Bomber Command – Origins and Doctrine

Only 15 Fairey Hendons were built, serving with 38 and 115 Squadrons between November 1936 and January 1939. Before the famous early wartime trio of medium and heavy bombers (classified as such by the standards of the time) were to appear – the Whitley, Wellington and Hampden – an assortment of monoplanes appeared, most of which were destined to enter limited production and service. If they served no better purpose, they certainly subsidized the growth and training of both the RAF and the aircraft industry. To these should be added the Fairey Hendon monoplane, whose origins lay in a 1927 Specification but which was eventually rewarded by a token consolation order in the mid-1930s.

During the Second World War Bomber Command flew around 390,000 sorties for the loss of 8,953 aircraft on operational missions; that number does not include another almost 1,400 that crashed in the UK whilst airborne on an operational mission. The cost in aircrew lives was over 47,000, to which must be added those killed in accidents or training – a further 8,000 plus; it is generally accepted that the total of lives lost is around 55,000. What did the six years of the bombing offensive achieve? Supporters and critics were active at the time and in the 60 years since the end of the war the argument has raged even more fiercely. As with all history the benefits of hindsight and access to previously classified documentary sources has to be balanced by the researcher’s removal in time and context from the period under study. To understand truly decisions, policies, actions and attitudes is all but impossible.

It seems appropriate to open this overview with a few words from the most famous of Bomber Command’s leaders, Sir Arthur Harris: ‘There are no words with which I can do justice to the aircrew under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period.’ These words from Bomber Command’s wartime leader, Air Marshal Arthur T. Harris are a fitting tribute to the sacrifice made by the Command in six years of war. Only one force on the Allied side was continuously involved with active operations against the German homeland – RAF Bomber Command. The day the war started a Blenheim of 139 Squadron flew a reconnaissance sortie to locate German shipping and for the next six years the Command took the war to the enemy, at first with limited effect but from 1942 with increasing resources and greater accuracy, and with an ever greater impact.

Strategic bombing theory was developed in the latter years of the First World War and was a combination of the German raids on England and the Allied, especially Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force, bombing campaign, although this was only just starting to get into its stride when the Armistice was signed in November 1918. Despite the fact that strategic bombing had not really been evaluated in the First World War it became a central tenet of air power theory in the post-war period. In part this was because it was the one independent decisive (potentially) role that the air forces could perform. For the RAF this was enshrined as the Trenchard Doctrine: ‘the nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end … to win it will be necessary to pursue a relentless offensive by bombing the enemy’s country, destroying his sources of supply of aircraft and engines, and breaking the morale of his people.’ This doctrine of a war winning bomber force remained the focus of doctrine with the major air forces throughout the 1920s. In May 1928 Trenchard, whose views still carried great weight, circulated a forceful memo to counter: ‘an unwillingness on the part of the other Services to accept the contention of the Air Staff that in future wars air attacks would most certainly be carried out against the vital centres of commerce and of the manufacture of munitions of war of every sort no matter where these centres were located.’ He stated that the RAF doctrine was to ‘break down the enemy means of resistance by attacks on objectives selected as most likely to achieve this end’ it being better to attack munitions at source (the factory) than on the battlefield – this would become a well-rehearsed argument by Bomber Command throughout the Second World War. It would, he believed, have greater effect for less effort, and would include dissuading workers from working in the factories. ‘The Hague Convention allows for military targets, including production centres. 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.’ Bomber Command would later take great care to stress the military significance of its city targets, whilst the German propaganda machine would refer to the Terrorflieger. The other Chiefs of Staff in their respective memos were not convinced, and also expressed concern over being bombed in return; it must be remembered that this was a period when the independence of the RAF, in part budget-driven, was under threat and the arguments, as such tri-Service ‘debates’ usually are, was writ large with vested interest.

The debates were largely hypothetical at the time as the RAF’s bomber strength in the early 1930s was pitiful with five night- and six day-bomber squadrons, all with slow biplanes with very limited bomb loads, hardly the material with which to deliver an aerial bombardment of any significance.

Although the stagnation of the 1920s, which in military terms had been a dismal decade for all of Britain’s armed forces, had started to change in the early 1930s both doctrine and equipment were outdated and with little immediate prospect of improvement. In terms of aircraft there was a glimmer of hope with the issue of Specification B.9/32 for a ‘twin-engined medium bomber of good performance and long range’, although the requirement for a 720 mile range and 1,000 lb bomb load was not particularly inspiring! Two of Bomber Command’s early stalwarts – the Wellington and the Hampden – were a result of this Specification. The following year saw Britain wake up to the realities of a changing Europe. A Foreign Office appraisal of 1933 stated that Germany ‘… controlled by a frenzied nationalism and resolved to assert her rights to full equality, will proceed to the building of formidable armaments on land and especially in the air.’ The Government suggested that the Services draw up expansion plans; the Defence Requirements Committee sat from November 1933 to February 1934 and in its report gave priority to the establishment by the RAF of a Home Defence force (including bombers) strong enough to counter any attack. Expansion Scheme A was announced in July 1934 to provide the basis for a deterrent force and a training establishment on which future expansion could be based; under this scheme the RAF would be ready for war in eight years (1942). The old One-Power standard, which had seen planning based on France as the ‘enemy’ had to shift to reflect the reality of the growth of German power and belligerence. It was all very well to talk of an offensive bomber force capable of attacking targets in the Ruhr and Rhineland districts of Germany, the two main industrial areas, but quite another to make it a reality (even on paper). The initial solution was one of numbers over capability; create the squadrons even though the equipment might not be right as better aircraft could follow in due course. This was a mixture of financial constraint and lack of suitable aircraft; the latter would continue to plague the Command into the middle years of the war. As an indication, it cost £245,000 to acquire twelve Hawker Hart light bombers and £83,000 to operate them; in comparison it cost £375,000 to acquire ten Vickers Virginia heavy bombers and £139,000 a year to operate them. The financial aspect became a secondary consideration with Expansion Scheme C (May 1935) stating that: ‘Financial considerations were to be secondary to the attainment of the earliest possible security.’ In July the Air Staff confirmed the strategic doctrine: ‘Provided a sufficient weight of air attack could be brought to bear on the Rhineland-Ruhr-Saar area, Germany’s armament industry would be paralysed, which would in turn preclude her from maintaining an army in the field.’

The bomber force was organised into regional commands, such as the Wessex Bombing Area, and all were part of the Home Defence organisation, fitting neatly with the bombing offensive being seen as ‘attack as the best means of defence.’

By the time that Bomber Command formed on 14 July 1936, Expansion Scheme F (dated February 1936) was on the table. This called for a bomber force of 68 squadrons, with 990 aircraft, and was scheduled for completion by March 1939. Like the previous Schemes, and those that followed over the next two years, it was overly optimistic. Paper squadrons don’t fight wars and when Expansion Scheme H called for 1,659 bombers in ninety squadrons it was obvious even to the optimists that it was unrealistic, even though it was not scheduled for completion until 1943. For the first Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Sir John Steel, aircraft were only one of the problems to be faced; of equal importance was personnel – aircrew and ground crew – as well as equipment, including bombs, and airfields. Lack of suitable weapons was to prove a major embarrassment to Bomber Command in the early part of the war and the problem could be traced back to a 1932 Air Staff decision that there would be no requirement for a bomb heavier than 500 lb and that the 250 lb bomb would be the standard weapon. The need for airfields further north to cater for Germany as the main target led to Expansion Period airfields from Norfolk to Yorkshire, with the latter county, along with Lincolnshire, becoming the heartland of Bomber Command. This expansion did not really start until 1935, with old First World War sites being looked at as part of a major search for airfield sites. The basic requirement was for a large patch of level ground for a grass airfield, the current bombers requiring little in the way of prepared surfaces, along with support facilities such as hangars, technical, administration and domestic buildings.

The impressive C-Type hangar became typical of bomber airfields of this period, although the exact facilities varied between locations. The provision of aircrew, and training in general is covered in a separate chapter. By the mid 1930s aircraft manufacturers who had been finding it hard to survive official disinterest in the 1920s were being called on to produce large numbers of new aircraft and it is remarkable that they were able to respond as well as they did. A great deal of criticism has been levelled by some commentators on the poor quality of equipment with which the RAF entered the war, an argument that could equally be aimed at the likes of tanks and other military equipment, but it takes time to design, develop and produce advanced items such as aircraft. It was only in 1935 that a medium/heavy bomber philosophy was adopted, based on the bomb lift of the proposed new types, and there was much debate on the subject at Air Staff and Government level. However, on the outbreak of war the Command was still substantially composed of light bombers and it would be 1943 before it lost the last of these. Indeed it was only in 1936 that two of the Command’s most advanced types – both light bombers, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim, entered service. Perhaps the most significant decision was the issue of Specification B. 12/36 for a four-engined bomber of 250 mph cruise, 1,500 mile range and 4,000 lb bomb load. It was also to have the latest navigation equipment, plus power-operated gun turrets, including a four-gun rear turret. This was starting to sound like a real strategic bomber – but the war would be well underway before the products of this Specification were ready for service. In the meantime, the expansion plans had to go ahead with whatever was to hand. Continued examination of overall air doctrine and assessment of the enemy air strength and employment, including tactical and strategic air operations in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, led to a revision in the expansion plan. In October 1938, Expansion Plan M was approved, which envisaged a strength of eighty-two bomber squadrons (1,360 aircraft) by April 1941, and with renewed focus on defensive requirements by increasing the number of fighter squadrons. Meanwhile, doctrine was being turned into reality and the Joint Planning Committee (JPC), with its eyes firmly fixed on offensive bombing, envisaged a three-phase campaign:

Countering the all-out German air offensive by attacking Luftwaffe installations.

2. Countering the German land offensive by attacking ground forces.

3. A war-winning air offensive against German industry and transport.

The JPC also stated that: ‘the offensive employment of our own and Allied bombers is the only measure which could affect the issue during the first weeks of the war. The three classes of objective are:

1. Demoralise the German people, by methods similar to those we foresee the Germans themselves using against us, [so that] their Government might be forced to desist from this type of attack.

2. Discover and attack some target, the security of which was regarded by Germany as vital to her survival during the limited period within which she hoped to gain a decision over us, [so that] she would be forced to divert her air attacks to our own aerodromes and maintenance organisation.

3. Inflict direct casualties upon the German bombing aircraft, either in the air or on the ground, or upon their maintenance organisation; the intensity of German attacks would be directly and quickly affected.

The overall philosophy was translated into ‘Planning for a War with Germany’ and in late 1936 the Air Targets Intelligence sub-committee developed the Western Air (WA) plans and these became the focus for Bomber Command’s strategic planning. On 13 December 1937 the Command was instructed to commence detailed planning for WA1 (German Air Force), WA4 (German Army concentration areas and lines of communication) and WA5 (manufacturing centres), with planning to be complete by 1 April 1938. It was a massive task and was carried out with incomplete information on the targets and an over-optimistic appreciation of bombing capability. A Bomber Command appraisal of the list suggested that only the third was realistic as the others comprised targets of an inappropriate nature for offensive strategic bombers, a stance that would be taken by bomber leaders, especially Arthur Harris, at various times throughout the war.

The WA Plans underwent a number of modifications over the next few months but by mid 1938 had settled down as:

WA1        German Air Force organisation and associated industries.

WA2        Reconnaissance of Home Waters and East Atlantic, in co-operation with the Royal Navy.

WA3        Convoy protection in Home Waters and East Atlantic.

WA4        German Army concentration areas and lines of communication.

WA5        Manufacturing Resources; WA5(a) Ruhr, WA5(b) Inland waterways, Ruhr, Baltic, North Sea ports, WA5(c) Outside of Ruhr.

WA6        Stores, especially oil.

WA7        Counter-offensive in co-operation with Royal Navy in defence of sea-borne trade.

WA8        Night attacks.

WA9        Kiel Canal and associated waterways.

WA10      Shipping and facilities, especially the Baltic.

WA11      Forests and crops.

WA12      German fleet in harbour or at sea.

WA13      Administrative centres, especially Berlin.

An indication of the optimism of the bomber theorists was a suggestion that an offensive against the Ruhr, especially the coking plants and power stations, would, ‘Prevent Germany waging war on a large scale in less than three months.’ This outcome could be achieved with 3,000 sorties, at a cost of 176 bombers, by knocking out twenty-six coking plants and nineteen power stations. With hindsight of the first years of the war this level of optimism seems incredulous!

Whilst plans were being prepared, the Command was undergoing a major reorganisation as aircraft types and roles were concentrated into individual Groups and units moved to more appropriate airfields within the new structure. The progress made in the two years since the Command was formed was incredible and those who criticise Bomber Command’s performance in the first years of the war fail to recognise just how much had been achieved in such a short period. Despite the optimism expressed above, Ludlow-Hewitt (C-in-C since September 1937) clearly stated that his Command was: ‘Entirely unprepared for war, unable to operate except in fair weather and extremely vulnerable in the air and on the ground.’ These words proved to be far more prophetic. However, the military always has to play with the cards it has and Bomber Command was to enter the war with a far from ideal hand. The arrival of the Wellington, the first squadron equipping in late 1938, was one positive indication but by the outbreak of war there were only six operational squadrons with this type. It could have been worse; Bomber Command may have gone to war in September 1938 when the Munich Crisis took Europe to the brink of war. Most parties knew that the Allied ‘sell-out’ provided only a respite and that war with Germany was inevitable; for the RAF the extra year was crucial.