Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris And Area Bombing - My Final Words

May I begin by apologising to Peter Hitchens for bringing up his former political convictions  and present religious beliefs in my first blogpost on the subject. It was wrong of me to attack him personally and call him names, he will appreciate from our private email correspondence that having experienced that myself I should not do it to others. Normally I don't, but an incorrect belief on my part that Peter Hitchens had claimed that David Cameron had never really been put through any major test in his life (despite him, his wife and children caring deeply for his late son Ivan, during his short life), stung me for personal reasons that he knows of and I over-reacted against someone I disliked. On searching the interweb, I have found that Peter Hitchens had admitted he was wrong and apologised. I hope he won't mid if I use a similar formulation when I write that I was wrong and I am sorry.

On 22 April 2013 Peter Hitchens wrote "I think 'Brian' of Coventry (who I believe has his own website elsewhere, to which he is very welcome) has now duly qualified for indefinite 'Background Noise' status, with added lasagne, attained by a number of other contributors." As a consequence of his incorrigibly boorish and arrogant attitude I have retracted the apology above. Anthony Howard was right about him when he wrote, "the old revolutionary socialist has lost nothing of his passion and indignation as the years have passed us all by. It is merely the convictions that have changed, not the fervour and fanaticism with which they continue to be held".

Now, on to "Rebuttal Redux"....

ACM Harris (as he then was) may have been called "Butcher" or "Butch" by his crews, but that was because they were an elite band of highly-trained volunteers who were aware of the risks involved, yet they still clambered over the mainspar or latched themselves into the rear turret for as long as they were able to. It was the black humour of comradeship in adversity. General Patton was called "Old Blood and Guts" despite losing fewer men than the rifleman's general, General Bradley. Harris was blunt, telling the gathered aircrew on a rare visit to a station at the height of the offensive, to look at the men to the left and right of them because in six months' time they would be the only ones alive, but two ranks higher. He was greeted with cheers and table-thumping.

Was Harris really so ready to sacrifice his aircrews' lives when, in 1940 as AOC 5 Group, he arranged with a local engineering firm, Rose Brothers, for the mid-upper gun position on the Hampdens in his command to be mounted with twin VGO machine guns in place of the standard single one? Harris raged against the manufacturer of the obsolete Hampden and inadequate early Halifax and struggled to have the too-slow and insufficient altitude Stirling taken off operations as soon as possible. Throughout his tenure he wanted the best aircraft for his aircrew, the Lancaster, and pushed for improvements in its self-defence. The story of the failure to adopt the .50 calibre Browning machine gun as the standard defensive weapon of RAF bombers is too complex to be told here, suffice to say that there was a shortage of these weapons until 1944 and problems with designing and producing suitable gun turrets due to competing priorities. Harris again put the problem to Rose Brothers, who eventually produced 400 of their Rose-Rice twin .50 tail turrets for Lancasters from late 1944 onwards. Hearing that a purchase order with the company was delayed, Harris said "Tell them to build them anyway, they'll get paid."The turrets enabled rear gunners to wear their parachutes in the turret and bale out more easily and, more importantly, Lancasters fitted with them were more likely to avoid attacks  because the gunner could see nightfighters sooner and were able to instruct the pilot to take evasive action.

As for the losses of aircrews, reading Bomber Offensive written by Harris in 1947, shows that he was painfully aware of the cost. Compare those 47,000 killed with the 30,000 killed suffered by the daylight 8th AC/AF. Bear in mind that its first mission over Germany, Mission 31, wasn't until January 23 1943, its first raid on the Ruhr six months later, and Berlin not until 4 March, 1944, and one realises the huge sacrifices that American airmen bore to uphold American principles of fairness during their shorter period of operations.

Turning to the question of the Area Bombing Directive (GD No 5), it was issued on 14 February 1942 as an amendment to General Directive No 4 of 5 February (the details are on wikipedia if you haven't the books to hand). Harris took up his post as AOC Bomber Command on 22 February 1942 after his return from America where he had been Head of the RAF Delegation.  Of course Portal picked Harris because he knew that Harris believed in the policy; they had been friends since the 'Twenties.  it's the sort of basic question I have asked and been asked at every recruitment interview I've attended. "And, tell me Mr Harris, why do you want to work for Bomber Command?" There were other candidates with a good CV for the job, AVM Bottomley, DCAS, for example, who actually drafted the General Directive, and would succeed Harris in 1945. Or AVM Slessor, or a host of other Air officers who had, as part of their career management, all taken operational and staff appointments in other commands. Harris, with his experience in the early 'Thirties of flying boats, could have headed Coastal Command. In addition, despite the war, the RAF continued its policy of alternate staff and operational postings. Thus, AVM Baldwin, AOC of 3 Group and temporary AOC Bomber Command after Peirse's sacking for high loss rates, was not considered (although the Channel Dash may have blotted his copybook) and was sent out to India in October 1942. Remember that Montgomery only became commander of the Eighth Army when General Gott was killed when his Bristol Bombay was shot down.
The Area Bombing Directive was superseded on 21 January 1943 by the Casablanca Directive or POINTBLANK. With hindsight, it is clear now that the surrender of Paulus at Stalingrad on 2 February was a turning point after which Hitler's defeat was only a matter of time. Yet German forces kept fighting fiercely up to the end of the war and were able to shock the Western Allies in December 1944 with the Ardennes Offensive. Indeed the Wermacht's genius for improvisation enabled a Medical Officer to organise from diverse support troops a very effective fighting retreat against the Red Army in Eastern Europe in early 1945. With 20/20 hindsight, and by reading Adam Tooze's masterly Wages of Destruction, one can convincingly argue that Stalingrad was not the turning point but the stopping of the German attack on Moscow outside Tula on 29 October 1941 was the "First El Alamein" moment that enabled the subsequent  "Second El Alamein" End of the Beginning.

Could the RAF have conducted Daylight Precision Bombing?

Well it did so on a smaller scale throughout the war. That was the job of 2 Group, which became part of 2TAF in the run-up to D-Day.  Although Whitleys were almost immediately restricted to night operations on account of their slow speed, Hampdens continued to be used in daylight as target practice for the Lutwaffe until Portal, then C-in-C Bomber Command, put them on nights as well after the disasterous Kristiansand raid against the German fleet on 12 April 1940. Blenheims and later Bostons, Venturas and Mitchells continued to be used in daylight despite suffering heavy losses. Even with fighter escorts to protect them, and other bombers such as Stirlings and Halifaxes on mainly port attacks at the behest of the Royal Navy, in raids called Ramrods and Circuses, they achieved little except hard won knowledge of what the Luftwaffe experienced in the daylight Battle of Britain. In addition, there were daylight low-level raids by Lancasters (Augsburg) and Halifaxes on rare occasions throughout the war. Despite the best efforts to be accurate, civilian casualties were often heavy.

But there was the de Havilland Mosquito. This unarmed high-speed bomber suffered 8% (ie about Blenheim levels) during its first 284 operational sorties in 1942. Consequently, the two squadrons which introduced the B.IV variant were transferred to the Light Night Striking Force by November. There were daylight raids by FB.VIs but these had armament  to defend themselves at the expense of reduced bombload (don't believe the Magic Mossies of 633 Squadron!).
Of course, after D-Day, and the virtual disappearance of the Luftwaffe over France, Lancasters were able to fly escorted daylight raids in areas of Allied air superiority.

Thus the RAF was not equipped to fly daylight precision raids with heavy bombers after its first experiments failed - Why was this?

1  It was never foreseen that France would  surrender in 1940. Bomber Command was therefore equipped with aircraft that would attack Germany from French airfields ( provided the French agreed, which they didn't because they lacked an integrated detection/command/interception system akin to the RAF's.)
Bomber Command thus started the war with aircraft similar in size and capability to Luftwaffe bombers, none of which were strategic in capability. The Lutwaffe discovered that its bombers, even with escorting fighters on the relatively short return trip that was contested from the Channel coast to London, were no match for well-handled fighters.
2  The RAF had trained its bomber crews to fly individually at night to bomb targets. Hence the all over NiVO dark green camouflage inherited from the O/400s of WWI was replaced on aircraft built after Munich by a scheme with matt black undersurfaces. Unfortunately, pre-war Bomber Command lacked Fighter Command's boffins and neglected to develop electronic navigation aids, despite Lorenz and American technology being available. It was assumed that good eyesight was sufficient to allow map-reading, something disproved by the hundreds of aircraft that crashed at night pre-war on training exercises.
3  It was assumed, based on reports from the Spanish Civil War, that a formation of bombers with nose, tail and perhaps ventral turrets would be able to bring sufficient combined firepower on attacking enemy fighter aircraft to drive them off. The relatively high speeds of bombers, it was believed, made interception a fleetingly difficult task for fighter aircraft, hence the concept of the turret fighter which could bring its guns to bear for longer on each pass and also allow nil-deflection shooting was developed. Indeed, the Defiant was intended to supplant the Spitfire in squadron service as an interceptor (facepalm). The armament of .303 calibre machine guns was selected, a) for convenience, and b) because someone had done the sums and worked out that they delivered the most kinetic energy on a target in the time available.
4   The RAF never ordered the B.1/39 Ideal Bomber because the war and non-availability of suitable engines and working 40 mm gun turrets) got in the way. They would come too late to be useful.  Existing designs like the Stirling, Halifax and Manchester/Lancaster were used instead. These lacked the higher service ceilings of the B-17 and B-24 partly because their engines were not turbosupercharged.
5   The Wellington Mk V high altitude bomber with pressurised crew compartment was unsuccessful because Bristol were unable to get its turbosupercharged Hercules engine variant to work properly at altitude. Consequently, it was replaced by the Mk VI with Merlin 61s. These were never issued to squadrons because by the time they were built the much better Mosquito B.IX and later B.XVI were available. The Avro 684 high altitude version of the Lancaster with an extra Merlin to drive the turbosuperchargers and the Vickers pressure cabin was not proceeded with because of shortage of drawing office capacity etc.

Why didn't Bomber Command use those Mosquito B.IX and B.XVIs with bulged bomb bay doors and 4,000lb blockbuster bomb payload to replace its heavy bombers?

After all, they could fly to Berlin and back twice faster than a Stirling. In theory, and this theory dates back to R A Volkert's  1937 paper for the RAF on an unarmed high speed Handley-Page bomber, by dispensing with gunners one reduces the number of aircrew at risk. However, both the B.IX, which was quite short-legged with its full payload, andthe B.XVI, with range improved by underwing tanks, were significantly more difficult to handle than the "above average pilot only" ordinary Mosquitoes. There would have been a shortage of suitable pilots. In addition, switching production from Lancasters and Halifaxes to Mosquitoes would have caused supply disruption for Mosquito nightfighters, fighter- bombers and Halifax maritime patrol and glider-tug production at a crucial point in the war (Pre D-Day).

Why didn't the RAF develop a long-range escort fighter to protect its bombers on daylight precision raids?

A good point. The cliche is that British fighters have always been short-range interceptors because gaining altitude quickly is more important to meet attackers raiding our small island. The two pre-war aircraft that are put forward as escort fighter types are the Bristol Beaufighter and Westland Whirlwind. I'll ignore the Gloster "Reaper" because, like the TSR2 it would never have worked for several reasons. The Beaufighter was an excellent heavy, long-range fighter-bomber but no match for single-engined fighters. The Whirlwind was nippy at low altitude and carried a heavy cannon armament, but was slightly too small (plus it used under-developed engines) to be developed further, even with drop-tanks.

The trend for twin-engined fighters was due to the relatively limited power to weight ratio of aero engines before higher octane fuel, improved metallurgy for engine components, developments in turbosuperchargers and general reliability improvements (derived from experience with the huge numbers of engines in use) allowed horse power per cubic inch capacity to be increased by 60-70% in the case of the RR Merlin. This meant that a single-engined aircraft was able to lift the additional fuel needed for extended range.

In addition, the increased length of runways also enabled aircraft to take off at higher weights than obtained on 300-400 yard grass strips common pre-war and during the Battle of Britain.

Why couldn't the Spitfire have been developed as an escort fighter? After all, a Spitfire PR.IV flew over Berlin in daylight on 14 March 1941. Unfortunately, Pho-Reconnaissance Spitfire wings were essentially petrol tanks with no room for guns. But what about those two Spitfire MkIXs that flew across the Atlantic non-stop from St John's Nova Scotia to Ballykelly in Northern Ireland? Well, there were problems with drop tank separation, but they could be engineered away with time. Unfortunately, by the time of the Atlantic flight the ideal P-51D escort fighter was available. .

It can be argued that the RAF developed the P-51 escort-fighter for the USAAF. The NA-73X prototype was designed and built to fulfil an RAF requirement for a fighter because North American Aviation didn't want to build its competitor's Curtiss P-40. The USAAC didn't use the first Mustangs as fighters but as A-36 dive-bombers.  And then in 1942, Rolls-Royce swappd the low-altitude Allison engine for a Merlin 61 engine to produce the high altitude-capable Mustang MkX. Eventually, it was accepted for testing by the pro- P-38, P-39, P-47 USAAC and produced as the P-51B/C. And then using the blown bubble canopy idea first used on the Miles M.20 to improve visibility, the superlative P-51 wa created.

The P-51D's advantage over the Spitfire in speed and range was due to two factors, more effective use of the Meredith effect to generate thrust from radiator heat , and its laminar flow wing. It was five years newer than the incrementally-improved Spitfire. The laminar flow wing profile was only partly good because it obtained reduced drag at the expense of poor stall characteristics. Thus pilots preferred "boom and zoom" combat, relying on straight- line speed instead of turning fights where possible. But The P-51D was good enough to more than hold its own when in large packs with its far better-trained pilots against the dwindling Luftwaffe, which had been steadily attrited and restaffed with steadily more inexperienced pilots since the Battle of France in 1940, such was the fuel shortage and the losses in the East, Mediterranean and Northern European theatres . It was akin to the use of Sherman tanks in Normandy against Tigers where superiority of numbers won.

So why didn't the RAF adopt the P-51D/ Mustang IV as a long range escort fighter for its heavy bombers? Simples, despite the phenomenal manufacturing capacity of the US, there was a shortage of them and 8th AF took priority for re-equipment over other US air forces until well into 1944. So why not build P-51Ds under licence in the UK? The production disruption caused by stopping production of Spitfires at Castle Bromwich say to switch over to Mustangs, would have meant that 2TAF lacked the supply of ground support aircraft vital after D-Day.

Digressing slightly, the RAF used nightfighter Mosquitoes as escort fighters, in the proper sense, in support of its night-time raids from August 1943 onwards, first with Serrate-equipped fighters and then after March 1944 with its latest AI radars and other black boxes. From the start of Operation Flower in June 1943 to April 1945, more than 270 German nightfighters were shot down as they took off or landed and the fear of surprise attack by a Moskito had a significant deterrent effect on German pilots which saved countless bomber crews.

In conclusion, however, some of the technology for extending range was available and the tactics of escort fighters had been learned at short range in 1941 in Ramrods ands Circuses as Bernard Boylan's excellent Development of the Long-Range Escort Fighter, 1955 (a pleasure to re-read it for thiis post) shows. Click on No.136 to download here.

But, by dividing the air offensive between night bombing and daylight escorted  precision bombing as laid down in May 1943's Combined Bomber Offensive plan, the effect was all the greater because the threat of round-the-clock air raids disrupted the Germany war economy more than otherwise. As General Ira Eaker OC of the 8th Bomber Command put it "The devils will get no rest."

Precision Bombing versus Area Bombing

All airforces were aware that, except in ideal test conditions, precision bombing was not. It was calculated that in order to achieve a 96% probability that two 500lb bombs fell within a 400 x 500 ft area, 648 bombs would have to be dropped. Bear in mind that the 500 lb bomb dug a crater two feet deep and nine feet wide (Wordsworth in an age of human madness) and had a blast effectiveness against buildings of sixty to ninety feet.

It is obvious that the idea of precision bombing, ie aiming at a military or economic target but accepting that bombs will miss and kill civilians relies on legal sophistry for its legitimacy. There is no mens rea to kill, just as the use of explosive .50 calibre shells and tracers avoid the strict Hague Convention prohibitions on using explosive bullets and chemical warfare on soldiers is excused by aiming at the equipment or airframe. It's the sort of military logic lampooned in Catch 22 and The Good Soldier Schweik.  In the end innocent people die and are maimed.

Area Bombing is, I argue, a more honest concept. It was accepted that bombers were inaccurate so instead of aiming for a small target, aim for a larger area and trust that the target will be obliterated. Rather like the difference between aiming for the bullseye with an an inaccurate air rifle many times or once with a shotgun.

Here's an excellent article on Daylight Precision Bombing. Remember that bombers were flown in combat box formations that could be over a mile in width and that much daylight precision bombing was done through cloud by ded-reckoning or radar. In addition, for most raids, bombs were dropped by a "toggler" "on command of the lead bombardier" to  produce a carpet of bombs over the target.

Was bombing Cities Illegal?

The law lagged behind technology so the Hague Convention 1907 Articles 25 and 26 which are specifically about naval bombardment of land targets was stretched. Note that only bombardment of undefended cities was forbidden. The German cities were protected by flak guns and fighters and ARP precautions (better than for British civilians, ironically) were available.

Thankfully, the law has developed since WW2 as weapons delivery precision has increased. But that was then and this is now. If we are to apologise for area bombing, why not apologise for a host of other things that we view as crimes now or, conversely, crimes then and legal now? It would become an endless Blair apologohorrrea that would rake up animosities when a simple, practical moving onwards would be better.

Are Civilians Ever Legitimate Targets? 

Take the case of a butcher in the Army Catering Corps, never likely to meet the enemy in combat, but still eligible for a campaign medal. He is a target on account of his status as a soldier. Or an armourer in a bomb dump whose job is to fit fuses and load the bombs onto bombers. He is also a target. But what about the woman munitions worker filling shells or even the Girl

"that makes the thing that drills the hole

that holds the spring that works the thing-ummy-bob
that makes the engines roar.

And it's the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil
that oils the ring that works the thing-ummy-bob
that's going to win the war" ?

Apparently, civilian workers in oil refineries, railway marshalling yards etc are fair game and to that could be added shipyard workers, steel workers, aircraft workers, ball-bearing workers and off course the unfortunate civilians living in the working class areas around the factories who catch the 646 precision-dropped bombs that miss for every two that hit the target. Not even  the  "Not a bomb on private property*" policy requested by President Roosevelt and kept by the RAF until the day after the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam in May 1940, would have saved civilian lives.

* I used that phrase because a suggestion in the Cabinet during the Phoney War to drop incendiaries on the Black Forest was met with a shocked "But that's private property!"

The Civilians Didn't Vote For Hitler

Not all Germans were Nazi voters and so, the argument goes, it was wrong to bomb them. I suggest, in that case that it was more wrong to bomb targets in the occupied countries - what about the 140 Dutch civilians killed in the daylight raid on the Philips factory in Eindhoven or the German civilians killed in the bombing of Wesel in 1945 to enable the Americans to cross the Rhine there with fewer than 50 casualties. And what about the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the crossfire of the ground war on the continent? Did they suffer any less because their killers wore khaki not RAF Blue?

And weren't most German soldiers conscripts? How many Social Democrats did our armies shoot and shell? It's odd how fiercely those opponents of the Nazis fought in the West (given the nature of the atrocities in the East, I can understand the incentive to keep the Red Army from the Homeland) right until the end of the war.

Was There  An Alternative? 1

There was the Naval blockade. This was very successfully imposed and within a few months all German merchant ships had been driven from the seas, with the exception of the Baltic.  This policy was carried out despite the knowledge that when practised in WWI it had resulted in some 600,000 civilian deaths according to a recent study by the Carnegie Foundation. It was only the collapse of France and the occupation of neutral countries that provided Germany with sufficient food at the expense of their civilians, many of whom in the East were expected, as a Nazi policy, to starve to death. The blockade in the Mediterranean and German food requisitioning, caused the Greek Famine which led to the setting up of Oxfam. But nobody criticises our Admirals, indeed admitted naval war crimes like the renunciation of the cruiser rules for merchant shipping are ignored. And whilst a U-Boat captain was hanged after the war for killing survivors, a similar Royal Navy VC was simply given a "we don't approve,don't do it again" letter.

Was There An Alternative? 2

The navy camp claim that the build up of the bomber force diverted aircraft away from Coastal Command that would have been better used to hunt for submarines that were sinking our merchant shipping. A fair point, but remember that the greatest threat to the UK was in the first "Happy Time" as the Uboat captains called it from July 1940 to May 1941. If we look at Coastal Command's Order of Battle in November 1940 it's clear that only four squadrons of long range Sunderlands and a mixed bag of twenty odd short to medium range Ansons, Bothas, Beauforts, Blenheims, Hudsons and Stranraer was inadequate, given their inefficient maintenance schedules, to meet the threat posed by Uboats now operating on the French Atlantic coast. Perhaps Bomber Command's twenty odd Wellington, Whitley and Hampden squadrons could have been withdrawn from bombing channel ports and retrained for maritime reconnaissance? Either way, the threat to Britain's survival was lifted by the end of Spring 1941.

Should Britain Have Gone To War In 1939?

We didn't go to protect Poland which was no different to Czechoslovakia. Britain and France declared war then on the basis that they would never be stronger against Germany which was rearming just like them. People forget that Appeasement and Rearmament were a twin-track policy from 1935 onwards. People forget that the German Navy was smaller than the French Navy but that the Kriegsmarine's expansion Plan Z would have provided five super-Bismarcks and four aircraft carriers by 1945. It's now a cliche to say that Hitler didn't want to invade Britain; indeed he wanted a negotiated peace in which Britain could keep most of her Empire in return for ceding the bulk of the Royal Navy to Germany. And how long would a maritime nation dependent on imports survive independently?

After Germany occupied the continent and Britain was safe from invasion, ie our national security was not threatened, we still had a moral duty to liberate Europe, for if we were prepared to let 300 million plus people be enslaved under Nazism, isn't that more of a moral slip than area bombing allegedly was?


This rambling post is evidence, I would claim, that I have read and considered the arguments for and against Harris and Area Bombing. I have always taken it as an obvious fact needing no expansion that war is wrong. By fate and career choice I have not travelled the world and experienced war, but listening to my Grandfather when he was alive, disabused me at an early age of any thought that there could be glory in war. I do not need to be told the obvious.

I do not mind that other people can hold different opinions to me despite having studied the subject in depth. There are no right and wrong answers here. Putting forward one book as containing the definitive answer merely prompts the opposing side to counter with an alternative and so on.

I hope that the reader will agree with my conclusion that the cases for and against precision and area bombing in WW2 are evenly balanced and if WW2 was repeated many decisions should be altered (to make different, unforeseen errors) but I'm reminded of the old joke about the best way to Dublin, "But I wouldn't start from here."


I recommend David Edgerton's excellent book Britain's War Machine.

And it goes without saying that Bomber Offensive by Harris and Bomber Harris: His Life And Times by Probert are worth reading before issuing judgement on the man. Or google what Lord Cheshire VC said about Harris on the unveiling of his statue.


Anonymous said...

Why apologise? My comprehension of your first article was that the purpose of the Trotskyite and fundie sentence was to emphasise the previous one about him knowing better than others and those two types are exemplars of that.

Brian said...

You're entitled to your opinion but I shouldn't have brought up religion or politics.