Or: Here's Lookin' at You, Kid. From 20,000 feet.

The Norden bombsight was largely responsible for the success achieved by the Allied bombing campaigns in both the European and Pacific theatres during World War II. Though it spent years in development, during which time many an American, Brit, and German had a look at various stages of it, it ultimately became one of the Allies' most closely guarded military secrets.

So You Used to Bullseye Womprats, eh?

World War II bombadiers, with the help of the Norden, accomplished what in terms of scale and technology amounted to the same thing. Hitting a factory, refinery, munitions plant, or what have you, was no easy feat, especially when flying at high altitudes.

Level bombing required a great deal more in the way of math than the dive bombing largely preferred by the Germans; the latter was a method relying more heavily on simpler physics. Point the plane directly at the target, hit the switch, and let Newton's Laws of Motion do the rest. The problem with this was that you could only carry and release so many bombs, and you had to get in fairly close. So what you gained in accuracy, you lost in payload and safety.

The Allied campaign of saturation bombing called for delivery of high payloads from up on high. But unless your bombardier was also a savant, he probably wasn't going to be able to calculate for distance, trajectory, airspeed, altitude, and crosswind, all while keeping an eye out for Messerschmidts and strapping on his Mae West.

Enter the Norden bombsight.

How's It Work?

The sight was essentially an analog computer, doing the work of your slide rule and chalkboard. Later versions incorporated an automatic pilot, so that the plane would be flown through the bomb run by the sight. More on why that was possible in a moment.

Bear in mind that accuracy is a relative term. This is still 1940s technology, and the bombs were as dumb as any unguided lump of iron dropped today without the benefit of a camera strapped to its nose. When used properly, and under ideal conditions, the Norden was supposed to put a 500 pound iron bomb within a target area of a 100 feet in diameter from four miles up. But it was not at all uncommon for the local cornfield--or worse--to get pulverized instead of the airstrip they showed photos of during this morning's pre-flight. Roughly two-thirds of bombs dropped landed up to 1,000 feet off.

Now then-how to use your Norden Bombsight. This isn't exactly easy--I'll try to simplify. Before you even reach the target area, you're going to be running down a long list of calibrations and designations. Begin them 30-40 minutes before you reach the target area.

The Bomb Run: It begins when you hit the predesignated waypoint, about two minutes out.

  1. Switch the bomb rack to 'On.' Makes sense. At least you don't have to make sure it's plugged in. Or do you?
  2. Open bomb bay doors. These came with your plane.
  3. When the plane is level, uncage the sight's primary gyroscope.
  4. Align the vertical crosshair onto the target.
  5. Align the horizontal crosshair onto same.
  6. Toggle on the telescope's motor.
  7. Level the bombsight gyroscope. It uses the same technology as your Dad's level in the garage--bubbles. Center them.
  8. Hold the sight on target--keep it in the crosshairs--until the sight clutch engages and keeps the sight stabilised.
  9. Set the drift angle. There's an onboard computer to help you figure out what this is.
  10. Refine your crosshair alignment, one more time.
  11. Check the gyro again to make sure you're flying level. You're getting close.
  12. Set the release lever to the armed and locked position.
  13. Cross your fingers. Any major adjustments at this point are more likely to throw off your aim than improve it. Accept any minor mistakes you've made, and pray for a spot of luck.
  14. BOMBS AWAY. The sight will release the bombs automatically when the telescope and rate sector indicators match up.
  15. Get the hell out of there.
Naturally, the levers, switches, gears, and clutches you'll be handling to achieve all this are numerous. This is just the basic functioning of the sight.

And though everyone should know how to use it, if your group leader has lasted for the whole trip, just release your bombs when he does, and hope he read the manual.

On your way out, reset the sight to how you found it: turned off, caged up, and covered.

Seeing Things

The sight took the name of its inventor, Carl Norden, who came to the United States after being raised in Java and educated in Switzerland.

America's Best-Kept Secret

It was touted as such for many years; the American answer to the Germans' highly sought after, highly secret Enigma machine.

During their first days of service, the sights were on and off-loaded from their planes just before and right after each sortie, for additional security, and crewmen were instruced to destroy them in the event of a crash landing. Bombardiers had to swear the following oath:

Mindful of the secret trust about to be placed in me by my Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, by whose direction I have been chosen for bombardier training, and mindful of the fact that I am to become guardian of one of my country's most priceless military assets, the American bombsight, I do here, in the presence of Almighty God, swear by the Bombardier's Code of Honor to keep inviolate the secrecy of any and all confidential information revealed to me, and further to uphold the honor and integrity of the Army Air Forces, if need be, with my life itself.

Fine words. But the Nazis had already had a look at the thing, way back in 1937.

One of Norden's employees, a man named Lang, nicked a set of plans for the sight and ran off with them to Herman Göring, who coughed up $3000 in return. But, in yet another example of Nazi bad judgement, they decided not to use it.

Lang was later caught, and was jailed for only eighteen years. If he'd done it in 1941, he would have gone down for treason.

For All it Was Worth

What successes were had in the dangerous and often denigrated daylight bombing raids would have been next to impossible without the Norden bombsight.

But despite the oaths, the orders to destroy, and the heavy shroud of secrecy, its status was reduced to just restricted in 1942. Still enough to keep it hush hush, but not exactly Top Secret.

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