I noted in a previous post that the debate about reprisal air raids during the First World War largely revolved around two questions: are reprisals moral? and are reprisals effective? The same was true in the Second World War.
Taking the question of effectiveness, how this was answered by participants in the debate depended partly on assumptions about airpower. For example, what, exactly were bombers capable of doing? How did people react to bombing? Was strategic airpower better used in attacking military objectives or should it be used to strike directly at the enemy population?
In turn, these assumptions would have been formed partly by experience (including the experience of being bombed, which may account for the observed difference in support for reprisals between the blitzed and the non-blitzed, rather than new moral scruples as seems to be the usual assumption) and partly from information picked up from sources like the press.
Here's one example of a newspaper article from the Blitz period which brings together a number of these themes, from the back page (6) of the Daily Express, 5 December 1940.
ACCURATE BOMBING SHAKES GERMAN MORALE
WITH the picture in your mind of German-wrought devastation among the shops, homes, churches and hospitals of Bristol, Coventry, Birmingham, Southampton and London, take a look at what the the R.A.F. is doing in Germany.
There are two very clear claims in the headline here: firstly, that the British bombing of Germany is accurate, and that it is damaging German morale.
But accurate in what in what sense? And damaging morale how?
The opening paragraph more or less alludes to the reprisals question by asking the reader to bear in mind the sorts of targets the Luftwaffe has been hitting in Britain, i.e. very clearly civilian ones. But this is not to make a case for an eye for an eye. Instead it sets up a constrast between the British way of bombing and the German way:
There is no tale of civilian suffering, but rather a catalogue of body blows at the very heart of Germany's military machine. And, says the Air Ministry, it is the accuracy of the R.A.F. bombers that it is impressing Germans.
And which way is better? The British way, of course:
There is every sign, it adds, that the R.A.F.'s policy of aiming rather than shedding its bombs is the right one.
So Bomber Command's precision bombing is better than the Luftwaffe's indiscriminate bombing. The purpose of the remainder of the article is to back up this claim. Firstly, it is argued that the German people almost admire 'the deadly precision of the British bomber':
Once, when gasworks were hit and fired in Stuttgart, the people were greatly impressed by the accuracy of our aim.
This was because they had been told that our bombers flew so high that anti-aircraft fire could not reach them. Yet the R.A.F. scored a direct hit.
Again, 'In Bremen public morale is deteriorating; ships have been sunk and dockside buildings and railways damaged'. So the RAF doesn't have to actually attack German civilians directly, to kill them or destroy their homes, in order to demoralise them. Just appearing over their cities and destroying military targets at will is enough.
Then there is the damage done to German industry. A couple of recent raids are singled out as evidence of the 'results of R.A.F. accuracy':
STETTIN: Tanks of aviation petrol blazed for three days.
HAMBURG: Raids on November 15-16 fired oil refineries and caused one of the biggest fires seen in the city. Several factories were destroyed and dumps of war material, and a railway station was damaged.
By such raids, the RAF is wearing down the German war machine:
Railways and oil plants are two of the weakest units in Germany's military and industrial organisation, and satisfactory information about their gradual but persistent deterioration continues to come in.
In this context, the RAF's raids on Berlin are 'particularly useful [...] because it is, among other things, an important railway centre'. (One of those other things: top of the target for the pro-reprisals side.) Synthetic oil plants are also mentioned as 'very suitable targets for our bombers'.
A couple of other articles on the same page continue the theme. One says that 'R.A.F. bombing accuracy was continued on Tuesday night [3 December 1940] in spite of unfavourable weather [...] railway junctions and goods yards at Mannheim were attacked. Many fires were started'. The other is based on an interview with Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare: 'I advise RAF "Bomb Nazi oil"':
"One of their difficulties," he commented, "is that they have so many good targets to go for."
He was 'more convinced now than ever before that Germany and all the countries she dominates are rapidly moving towards a difficult situation in oil supplies'.
Alright. Nearly everything in these articles is, at best, wishful thinking. Bomber Command's aircrew may as well have shed their bombs as aimed them, for all the difference it made: as the Butt Report revealed the following year, only one in four aircraft dropping bombs over Germany did so within five miles of their target point. The intention was 'accurate bombing', but the effect was indiscriminate (when the bombs didn't fall on open countryside, that is, which most of them did). Besides which, Bomber Command was just too weak to have much effect: only about one hundred or at most two hundred aircraft could be sortied in a night, a far cry from the far larger forces available later in the war. The Mannheim raid mentioned above numbered less than 20 Blenheims and Whitleys, some of which also attacked Duisberg and Essen; only 5 actually dropped their bombs!
Given their feebleness, it seems unlikely that RAF raids could have had much effect on German morale at all, especially since it held up quite well in the far more punishing raids later in the war. Having said that, the fact that they were being bombed at all told German civilians that Britain wasn't yet beaten, and gave them cause for complaint at the continuing need for blackouts and shelters. And occasionally British raids were successful: the Hamburg raid described in the article heavily damaged the Blohm & Voss shipyards. Given Germany's chronic oil shortages, if attacks like this could be carried out against synthetic oil plants then Dalton's optimism might have been justified. But as things were, it's just not possible that what the RAF was doing to Germany in late 1940 was more effective (in any sense) than what the Luftwaffe was doing to Britain.
But that doesn't matter. What does matter is that the RAF and the Air Ministry more or less believed that British bombing was precise, and that the press and the public more or less accepted this. The belief of the RAF and the Air Ministry that British bombing was effective was also largely accepted; but the question of reprisals arose in part because some people thought that it could be more effective. As we shall see.
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.