Patrick Bishop. Bomber Boys: Fighting Back, 1940–1945. Harper Press. 448 pages. $32.95
When a nation finds itself at war with its survival at stake, it invariably turns to the hard men: the Shermans and the Pattons, warriors characterized by their ruthlessness and the single-minded pursuit of their objective. In World War ii Britain, such a figure was Arthur Harris, also known as Bomber Harris, the leader of Bomber Command, who unleashed the saturation attacks on German cities and became one of the most controversial figures on the allied side.
For critics, Harris’s name will forever be linked with the bombing of Dresden, which they see as the symbol of the immorality of carpet bombing: an exquisite baroque city, known as the Florence of the North, wiped off the map in a wanton act of destruction at a late point in the war. 40,000to 60,000 civilians perished in the inferno, but in some accounts, it is as if the loss of art treasures is the more important.
The controversy over Harris started even before the war ended, with scattered Labour voices insisting that Britain was losing the moral argument by bombing women and children. More significant, in his Victory in Europe Day speech, Winston Churchill paid magnificent tribute to the raf fighters for their contribution in the Battle of Britain of 1940 — “Never before in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few ” — and went on to praise the Navy and the Army; but he did not mention his bomber force with a single word.
In the 1960s, Harris’s reputation took a further dive: He was compared to Field Marshall Haig, the great squanderer of lives during World War i. The peace protesters of the 1970s saw his city-busting efforts as having made acceptable the use of weapons of mass destruction. Most recently, a spate of German books portrays Harris as a war criminal, some with horrendous photos of mummified firestorm casualties. When a statue of Harris was revealed in London in 1992, mayors of German cities protested.
Thus, while the fighter pilots with their silk scarves have passed into legend as the knights of the air in their nimble Spitfires and Hurricanes, Harris ’s bomber crews have remained largely anonymous. Harris provided his own explanation of the difference: “The bomber drops things on people and people don’t like things being dropped on them. And the fighter shoots at the bomber who drops things. Therefore he is popular whereas the bomber is unpopular. It is as easy as that. ”
But the air crews’ mission was one of the most dangerous of the war, flying their heavy and poorly defended planes into the most heavily defended airspace on earth, with fighters pouncing on them and flak exploding all around. This is borne out by the casualty figures: Out of a force of 125,000, 55,573, or 44.4 percent, were killed. According to British war correspondent and author Patrick Bishop, with many airmen still in training at the war ’s end, the real percentage comes closer to 65, making it the highest of the three services.
With Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940–1945, Bishop has produced the natural follow-up to his acclaimed Fighter Boys. About his new book’s purpose he writes, “History in its current mood has paid limited attention to the ethos and character of the men who fought this most extraordinary war. This book sets out to correct the imbalance. ”
One of the most annoying tendencies among modern historians is the urge to score easy moral points by behaving like peace-time lawyers in a civilian court of law. As an admirable exception to the breed, Bishop tries to describe the options as they appeared to the decision-makers at the time, not as they may appear today with 20/20 hindsight.
His book should be read together with raf historian Henry Probert’s excellent biography Bomber Harris: His Life and Times (Stoddert Publishing, 2001), which likewise tries to provide a fair assessment of Harris. Together they offer a commonsense corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy.
In world war i, notes Bishop, the airplane was still in its infancy and its role tactical, supporting the army in reconnaissance missions and strafing enemy troops. But a peek at things to come was offered when German Zeppelins, and later Gotha and Giant bombers, bombed London, killing 1,300 civilians, the first attempt to use the airpower strategically. The deliberate targeting of civilians was again seen in the interwar years, when the Japanese bombed Shanghai in 1932 and when the German Condor Legion dive-bombed Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Consequently, British military analysts operated with nightmare scenarios of 600,000 civilian deaths and 1.2 million wounded and the breakdown of order in a future conflict. “The bomber will always get through,” as British pm Stanley Baldwin grimly put it. But for Britain, the thought of having to reengage with the Germans was just too painful to contemplate. Instead, the British put their faith in disarmament and the League of Nations, with the result that its bomber build-up was inadequate and half-hearted when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
According to Bishop, the British strategy for air war, as laid down in the Western Air Plans from 1936, operated with wildly optimistic assumptions about the bomber’s ability to find and hit its targets accurately and about its survivability. This became brutally plain in the initial phase of the war, when twin-engined Wellingtons and Blenheims were sent off to bomb German pocket battleships in Wilhelmshaven in 1939.
Under strict orders to avoid civilian casualties — “indiscriminate attack on civilian populations as such will never form part of our policy, ” in the words of the raf’s top planner — they succeeded only in lightly damaging the battleships in two attempts while losing a quarter of the attack force. In April of 1940, daylight bombing without fighter escort again proved suicidal: In an attack on shipping in Stavanger fjord in Norway, nine of 60 bombers were downed. One had erroneously assumed that daylight bombers flying in tight formation could ward off fighters.
Accordingly, a switch was made to flying at night. While precision bombing was difficult enough in optimum daytime conditions, it turned out to be even harder at night. According to a group commander cited by Bishop, his planes were “failing to find and hit any but the most obvious targets on the clearest nights.” A different approach was clearly needed, and the Air Ministry started looking at a less narrow targeting.
British-gentleman notions about bombing came to an end when German Heinkel 111s bombed Coventry in the Midlands, a center for car and airplane manufacture, on November 14, 1940, killing 554 people, injuring 865, and setting the cathedral ablaze. Afterwards, German broadcasts triumphantly introduced a new verb, koventrieren, meaning to turn cities into Coventries. In Britain, the calls arose for immediate retribution. Raged one Coventry citizen: “We are fighting gangsters, so we’ve got to be gangsters ourselves. We have been gentlemen for too long.”
With British civilian casualties of 41,000 killed and 137,000 injured in the Blitz, a July 9, 1941 official Air Ministry directive, ok’d by the chiefs of staff and the war cabinet, demanded “heavy, concentrated and continuous area attacks of large working-class areas in carefully selected towns, ” identifying civilian morale as “the weakest point in the enemy’s armour.” This, according to Bishop, marks an important shift “from scrupulousness to ruthlessness.”
Extrapolating from the German damage to Coventry, the Directorate of Bomber Operations concluded it would take six raids to destroy a town of similar size. The Directorate further concluded that it would take 4,000 bombers hitting Germany’s 43 most important towns to beat the Nazis. At this point, Britain had only 500 bombers at its disposal.
Churchill himself had from the very beginning advocated retaliation in kind, seeing the bombers as his only option in bringing the war to the enemy. Noting in July 1940 that Britain had no continental army with which to stop Hitler and that its blockade had failed, leaving Asia and Africa for Hitler to draw on, Churchill saw only one sure way to “bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country on the Nazi homeland. ” Later that year, he stated, “The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory. ”
The man chosen to implement the Air Ministry’s new strategy as Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942 was Arthur Harris, an Englishman who, with a background of tobacco farming in Rhodesia, had “the crack of an invisible sjambok about him,” in Bishop’s words. But then, to run a bombing service you do not want a great humanitarian. Harris had fought World War i in South West Africa in the First Rhodesian Regiment and then joined the Royal Flying Corps, commanding a squadron of Sopwiths in France. In 1923, he became commander of Britain’s first bomber squadron. He was convinced that the bomber would break the stalemate of the trench warfare he had seen from the air over Passchendale and that it would decide a future conflict.
Harris conducted his war from Bomber Command’s headquarters in High Wycombe. As portrayed in Probert’s biography, his leadership style was remote and aloof, and he had only contempt for the civilians of the ministries. “I am not a diplomat,” he once announced. “God forbid — look where the diplomats have got us.” Stories about him, some of them no doubt apocryphal, soon made the rounds. “And what aspect of the war effort are you retarding today?” he was supposed to have growled to a civil servant. And once, speeding in his huge black Bentley on the narrow country roads back to High Wycombe, he was stopped by two policemen on motorbikes. “Sir, you are travelling much too fast; you might kill someone,” said one. “I am on important business,” Harris answered, adding, “Now that you mention it, it is my business to kill people: Germans.” After which the policemen became his outriders the rest of the way.
As to how his men saw him, Jack Currie, one of the Bomber Boys, recalls: “There was a paradoxical comfort in serving such a dread commander: No grievance, no complaint, no criticism could possibly affect him . . . we chose to believe that Harris lived in utter luxury at Claridge ’s, and that with his morning beverage a servant brought him a jewelled dart, which he casually cast at a wall map of Europe above his dressing table. He would then take up the silver scrambler telephone and call High Wycombe. ‘This is the Commander-in-Chief. The target for tonight is. . . .’”
Contrary to the official line that only military and industrial targets were being hit and that civilian casualties were incidental, Harris was very direct about the nature of his mission: His job was to flatten cities. In total war, he argued, one cannot distinguish between soldiers and the civilian workforce producing the weapons the soldiers fight with. Besides, he would point out, area bombing is really no different morally from a naval blockade, which by its very nature also affects the whole population; Britain ’s blockade of Germany in World War I killed an estimated 800,000 Germans, albeit in a slow manner, and nobody found fault with that.
Bomber Command’s city-busting philosophy was reflected in the bombing loads: While at the beginning of the war incendiaries had only made up five percent of the load, this figure was upped to 66 percent, with heavy blast bombs making up the rest, assuring maximum damage by knocking over building structures and damaging water mains, preventing the fire-fighting services from getting the flames under control.
Believing that British bombing efforts hitherto had been squandered, Harris wanted to focus the attacks. In May 1942, he claimed, “If I could send 1,000 bombers to Germany every night, it would end the war by the autumn. We are going to bomb Germany incessantly. The day is coming when the usa and ourselves will put over such a force that the Germans will scream for mercy. ” He unleashed the first “1,000-aircraft” raid on Cologne on May 30 and 31, 1942, committing his whole force in a massive demonstration, and later went on to the Ruhr, to Hamburg, to Bremen, and finally to Berlin, conceiving each phase as a “battle.”
After the raid on Hamburg in mid-1943, which produced a huge conflagration and killed 40,000 people, the German Armaments minister, Albert Speer, stated that six such raids in succession might break German morale. But at this point, Bishop notes, Harris still lacked the power to make repeat performances of this magnitude, while Speer, for his part, underestimated German resilience.
Harris’s men, the Bomber Boys, were volunteers from all over Britain and its dominions. In common was a burning wish to fly and to defeat Nazism. But with their fathers ’ nightmare accounts of World War i trench warfare vividly in mind, many saw dying in an airplane as preferable to dying in land war.
It took two and a half years to produce an airman at a taxpayer cost of £10,000 (£875,000 in today’s money). Having started out the war in the weak Wellingtons and Blenheims, they soon were flying four-engined Stirlings and Halifaxes, and by the end of 1941, the first Lancasters appeared; they became Britain’s premier bomber throughout the war.
The seven-man crew in a Lancaster bomber consisted of the pilot, the navigator, the engineer, the bombardier, the radio operator, and two air-gunners. Thrown together from all strata of society and from all corners of the empire, and with technical skills at a premium, there was little room for class snobbery. Interestingly, the crewing-up was left to the men themselves, a process of self-selection where competence, friendliness and, very important, an aura of luck were what counted.
Flying bombers was very different from flying Spitfires, notes Bishop. Rather than possessing the dash of the fighter pilot, the airmen were more like “glorified bus drivers,” in the words of Guy Gibson, the man who led the daring 1943 raid on the Ruhr Dams. Some bus drivers: The qualities demanded of a bomber crew were patience, steadiness, and precision. Most of all, the task required sangfroid: Their machine guns were close to useless, and it was hard for a big lumbering machine like the Lancaster to take evasive action, the corkscrew being the only option. In short, the crew mostly had to sit and take it. As one fighter pilot quoted in Bishop ’s earlier book puts it, “Only a man brave beyond belief would ever want to go into bombers. Us cards all went into fighters. ”
The casualty figures mentioned above speak for themselves. In official calculations, a maximum of four percent of the attacking force was considered acceptable losses, but in the Ruhr raids the figure climbed to 4.3 percent, and in the Berlin raids it climbed to 6.5 percent, with some squadrons losing almost 20 percent of their men. Amazingly, Bomber Command never lacked volunteers, even at the height of the Battle of Berlin.
To give the men a sense that they had at least a chance of getting through this alive, their tours were limited to <<span class="smallcaps">30 sorties, which had to be verified by photo evidence. Those registering for a second tour were allowed no more than 20. Fewer than half could expect to complete the first tour, and only one in five the second. In 1943, the figures had risen to one in six for the first tour, one in 20 for the second.
Facing odds like these, no wonder the men were as superstitious as “medieval peasants,” in Bishop’s phrase, clinging to all manner of rituals and lucky charms. The interiors of their bombers was plastered with rabbits ’ feet, lucky playing cards, and St. Christopher medals. “It was quite grotesque sometimes, there were so many bits hanging about,” notes Jim Berry, a Lancaster pilot. When given an unfamiliar aircraft to fly and finding the interior thus decorated by the previous crew, Berry would order it all removed, as it represented somebody else ’s good luck. This, of course, did not prevent him from keeping a lucky farthing in his flying glove on all his missions.
How the British felt about these men and how vital they were for sustaining morale in Britain has perhaps been best expressed by Noel Coward ’s poem “Lie in the Dark and Listen”:
Lie in the dark and listen
It’s clear tonight so they are flying high,
Hundreds of them, thousands perhaps, riding the icy moonlit sky.
Men, machinery, bombs and maps
Altimeters and guns and charts
Coffee, sandwiches, fleece-lined boots
Bone and muscles and minds and hearts
English saplings with English roots
Deep in the earth they’ve left below,
Lie in the dark and let them go, lie in the dark and listen.
Unfortunately, despite the risks involved, photo reconnaissance from the summer of 1941 revealed that only one in three bombers got within five miles of its target, and in the Ruhr, where targets were hard to locate in the perpetual smoke and haze, the figure was one in ten. Thus, Churchill already had doubts about bombing ’s war-winning potential before Harris took charge, noting in September 1941, “It is very disputable whether bombing by itself will be a decisive factor in the present war. On the contrary, all that we have learnt since the war shows that its effects, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated. ”
But Churchill realized that rethinking the raf bomber program would take months, depriving Britain of its only means of retaliation. The bombing campaign also formed a vital political function in placating Stalin, with his constant demands for a Second Front, so Churchill decided “to persevere” and gave Harris his full support.
A new factor was introduced when the first elements of the American 8th Air Force arrived in August 1942 and were offered East Anglia as their stationing area. The Brits and the Americans espoused different doctrines. In keeping with their notions of precision bombing, the Americans were trained only for daytime operations. The British, based on their own dearly earned experience, tried to talk them into switching to night bombing, but in vain. So the division of labor was that the American Flying Fortresses and Liberators would bomb by day, the Brits by night.
At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, a decision had been made to undertake a joint bomber offensive in preparation for an allied invasion, seeking “the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened. ”
To the Americans this meant going after specific industries, starting with aircraft production, hitting the Luftwaffe ’s ball-bearing plants, engine factories, and repair facilities, and thus gaining air superiority. To Harris this meant continuing his area bombing of industrial centers. He was scornful of what he dismissed as an American fondness for “panacea targets,” Probert quotes him as saying, “e.g. oil, rubber, ball bearings, the German aircraft industry being spread out. Specialising in one such means that the enemy concentrates all his defences, and nothing else in Germany including morale and housing is likely to suffer. If the ‘panacea’ fails, all is lost.” So he stuck to his nighttime city attacks, leaving it to the Americans to go after the German aircraft industry.
With the invasion moving closer, and still wedded to the idea of winning the war by bombing alone, Harris wrote Churchill in November 1943, saying, “We can wreck Berlin from end to end, if the usaaf will come in on it. It will cost us 400-500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.”
But despite the huge damage inflicted, despite improvements in navigation systems, bombsights and target-area-marking, towards the end of 1943 Bomber Command was incurring huge losses with no end in sight. A spread-out city like Berlin, under continuous cloud cover, proved a particularly difficult target to hit. In the period November 1943 through March 1944, Harris lost 1,047 bombers over Berlin, or twice the number of planes he had told Churchill would constitute an acceptable price of victory.
According to Bishop, Harris had to give up on the notion of winning by bombing alone in early April 1944. He subsequently ascribed this failure to the Americans’ not having joined in. In preparation for Overlord, he was put under Eisenhower’s command and was ordered to hit marshalling yards and coastal batteries in France and then to provide support for the ground invasion. In September 1944, his Bomber Command became independent again. By then, oil had emerged as the key target in Germany, and though again he dismissed it as another “panacea” target, he grudgingly obeyed orders while continuing to hammer German cities, culminating in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945.
On dresden, harris was characteristically unapologetic. In a postwar interview, he poured scorn on those who saw it simply as “a lovely city solely engaged in producing beautiful little china shepherdesses with frilly skirts. ” On the city’s legitimacy as a target, both authors note that at this point there was no way of knowing that the war was over: German resistance was still fierce, as had been proved by the Ardennes offensive, and new weapons were still being produced, jets and v2 rockets. Moreover, as Probert notes, Dresden wasn’t even Harris’s idea, the city being too far away in the east and there being too little information on it. In fact, it was the result of an order coming from above. Stalin had specifically asked Churchill for it at Yalta to help disrupt German reinforcements.
But in a minute written on March 28, Churchill seemed to be distancing himself from his own decision. Having first made the pragmatic point that a stage seemed to have been reached where further bombing was counterproductive to Germany ’s post-war ability to take care of itself, he went on to make a moral point: Referring specifically to Dresden, he wrote, “The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of allied bombing. ”
This, notes Bishop, is one of Churchill’s less impressive moments, given his support for area bombing and the fact that he had himself given the order for bombing Dresden. At the suggestion of his Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal, Churchill removed the reference to Dresden and instead wrote, “We must see to it that our attacks do not do more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemies ’ immediate war effort.”
As to why he did so, being normally pretty up-front about everything, Probert sees the explanation in Churchill ’s looking to the future: The threat to the Western democracies was no longer Germany but Russia. One might even need to quickly rearm German soldiers if the Russians decided to press on. Accordingly, it was not in Britain ’s interest to dwell on the bombing of German cities. As a result, Harris’s men were not awarded a campaign medal, as the troops that had fought overseas were, but only the defense medal issued to all who had participated in the home defense of Britain. Harris spent the rest of his long life fighting for recognition of Bomber Command ’s contribution to the war.
What does it all add up to? Obviously, the bombing campaign didn’t manage to defeat Germany single-handedly or to wreck German industry. Through Speer ’s ingenuity at dispersal, German military output trebled between 1941 and 1944, and in the end it was a “panacea” target, namely oil, that brought Germany’s war machine to a halt. But this does not mean the campaign was in vain, both authors agree.
Bomber Command’s single greatest achievement, Probert notes, was that it forced the Luftwaffe on the defensive and that, in Speer ’s words, it “opened a second front long before the invasion of Europe.” Probert further argues that it made Hitler order much of German industry underground over Speer ’s objections, involving huge construction tasks and costing huge sums, and tied up a lot of men and production defending German cities, resources that would otherwise have been available against Allied armies in Normandy and in the later campaigns.
Just as important, notes Bishop, unlike the period after World War i in which all kinds of myths had been allowed to grow in Germany, notably the lie that the army had been undefeated but had been stabbed in the back by the Jews, this time nobody could doubt Germany ’s defeat. “One undeniable success, an awkward one to acknowledge nowadays, is that it altered Germany ’s personality. Saturation bombing may not, as intended, have broken the Germans’ spirit. But it helped powerfully to bring about their post-war conversion to peaceful democracy. ”
It is one thing to discuss the effectiveness of the bombing of Germany. It is quite another to raise moral doubts. On the latter, Britain has nothing to apologize for. Writes Bishop: “The effects of British and American bombing in Germany and the lands that Germany conquered were dreadful, and it is right that they should be recorded and remembered. But the Allies ’ real crime would have been to hold back from using any of the means at their disposal to destroy Hitler and those who sustained his war. ”
Interestingly, as Bishop points out, there has never been a similar debate over the bombing of Germany in the United States. In large part, this is due to the American claim that as daytime bombers they were engaged in precision bombing, not area bombing. But in reality, because the technology at the time did not allow true precision, there really was no difference. As one American official quips, “the raf carried out precision attacks on area targets, while the usaaf carried out area attacks on precision targets.”
What’s more, adds Bishop, America showed no hesitation in firebombing Tokyo, and faced with estimated casualties of more than a million in an invasion of the Japanese mainland, Truman gave the order to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and slept well afterwards, knowing he had made the right decision.
Both the strength and the weakness of Western democracy is our attachment to individual life. But when up against a Hitler, who told Speer he had no feeling for the sufferings of Londoners, or a Tojo, who adhered to the Bushido code of barbarism, you have to be prepared to do what is necessary. It ’s either that, or lose.