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".
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.
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.
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.