Flight Plans and Rescues: Using Math to Explore the World War II Strategic Bombing Campaign

Guiding Question:

How does the military use math and map skills to perform important duties?


Using maps of the Mediterranean region, primary sources, and interactives from the American Battle Monuments Commission, students will identify important places and individual contributions to the Allied effort in World War II. After reading a primary source document, students will write a response to a discussion question. With maps superimposed with a graph, students will utilize algebraic functions to find specific locations that follow the story of Captain Walter Swarner and other bomber pilots.


Historical Context

The early American bombing campaign in Europe focused on destroying Axis infrastructure and industrial capacity as well as softening up Sicily for the coming Allied invasion, codenamed Operation Husky. Captain Walter C. Swarner, Jr. was part of Operation Tidal Wave which directed American bombers against the Axis oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania. As with many bombing missions, this one saw the loss of several bombers and their crews. The success of bombing missions relied on quality planning, precise calculations, coordination with fighter planes, and the skills and courage of Allied crews. Bombing raids on Axis positions would continue throughout the war and eventually include targets on civilians to remove their support for the war. Despite improvements in technology, the effects of bombing rarely matched the promises made by air power advocates.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Identify the countries involved in the North African and Mediterranean campaigns;
  • Solve algebraic functions with two variables; and
  • Plot coordinates on a graph.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.8.EE.C.7.B Solve linear equations with rational number coefficients, including equations whose solutions require expanding expressions using the distributive property and collecting like terms.
CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.8.EE.C.8.A Understand that solutions to a system of two linear equations in two variables correspond to points of intersection of their graphs, because points of intersection satisfy both equations simultaneously.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.Geo.1.6-8. Construct maps to represent and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics.
D2.Geo.2.6-8. Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions, and changes in their environmental characteristics.
D2.His.13.6-8. Evaluate the relevancy and utility of a historical source based on information such as maker, date, place of origin, intended audience, and purpose.

Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Mapping the Mediterranean (20 minutes)

  • Distribute one copy of the Flight Plans and Rescues Handout to each student.
  • Ask students to use the World War II European Theater Historical Maps to neatly label the following on their map: Spain, Great Britain, France, Italy, Sicily, Algeria, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, U.S.S.R., Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Germany, Morocco and Switzerland.
    • Ask students, Which countries were a part of the Axis powers?
      • Answer: Germany, Italy, Japan (not on the map)
    • Ask students, Which countries were allied with the United States?
      • Answer: U.S.S.R. and Great Britain
    • Ask students, Which countries had been invaded and taken over by the Axis Powers before America’s entry in December 1941?
      • Answer: France, Sicily, Algeria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco
    • Ask students, Which countries were neutral during World War II?
      • Answer: Turkey, Switzerland, and Spain
    • Explain to the students how America’s first invasion of the war was into North Africa, starting in Morocco and Algeria and spreading to Tunisia.
    • Ask students, Once the Americans and the British had won back North Africa, where would you attack next?
      • Help students understand Sicily as the next logical step in the invasion and the importance of controlling the Mediterranean and Italy.
    • Ask students, As you prepare to invade Europe and attack Germany, what are some of the things you should do to ensure victory?
      • Help understand the steps involved in planning an invasion and the role aerial reconnaissance and bombing played.
    • Go to the Strategic Bombing Campaign Interactive and watch the January 1942 to June 1941 clip that gives an overview of the American bombing campaign. Have students individually, or in groups, use information to complete the first step of the activity.

Activity Two: Letter to Captain Swarner’s Parents (25 minutes)

  • Project a picture of Captain Walter C. Swarner, Jr. from his Fallen Hero Profile to the class and provide a few details of his life. Students may read the profile or watch the eulogy video.
  • Ask students to take turns reading aloud the letter from John Gaffney to Captain Swarner’s parents. Stop students at difficult words and ask the class to help define using context clues.
  • Ask students to complete part two of the activity, which asks students to analyze and respond to the document.

Assessment Materials

Plotting the Rescue (50 minutes)

  • Ask a student(s) to read aloud the scenario that sets up the problem to solve in this activity.
    • Ask students, Explain the problem in your own words.
    • Ask students, What are the real-world reasons solving this problem would be important?
  • Work through the two practice questions with students on a whiteboard or overhead projector.
    • Teacher Tip: An answer key is provided.
  • Ask the students to solve the first problem which locates the Allied airfield in Egypt. Check to see if everyone correctly solved the problem, and ask a student to demonstrate how to plot that on the chart with a colored pencil.
  • Assign the rest of the problems, reminding students to read as they go along and look for clues to help them check their work.
  • The overlay key can be printed on printable transparency paper to quickly check student work.

Methods for Extension

  • Students can be given an additional map grid and asked to plot a course from Tunis to each of the following cities: Palermo, Rome, Paris, Berlin. Students should use direct line courses to each location. Students then will write equations for each point along the path.


  • Teachers can adapt the project to English Language Learners by simplifying the language in the instructions and letter and by having the class read aloud each of the three steps of the activity.
  • Teachers can adapt this lesson to younger students by providing coordinates and focusing purely on the skill of plotting points on a graph and drawing lines.


Return to Activity

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

Other Sources