Bomber Command Controversy 1941-42 Part I

What took place in the mind of Winston Churchill to cause the man who wrote in 1917 ‘it is improbable that any terrorization of the civil population which could be achieved by air attack would compel the Government of a great nation to surrender’, to become, by the end of 1941, the foremost political advocate of bombing cities? ‘The bombers alone provide the means of victory,’ he wrote on 3 September 1940. From the outset Churchill was doubtful of the efficacy of the Air Staff’s ‘precision’ attacks on oil and communications. He demanded retaliation for the blitz on Britain, an attack on German morale that was no more than a euphemism for bombing the cities of Germany. On 20 October 1940, in the midst of the Luftwaffe’s night attacks on Britain, he minuted the Air Minister Sir Archibald Sinclair:

I am deeply concerned with the non-expansion, and indeed contraction of our bomber force which must be expected between now and April or May next, according to present policy. Surely an effort should be made to increase our bomb-dropping capacity during this period . . . Is it not possible to organize a second-line bomber force which, especially in the dark of the moon, would discharge bombs from a considerable and safe height upon the nearest large built-up area of Germany, which contains military targets in abundance? The Ruhr, of course, is obviously indicated . . . I ask that a wholehearted effort shall be made to cart a large number of bombs into Germany by a second-line organization such as I have suggested, and under conditions in which admittedly no special accuracy could be obtained.

Most men found during the course of the war that whatever moments of rage and passion they might suffer at the sight of a blitzed building or in the heat of battle, as the months and years went by it was impossible to sustain a white-hot hatred for the enemy. War became a job, a routine of its own, as much as peace. But Winston Churchill never for a moment lost his passion, his detestation of all things that belonged to the enemy. The force of his hatred for the German people and their leaders contributed immensely to his triumph as a war leader. His determination that Britain should survive and finally destroy the nation that had brought such misery upon the world never faltered. It would not have occurred to him to permit the maltreatment of a prisoner, or to tolerate excess in the government of captured German territory. Once Germans ceased to be enemies in arms, he had no further interest in them. But as he gazed out across the map of Europe at the Third Reich during the six years of war, he sought to bring fire and slaughter without scruple upon the German people. It is doubtful whether at any time after the fall of France he debated whether killing German civilians was a moral exercise. He was concerned only with what was strategically desirable and tactically possible. After the war, in a note to a former staff officer of Bomber Command, Churchill scribbled: ‘We should never allow ourselves to apologize for what we did to Germany.’ Whatever he may have written elsewhere for public consumption, there is no reason to suppose that Churchill ever suffered a moment’s private misgiving about the course and consequences of the strategic air offensive.

It is important to dwell on Churchill’s personal attitude to the bombing of Germany, because it will be necessary to emphasize the extent to which the elevation of Bomber Command to its prime place in the British war effort was his personal decision, in the face of intense and important opposition. The bomber offensive would consume a lion’s share of Britain’s industrial resources – the exact proportion will never be known, but Mr. A. J. P. Taylor suggests more than one-third.2 Alternative claims on production were pressed with fierce determination. To give some impression of the debate that took place, it is helpful to take certain events out of order, and to consider as an entity discussions that took place between August 1941 and the spring of 1942. In these months the future of the strategic bomber offensive was decided. Once the great Allied commitment had been made, it has been insufficiently recognized to what extent the Chiefs of Staff in 1944 and 1945, in greatly changed circumstances, were the prisoners of the vast investment in industrial effort and national prestige which had already been made in the strategic bomber forces. In early 1942 the destruction of Germany’s cities was still many months away. But their ultimate fate had already been decided.

Throughout the winter of 1940–41 and into the spring, the Prime Minister followed closely the progress of the bomber offensive – the raid on Mannheim, the attacks on the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, the debate between Portal and the Air Ministry and subsequently between Peirse and Portal about bombing policy. He was aware of the shortcomings in the results that had been achieved. He was disturbed by 2 Group’s losses in the RAF’s continuing effort to maintain some sort of daylight bomber effort, and by the inability of Bomber Command to do decisive damage even against the coastal invasion barge concentrations, whose photographs he studied personally. But it is doubtful whether he understood the full extent of the failure: the near-farce of many sorties; the overwhelming majority of crews who never came within miles of the target; the repeated attempts to bomb on ETA; the paltry fruits of the immense effort against the oil plants. Then one morning in August 1941 he was presented with a report by Mr D. M. Butt of the Cabinet Secretariat on the current performance of Bomber Command against targets in France and Germany. Its conclusions seem to have been a great shock to him, and would have decisive repercussions for the future of the bomber offensive.

Mr Butt was directed to carry out his independent investigation by Lord Cherwell, the Prime Minister’s personal scientific adviser and the most powerful éminence grise in Downing Street. Cherwell had been doubtful for some time about the results being achieved by British bombing, and Mr Butt’s conclusions exceeded his worst fears. On any given night of operations, it was already understood that around a third of all aircraft returned without claiming to have attacked their primary target. So Mr Butt analysed only the target photographs and reports relating to the remaining two-thirds of crews who had allegedly bombed their targets, during the preceding two months of June and July 1941. He reported that of these, only one-third came within five miles of the aiming point. Against the Ruhr this proportion fell to one-tenth. At a moment when perceptive airmen already foresaw the end of moonlit bombing operations as German night-fighter activity intensified, Mr Butt found that moonlight was indispensable to the pilots of Bomber Command: two crews in five came within five miles of their targets on full-moon nights; this ratio fell to one in fifteen on moonless ones.

The Royal Air Force was not disposed to make much of the Butt Report. Sir Richard Peirse, who had already achieved a reputation for assertive overconfidence about the work of his Command, found its conclusions incompatible with the degree of damage he believed had been done to Germany, and thus simply unacceptable. Air Vice-Marshal Carr, now AOC of 4 Group, argued that ‘lack of a photograph of the precise target should not be regarded as conclusive proof that the aircraft failed to attack its proper objective.’ Air Vice-Marshal Saundby, SASO at High Wycombe, noted that the weather had been especially bad in the months studied by Butt, and also suggested rather improbably that squadron commanders tended to give cameras to those crews in whom they had least confidence. All this reflected a natural exasperation on the part of the airmen, who found themselves being reminded by a Whitehall civil servant of a situation of which they had been broadly aware for many months.

But however thoroughly Bomber Command’s doings were understood within the ranks of the Royal Air Force, Butt came as a major revelation to one man: the Prime Minister. On 3 September 1942 he dispatched a personal note to the Chief of Air Staff with a copy of the report: ‘This is a very serious paper, and seems to require your most urgent attention. I await your proposals for action.’

The submission of the Butt Report marked the low-water mark in the wartime fortunes of Bomber Command. Since September 1939 its crews had sought to attack warships in harbour and at sea, oil installations and factories, power stations and airfields, by day and by night. In almost all these things, they were now being asked to accept, they had failed. The Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had been slightly damaged. One brave pilot’s efforts won him the Victoria Cross and closed the Dortmund–Ems Canal for ten days in 1940. 100,000 tons of coastal shipping were sunk by air-dropped mines. A wide variety of industrial plants bore superficial scars. The Focke–Wulf aircraft factory in Bremen and a number of other important factories had begun to disperse their operations, more in anticipation of the future than because of the damage of the past. A few thousand German civilians had been killed, and immense labour was being diverted to the construction of air raid shelters. Flak and searchlight defences were being greatly strengthened. Some oil plants had been temporarily shut down by bomb damage, but at no cost to the German war economy. It was fortunate for the airmen that they did not know more than this; of the huge slack capacity in the German economy, the single-shift working that still prevailed in most major factories. Far fewer women were employed than in England. Germans had more to eat (and would continue to do so almost until the end of the war), could buy a far wider range of consumer goods and possessed vastly more machine tools than the British. What the German armed forces lacked in equipment was the result of maladministration and not of any shortage of manufacturing capacity or raw materials. The German economy had been geared for a short war, and had scarcely even begun to exert itself. It has been said that if Britain had understood in 1941 how powerful and how effortless was the German industrial machine, what enormous untapped potential it possessed, how widely its resources were dispersed, no one could have contemplated the overwhelming task of attempting to crush it by bombing. But the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Economic Warfare did not know this. They believed that Germany was under immense strain. Perhaps most important of all, the airmen were still imbued with the mystic faith which sustained them through the interwar years, that the mere act of bombing was having effects upon the enemy out of all proportion to any hits achieved on economic objectives. The chronic lack of clear thinking that had dogged bombing policy since the end of the First World War persisted even in the face of the most convincing evidence. When the airmen pressed their case for the bomber assault upon the German nation, they believed that they were battering a door already loose upon its hinges.

But even if the exact realities of the situation in Germany and the failure of initial bomber offensive were not known, before the Butt Report reached Whitehall, Bomber Command and the massive industrial commitment to heavy bombers were already being assailed in powerful quarters. The Americans in particular, with their own observers in Germany, were deeply sceptical. Their military attaché in London, General Raymond Lee, recorded in his diary a meeting that August of 1941:

I lunched at the Dorchester as the guest of Colonel Lamer, who had Moore-Brabazon, the [junior] Air Minister, and four Air Marshals, together with Royce and myself . . . As soon as the coffee was served, Moore-Brabazon began to talk about how essential it was that the British should have hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, more long-range bombers with which to bring Germany down. Finally, he turned to me and asked me what my opinion was. I told him that I was no expert, but so far as my observation went, the British had no proof yet that their bombing had been any more effective than the German bombing of England, and that I thought they were asking the United States for a good deal when they wanted it to divest itself of all its bombers, and devote a lot of production capacity to the construction of more bombers, thereby committing the United States to the policy of reducing Germany by bombing, without affording sufficient proof that this was possible. I pointed out that the Luftwaffe under the most favourable conditions had failed to paralyse the British or reduce this country to impotence in over a year of attack, at very short range, and when its energies were not engaged elsewhere. So why, I asked, should the RAF believe they could bring down Germany at a greater range and with its targets very much more dispersed than those in England and protected by very much better anti-aircraft defences now than the British had here last year. I built on absolutely sure ground here because I have had a little time to study the statistics on the damage done to Britain in the seven months between 1 June and 31 December 1940, and it is really surprisingly small . . .

It was the American air attaché in London who reported to Washington as late as April 1942: ‘The British public have an erroneous belief, which has been fostered by effective RAF publicity, that the German war machine can be destroyed and the nation defeated by intensive bombing.’

Throughout the war the Royal Navy waged an unceasing battle against the Air Ministry not only for a larger share of industrial resources, but also for the services of the greatest possible numbers of the long-range aircraft being built, for anti-submarine operations and reconnaissance. Both parties to the dispute stooped to unseemly depths in the pursuit of their cases, and the Royal Navy diminished its own credibility as a judge of the effective use of air forces by insisting that Bomber Command should waste effort first on the abortive bombing of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, and subsequently on the impenetrable concrete-encased U-boat pens of the French ports. ‘Our fight with the Air Ministry becomes more and more fierce as the war proceeds,’ wrote Admiral Whitworth at the height of the controversy. ‘It is a much more savage one than our war with the Huns, which is very unsatisfactory and such a waste of effort.’4 However, some shrewd and able naval officers, fighting impossible odds in the far corners of the world, understandably deplored the immense concentration of resources upon Bomber Command.

‘It certainly gives us furiously to think when we see that over 200 heavy bombers attacked one town in Germany,’ wrote Admiral Willis, second-in-command of the Eastern Fleet, to Admiral Cunningham in the Mediterranean, a few months after the Japanese entered the war. ‘If only some of the hundreds of bombers who fly over Germany (and often fail to do anything because of the weather) had been torpedo aircraft and dive-bombers the old Empire would be in better condition than it is now . . .’

Professor Pat Blackett did not impress airmen, because he was an adviser to the Admiralty. But he was also one of the most distinguished defence scientists of his generation. Blackett pointed out that in 1941 British bombers killed German civilians no faster than the German defences had been killing highly-trained British aircrew. Computing brutal realities, he concluded that the future British bomber offensive could not expect to kill more than one German for every five tons of bombs dropped.

I say emphatically [he wrote in 18 February 1942] that a calm dispassionate review of the facts will reveal that the present policy of bombing Germany is wrong; that we must put our maximum effort first into destroying the enemy’s sea communications and preserving our own; that we can only do so by operating aircraft over the sea on a very much larger scale than we have done hitherto, and that we shall be forced to use much longer range aircraft. The only advantage that I see in bombing Germany is that it does force the enemy to lock up a good deal of his effort on home defence . . . The heavy scale of bombing will only be justified in the concluding stages of the war when (or if) we are fortunate enough to have defeated the enemy at sea and to have command of it.

But it was not only the Admiralty and its advisers who questioned the bomber offensive. Few men could claim a more intimate knowledge of air technology than A. V. Hill, one of the founding fathers of British radar, and also Independent Conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge University. Hill felt sufficiently strongly about the error that he believed was being made in concentrating such great resources upon Bomber Command that on 22 February 1942 he took the unpopular course of denouncing in the House of Commons ‘the brave adjectives about big and beautiful bombs, and the fate which will await Berlin next year – it is always next year – from them’. He went on:

Such adjectives do not impress the enemy at all. He quietly does some simple arithmetic and smiles . . . Past controversies about the independence of the Royal Air Force have had one most unfortunate result, the exaggeration of the importance of bombing an enemy country. Against an ill-defended enemy bombing, no doubt, can quickly produce disastrous results, but so can other forms of offensive action – against an ill-defended enemy. In the present struggle none of the protagonists is ill-defended now against attack from the air . . . The idea of bombing a well-defended enemy into submission or seriously affecting his morale – of even doing substantial damage to him – is an illusion. We know that most of the bombs we drop hit nothing of importance. The disaster of this policy is not only that it is futile, but that it is extremely wasteful, and will become increasingly wasteful as time goes on.

A few months earlier the House of Commons aired an agony of protests about the discovery that Professor Solly Zuckerman and a team of biologists had been carrying out experiments about the effects of explosives on live animals. The House was somewhat less moved by Hill’s speech. Flight-lieutenant Boothby MP rose to say that ‘in Bomber Command we have fashioned a most formidable weapon of offence’. He deplored statements that might erode confidence in bombing: ‘It is tough to ask these chaps to undergo great dangers and perils, which they do cheerfully and bravely, unless they are convinced, as they are at present, that it is worth doing . . .’

In the War Cabinet criticism of the bomber offensive was muted by a mixture of deference on a matter so close to the Prime Minister’s heart, and inability to suggest any alternative strategy. The Air Minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, argued in October 1940 that

. . . our small bomber force could, by accurate bombing, do very great damage to the enemy’s war effort, but could not gain a decision against Germany by bombing the civil population . . . Unless we get a decision we achieve nothing by promiscuous bombing. Except when he uses mines, it is uncertain to what extent the enemy is deliberately choosing to bomb the civil population when he might hit military targets. When he cannot see to hit the latter he bombs centres of population, and we are now doing the same . . . In so far as the Germans may have been led away by their theories of total war into attacking our civilian population instead of concentrating upon our aircraft and air engineering factories, it is very lucky for us.

But when bombing policy changed, Sinclair changed with it. He was a man in deep personal thrall to the Prime Minister – ‘Head of school’s fag’, as he was sometimes unkindly described in political circles – and as Air Minister he was always the RAF’s political representative rather than its master. He became an assiduous public apologist for area bombing, whatever his earlier private misgivings.

Yet as this low point of the bomber offensive in the winter of 1941–42 there would have been the deepest concern at the Air Ministry if it had been known that Captain Harold Balfour, Sinclair’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary and a man of wide personal experience of air matters, had also become sceptical about Bomber Command. On 24 January 1942, in a confidential memorandum to Sinclair that is unmentioned in any of the official histories, Balfour reviewed past hopes for British bombing:

The fact is that this plan has not been fulfilled . . . Night defences have on both sides increased in quantity and efficiency. As regards accuracy, I believe we calculate that only some 10 per cent of bombs fall in the target area.

The public are more and more questioning the effectiveness of bombing policy and beginning to wonder whether bombs can bring Germany’s effort to a standstill and thus be a deciding factor in winning the war.

Balfour was convinced that as Britain faced crisis in the Middle and Far East, bombers must be diverted from the assault on Germany: ‘It may be that the believers in bombing Germany to destruction, though right if war were confined to the Western battlefield only – are wrong having regard to the war in the East which has to be won and may continue long after victory in the West if the deteriorating position cannot be checked before then.’

Balfour kept his misgivings to himself. But Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons, made a speech in the House of Commons at the beginning of 1942 which caused widespread astonishment, interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the strategic air offensive:

Another question which has been raised by a great number of members is the question of policy as to the continued use of heavy bombers and the bombing of Germany. A number of hon. members have questioned whether, in the existing circumstances, the continued devotion of a considerable part of our effort to the building up of this bombing force is the best use that we can make of our resources. It is obviously a matter which it is almost impossible to debate in public, but if I may, I would remind the House that this policy was initiated at a time when we were fighting alone against the combined forces of Germany and Italy and it then seemed that this was the most effective way in which we, acting alone, could take the initiative against the enemy. Since that time we have had an enormous access of support from the Russian armies . . . and also from the great potential strength of the United States. Naturally, in such circumstances, the original policy has come under review. I can assure the House that the Government are fully aware of the other uses to which our resources can be put, and the moment they arrive at a decision that the circumstances warrant a change, a change in policy will be made.

Cripps’s statement caused momentary alarm at the Air Ministry and in America, where at that very moment the British delegation were devoting their utmost effort to ensuring that the American air forces joined Bomber Command in mounting an even more ambitious combined offensive against Germany. But in reality, while Cripps had made his own scepticism clear, for all his grandiose titles he had no influence on the vital decisions, and no information from the Prime Minister that could possibly have justified his hopes.

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