The Biggest Lie of WWII? The Myth of the Norden BombsightJul 09, 2022
I think most of us, at some point, have been told by someone that you knew we went to the moon with less computing power than your iPhone or something like that. However, you may not know that less than a century ago, a mechanical piece of 2,000 computers lacking a single transistor or chip was the best-kept military secret of the Allied war effort or at least the second-most before it was eclipsed. for the manhattan project the united states navy spent billions helping carl norton develop a mechanical computer with one job and one job just to determine the point at which a level flying bomber would need to drop its bombs to achieve accuracy pinpoint on an intended target when completed Mr Norton claimed the site was so accurate he was capable of putting a bomb inside a pickle barrel and if he could the war would be revolutionized or the powers that be thought the idea was just blown up his bombers above enemy air defenses above the range of his r flak batteries faster than his fighters could fly and dropping their bombs with pinpoint accuracy on crucial industrial sites, robbing the enemy of their ability to make the equipment they need to fight a war in the first place, the only problem was that everything about the northern bomb site turned out to be a
myth, not just because of the obviously
mythical bits like the fact that the crosses on the site itself were actually a black widow's webbing or that a lattice was made out of the strands of a midwestern young woman's hair instead, but all that accuracy, secrecy, and even the fact that it was the only bomb site used in the war, so how can this be until two weeks ago?
I think the Norton bombsite was an ingenious piece of equipment that more than any other singular device turned the tides of WWII in favor of the Allies, so why do we continue to believe in the northern bombsite? ? Because it turns out that myths are useful not just to the Army Air Corps, the Carl Norton Company, and Hollywood, but to us, the public, as a result, they can help us swallow hard truths about war that we'd rather avoid. Mechanical computerized bomb sites were the direct answer to the problems that arose in World War I, naturally, since the first bombers had little more than their own senses and a simple sight to drop their bombs, it was quickly determined that it was necessary. solving two major problems before aerial bombardment could be nearly accurate: The first problem was determining an accurate wind drift angle, which proved difficult as pilots were forced to coordinate with their bombers verbally or using hand gestures. hands while lining up on the target, the second problem was that a simple bomb site mounted on the aircraft fuselage was insufficient as any small movement of the aircraft produced large angular changes in the site rendering it useless, whereas norton was not the only engineer working to solve this problem, he would eventually become the closest to the ass ocated with instruments designed to solve the problem of precision aerial bombing its first site, the norton mark 11, was essentially a flop developed in conjunction with the navy, which was the first to investigate precision bomb sites, the results of their first tests were disappointing hitting a 110ft target only 50 times from an altitude of only 3000ft, the bombers also claimed the site was complicated and difficult to use.
Shortly after these first tests in 1927, the US Army air car bridged the river in North Carolina. After flying 100 missions between six and eight thousand feet over five days, the Air Corps had expended thousands of pounds of explosives to destroy a bridge which would have cost a battlefield engineer a few hundred pounds of explosives and one afternoon after finally getting mark 11, which took some work due to the secrecy surrounding it, the army arrived at the sa my conclusion as the navy was too complicated and not that accurate until
nordendeveloped the mark 15 the legend we know today began to form to solve the problem of operational complexity
nordendesigned the mark 15 around a synchronous method of determining the target angle which we'll mention later to put it simply, though the new site could be operated with just two knobs and took only six seconds to sync r compared to the 50 of the 11.
The results were much more impressive than the 11 showing an error rate of 50 in a 75 foot circle which was an improvement on 32 not only was the 15 simpler and more accurate , but also combined with a mechanical autopilot called stabilized bombing approach equipment that solved the problem of precise control of the aircraft during a bombing run with the mark 15 making significant improvements, it was not a surprise that both the navy and the Army Air Corps were filling their order books, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the devices were still in use. and assembled by a small number of specialists. Supply problems developed rapidly at this time.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the Royal Air Force had learned of the Norton and expressed interest in obtaining one. The Royal Air Force had been working on its own. The bomb site was dubbed this Stabilized Auto Bomb Site but it was still under development and did not feature an attached autopilot, unfortunately for the RAF permission to reveal the secrets behind the bomb site was never granted until much later. late in the war to try to persuade the Americans. the raf even offered up info on their coveted radar technology but luckily to no avail as we'll see in a minute and we share the norton it probably wouldn't have made much of a difference it seems few people know about the bomb site warfare the war in which the sperry gyroscope company built a superior bomb site to the norton but through slick sales techniques and political dealings was ultimately outbid by the norton company despite the norton ton being an inferior looking product To solve the supply problems they faced, the Army asked the Sperry Company to develop its own bomb site that would eventually become the Sperry S-1.
The Sperry Company was not a complete beginner in bomb site design anymore. that they had previously submitted some other designs, but these designs, even by Sperry's own admission, were rubbish; however, by this time, the company had made many improvements and designed a winner. The only problem, as we'll see, is that the previous bombsite's performance had ruined its reputation a bit now, the s-1 featured an all-electric servo system that responded faster than norton's electromechanical controls, and on top of that, it was designed more ergonomic with a knob on the opposite side that allowed a bombardier to adjust heading and range simultaneously, which was an impossible task on a norden as the norden used a dc powered 7200rpm gyroscope to stabilize its platform sperry had introduced recently its 30 thousand rpm AC powered variant Also the use of 3 phase AC power and inductive pickups eliminated the need for carbon brushes for DC motors which had proven to be a sticky problem on the Nortons.
Another plus was that the s-1 had eliminated the need to spend time aligning the gyros which would then become a huge time sink for bombers and then there was the autopilot which Sperry had already been designing for some time the successor to the Heading Only A3 model currently in use on mini b17s the A5 autopilot was an all-electric model that stabilized pitch and yaw roll along with the s1 the results were impressive enough that the military authorized the construction of a factory for 2 million square feet stating that in the future all production models of bomber aircraft will be equipped with an a5 autopilot and provisioned in such a way that the installation of the m series or the s1 final appointment is possible so sperry was so good why isn't this a s1 video?
The answer boils down to the tragedy of nepotism and good old-fashioned marketing. As soon as Norden learned of the S1 site, the Norton Company held an emergency meeting with the Navy and Air Corps, according to records of the meeting. The president of the company. Theodore H Barth heavily discredited this berry company and even offered to let the Air Corps build its own factory to alleviate problems with demand. The Army seemed interested but the Navy wouldn't let it vary the problems with its own supply. The Sperry rivalry. and norton eventually became so serious that later when the air corps asked the norton company to cooperate with sperry in making their bomb sites compatible with the sperry a5 autopilot, the norton company simply refused and as As a result, the Air Corps contracted with Honeywell's regulatory company to produce its own autopilot. compatible with gyros from northern sites for all intents and purposes the honeywell was a copy of the a5 and even used the a5's electric r assist circuits and servos but the fact that it wasn't a sperry product had placated norton and the resulting c1 autopilot later became a success while the president of the Norton Company had begun to lay the groundwork for the myth behind the northern bombsite that endures today.
President Theodore Barth was a military man and had many military contracts with which he fostered good relations. Furthermore, he had also begun to cultivate a legendary status around the bomb site by requiring superfluous security protocols for the handling of the bomb site, specifically during wartime. the top of the bomb site. which was called the soccer ball, was removed from the aircraft and stored in specialized norton brigs at each base; furthermore a bombardier using the norton site was required to swear an oath that they would sacrifice their life to protect the secrets of the north bomb site should they be captured as it turned out most of this was probably propaganda used to reinforce my belief that the northern bomb sites were infallible and the
biggestsecret the United States possessed in wartime, but more on that, shortly after the crazy secret, there was the legendary myth of the pickle barrel according to the story. history, either carl norton himself or just a bomber using the norton site had said that not only could they put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20 000 feet, but they were disappointed that they weren't told which pickle to hit, as we'll see in the after action reports this was a bit of a stretch after the pickle myth the norden stories got even wilder including I do again that the crosses were made from the silk of a black widow or from the especially fine hair of a woman named Mary Babnick known as Arcadia Mary, who taught soldiers to dance in the Usos. arcadia ballroom at a pueblo army airbase in colorado strange while the norte company was busy creating myths the sperry company on the other hand continued in relative silence while the technology behind the norto n only sorted out, the sperry remained in secret, in fact, no one really knew that the sperry company even made bomb sites, which while great for wartime security, turned out to be a disadvantage in terms of military procurement, as it turned out to be a good job old fashioned marketing.
In the same way in the military as it is with the rest of us, what was also tragic for the Sperry Company was the fact that its major military procurement relationship between its military marketing representative Fred Voss and Major General Andrews ended abruptly afterward. Adding to vose being killed in a plane crash was also the fact that the sperry company was a multinational corporation that had contacts in both germany and japan, which obviously didn't win them any favors with the us military at the time, especially when theodore barth reminded them that norden was wholly owned and operated by the usa making it possible to divert the attention of their entire company to maintaining security that by the way they would ultimately stop doing it as well Among its other advantages, the Norton company was enjoying a 10-year advantage in developing procurement contracts with the Navy for Sperry E.
It was simply an uphill battle even with a superior product to sell the fact that norton had a better relationship with the military, better marketing and a better reputation made it their battle so when it was determined that there was a surplus of sites of bombs in 1943 and standardization was needed,The Norton along with the Honeywell C1 Autopilot became standard issue by the end of the war, perhaps ironically the main purchaser of the Norton became the United States Army Air Corps as the Navy had initially financed it. Research and designed for the Norton bomb site abandoned level bombing altogether due to its poor accuracy in favor of immersion. bombing tactics however even without the navy the northern company factories were full by the end of the war they would produce 72,000 bomb sites bought for 8,800 each and adjusted for inflation that means the corps air force bought 18.7 billion dollars worth of norton bomb sites to put that in perspective the manhattan project cost taxpayers the equivalent of about 30 billion dollars today bomb sites were no small business but as we will see there is a serious argument that they probably should have been simplified and then Norden used a mechanical computer mounted inside the bomb site to calculate the required range angle of the bombs when the bombardier would adjust the attitude altitude of the aircraft and the course along with the wind. speed and direction, the computer would automatically calculate the bomb drop point while solving the distance and angle problem was not a novel way to determine an accurate bomb drop point, the way Norton calculated it was unique rather than A typical site where a fixed angle was used and the target approached the bomb site sight from the front moving back through the site.
The Norden used a synchronous error correction method, which this What it means effectively speaking is that the bomber itself doesn't handle any of the math, rather after first calibrating the gyros, setting the initial altitude on the speed knob and setting the trail distance with the trail arm to tell the computer the distance that the bomb will travel through the ground based on its weight and air resistance the bomber just has to keep the target stable at the telescope site ico and the bomb will automatically drop on the target at least in theory the site does this by solving two problems the heading problem and the range problem to solve the heading problem the bomber and the bomb site first work together to neutralize the wind drift by turning the entire aircraft with the heading knob through the autopilot while keeping the target sighted in the independently moving telescope the bombardier can find the aircraft's wind drift angle simply by finding the heading that neutralizes the drift of the target at the site once this angle is determined, Norton will automatically compare this wind drift angle to the settings configured on the specific trailing arm for the bomb specs and rotate the telescoping site so that, with In order to keep the target in place, the bomber will now, without even knowing it, direct the required distance. wound upwind to hit the target when doing this the site takes into account what is known as cross trail distance or the distance the bomb will fly to the left or right after the bomb is dropped due to the crosswinds. flying a direct course to the target and how far the course must be upwind of the target, both the bombardier and the bomb side collectively solve what is known as the heading problem; however, we still don't know when to drop the bomb precisely. where the range problem comes in to solve the range problem the bombardier must simply neutralize the vertical drift at the telescoping site, having already established a home point on his range knob based on the plane's altitude, a disc will be clamped rotatable and will adjust to match the non-linear exponential change in relative vertical angle to the side target.
The bombsite does this by rotating a mirror below the telescope that is directly connected to both a protractor and a rotating wheel that mounts a adjacent record, since the wheel follows the record from the inner rings of the record outwards, opposite to the way a needle travels on a record player, this feature will move faster as it happens to change at the same rate than the change in angle relative to a target as it passes under an aircraft if the bombardier can find the correct disk velocity that represents Based on current conditions based on altitude and aircraft speed the bomb site can automatically determine when to drop the bombs to hit and it sounds like a lot but again all the bomber needs to do is stop movement relative vertical at the telescoping site with the range wheel by doing this without performing any math, you are telling the computer all the variables required to solve the range problem specifically, you are telling the trail distance again set by the range's arm trail the current angle to the target set with your sight the requirement the red range angle to the target determined by the computer with the trigonometric function and the rate of change between the two once this is all done the bombs are gone in terms of inconvenience , one of the
biggestlimitations of the norton was the configuration or the writing process that I mentioned before seeing r Before the bombsite could be used, the gyros needed to be configured to ensure the telescopic site maintained a true vertical orientation because the gyros, as they do, will slowly drift over time to correct this error, the telescopic site it was to be compared to bubble levels that could be seen in small windows on the stabilization platform of the bomb site.
This whole process was very time consuming, sometimes taking almost 10 minutes. you can imagine turbulence was quite common and probably so was quick maneuvering by pilots especially when they were being hot from flak because of this slop problem when the raf finally got the norton in 1942 they rejected it based only on In this frustrating problem, unsurprisingly, perhaps despite the obvious ingenuity built into the design, the results in deploying the Jordan were less than ideal soon after the war began, the Navy promptly abandoned the bomb site for and later the United States Army Air Corps determined they were equally underperforming but refused to stop their bombing campaign for a number of reasons which we will mention at one point in 1943 although it was determined that, on average, only 16 percent of the bombs fell within a thousand feet of their target, so I'd guess if the pickle barrel has 10,000 feet wide yes you will hit it every time to combat poor accuracy.
The fighter box was developed and instead of each bomber using their own norton, the lead aircraft of the bomber formation would sight the target while the other bombers would simply drop their bombs manually. ally when they saw the leeds bombs being dropped conveniently this also solved the problem of bombers crashing into each other as the bombers tried to synchronize their sights individually however this also proved not to be much more accurate than the previous method and when jimmy Doolittle eventually took command of the 8th Eaker Air Force in 1944 precision tactics were abandoned in favor of area bombing like the Royal Air Force these raids were mainly directed at marshalling yards airfields oil refineries and military installations but as the idea of precision itself had been abandoned the bombers were intended primarily as bait during the late war recruiting the last of the luftwaffe fighters so they could be shot down by squadrons of long range fighter escorts like the p-51 so that the allies could finally gain superiority total air d ironically despite precision bombing was abandoned to the credit of the bomb site once accura c air superiority was finally achieved and steadily improved in 1945 60 of the bombs fell within 1000 feet of the intended target What do you know when you're not being shot at?
It's much easier to use your Norton, but while accuracy did improve, the early days were so bad it really warranted further examination to do this, let's take a look at the yowata steel mill raid in 1944. in 1944, 47 b-29s dropped their bomb load on yawata and only managed to score a single hit which accounts for a quarter of a percent of the total 376 bombs dropped in another example 108 b-17s writing on a german power generating plant dropped 648 bombs achieving only two direct hits on the target. In a nutshell, the main problem was that the early Mark 15 bombsite tests were conducted at lower altitudes and much lower airspeeds.
The siege was never intended to be used so far from its target, but neither was Nordin or Army Air. rps was willing to admit this, as the successful propagation of the myth behind the bomb meant a bright future for both the northern company and what would become the future united states air force; the reputation as an accurate instrument endured not only during the war but in the decades after. Let's Talk Why To understand why this myth has endured for so long, we need to look at several factors. The fact is that multiple parties were responsible for propagating the myth and all had different motivations.
The first party responsible for creating the myth around the Northern site was the Northern company itself, pressured by competition from Sperry and interest in obtaining future contracts. the company began to sensationalize the secrecy required around the device as well as its capabilities namely the pickle barrel myth, in fact prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor Theodore Barth is quoted as saying that we do not consider a 15 square ft difficult to reach from 30 000 ft altitude provided the new army m4 bombsite is used in conjunction with final stabilized bombing approach equipment cites considering as we stated that the post -war data shows that just after this statement was published, bombers in Europe were only hitting 1,000-foot targets 16 percent of the time.
I think it's safe to call this an exaggeration under normal circumstances, such hyperbole would probably end up lost in the annals of history, but another party, namely the US Army Air Corps, needed not only the rest of the government but also the rest of America to believe that the North was something special because it justified its existence at a time when the US Army Air Corps had pretended to become its own individual branch of the US Army. armed forces and as such needed a warfare doctrine unique enough to ensure individual identity, you will see if the norton was truly the game changer it was touted as would justify the use of the precision daytime bombing doctrine that would give you the air corps exactly what it needed because of this, what the air corps soon realized was that to become their own branch of the military they would need the a unwavering support from the public and how do you gain public support well it's simple what you do is make propaganda fortunately for the air corps the american public was already programmed to equate the progress and superiority of the country with advances in technology Heck, just a few years ago none of them had tbs and now Look, there's a guy in your living room telling you how Norden is going to revolutionize warfare and save countless lives.
The fact is that in American culture, technology is still often seen as the answer to the most difficult problems and the Norton bomb site was no different. If the stories were true, the site promised cleaner wars by reducing the potential for unwanted civilian casualties and when the US Army Air Corps began touting its new precision strike capabilities, it was easy for the public to latch on. to the idea that a war was operating within the US Army Air Corps. The potential new daytime precision bombing doctrine would obviously be more humane considering that just five years later the Air Corps would be bombing Japanese cities indiscriminately and soon after obliterating two of them completely with atomic bombs in hindsight, this rhetoric can be used as naively idealistic at best and perhaps quite insidious at worst, yet it was the angle the air core used to sell their new doctrine and like us Everyone knows it worked, so the air corps had its message: daytime precision bombing is the future because it would save lives, but they needed a way to get this message across, as it turned out this wasn't too hard for British magazines and government-funded films.
Atair demonstrations, the United States would eventually come to discover the new innovation that Norton's big brand engineers had concocted, but that's not where the propaganda train started, remember when we mentioned that Norton had likely created an atmosphere of unnecessary secrecy around the site of the bomb to exaggerate its importance on performance, well the first people to be subjected to this propaganda were the bombers themselves specifically during their training. bombers were not allowed to take notes and were required to memorize information and then of course there were the norton specific duffel bags and vaults at each airbase in which the sites were meticulously covered and guarded when a bomber he was ready for war.
Why wouldn't he believe that the northern bomb site was a wonder weapon? Just look at how much effort was being put into preventing it from falling into the hands of the enemy. What they did not know, however, was that the site had already fallen into enemy hands. hands and they really didn't think it was that good more about that at a time after the army air corps gained the much desired reputation and largely because the northern bomb site became public knowledge and the overly simplistic predisposition of the American public to see new technologies as evidence of unquestioned advancement and superiority, other groups soon realized that they could exploit the fame of the northern bomb site for capital gains. when this happened, the myth of the northern bomb site was no longer in the hands of its creators, but rather the American zeitgeist which, as we know, is usually a wild ride, unsurprisingly at this point, any association with the device could improve the sales capacity of a company. newspapers, magazines, movies or adding machines, although you have to remember that these groups weren't necessarily being disingenuous, they believed so much in the propaganda that the air corps had put out that even the film directors who flew missions maintained their opinions about the site of the bomb for example in the movie memphis bell william weiler nar rates quote who can say the number of german torpedoes that will not be fired the number of our own convoys that we will now go through the lives of soldiers and sailors that will be saved or the battles that they will be won rather than lost because of why these bombers and their airmen ended the date today so it's not even like this myth at this point is being spread in a malevolent way the fact is no one really knew Norton was a lie and because everyone really believed it was the amazing piece of technology they thought of.
It was the media that continued the associations no matter how remote, for example, in an August 1943 Fortune magazine ad, an ad shows a picture of a bomber stuffed into a bomber's plexiglass nose next to the image, caption reads quote carl l norton incorporated The maker of the famous Norton bomb site used the dictograph intercom as an essential war production tool. The association relates solely to the norton bomb site itself, however the fine print in the announcement clears up any confusion in reading the quote, the highly secret nature of the management, planning and production of the famous norton bomb site requires unquestionable privacy.
End of quote, as you can see even the fact. that the factories that produced the norton bombsite used dictaThe products of the artisan company were considered an exploitable connection. Also now is a good time to discuss the fact that in 1938 a Nazi spy in the US put to rest any notion that the bomb site remained a secret during the war, but the power of the Norton myth endured and in the December 1944 issue of Time magazine, the writer claims that the famous Norton bomb site quote was perhaps the best-kept American military secret of the war to his credit, although they later justify the obvious lie by claiming that citing the bombsite is so complex that although several sites have fallen into enemy hands, its inventors are confident that enemy technicians cannot duplicate the fact in time for World War II.
However, Luffa had tested Norton and found that while early results were promising compared to his bombsites, the small increase in accuracy was not worth it. e to redesign their own sites so they have it there norden knew the nazis had the plans the air corps knew they had the plans but they stood their ground and kept doing the secrecy dance even to the point of denying the air force request to study the bomb site because they claimed they were worried it might fall into enemy hands, all smoke and mirrors at the end of the war, countless advertisements had made loose connections to the Norton bomb site at the same time that they built the reputation of their own product while contributing to the greater than life myths surrounding the northern bombsite, eventually the reputation of the northern bombsite had become part of the zeitgeist and , as such, the truth did not matter so much that when the post-war United States strategic bombing survey revealed that daytime precision bombing had demo proved to be largely ineffective and no one seemed to notice, even after General Spatz himself was reported to have admitted that the US Army Air Corps was unable to achieve accurate bombing on some of its highest priority targets and that 95 of all the bombs dropped in japan were dropped after general lemay abandoned daytime precision bombing altogether the perception that the northern bomb site was an incredibly accurate change of war the technology remained You will see in this At this point in the story, the public's perception of the bomb site had been so heavily influenced by the media that it had become fixed in our minds and no amount of information to the contrary could change it, which is still somewhat true today and honestly isn't that.
It's really amazing when you think about it if we all believed that the Norton bomb site was hopelessly inaccurate then we might as well We are forced to question some of the sacrifices these airmen were forced to make, which is an uncomfortable proposition, to say the least. Of the total 405,000 American deaths during the war, 20 percent were airmen flying B-17s or B-24s, which is frankly misunderstanding The considerable cost that was paid directly in human lives as a result of the decision to attacking strategic targets during the day was done under the pretense that the northern bombsite was so accurate that it made the whole horrible business worth it.
The fact is that today the air corps strategic bombing campaigns are considered successful and, in my opinion, they were. However, what actually happened must be remembered as far removed from the list of goods sold to the American public. They told us the precision bombing and the northern bomb site. it would save not only the lives of our own airmen, but also the lives of non-combatants on the ground. Not only was this not true in practice, but it was so false that these bombing campaigns eventually dropped all pretenses and began bombing entire cities. he said that the eventual bombing of the area helped to contribute to ending the war in europe despite being a humanitarian atrocity yes and because of this it can be said that the air corps was doing what it had to do for the greater good of the allied cause, however, what cannot be said is that the northern bombsite was so effective that the air corps was able to stop their enemies' war production through coordinated precision strikes on industrial centers because accurate were not
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