The outcome of the Battle of Berlin II

Art by Piotr Forkasiewicz

But there are less gloomy views. Pilot Officer David Oliver was a Lancaster pilot on 12 Squadron and then 626 Squadron.

Morale was high throughout the period that I was at Wickenby. An efficiently run station and intelligent leadership, including inspiration from a few whose exploits were legendary, helped a lot. Some other factors predisposed to high morale. The average age of aircrew was twenty or twenty-one and very few had the close attachments and responsibilities of wife and children. We were just as well educated academically as the young men of today but we were less socially and politically aware. We had not experienced the clamorous debate in the media on every conceivable subject, nor the continuous dissection of authority that goes on today. In the event, we were united in our belief in the cause and in giving unquestioning support to those in authority.

We were intensely preoccupied with our own crew and very strongly motivated not to let it down. Apart from our commanders and three or four other crews that were close contemporaries, we knew few other aircrew on the station as more than passing acquaintances. The effect on morale is less severe if casualties are not known to one personally. By far the highest casualty rate occurred amongst the very inexperienced crews, whom established crews were unlikely to know personally.

And youth is ever resilient. Sergeant Tommy Marchant was a flight engineer on 101 Squadron at Ludford Magna and then with the Pathfinders of 7 Squadron at Oakington. He obviously took in his stride his crew’s seventeen raids to Berlin, probably a record for any crew in Bomber Command.

Being a mere lad of nineteen, with little emotional or imaginative maturity, I probably did not notice the signs of people cracking up. So far as I recall, none of our crew exhibited any signs of the stress etc. so beloved of dramatic film makers. I did sometimes wonder if I would survive but it certainly wasn’t a recurring or dominant thought. I was more concerned as to whether the local pub would run out of beer and if a certain Waaf would be there.

I am sure that morale was quite high on the squadrons with which I served. I personally look back on those days as a happy and exciting adventure – the old ‘Biggies’ books of my youth come true for me – and a feeling that you really were contributing to the war effort. But then I didn’t get shot down or injured.

Young Tommy Marchant’s seventeen operations to Berlin lead into another story. At the end of the Battle of Berlin, Señor Adalbert Fastlich of Panama gave some money for the purchase of gold watches which were presented to those Bomber Command pilots who had flown most Berlin raids. It is believed that his brother had been killed in London by German bombing earlier in the war. (There may have been another contributor to this fund – Mr Harold Lindo of Jamaica, whose son, Squadron Leader Harold Lindo, a navigator on 103 Squadron, was killed on one of the Berlin raids.) The crew of which Sergeant Marchant was a member was found to have flown more Berlin raids than any other, so was allowed to have two watches. One was for the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bob Sexton from Queensland; the remainder of the crew drew lots for the second watch, and Marchant, the young flight engineer, was successful.

Let us turn now to the German side and try to assess what the efforts of the bomber crews achieved. The great disadvantage in any judgement of the outcome of the Battle of Berlin is that no comprehensive survey was ever made on the effects of the bombing that winter. The Berlin authorities produced excellent factual reports on the damage and casualties in individual raids, and this book has made much of those reports; but no overall assessment was made. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of bombing in many German cities, hardly mentions Berlin. A British Bombing Survey Unit was established, but the new Labour Government of 1945 refused to allocate funds for detailed surveys, and little work on Bomber Command’s huge wartime effort was ever carried out by the British. Sir Arthur Harris’s post-war dispatch claimed that 6,427 acres or 33 per cent of Berlin’s built-up area was destroyed by bombing during the whole war. (The ‘built-up area’ of a city was defined as that part of it which was more than 40 per cent occupied by buildings.) Of those 6,427 acres, an estimated 480 acres had been destroyed by bombing before the Battle of Berlin started, and a further 750 were credited to American bombing after the Battle of Berlin. A further unknown acreage should be credited to the numerous Mosquito raids made in the last year of the war, but this might be balanced by the damage caused in the non-built-up suburbs during the Battle of Berlin. This leaves approximately 5,200 acres, nearly 27 per cent of Berlin’s built-up area, to be credited to Bomber Command in the Battle of Berlin. These figures tend to be confirmed by Berlin’s own records, which show that 556,500 or 37 per cent of the city’s pre-war flats were destroyed during the war by all forms of bombing and by the street fighting with the Russians in 1945. The difficulty of concentrating both marking and bombing on those sectors selected for attack led to western parts of the city being hit too often and the eastern parts not often enough. There was a similar inability to concentrate both marking and bombing sufficiently for complete destruction to be achieved anywhere. Squadron Leader Arthur Fawssett, an Intelligence Officer at Bomber Command Headquarters at that time, writes:

What was not sufficiently appreciated at the time was that nothing less than another Hamburg in the space of two or three days, something quite unbearable, was needed, and that a long period of attrition was unlikely to achieve the aim and could be self-defeating, in that the more piecemeal the damage became, the more difficult it was to create a self-destructive holocaust.

Finally, there was the sound construction of Berlin’s buildings and the width of the streets of this modern city, factors which reduced the spread of fire. Much destruction was undoubtedly caused, but sufficient of Berlin’s housing remained, supplemented by quickly erected wooden accommodation, for all essential workers to be housed.

Turning now to the human casualties in Berlin during the battle, it can be estimated from the civilian records that 10,305 people died in the nineteen raids, made up as follows:

German civilians in Berlin 9,390

Foreigners (mostly forced workers) 637

Service personnel 187

Country areas outside Berlin 91

And what of civilian morale, that primary target? There is no need to spend long on this subject. The Germans’ innate patriotism, the particularly tough character of the Berliners and the strict discipline of the Nazi Party combined to hold the spirit of Berlin sufficiently intact to weather the storm. There was fear and, at times, terror. There was apathy. There were temporary breakdowns in the supply of power and water, and of some administration, but restoration of all these was swiftly achieved. Berlin was never overwhelmed. There was never the mass, panic-stricken flight of people from the bombed city as was sometimes seen in other places. The Japanese Embassy in Berlin was sending regular telegrams to Tokyo on the state of the city. In January 1944: ‘Internal collapse will certainly not be brought about by means of air raids.’ Morale in Berlin was noted as falling to its lowest in January and February, but ‘because the Government used its enormous power and influence well, the fighting spirit of the people has been intensified to the pitch of seeing no course but to fight to the finish’. This assessment was made just when Harris was forced by the Luftwaffe to break off the Berlin raids.

Prominent among the means by which the authorities bolstered the population were the threat of what would happen to Germany if the war was lost and the massive retaliation promised by Hitler against Britain by the new ‘Revenge Weapons’. Hitler retained the confidence of most people although he never came to see the bombed cities of Germany but remained away at his headquarters, loftily directing every aspect of Germany’s war effort. Not for him the visiting of people in bombed streets as Churchill and the King and Queen did when London was ‘blitzed’ in 1940 and 1941. That work he left to his Gauleiters. Joseph Goebbels, either Reichstag Member or Gauleiter for Berlin continuously since 1929, respected by the ordinary people, often out on foot in the bombed areas without a large escort, looked after Berlin, and much credit for the steadfastness and performance of the city should go to him.

The effect of the bombing upon industrial production in Berlin is difficult to measure. The factories were never direct targets, although they were often hit. The fire at the Alkett tank factory on the night of 26 November 1943 is described in Speer’s memoirs and is thus often quoted elsewhere as being an example of serious damage to the war factories.1 Nearly every major factory in Berlin was hit at some time or another, but often only by a few bombs, and none of the large factories was destroyed. Fire-fighting and then reconstruction work at the factories had the highest priority. It is probable that a much greater direct effect upon Berlin’s war production was achieved that winter by the area bombing of the semi-residential areas. Here were situated a mass of small workshop industries supplying components to the larger factories. These were often wiped out by a single bomb or large fire. Much dislocation of both raw materials and finished goods was also caused by bomb damage to railways and canal traffic in Berlin.

It is time to come to a conclusion. Should the results of Bomber Command’s vast effort and heavy losses in the Battle of Berlin be classed as success or failure? How have others answered the question? Some views are so bland as to be of little use. Air Marshal Saundby, Harris’s deputy, was a much respected man but he obviously did not wish to be controversial when summing up the Battle of Berlin in his book: ‘There could be no doubt that the target marking by the Pathfinder Force had been carried out with great skill and that the operations of the night bombers had been highly successful.’ Harris was much more restrained:

Judged by the standards of our attacks on Hamburg, the Battle of Berlin did not appear to be an overwhelming success. … The Battle of Berlin cost us 300 aircraft missing, which was a loss rate of 6.4 per cent. This could not be considered excessive for a prolonged assault on this distant, most difficult, and most heavily defended target.[1]

The British official historians were more blunt: ‘The expectations of the Commander-in-Chief had not been fulfilled and by that standard the Battle of Berlin had been a failure. … Moreover, in the operational sense, the Battle of Berlin was more than a failure. It was a defeat.’

Harris’s authorized biographer, Dudley Saward, who had been an officer on Harris’s staff, disputes this view.

The Official History of the bomber offensive states in emphatic terms that the Berlin campaign was a failure, and that losses were at a level that made it impossible to continue the campaign. This is incorrect. The reasons for the cessation were twofold: by the end of March the nights were becoming too short for operations against such distant targets as Berlin and, secondly, the requirement for the preparation for the invasion of France. … The suggestion that the Berlin campaign was a failure is not supported by the facts. An examination of the results reveals not failure but success, but as Harris himself admits, judged by the standards of the attacks on Hamburg, the Battle of Berlin was not an overwhelming success. However, for Germany it was an unprecedented disaster.

‘Unprecedented disaster’? What about Hamburg?

The Battle of Berlin obviously reduced Germany’s war effort and made a contribution to victory. Every anti-aircraft gun or fighter aircraft kept back to defend Berlin was one less which might otherwise be serving at the fighting fronts. Berlin was itself a front. Every pane of glass broken in Berlin was a tiny drain on Germany’s economy; every bomb which hit a small workshop or large armaments factory was a direct blow against the war effort; and every workman killed or prevented from coming to work because his family had been bombed out was one less man producing war material. But the extent of the achievements at Berlin was not sufficient either to satisfy the aims set for the battle – breakdown of civil morale and destruction so great that the normal life of Berlin would cease – or to justify the bomber casualties. The cost was too high in relation to results. Bomber Command lost the equivalent of its entire front-line strength in attempting to destroy Berlin, and a similar loss was incurred in raiding other targets in Germany during the same period.

The ability of Bomber Command to hit Berlin and of the Luftwaffe to defend it, now come together. The Luftwaffe hurt Bomber Command more than Bomber Command hurt Berlin.

[1] Bomber Offensive, pp. 187 and 188. Harris has his aircraft casualty figures all wrong. The total losses of missing heavy bombers were 624 aircraft in the whole battle and 499 in the main November 1943 to March 1944 period to which he may have been referring. The percentage rates were 5.8 for the whole period and 5.5 for the November to March period.

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