Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B--52s are sent to Hanoi.
When recreating a military battle, the best historians present the thoughts and actions of men from both sides. Marshall Michel persevered for years to fulfill that level of writing about the massive 1972 bombing of North Vietnam by B--52s to end the Vietnam War. He flew F--4 escort for the bombers, a small slice of his 321 combat missions between 1970 and 1973. He first wrote about Linebacker II as a Harvard student in 1989 and pursued the topic on a fellowship at the National Air and Space Museum, which included a trip to Hanoi. His research led to The Eleven Days of Christmas: America's Last Vietnam Battle, published in 2001.
That book displeased him, as it relied too heavily on translations from government sources for the North Vietnamese view of the action. He wanted voices from participants, particularly North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile crewmen. At a 2017 airpower conference, Michel met two Vietnamese pilots who valued Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam 1965-72, his first book. They helped him travel to Vietnam to meet North Vietnamese SA-2 missile crewmen and fighter pilots who had battled B--52s.
In Hanoi, Michel accessed "The Red Book" that taught "How to Shoot Down a B--52."The manual contained years of observations about bomber tactics accumulated by North Vietnamese air defense officers from the beginning of the war. Based on this insider information, Michel wrote this book which explains how tactical flexibility, or a lack thereof, determined successes and failures on both sides.
When the eleven days of bombing began, Americans planners were unaware of how much information the North Vietnamese had accumulated about B--52 tactics. Within the first four days of battle, while B--52s used compromised maneuvers, SA--2s destroyed twelve. Furthermore, leadership conflicts hampered American decision making. Mission planners at Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha--who owned the bombers--were out of touch with crewmen half a world away. They made poor decisions that yielded even more of the tactical advantage to SA-2 missilemen.
Michel clearly explains the ploys and counter ploys used by both sides. By the eighth night, when the need for SA--2s far exceeded their replacement rate and B--52s were bombing at will using revised tactics, the North Vietnamese sought to resume peace talks.
The failure of SAC Headquarters to recognize the extent of the SAM threat is unforgivable. First, SAC planners chose to use high altitude bombing tactics that were deemed unsatisfactory as early as 1959. I flew in B-47s and B--52s from 1957 to 1963 and recall how aircrews practiced deliveries such as Short Look and Long Look to avoid SAMs before deciding that ground-hugging low-level flying was the safest tactic. Second, I suspect that the two hundred bombers plus escorts employed on the first night caused SAC planners to believe that the enormity of the force coupled with sophisticated electronic countermeasures and chaff made the B--52s indestructible. But too little worked as expected.
Prior to walking the reader through each night of Linebacker II, Michel describes the available weapons and their associated systems on both sides, strengths and weaknesses of leaders and plans, the political climate, and the objective of the campaign.
Thanks to the talent of illustrator Jim Laurier, Operation Linebacker II 1972 has the outstanding graphics expected of Osprey publications. His double-page paintings of night operations made me reminisce and long for flying dangerous missions. Well-chosen photographs, many from Michel's collection, further enhance the text.
I spent half of Linebacker II as Special Operations liaison at U-Tapao and the other half monitoring daily briefings in Saigon. At U-Tapao, crewmen reflected a contained hesitancy. In Saigon, generals smiled with one openly gloating over bomb damage assessment photographs of the North. I believed that experience had given me a solid understanding of the campaign, but Michel's account significantly broadened my knowledge, particularly regarding the North Vietnamese mentality and initiative.
Stories such as Operation Linebacker II 1972 renew my admiration for historians' abilities to recreate events from long ago. The summer issue of Air Power History contained a piece of history that perfectly closes the circle for Michel's work. In it, Darrel Whitcomb wrote about "Rescue Operations During Linebacker II," an account of helicopter missions that recovered thirty bomber and fighter crewmen. Both are must reads.
Lt Col Henry Zeybel, USAF (Ret)
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|Publication:||Air Power History|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
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