Me on Orac on Dawkins on Harris

I've been reading Respectful Insolence for quite a while now, but I somehow missed Orac's post critiquing Richard Dawkins' comments on Arthur Harris and the bombing of civilians in the Second World War, and how the development of precision-guided munitions ("smart bombs") reflects a change in the moral zeitgeist since then. Fortunately, Jonathan Dresner pointed out it to me; unfortunately (and unusually), I think Orac is wrong. That's ok: he's got more important things to do with his time than studying the history of strategic bombing, such as surgery and medical research. But since he brought the subject up ...

The bit of Dawkins' piece to which Orac takes exception is basically the following:

Smart bombs are designed, at least in part, to minimize collateral damage. Obviously Air Marshall [sic] Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, architect of the Dresden raid, didn't have at his disposal the technical know-how to make smart bombs. That's not the point. My point is that, even if he could have used smart bombs, he wouldn't have wanted to. The whole rationale and purpose of Bomber Harris was to kill civilians.

Orac responds with a summary of how the "bomber dream" (Martin Middlebrook's term) developed after the First World War:

But back in the 1930's and 1940's, there were a number of fervent and influential believers that bombing alone could win wars with minimal casualties by destroying the enemy's industrial capacity and "de-housing" armaments workers. Indeed, the very development of strategic bombing was at least in part a reaction to the horrors and mass slaughter that characterized trench warfare during World War I.

I don't really like the term "bomber dream", because as Merlin might have said: though it was a dream to some, it was a nightmare to others! Although there was certainly a desire to minimise military casualties relative to the First World War scale, this did NOT necessarily imply that there would not be huge civilian casualties. The point was to avoid a long, drawn-out war of attrition, by striking at the most vulnerable part of the enemy nation. As the late war had apparently shown that on the ground, defence had the upper hand over offence, the answer seemed obvious, at least to the airminded: ignore the enemy army entirely and instead attack the vulnerable civilians from the air. Ideally, this would lead to the fabled "knock-out blow" (my preferred alternative to "bomber dream"), a quick victory after a sudden, brief, probably one-sided but certainly intense, strategic bombing campaign. There would be far fewer military casualties than in the First World War, but far more civilian ones.

This campaign was thought likely to attack one, or perhaps both, of two broad objectives. The first was essential infrastructure, such as docks, railways, food stores, power stations, government buildings, etc. The second was the civilian population. Note that I do not mention factories, despite their importance as targets in the Second World War, because destroying factories was something that would only be useful in a long war. There was some talk of bombing munitions factories, to disrupt mobilisation, or aircraft factories to help win the air war, but more often these were seen as wasteful diversions from the main effort.

The point of attacking infrastructure was to paralyse and starve the nation, preventing it from functioning. The point of attacking civilians was to demoralise and kill them, leading to panic and flight. Either way, the victim country would hopefully be forced to ask the aggressor for terms, after only a few days or weeks of war.

But this would not be bloodless, particularly if civilians were attacked directly. Here's what Lord Thomson, Air Minister in the 1924 Labour government, thought would happen in the next war:

Both victors and vanquished would be left with ruined cities, widespread distress among the masses of the people, hospitals filled with the maimed and mutilated of all ages and both sexes, asylums crowded with unfortunate human beings whom terror had made insane.1

By 1937, the Committee of Imperial Defence was calculating probable compensation payments on the basis of 1.8 million casualties in the first two months of war, including 600,000 deaths.2

No. The bomber may have been a dream weapon to air force commanders, but it was a nightmare to many civilians. It turned them into "The 'Front-line Troops' of the Future", as the subtitle of a 1927 book put it.3

Now, for Orac's comments on how the theory failed to live up to the reality:

Before and during the early phase of World War II, bombing was even viewed as less horrific than battles like the Battle of the Somme, with its hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded in a single bloody battle. Unfortunately, as first practiced during an actual war, strategic bombing in Europe failed to live up to the bomber dream. It was incredibly wasteful, inefficient, and bloody. Hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of tons of bombs and killing thousands of civilians as "collateral damage" were needed just to destroy a relatively few strategically important targets because bomb accuracy was so poor.

This is partly right. Bombing certainly turned out to be wasteful and inefficient at the start of the war. But the surprise was not that bombing turned out to be bloody; the surprise was that it wasn't very bloody at all -- not compared with the pre-war predictions, anyway.4 If those predictions had been correct, multiple infernos on the scale of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo would have taken place in September 1939. Even during the eight months of the Blitz, British civilian deaths due to bombing amounted to just 43,000 -- less than a tenth of the 1937 CID prediction, and that for only two months of raids. It took years of wartime experience to develop the aircraft, the skills and the doctrine to carry out truly devastating raids.

Finally, Orac explains how area bombing was adopted because of technological and operational limitations:

Thus, in practice, the reason the strategic bombing strategy adopted was not so much to target civilians intentionally, but rather because the technology of the time was so crude that large numbers of bombs had to be dropped to have any chance of destroying important military or industrial targets at all. In essence, the only thing that bombers of the time could be reasonably assured of hitting was a city, and sometimes even then their bombs fell on farm fields miles away. Thus, the use of area bombing and incendiaries was adopted because of the inadequacy of the technology of the time, and the collateral damage was rationalized as an acceptable cost. Even so, it's rather hard to imagine that even a bomber dream true believer like Harris would not have enthusiastically embraced a technology that would have allowed the high precision targeting of industrial and military targets that his bombers could not achieve.

It's certainly true that the strategy of area bombing was largely driven by necessity, as Orac says. But it's not true that civilian casualties were 'rationalised as an acceptable cost'; at least, not by Harris. They were an integral part of his strategy. We know this because he said so. A BBC broadcast about a Bomber Command raid on Leipzeig in October 1943 led to complaints from the public about its mealy-mouthed references to the targeting of marshalling yards. Harris's response was to demand that the Air Ministry issue a clear statement of, and justification for, his strategy:

The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive and the part which Bomber Command is required by agreed British-US strategy to play in it, should be unambiguously and publicly stated. That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany.

It should be emphasised that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.5

He made similar statements more informally as well, for example telling 'his American counterpart' (Eaker) that

You destroy a factory and they rebuild it. In six weeks they are in operation again. I kill all their workmen, and it takes twenty-one years to provide new ones.6

These quotes show that 'de-housing' was as much a euphemism for the killing of workers, who of course tended to be asleep in their houses at night when the bombers came, as it was an objective in itself. (Some people would have been in public air raid shelters, but no country could protect more than a small fraction of its population in this way.) The only out here is that Harris speaks only of workers, and not of the other civilians who lived in their houses, such as children, or housewives or the elderly. But of course, killing or maiming such people also contributed to 'the disruption of civilised life' and 'the breakdown of morale'.

Now, it could perhaps be argued that Harris was just making a virtue out of necessity: given that his bombers couldn't accurately hit a designated target, maybe it's unsurprising that he might claim that it was better anyway to destroy whole cities, than to undertake surgical strikes. It's even plausible that somebody with such a proud, stubborn personality would demand public validation of such self-deception, rather than just getting on with it and hoping nobody would notice.

But I don't think so: he'd been here before. Harris's first experience with carrying out a bombing campaign was in Iraq, in the early 1920s, where the RAF was pacifying that unruly area by air control methods. He commanded a squadron of transport aircraft, but was so keen to get in on the action that he got his men to cut holes in the nose of their Vickers Vernons to drop bombs out of. In March 1924, he wrote a report on the effectiveness of bombing villages with incendiaries:

Where the Arab and Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing ..., they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village (vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza) can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.7

The problems which, two decades later, forced Bomber Command to switch to area bombing did not apply here. There were no enemy fighters and no anti-aircraft guns, only scattered ground fire. Harris's bombers could take their time and attack from low level during daylight, so accurate bombing was possible. But instead of attacking specific targets -- a tribal leader's compound, perhaps, or livestock, or wells maybe -- they went in for wholesale destruction. This is of a piece with his later, wartime strategy.

So I don't think we can assume, as Orac does, that if Harris had had smart bombs, he would have used them to avoid killing civilians in favour of precision attacks on factories. More likely, he would have used them to surgically destroy block after block of worker's houses, with the workers and their families inside. On the other hand, Dawkins is wrong to say that Harris's 'whole rationale and purpose' was to kill civilians. It wasn't. He wanted to kill cities, and civilians were just a part of that, along with factories, infrastructure, the whole lot.

To put it another way: by definition, there was no collateral damage at Dresden.


  1. Thomson, Air Facts and Problems (London: John Murray, 1927), 26-7. 

  2. Tom Harrisson, Living Through the Blitz (London: Harmondsworth, 1990), 26. 

  3. E. F. Spanner, Armaments and the Non-Combatant: To The `Front-line Troops' of the Future (London: Williams and Norgate, 1927). 

  4. Actually, it wasn't so surprising, because the Spanish Civil War had already hinted at this -- but that's another story. 

  5. Air Marshal Arthur Harris, 25 October 1943; quoted in Mark Connelly, Reaching for the Stars: A New History of Bomber Command in World War II (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 115. Emphasis added. 

  6. Quoted in Donald Bloxham, "Dresden as a war crime", in Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, eds., Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 (London:Pimlico, 2006), 189. 

  7. Quoted in Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (London: Granta, 2002), section 113. 

Creative Commons License
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at airminded.org.

21 thoughts on “Me on Orac on Dawkins on Harris

  1. I seem to remember from my MA (a long time ago!) that even when techniques for more accurate bombing (Gee, Oboe, H2S, pathfinder squadrons) were developed later in the war, Harris used them to make area bombing more devastating by increasing the chances of causing a firestorm, rather than to reduce the size of the areas bombed and avoid collateral damage.

    The limitations of technology weren't the only thing which led to area bombing. There was also the difficulty of identifying vulnerable target systems. It wasn't until the 1944 oil offensive that the allies found a target system which was sufficiently important and vulnerable, and had the technology and resources to hit its weak points regularly enough and heavily enough to take it out. I seem to remember that Harris opposed the oil and transport offensives and kept diverting resources to more general area attacks. In some ways that was understandable because previous attempts to concentrate on one vital industry had failed, but ultimately he was proved wrong because crippling the oil industry and transport system played a large part in bringing down the German economy (although by that time they were also suffering from labour shortages and loss of territory so it wasn't all down to strategic bombing).

    Disclaimer: I haven't kept up with the latest research so things might have changed in the last 10 years.

  2. Perhaps worth mentioning though that a truly comprehensive British strategy of area bombing was only ever a Platonic ideal in Harris' head, rather than a historical reality, i.e. Bomber Command often did attempt 'precision' attacks on German targets, whether or not its C-in-C liked it. In a similar way, some of the USAAF's supposedly 'precision' attacks were in practice indistinct from area bombing (particularly when they used radar-guided targetting in bad weather).

  3. Alan's comment above is a succinct summary of this matter. It's very easy for academics and latter-day 'experts' to pontificate on this sensitive issue and start quoting chapter and verse from a myriad of sources, and in so doing, generate a vast amount of very misleading hot air. Many have done so. Attempts to re-interpret history often turn into attempts to re-write history.... A luxury of democracy only afforded by the actions of the likes of Harris.

    Harris was brought in when it became clear that;
    a) Bomber losses against defended targets by daylight were found to be totally unsustainable, and -
    b) When, having switched to night attacks, it was found that the technology simply didn't exist to consistently and reliably find and hit targets in the dark and in bad weather.
    c) At that time, Bomber Command offered Britain's only realistic hope of carrying the war to the enemy.

    Both a) & b) above were a result of much ill-informed opinion in political circles, as to the actual capabilities if both aerial offence and defence at the time. 'The bomber will always get through' and similar mantras were fixed in many minds.

    Bomber Command was going nowhere. I'm sure that those who appointed Harris knew full-well what they were doing and what they were getting. We should all be very glad that they did so, no matter what the results were. We were losing the war, - and they wanted results. Harris was never coy about what he was doing. He was happy to give the enemy 'a dose of their own medicine' - and at the time, - so were most other people. He wanted to destroy the will and ability of the enemy to resist. He stated that no one knew if a war could be won by air-power alone, 'as no one has ever tried'. He was trying to use a weak and ineffective force as effectively as possible. RAF Bomber Command carried out targeted tactical and strategic raids throughout the war. It's misleading to give the impression that they did not.
    Did Harris's campaign shorten the war? Of course it did. (Read what Hitler's Armaments Minister - Speer had to say on the matter) It saved many thousands of Allied lives without a shred of doubt.
    Finally; That old chestnut - Cologne; Yes it was devastating (Or effective, to put it another way.) - but it was Churchill who pushed for this to pacify Stalin so late in the war. Harris took the rap for it. One hardly ever hears so much hot-air expended about Hiroshima, a far more groundbreaking, historic, lethal event - and just as tragic.
    By the end of the war, peace-time sensibilities had started to return - very convenient when you know that you have won the war..... Had we been losing - and facing our families going into Forced-Labour and Concentration Camps, - I doubt that we would have heard a murmur. Harris summed-up his views in stating that, as I recall, "A thousand of the enemy are not worth the life of one (British) Grenadier."
    Raids on the Axis oil-fields were simply not a realistic possibility during the early to middle war period. Gavin seems to be ignoring the fact that the German infrastructure was already in tatters before the concentration on oil etc. Again, read Speer. Harris and his peers did try and target their efforts as far as was possible given the technology and circumstances at the time throughout the war.
    Harris and Bomber Command got a very raw deal on the back of a lot of misplaced and sanctimonious opprobrium from many who did not and have not lifted a finger. About 50,000 aircrew died, most of whom were members of Bomber Command. The enemy did, truly "Reap the whirlwind".
    That many suffered in that war is a stark reminder as to the care people need to take when choosing their leaders. Given the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan, - a lesson that we are still learning it seems.
    Uncomfortable as it may be, 'morals' are a peactime phemomena of civilised nations. History is unequivocal in telling us that in war, the only thing that matters is winning. Had Harris failed, history would have derided him for that too, that is, if a Nazi Euro-Reich would have allowed his mention.

  4. Chris Williams

    It's worthwhile pointing out, Pontius, that the debate in the UK about the morality of strategic bombing did not begin in 1945, or even in 1944.

    I agree with you entirely that Harris was treated as a scapegoat for a strategy that had widespread support, from the very top down. But:
    "It's very easy for academics and latter-day 'experts' to pontificate on this sensitive issue and start quoting chapter and verse from a myriad of sources, and in so doing, generate a vast amount of very misleading hot air."

    How else are we to know what happened in the past, if not by considering the evidence available to us? I like my history to come with evidence, and given two equally likely stories of what happened, I'll tend to go with the one that's backed up.

    Ideally, the subsequent debates about the nature, morality and effectiveness of the strategic bombing offensive (and the role of Bomber Command within it, which isn't the same thing) ought to be considered in isolation from one another. Most of the time they are not.

  5. Post author

    Pontius, thanks for your comment! I'm not sure who your comments are directed to, though -- I wasn't attacking (or, for that matter, defending) defending Harris or Bomber Command. I'm just trying to straighten out inaccurate statements made about them, and the "knock-out blow" (which is what my thesis is on). As Chris says, we ought to be able discuss how the bomber offensive was carried out without having to get into questions of right or wrong. But I do agree with you and Chris that Harris and Bomber Command veterans were treated somewhat shabbily and hypocritically after the war.

    Now, if you mean to imply that "political circles" were responsible for foisting the "the bomber will always get through" mantra upon the RAF, that's quite wrong. It was orthodox RAF opinion (at least if you didn't ask the fighter boys) during the 1920s and much of the 1930s. The politicians didn't only derive their beliefs from RAF advice, civilian experts were telling them the same thing.

    You say it's misleading to give the impression that Bomber Command never carried out precision attacks. I'm sorry if I gave that impression, but I certainly don't actually believe that. (I mean, I've even got The Dambusters on DVD ...) Anyway: that precision attacks were sometimes carried out (and Alan's point is well taken: Harris and his strategy are not the whole story) does not negate the fact that the broad strategy was one of area bombing. Nor that it was Harris's favoured strategy, nor that it was the one being implemented at Dresden, which after all is what Orac and Dawkins were talking about, and what I'm commenting on. It's a blog post, not a thesis -- can't cover everything :)

    Gavin is quite right to say that Harris resisted pressure from his superiors to deviate from his area bombing campaign. He consistently derided specific target systems as "panaceas". As Gavin mentions, in late 1944 he basically ignored orders from Portal to attack oil and transportation, and reverted to area attacks. The evidence seems clear on this. When Bomber Command was attacking individual targets, it was generally despite Harris, not because of him.

    As for Dresden eclipsing Hiroshima in the hot-air stakes, I suspect that's not the case in Japan and the United States (though the forgetting of Tokyo is more interesting). And finally, if we must consider the question of morals: if morality is a peacetime luxury, does that mean we can forgive the Holocaust?

  6. Pontius

    Brett,
    I wasn't really attacking you in particular, but the subject hit a raw nerve for me. 'Historians' such as Max Hastings (Who of all people should know better) and others, - often publish articles about the last war, often on RAF-related matters. They are generally not altogether well-informed and often draw erroneous conclusions, aiming to 're-interpret' real events. Earlier this year Hastings wrote several pages of utter drivel about Gibson (Mainly about his private life.) for the Mail, which was a totally unnecessary slur. Harris's 'Old Lags' have had to put up with a lot over the years and have, by and large, suffered much ill-informed debate in silence, - that characteristic of stoicism of their generation which stood them in good stead during their long and bitter campaign.
    I agree with Chris that we should be able to discuss the bomber offensive without straying into the morality of it. Unfortunately, that has been made very difficult, if not impossible, by some of many ill-informed and misguided things that have been said since the war. The 'Old Lags' did the countries dirty-work, suffered mightily and had it largely thrown back in their faces. Some of them were, and are, very bitter about that. I was simply making the point that selecting quotes and sources is fine. But, much like 'creative accounting', can be made to slew subsequent perception of history.
    As for the whole 'The bomber will always get through' mantra. I agree with what you say, but the upper echelons of the military, the Ministry and politicians were all drinking from the same ill-informed bowl. What few of them that had any experience had gained it in the Great War, when such things were in their infancy. The dynamics of the combat in 1939 onwards were of another order altogether (We were, after-all, on the threshold of the jet age and space.), and official thinking simply hadn't caught up with the physics of fighters attacking at 500mph and with hugely greater firepower. Evidence the laughable 'Official Attacks' used by the RAF at the beginning of the battle, but very soon dropped as reality set-in. Incidentally, the Germans were not totally immune from the 1914-18 mentality either, evidence Fieldmarshall Goring's orders in 1940 for the fighters to formate on the bombers, - and thereby loose all of their tactical advantages.
    The point that you make in third paragraph is true. However, - when the Area Bombing policy is debated, it is often couched in terms that suggest choice. At the time however, - it wasn't really an option. In the context of the place, time and circumstances 'Area Bombing' WAS precision bombing. It was simply the best that they could do at the time. We couldn't hit Germany by land, we were struggling to combat the U-boat menace at sea, and the early daylight attacks were ripped to shreds. (I've flown with one of the participants that was shot-down on one of those early raids. They were eviscerated.). At the time, it was area bombing or nothing. It's worth remembering that the RAF didn't recommence serious daylight-bombing until spring '45, by which time the Luftwaffe was a spent force.
    Apropos that early period, and the whole morality of moving to Area Bombing. It's worth remembering, that a lot of crews were lost simply dropping propaganda-leaflets over Germany!! Unbelievably, at the time, there were questions asked in Parliament, suggesting that we shouldn't drop bombs on the German armaments factories, - 'as these are private property'!! The Germans never really had any great qualms about such matters. Hitler only wanted to rein-in the Luftwaffe as he still had hopes of persuading Britain to sue for peace and secure his Western flank that way.
    By the end of 1944 things had changed a lot. Harris was logical up to then with regard to the many schemes and 'panaceas' that he was bombarded with for years. Had he followed these, the effects of the bombing campaign would have been diluted. By late'44, his opinions do start to look a little obsessive. But then again, hindsight is a wonderful thing!!
    I think that the Japanese have largely kept quiet about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as their conduct during the war was widely reprehensible. Those in glass-houses etc. I'm sure that we would have considered the use of the A-bomb in Europe to I'm afraid, especially if we had been losing. The Allies knew full well that Germany and Japan were also trying to build the A-bomb. I think that this might have added to Harris's horror at the prospect of an extended ground war and perhaps propelled him to try and finish of Germany as quickly as possible by the most effective means possible - Area Bombing. Who knows.
    The 'Holocaust' is entirely another matter, as it wasn't part of the war as such, so is irrelevant in that context. It started well before the war and has little or nothing to do with the conduct of the war directly. Very few people anywhere had any real idea about what was going on in those camps until after the end of hostilities. The point I was making about morality is clear. In peace, we all have an agreed code. In war - the reality is that grim necessity often pushes most of these things aside to some degree, whether we like to admit it or not. (Shakespeare put better word than mine into the lips of Richard.). We cannot unleash armed forces and expect a game of Croquet. Recent incidents with regard to allied forces in Iraq underline this point clearly.
    Ironically, the fellow I mentioned being shot-down earlier ended-up enjoying the hospitality of several concentration-camps. People (Including some Brit's.) were being hanged from piano-wire outside his cell window all day long in Sachenhausen (He escaped by tunnelling out under the SS barracks.). I suspect he is rather more qualified than any of us to comment on the morality of those charnel-houses.

    Thanks for the great blogg btw...!

  7. So far as the British public memory of the war goes, Bomber Command has not been so much excoriated as forgotten. Considering the huge percentage of national resources that were poured into the strategic bombing effort, it's remarkable how little consciousness there is of the campaign - in the vast postwar catalogue of British war movies I can't think of a single example of a film about city bombing (The Dambusters emphatically not counting). The RAF is now remembered almost exclusively through the hallowed image of Fighter Command. I suspect this is not only a product of postwar moral qualms about the campaign, but also doubts about its efficacy.

  8. Pontius

    True. Regarding the efficacy issue, - it occurs to me that there is a dimesion to it that is often overlooked; Without Bomber Commands ongoing campaign, those vast resources that were required to defend Germany against Bomber Command would have been available elsewhere. What- if's abound perhaps, but there are plenty of examples where things were pretty close-run, especially if Germany had been able to maintain supplies of oil from the East. Perhaps these would not have been enough to change the ultimate outcome of the war, but they could very easily have lengthened it - quite considerably too. Hitler would also have had time to perfect the jets, rockets, and, who knows, the A-bomb. After all, the Germans were alone in the world at that time in having the ultimate delivery system. Perhaps the Allies would have found justification in dropping the A-bomb on Germany. It's a complex web of issues as alluded to in the mention of war-gaming elswhere in this website. I believe that there is a strong argument that Bomber Commands effectiveness might well have been greatly under- estimated, political football that it was.
    Fighter Command was able to lose us the war, but it took Bomber Command to win it. By the end, as I believe Harris said, there wasn't really anything left militarily worth bombing.

  9. Chris Williams

    I certainly agree that the fact that half the Reich's guns were pointed up rather than east in 1944 must have had a significant impact on the course of the war.

    Any debate on the effectiveness of Bomber Command has to take into account the vast amounts of the UK's rare resources that it used up: of industrial production, technically skilled support personnel, and (perhaps most important) intelligent and motivated aircrew, who died (or were captured) in huge numbers. Put half the RAF casualties of 1943 into the infantry as junior officers and NCOs, and I bet that the D-Day breakout would have happened earlier: Army Group West may even have gone the way of Army Group Centre.

    There's another issue that I'm less clear on: the defeat of German air power. Something knocked the stuffing out of the Luftwaffe in the spring of 1944. I'd put that down to the 8th Air Force - although there might be a counter-argument that it was Goering's braindead personnel planning that did it, and they would have run out of steam at that stage in any case. Either way, I'd argue (tentatively) that it was not down to Bomber Command. Note that this argument does not rest on any assumptions about the USAF relying on 'precision bombing' in Europe. Note also that it's very tentative, and I'd welcome correction.

    As for the relative worth of Fighter Command, I tend to agree with the interpretation on the OU/BBC website. Largely because I wrote it.

  10. Pontius

    Germanys response to D-Day etc. was so under-resourced, mainly because of the East, and confused by Allied ruses, that failure was never a real prospect. Given the lack of resources available to the Germans, a bolder earlier break-out might have worked, but then again, I'm sure they assumed the Germans had much greater forces than were really available. Monty was probably over cautious. It's hard to imagine that, given the huge resources deposited into Normandy, that a few thousand ex-aircrew would have made that much of a difference.

    1944; The Germans always seemed to be able to keep-on producing aircraft right up to the end of the war. However, it wasn't just fuel that they were running short of, it was trained and experienced pilots. The Eastern Front was also gobbling-up pilots at a fast rate. A lot of the Allied pilots were regularly rested, passed-on their experience through training and were than able to return to the fray. Most of the German pilots flew until they were killed. They had a lot of high-scoring very experienced pilots, but most of them did not survive the war. In the BoB, one of the Luftwaffes greatest assets was that it had at least some recent combat experience. By the beginning of 1944, the roles were effectively reversed. They were fielding a lot of very inexperienced fighter pilots or pilots transferred from other roles such as bombers etc. The fact that many American pilots did so well at this time wasn't just down to good training, numerical superiority and good machines. A lot of the German 'newbies' got plastered just as the inexperienced RAF pilots of '39 & '40, and in the 1914-18 war too. I also think that there was an issue regarding moral. It was probably more clear to German pilots than it was to many others, just how superior the Allied air-power was and how hopeless the fight already was. There was also a degree of resentment from the public and other services towards the Luftwaffe for seeming to fail to protect the Reich and her cities. It must have been pretty heartbreaking and demoralising for them to see the damage being inflicted by Bomber Command - but being unable effectively to counter it.

    Bomber Command's campaign also forced the widespread dispersal of production. Much of this was of a very ad-hoc nature. This resulted in a lowering of production standards. The shortage of manpower created also lead to the use of more unskilled labour and forced labour, which further forced down standards. A Merlin in a Lanc' might last for the life of that machine. The BMW 801 engine in an Fw190 needed (Fine as the design was) to be replaced after only a few hours usage. Poor materials, production and low-grade fuel were to blame. Production of Spitfires to a very high quality at Castle Bromwich on the other hand, for example, was able to continue almost totally uninterrupted throughout the war. Again, I would argue that the overall effect of Harris's campaign is widely underestimated in all of this. Imagine raids of Bomber Commands size and effectiveness on the UK at the same time..... remember, a scattering of a few very small bombs in one small raid on Supermarines almost wiped-out Spitfire production in 1940 (Dispersed-production had literally just started.).

    I've posted a separate comment on the Fighter Command issue under the BoB heading.

  11. It's hard to imagine that, given the huge resources deposited into Normandy, that a few thousand ex-aircrew would have made that much of a difference.

    Not just a question of aircrew. There were tens of thousands of skilled ground-crew working for Bomber Command, and hundreds of thousands of skilled industrial workers building aircraft. Britain's commitment to the strategic bombing campaign was vast, and its implications for manpower, non-trivial.

  12. Pontius

    But; Without Bomber Commands efforts, many of these 'extra' land forces might have ended up lying dead on the beaches..........

  13. That's a good point. Bomber Command wasn't just carrying out strategic bombing of Germany in 1944. They were also supporting the invasion at an operational level. Heavy bombers attacking the transport network in France made it much more difficult for the Germans to move reinforcements to Normandy. This also had mutual benefits, because the success of the invasion meant that fighter bases and Oboe transmitters could be established in France, increasing the effectiveness of strategic bombing.

    The most respectable argument I've heard about the resources taken up by Bomber Command is that they might better have been allocated to Coastal Command, because more long range anti-submarine patrols might have made the battle of the Atlantic less of a close run thing. If anything Coastal Command is even more forgotten than Bomber Command. My list of veterans excluded from the metanarrative could have been much longer...

  14. Pontius

    Yes, thats why SS Panzer regiments had to DRIVE north to join the battle.....
    Vis a vis Coastal Command; I've never heard that one before..... Of course, we had prety-much cracked Enigma. Problem was, we still didn't really have the gear in the early war in the a/c to mke the best of Ultra. Only later did it all really come together, with sonar-bouys in the day and when we had the Airborne Radar and Leigh-Lights, so that the subs couldn't even safely surface at night did it all come together and the 'mid Atlantic gap' was plugged.
    A little ditty; - A friend of mine flew Lib's based at Reckyavic, Iceland. They managed to kill a few Whales with their depth-charges...and on one occasion hit another Lib' - head on... (!) - that they were relieving over a convoy in mid Atlantic. Both machines went into a spin and lost engines, but, amazingly, both recovered and limped back. My friends machine was declared a write-off where it stool at dispersal at Tain. I have the photos of the wreck. I think that they all needed a clean pair of underpants after that one..lol.
    At the end of the day, we are back to Harris's 'Panaceas' I suppose. Under the circumstances, I think they probably got it about right.

  15. Chris Williams

    There's a lot about the Bomber vs Coastal Command struggle in Terraine's _Business in Great Waters_. Given what Pontius's mate (120 Squadron, I assume) and his comrades achieved with 20 or so Liberators, a couple of hundred heavies a year earlier might have led to victory in 1942. Certainly Joubert (C-in-C Coastal Command) was crying out for Lancasters, much to Harris's annoyance. Ultra was important, but it wasn't cracked on a permanent basis: There was a significant gap between Feb 1942 and December 1942.

    I was under the impression that in the spring of 1944, the heavies (over Harris's emphatic protests) mainly hit 'marshalling yards' in France and Belgium: it was the mediums wot carrried out Zukerman's plan and knocked down the bridges. But I could be wrong about this.

    My point about D-Day largely rests on Keegan's _Six Armies in Normandy_ which flags up the lack of initiative shown by the British infantry in the summer of 1944. I'm not suggesting that demobilising Bomber Command in 1943 would have made a difference, rather that not building it up so much in the first place, and channeling more of the best recruits, technical production, and political support towards the infantry might have made a difference, in Italy as well as France.

  16. Pontius

    Cruising around over vast featureless tracts of ocean looking for subs was like looking for a needle in a haystack - and about as productive. On that basis, having even more resources doing the same would have been pretty ineffective. Even when, much later, the better equipment became available, it was only the availability of Ultra giving them a basic idea of where to look that tipped the scales in terms of effectiveness. The number and increased effectiveness of the convoys escorts made a big difference (They after all did most of the sinking of U-Boats), as they could be with the convoy day and night, whatever the weather. They didn't really have to look for U-Boats, - the U-Boats came to them! CC's harassment of the subs leaving and returning to the Brest area was however materially and psychologically damaging.

    Regarding the Normandy breakout; A lot of the criticism of the British (Mainly by the Americans) was aimed at Monty for being very over-cautious. Monty was well-known to be cautious with the lives of his men, probably as a result of his experiences in the 1914-18 War. That delay in breaking out inevitably led to the delayed response from the Germans having time to catch up, so his caution might be viewed with hindsight as a little self-defeating. In fairness to Monty, - he was a very experienced professional soldier and General with recent and current experience. The Americans had the resources but lacked his experience. In the event, the Americans more gung-ho approach worked well, but arguably, again, only because of the cumulative effects of the bombing campaign. (I never did understand why Caen was flattened however, - why didn't they just go round it!? That worked OK with islands.)

    I'm more than a little puzzled however by all this speculation about where a few thousand bods were channeled to. They would probably have just become more cannon-fodder with depleted air superiority. Thgey would have been fighting against tanks that they could have prevented being produced in the first place..... The fundamental issue here is that the Allies overall superiority was based on it superior air-power on both a tactical and strategic level, - yes it took resources, planning and time. It was a huge investment that paid huge dividends. On the other hand, the inexorable rolling-back of the German front-line was fundamentally about lack of air-power, in the same basic way that it was during the German advances in the west were at the start of the war. As events like Caen and Montecasino showed, trying to winkle out a few well-dug in troops was very costly indeed. No matter how well dug-in they were however, or how tenaciously they fought, air power would tip the scales. Allied air superiority was the engine that drove the Allied success in all theatres, and was the jewel in it's crown. Had the Germans realised this and made the correct investments earlier - the war would at the very least, have dragged on much longer. That ability to reach out across Europe, like it was a giant chess board, was crucial, and an option that the Germans never really had to remotely the same extent, - especially as the war progressed. Every move they made was discovered, monitored, analysed and responded to via air power.

  17. Chris Williams

    Joubert didn't want Lancasters to 'go on the offensive against submarines', AKA cruising over the trackless ocean. He wanted them to patrol over and ahead of convoys to force the wolf-packs down. That, after all, is how he used the few Liberators that he had. He also pointed out that sticking H2S into Bomber Command Lancasters meant that sooner or later (in the event, sooner) it would be a present for the Germans, whereas ASV3 sets were unlikely to fall into enemy hands.

  18. Christine Keeler

    As for Dresden eclipsing Hiroshima in the hot-air stakes, I suspect that’s not the case in Japan and the United States (though the forgetting of Tokyo is more interesting).

    Indeed, and it remains a source of abiding fascination why not only Bomber Command but, to an even greater extent, the USAAF 20th air force has been completely written out of popular representations of the war.

    Don't want to get off topic, but Le May was pursuing the same tactic as Harris, with even greater success (regardless of the A-bomb).

  19. Pingback:

  20. Pingback:

  21. Pingback:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>