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. 5
The German public would be informed directly by way of 'intense leaflet raids on the towns concerned and non-stop broadcasting in German'. 5 This would make them 'understand that Hitler alone can save them -- either by evacuation -- or by ceasing his indiscriminate raids on Britain'. 5 For him not to do so 'would mean having his own throat cut'. 5 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). 6 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. 5 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.
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- Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, vol. 1 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961), 153-4.
- 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.
- CAB 65/9/9.
- Daily Mirror, 29 August 1940, 4.
- The Times, 12 September 1940, 5.