By the time the War Cabinet assembled at 11 a.m. on 15 May, rumour was rife and a heady mix of anticipation and foreboding hung heavy in the air. At 7.30 that morning Prime Minister Churchill, disgruntled to be awoken at such an hour, had received a telephone call from a shocked and despondent Paul Reynaud, his French counterpart, who informed him that the Germans had smashed through French lines and were decimating the remaining French forces, leaving the road to Paris wide open. His conclusion was that the battle was over and the war was lost. Churchill begged to differ and sought to reassure his near hysterical ally, pointing out that the War Cabinet was to meet within a matter of hours and would act swiftly. There were no fewer than fifteen items on the wide-ranging agenda. Item two was air policy and to add their expertise to the discussion were the new Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair; Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall; Chief of Air Staff and his deputy Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse; and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding, Fighter Command. The item, which had largely been prompted by Reynaud’s grave warnings, was divided into two parts – firstly, whether Britain should send more fighters to France and secondly, whether Britain should launch attacks on military objectives in the Ruhr and elsewhere in Germany east of the Rhine.
Mindful of the perilous position in France and the manifest and direct consequences of their decision, the Cabinet declined to sanction the deployment of further fighters to the Continent. History rightly makes much of this momentous decision but tends to overlook the one that followed. The French government had set its face firmly against such a move, deterred by near certain retaliation by the Germans, but the motion drew a far warmer reception from the War Cabinet, now absolute in their determination to act in Britain’s interests. Sinclair opened the discussion by pointing to the wide range of military and industrial targets available and the significantly detrimental effect attacking them would have upon Germany’s war effort on land, sea and air. Newall spoke next, fully endorsing Sinclair’s views, as did Peirse, Dowding, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The discussion then turned to those with political responsibilities and here too the unanimity was astonishing, especially given the tense and menacing conditions in which the discussion was taking place. Eden, Alexander, Atlee, Halifax and Duff-Cooper all concurred, each stating the positive benefits, military and political, at home and abroad, as they saw them; even Neville Chamberlain, the recently deposed Prime Minister, so long an advocate of less martial means, now advocated this overtly offensive course, considering that ‘this battle had reached so critical a stage that … it would therefore be wrong to stay our hands any longer from the proposed night bombing operations.’ The avalanche of support no doubt pleased the pugnacious Churchill, who added his thoughts thus, considering ‘that the proposed operations would cut Germany at its tap root’. He also hoped it would have an effect on the current land battle, bolster French morale, have a salutary effect on Italy (then lurking menacingly in the wings of the war) and believed that this was the psychological moment to strike at Germany proper and ‘convince the German people that we had both the will and the power to hit them hard.’ The proposal was carried unanimously and without further debate. Never one to procrastinate, Churchill suggested operations should begin that night. Thus began the longest and most intense single campaign of the war, the strategic air offensive against Germany, waged by Bomber Command. It would involve more than 125,000 highly trained air crew, with several times that number of specialists acting in support of them, the loss of more than 55,000 young men from Britain and the Empire, take up a large proportion of the nation’s industrial production and cost the economy millions of pounds. In return, it would devastate Germany from end to end, significantly hamper and constrain the development and growth of German war production, weaken the offensive spirit of the general population, cause the deaths of well over 500,000 Germans, compel the deployment of more than 1 million men and considerable military hardware and expertise to the defence of the Reich, pave the way for the invasion of Occupied Europe and take the war right to the heart of Germany, thereby increasingly sparing Britain the full horrors of war.
In the desperate days during the summer of 1940, with a powerful, ruthless and rampant enemy only a matter of miles away and the fate of the country and its Empire hanging in the balance, it also played a crucial and largely overlooked role in the defence of the United Kingdom in the Battle of Britain.
It had barely been twenty-five years since the first bomb dropped from a Zeppelin had landed on Norfolk on 15 January 1915, killing two civilians and wounding thirteen more. Britain’s island inviolability had been breached and, as the raids continued, it rapidly became clear that every citizen – young and old, male and female, rich and poor – was potentially in the front line. The profound implications of this development were immediately crystal clear. Writing in response to the first daylight attack made upon London by an aircraft on 28 November 1916, The Times’ leader writer noted, ‘If I were asked what event of the year had been of the most significance to the future of humanity, I should reply … the appearance of a single German aeroplane flying at high noon over London.’
Lord Rothermere, the influential newspaper magnate and Chairman of the Air Board, immediately led the strident calls for retaliation. By the end of the war in November 1918, some 1,414 British citizens had lost their lives and a further 3,416 had been seriously injured by aerial bombardment, but in reply more than 12,000 bombs, totalling 553 tons, had been dropped on German targets in 578 separate raids. Had the war lasted a day or two longer, the RAF’s new super-heavy bomber, the Handley Page V/1500, would have carted its half-ton load from its base in Nancy to Berlin.
The threat of attack from the air hung heavy over the heads of the British people in the 1920s and ’30s in the same manner as nuclear war would later in the century, and the question of air attack was one of the very few aspects of the Great War to be actively pursued by successive inter-war governments. As early as May 1924 an Air Raids Precautions Committee was set up under Sir John Anderson to consider ways to ameliorate the effects of bombing upon the civilian population. Evidence from the Air Staff painted an apocalyptic picture. Air raids on London would kill 1,700 and injure 3,300 in the first twenty-four hours, decreasing to 1,275 and 2,475 respectively the next day and then 880 and 1,650 for each twenty-four-hour period thereafter. Great thought was given to the means of preventing such an unprecedented slaughter but the problem was an intractable one. Aircraft development, particularly that of fighters, was stagnant as defence spending was slashed in the face of economic recession and widespread anti-war sentiment. Anti-aircraft protection was equally woefully inadequate, with a shortage of suitable weaponry and effective technology: an air exercise in 1926 revealed that, of the 2,935 shells expended, only two succeeded in hitting the target and that in broad daylight and clear conditions.
It is no wonder, then, that a sense of doom and gloom prevailed. Successive governments concluded that there was little that could be done to prevent such cataclysmic slaughter and devastation, which could continue for days on end. The public long remembered Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s chilling statement made in the House of Commons on 10 November 1932: ‘No power on Earth can protect the man in the street from being bombed. Whatever people might tell him, the bomber will always get through.’ The Air Raids Precaution Committee had already concluded that, even with mass evacuation and the best defensive measures available, ‘It may well be the nation whose people can endure aerial bombardment the longer, and with the greatest stoicism, will ultimately prove victorious.’ There seemed to be just two possibilities to prevent the ‘knock-out blow’ – disarmament and rearmament. When the lengthy disarmament talks held in Geneva, upon which so many hopes were riding, inevitably fell foul of national prejudices and vested interests and failed to produce a suitable formula for policing the skies, the viable options were down to one. The only protection against the bomber was the bomber. In essence, to have the capacity to bomb your enemy harder and more often than he could you, an early form of Mutually Assured Destruction. Thus, it came as no surprise when, as if acting on cue, the moment Chamberlain had finished his sombre and lugubrious declaration of war on the morning of 3 September 1939, the air raid warning sounded in London.
The appalling horrors of the trenches and the scale of the losses suffered had inflicted a deep and unhealed scar upon the British consciousness. Especially as the joy of victory faded, people from all walks of life vowed that the mass slaughter should never be allowed to happen again and new ideas that seemed to hold out the promise of making this heart-felt aspiration a reality were instantly attractive and appealing. One such idea was put forward by the newly formed Royal Air Force, with at least half an eye on justifying its continued existence as a separate entity – strategic bombardment from the air, effectively the removal of an opponent’s capacity and, indeed, will to wage war. In the light of the real moral and economic pressure to save lives and cut costs, the Strategic Air Offensive had much to recommend it and quickly became the cornerstone of RAF policy. By its threatened use or its thoughtful and skilful deployment, a comparatively small force could achieve disproportionally large goals and put an end to a war quickly and conclusively, without the need for a prolonged and bloody campaign on the ground. ‘It may,’ the Air Staff declared, ‘in itself be the instrument of victory or it may be the means by which victory can be won by other forces. It differs from all previous forms of armed attack in that it alone can be brought to bear immediately, directly and destructively, against the heartland of the enemy.’ Sir Hugh Trenchard, the highly influential Chief of Air Staff and ‘Father of the Royal Air Force’, was a forceful proponent of the approach and made a strong case for devastating attacks upon legitimate military and economic targets directly related to the war effort. There were, however, significant limits as to what he considered legitimate and these would have profound effects upon the deployment of the RAF in 1939–40. He wrote in May 1928:
What is illegitimate as being contrary to the dictates of humanity, is the indiscriminate bombing of a city for the sole purpose of terrorising the civilian population. It is an entirely different matter to terrorise munitions workers (men and women) into absenting themselves from work or stevedores to abandoning the loading of a ship with munitions through fear of air attack upon the factory or dockyard concerned. Moral effect is created by the bombing in such circumstances but it is the inevitable result of a lawful operation of war – the bombing of a military objective.
The thrust of his argument gained ground and became the widely accepted wisdom. By the time Bomber Command was finally formed as a separate entity in July 1936 as part of the rapid reorganisation and rearmament programme belatedly initiated in response to events unfolding in Germany, planning was under way for what became the Western Air Plans, a blueprint for the Strategic Air Offensive against Germany. The sixteen detailed plans strove to undermine Germany’s capacity to wage war by attacking targets critical to its offensive war effort, such as Luftwaffe bases and aircraft factories, naval bases and dockyards, industrial war material production sites – especially in the Ruhr – oil storage and refineries, rail, waterway and communications targets and administrative centres of government. Italy was to be subjected to similar attack if necessary and both countries were also to be deluged by a massive propaganda leaflet campaign, warning the population of the dire consequences of continued hostilities. Bomber Command, therefore, entered the war with clear aims and objectives – to protect Great Britain by destroying the enemy’s capacity to conduct a war effectively.
Having clear and effective planning is one thing, executing it is quite another. The parsimonious and languid approach of successive governments to military spending after the war had a significant deleterious effect upon the RAF and the years slipped by with precious little investment in new aircraft, equipment and training. Indeed, an RFC veteran returning to the colours in, say, 1934 would have needed nothing more than a light refresher course before becoming fully operational once more. At the end of that year, there was still not a single bomber in service that could from an airfield in Britain reach the nearest point in Germany, deliver more than a paltry 500lb bomb load and return. If an attempt had been made in daylight there was little chance of survival lumbering along at about 90mph in an unwieldy, lightly armed aircraft such as the Handley Page Heyford, fully in range of modern anti-aircraft guns and in the face of the Nazi regime’s rapidly improving fighter opposition. If the attempt had been made by night, the problems of navigation and target location in hostile skies almost precluded success and a safe return. The matter did not end there for a similar degree of stagnation and paralysis had inevitably affected most other aspects of the service. In terms of defensive armament, a key factor in a bomber’s ability to operate unescorted in a hostile environment, little had changed and the aircraft still relied on the Great War stalwart, the slow-firing light Lewis gun, mounted on metal rings in open turrets. The bombs too belonged to a bygone era, the standard 112lb and 250lb bombs had only limited destructive capability and then only when the crew had used basic navigation techniques, still largely based on visual sightings and map reading, to locate the target. Quite simply, as there had been little progress in the performance of the bombers themselves, there was little imperative to develop and enhance the skill set of the crews. Things were clearly not as they should have been.
The RAF expansion programme was belatedly put into place and accelerated in the mid-1930s to meet the increasingly obvious threat posed by the new National Socialist government in Germany, unencumbered by many of the niceties of democratic government and society and backed by almost unlimited financial resources. The Air Ministry put out new specifications for a medium bomber and Vickers-Armstrongs set out to meet it with the help of an innovative designer, Barnes Wallace. The resultant Wellington, which first flew from the firm’s airfield at Brooklands in Surrey on 15 June 1936, was a quantum leap forwards. Capable of 250mph, it had a service ceiling of about 20,000ft, four .303 machine guns mounted in pairs in power-operated turrets in the nose and tail (often two more manually operated guns in the beam position), a maximum load of 4,500lb and a range well in excess of 1,000 miles fully loaded. The Air Ministry immediately placed orders and the first operational Wellingtons were delivered to 99 Squadron at Mildenhall in October 1938. Handley Page also aimed to meet the original specification B9/32 and its chief designer Gustav Lachman came up with the Hampden. Major J.L.B.H. Cordes lifted the prototype off the runway at Radlett for the first time on 21 June 1936 and was immediately impressed by its manoeuvrability. So was the Air Ministry and orders were swiftly placed. A little faster than the Wellington, it had a similar ceiling and top speed and could take a 2,000lb load almost 1,900 miles, dropping to 1,200 miles with a 4,000lb bomb load. For defence, it packed just a single .303 Vickers K gas-operated machine gun in the nose, dorsal and ventral positions and one Browning .303 in the wing – hardly a serious deterrent to a hard-hitting Me 109 or Me 110. By a happy chance, it was also found that two 1,500lb parachute sea mines could be squeezed into its bomb bay, thereby creating a particular and highly successful niche for the bomber.
The third mainstay of Bomber Command’s force, and the only one designed ab initio to operate at night, was the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. Sleek, if not especially stylish, its modern lines were a mile away from its predecessors when it first flew on 17 March 1936. Put into service with 10 Squadron based at Dishforth in March 1937, it could lug a 4,000lb bomb load well over 1,500 miles at a theoretical cruising speed of 185mph, though most crews rarely saw those figures in practice. Armed with a revolutionary Nash and Thompson power-operated quadruple .303 machine gun in the rear turret, with further armament in the nose, the Whitley gave the Command its first real capability to launch an offensive against Germany. It and the other two were supported in their roles by two light bombers, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim. By 1940 both aircraft were, and were known to be, little more than obsolescent death traps, making the selfless determination of the crews that flew them that summer – and beyond – all the more remarkable and poignant. Initially a private venture backed by Lord Rothermere, in April 1934 the Air Ministry was impressed by the Blenheim’s capabilities, especially its top speed of 280mph, then well over 100mph faster than any fighter in service. By the time the first aircraft reached 114 Squadron in March 1937, its advantage had been lost and even an upgraded Blenheim IV, which reached the front-line squadrons in January 1939, found itself outpaced and out-gunned by its opposition. The Fairey Battle fared even worse and its service history is one of bravery beyond reason. Designed to meet specification P.27/32 issued in August 1932 for a monoplane to carry 1,000lb of bombs over a range of 1,000 miles with a top speed of 200mph plus, its first flight was not until 10 March 1936, by which time it was already obsolescent, too slow, too lightly armoured and too lightly armed to survive in combat. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of war, there were more than 1,000 of these three-man light bombers in service and they formed the bulk of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF), sent to and ultimately fought almost to extinction over France.