These then were the aircraft at the disposal of those in command of the Strategic Air Offensive, the means by which established thought believed the enemy’s heartland would be crushed, removing his capacity and will to wage war, thereby protecting those at home and bringing the war to a rapid end. Reality, however, lagged far behind, although the Air Ministry did have a new generation of heavy bombers – the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax and the Avro Lancaster – being developed as quickly as possible, aircraft far more capable and effective. The new generation of fighters could outstrip and run rings around the bombers, in daylight at least, throwing into doubt the maxim that the bomber would always get through. If and when it did, the crews were faced with the grave problem of locating and hitting a target, something taken for granted in the inter-war years, using means that differed little from those used when flight was in its infancy. Great strides forward had been taken in recent years but the Strategic Air Offensive was Bomber Command’s raison d’etre and that it was not better prepared for its long-awaited campaign reflects badly on all those at the top of government and the service.
Nevertheless, the men and women throughout the Command were absolutely committed to their task and set about it with a professional determination, fully aware of what was at stake. In a directive sent by Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Sholto Douglas, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, to Air Marshal Charles Portal, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) Bomber Command on 4 June, in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation, it was acknowledged that, ‘in present circumstances when the initiative rests with the enemy, our strategical policy is liable to be deflected by the turn of events from the course we should like it to follow’. It went on, ‘you should regard your primary aim as being to complete the offensive against German oil resources’, and, given the recent developments, ‘it is desirable as far as is consistent with your primary aim, to dislocate the German aircraft industry by attacks on such bomber and fighter assembly factories as may be within your range’. When conditions were inadequate to do this ‘you should continue as at present to bring about continuous interruption and dislocation of German war industry, particularly in those areas within range where the aircraft industry is concentrated, the Hamburg, Bremen, Ruhr and Frankfurt areas’, before a chilling reminder, ‘You should bear in mind throughout that the bomber force and particularly the medium bombers, may have to play a most important part in repelling an invasion of this country.’ The task was quite clear and prescriptive, and not in any way indiscriminate, and Portal was explicitly warned to have ‘due regard for avoiding as far as possible, undue risk to the lives of French, Dutch or Belgian civilians’, and even over German targets ‘in no circumstances should night bombing be allowed to degenerate into mere indiscriminate action, which is contrary to the policy of His Majesty’s Government.’ It was a heavy burden that had been placed on the Command and one that was to change emphasis repeatedly throughout the summer in the face of a fast-changing and increasingly menacing threat. On 13 July Portal was instructed that his ‘main offensive should be directed towards objectives the destruction of which will reduce the scale of the air attack upon this country.’ Portal tried to inject an air of realism, pointing out that many of these worthwhile targets were in either sparsely populated areas or isolated districts and that few could ‘be found with any certainty in moonlight by average crews. Expert crews may be expected to find the remainder on clear nights with a full moon and average crews will sometimes find them after a good deal of time has been spent in the searching’ and, as a result, ‘a very high percentage of the bombs which will inevitably miss the actual target will hit nothing else of importance and do no damage and the minimum amount of dislocation and disturbance will be caused by the operations as a whole.’ Portal, a highly intelligent and experienced airman, had come to a simple and profound conclusion pretty well from the outset; if the bombers, which were limited in both raw numbers and destructive capability, had serious difficulties in locating and destroying specific targets, then they might as well aim for valid targets in locations in which every bomb would count, whether on target or not, a blueprint for area bombing. Portal reminded his superiors that ‘we have the one directly offensive weapon in the whole of our armoury, the one means by which we can undermine the morale of a large part of the enemy people, shake their faith in the Nazi regime and at the same time and with the very same bombs, dislocate their heavy industry and a good part of their oil production.’ With the Luftwaffe stepping up its attacks in preparation for the expected invasion and Churchill at the same time demanding in a letter to Lord Beaverbrook, ‘an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’, Portal’s views seemed to have captured the mood of the day: those in charge in the Air Ministry begged to differ, at least for the moment.
At least Germany was being bombed and, by all accounts from crews, reconnaissances, fledgling aerial photographic evidence and neutral observers and press reports, hit hard by the steadily, if slowly, increasing momentum of the attacks. These attacks took a new direction in late August when Portal and his staff took full advantage of Churchill’s bullish response to the first Luftwaffe bombs to fall on London proper to mount a series of attacks upon military and industrial targets in Berlin. By 3 September Churchill, in a paper to the War Cabinet to mark the first anniversary of the war, was describing the bombers as ‘the means of victory’ and concluded:
We must, therefore, develop the power to carry an ever increasing volume of explosives to Germany, so as to pulverise the entire industrial and scientific structure on which the war effort and economic life of the enemy depend … In no other way at present visible can we hope to overcome the immense military power of Germany … The Air Force and its action on the largest scale must therefore claim the first place over the navy or the army.
This long-term plan set in stone the military and economic direction of Britain’s war effort for several years to come and opened the way for the long-awaited attritional contest, pitting the fortitude and resolution of the British people against those of the German population. Hitler lost no time in making clear his response when he addressed a near hysterical mass rally in the Berlin Sportspalast. Skilfully employing his well-honed rabble-rousing techniques, he steadily built up to his familiar high-pitched yet controlled shriek, declaring:
When the British Air Force drops two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, then in one night we will drop one hundred and fifty, two hundred and fifty, three hundred or four hundred thousand kilograms. When they declare that they will increase their attacks on our cities, then we will raise their cities to the ground … The hour will come when one of us will break and it will not be National Socialist Germany!
Fighting for its very survival in the face of apparently insuperable odds and with a ruthless and hugely powerful enemy hammering on the door and poised to break in, Britain, in full cognisance of what it meant, had chosen to play the only card it had left: unrestricted air warfare.
On 9 September, just two days after the Luftwaffe’s first massed raid on London, Portal presented a paper to the Air Staff in which he listed the top twenty cities in Germany ripe for attack and urged that a force of 150 aircraft, a maximum effort at the time, should hammer each in turn to cause the greatest dislocation and destruction possible. The Air Staff, with more than half an eye on maintaining the Command’s crucial anti-invasion attacks, went no further than saying that attacks could be made, for example, upon Berlin ‘from time to time when favourable weather conditions permit’. Whether Portal knew it or not at the time is unclear, but he was soon to get the chance to put his ideas into practice for on 4 October he was promoted to the highest post in the RAF, Chief of Air Staff. His appointment was surely no coincidence and Churchill lost no time in blasting a series of broadsides in his direction urging higher bombing tonnages, concluding, ‘It is a scandal that so little use is made of the enormous mass of material provided. The discharge of bombs on Germany is pitifully small.’ Spurred on by this, Portal put the finishing touches to a new directive, which landed on the desk of the new supremo at Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, on 30 October. It confirmed that, ‘the enemy has, at least temporarily, abandoned his intention to invade this country’ and that, ‘the time seemed particularly opportune to make a definite attempt with our offensive to affect the morale of the German people when they can no longer expect an early victory and are faced with the approach of winter and the certainty of a long war.’ The change of direction was clearly spelled out: ‘Your first aim should be to continue your attacks on Berlin whenever conditions make it probable that the aircraft will get through,’ and that, ‘You will undertake similar attacks upon towns in central and western Germany,’ when such deep penetrations were not possible. The emphasis was to remain on oil, communications, war industries, power sources and transport but now, ‘where primary targets such as oil and aircraft objectives are suitably placed in the centre of towns or populated districts, they might also be selected’. In case there was any remaining doubt, the directive called for heavy attacks: ‘It is desired that regular concentrated attacks should be made on objectives in large towns and centres of industry, with the primary aim of causing very heavy material destruction which will demonstrate to the enemy the power and severity of air bombardment and the hardship and dislocation which will result from it.’ For the first time, an attack on morale was laid out as an objective as heavy attacks, ‘should be spread over the widest possible area so as to take advantage of the fear induced by concentrated attacks to impose ARP measures with the resulting interruption of work and rest and the dislocation of industry.’ It was a coherent, logical, practical and ultimately deliverable plan, a true Strategic Air Offensive, and its authors were well aware of what it entailed. There was little room for sentiment or compassion among the British people for an enemy still at the gates, especially one blasting cities the length and breadth of the country night after night. At the end of October 1940, as the Battle of Britain drew to a close but with the future still very much uncertain, it was clearer than ever that the bomber after all was the sole means of taking the war to the enemy, the very heart of the enemy, and by doing so it protected the men, women and children of Britain and offered them, and the wider world, a tiny speck of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.