You have no chance

The title of this post is something which Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris did not say. There are an uncountable infinity of things Harris didn't say, but this particular one is of interest because during the Second World War it was widely believed that he did say it, and was taken to represent his aims and the aims of Bomber Command. It's part of a propaganda broadcast made to the German people in Harris's name, telling them what Bomber Command had in store for them if they did not overthrow their Nazi leaders:

Soon we shall be coming every night and every day, rain, blow, or snow -- we and the Americans [...] We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end if you make it necessary for us to do so. You cannot stop it, and you know it.

You have no chance.

The broadcast was picked up in Britain too, translated and printed in the daily press. In his memoirs, Harris says that he never said any of it, or even approved it; he had agreed that his name could be used on leaflets to be dropped into Germany, but this had somehow mutated into a radio broadcast. As Harris pointed out, he couldn't even speak German. Having said that, he nowhere disavows the substance of the speech, only that it understated the 'pains and dire penalties' which were 'actually meted out' to the German people by Bomber Command.1 Nor was he able to disavow authorship during the war. So this speech, though false, was more or less accurate and accepted as such. As I'm always looking out for ways to explore attitudes towards strategic bombing, the episode of the speech not made by Harris seems worth looking at.

The speech itself is too long to quote in full here, but can be found online in Flight, 6 August 1942, 145. Here's not-Harris answering his own question about why Britain was 'bombing Germany heavily':

Why are we doing so? It is not revenge, though we do not forget Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam, London, Plymouth and Coventry. We are bombing Germany, city by city, and ever more terribly, in order to make it impossible for you to go on with the war. That is our object. We shall pursue it remorselessly. City by city: Lübeck, Rostock, Cologne, Emden, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Duisburg, Hamburg -- and the list will grow longer and longer. Let the Nazis drag you down to disaster with them if you will. That is for you to decide.

In fine weather we bomb you by night. Already 1,000 bombers go to one town, like Cologne, and destroy a third of it in an hour's bombing. We know; we have the photographs. In cloudy weather we bomb your factories and shipyards by day. We have done that as far away as Danzig. We are coming by day and by night. No part of the Reich is safe.

Here, not-Harris addresses the question of area bombing and of the killing of civilians, including women and children:

I will speak frankly to you about whether we bomb single military targets or whole cities. Obviously we prefer to hit factories, shipyards, and railways. It damages Hitler's war machine most. But those people who work in these plants live close to them. Therefore, we hit your houses and you. We regret the necessity for this. The workers of the Humboldt-Deutz, the diesel-engine plant in Cologne, for instance -- some of whom were killed on the night of May 30 last -- must inevitably take the risk of war. Just as our merchant seamen who man ships which the U-boats (equipped with Humboldt-Deutz engines) would have tried to torpedo. Were not the aircraft workers, their wives and children, at Coventry just as much 'civilians' as the aircraft workers at Rostock and their families? But Hitler wanted it that way.

And here's not-Harris telling the German people how they can save themselves:

One final thing: It is up to you to end the war and the bombing. You can overthrow the Nazis and make peace. It is not true that we plan a peace of revenge. That is a German propaganda lie. But we shall certainly make it impossible for any German Government to start a total war again. And is not that as necessary in your own interests as in ours?

So, what were the reactions, if any, to not-Harris's speech? The Manchester Guardian, thinking back to the Blitz, doubted its efficacy as propaganda (30 July 1942, 4):

The effect of such an utterance on us would have been to make us all summon the Government and the workers to still fiercer efforts in order to repel (and afterwards repay) the threatened blows.

It also thought it unwise to predict attacks which might be thwarted by bad weather, which would 'enliven the enemy and disappoint our friends'. A letter to the editor of the Guardian by Carey Lord (31 July 1942, 4) made similar criticisms, asking 'Would it not be better to get on with the job and threaten less?' Lord claimed that he had heard 'not a few exasperated queries' from people reading not-Harris's speech, asking 'when on earth we are going to begin [heavy bombing], especially with the situation in Russia becoming more and more critical'.

The Observer (then very conservative politically), by contrast, welcomed the not-Harris speech, but more for its effects on the British people than the German. In fact, its leader claimed that it was 'welcomed by the British as a message to themselves', without, however, actually offering any evidence for this (2 August 1942, 4):

what he said was keenly studied by the British people, not because they take a sadistic glee in the prospect of an enemy nation being scourged by fire, but because they feel a passionate need for some knowledge of our own strategy and policy. If the Prime Minister had nothing to say to our own Parliament, here, perhaps, was alternative guidance, the guidance for which we wait.

The Observer clearly had an agenda here; it was evidently unhappy at the lack of explanations from Churchill and other politicians as to what Britain was doing and what it was planning to do. So it seized upon not-Harris as some indication of what the bigger picture was:

As for strategy it was clear from this that the "big bombing" is not the alternative to a Second Front, but its prelude and confirmation. As for policy, it was abundantly made plain that the scourge is devised to whip a devilish creed out of existence and not as the root-and-branch destroyer of a race.

The Observer offered no criticisms of the speech, but did wonder if the 'big bombing' could be undertaken 'without prejudice to other and possibly more important preparations?' There's the hint here of a discussion about whether Bomber Command was a wise use of limited resources, but no more than that.

There was in fact a brief debate about not-Harris's speech in Parliament. Lord Addison, the leader of the Labour party in the House of Lords, proposed a motion on 4 August criticising the broadcast. His main objection was to 'the practice of having individual officers of the different Services broadcasting statements on war aims and strategic policy', as they are not ministers. Addison also added some other criticisms for good measure: like the Guardian, he argued that bad weather had already prevented bombing on some nights, so it was foolish to boast that Germany would be bombed 'rain, blow, or snow'. That led to another criticism, of the boastful nature of the broadcast:

If you read some of the statement it seems much more like Mussolini than an Englishman. It is not a British habit to brag in advance of all you are going to do.

Before Lord Selborne answered for the government (and Addison withdrew his motion, knowing as he would have all along that it would not succeed), the Marquess of Crewe, Lord Ailwyn and the Earl of Mansfield all spoke more or less in the same vein as Addison. Crewe's response was the most interesting to me. He noted that German propaganda was using the not-Harris speech as proof that 'it is proposed to mercilessly bomb the civilian population of Germany'.

Of course that is completely untrue. What Sir Arthur Harris did say -- and it cannot be contradicted -- was that in making attacks on purely military objectives such as dockyards or factories by bombing, it is not possible to avoid a certain loss of civilian life and destruction of the houses in which people who are not actually engaged in the Army live. That we all recognize in considering the attacks that have been made on this country. We draw a clear line of distinction between the casualties which have been inflicted on civilians in the immediate neighbourhood of military objects of attack, and the loss of life which has occurred in such places as Bath or Exeter. Undoubtedly that warning or caution was what was contained in the broadcast of Sir Arthur Harris.

This is the closest I've found in this episode to any discussion of the reprisals question which was so urgent during the Blitz, and it's a reaffirmation of the principle of selecting purely military objectives, or rather a denial that civilians were Bomber Command's target. A fair reading of not-Harris's speech, but not an accurate reading of Harris's thinking.

The postwar debate about area bombing implicitly assumes that it was not an inevitable strategy, that there were other choices, whether more moral or more wise or both. Rarely are any potential turning points identified, points when these other choices could have been made. I suspect that, in part, it's because there weren't very many, at least not as many as one might think. (Harris rightly points out that he was not the author of the area bombing policy, for example; it was in place before he assumed command of Bomber Command and the RAF's reliance on heavy bombers had been planned long before the war.) This particular point in time might have been one: Bomber Command was still relatively small and not obviously effective at scourging anything. The war had widened hugely in scope since Churchill ordered the bomber offensive back in 1940: the Soviet Union and the United States were now allies, and Japan an enemy. Resources used to make Halifaxes and Lancasters could have been diverted eastwards instead, or marshalled at home for a cross-channel invasion in 1943. But the question of ending or scaling down the bomber offensive did not seem to have arisen. Can you blame a whole nation for lack of imagination?


  1. Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics, 2005 [1947]), 115. 

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18 thoughts on “You have no chance

  1. Christopher

    I am not so sure about the lack of imagination. I rather think that the situation and the decisions taken earlier restricted the choices available. We also have to consider the information actually available at the time and the lack of knowledge of how things were. Could things have been different? Possibly but I would hazard that they wouldn't have been that different.

  2. I would be very curious to know what evidence there is that this peculiar bit of propaganda was ever actually broadcast in German - as opposed to being, say, something that was supposed to have been broadcast, but was actually aimed at a specifically British audience.

    There is a bit of a clue the latter may actually have been the case right at the beginning, in not-Harris's phrase "every day, rain, blow, or snow". The alliteration that makes this work in English wouldn't have been present if the speech was originally in German, so unless we can see in this the hand of a translator with an unusually fine rhetorical touch, I suspect it may be evidence we're not dealing with something at all straightforward here.

  3. Post author

    Christopher:

    Yes, certainly the prior decisions limited what was possible. But so did imagination. There may have choices which nobody imagined, or at least nobody imagined were feasible, or at least not enough people or not enough influential people. And the information available is precisely the sort of question I'm addressing in this post.

    Mike:

    Yes, it does seem to have actually been broadcast -- German radio broadcast a response (although apparently only internationally, not domestically) accusing Harris of admitting to murdering women and children, etc. Also, Henry Probert discusses the episode in Bomber Harris: His Life and Times (London: Greenhill Books, 2003), 187-8, where it is noted that the broadcast apparently did 'arouse the attention' in Germany that had been hoped. But still, that's a fair point about the translation. It may be that the BBC or the press (I'm not sure who had it first in English) got hold of the original English text rather translated it from the actual broadcast -- Harris admittedly doesn't say it was translated, only that as it had been broadcast the BBC and the press 'naturally' got a hold of it and could reprint it, because unlike propaganda pamphlets a broadcast couldn't be considered secret.

    JDK:

    Aha. Good question, and the answer seems to be... Harris himself! At least in part. In Bomber Command he states that it was written by the Politcal Warfare Executive, and he merely agreed to have his name affixed and had no real involvement with it. But Probert says that Harris was annoyed that the text actually used differed from the version he had approved, dropping some words and phrases he had himself authored. (For example, instead of 'scourged' he had written 'flattened'.) However, Probert isn't clear as to who wrote the bulk of the text, whether it was PWE and Harris made alterations, or vice versa. In the references he cites 'Harris's draft' in his papers, but again I don't know if this was wholly written by Harris or if it was just his copy of the PWE draft with his emendations. At least it does seem that Harris's account was somewhat disingenuous.

  4. Thanks Brett - though I'm not 100% sure that's conclusive. The Germans could have broadcast a response to the British press coverage, I suppose, rather than any radio transmission.

    Still, I concede it's more likely there was indeed a broadcast and the British text was buffed up by someone, or - perhaps most likely - the German broadcast was based on an English language original.

  5. Am I the only person who saw this post title and thought of 'you have no chance to survive make your time'?

    I think Brett's work revolves around people setting up the bomb...

  6. Christopher

    I take the point but my thought is that there is too much hindsight here. Just because we can imagine other options doesn't mean that they were practical options or that in the perceptions of the time they could have become practical options. For example, your suggestion that the bomber offensive be scaled down or abandoned. How would the Russians have reacted to that? Dieppe had showed that the traditional view of a cross channel invasion would need modification and that there was a lot to be learned. The blithe assumption that a cross channel invasion could have been mounted in 1943 betrays a lack of knowledge of just how complicated the enterprise was and the level of resources needed. It took American industrial capacity to provide those resources and a massive amount of planning. If the British had pulled out of the bombing offensive it would have released a lot of resources to be sent to the Eastern Front. Could this have led to a German victory? Options which seem options often don't become so on close examination.

  7. Chris Williams

    Tedder and Zuckerman didn't agree: they thought that the resources devoted to area bombing could have been re-deployed more effectively elsewhere. And they can be assumed to have had a reasonably good handle on what was and was not possible.

    My own opinion on this is that given the path dependency of existing decisions ('build 7,000 Lancasters"), there wasn't a lot that could be done differently before 1944. However, in the autumn of 1944, with the Luftwaffe defeated, Portal should have had the courage to sack Harris when he refused to countenance abandoning area bombing, and replace him with Cochrane or Bennett, and orders to hit the oil. We know (is this 'hindsight'?) from Speer that in the summer of 1944 the German economy came very close to running out of oil.

  8. Post author

    Jakob:

    What you say !!

    Christopher:

    Again I don't seem to have explained myself very well. I'm not assuming, blithely or otherwise, that invasion was possible in 1943. (I mean, really?) I don't think I'm using hindsight, either: that's actually what I'm trying to avoid. People in 1942 didn't know what we know now -- that invasion would be impossible in 1943, for example. I'm trying to work out what people thought was possible (as always), more that what was in fact possible.

    So by asking about imagination, I'm trying to suggest that before different choices could be made, they had to be imagined. If they couldn't even be imagined, is it reasonable to expect them to have been made?

    To put it another way, imagination is another of the constraints on action, just as are factory capacity or fuel supplies or manpower. If we want to talk about choices made and not made, we need to explore imagination and perception too.

    Chris:

    Bomber Command was still building up its strength in 1942, still partway through converting to heavy bombers and nothing like the force it was a year later. I agree that the 'path dependency of existing decisions' (nice phrase!) made shifting resources from Bomber Command very difficult but I reckon mid-1942 was probably about the last time this could have been done reasonably painlessly (as opposed to changing Bomber Command's targeting priorities, as you say this would have been much easier to do).

  9. Chris Williams

    The tragedy is that in 1942, the bomber barons' bluff had yet to be called: nobody knew whether or not a _proper_ knockout blow could win the war in Europe without risking a re-run of 1916-7. And the only way to find out was to try.

    In my opinion, the moral objections of 1942 were brushed aside precisely because at the time it was the only grand strategy in W Europe that the British could adopt. By the time it was apparent that no, the war couldn't be won from the air, the damage had, quite literally, been done.

  10. Eh. Call me crazy, but I still think that "building 7000 Lancasters" was exactly the best strategic option. If you're going to win a continental siege, you need a continental siege train. The rest is a debate over which bastion to assault.

    So. Anyone else read Neal Stephenson at Slate today? I see that he's still doing history without a ticket...

  11. Post author

    Chris:

    That's likely true, but what I want to know is the extent to which there was a debate at all.

    Erik:

    That's a very silly article. Yes, I'm sure no military would have bothered with the most powerful weapon ever made if Stalin hadn't existed. And what obviously superior alternatives to rockets should we be using? He doesn't even bother to name one. See this for more criticisms.

  12. I'm with Erik, and I think it's worth noting that the path dependency is not just physical, in terms of building infrastructure, but mental. The perceived need to wear down Germany's fighting strength before any re-invasion of mainland Europe could be attempted only got stronger with the defeats of the first half of 1942. My understanding is that, of those in a position to make a difference, even those who would have redirected some of the effort away from bombing still accepted the logic of the wearing out fight taking place first. Other divisions of effort might have been more effective (although that means different things in different contexts to different nations, as Erik for one has pointed out) but they too had their own path dependencies.

  13. Post author

    But how did those mental path dependencies arise, is my (quite possibly leading) question? And who are we talking about -- Winston Churchill, or the man in the Tilbury shelter, someone in between? This was pretty much the darkest hour for Britain: nothing to show for more than 2 years at war, humiliating losses in the Far East, a major ally apparently on the verge of collapse (again!) If the Observer's criticism quoted in the post is anything to go by (and it might not be), nobody was out there telling the public what was happening and what the plans were for the future. Did they (the public) just accept that Britain should keep doing what it had been doing, did they believe that bombing was the (or a) key to victory, was the value of Bomber Command ever seriously questioned from the strategic point of view? (Setting aside pacifist/moral arguments like those of the Bombing Restriction Committee.) Because if not now, probably not ever.

  14. Some thoughts, various:

    Thanks for the pointers to the rocket articles. On the good manners principles, I'll confine myself to observing both need to try a lot harder to be less leaky of facts and need tighter central arguments to be more than just a 'wander around an opinion' and the latter one certainly needs editing and proof reading. It's a shocker.

    On the question of language, Mike's point about the alliterative 'rain blow or snow' phrase is a good one to pick up, but does not prove it wasn't available in German. It may've been written in English and translated (if the draft was by Harris, as Brett's said, that's most likely). Or it may've been well translated into English. Good translation - even in this context - will include such rhetorical flourishes, and in the 1940s there was a greater appreciation and thus emphasis for such things, based on classical education and translation of classics etc. What's interesting is that it leapt out at me because it's not the obvious cliché 'rain or shine', although that may to do with the nocturnal-only status of Bomber Command's efforts.

    As well as Brett's 'unknown unknowns' of the thinking and possibilities of the time, I'm interested in when strategic bombing switched from an knockout blow with an expectation of morale collapse, to Great War style attrition from the air. Or was there a point Bomber Command was just doing what it did because they were doing it? That's surely illustrating an absence of 'thinking' if no more - assuming it's a fair scenario. I don't push the point.

  15. Neil Datson

    Surely all questioning of British grand strategy in the years 1941-44 has to be split into at least three main phases?

    The first would be before June 1941. The second would be the next six months. And the third would be from December 1941.

    Before the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union British interests would actually have been best served by manoeuvring into a position that was as close as possible to armed neutrality. Air resources should thus have been put into Fighter Command and the twin Cinderellas; the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command. There was no logic for Bomber Command, unless you actually believed that bombing the **** out of Germany could bring about her defeat.

    On the other hand, bombing the **** out of Germany is your only option if you really are determined to pursue the war. Obviously, by that time your pre-war theories about how relatively easily and cheaply it would be done have been shot to pieces, and all the available evidence suggests that it isn't going to work - but there was no other way whatsoever that Britain could have carried the war to Germany.

    In a sense the argument for armed neutrality was hardly changed by the Nazi attack on the USSR. Obviously in the circumstances Britain had to ally with the Soviets, but a Soviet victory would have been less than great news. It would have served British interests little better than a Nazi one. Furthermore, direct support for the Eastern front was difficult and expensive to deliver. So if you're going to keep going at the Nazis, Bomber Command still has it.

    With the entry of the USA everything changed. Different options could be considered. By that time, of course, there was some very clear path dependency steering in a clear direction. Even so, from December 1941 there was surely every reason to start questioning the bomber offensive.

    To pick up on a couple of points made above: 7,000 Lancasters could be seen as a continental siege train, and once you've got your siege train you're going to persist with besieging your enemy's citadel, whether or not there's any sign of the walls giving way. Once the thing was ready and available, questioning strategy was the last thing that anybody was going to do.

  16. All fair enough, but I'd differ there was any real realisation of the inaccuracy of Bomber Command's early efforts prior to the Butt Report of 18 August 1941. That point would, I'd suggest be more significant for the efficacy of the weapon than the other break-points affecting the objectives of the weapon. We knew German morale hadn't collapsed, and didn't look like it was going to, but British intelligence was still lamentably bad on most fronts, and optimists and partisan over-claimers still had credibility.

  17. Post author

    It was always pretty clear Bomber Command didn't have the strength for anything like a knock-out blow. Of necessity they hoped for morale effects (and there were reports from neutrals of dissatisfaction with the war and so on so it seemed reasonable) combined with pinpoint attacks. As JDK says, it became clear that German morale wasn't breaking. And the Butt Report did make it quite clear that pinpoint accuracy wasn't even close to happening. So that forced a change in thinking. That change could have been to scale down the bomber offensive and redirect the resources. At that point this probably wasn't going to happen, because strategic bombing was one of the few ways Britain could help the Soviets. So instead the strategy itself was recast: if you can't hit anything much smaller than a city, well then, bomb cities. There were theoretical justifications for trying to destroy cities but it was the Butt Report's revelations which drove the change.

    But again, to keep dragging this back to the public sphere, the Butt Report was secret. Some hints may have made it to the press but their perceptions of Bomber Command's effectiveness would have depended on Air Ministry press reports. What were they telling the public and why? Did they tone it down after the report? How did the public respond to this propaganda? More research needed...

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