Incompletely sceptical

During the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, British newspapers regularly published official German statements about the progress of the air war. Those relating to the war over Britain could be checked against both British communiques and, to an extent, personal experience. There were large discrepancies: for example, for 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe claimed to have lost 26 aircraft compared to 94 lost by the RAF. The British claims were almost precisely inverse: 22 British losses to 99 German.1 Partly the differences were inherent in the nature of air combat: the same kills were often claimed by different pilots, aircraft which may have looked like goners somehow made it back to base. But in the era of Dr. Goebbels and Lord Haw-Haw, there must also have been great suspicion of anything said by any German official. According to a leading article in the Manchester Guardian, what 'the German High Command [says] on the eve of or in the course of an attack, is not evidence'.2

But there was also the air war over Germany. Here, German official statements were one of the few sources of information about the effectiveness of Bomber Command's assaults on Germany available to the British press. The very same leading article noted a discrepancy here as well, a different kind. The first really big raids on London, on 7 September 1940, killed around 400 civilians and injured 1300, according to first reports. But strangely, these casualties were far greater than those being sustained in Berlin:

Our own aircraft were over Berlin for nearly three hours on the previous night [6 September 1940] and attacked an aeroplane engine works at Spandau as well as a Berlin power station. According to the official statement made in Berlin on Saturday the anti-aircraft protective was forced by the third wave of bombers and in a working-class district fires were started and "appreciable damage done to buildings." Yet the casualties are given as three people killed and several injured. It is to be concluded either that the casualty list has been incompletely compiled or else that our bombers showed even more ability at confining themselves to their legitimate objectives than they did in forcing the city's defences.3

'[I]ncompletely compiled' seems an unnecessarily polite way of calling the Germans liars, but I'll let that pass. The first thing to note is that there are several alternative explanations for the difference in reported casualties between Berlin and London that the Manchester Guardian neglected: for example, maybe Berlin's ARP was better than London (lots of deep shelters, perhaps); or maybe Bomber Command wasn't hitting Berlin as hard as the Luftwaffe was hitting London. Neither of those possibilities would have been very palatable.

The editorial conclusion is, I think, very revealing:

The apparent contrast in casualties inflicted would argue a much closer and more effective concern with legitimate targets on the part of the R.A.F.4

So, rather than discount the German claims of light casualties as more of the usual lies, designed to show the world that Germany was winning the air war, the Manchester Guardian evidently preferred to regard them as true, because that confirmed the belief that Bomber Command was only attacking legitimate (that is to say, military) objectives, unlike the Germans. In this way, German propaganda seems to have fostered the delusions of both countries.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

  1. Actual losses were more like 28 British to 41 German. []
  2. Manchester Guardian, 9 September 1940, p. 4. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Ibid. []

10 thoughts on “Incompletely sceptical

  1. This has reminded me of something: in all the discussions about cultural memories of the bomber offensive we couldn't think of any British war films that showed the RAF bombing German cities. Now I realise there is one, and ironically it's The Battle of Britain. The bombing of Berlin is quite an important plot point because it enrages Hitler so much that he makes the Luftwaffe concentrate on London, leading to the climactic battle on 15th September (which goes so badly for the Germans that they've completely given up by 16th September, but anyway no-one said it had to be a realistic film...).

  2. Yes, good point. I can't remember which post the comments were on, and it might have been more than one as it seems to come up a lot here, but we tended to class Dam Busters as precision bombing against military/industrial targets rather than Harris-style area bombing. But as you say it's hard to ignore the inevitable impact on civilians.

    And the bombing in Battle of Britain isn't Harris-style area bombing either. But it's interesting that in BoB the Luftwaffe are shown mostly bombing military targets in Britain, and it's the RAF who bomb a city first, provoking the reprisals on London. We don't actually get to see the British bombers or the impact of the bombs so we don't know what they're bombing - it could be military/industrial targets.

  3. Post author

    Well, Battle of Britain did show the Luftwaffe bombing London first (admittedly by accident). And it also does show some proper Blitzing -- a working class area gets bombed, they dig survivors out of the rubble, there are families down in the Tube, etc. (It's got a bit of everything, it has.) But you're right, it does show the RAF bombing Berlin.

    Was it this thread that you were thinking of, Gavin? In it I mention Appointment in London (1952), starring Dirk Bogarde, which I've still yet to see. It sounds like it's a fairly accurate portrayal of Bomber Command missions. Though even there the target for the climactic raid is not a city but a secret weapons complex -- but it's not precision bombing either.

  4. There's also A Matter of Life and Death (1946), in which David Niven's character is a veteran Master Bomber whose plane crashes after what must be one of the last 1,000-bomber raids on Berlin at the very end of the war (I wonder in fact if Peter Carter is supposed to be the very last pilot killed in the war - British pilot, anyway - which makes his accidental escape all the more poignant). Carter is troubled by all sorts of existential concerns during the film, but the morality of his former job bothers him not a jot - nor does it concern the judges of Heaven either.

  5. Post author

    That's an interesting datum! Judging from IMDb, there's some sort of reference in the film to a nuclear war or at least to Hiroshima -- is there no connection made between that and his being a bomber pilot?

  6. Presumably the reference you mean is from the famous opening narrative: “Someone must have been messing about with the uranium atom. It was not our solar system, I’m glad to say.” There's not much else made of the connection.

  7. Dan Todman

    I'm off to see the stage adaptation of AMOLAD on Thursday. Will be very interesting to see what they've done with it.

  8. Jakob

    The stage adaptation is... weird. And fantastic. It's a weird mix of tone and performance type (what's the analogue of 'mixed media' for the stage? - theatre, circus-like stunts, music, dancing) that doesn't always gel, but is very moving.

    I haven't seen the film, but the the morality of bombing is discussed in the play's climactic part. I've also been told by a friend that works at the National that there were two endings used during previews; the ending chosen depended on the audience's reaction to the arguments at the trial. They apparently killed off the lead a couple of times, but they may have stopped this for the main run.

    Now all I need to do is rent a copy of the original.

  9. the morality of his former job bothers him not a jot - nor does it concern the judges of Heaven either

    That'll be because at one point in the film you see the gates of Heaven where huge crowds of the war dead of every nation and branch of service are streaming in.

    The flick was photographed by Jack Cardiff, scripted by Emeric Pressburger, directed by Michael Powell, and produced by Alexander Korda...and heaven looks suspiciously like the Royal Festival Hall crossed with St Clement Danes..

Leave a Reply

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