Bomber Command Controversy 1941-42 Part II

Another impotent critic was Lord Beaverbrook. Not in the least afraid of speaking his mind to Churchill, after a relatively brief period of real power as Minister of Aircraft Production, by the end of 1941 his influence had waned greatly. His fierce comments on the bomber offensive, like the speech of Cripps, are important because they were made, not because they influenced policy.

The events of the past eight months [wrote Beaverbrook on 7 February 1942] have shown that the achievements of our powerful and growing bomber force have been in no way commensurate with its potentialities, with the man hours and materials expended on its expansion, nor with the losses it has sustained . . . The aircraft in these operations could have been performing vital services in other theatres of war . . . The policy of bombing Germany, which in any event can yield no decisive results within any measurable period of time, should no longer be regarded as of primary importance. Bomber squadrons should be flown forthwith to the Middle and Far East.

Beaverbrook, who had been at the heart of air warfare policymaking (and at loggerheads with the Air Ministry) since 1940, was better informed than most of his Cabinet colleagues about the reality of the bomber offensive. Many ministers knew little or nothing about the struggle taking place over Germany beyond what they read in the newspapers. Ordinary members of the House of Commons and of the British public knew scarcely anything. It will become apparent later that real debate about the strategic air offensive did not develop even in well-informed circles until long after area bombing began, because so few people had any knowledge of it. Very early on, it had been agreed by the War Cabinet that there should be no public admission of changes in bombing policy. At a meeting on 24 March 1941,

Several ministers reported that many people in the country believed that, although the enemy was attacking the civil population . . . we were still deliberately refraining from attacks on the German civilian population. No minister suggested that we should alter our policy to the extent of ceasing to attack military objectives. But it might be wise to take steps to bring home to our people that attacks such as those which we had carried out on Mannheim and Hanover had already resulted in inflicting grave injury on the civilian population of those towns: and that as the strength of our bomber force increased, the civilian population of Germany would increasingly feel the weight of our air attack.

The general view of the War Cabinet was that it was better that acts should speak louder than words in this matter . . .

Therefore although the making of war policy remained in Britain a much more open business than in any Axis state, the debate about the future of the bomber offensive was conducted almost entirely within a very small circle headed by the Prime Minister. Politicians such as Captain Balfour, even those with Cabinet rank such as Cripps and Beaverbrook, were entirely eclipsed by the power of the service chiefs in deciding the course of the war. Even the Chiefs of Staff became frequently no more than a rubber stamp for decisions already taken in Downing Street, in consultation with the Air Ministry. Major-General Sir John Kennedy, the Director of Military Operations, noted without pleasure that ‘the bombing policy of the Air Staff was settled almost entirely by the Prime Minister himself in consultation with Portal, and was not controlled by the Chiefs of Staff’.

The purpose of all the foregoing has been to show that in the critical months of decision for the future of the bomber offensive there was a formidable body of dissent in the service departments and in Whitehall which held that strategic bombing had proved a failure, and that, as the war widened and Britain’s resources were stretched more tightly around the world, it was a grave error to reinforce the huge commitment to Bomber Command. Yet none of this made any impact on the decisive debate of this period: between the Chief of the Air Staff and the Prime Minister himself.

In the months that followed the fall of France in 1940, there is no dispute about the reasons for the emphasis thrust upon Bomber Command. Britain possessed no other means of taking the war to Germany. The campaign in North Africa would remain at best a sideshow and at worst a strategic irrelevance. The Royal Navy had embarked upon the long struggle to keep the Atlantic sea lanes open, but although this was to be one of the decisive battles of the Second World War, it was also a defensive one. The war could not be won without victory in the Atlantic, but victory in the Atlantic could not win the war. Churchill, with his boundless belligerence, perceived this clearly. He sought to attack Germany with whatever means were at Britain’s command. ‘In the fierce light of the present emergency,’ he wrote to Beaverbrook at the Ministry of Aircraft Production on 8 July 1940:

. . . the fighter is the need, and the output of fighters must be the prime consideration till we have broken the enemy’s attack. But when I look around to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path. We have no Continental Army which can defeat the German military power. The blockade is broken and Hitler has Asia and probably Africa to draw from. Should he be repulsed here or not try invasion, he will recoil eastward, and we have nothing to stop him. But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland. We must be able to overwhelm him by this means, without which I do not see a way through.

This is one of Churchill’s most moving papers, because it reveals so clearly his knowledge of his own unreason. Reason dictated that Germany must triumph, that there was no means by which the enemy could possibly be defeated. Britain stood alone and impotent. Bomber Command was the sole remaining tool for offensive action. All Churchill’s earlier and later writings suggest that he never rationally believed that the bomber alone could win the war. Yet in July 1940, if he did not make himself believe this, he could advocate nothing but surrender. He chose to commit himself totally to galvanizing ministers and mobilizing industry, goading air marshals and sweeping aside army and naval protest, to create the most powerful possible bomber offensive with the utmost expedition. The moment that the first, vital fighter priorities had been met, the best brains and the greatest factories in Britain were directed towards the bomber campaign. He chafed constantly at the delay between decision and production:

Prime Minister to the Air Minister, Minister of Aircraft Production and Chief of Air Staff:

30 December 1940

I am deeply concerned at the stagnant condition of our bomber force . . . I consider the rapid expansion of the bomber force one of the greatest military objectives now before us . . .

While the Prime Minister pressed the claims of the bomber offensive with all his remorseless energy, a euphoria gripped the Royal Air Force, which never entirely died for the rest of the war. In the wake of the Battle of Britain, with the nightly operations of Bomber Command in the papers and on every newsreel, with the guidance of the Air Ministry’s large and energetic public relations department, the airmen achieved a public and political recognition beyond the wildest dreams of the pre-war years. They gained a priority in production capacity and a primacy in strategic debate little short of intoxicating to senior RAF officers who had grown up amidst the constant real and imagined snubs of the army and the Royal Navy. By mid-1941 the first of the new heavy bombers, the Stirlings and Halifaxes with their five-ton bombloads to the Ruhr and 200-mph cruising speed, were coming into squadron service. The Air Staff now advanced the plan that was to remain a touchstone among the bomber enthusiasts for the remainder of the war. They proposed the creation of a force of 4,000 first-line heavy aircraft to bomb Germany, against the existing daily availability of something less than 500 of all types.

It was, in effect, a demand that the RAF should be permitted to take over the British war economy, of which it was already appropriating such an enormous share. Each Halifax required 76,000 man-hours to build, compared with 52,000 for a Whitley and 15,200 for a Spitfire, and even this figure took no account of the mass of sophisticated radar technology that would soon be in service. There was no possibility of creating a force of 4,000 heavy bombers from Britain’s industrial resources alone – it was doubtful whether it could be done even with large-scale support from American factories. But the Air Ministry now embarked on a series of increasingly fantastic statistical calculations about the weight of explosives that it was necessary to drop upon the Third Reich in order to bring it to its knees, and the 4,000-bomber plan was the basis for the first of these. To the airmen its lure was irresistible, a scheme on a scale of which they never lost sight even when all hope of Britain fulfilling it had gone.

From the beginning, the 4,000-bomber plan was greeted with a kind of fascinated awe in Whitehall. Sinclair minuted Portal on 16 June 1941, explaining something of the consternation it had caused among those who might be called upon to find the resources to transform it into reality. Ministers were ‘reluctant to commit themselves to so big a concentration of effort upon one means of winning the war’. But it is an indication of the Prime Minister’s unshakeable determination to persevere with the bomber offensive that on 7 September, only days after the Butt Report reached his desk, he wrote:

In order to achieve a first-line strength of 4,000 heavy and medium bombers, the RAF require 22,000 to be made between July 1941 and July 1943, of which 5,500 may be expected to reach us from American production. The latest forecasts show that of the remaining 16,500, only 11,000 will be got from our own factories. If we are going to win the war, we cannot accept this position . . .

Since no man knew better than the Prime Minister that bomber production forecasts invariably failed to be met,10 it is unnecessary to take this note too literally, or to regard it as evidence of Churchill’s commitment to the 4,000-bomber plan. It was one of the innumerable galvanizing memoranda that he wrote to drive the production departments to greater efforts. There is much to suggest that by September 1941 he had already set aside the concept of winning the war by bombing alone. The desperate circumstances of 1940 forced him to grasp at desperate expedients. But now the whole pattern of the war was changing out of recognition. England was safe from invasion for the foreseeable future, left to stagnate in her backwater by the conquerors of Europe. The Wehrmacht had ‘recoiled eastward’ as Churchill had anticipated, and was now deep in Russia. It was too early to anticipate the scale of Germany’s Napoleonic disaster in the east, but any man with Churchill’s sense of history must have cherished hopes that mounted with every day of winter. The Prime Minister feared as deeply as any of his generation the prospect of sending a new British army to the Continent to engage in a prolonged struggle to the death with Germany, which could inflict casualties on both sides to make the Somme a pleasant memory. Historically, England had always striven to avoid committing major land armies to the Continent, had sought instead to win her wars by blockade, naval action, and moral and financial support to her allies. In the winter of 1941, it became increasingly apparent that even if the Russians could not defeat the German army, the titanic struggles in the east must seriously weaken it. The likelihood of America entering the war was growing rapidly.

Yet even if she did so, the Allies would be compelled to adopt an indirect strategy for many months to come. Churchill wrote towards the end of 1942:

In the days when we were fighting alone we answered the question ‘How are you going to win the war?’ by saying, ‘We will shatter Germany by bombing.’ Since then the enormous injuries inflicted on the German army and manpower by the Russians, and the accession of the manpower and munitions of the United States, have rendered other possibilities open . . . We look forward to mass invasion of the Continent by liberating armies, and general revolt of the populations against the Hitler tyranny. All the same, it would be a mistake to cast aside our original thought – which, it may be mentioned, is also strong in American minds, namely, that the severe, ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort, including U-boat and aircraft production, but will also create conditions intolerable to the mass of German population . . . We must regard the bomber offensive against Germany at least as a feature in breaking her war-will second only to the largest military operations which can be conducted on the Continent until that war-will is broken . . .

Churchill conceived the bomber offensive battering Germany like the siege artillery of old, until the crumbling walls and the starvation, squalor and weariness within made it much easier for the assaulting armies to try the breach. It was precisely because some of the RAF’s foremost bomber enthusiasts understood this intention – that they should be the long-range guns of the army until the invasion of Europe could begin – that they fought so fiercely to elevate their campaign into something more, indeed into a battle to destroy Germany by bombing alone, to reduce the invasion to the mere disembarkation of the Allied armies of occupation. The American official historians wrote of the USAAF in the war that it was

. . . young, aggressive, and conscious of its growing power. It was guided by the sense of a special mission to perform. It had to justify the expenditure of billions of dollars and the use of almost a third of the army’s manpower. It sought for itself, therefore, both as free a hand as possible to prosecute the air war in accordance with its own ideas, and the maximum credit for its performance.

These words apply with equal force to the RAF and to Bomber Command. Seldom in history have men been so devoted to justification of a strategic theory in the midst of war. Only in the unique circumstances of the Grand Alliance from 1941 to 1944, when the bulk of its armies were idle or preparing themselves for the future, when such Allied land operations as took place were the merest sideshows to the great struggle taking place in Russia, could the airmen have achieved and maintained such independence of action in the face of the hostility and disbelief of the generals and admirals.

At the end of September 1941, Portal sent Churchill a paper which ‘seeks to show that judging from our own experience of German attacks, the strength required to obtain decisive results against German morale may be estimated at 4,000 heavy bombers and that the time taken would be about six months’. Churchill dealt brusquely with this formidable assertion:

It is very disputable whether bombing by itself will be a decisive factor in the present war. On the contrary, all that we learnt since the war began shows that its effects, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated . . . The most that we can say is that it will be a heavy and I trust a seriously increasing annoyance.

Churchill’s attitude – his apparent ambivalence to the bombing – was to confuse and irk the airmen until the end of the war. At one moment he seemed to be offering them his utmost support, at the next to be damning their pretensions, Yet, in his turn, the Prime Minister was exasperated by the airmen’s attempts to transform a pragmatic decision to throw the largest possible weight of explosives at the German people into a scientific theory of war. He was always mistrustful of statistics and mathematical forecasts, from whatever source. In reading his flood of minutes and letters, it is essential to bear in mind the context in which they were written. Each day, he dictated an enormous correspondence. Much of it was unreasoned and unreasonable – barbed questions and comments to service departments on a huge range of strategic, tactical and technical issues. Churchill sought to urge, to provoke, to test argument. His immense energy in searching out the darkest corners of bureaucracy was part of his genius as a war leader. It is most significant that unlike Hitler, who shared his interest in minutiae, Churchill rarely allowed his own moments of crankiness to divert the war effort. A core of common sense sustained him even at the height of his own extravagances, and it was this which was constantly offended by the special pleading of the service departments. The following year, when Admiral Tovey dispatched a paper to the Admiralty condemning the bombing of Germany as ‘a luxury not a necessity’, Churchill dismissed him as curtly as ever he handled the airmen, remarking shortly that the paper ‘damns itself’.

But Portal was nettled by Churchill’s sharp rebuff in September 1941, and by its apparent inconsistency. He reminded the Prime Minister that only weeks before he had approved a review of strategy by the Chiefs of Staff which stated that ‘it is in bombing on a scale undreamt of in the last war that we find the new weapon on which we must principally depend for the destruction of economic life and morale’. On 7 October 1941 the Prime Minister answered Portal at length:

We all hope that the air offensive against Germany will realize the expectations of the Air Staff. Everything is being done to create the bombing force on the largest possible scale, and there is no intention of changing this policy. I deprecate, however, placing unbounded confidence in one means of attack, and still more expressing that confidence in terms of arithmetic. It is the most potent method of impairing the enemy’s morale we can use at the present time. If the United States enters the war it would have to be supplemented in 1943 by simultaneous attacks by armoured forces in many of the conquered countries which were ripe for revolt. Only in this way could a decision certainly be achieved. Even if all the towns of Germany were rendered largely uninhabitable, it does not follow that the military control would be weakened or even that war industry could not be carried on . . . The Air Staff would make a mistake to put their claim too high . . . It may well be that German morale will crack, and that our bombing will play a very important part in bringing the result about. But all things are always on the move simultaneously, and it is quite possible that the Nazi war-making power in 1943 will be so widely spread throughout Europe as to be to a large extent independent of the actual buildings in the homeland . . . One has to do the best one can, but he is an unwise man who thinks there is any certain method of winning this war, or indeed any other war between equals in strength. The only plan is to persevere . . .

This was a brilliant commentary on the reality of war, expounding principles of universal application to its conduct. Churchill was not withdrawing his support from the bomber offensive, indeed he would confirm the commitment of great resources to it in the months that followed. He was serving notice of the moderation of his own expectations.

But what now was Bomber Command to seek to achieve? Since the autumn of 1940, the Air Staff had tacitly conceded that daylight operations against Germany were not a feasible proposition, although many airmen nourished long-term hopes of their resumption. There might be occasional precision attacks by day or by night when opportunity arose and when certain targets demanded urgent attention, but the Butt Report had conclusively demonstrated that the majority of Bomber Command’s crews could not find and hit a precise target at night.

For the first time in air force history [wrote the official historians] the first and paramount problem of night operations was seen at the highest level to be not merely a question of bomb aiming, though that difficulty remained, but of navigation. While the bombers were still not within five miles of the aiming-point, it was a matter of academic interest as to whether a bomb could be aimed with an error of 300, 600, or 1,000 yards.

Left to themselves, it is reasonable to suppose that the airmen would have continued to dispatch bombers to attack precise targets in Germany, maintaining their private conviction that even if these missed their targets by miles, the trauma of air bombardment would somehow cause Germany to crumble. But now they were compelled to face the reality of the Butt Report and the illogic of bombing strategy. A new policy had become inevitable.