Handley Page 0/400 Bomber
In spite of much evidence to the contrary, it is still widely believed that no significant knowledge of strategic operations was acquired before the Bomber Command offensive against Germany in the Second World War, and for that reason alone it is important to place on record just how clear an understanding of long-distance operations had been achieved by the Air Staff of 1918. This can best be done by considering the three aspects of operations – navigation, target identification and bomb-aiming – which were generally agreed to have presented some of the greatest difficulties. As has been seen, much of this work was done or inspired by Lord Tiverton, the officer responsible for bombing plans at the Air Ministry, and it is in the papers written by him that Air Staff thought and policy are most clearly reflected.
Perhaps the most common theme in these papers relates to the difficulties experienced by the crews in finding their way to the target. Lord Tiverton believed that in a campaign of the type in which the Independent Force was engaged – one in which the flights were to a limited number of target areas, over territory containing many prominent features – these difficulties could in large measure be overcome by giving the crews a special course in map-reading relating to the operational area, so that they would become familiar with the features along the routes to the main targets.
Once the target area was reached the crews were faced with the problem of identifying the actual objective, which was often a single factory located in a built-up industrial area. Lord Tiverton suggested that training in target recognition should be made an integral part of the bombing course and should be combined with practice in approach and bombing techniques. He recommended that full-size outlines of important German factories should be marked out on Salisbury Plain, each one being so orientated that the pilot would approach it on the same compass course as he would steer for the actual target, and that simulated day and night attacks should be made against these outlines with practice bombs having the same ‘fall’ characteristics as the bombs in operational use.
Ultimately, however, the success of a bombing raid would depend upon the accuracy of the bomb-aiming and the effectiveness of the bombs. The first of these was determined mainly by the efficiency of the bombsight, and in the summer of 1918 the Air Staff were making preparations to introduce into squadron service the last of a number of important sights designed by naval personnel. This was the course-setting bombsight designed by Lieutenant Commander H. E. Wimperis, which enabled the aircraft to approach the target from any direction, and not merely up-wind or down-wind as with previous sights. Emphasis too was placed upon the need to investigate other factors which affected the accuracy of bombsighting – the height from which the bombs were dropped, the method of attack, the type of aircraft used, and so on – and Lord Tiverton and Lt. Cdr. Wimperis constantly stressed the importance of collecting as much data as possible relating to them.
Lord Tiverton was perhaps the first of the planners of air warfare to base his work on the assumption that the bomb (and not the bomber) was the vital element in air bombardment. For him the aeroplane was essentially the carrier of the missiles, and should therefore be designed specifically to deliver the most effective bombs to the most desirable objectives. This approach was quite different from that adopted by the planners in the inter-war years, when aircraft were often built without any consideration of the targets they would have to reach or of the bombs they would be required to carry. Lord Tiverton was very conscious of the fact that little was known of the nature of the damage caused by bombs of different types and sizes, and he pointed out that since no experiments had ever been carried out to discover these facts, a start could be made by establishing the nature of the damage that had been caused by the various types of German bombs dropped on London.
Another aspect of this problem was the need to discover which type of bomb would cause most damage to a particular kind of target. From his research into the vulnerability of different German factories Lord Tiverton had concluded that the design of a high explosive bomb should be determined by the layout, structure and manufacturing activities of the factory against which it was to be used. He believed that the best way of acquiring this information would be to set up a number of committees of expert advisers, under the Director of Aircraft Armament. He suggested that the committees should undertake as a matter of first priority the task of recommending the best types of bombs for use against the main kinds of factories.
The bomber force which operated in the Nancy area during the last year of the war was in every respect a makeshift one, yet it achieved a remarkable degree of success. An Air Ministry commission which was sent to Germany soon after the war proved this beyond any doubt. And when the Germans carried out their own investigations a few years later they reached the same conclusions. Though the raids caused only light material damage, they produced a serious effect on the morale of the civilian population which was already dispirited and war-weary. Industrial production, too, was severely affected and this was caused mainly by the frequent air raid warnings, for it was the German practice to sound alerts throughout the whole of the area in which the bombers were operating.
But the most serious handicap which the bombing imposed on the Germans was that it compelled them to maintain a large defence force – comprising guns, searchlights and aircraft – to protect the threatened areas. These resources could be provided only by withdrawing or withholding material from the Front; and this placed a great strain on the German military units, and especially on the fighting squadrons of the air service. The effect on the air service may be judged by the fact that at the end of the war 330 first-line fighting aircraft were stationed on the Alsace, Lorraine and Verdun fronts to oppose the Independent Force which at its greatest strength did not reach 130 aircraft.
The squadrons of the Independent Force operated with that marked advantage over the defending forces which characterized all the strategic operations of the First World War. The day bombers flew in formation at about 15,000 feet – above the effective height of anti-aircraft gunfire – and had little difficulty in defending themselves against opposing fighters, except when they were heavily outnumbered. There was no co-ordination between the ground and air defences, and so the fighters, usually operating singly or in small groups, were compelled to search a wide area in their efforts to intercept the bombers. In this type of action they operated at a great disadvantage, since their performance was only marginally better than that of the two-seater day bombers. And even if they did succeed in making contact with the raiders, they were likely to be outgunned by the bombers flying in formation.
The night bombers of the force had little to fear either from gunfire or from fighters and flew as high or as low as was operationally desirable, usually between 2,500 and 8,000 feet. They were large, slow aeroplanes designed principally as weight carriers, and owing to the fear among service commanders of collisions at night, they operated singly and at several minute intervals. These tactics produced unlooked for but not unwelcome results. They caused an increase in the number of air raid warnings that were sounded and intensified the effects which the alerts produced both on morale and industrial output.
As soon as the war came to an end, Trenchard handed over the command of the Independent Force to the air commander in France and returned at once to England. There is no doubt that the haste with which he rid himself of this unwanted command was intended to serve as a reminder that in spite of his involvement with the Independent Force he had in no way abandoned his opposition to strategic bombing. Yet, less than five years later, Trenchard, who was again holding the post of Chief of the Air Staff, had imposed on the Air Force a policy which depended for its implementation on a powerful strategic bomber force. Unfortunately, his radical change of mind was not based upon a reassessment of wartime experience, but came about because he applied to the peacetime air defence problems his long held but erroneous belief that in air warfare all the advantages lay with the attacker. At first this new concept did not win unqualified approval in the Air Force, but because of his unrivalled personal authority Trenchard was able to defeat all opposition to his policy, and when he retired from the Air Force in 1929 his doctrine was accepted without question throughout the service.