliable direction finding equipment to guide bombers to their target (used by both Britain and Germany) and also the ‘Pathfinder Force’ – the cream of Bomber Command’s aircrew were grouped together in Pathfinder units to mark the target with flares ahead of the main force.

With the United States becoming engaged in offensive operations in 1942, similar challenges were faced. The USAAF quickly made the decision that daylight bombing was the way ahead, and that Area Bombing of civilians was to be avoided at all costs – however the United States, like Germany and Britain before them, would soon relent and join in the deliberate targeting of civilians.    


USAAF level bombing doctrine had many similarities to that of the Luftwaffe; a straight and level bomb run highly dependent on a specialized bomb sight (The Norden sight), and close formation and fighter escort for protection. The USAAF Tactical Advisory Board laid down several recommendations:


a. The (basic) Element – Three aircraft in a ‘V’ with wingmen flying wing tip to wing tip, nose to tail on the leader with a safe clearance (minimum of 50 ft) laterally or horizontally…

b. The Squadron – Two elements with the second element echeloned right or left with 100 ft vertical clearance…

c. The Group Formation – Three Squadrons with a lead squadron, high squadron and low squadron…

d. The Combat Wing – Three Groups with a lead group, high group, and a low group…”


This huge, relatively unwieldy formation would then have to carefully plan routes based on long legs of straight and level flying so as not to break up the formation. The penultimate aim was the IP – the Initial Point – where the bomb run was started. Doctrine was again laid down as to how the IP to Target run was flown, but permitted a ‘slight weaving’ to throw the aim of attacks from enemy fighters. Bombers would then reform at the Rally Point to begin the flight home.


Level bombing in the Second World War is now mainly linked to mass bombing of strategic targets, but it was still a legitimate tool to be used in the tactical environment, better carried out by light or medium bombers at lower altitudes. However, for precision accuracy against small targets such as warships, or even tanks, different methods would be required.


The author
Mark Barber, War Thunder Historical Consultant

Mark Barber is a pilot in the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. His first book was published by Osprey Publishing in 2008; subsequently, he has written several more titles for Osprey and has also published articles for several magazines, including the UK's top selling aviation magazine 'FlyPast'. His main areas of interest are British Naval Aviation in the First and Second World Wars and RAF Fighter Command in the Second World War. He currently works with Gaijin Entertainment as a Historical Consultant, helping to run the Historical Section of the War Thunder forums and heading up the Ace of the Month series.




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