Bomber Command Doctrine – Early WWII




Early operations in the daylight reconnaissance role were uneventful, but on September 29 1940 the Hampden’s shortcomings were highlighted vividly when five out of eleven aircraft in two formations were destroyed by German fighters when within sight of the German coast. Not long after this it was decided to operate in future under cover of darkness, and some leaflet-dropping missions were carried out.

By the winter of 1939-40 the Hampden had found its most useful role as a minelayer. Aircraft from five squadrons sowed mines in German waters on the night of April 13/14, 1940, just after the German invasion of Norway, and by the end of the year 5 Group’s Hampden squadrons had flown 1,209 mine-laying sorties and delivered 703 mines, losing 21 aircraft in the operations, the loss rate of less than 1.8% being considered acceptable.

The Norwegian campaign, however, once again showed the Hampden’s `Achilles heel’; because of its inadequate defensive armament it suffered heavily at the hands of German fighters when used as a day bomber.

On the night of August 25/26, 1940, Hampdens and Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys took part in the RAF’s first raid on Berlin, and the Hampden continued to support the night bombing offensive until late 1942 when, on the night of September 15/16 aircraft of the RCAF’s 408 Squadron attacked Wilhelmshaven in the Hampden’s final sorties with Bomber Command. The Hampden, in spite of inadequacies it had its good points: among them were pleasant handling characteristics and the excellent view for the pilot. On the debit side accommodation was very cramped, individual crew members being able to change places only with extreme difficulty, which posed great problems in the case of injuries. In all, 1,432 Hampdens were built, 502 of them by Handley Page, 770 by English Electric and 160 in Canada.

In September 1939 Britain could call upon only 1,460 first-line aircraft, including 536 bombers of limited capability, 608 fighters, 96 aircraft for army cooperation, and 216 for coastal reconnaissance. The first eighteen months of the war saw the bomber force used mainly for maritime operations and for tactical support of armies in France and Belgium, including attacks on German air bases in France and the Low Countries. But Bomber Command had only very limited effectiveness in any of the roles it attempted to undertake. It is surely understatement to argue that this period represented a crisis for the RAF: the gap between rhetoric and reality proved to be nothing less than an abyss. But the grim present had the effect of focusing attention on the future, and the Air Staff looked toward it with a hopefulness that, in hindsight, appears overly optimistic and even naive. They persuaded themselves that heavy bombers, when strengthened in numbers and put on a true war footing, would make good on all the promises issued for them over the years.

Rather than waging an all-out air offensive designed to throw the enemy on to the defensive, Bomber Command was reduced to limited attacks on shipping and to dropping propaganda leaflets in the hope of convincing the German population that Hitler’s war was a grave error. Hours after Britain’s declaration of war, twenty-seven Vickers Wellingtons and Handley Page Hampdens were sent to search for German shipping off the coast of Denmark, but none found targets. The following day twenty-nine bombers were sent to attack warships around Wilhelmshaven. Seven crews failed to return, and ten failed to find the target; those that did caused only minimal damage. In actions on 14 and 18 December 1939, small groups of Wellington bombers flying over the North Sea in daylight were mauled by German defenders, losing half the attacking force in each encounter. These demoralizing outcomes quickly began to cast doubt upon the theory that the bomber would “get through” in daylight, although the pessimism was not widely acknowledged right away. As historian Anthony Verrier later argued, “Few aspects of this phase of the strategic air offensive are more striking in retrospect . . . than the disparity between the claims made for and the hopes entertained about mass bombing before 1939 and the virtual absence of all reference to it at the highest policy-making levels for many months thereafter.”

The poor early results of the initial daytime raids caused Ludlow- Hewitt to begin to pull back from the prospective plan then favored by the Air Ministry: an attack on the Ruhr power plants. On 28 January 1940 he expressed his doubts about it to the Air Ministry. Losses of 50 percent or more of the attacking forces would not only demoralize British bomber crews, but would also kill those men who might later fly more capable bombers. These conclusions caused the Air Ministry to shift its planning efforts from the Ruhr plants to the German oil industry. The latter was encouraged by a variety of intelligence sources, and was further stimulated by the expectation that oil facilities would have the useful property of being relatively self-destructive when attacked. The Ruhr plan would be adopted only if a German attack on the Low Countries produced an emergency.

The nighttime leaflet-dropping missions, which had commenced on 4 September 1939, gave the Air Staff an early opportunity to test Bomber Command as an arm of psychological warfare. The Air Staff had earlier expressed the hope that warning notices of impending attacks by British bombers might cause panic and disrupt the industrial life of the Ruhr. In the last months before the war, the Foreign Office had cooperated in the task of creating suitable leaflets. Hopes that this effort would have some discernible impact on Germany proved to be greatly mistaken, however. Instead, the missions told of the difficulties of finding distant cities, the constant battles with weather, and the physical discomforts crews would encounter in such operations. Crews were sent out with maps, astro-sextants, and directional radio. With these means, which required a high degree of skill to use effectively, they were expected to find their way about; in essence, crews were expected to navigate at night by observation-an all but impossible task under the weather conditions so frequently prevailing. The interwar lack of attention to navigation told heavily. RAF crews mistakenly overflying and crashing on neutral Belgian, Dutch, and Danish territory led to a temporary ban on nighttime leaflet drops. But the missions made clear something else: the relative absence, at night, of enemy fighters, and the comparative ineffectiveness of anti-aircraft fire, even at middle heights. This, along with the shift away from the Ruhr plan, provoked the first steps in the conversion of Bomber Command to a night attack force. At the same time, some elements of Trenchardian thinking were already working themselves back into planning. A variant of W. A. 5, prepared in January 1940 without any pretense of overriding earlier versions, pointed out that Bomber Command might be best served in the near term by a night offensive designed for maximum moral effect. Its authors looked to dispersed harassing attacks at night to disrupt industrial production and disturb the population generally. Like Trenchard, they presumed that continuous air raid warnings would have an important cumulative impact on the nerves of the German people. Though they recognized that they were placing their faith in an “imponderable factor”-the will and morale of the German population-they felt that it was a “practicable course to adopt.”

By early March 1940, Ludlow-Hewitt already was beginning to turn the focus of his force to night bombing. It had many drawbacks, but these seemed, at least, less formidable than the ones posed by daylight attack. On the night of 19 March 1940, in response to a German air attack near Scapa Flow, Bomber Command struck its first land target, the isolated seaplane base at Hornum on the isle of Sylt, chosen in part because of the low likelihood of collateral casualties. Although the crews claimed to have identified and bombed the target, photo-reconnaissance revealed no evidence of damage done. (In one bit of good news, only one of the dispatched bombers failed to return.) Bomber Command would soon admit that only about half of its average crews could be expected to identify and attack targets at night except in the very best conditions of visibility. This was an inauspicious start to what would become a five-year campaign of increasing tempo and fury.


Though engaged in a close-run thing, RAF fighters managed to prevail in the air battle over British skies. Victory was due to prewar attention to air defense, scientific and technological advances, the dogged determination of Fighter Command, and some crucial German errors. The Luftwaffe, headed by the rash, self-indulgent Hermann Go” ring, discovered that waging a successful air offensive was no simple matter. Paradoxically, however, the Luftwaffe failure did not seem to blunt the Air Staff’s enthusiasm for its own planned air offensive: the latter managed to convince themselves that the Germans had misused their resources. The German bombers of 1940-41, they argued, could not match the ordnance payloads of the heavy British bombers then in the works. And the Germans would not hold up very well under air attack: taking the war to Germany would undermine the “gloss of national unity” that the Nazis had labored to create. Perhaps under the circumstances, this attitude was not surprising. Britain was in a desperate situation: the bombers provided the only means of offensive action against Germany. Looking stoically ahead, the British kept themselves from despair by cultivating a selective blind spot. As one historian has argued, “[T]he Air Staff, and indeed the government, were sustained by a faith wholly at variance with the known facts of the situation.” Through the summer, however, reality often intruded on grasping optimism. Oil targets proved very difficult to find and hit with any reliability. Sir Charles Portal complained to the Air Staff that his force was incapable of performing all of its tasks. In particular, he believed neither that his force could consistently hit oil targets, nor that its light scale of attack against such targets could generate worthwhile results. He argued that for tactical reasons scattered bombing was unavoidable. Using an old argument of Trenchard’s, he rationalized that dispersal “largely increases the moral effect of our operations by the alarm and disturbance created over the wider area.”

German air attacks on Britain peaked in August. Following the fall of some German bombs on London the night of 24 August 1940, Bomber Command retaliated with attacks on industrial targets in Berlin (25 August). Portal believed that German behavior in the war to date had freed Britain to “take the gloves off” and give as good as she got. Churchill’s thinking ran along the same lines. In July he had written to Lord Beaverbrook, Minister for Aircraft Production, about the need for an “absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” Churchill suggested that Portal might spread his attacks as widely as possible over cities in Germany. But most Air Staff members still preferred to prioritize selective attack, despite Portal’s reservations. Indeed, one memorandum from the Air Ministry’s Plans Division-suggesting curious gaps in organizational coordination, and revealing the extent of misplaced optimism in some circles-argued that, since Bomber Command had been adequately trained for precise bombing of important selected targets, anything less would have little appeal. 48 A new bombing directive, issued 21 September, continued to stress the disruption of Germany’s oil supply as the basis for long-term offensive policy. In the meantime the Germans had begun to supplement the daylight battle with nighttime bombing. Initially this concentrated on London but was soon extended to other British cities.

Portal, acutely aware of the limitations of his force, wanted to follow Churchill’s advice. The prime minister’s encouragement and the expectation of poor winter weather allowed Portal to make some headway against Air Ministry arguments. His views, however, complicated the careful consideration given to civilian casualties and collateral damage in the August 1939 and June 1940 guidance. Though he had no authority in political matters, Portal believed that events had justified a direct attack on the “will of the German people to continue the war.” He argued that if heavy material destruction could be “periodically meted out to different towns,” it would produce a generalized fear of bombing that would then facilitate “panic and exaggerated reports,” even following scattered raids. The debate took on a new complexion as a result of a reshuffling within the RAF hierarchy: Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) Sir Richard Peirse took over the helm of Bomber Command, while Sir Charles Portal went to London to take over as Chief of Air Staff. As CAS-designate and later as CAS (beginning 25 October 1940), Portal could directly shape Air Staff policies. At a meeting to discuss bombing policy, held on 23 October, he advocated a program of heavy incendiary attacks on large, populous areas. He argued that if the air war resolved itself into a contest of wills, the British “will prove themselves to be tougher than the Germans.” In the end, the meeting produced a compromise: attacks on oil would continue to be the focus of long-term strategy, but Bomber Command would turn more of its attention to assaults on German morale. On the night of 16 December 1940, Bomber Command attacked the city of Mannheim in its first deliberate “area raid” of the war.

Ideas about what comprised enemy morale, or how to undermine it, however, remained muddled at best. Britain’s domestic experience reflected this. The government, recognizing the crucial role of public support and steadfastness in war, had created a Ministry of Information to handle government propaganda and sustain homefront morale. But more than two years passed before its officials “made any attempt to define what it was they were charged with sustaining.” Lacking a clear sense of its objective, the Ministry floundered about, becoming the object of considerable criticism and ridicule in the early years of the war. Even as they worked out the requirements for implementing air raid policies and emergency medical procedures, they struggled with the more ethereal aspects of preserving the public will to fight. Despite the government’s grave fears that breakdown on the homefront would mean defeat in war, its efforts to think through and shape the social and psychological aspects of the problem were flailing and largely irrelevant. If the elusiveness of the term “morale” had been an asset to Trenchard, it was a problem for those recruited to serve in the Ministry of Information.

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