A Guilty Man?

Sir Kingsley Wood and a Blenheim Mk I

I'm sure everybody has a favourite story about Sir Kingsley Wood. Mine is the one from when he was Air Minister at the start of the Second World War, and he refused to bomb Germany on the grounds that it would damage private property. As A. J. P. Taylor tells it:

Kingsley Wood, secretary for air, met a proposal to set fire to German forests with the agonized cry: 'Are you aware it is private property? Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next.'1

It's a great anecdote which perfectly sums up the dithering nature of Chamberlain's government during the Bore War, unable or unwilling to fight a total war (it took Churchill to do that), and it's understandable why it appears in so many books and websites. Piers Brendon includes it in a discussion of the weak men Chamberlain surrounded himself with; Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott in The Appeasers.2 And fair enough; Wood is one of Cato's Guilty Men, after all. The only problem is that it's not clear if it's actually true; or, even if it is true and Wood did say it, whether it accurately reflects British bombing policy before May 1940.

To back up a little, I didn't doubt the veracity of this story originally, but because I wanted to use it I went looking for a good source to cite for it. But I couldn't find it in any of the histories of Bomber Command I have to hand, which seemed odd. I did find it in histories both more general (like AJP's) and more specific (such as Frederick Taylor's book on Dresden, where he does at least say it may be apocryphal). Trawling through Google and Google Books found many retellings, some quite at variance with other versions (eg that it happened in 1940, not 1939; or that Wood said it in the House of Commons or in Cabinet), some in surprising sources (a book on the ecological impact of transportation, for example). This worried me; the story has such widespread currency and is freighted with such obvious meaning that it deserved to be subjected to a bit more rigour than is possible in the usual throwaway line.

So like any historian I tracked the story back to the primary source. A. J. P. Taylor gives a citation: 'Spears, Prelude to Dunkirk, 32'. This is Major-General Sir Edward Spears' memoir of the period July 1939 to May 1940. For most of the time after the outbreak of war Spears reprised his role in the previous war as a military liaison between the British and French. But since 1931 he had also been a Conservative MP, and latterly an Edenite anti-appeaser, and this is how he comes into the Kingsley Wood story.

After the declaration of war, Spears wrote, many MPs 'were as worried as I was that we were doing nothing by way of air attack on Germany to relieve the intolerable pressure the German Luftwaffe was exerting on Poland', particularly in view of press and diplomatic reports that open towns were being bombed (reports denied, or at least not supported, in the House of Commons).3 All Britain and France were doing was dropping propaganda leaflets on German cities. Spears, with the support of the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, determined to raise the matter in the House; but was headed off at the pass by Wood himself, who privately and 'in the name of the Chief of the Air Staff begged me not speak'.4 According to Spears, Wood told him that 'the Service Departments considered no good whatever could be achieved by air interventions and that the Poles would not be helped by it'.5 Spears got quite angry with the Air Minister:

how could we justify the Prime Minister's pledge that we would go to the support of the Poles immediately with all our forces, when we were not even bombing Germany?

It was ignominious, I told him, to stage a confetti war against an utterly ruthless enemy who was meanwhile destroying a whole nation, and to pretend we were thereby fulfilling our obligations.6

In the end, however, Spears gave way to Wood and did not make his speech in the House.

But that's not the bit about private property. That's this bit:

I told Leo Amery of my brush with Kingsley Wood and he gave me an account of his own experience with the Air Minister which threw a really astounding light on the mentality of Munichers at war. Amery knew the Black Forest and was well aware that that vast wooded area was packed full of munitions and warlike stores. He suggested that we should immediately drop incendiary bombs on to it. It had been a very dry summer, he pointed out, and the wood would burn easily, but the rain might come at any moment and a unique opportunity might be lost, probably for ever.

Kingsley Wood turned down the suggestion with some asperity. "Are you aware it is private property?" he said. "Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next!"7

So it turns out that we have the story only at third hand: Spears saying (after the war) that Wood told Amery that bombing the Black Forest (and Essen) was out because it was private property.

Wood died in 1943, so wasn't able to give his own version when Spears published his memoirs in 1954. Nor does he seem to have kept a diary. Amery was still alive, though; and did keep a diary. In its published form, that diary mentions Amery's discussion with Wood on 5 September about bombing 'Essen or even set[ting] fire to German forests', but says nothing about private property:

In the coffee room I tackled Kingsley Wood on this. He was very stuffy and evidently has been responsible for all this, on some mistaken notion that we are winning American sympathy, and forgetting that we are doing nothing nothing really to help the Poles.... Went away very angry.8

Amery's editors discuss the private property story, but without offering an opinion on it. However, they do quote Amery's recollections of the episode in a letter written in 1954 after having read Spears:

I am not sure that Spears has got the wording right. But I did talk to Kingsley Wood in the first two or three days of the war about setting fire to the Black Forest, and I think I also mentioned the fact that they had munition dumps there, though my main argument was to deprive them of timber. I cannot remember whether he spoke about it being private property, but if he did it way well have been in order to put me off the fact that the French were desperately anxious to have nothing to do with bombing till their own anti-aircraft defences were better, while our own people were a bit of the same school of thought. What I do remember was that I was very indignant for it seemed to me essential on moral grounds, if on no others, that we should try and do something to help the Poles.9

So, to recap: Amery himself was (in 1954) doubtful about Spears' version (in 1954) of what Amery said (in 1939) that Wood said (in 1939). I think this means we should be doubtful too. The story about Sir Kingsley Wood not wanting to bomb German private property should be retired, or at least have a big warning sign fixed to it.

That it has been floating around for so long, apparently unchallenged, points to the continuing influence of the Churchillians in the historiography of the Second World War (Gilbert, for example, is Churchill's leading biographer; Piers Brendon was Keeper of the Churchill Archives). Wood was one of Chamberlain's men, a 'Municher' as Spears put it, and therefore immediately suspect: once an appeaser, always an appeaser. Never mind that it was during Wood's time as Air Minister that British aircraft production first outstripped Germany's. And never mind that Churchill himself made Wood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, a more important role than Air Minister (or Lord Privy Seal, which Chamberlain had moved him to), and kept him there during the war's darkest years (he was responsible for PAYE, by the way). The story is just too good not to repeat: it affirms what we 'know' about the Chamberlainites and their purported inability and/or unwillingness to fight Germany.

But, given that historians of Bomber Command and/or British strategy during the Bore War don't seem to like the story, presumably there's no evidence for any similar arguments being made by Wood or anyone else in Cabinet or the Air Ministry. On the contrary, it is well-established that at the outbreak of war, Bomber Command was ordered not to attack targets inside Germany, partly for fear of provoking reprisal air raids against Britain, partly to conserve Bomber Command's limited resources, but mostly because of concerns about the effect on neutral, and more particularly American, opinion, should the RAF start killing civilians.10

Guilty Men never die; only their reputations.

Image source: Test & Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers (Wood is in the middle of the group standing in front of the Blenheim).

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 http://airminded.org/copyright/.

  1. A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992 [1965]), 459. []
  2. Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 522; Martin Gilbert and Richard Gott, The Appeasers (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), 319. []
  3. Edward Spears, Assignment to Catastrophe, Volume I: Prelude to Dunkirk July 1939-May 1940 (London, Melbourne and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1954), 29. []
  4. Ibid., 30. []
  5. Ibid., 31. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Ibid., 31-2; emphasis added. []
  8. John Barnes and David Nicholson, eds., The Empire at Bay: The Leo Amery Diaries 1929-1945 (London: Hutchinson, 1988), 572. Amery also recorded having lunch with Spears on 14 September where they discussed the RAF's inactivity, though this would seem to be a bit late for the meeting mentioned in Spears' memoirs. []
  9. Amery to Walter Elliott [Elliot?], 18 June 1954, Amery Papers; quoted in Barnes and Nicholson, eds., Empire at Bay, 559-60; emphasis added. []
  10. See, e.g., Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, I: Preparation (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 134-6. []

5 thoughts on “A Guilty Man?

  1. Dan

    Another phenomenal post Brett. Did it get repeated (perhaps by Spears?) in The World at War in the early 1970s - I seem to have a vague memory of that but can't track it down at the moment. In the ranks of Churchillian zombie myths you might rank it alongside Sir Thomas Inskip's appointment as Minister for the Coordination of Defence being 'the worst appointment since Caligula made his horse a pro-consul' - which appeared originally within Churchill's circle as 'the most cynical appointment etc', with reference to the fact that Inskip would follow the party line and not undermine the PM, unlike WSC who also wanted the job. Again, the mangled version has become standard, again totally devoid from its original context - and whilst Gilbert sets out an accurate version, he doesn't explain its significance.

  2. Post author

    Oh, don't get me started on Caligula's horse! Churchill's finest hour might not have been so fine if, nearly three years earlier, Inskip hadn't recommended prioritising production of fighters over bombers.

    The World At War has just started showing again on TV here. I'd forgotten how good it is, and as I've missed an episode or two already I think I might have to buy a copy...

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  4. Edward Reif

    There is this, perhaps:
    "The Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments in 1922 appointed a Commission of Jurists to draw up a code of rules about aerial warfare. It did not become an international convention, yet great weight should be attached to that code on account of its authors. Article 22 reads: Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited."

    and though I cannot find the book in google books, wikipedia quotes this one:
    "While it was acknowledged bombing Germany would cause civilian casualties, the British government renounced deliberate bombing of civilian property, outside combat zones, as a military tactic."
    A.C. Grayling (Bloomsbury 2006), p. 24.

    Grayling, A. C. (2006). Among the Dead Cities. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-7671-6.

  5. Post author

    That's a great suggestion, actually! These are the so-called Hague aerial warfare rules which, as Bell says in your quote above, were not ratified; but they were used by Britain as a starting point (in fact, at the start of the war the RAF's own rules were somewhat stricter). So it's something Wood might have had in mind on this point. It might not even be that Wood leant very hard on it -- perhaps just quoted it in passing, and Amery misunderstood and ran with it.

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