Not Our Finest Hour

Before there were such clinically business-like names as “nuclear strike capability” and “mutually assured destruction”, there was the Strategic Bomber Offensive which, unlike our present military madness, was actually prosecuted to as full an extent as we could.

Based on the theories of Douhet, the thirties and forties saw a build-up of air forces capable of striking at other countries. The RAF was to the fore, developing Bomber Command for that specific purpose. This differed from the parallel Nazi development of the Luftwaffe in that their bombers were designed for close co-operation with the rest of the Wehrmacht in an integrated all-arms operation dubbed “blitzkrieg”.

Today, in London’s Green Park, a monument will be unveiled to the 55,573 airmen of Bomber Command who died in the course of the war—the highest proportion of any arm of any service, higher than similarly dangerous efforts that saw huge hardship and sacrifice. The airmen fully deserve this belated recognition for repeated bravery in the cruel circumstances in which most died—on their umpteenth mission in an unheated Lancaster or Halifax in the dark at 20,000 feet over a burning German city amidst exploding 88mm or 105mm flak shells.

But to ask what they were doing there is not to doubt courage, sacrifice or recognition of it.

When war broke out in 1939, people all over Britain rolled into makeshift shelters clutching gas masks, believing Douhet’s predictions of air war would be fulfilled; they were wrong. There were pinprick raids on naval targets at Scapa Flow and choke points like the Forth Bridge but the Luftwaffe was too busy helping sweep the Polish, then Norwegian, Dutch, French and Belgian armies aside to venture over the North Sea.

Bomber Command confined itself to military targets and leaflet-dropping, hoping that their older 2-engined mainstay bombers making it to the Ruhr to drop leaflets would be deterrent enough. Early RAF efforts to attack Kriegsmarine ships in their North Sea home ports damaged nothing and half the planes dispatched were lost: it was a shock to Douhet disciples how wrong he was—the bomber didn’t always get through.

Up to 1940’s Battle of Britain, both sides avoided civilian targets. But in September, a German geschwader’s flawed navigation dropped bombs on London by mistake. An incensed Churchill dispatched a couple of RAF squadrons  to bomb Berlin in ineffectual retaliation. Although targeted at Templehof Airport, accuracy was so abysmal it was seen as indescriminate. So, in the military vacuum following the Germans shelving invasion, bombing cities was the only either side could strike at one other.

So, for a year, the ‘Blitz’ rained down on London (especially the East End) and industrial cities like Coventry and Glasgow. Because of the demonstrated weaknesses of bombers to fighter attack in daytime, this took place at night, which removed any hope of accuracy. Even though military targets were invariably given, raids were lucky to find the right city in a blacked-out landscape. Do17s and He111s, with barely a ton in each plane, targeted industry, with raids of more than 100 considered large. Nonetheless, 100 tons of high explosives were hell to endure for anyone living even near the ‘target’.

Bomber Command was tasked with retaliatory raids, even after the Luftwaffe was pulled away to support the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. When a study found that not even half the bombs dropped fell within five miles of ‘target’, the effort to develop newer and heavier bombers and dispatch them at the foe did not slacken a bit.

In February 1942, RAF Bomber Command explicitly began to focus its attacks on the enemy civilian population, when it shifted from target bombing to night-time area bombing of cities, designed to break enemy morale. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the new head of Bomber Command, saw German civilian deaths (or the ‘dehousing’ of their workforce) as entirely necessary.

He embraced the theories of a Prof Lindemann, who posited attacking major industrial centres to deliberately destroy as many homes and houses as possible. Working class homes were to be targeted because they had a higher density and fire storms were more likely. This would displace the German workforce and reduce their ability to work.

The new RAF 4-engined Lancaster and Halifax bombers coming on-stream could each deliver 7 tons of bombs to any city in the Ruhr. The RAF’s first 1,000-bomber raid (on Cologne at the end of May 1942) devastated large parts of the city with 5,000 tons of bombs—fifty times what a ‘big’ German raid had once delivered.

As other fronts were opened in Italy and D-Day landed Allied armies in France, the ‘bomber offensive’ continued, with the RAF’s night raids now partnered in daylight by the US Eighth Air Force (who did adhere to precision bombing). Harris received top-level backing for his ‘bomber offensive’ even to the point of starving Coastal Command of long-range aircraft.

One of the most gruesomely ‘effective’ raids were against Hamburg in July 1943. The unusually warm, clear weather meant the bombing was highly concentrated around the intended targets. This created a vortex and whirling updraft of super-heated air which built into a 1,500-foot-high tornado of fire. Over a week of raids, 9,000 tons of bombs killed 42,600 civilians, wounded 37,000 more and wrecked 250,000 homes, practically destroying the entire city. Yet the war continued for two more years. (For comparison, fewer than 1,000 died in Coventry or on Clydeside.)

Harris’ argument that, even if they were not destroying military targets, his massive raids were splintering German infrastructure and sapping their will to resist was not borne out. Not only had German efforts 1940-41 not weakened British will to resist, German sources maintain their response was no different.

“In the burning and devastated cities, we daily experienced the direct impact of war. It spurred us to do our utmost . . . the bombing and the hardships that resulted from them (did not) weaken the morale of the populace.” —Albert Speer

Perhaps the most callous and unnecessary RAF raid was made on Dresden in February 1945. The Germans were beaten on both fronts and this “Florence on the Elbe“, a cultural landmark of little or no military significance, was full of refugees fleeing a vengeful Soviet Army. In four raids, 1,300 bombers dropped 4,000 tons of bombs that devastated 40 sq. miles of the city in a firestorm; the 25,000 casualties were never properly counted.

There is no question that the thousands of airmen who climbed into lumbering aircraft night after night, knowing their chance of survival over furiously hostile territory was under 50%, deserve recognition for bravery few of us could muster. But the reasons behind orders they followed so resolutely, the justification for a million tons of bombs killing 305,000 civilians, wounding 780,000 more and rendering 7.5m (the equivalent population to London’s) homeless, lie open to questioning even today.

  • Is there any such thing as ‘civilised warfare’?
  • If so, did Britain comply with its precepts 1939-45, as it claims to have done?
  • If ‘yes’, how can Bomber Command’s indiscriminate strategy be justified?

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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