Bomber command – a time to reconsider?

I am second to none in my admiration for the courage, endurance and dedication of the men who flew the night bombing aircraft of RAF Bomber Command in World War II, and of the skills of the ground crews who supported them. Under conditions of steadily improving German anti-aircraft and night-fighter defences, and often in adverse nocturnal conditions, the crews pushed their aircraft through to their targets, bombed them with steadily more impressive accuracy, and then faced the long haul back to the great bases of East Anglia and Yorkshire in aircraft that had often been badly damaged, had suffered the loss of one or more engines, and carried home their dead and wounded comrades.

Moreover, I have absolutely no qualms about the morality of the British night bombing effort in World War II. The world had already entered the arena of total war, in which the civilian worker and everything which supported him was just as important to the war effort as the soldier, sailor and airmen in or just behind the front line. It was German aggression that had launched the concept of indiscriminate bombing of urban centres in World War I, albeit on a small scale with airships and bombers, and then pressed forward with the concept on a larger scale in World War II with the bombing (‘terror’ or otherwise) of Warsaw in September 1939, Rotterdam in May 1940, London and other British cities between the autumn of 1940 and the spring of 1941, and Belgrade in April 1941. A British response in kind was inevitable and, I believe, need not be questioned within the military context of World War II or, indeed, within its civilian context. The bombing campaign against Germany was a psychological weapon that boosted British civilian morale by showing that the UK was still in the war and indeed taking it to the German homeland.

Having failed in the first part of the war, when daylight attacks by light and medium bombers suffered heavily from the attentions of German fighters and AA defences, the British bombing effort was radically changed in its focus. Day bombing of point targets gave way to night bombing in which area rather than point targets were attacked as the navigational and bombing accuracy of the period was poor; and the twin-engined medium bomber was steadily replaced by the four-engined heavy bomber carrying markedly greater bomb loads to more distant targets.

As the night bombing campaign against Germany’s cities continued, tactics were improved, better navigation was ensured by the introduction of radio and radar aids, and greater bombing accuracy resulted from the introduction of H2S navigation and bombing radar as well as special pathfinder units to mark targets with coloured pyrotechnic bombs on whose visual cues the bombers of the main force then homed and attacked.

By 1943, therefore, Bomber Command was making its capabilities felt ever more strongly over increasingly large areas of Germany with ‘thousand-bomber raids’ and the devastation of cities such as Hamburg; in the first half of 1944 the combined British night and US day offensives ordered by the ‘Pointblank’ directive of June 1943 continued to target Germany’s major fighter, U-boat, industrial, transport and energy-producing capabilities in a largely successful undertaking to savage Germany’s ability to manufacture and deliver weapons and move military manpower; in the second half of 1944 the programme was continued with the decimation of Germany’s air arm, transport capability within northern Europe and ability to manufacture the synthetic rubber and fuels on which she was now largely reliant; and finally in the first months of 1945 the British bombers were increasingly able to operate by day for the destruction of what was left of Germany’s war-making capability.

Between the start of 1940 and the end of March 1945, British industry delivered 13,710 four-engined heavy bombers, starting with a total of just 41 in 1940, peaking at 5,507 in 1944, and ending with 1,073 in the first quarter of 1945. This was a huge industrial undertaking demanding a large workforce as well as a host of associated efforts to build and equip the factories, train the workforce, procure the relevant materials (often from overseas) and deliver them to the factories, and make the engines, instruments and guns to equip the new aircraft. The last had to be tested as they emerged from the production lines and then delivered to training and operational units. The bomber programme demanded vast quantities of fuel for training and operations, as well the creation of trained flight and ground personnel, and the manufacture, delivery and storage of a vast weight of bombs and machine gun ammunition. Bomber Command absorbed much of the RAF’s personnel strength, which began the war at 193,000, peaked at 1,002,000 in June 1944 and thereafter started to fall, reaching 970,000 at the end of March 1945. From these totals, in the war against Germany, the RAF lost 66,080 killed, 5,404 missing, 21,761 wounded and 9,727 taken prisoner. These totals are for the whole of the RAF in the war with Germany, and within these the figures for Bomber Command aircrew were 5,582 killed, 41,548 presumed dead, 138 dead as prisoners of war, 2,868 missing but then known to be safe, 9,784 missing and then known to be prisoners of war, and 4,299 wounded on operational sorties, as well as 8,090 killed, 4,203 wounded, 215 died of other causes, 83 missing but then known to be safe, and 54 taken prisoner and then known to be safe on non-operational sorties. Over the same period, Bomber Command flew 297,663 night and 67,181 day sorties at the cost of 7,448 and 876 aircraft respectively.

This was a truly vast effort, and achieved much. This was particularly true from the beginning of 1943 to the end of 1944. Was it cost-effective, however, in overall terms? As a historian I have come to doubt that it was, and therefore that the size of Bomber Command’s effort could have been scaled back from the great size of the night raids typical of the autumn of 1943.

From an early stage of the war the authorities had realised that the British army lacked adequate manpower resources and numbers of modern weapons. The former were always a problem, and became increasingly acute as the war progressed, while the latter were less so after the introduction of Lend-Lease. This provided the British army with large numbers of US weapons, but these were not always ideally suited to British war-fighting concepts and, of course, had an eventual monetary cost. By the middle of 1944 the British army was fighting in North-West Europe and Italy, had other European commitments in Greece and the Aegean, and involvements in several other parts of the world including, most notably, Burma. Yet the British had exhausted their resources of suitable manpower, and at the time the future shape of Europe was being decided on European battlefields, found itself having to disband existing battlefield divisions to keep others up to strength. This meant that the British army, and by extension the UK, played a steadily decreasing part in the land campaign, and inevitably this had psychological as well as physical consequences in the establishment of post-1945 Europe.

My feeling, therefore, is that it might have been better to limit the size and scope of Bomber Command, especially in its night bombing campaign, from the middle of 1943. This may seem perverse to say of the period at which Bomber Command was beginning to emerge as a weapon of strategic significance, but would have allowed the development of a force still able to exercise a strategic effect albeit with smaller numbers of better aircraft exploiting the capabilities now offered by the increasingly sophisticated electronic aids that were being developed at the time.

In turn, this would probably have freed manpower for diversion to the army, and also freed industrial resources for the larger-scale development and manufacture of British weapons. These could not have been accomplished in a programme of reconsideration launched only in 1945, but could have been considered and indeed prepared from 1941 with a view to implementation at a later stage.