Rail System as a Target during Battle of the Bulge

By Kate Doak-Keszler, Director of Communications

This article is part of our series on the Battle of the Bulge

Of the 19 bombing missions the 390th Bomb Group flew in support of the Battle of the Bulge, 10 of the targets were marshalling yards and four were railway bridges.  Germany’s rail system was a frequent target because it was a vital part of the infrastructure, both for economic and military purposes.

Deutsche Reichsbahn, the German National Railway, saw rapid expansion starting in 1937, due largely to incorporation of captured railways- both rolling stock and infrastructure- both those of foreign states and private companies. The rail system played a crucial role for Germany’s military, allowing for rapid movement of troops.  The Reichsbahn was a model of industrial efficiency, with redundancy and flexibility designed in, and by 1944 Germany had trained teams who specialized in repairing bombing damage.

Analysis of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey from WWII by Edmund Dews for NATO in 1980 showed that bombing against the rail system early in the war was minimally effective.  Main lines only took one to three days to repair when damaged.  Even a bridge or viaduct was usually back in operation in less than three weeks.  Marshalling yards, where trains and cargo were sorted, were one of the least effective targets.  According to Dews-

“As a way of stopping through traffic, a yard attack was seldom effective. At least one of the many through lines in the multiple-track yard network usually survived intact, and (because of the concentration of materials, equipment, and manpower at the yards) the most critical line repairs could usually be accomplished there in minimum time–
typically a matter of 24 hours or less –substantially less than the time required for track repairs elsewhere.”

However, their large size made them good targets for heavy bombers which lacked the precision needed to effectively bomb rail lines.  And, as part of the larger strategic bombing campaign that began in the fall of 1944, marshalling yard damage began to take a toll.  For the most part, movement of troops and military supplies always took priority and were often unaffected by damage, but non-military traffic began to suffer greatly.  By 1945, the Reichsbahn was suffering a 60 percent decrease in their capacity to sort out mixed goods, which was causing massive delays in civil transport and contributed to the collapse of the rail system that spring.

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