Guest Post: The Bomber War – Part I

A guest post by David Garrett:

Last year marked the 80th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Britain. In the northern summer of 1940, pilots from Britain, all parts of the Commonwealth, a few Americans, and a bunch of very pissed off Poles and Czechs took to the skies over southern England to battle the Luftwaffe, which was tasked with establishing air superiority so Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Britain, could proceed.

The story is well known: against odds of four to one, and with the assistance of radar, fighters which were at least the equal if not in some respects superior to the Germans’ – and brilliant tactical decisions  by New Zealander Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, who controlled the fighter group defending London and the south of England – the Luftwaffe failed, and Operation Sealion never took place. “The few”, as Churchill memorably called them, had prevailed, and England lived to fight on until eventually joined by the Americans. The RAF lost 544 pilots in the Battle of Britain.

By September 1940, the Battle of Britain had been fought and won – but Bomber Command’s war was just beginning, and was to last until literally the last week of the war, with an attack on Hitler’s housing complex at Berchtesgaden (unfortunately Adolf wasn’t home). While the achievement of “the few” was magnificent and should indeed never be forgotten, it is sobering to note that Bomber Command lost more aircrew in one raid – 670 in a disastrous raid on Nuremberg which went horribly wrong – than in the entire Battle of Britain. In all, over 55,000 airmen in Bomber Command lost their lives, including 1800 odd New Zealanders.

Night after night, for almost five years, young men from throughout the Commonwealth climbed into bombers and flew eight or nine hours to and from targets in Germany. The comparison between a nine hour trip in a modern jet aircraft and those trips eighty years ago  is so massive as to be almost  incomprehensible. Aside from being in mortal peril from the time they crossed the French coast on the way out to the time they returned to their bases – some daring German night fighters even shot down bombers on their final approach to their bases in southern England – the aircraft themselves bore little resemblance to the plane that flies you to Bali, with a hot meal and free drinks.

For a start, the aircraft were unpressurized, which meant the crew needed to be on oxygen from 10,000 feet – they often bombed from as high as 25,000 feet – and temperatures dropped as low as minus 40C. In the early part of the war – before the magnificent Lancaster became available in significant numbers in early 1942 – the bombers at Bomber Command’s disposal were woefully inadequate: far too slow; under gunned, and mechanically unreliable. As many were lost as a result of mechanical failure or pilot error as were shot down by “flak” – anti- aircraft fire – or by night fighters.

In the first two years of the bomber war pilots were told they had a 30% chance of completing their 30 mission “tour” which gained them a break from operations, some leave, and a spell as instructors. In fact the odds were much worse than that – until mid 1944 they only had a 1:6 chance of survival, much longer odds than they were led to believe.

Again it is not well known that all members of Bomber Command were  volunteers – and the percentage of men who “funked it” and refused to continue was tiny, about 1.5% over the course of the war. Some – perhaps most – of that determination to continue can be put down to raw courage, and the invincibility of youth; the average age of a Lancaster bomber crew was 21, meaning there were a good number of 19 year olds. But even the invincibility of youth must have been sorely challenged by seeing a crewmate have his head blown off, or to watch the remains of a rear gunner being hosed out of his turret – often the most effective means of removing him.

It must be acknowledged however that at least some of the tiny refusal to fly rate was down to the draconian treatment of those  who were labeled “LMF” – Lacking Moral Fibre. Such poor bastards who just could not continue were stripped of their rank insignia and their wings in front of the whole station, and shipped off elsewhere to fulfil menial tasks such as cleaning the toilets. For some men, that disgrace must literally have been seen as a fate worse than death.

But back to the nightly “operations”. Bomber Command was led by Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, an irascible but extremely capable and determined man who commanded the respect of his subordinates, and after the war, when what  Bomber Command had done to German cities became unfashionable, was stoutly defended if not revered by the men he had commanded. Harris attended few reunions after the war – he was understandably deeply embittered by his shabby treatment after the battle was over – but whenever he did attend, he was apparently “cheered to the echo” by the attendees.

Harris had a single fixed idea which stayed with him until the very end: that if it was done properly and for long enough, obliterating German cities and the people as well as the military targets within them, could by itself win the war without the need for a land invasion. Even Harris’s stoutest defenders now recognize that he was wrong, although it is interesting that in the immediate post war period, many former  German military leaders thought Harris was right: If there had been a few more Hamburgs or Dresdens they say, Germany may have been forced to capitulate months or years  before May 1945.

Post war analysis shows pretty conclusively that Harris was wrong to dismiss attacks on synthetic oil plants – by 1944 70% of Germany’s fuel was produced by such plants – as “panacea targets” which for him were simply annoyances diverting him from his real task of flattening German cities. But to state the obvious, tanks and planes cannot run if they don’t have fuel. Luftwaffe leader Adolf Galland – one of the few who stood up to Goering and Hitler – noted post war that in the latter stages, they still had plenty of planes and pilots, but almost no fuel with which to fly them. That of course was why the allies could achieve the air superiority prior to and after D Day which the Luftwaffe had failed to achieve four years earlier.

Immediately post war Harris began to be regarded as something of an embarrassment by his superiors – including his former friend and staunch supporter Winston Churchill – and within a few short years, he was regarded as a pariah. When a statue to him was finally erected in 1992, red paint was thrown over it by pacifists, and he was being labeled a war criminal, not least because of the bombing of Dresden which Churchill had promoted.

So, was the massive loss of life – many thousands more German lives were lost in one raid on Hamburg than in the entire blitz on London – and the almost complete destruction of 70% of German cities, worth it? It seems that the Germans – who were in the best position to know – thought so.

General Oberst Georg Lindeman declared unequivocally that “the reason Germany lost the war was allied air power”. General Major Kolb said that the Allied day and night bombing “forced Germany on the defensive from the middle of 1940”.  Field Marshal Albert Kesselring told his captors that “allied air power was the greatest single  reason for the German defeat” A tank manufacturer, Oscar Henschel, said he was able to produce only 42 Tiger tanks per month in the latter stages of the war instead of 120. He said that ‘If the bombers had kept up their attacks on my plants for two or three successive days, they would have been put out of commission for months”

(from “Tail-end Charlies”, Nicholl and Rennell, Viking, 2004).

The bomber war created other less obvious strategic advantages for the allies: the chief of them being  the number of lethal German 88mm guns which had to be diverted from their primary role as tank busters to highly effective anti-aircraft guns protecting  German cities. Jack Watson, a verteran of 72 bombing operations over Germany opined that:

“If the bombing campaign hadn’t been carried out D Day would have been a complete fiasco , because the stacks of 88 mm guns that were around the cities, especially Berlin, would all have been on the Atlantic wall killing our troops as they came ashore”.

It is estimated that 75% of the dual purpose 88mm guns had to be diverted to air defence. Had they been available to protect Berlin from the Russians – instead of boys and old men armed with the hand held German panzerfaust  anti-tank weapon –  the war would arguably have gone on for months longer.

Finally, it is important to note what a game changer the jet powered Messerschmitt 262 was – and more importantly could have been – had the plants manufacturing them and the oil plants producing their fuel had not been relentlessly bombed in the closing stages of the war.

There are numerous reports of allied airmen being stunned by attacks by aircraft flying at close to twice the speed of the long range fighters then protecting them on their raids deep in the shrinking Reich. After the war, Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, told his interrogators that, given four or five months more, Germany would have had not only enough operational jet fighters to prevent defeat, but to win the war. But in March 1945, there just weren’t enough jets to make a difference – and there never would be, as 24 hour bombing by Bomber Command and the American Eight Air Force continued to smash the factories making them, and the oil plants necessary to power them.

So, was the bomber war – and the massive loss of life on both sides worth it? I say a resounding Yes, despite all the post war hand wringing about “area bombing”, and the creation of deadly firestorms in Hamburg and Dresden. Perhaps the position is best summed up by one old crewman who wrote of his “disgust and dismay” at reading in the newspapers:

“ groveling and sanctimonious apologia for… bombing German targets. By all means let us forgive but not forget. It was very sad to see so little mention of the mighty effort of Bomber Command in winning the war. The great exploits and victories were relegated to fifth rate skirmishes and wasted efforts directed by misguided warlords. Let the critics…the agitators and the detractors visit any military cemetery in Europe and see the profusion of headstones marked ‘Bomber Command’ ”

(Nichol and Rennell, op cit. p.405.

But was the bombing of Dresden a legitimate operation occurring as it did  very late in the  war, or was it  tantamount to a war crime? I summarize that debate in part II.

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