Cause and effect in British air policy discourse

One of the most intriguing things to emerge from my post-blogging of the Blitz a few years ago (but which sadly didn't make it into my Blitz article) was the notion of reprisals after notice, that is to say, of publishing a list of German cities which would be bombed intensively until the Luftwaffe ceased attacking British cities. This attracted some support from newspaper columnists and the public as a middle way between humanitarian restraint and all-out reprisals, and I've suggested that 'it was strategy from below, folk strategy', since it was 'not part of the official public discourse on the bombing war'.

But it was part of the official private discourse on the bombing war. On 11 September 1940, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Charles Portal, wrote to the Air Staff proposing that twenty German towns be warned by radio that they were targets, with one to be bombed after each indiscriminate Luftwaffe raid on London. Other options for attacking German civilians were canvassed, for example that they be bombed without any no warning.1 Peter Gray notes that on that same day the War Cabinet discussed the same proposal:

Discussion followed on a suggestion that we should threaten Germany with reprisals by bombing any one of twenty German towns (to be named) if the indiscriminate bombing of London continued.2

The decision was that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, 'consider the question of reprisals at some future date', but that 'for the present our bomber force should continue to be used to attack military targets'.3

So, given that that the idea of reprisals after notice was being discussed officially but privately and unofficially but publicly, the obvious question is whether they were connected in any way. And, absent a detailed paper trail on either side, the first thing to look for is which discussion started first. The answer appears to be the public one. On 29 August, the popular Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra professed to believe that 'aerial bombing of civilians is the most hideous and degrading activity that a human being can lay his hand to', but at the same time demanded that the RAF 'BOMB THESE TEN TOWNS!'4 His reasoning was that the Luftwaffe was deliberately attacking British civilians, whereas Bomber Command was confined to targeting military targets only. This policy would only 'infuriate the common people of this country' and furthermore was just what Hitler wanted, having 'bragged that British bombs would not fall on his race of Aryan supermen'.5 But, according to Cassandra 'there is a simple and devastating reply', that is, to warn Germany that

THE POLICY OF HIS MAJESTY'S GOVERNMENT WAS, AND IS, TO AVOID RETALIATION AND MASS REPRISALS AGAINST CIVILIANS. IF, HOWEVER, THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT CONTINUES TO BOMB BRITISH CIVILIANS, THE FOLLOWING TOWNS WILL BE SUBJECT TO INTENSE AERIAL BOMBARDMENT AFTER TEN DAYS' NOTICE FROM THE RECEIPT OF THIS COMMUNICATION:– HANOVER, BERLIN, MUNSTER, LEIPZIG, DRESDEN, WIESBADEN, FRANKFURT, NUREMBERG, MUNICH, SALZBURG. THIS WARNING IS TO GIVE THE GERMAN GOVERMENT AMPLE TIME TO EVACUATE ALL NON-MILITARY PERSONNEL FROM THESE CITIES. THEIR HOUSES AND THEIR PROPERTY WILL, HOWEVER, BE SYSTEMATICALLY DESTROYED.6

The German public would be informed directly by way of 'intense leaflet raids on the towns concerned and non-stop broadcasting in German'.7 This would make them 'understand that Hitler alone can save them -- either by evacuation -- or by ceasing his indiscriminate raids on Britain'.8 For him not to do so 'would mean having his own throat cut'.9 The number of towns to be bombed apart, this is essentially the same proposal as that put forward by Portal and discussed by the War Cabinet two weeks later. Was Cassandra the origin of the reprisals after notice idea? Did RAF commanders take advice on strategy from the popular press?

Well, on the evidence available we can't say. After all, it had been the RAF's practice -- at least sometimes -- to issue warnings to villages about to bombed in colonial air control operations in the 1920s and 1930s. So it could have been internally generated and simply a coincidence that the official discourse followed the public one.

One final piece of speculation. Despite Cassandra, the reprisals after notice doesn't seem to have been taken up very widely at first. It was not until a Conservative MP, Victor Cazalet, put it forward again (this time suggesting twelve as the number of cities) in a letter to The Times, that it sparked any interest (at least among other letter-writers to The Times, as well as the Manchester Guardian).10 Cazalet was a good friend of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax, who, as it happens was at the War Cabinet meeting when reprisals after notice was discussed. That meeting was held on 11 September at 10 Downing Street, just a short stroll from where Cazalet wrote his letter to The Times that very same day.11 Did Cazalet get the idea from Halifax, then? Was it planted in the press on purpose, perhaps to create a clamour for the idea, or to demonstrate to neutral opinion (i.e. the United States) that the British people were going to fight back with a humanitarian form of aerial bombardment? Again, there is no evidence for this (Halifax's diary doesn't suggest a meeting with Cazalet that day, unless it was at the Dorchester where they both roomed, the latter being a director) and it could be a coincidence that this idea kept popping up around the start of the Blitz. Which in some ways would be even more interesting than a causal relationship.


  1. Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4. 

  2. The National Archives, CAB 65/9/9, W. M. (40) 247, War Cabinet conclusions, 11 September 1940. See Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 171. 

  3. CAB 65/9/9. 

  4. Daily Mirror, 29 August 1940, 4. 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. The Times, 12 September 1940, 5. 

  11. Ibid. 

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8 thoughts on “Cause and effect in British air policy discourse

  1. If this was the English Civil War, we’d definitely be speculating that someone in the government fed the idea to the press to outmanoeuvre a rival faction by getting, or creating the impression of, popular support for their own policies. But at that time it’s fairly clear that some of the newsbooks were very close to certain grandees in Parliament. It’s probably more complicated in this period, and I assume the Mirror wouldn’t be co-operating with the Tories, even secretly.

  2. Oh, Gavin. Speculation and wild fantasy have no place in serious postblogging.

    Otherwise, I’d say that living at the same address would be pretty much the smoking gun. Never mind the partisan issue. How could anyone take Cazaret as not floating a trial balloon?

  3. TF Smith

    Interesting; the USAAF actually did this fairly extensively in 1945, during the 20th Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign against Japan, to the extent of dropping tens of thousands of leaflets on given cities before they were attacked. Obviously, this was more an effort against Japanese civilian morale than humanitarianism, but it is an example of trying to put this sort of concept into effect. The Potsdam Declaration was the same sort of idea writ large, and we all know how well that worked…

    Did the RAAF B-24s that operated against the NEI do anything similar?

  4. Post author

    Gavin:

    No, the Mirror was not well-disposed towards the Conservatives. But wherever this specific idea came from, the Mirror in this period was strongly supportive of reprisal bombing in general, attacking the government for ruling it out (e.g. on 26 August another columnist, Bill Greig, claimed that the German attack on London a couple of days earlier was a direct consequence of Sinclair saying he was ‘dead against’ reprisal raids on Berlin). So it would be politically risky to pour oil onto that particular fire, I think.

    Erik:

    To be fair, many of the rich and powerful stayed at the Dorch during the Blitz, apparently including Churchill himself (it featured an unusually sturdy construction, so the basement was thought to be especially safe. As well as luxurious, of course). So that in itself doesn’t mean too much. But Halifax and Cazalet were particular friends.

    TF:

    Interesting; the USAAF actually did this fairly extensively in 1945, during the 20th Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign against Japan, to the extent of dropping tens of thousands of leaflets on given cities before they were attacked. Obviously, this was more an effort against Japanese civilian morale than humanitarianism, but it is an example of trying to put this sort of concept into effect. The Potsdam Declaration was the same sort of idea writ large, and we all know how well that worked…

    Thanks for reminding me of LeMay’s leaflet. That is indeed very similar in spirit to the Blitz (though not technically intended as reprisals, except in the sense that they were for the war itself). The point you make about it being an attack on morale rather than a humanitarian gesture is also salient — I’ve perhaps overemphasised the humanitarian aspects of the British proposals here, because the real point was not that this was a nicer way to wage war than indiscriminate bombing of civilians but that it was a harsher way to wage war than precision bombing of industry, which is what everyone mistakenly believed the RAF was then doing. German civilians would, after all, lose their homes, their hospitals, their churches, and so on, just as British ones were; and if they didn’t evacuate, their lives too. There were also military-economic calculations, in that any mass evacuation in itself would cause huge headaches for the German government and dislocate the war effort (this seems to have been an argument when the reprisals after notice idea was revived by the Foreign Office in April 1942, though that may have been as a way of making it palatable to the RAF, which didn’t work). And ultimately it would have been a morale attack, too. So it was humanitarian in one sense (and I think some people did see it that way) but really it was a compromise or waystation on the road to total bombing.

    Did the RAAF B-24s that operated against the NEI do anything similar?

    I’ve no idea. I don’t think they were attacking urban areas per se, as opposed to airfields, oil plants, and the like, but friendly civilians would have been at risk. Obviously that placed the civilians concerned in a double bind — flee and face reprisals from the occupiers, stay and face reprisals from your friends. The RAF did drop warning leaflets over France, at least sometimes, for example before the Billancourt raid in March 1942.

  5. TF Smith

    Brett –

    My pleasure – it is an interesting question how the Allies approached the issue; the RAF and USAAF, although on the surface looking reasonably alike, had very real doctrinal and organizational differences – the independence of the RAF being only the most obvious.

    Seems like you have plenty on your plate, but you may want to consider the evolution of the RAAF’s approach to strategic bombing, before and during World War II and during the Cold War, and in contract to the prevailing thoughts in the RAF, USAAF, and USN, might be a rewarding area of research – the relevant point being that outside of the Britsh and American service(s), I believe the RAAF is the only Western air arm that conducted a strategic air campaign – and primarily daylight bombardment, IIRC – essentially on its own.

    The RCAF group assigned to Bomber Command, for example, were integrated into the larger British command, and did not choose their own targets, etc – same the separate RNZAF or SAAF heavy bombardment squadron operating over Europe or in the Mediterranean theater.

    In addition, the RAAF maintained a specialized “bombardment” element throughout the Cold War, that transitioned from Liberators to Lincolns to Canberras to F-111s…the other Commonwealth air forces (the RCAF, for example) which had organized heavy bombardment units during World War II generally did not maintain them, with exception of the SAAF – although the RCAF did have a NATO nuclear strike role with F-104s in Germany.

    Be interesting to see how RAAF procedure differed from RAF Bomber/Strike Command and the Strategic Air Command during this period.

    Best,

  6. Post author

    outside of the Britsh and American service(s), I believe the RAAF is the only Western air arm that conducted a strategic air campaign – and primarily daylight bombardment, IIRC – essentially on its own.

    Yes, I think that’s true. I don’t know of any recent histories of this campaign (perhaps JDK does? Of course, there’s ) The RAAF has been less well-served by academic historians than the Army or, to a lesser extent, the RAN — honourable exceptions to Chris (Coulthard-)Clark and Michael Molkentin here. So there’s definitely a lot which could be done.

    In addition, the RAAF maintained a specialized “bombardment” element throughout the Cold War, that transitioned from Liberators to Lincolns to Canberras to F-111s…the other Commonwealth air forces (the RCAF, for example) which had organized heavy bombardment units during World War II generally did not maintain them, with exception of the SAAF – although the RCAF did have a NATO nuclear strike role with F-104s in Germany.

    That’s also an interesting point. The vastness of the Australian continent and hence the defence problem must be part of the reason, though I think that in the end we maintained heavy bombers for much the same reason as the SAAF. Certainly, when the F-111 retirement was looming there was disquiet in some circles about our losing the capacity to bomb Jakarta. Oddly enough there’s no sign as yet that Indonesia has realised that it is no longer being deterred from doing whatever it was it was supposed to be planning on doing. Probably because it never realised it was being deterred in the first place. Of course, it’s all about boat people these days, and we haven’t yet descended to the level where bombers are part of the answer to that question. Not yet.

  7. …perhaps JDK does?…

    ‘Not my field’, is I believe the correct response. However I’ve had a brief look and a couple of intriguing comments have come up, which I’d like to check further before venturing into a neighbor’s paddock.

  8. TF Smith

    Thanks to both of you for the responses; it would be interesting to read what JDK has found.

    And I am glad to hear that Australia is not planning on addressing the refugee crisis through strategic bombing.

    All the best,

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