The Psychosocial Complexity of the Norden Bombsight

Shown above: 390th Bombardment Group (H) dropping bombs on industrial facilities in Derben, Germany.

The complex Norden Bombsight was an analog computer used by bomber crews during World War II designed to solve the mathematics of dropping bombs from high altitude. Touted as a “humane” method of bombing, the bombsight became popular with the American public. (Tremblay, 2009) This article aims to provide a brief look at the Norden Bombsight, an early precision weapon that did not perform to its legendary status, but provided a moral boost to airmen and the public during World War II.

Early Reputation of the Norden Bombsight

In the 1930s, the Norden Bombsite became an essential element of the argument by senior Air Corps officers advocating for daylight strategic bombing. Historian John Keegan wrote that the Norden “…combined moral scruples, historical optimism, and technological pioneering, all three distinctly American characteristics.” (Miller, 2006)

In 1935 the fledgling U.S. Air Corps practiced continued testing of the device, which was originally developed and tested by the U.S. Navy. The Norden proved invaluable to leaders of the Air Corps because it was reputed that bombardiers were able to “hit a pickle barrel at forty thousand feet” (Tremblay, 2009). The Norden performed well during further tests in the dry deserts of California. (Miller, 2006)

Although the Norden was a very sophisticated device in its day, it proved to be of limited effectiveness in the harsh conditions of battle and over cloudy European skies. Air Corps leaders were quickly forced to design battle tactics to overcome the shortfalls of the Norden. Although each aircraft had its own bombardier, the best bombardier was positioned in the lead plane of each formation. When the lead plane dropped its bombs other crews in the formation released theirs. (Museum of Aviation, 2016)

Morale and the Norden Bombsight

The Army Air Corps engaged in a propaganda campaign aimed at the American public, touting the Norden as the most humane method of waging warfare. For the American public, the 20th century was filled with many positive technological changes. It is theorized by some historians that this “primed” American society for believing the Norden bombsight could be a formidable weapon against the enemy military targets while protecting the lives of innocent civilians on the ground. (Tremblay, 2009)

The Air Corps went to great lengths to protect the bombsight. Bombardier trainees were sworn to secrecy and instructed to destroy the bombsight and give their own life if necessary to protect it from falling into enemy hands. The “sight-head” or upper portion of the device was kept in a locked vault on base until a mission. Prior to take-off the bombsight was escorted to the aircraft by armed guard. These extreme security measures served to heighten the “legendary” status of the Norden. Popular myths about the Norden included that its cross hairs came from a blonde woman of Scandinavian descent (Museum of Aviation, 2016) or from the silk web of a Black Widow spider (Tremblay, 2009).

Training films produced by the Air Corps for bombardiers are a rich resource for historians interested in analyzing the myth-making around the Norden. During twelve weeks of bombardier training, recruits were constantly subjected to “[an] orchestrated hokum of the unique capabilities of the bombsight and therefore the need for unwavering security.” Trainees were not allowed to take notes, lest they fall into enemy hands and were expected to protect the secrets of the weapon. Documentation of discussion between Air Corps leaders reveal their anxiety about the effect on morale should the Norden’s accuracy be questioned. (Tremblay, 2009)

It is possible some bombardiers did struggle with their confidence in the Norden. One pilot Ralph Golubuck revealed a story where his bombardier tossed his Norden bombsight out of crippled plane with great glee. Despite this bombardier training placed great emphasis on indoctrinating an individual to believe that his bombsight was infallible. Training also emphasized the bombardier must train his eye and hand coordination to be worthy of the dependable Norden. One bombardier quoted in a 1944 New Yorker stated that “The more I found out about the bombsight, the more ingenious and inhuman it seemed. It was something bigger, I kept thinking, than any one man was intended to comprehend.” (Tremblay, 2009) These beliefs likely had a strong effect on both individual bombardiers and their crew mates. The assertion of the mystical-like qualities of the Norden may very well have helped these young men risk their lives mission after mission.


Although the Norden was not a weapon system component that performed up to its mythology, it was still an important part of the American Strategic Bombing doctrine (Tremblay, 2009). However, the effectiveness of the Norden in no way detracts from the incredible courage it took to fly combat missions during World War II. Almost 100,000 American airmen (twenty percent of America’s fighting men) were lost in the aerial offensive to paralyze the enemy factories, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Despite the myth-making related to it, the Norden bombsight provided the American public and some airmen with the belief that war could be waged humanely. In a day and age of increasingly technological warfare, it is worthwhile to examine the psychological and sociological effects of one of the world’s earliest precision weapons.

Story by Mariel Watt, 390th Memorial Museum Archivist & Curator


Miller, D. L. (2006). The Bomber Mafia. In D. L. Miller, Masters of the Air (pp. 38-42). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Museum of Aviation. (2016, April 23). The Politics, Pickle Barrels, and Propaganda of the Norden Bombsight. Retrieved from Museum of Aviation Foundation :

Tremblay, M. (2009). Deconstructing the Myth of the Norden Bombsight. University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Receive 390th Mission Intel