Bomber Command in WW2 - UK Airfield Guide

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Bomber Command in WW2


Needless to say, a very short account suitable for this 'Guide' can hardly be satisfactory. But for what is worth, here is my offering. 

When in WW2 war was declared by the United Kingdom in 1939, Bomber Command was in no position to counter the German offensive. Contrary to popular belief their front-line bombers were very much equal to German bombers. In a couple of cases, the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and Vickers Wellington being certainly superior.

But, the crews totally lacked the skills to conduct an effective bombing campaign. Most bombs dropped were outside of three miles from the target. And indeed, some crews couldn't even identify the correct country to bomb, let alone the city! It is a matter of record that when the first regional airlines were getting going in the 1930s, and doing a pretty good job, RAF crews were often landing on navigation exercises to try and find out where they were.

This said, the low level bombing raids can, in the main, only be regarded as suicidal. It seems today incredible that the aircrews agreed - but they were young and knew no better. It is so very sad that their huge sacrifice counted for so little. There have been many excellent books written on this subject, but for an overall view and arguably the best was Bomber Command by Max Hastings, first published in 1979.

It might seem quite incredible today, but the Germans failed to develop an effective four-engine bomber. Two had been designed but Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe ordered the two prototypes to be destroyed. As I have often said, Göring turned out to be one of the best of the allies we had in WW2.

The British by contrast designed and developed the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and finally the arguably best bomber in WW2, (in the European war), the Avro Lancaster. The Lancaster could carry twice the bomb-load of the American Boeing B-17 Fortress or B-24 Liberator.

Arguments about this will probably go on forever. But the fact is that the Germans started the indescriminate bombing of civilians in the Spanish Civil War, then followed that up when invading Poland in 1939. The British government was initially very reluctant indeed to bomb civilians, but were forced to change their minds, especially after the 'Blitz' on British cities.

It was then decided to put Arthur Harris in charge of Bomber Command, and he took the area bombing of German cities to be his sole obsession. With some justification it has to be said, after the 1000 bomber raid on Köln, (Cologne) and the devastating raids on Hamburg. After these raids the Germans should have surrendered, the 'writing was on the wall'. But they didn't and the German people suffered the most appalling consequences.

Without much if any doubt the most famous raid was the 'Dambusters' raid. This was planned to attack three dams, the Eder, Möhne and Sorpe with the amazing 'bouncing bomb' invented by Barnes Wallis. This took place on the night of the 16/17 May 1943, and Barnes Wallis was at SCAMPTON that night. The most important dam was the Sorpe and Barnes Wallis advised that six of his bombs would be needed to breach it. In response it seems, only five bombers were detailed to attack the Sorpe, which was undefended. It being viewed by the Germans as impregnable. In the end only one bomb was dropped on the Sorpe.

I have yet to find any account of who, in the RAF, made these decisions. Let alone what agenda they really had. The heavily defended Möhne dam was breached with spectacular results, but afterwards the Germans were left alone to rebuild it! This attitude seems almost beyond belief today - no more raids took place on the dam and just heavy bombing would have destroyed any attempt to rebuild it. The Eder dam had no relevance to the German industrial war effort - so why was that the second target?

It is of course a very complex subject. Without any doubt the aerial pictures taken of the Möhne dam, after it had been breached, was a huge PR success. Not just for the British, but it appears, being highly influential in demonstrating to the Americans just how effective we could be in holding out against the Nazi regime, and why they should get involved. Here again, opinions are divided. Some say, and it seems most probable, that the threat of the Russians invading all of western Europe led to them getting involved. Western Europe was of course a huge potential market for the USA, and so it proved after the war.

AFTER 1943
This was the period when Bomber Command was really getting into its stride. More and more heavy bombers were being produced, and more and more aircrews were coming along. Most important of all was that technological means were becoming available to both increase bombing accuracy and counter German defences. Or so the aircrews were led to believe. The implementation of the 'bomber stream', forcing enough through a narrow channel, resulted in Luftwaffe night fighters having a bonanza of success. Shades of WW2 trench warfare attitudes perhaps?

BY 1944
Without much doubt the area bombing campaign, still being promoted by Harris, was being proven to be ineffectual. The German people were far from being forced to give in, quite the opposite. Just like the British in the 'Blitz' era, they were determined to endure. To a large extent Harris seems unaware of just how far the RAF had become proficient in hitting targets accurately - even precision targets. He certainly didn't promote the strategy.

I suppose we might now wonder what was the effect of having Bomber Command headquarters safely tucked away near High Wycombe, may have affected their judgement? The evidence appears to be - quite a lot! It was the USAAF General Spaatz, who identified the destruction of oil production as being the key to ending the war very quickly. And he was quite correct. But of course with Allied troops battling their weary path across western Europe after D-DAY, even he had to compromise.

To quote from Max Hastings Bomber Command book: "The difference between the actual and potential effort Bomber Command concentrated on oil targets may have been only a matter of ten or twenty thousand sorties. But it is essential to reiterate what dramatic consequences might have stemmed from a real determination by Harris to put everything into oil, and even fractionally to increase Bomber Command's contribution: 'By the narrowest of margins, the strategic air offensive failed to smash Germany's economy by this one method of attack', wrote the economist Professor Milward."

And, "The most successful operation of the entire Allied strategical air warfare was against Germany's fuel supply." wrote Galland of the Luftwaffe. "Looking back, it is difficult to understand why the Allies started this undertaking so late..."

"Thus the Allies threw away success when it was already in their hands," wrote Speer, of the slackening of the oil offensive as far back as the summer of 1944. "Had they continued the attacks of March and April with the same energy, we would quickly have been at our last gasp." But of course big industry was making a fortune out of this war, both in the UK and especially in the USA, and they were very influential in the politics, and very concerned that the war should be extended as long as possible.  

Obviously they were worried that the Russians shouldn't get too far into western Europe, seriously depleting potential markets, but the way things were going suited their purposes. It also needs to be remembered that the Swedes and the Swiss, (both ostensibly neutral), were doing very nicely out of this conflict. The Swedes supplying both sides, and the Swiss very happy to aid and assist the Nazi regime.

I have to say that I disagree with Max Hastings in his final chapter. The wanton destruction of Dresden for example being unjustified. Apart from the request by the Russians to decimate this city, the fact remains that by this stage the Nazi regime was unleashing their V.2 missiles in a totally indiscriminate nature against the civilian population in south-east England, and London in particular. Therefore, although a crime against humanity, the Dresden raid was totally justified.

War is, at best, a very nasty business.    

Did the bombing campaign by the RAF have the results they had predicted? Without too much doubt it didn't. It clearly helped, but in the end it was 'boots on the ground' that led to the final victory, plus quite a few tanks to back the troops up of course.



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