Airborne victory forged in infernos

May 25, 2001

Former bomber navigator Patrick Moore discusses the effectiveness and the inhumanity of the Allies' bombing raids during the second world war.

The second world war ended more than half a century ago. Anyone who took part in it must now be more than 70 years old, and in fact Hitler's war, like the Kaiser's, has to all intents and purposes passed into history. Countless books have been written about it, and many controversies remain: perhaps the most enduring of these concerns the role played by RAF Bomber Command, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris in particular. Between 1941 and 1945 many German cities were laid waste, and the culmination came in February 1945 with the devastating raid on Dresden, which reduced the great city to a heap of rubble. Were attacks of this sort really justified, and what is their background?

These two new books are equally good, but in approach they are very different. Reaching for the Stars , by Mark Connelly (lecturer in media and propaganda history at Kent University) is essentially a sober and mainly chronological account, beginning with the formation of Bomber Command in 1936 and ending with the surrender of Germany nine years later.

No attempt is made to gloss over the initial problems. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, Bomber Command had only 280 aircraft and trained crews; moreover many of these aircraft were inadequate, and were phased out as soon as possible. Of these early aircraft the Wellington was by far the best, and vastly superior to the strange Hampden or the sluggish Whitley. Sophisticated navigation aids lay in the future, and navigation, depending upon dead reckoning, was a very hit-or-miss affair. The first Bomber Command sortie was carried out on September 4 1939, the day after war was declared, and was aimed chiefly at Wilhelmshaven, but one Wellington dropped its bomb load in neutral Denmark, well over a hundred miles from the intended target. It was some time before the first useful navigational aid, Gee, became available, and eventually the Germans found out how to jam it, but by then it is fair to say that the initial crisis was past. Other aids followed, and the "scientific battle" is well described here.

From the start there was deep concern about civilian casualties, but what were the alternatives? Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, chief of the air staff for much of the war, was above all a humane man, but, as Connolly says: "For Portal, like Churchill, the life of an individual German meant nothing... Portal was out to fight fire with fire." The chief of Bomber Command, Sir Richard Peirse ("a difficult character to understand and warm to"), was replaced in early 1942 by Sir Arthur Harris, who will forever be remembered as "Bomber" Harris. There could be no doubt as to his attitude. He believed that with sufficient numbers of aircraft the war could be won without the need for a land invasion, and his opinion never changed. Certainly he was ruthless, but he seemed to be the right man for the right job, and so it proved.

The fire attacks on Hamburg, and the 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne on May 30 1942, were followed by many other raids which led to heavy civilian as well as military casualties and inevitably there was criticism, even though the results of the actions were not decisive; indeed, Cologne raised "another huge wave of expectations that Bomber Command could not really live up to". The views of the opponents of the bombing are fairly reported, and they came from many quarters, ranging from politicians to a particularly foolish bishop (George Bell, of Chichester). Of course, by no means all the bombing attacks were successful, and the aircraft losses were high. Connelly is guarded about the much publicised "bouncing bomb" raid on the Mohne dam; the dam was breached and a vast amount of damage was done, but was it really worth the lives of eight of our very best air crews?

Inevitably, Dresden is discussed in detail, and the author is careful to point out that the raid was not carried out solely by the RAF; American aircraft also took part. Moreover, the claim that Dresden was an innocent city is a myth. It was industrial, and it was above all a major communications centre, so that its destruction was of great help to the advancing Russians. Neither was Harris entirely responsible; he had the backing of Portal, and despite the tragedy of the loss of several tens of thousands of lives the raids undoubtedly played a part in hastening the German capitulation. Even today there are still people who regard Harris as a monster, but of course few of the modern critics remember the 1940s. If they could do so, they would be much less ready to condemn Bomber Command.

Robin Neillands, author of The Bomber War , is a former Royal Marine commando, and a member of the British Commission in Military History, with an impressive string of publications to his credit. His book, unlike Connelly's, contains a large number of first-hand accounts of bomber raids, and reading them brings home the horror and brutality of warfare. A typical example comes from a Lancaster raid on Kassel, in 1943. The aircraft managed to return to base, but a crew member realised that the rear gunner, Jerry, had slumped over his guns. "I got hold of Jerry's collar and pulled him backwards, free of the turret. I carried him out and laid him on the grass. The middle of his flying suit was badly torn and bloodstained, and after examining him one of the ambulance helpers suddenly became ill and had to walk away. The cannon shells had cut Jerry clean in half." Many of the first-hand accounts given in the book are equally harrowing.

Like Connelly, Neillands traces the history of Bomber Command from its inception, though in rather more detail. For instance, there is an interesting chapter on crew selection; to a large extent flyers were allowed to "crew themselves up", though of course this was not always possible. (Navigators are described as "clannish", and this is true enough: clannish we were.) In many ways the British procedure differed from the American; in the RAF, the pilot was always the captain of the aircraft, regardless of rank.

Again there is no attempt to minimise the early failures and navigation errors, but Bomber Command crews were quick to learn, particularly after Harris took command. Harris was known to be a man who did not suffer fools gladly - in fact he did not suffer them at all, and soon after taking over he issued a curt statement: "There are a lot of people who say that bombing cannot win the war. My reply to that is that it has never been tried... and we shall see." In fact bombing alone did not win the war, but it played a vital role, and if Harris had been given 100 per cent backing by the Air Ministry and, above all, from the US Army Air Force after America joined in the war, it might have been a different story. By 1942, moreover, the altruistic attitude to civilian casualties had been eroded: Portal was ready to authorise attacks which would, in his estimation, destroy some 8 million German homes and kill about 900,000 people. Harris was not alone in being capable of ruthlessness.

American and British methods were not identical, and there were occasional muted conflicts; the official biographer of Lieutenant-general Carl Spaatz, commander of the United States Strategic Air Force, wrote that one of Spaatz's aims was to "keep the bulk of American air power from falling into British hands". It is also true that American claims of fighter kills were often exaggerated. For example, during a raid on Ramilly-sur-Seine on December 20 1942, the US gunners claimed to have shot down 53 German aircraft. The actual German losses were no more than five.

Harris could be over-stubborn, and for example he was reluctant to divert bombers to attack Peenemunde, the rocket base in the Baltic where the German rocket men, headed by Wernher von Braun, were building the V2 missiles later used to bombard London. (What is not said, in the book, is that the Peenemunde operation was initially delayed because Lord Cherwell, Winston Churchill's chief scientific adviser, refused to believe that any important work was going on there.) The raid did not put Peenemunde out of action, but it did delay production of the first V2s - the direct ancestors of the spacecraft of today.

Late in the war, Harris was also reluctant to concentrate his bombing raids on German oil supplies rather than on cities, and this led to a direct confrontation with Portal. In the end the bombing campaign reached its climax with the destruction of Dresden. Neillands sums up the situation very concisely: "The simple defence against the charges levelled against the air crew who destroyed Dresden is that there was a war on . It was the war that killed the citizens of Dresden and the citizens of a thousand other cities, towns and villages in a score of countries spread around the world. That war killed millions of people. And who should be blamed for that?" Neillands also makes another very telling point. The fire-raids on Tokyo, after the German surrender, were every bit as devastating as the attacks on Hamburg and Dresden. Then came the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. When Spaatz heard the result, he telephoned Washington and suggested that the one remaining available atom bomb should be dropped outside any town, to warn the Japanese people without causing further casualties. The suggestion was rejected, and Nagasaki was wiped out. Yet today, it is still widely believed that the Dresden raid was more inhumane than the raid on Tokyo.

Both these books are excellent. They are well researched, well written and well illustrated; in places they are necessarily controversial, but they are completely fair. If you want a concise history of the bomber war, read Connelly. If you want a more detailed and more personalised account, read Neillands. My personal recommendation is to read both.

Sir Patrick Moore, the astronomer, served as a navigator in Bomber Command from 1940-45, where his crew knew him as "the Kid".

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